Our dear friend S. T. Joshi has taken the time to debase himself again on his blog (Sept. 1 entry) by asserting that he is more important than novelist Daniel José Older and therefore more entitled to an opinion on whether the World Fantasy Award should continue to bear the likeness of H. P. Lovecraft, whom Older correctly accused of virulent racism. That issue, discussed last week, has decayed into a more general complaint that Lovecraft’s racism should not be emphasized above his atheism. Joshi continues to be outraged by the assumption that we should judge Lovecraft for his racism, arguing anew that historical figures cannot be judged by contemporary standards.
The overriding philosophical error made by those who jump on Lovecraft for his racism is the stolid expectation that all historical figures should conform to our own perfect moral, social, intellectual, and cultural stances—and if they don’t, they must be furiously denounced as aberrant. But one begins to wonder…might we ourselves be subject, in a hundred years, to just such criticism? Difficult as it may be to comprehend, the disturbing thought lingers.
Here, I think, Joshi errs because of his devotion to Lovecraft—whom he calls his “mentor.” The question isn’t whether to judge Lovecraft for his racism (though we can do that as easily as we might judge Poe for his alcoholism, or Conan Doyle for his belief in fairies) but whether an honor should take the shape of a man whose life and work stand in opposition to mainstream contemporary values. In other words, do we celebrate the man rather than his work, and does doing so imply an endorsement of the man in all his facets?
Let us, for example, note how wildly inappropriate it might be to name a speech therapy award after the first president of the Anthropological Society of London (later the Royal Anthropological Institute), James Hunt (1833-1869). Hunt was a colleague of Richard Burton, a distinguished speech therapist who treated Lewis Carroll, and a virulent racist whose views were outrageous even by Victorian standards. Would his speech therapy work make him worthy of praise such that we could justify ignoring his racist views?
In 1865, Hunt published his most famous paper, “On the Negro’s Place in Nature,” in which he defended slavery and the idea that Black people were a separate species, closer to the apes than to Europeans.
Young Negro children are nearly as intelligent as European children; but the older they grow, the less intelligent they become. […] There is no doubt that the Negro brain bears a great resemblance to a European female or child’s brain, and thus approaches the ape far more than the European, while the Negress approaches the ape still nearer. […] Not only has the Negro race never civilized itself, but it has never accepted any other civilization. […] The many assumed cases of civilized Negroes are generally not those of pure Negro blood. […] It is simply the European blood in their veins which renders them fit for places of power, and they often use this power more cruelly than either of the pure blooded races.
Could we set aside these beliefs to honor him for his work in speech therapy? It would be impossible to do so. Therefore, I find it difficult to see why it is illegitimate to complain, however mildly, about H. P. Lovecraft, a man who made claims virtually indistinguishable from those of Hunt, in the very letters that Joshi famously claimed were equally or even more important to the legacy of Lovecraft than his fiction:
The black is vastly inferior. There can be no question of this among contemporary and unsentimental biologists — eminent Europeans for whom the prejudice-problem does not exist. But, it is also a fact that there would be a very grave and very legitimate problem even if the negro were the white man’s equal. For the simple fact is, that two widely dissimilar races, whether equal or not, cannot peaceably coexist in the same territory until they are either uniformly mongrelised or cast in folkways of permanent and traditional personal aloofness. … All told, I think the modern American is pretty well on his guard, at last, against racial and cultural mongrelism. There will be much deterioration, but the Nordic has a fighting chance of coming out on top in the end. (letter of January 1931)
Joshi would have us dismiss Lovecraft’s views as the unfortunate product of the 1920s milieu in which he lived and wrote. But consider this: In 1865, when Hunt delivered his paper on the inferiority of the Negro, his own society booed and hissed, outraged at the racist views that even Hunt himself acknowledged were increasingly unfashionable. Richard Burton wrote to Hunt to express his shock at such ill treatment, and comforted Hunt that the capital-T Truth about the Negro “turning stupid” at puberty would far outlive the catcalls and hisses, for, he said, the Negro at any time might relapse into “semi-gorilla” state and prove this Truth for all time. Burton went down in history as an imperialist and a scientific racist despite his literary output, including the most famous English translation of the Arabian Nights. (Consider, for example, the difference between his celebration as the hero of Philip José Farmer’s Riverworld novel in 1971 and his demotion to the villain of the piece in the 2010 Syfy Channel miniseries.)
Colonial and imperial politics would ensure that racist beliefs remained current and under semi-official (and often official) sanction, but by the 1920s, when Lovecraft wrote, Franz Boas was one of the leading lights opposing scientific racism, particularly in terms of the arguments for white supremacy. In 1925, while Lovecraft was living in New York City, Boas and his colleagues published a series of essays in The Nation arguing for the view that humans were of one race, that racism was not “instinctive” but the product of white (“Nordic”) colonial-imperial culture, and therefore humans were not the products of race but of culture:
The behavior of an individual is therefore not determined by his racial affiliation, but by the character of his ancestry and his cultural environment. We may judge of the mental characteristics of families and individuals, but not of races.
In those same essays, the Jewish-American immigrant writer Konrad Bercovici wrote of the choices made by Nordic supremacists and how their own choices fed into a false sense of superiority, citing of the experiences of my own ancestors, who came from Italy and the Austrian section of what is today Poland:
The American Nordics speak of assimilation. But what they mean by assimilation is other than what they want us to believe. The Nordic maniac considers a people civilized in the measure in which it has imitated his external way of life. Imitation of Anglo-Saxon life, masqueradery instead of cultural contributions, is what they want of all the peoples. They clamor that we bury our past, deny our present, and kill our future; and, bending our necks, promise henceforth to attempt to be as good as they are, that we may in a few thousand years reach their level of culture and accomplishment.
These seven essays, now collected in an eBook as the Savage Minds Occasional Papers No.12, were written in protest of America’s harsh immigration laws and the way blatant race prejudice was dressed up in the language of objective science to hide the hatred beneath the surface. The Newbury-winning history Hendrik Willem Van Loon summed up the hypocrisy well:
But let them be honest and let them explain that they are grinding their own little axes and that they are not engaged in furthering a scientific solution to the world’s manifold difficulties. […] I repeat, let them have the courage of their convictions and join the KKK. That excellent organization, with all its mummery, is entirely open and aboveboard. “We want all the business we can get,” so it proclaims, “and we don’t want to hustle in competition with Niggers and Jews and Catholics.” That, at least, is plain English.
None of this is to say that Lovecraft’s racism wasn’t shared by many in the America of the 1920s and 1930s—the Jim Crow laws, lynchings, nativist protests, and KKK marches make that plain—but that H. P. Lovecraft was on the wrong side of history even in his own time, not just by our own standards. The tools were available for Lovecraft to make better choices, and he did not do so. He cannot be absolved through claims of his ignorance or his absorption of the prevailing cultural milieu.
“We are not perfect; and our schoolmasterly lecturing of dead people only reveals our own smugness and historical ignorance,” S. T. Joshi wrote yesterday. But Joshi seems to prefer that we not recognize that the 1920s and 1930s were not uniformly benighted by racism, that there were those who promoted more enlightened views, and that Lovecraft chose racism in the face of the arguments he would have been exposed to in the New York press and elsewhere. Lovecraft claimed that his views were based in scientific European biology, and yet Boas (German by birth) and his colleagues offered lessons from anthropology and history in direct opposition to Lovecraft’s stated reasons for holding racist views. There was a debate within anthropology in those days, to be sure, and Lovecraft chose the wrong side. It is not anti-historical to note this.
To conclude, briefly, with one final point: Joshi sees complaints about Lovecraft’s racism not as a principled view on racial opinion but as a political line of attack on Lovecraft himself by any means due to dislike of the author rather than disapproval of his views:
There is also the significant question as to whether racism should be regarded as so much more significant a moral, intellectual, and personal flaw than many other stances one could name. In my opinion, religious fanaticism can easily be shown to be a far more serious problem, both historically and currently, than racism, and many of the world’s most intractable problems today can be directly attributed to it. But Lovecraft’s detractors cannot attack him on the issue, since he was, as an atheist who condemned religious intolerance, on the “right” side of it; so they have to seize some other issue, and racism is conveniently presented to them on a silver platter.
Notice the construction: Lovecraft’s detractors are the problem, simply scheming for some reason to knock him off his perch.
9/2/2014 04:33:02 am
--the hell?! Joshi could also be seen to be saying, "So long as you're an atheist, nothing else you believe can have a negative effect on the world." That's just crazy. I don't think Joshi is one, but he certainly seems to be giving cover to the "Dark Enlightenment" douchebags infesting the internet.
9/2/2014 05:31:21 am
You're still assuming that what you believe today is right, and will always be right. I think Joshi is looking at a bigger picture than you are, and it's refreshing. In the future, your current beliefs may be on the "wrong side of history". I think that's the point he was trying to make, and I agree. We all believe what society teaches us because we think it's right, or we wouldn't believe it.
9/2/2014 05:38:54 am
If Joshi "would never make that assumption," how do you explain Joshi saying that Lovecraft's atheism was admirable? Surely that's just another moral relativism just waiting to be swept away by the winds of history, right?
9/2/2014 05:54:31 am
Reading comprehension is obviously not your strong suit. You're just a worthless, clueless idiot if you really think I was defending racism.
9/2/2014 12:55:38 pm
I just love what Jason's race-baiting blog makes possible. Invariably a morally superior jerk accuses another person of being a racist, as we see here. We're hearing that throughout society these days. "If you don't believe what I believe, then you're a racist." It's called race baiting, and Jason's blog enables and encourages it.
9/2/2014 01:12:24 pm
This "Jason-and-his-keyboard" thing gets funnier every time you do it.
9/2/2014 02:19:52 pm
There does seem to be an attitude here that you either agree or you're a racist devil. That may have been the first time "Scott Hamilton" did it though, so I overreacted. But they all run together.
9/2/2014 02:37:09 pm
Oh, Steve! Oh, Steve! Pay attention:
9/2/2014 07:18:46 pm
9/2/2014 11:29:12 pm
I think Steve just got upset because he realized that his (putative) august family faces a similar problem: The leading nineteenth century Sinclair family proponent of the effort to honor Henry Sinclair, Thomas Sinclair, was similarly a virulent racist who argued that venerating the Nordic Sinclair heritage was an essential part of a program to stop white America from falling to a horde of inferior Latin peoples, much the way the Nordic Sinclairs once ruled over inferior Native Americans as kings.
9/3/2014 12:34:42 am
No, Jason. Nice attempt to distract. However, what I got upset at, and continue to be sickened by is your race baiting in
9/3/2014 01:10:56 am
At the risk of feeding the troll, you might notice, Steve, that this post wasn't about xenoarchaeology but was instead about a literary feud in the realm of fantasy-horror literature, and that S. T. Joshi and Daniel Jose Older are engaging in a debate over Lovecraft and racism. I did not invent the subject, unless you'd like to accuse others who have weighed in on it, like David Nickle and China Mieville, of also trying to bait you with sexy, scary racism talk.
9/3/2014 02:44:29 am
As a man special special magical DNA, Steve StC correctly believes that he is a voice of indisputable authority for genetically inferior subhumans. Obviously it is out fault for not taking him seriously.
9/3/2014 04:18:36 am
Wait, are we talking about Emperor Norton now?
9/3/2014 09:15:19 am
9/3/2014 11:12:16 am
9/3/2014 11:32:43 am
Harry, If you go back and read my comments to this august group, you will see that I did not in any way mention whether or not Lovecraft's ideas are racist.
9/3/2014 11:33:24 am
Steve StC, do you see yourself as the God Emperor of America? How would you have us address you? "Your Majesty", or something more exotic? If you want to draw on the Akhenaten connection, I recommend checking out the Amarna Letters.
9/3/2014 11:58:21 am
9/3/2014 12:23:13 pm
@ Steve StC
9/3/2014 12:31:34 pm
9/3/2014 12:33:39 pm
9/3/2014 02:01:37 pm
Class act, EP. Thanks.
9/3/2014 02:03:43 pm
Steve really likes to pick out the references to race among the 360+ blog posts and book(s) I write each year, totaling something like half a million words annually. Imagine how much of my work he must be reading to pick out each and every reference to race to gripe about. But of all the things he said the one I take issue with is the idea that horror-fantasy-scifi is somehow "very different" from fringe history and ancient astronautics! That was the biggest whopper of all.
9/3/2014 02:18:58 pm
Remember, I didn't drive the bus into the ditch, but I'm happy to follow you there EP.
9/3/2014 02:57:49 pm
Their Majesty is not amused...
9/3/2014 03:00:27 pm
Awesome, Steve! It makes sense that #7 would give you a raging hard-on. You finally admitted that it really is all about you. Narcissistic personality disorder seems to go hand in hand with being a troll.
9/3/2014 03:03:55 pm
@ Only Me
9/3/2014 03:42:52 pm
Only Me, I keep waiting for your blood pressure to get so high that your head explodes. Any day now...
9/3/2014 03:51:27 pm
Steve StC said "Most of my vile [sic] is reserved for the acolytes."
9/3/2014 04:56:31 pm
Oh no, Steve, you insulted me. I now agree with everything you've ever said. BWA HA HA HA HA HA! You mad, you so mad.
9/3/2014 05:08:38 pm
@ Only Me
9/3/2014 05:12:35 pm
Only Me, you seem to be making more typos than usual. Are your hands sticky from holding Jason's jason?
9/3/2014 05:17:52 pm
Your Majesty, methinks thou dost protest too much...
9/3/2014 05:26:48 pm
How did I miss these, EP??
9/3/2014 05:30:11 pm
I was a bit unclear about why Steve St. Clair registered the domain name superheroesofautism.com
9/3/2014 05:35:09 pm
I registered the URL because I do free work for a company who helps kids with Autism, you utterly arrogant and thoughtless prick.
9/3/2014 05:47:00 pm
9/3/2014 05:51:58 pm
You're a laugh riot, Emergency Poop.
9/3/2014 05:56:00 pm
I wonder what Alyssa and Jaime would say if they knew you were using this kind of language onf the internet...
9/3/2014 05:59:13 pm
Isn't EP clever folks? He's showing me that he can find me on the Internet and publish public information here.
9/3/2014 06:02:43 pm
Really? What kind of trouble will I get in for looking up openly available information on the internet?... Or are you feeling cyber-bullied? :)
9/3/2014 06:04:13 pm
Well, it seems Steve is utterly infatuated with penis references, so any hope of intelligent discourse-though it was not expected from the beginning-is officially dead.
9/3/2014 06:05:33 pm
Based on your thoughtlessness, I get the strong feeling that you're under age. In that case, if you go too far online, your daddy and mommy will have to pay money to get your out of trouble. Libel is a crime.
9/3/2014 06:08:26 pm
@ Only Me
9/3/2014 06:09:23 pm
Libel requires making false assertions. Name one false thing I said.
9/3/2014 10:17:50 pm
For the public record, 99.99% of the postings of mine that
9/3/2014 10:24:39 pm
Besides, why not freedom of choice each year? Why not give
9/4/2014 12:38:14 am
9/4/2014 02:23:49 am
9/4/2014 08:45:49 am
I just want to point out that earlier in this thread Steve StC admitted that he believes that his blood gives him Jesus powers.
9/4/2014 09:04:31 am
9/2/2014 05:49:43 am
I'm quite confident that fairies don't exist and that anyone who doubts that is an idiot. Ditto for Earth being neither flat nor hollow.
9/2/2014 05:55:09 am
I'm not assuming anything about the future. The question is whether we, today, should honor and therefore implicitly endorse views that we today find repugnant. Our current moral view remains our view today, no matter whether the people of 2114 are extreme racists or equalitarians. Your view, to the extent you seem to have one, would render moral judgment impossible, even within the context of the culture in which we live today (as this argument is predicated), because someone somewhere sometime might disagree.
9/2/2014 06:08:15 am
I agree that morals are subjective, even in our own times. I can look back at Lovecraft or at current white supremacists and say how wrong their racist ideas are, but I can't judge them based on that without knowing what they were taught at an impressionable age. For a lot of people in this country at this time, it's no different than looking back at their own grandparent's beliefs about race.
9/2/2014 06:13:15 am
Wait, when did Jason say that morals are subjective? I think reading comprehension isn't *your* strong suit (though I won't stoop to your level to call you a "clueless idiot" like you did Scott).
9/2/2014 06:19:30 am
He said I believe "moral judgement is impossible because someone somewhere sometime might disagree" and I agreed saying, "yes, morals are subjective." Pretty simple, and shouldn't be constroversial since not everybody shares the same morals.
9/2/2014 06:23:10 am
Actually, these are different claims. Moral judgment and morality are different things.
9/2/2014 10:19:50 am
9/2/2014 10:28:17 am
And EP- you claimed that Walt's remark, "We all believe what society teaches us because we think it's right, or we wouldn't believe it" was NOT true. Obviously it IS true; we believe what we believe because we think it's true. If we didn't think it was true we wouldn't believe it (duh!). WHAT we believe may not be true and THAT is the basis for disagreement and changing of views.
9/2/2014 10:39:38 am
>>>>Moral judgment and morality are different things.
9/2/2014 10:48:34 am
@ Uncle Ron
9/2/2014 11:04:44 am
EP, are you bringing religion into it and saying that God determines what's right and wrong rather than society? If so, I can't address that. But if not, what other option is there? What are you getting at?
9/2/2014 11:18:00 am
Walt, if you really think that the only options are subjectivism and divine command, then you really need to learn the basics of the topic before speaking so categorically about it (unless you don't care about the truth or exhibiting your ignorance in public).
9/2/2014 11:22:52 am
I know very well what subjectivity and morality is - don't patronise people.
9/2/2014 11:29:22 am
"I know very well what subjectivity and morality is - don't patronise people."
9/2/2014 11:33:44 am
Not to the likes of you, you're too busy indulging in the fantasies of religion. You're beyond rehabilitation.
9/2/2014 11:33:53 am
That addresses how and why we as a society make the decisions we do, and doesn't contradict anything I've said.
9/2/2014 11:36:59 am
9/2/2014 11:37:19 am
>>>Metaethics is the attempt to understand the metaphysical, epistemological, semantic, and psychological, presuppositions and commitments of moral thought, talk, and practice.<<<
9/2/2014 11:48:33 am
Also, the British Prime Minister likes pontificating to the Russian President, lecturing him about morality - but he's got his own dirty laundry. The news keeps repeating the word "separatists" in relation to Ukraine without providing a definition of who these people are. A history lesson wouldn't come amiss. Or an analogy with Northern Ireland.
9/2/2014 11:52:09 am
EP, the paper you referenced on metaethics doesn't contradict anything I've said, and by exploring the reasons why and how we make the decisions we do, seems to agree that society determines what's right and wrong.
9/2/2014 12:01:01 pm
@ 666 & Walt
9/2/2014 07:32:02 pm
9/3/2014 02:45:55 am
@ Only Me
9/3/2014 02:57:09 am
Here's the way I see it: Acts and behaviors beneficial to the Group can be deem morally Right, and acts and behaviors detrimental to the Group can be deemed morally Wrong. One advocates survival and life, the other extinction and death.
9/3/2014 11:12:13 pm
There are days like this when i feel pleased Charles Sumner,
9/4/2014 04:39:44 pm
Walt, EP is saying that there are ethical paradigms that aren't predicated on "it's right because God says it's right" or "every society makes up its own ethics". There is, for instance, ideal observor theory ("it's right because an unbiased and perfectly wise person would say it's right"), and ethical naturalism ("it's right because rightness and wrongness are objective qualities that exist outside of the human consciousness, and rightness is present in the thing I'm talking about").
9/2/2014 05:45:30 am
Jason, contrary to what you seem to suggest, the heyday of *scientific* racism actually came *after* 1865. The notion that humanity consists of several unequal species or subspecies, for example, was endorsed by such eminent scientists as Ernst Haeckel as part of their defense of evolutionary theory. Indeed, evolutionary theory provided scientific respectability to racism - so much so that for a while the views many may still have found objectionable in 1865 became the received view of educated Westerners.
9/2/2014 05:50:58 am
I know it did, and it was tied to imperial and colonial politics, but the idea that blacks were an inferior species stretches back at least a century before. In the early 20th century, as the Boasian essays note, seemingly "scientific" intelligence test were the key to "proving" the elaborate racial hierarchies built in the 1880s and 1890s. At the same time, Lovecraft was spouting these opinions when the tide was starting to turn against the hierarchical view of races, retaining the old views of the 1890s and 1900s as though time had stopped.
9/2/2014 05:59:48 am
The situation was a bit more complicated than Boas et al. would lead one to believe. For your purposes, however, my point is only a matter of emphasis. Though I would say that Lovecraft was nowhere near as backward as you suggest (his opinions were still pefrectly mainstream, if increasingly challenged, even among many scientists well into the 1920s).
9/2/2014 07:14:02 am
"At the same time, Lovecraft was spouting these opinions when the tide was starting to turn against the hierarchical view of races, retaining the old views of the 1890s and 1900s as though time had stopped."
9/2/2014 07:25:10 am
"Having Lovecraft's most important academic student acting this way is doing more to damage the modern reputation of HPL than the legitimate concerns about race are."
9/2/2014 07:46:00 am
I know that Boas wasn't an elder statesman in his day, and indeed the higher echelons of anthropology were solidly in favor of scientific racism. But at the same time, Lovecraft seemed dogmatically closed to new ideas, including those of Boas, and appealed to authority and tradition to underpin his racism, but calling it science. It is undoubtedly a complex issue, and I was only trying to show that Joshi is being simplistic in asking us to imagine Lovecraft's world as a giant Klan rally, when there was a spectrum of beliefs, and Lovecraft tended to fall close to one extreme.
9/2/2014 01:24:56 pm
Jason, I think Lovecraft's inherent intellectual conservatism held for _everything_.
9/2/2014 01:28:41 pm
As for Joshi's writing style, it isn't the verbosity. In that most recent post, it's the seesaw formality turning to semi-self-deprecating joking, with overpunctuated facetious ironic emotion.
9/2/2014 01:54:51 pm
You're quite right that for the most part, Lovecraft froze in place, though this isn't entirely the case. He did take on some quasi-socialist views late in life, and while Relativity wasn't exactly "new" in the 1920s, he did show enthusiasm for it. But in a real sense he did spend his life replaying and revisiting childhood fantasies.
9/2/2014 02:54:53 pm
I suspect Lovecraft's turn to New Deal politics was largely self-interested, or rather quasi-self-interested. Not so much literally that he'd get money, but he could easily reconcile government funding jobs, including jobs for artists, with his other existing ideals. The man was never a capitalist, the business world never even entered into his thinking. There isn't anything wrong with that. But it isn't like he suddenly had some political epiphany.
9/2/2014 03:30:12 pm
"The weirdness of relativity and quantum theory allowed him to have science magic"
9/4/2014 01:13:26 am
Horrid thought--- admittedly a tad Objectivist. Loosely put...
9/2/2014 07:10:13 am
Joshi's continuing effort to combat his own credibility includes a "cast the first stone" argument that lists many "atrocities" of our own age.
9/16/2014 01:58:16 am
Joshi: "our absurd overuse of profanity in speech and writing (and, in general, a slovenliness in the use of English that would make HPL cringe)".
9/2/2014 10:35:37 am
>>>historical figures cannot be judged by contemporary standards
9/2/2014 10:41:51 am
Correction: Not Victor Hugo, but Jules Verne (1828–1905)
9/2/2014 07:35:52 pm
Yes, they can. Contemporary standards were born from new ideas that challenged the old. It's called progression. If you had any courage, you'd accept it.
9/3/2014 10:38:58 pm
Worst of it is, "Steve StC" defines Jason in a classic manner.
9/2/2014 10:36:48 am
>>> Conan Doyle for his belief in fairies
9/2/2014 07:27:57 pm
At least he believed in something, which gives him a leg up over you.
lil ole moi
9/3/2014 04:14:19 am
TripleSix believes in the lack of something, he postulates
9/2/2014 10:53:21 am
As society continues to grow and morals mutate with the times, history becomes the unkind judge of significant figures.
9/2/2014 11:47:36 am
I didn't really associate Lovecraft with fantasy in the first place, but then again the mystery writers give out buts of Edgar Allan Poe as their awards even though Poe wrote just three detective stories, albeit among the first ever. I agree that abstract shapes work better for awards. It's harder to get mad at a triangle or a pillar.
9/2/2014 01:17:57 pm
" buts of Edgar Allan Poe"
9/2/2014 01:21:10 pm
9/2/2014 01:29:36 pm
9/2/2014 01:31:17 pm
This sort of gets you there, Ron
9/2/2014 02:51:17 pm
I am sure there is a way for me to have these comments scrolling on my big screen TV and updated as they appear but I cannot pull my teenagers away from homework to help me.
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