I’ve been wondering what I might do as an ongoing kind of project, because I like having a theme to write to. I may have found it…
I’ve been sicker than usual this week, and while recuperating decided to re-read some old favorites in genre fiction for distraction. Some were great, and I want to do posts about books that I now realize were early good influences on me, or later inspirations. Some were awful. This brings me to Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel Dune.
Dune is a classic in sf, and for reasons that remain worthwhile. It was one of the first works of science fiction to put ecology front and center, treating the behavior of a whole living planet as a thing that could and should matter, and the study of it as worthwhile and important. It also went far beyond the norms of the time (indeed, beyond the prevailing norms outside certain narrow sub-genres) in bringing to life a society with Arab roots. It also did sprawling galactic-scale intrigue about as well as anyone’s ever done it, zooming in to the intensely personal and out to warfare—and espionage, and other drama—across the skies.
But there’s something rotten right at the heart of it.
An important theme in Dune is that all the epic conspiracies have gotten various important things wrong. But their fundamental premise is still sound: there are in fact, in the Dune universe (as in other stories by Herbert) people of such qualitatively superior cognition and self-mastery that they comprise the only genuine, true humanity, and are surrounded by the overwhelming majority of people who aren’t really any better than animals. Dune and its sequels are about rival efforts to bring the true humans to the foreground and let them shape the race’s destiny.
This is crap. And it is very much the crap that fed movement conservatism and its insane schemes of empire, and that pollutes a whole lot of discourse about privilege and bias even among allegedly liberal or progressive people.
Using myself as an example…I spent a lot of time growing up as a misfit. Well, duh. But even looking just at regularly nerd stuff, I was miserable partly because I’d imbibed the idea that there was a natural elite, to which I belonged because I was bright, and that ignoring or excluding me wasn’t just bad for me but ultimately damaging to the whole society. Welcome to being the kid of engineers, I guess. I did eventually get over it and recognize it as a bit of totally unearned privilege BS, but it took time. And yes, one of the places I got this überman idea was from the Dune series, which I devoured enthusiastically in my early teens.
This particular kind of supremacism isn’t original to Herbert, of course. Within science fiction fandom, there’d been decades of prior back and forth about A.E. Van Vogt’s notion of “slans”, genetically superior people with access to untapped super-powers. (And one of those who took the idea and ran with it was L. Ron Hubbard. He was probably most heavily influenced by the occult circle of Aleister Crowley devotees led by Jack Parsons, but Van Vogt was another inspiration to take the idea and by golly do something with it.) Back further we find Jean Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Jefferson, among many others. But Herbert gave expression to the “scientific” form of this kind of racism with particular power—if he’d been a worse author, this wouldn’t matter, but he did a great job making an evil idea seem worthwhile.
What’s pernicious about this is precisely that it isn’t anchored in conventional racism and other bias. The master race isn’t defined by ethnicity, gender, or even culture: the complex matrix of genes that makes me a true human while you remain just an animal person can emerge anywhere. Controlled breeding programs work, though not infallibly, but there are also “wild” true humans outside anyone’s planning.
In practice, though, this doesn’t work. Those who believe themselves superior identify qualities of the groups with which they affiliate as indicators of likely superiority, and end up thinking that they’re superior because their chosen groups are. Anyone superior outside those groups is just a fluke that doesn’t affect this comparison. Thus, for instance, the all-too-common phenomenon of the naive libertarian boy who starts by glorifying a select set of features out of white middle-class society and ends up a thorough-going racist, classist, ableist, sexist, homophobe and transphobe.
I wonder how many of the guys on the geeky side of America’s power structures took it in and never thought about it consciously again.
Breaking a lifetime’s habit of nail biting is taking some work, even with me finally feeling motivated to have good nails.
For several years I’ve turned away from a lot of physical measurements like weight and (except in the most general terms feasible) the dimensions for sizing clothing, because I know that the numbers have been bad, and that since I was stalled out thanks to body loathing and health problems from making any progress, it would just be more stress about things I couldn’t fix.
I’m interested to discover that I actually want to know some of these things about myself now, and amused at just how profoundly rusty I’ve gotten at measuring myself.
I have great parents. Dad’s passed away, but I’ll write about them both in the present tense here, since this is about both of them as continuing presences in my interior life. They love my siblings and me, and raised us with a love of learning and desire for justice. We had privileges many don’t, and Mom in particular wanted us to know that we did and that it made obligations for us to see that others got a chance at a decent life too.
They’re not perfect, of course. Dad was more than a little homophobic, not to the extent of ever opposing equal treatment under the law but really not liking to be around them. Mom is much better about it, partly because of having had a lot more LGBTQ friends and colleagues over the years. Nonetheless, she’s a product of her times – she grew up in a small city on the Pacific coast during the Great Depression, and she has borne her share of griefs and shocks and then quite a bit more.
We have this delicate little dance going on. She really, truly doesn’t want to hear about having a transgendered child. But her love for us has always come with a lot of trust, and she genuinely does want the best for us and has been willing to support our best judgments even when she’s not sure we’re right. I wish to live honestly around her. But I also don’t want to add one scrap of unnecessary grief to her life, either. Things have been hard for her since Dad died, and I really don’t know how many more years I have with her, and I want them to be as happy and comfortable as may be. The American scene gives her enough horror and misery at is – for the wife of a World War II pilot proud of his part in fighting fascism, and a woman who’s always been committed to social justice, the Bush years were horrific, and the new depression gives her a lot of occasion for unhappy memories. I feel I owe her every consideration that’s compatible with my needs now.
So there’s this funny dynamic at work. She doesn’t want to deal with a lot of the big-scale issues associated with my self-realization. But when I can isolate something and talk about its contribution to my well-being in other terms, then she will accept its feminizing benefits as well. This has been true when it comes to my appearance, and some thoughts about wardrobe changes, and even (thanks to my history with unusual internal chemistry along with the systemic illness and thanks to male relatives on Dad’s side turning out to have problems with over-production of testosterone) thoughts about whether an anti-androgen regimen of some sort might help.
I remind myself that I didn’t come to my own realization in just a couple of weeks, and that whatever suspicions or questions she may have had about me in the past, this will take her at least as long and probably a lot longer. In the meantime, I’m glad that I can share pieces with her and get good reception.
I’ve hated my body in varying degrees from mild disorientation and annoyance all the way up to full-fledged thinking that being a brain in a jar would be preferable, as long as I can remember. There have been a few stretches where it let up: one in college, when my health was better than it had ever been before and better than it’s likely to ever be again, so that I didn’t have all the weight of life with systemic disease, and again in my mid-30s when I was doing a lot of live-action roleplaying and to do a lot of costuming. Other than that…let’s just say that I felt an immediate bond with Clive Barker’s early short stories and their sympathetic portrayal of the monstrous as a superior alternative to the normally human.
I’ve been shaving my face more carefully and closely, and finally got through the last of the very thick accumulation above my upper lips. Wow. These are, if I do say so myself, not bad lips at all. When I learn to make them up properly, they’ll be quite the adornment.
Now I’ve added shaving of my arms and legs. Tonight was my first time getting them really pretty much all the way smooth. There are, of course, some nicks and cuts, but I’ve gotten worse just trying to hold my cat still long enough to trim his nails. And tonight, as I sit here drying off…I’m not loathing my limbs much at all.
I am not, or at least I hope I’m not, subscribing to a too-vigorous endorsement of an oppressive standard of femininity. I’m aware of some of the traps involved in succumbing to stereotypical goals. Rather, I regard this as a sort of notional clearing of the decks – the equivalent of plowing a weed-filled field down to pure dirt, then planting something fresh. I have years of effort ahead of me, and I’m treating this a happy step that is mostly good for my morale during the slog to come.
I have a history with camellias. They grew in glorious abundance around our family home, and I always loved their blossoming, for itself and as a sign of spring in general. But they also play a part in a memory I’ve never confided to anyone until now.
It was spring of my senior year of high school, and I was at a party with a lot of classmates. It was a small-ish high school with a great overlap between the academic geeks, the theatre crowd, the music crowd, and several other scenes, with what I gradually learned was a remarkably low level of clique-ishness at the high end. That’s probably a subject for a post of its own, but for now, back to the party.
The family hosting the party was quite a bit wealthier than most of ours’, and genuinely nice people, gracious and generous. They had a great backyard with a very fine pool, and our class had quite a few gatherings there. So there I was, one of the (as I thought) somewhat shy and awkward guys, listening to the conversation, not contributing a lot, dabbling my feet in the pool. A couple of the girls had been braiding backyard flowers into other girls’ hair. Suddenly one of them came up to me with this huge camellia and managed to find some way to make its stem hold even in my short hair. Then she was off again.
I felt like I’d been shocked by lightning.
I felt appropriate. That it was right for me to have this decoration, that it was something more than a passing joke or fancy. (I’m quite sure she didn’t mean anything mocking by it; she was and still is one of the good people in my world.) I felt like I was missing something I should have been having all along by not being one of the people who could expect to enjoy it.
But I was one of the boys, and that’s not a thing boys of my situation and era did. So I never got it again.
This blossom is now sitting on my desk, and I believe I’m going to google up advice on braiding it in.
|From 2009 Random Moments|