Racism is a tricky problem when you’re dealing with writers, artists, politicians and other public figures of the past. Many we rightly admire and rightly revile. Sometimes things as awards and academic/research centers or institutions are named for these people while there are parts of their past or their views that are not just disappointing to modern perspectives, but outright offensive. What constitutes fair and right?
This morning I read several articles about the racism of HP Lovecraft. Personally, I’ve never read any Lovecraft, although I have friends who are avid fans. His life and opinions were, until this morning, a complete mystery to me. One of the articles I liked a lot and sums up a lot of good points, which I’ve linked to here. I won’t regurgitate those points because they’re written better than what I can do, but I did want to comment on a couple of thoughts that I had on perspective.
Again, I’m not a fan of Lovecraft and I’m not critical of those who are based upon his racism. The views I read by him in his own words was abhorrent and while America was in the midst of a racial nadir during his lifetime, authors correctly place him as being on a more extreme part of the spectrum. The authors’ also correctly point out that his racist views are not a reason to not read him nor be a fan. But that isn’t always how fans feel and that is at the crux of their defensiveness. Because there are two flaws in peoples’ thinking that are at work.
The first is that the reader/fan assumes that the writer shares more than a narrow shared interest in terms of views, politics, and values. The second is that a third party assumes that the reader/fan shares the offensive values of the writer by virtue of being a fan of the writing. While either of these could be true, it would be a mistake to assume either statement is true or false before a careful examination has taken place.
I am an admirer of Lincoln, but I should also say I’m so not because he held the same view of race that I do. In truth, there are others in his time among the Abolitionists who’s views are more closely aligned to mine than his. But I am a fan because he struggled with racism, and because that struggle urged him on to greater and greater heights and that in turn pushed the country forward. I don’t accept him as perfect and I don’t shy away from views he held that I think and believe are wrong. By admiring him, I don’t endorse those beliefs, and by being willing to discuss them I can make that clear.
Being a fan of Lovecraft, additionally, doesn’t mean that you’re an extreme racist. In fact, many of the Lovecraft fans I do know are Asian Americans (which he didn’t have very nice things to say about). I read Dr. Seuss books to my kids, even though I find he pre-War propaganda about Japanese Americans more than offensive. I don’t believe driving a Ford means you’re pro-Nazi. These are all terrible things, but avoiding them denies us the opportunity to say that and to clearly discuss why they are wrong. We should neither hide from these things, nor sweep them under the rug. We should also not assume that those who enjoy a Lovecraft story, Green Eggs and Ham, or an F150 tacitly agree with the offensive views of their historical creators/manufacturers. We should be dedicated to work out the problems of the human condition by confronting them. This is actually an aikido principle.
There are times when a cutting off from something is necessary, but those times are usually when something is contemporary. If there is a writer whose writing I admire comes out with something that I find offensive, I feel it is okay to not read that person anymore. In part, because that discussion with the writer is still open. I can confront those views and there can be a response to that confrontation. As with Lincoln, that person can still or be in the midst of a struggle with that. They can change, hopefully for the better.
A historical figure is fixed in time, their last view being the final one. Of course this could change in a bad direction as well. There is some evidence to say that Hitler early in his life was no more anti-Semitic than what was “normal” at the time but spiraled up into the monster he was. That earlier view cannot mitigate the horror of the latter, and is now fixed forever in that position.
Being a fan of a particular product (such as a story or car) doesn’t necessarily mean you support someone’s vile point of view, especially if you’re talking about a historical figure. As the article I’ve linked with suggests, acknowledging the problem is something we should do. We gain nothing by running away from troubling parts of historical public figures. We gain the world by confronting those bad parts head on, not excusing them nor accepting those parts. Rather we should use that opportunity to discuss why the offense is offensive, acknowledge that problems exist, and offer solutions to solve them.
I’m still not going to read Lovecraft. It has nothing to do with his racism. I just don’t read horror or fantasy much anymore.