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Enid Blyton had racist views. But I still read her

6 September 2019

From The Guardian:

in 1965 the eminent American science-fiction writer John W Campbell wrote an essay titled The Barbarians Within. In it, he recommended that “the barbarian” – and it was clear he meant African Americans – be injected with cocaine and heroin in order to be kept under control. It was a plan that, he said, “has the advantage … of killing him both psychologically and physiologically, without arousing any protest on his part”. He also claimed that slavery was “a useful educational system”, supported segregation, and argued that “the Negro race” had failed to “produce super-high geniuses”. Black sci-fi writers were unable to “write in open competition” with whites.

Incidentally, Campbell also believed in telepathy, and once argued that there was “a barely determinable possible correlation between cigarette smoking and cancer”. His opinions never got in the way of his success. As the editor of Astounding Science Fiction magazine, he was hugely influential on the genre during the 1940s, 50s and 60s; not just the authors he worked with (Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke and Robert A Heinlein), but also those he kept out. All three of those writers were positive pinkos compared to Campbell; even Robert A Heinlein, who was an anti-communist rightwinger who proselytised the positives of nuclear weapon testing. In 1941, he wrote Sixth Column, a novel based on a story by Campbell, in which “pan-Asians” enslave the US, which fights back with a ethnic-specific ray gun that can kill the “slanty” and “flat face”. Heinlein would later voice his regret over the openly racist novel. Campbell would not.

Last month, while accepting the John W Campbell award for best debut writer in science fiction and fantasy (awarded by the latest editor of the magazine), British author Jeannette Ng called him “a fucking fascist”. Campbell, she said, had set a tone that was “stale, sterile, male, white, exalting in the ambitions of imperialists, colonialists, settlers and industrialists”. Within days, the prize was no longer named after him. It was a lesson in efficiently dealing with the legacy of influential, if morally questionable artists: the prize organisers considered the implications and made a decision.

The same day Ng got on stage it was revealed that, in 2016, the Royal Mint had considered Enid Blyton for the face of a commemorative coin, but decided against it as she was “known to have been a racist, sexist, homophobe and not a very well-regarded writer”. This verdict sparked much blustering about censorship and “political correctness gone mad” in certain pockets of British media. Richard Madeley and Toby Young, for example, lamented the mistreatment of a beloved author who had sold hundreds of millions of books. Young even blasted the decision as “transphobic”, given that Blyton had created George, the short-haired tomboy of the Famous Five.

. . . .

Both English children’s fiction and American science fiction of that era undoubtedly have a reactionary dimension. Just as 1960s sci-fi gave me a particular view of the world – full of cigar-chomping, gun-toting paternalists saving Earth from invading forces – so did Blyton. The baddies were often foreign or Travellers in her mysteries. Her fantasy villains were alternately golliwogs or ugly goblins, depending on whether I was reading her original text or a sterilised, modern edition. The adventures of her polite, white children were affirmative in many ways for me, a child in 1990s Australia who owned a golliwog – and not an old relic “of its time” but a brand spanking new one, given to me by adults who would not have seen much wrong in Blyton’s vision of the world.

When a beloved literary figure from the past is refused some kind of recognition as a result of their personal views, a backlash against modern “culture warriors” inevitably follows. This is understandable to a degree. After all, records of human communication only go back so far; we can only guess what Shakespeare’s opinions on trans people would be (actually he would have loved them, have you seen his plays?). To recognise racism in canonical authors like Blyton and Campbell is not to advocate for a Year Zero approach, blitzing the literary canon until only good-hearted, liberal authors remain.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

PG says it is not unusual, during a stage of their development, for children to regard their parents as clueless/stupid/outdated, etc.

In some cases, the children will continue to think themselves correct for the remainder of their lives. In most circumstances, however, the old aphorism, “The older I get, the smarter my parents become,” comes into play.

It is nice to think that, had we lived during an earlier era when some moral evil was prevalent in society, we would not have accepted it and our condemnation of the manifest error of societies of that sort would have been clear to all who knew us or learned of us through our later work.

Had we lived in Germany in 1937, we would have been ardent and unflinching opponents of Adolph Hitler and all he stood for.

Had we lived in Atlanta in 1860, we would have been proudly exiled from society because of our beliefs about slavery.

Had we lived in Britain or the United States in 2019, we would have condemned the totalitarian, self-righteous and childish impulses that lead so many of the students, faculty and graduates of expensive institutions of higher learning to remove books written by earlier authors from libraries and curricula and erase such people from history.

I have read a number of articles and books written in the late 1940s and early 1950s that report the great difficulty of locating any Germans who were supporters of Hitler before or during World War II. Evidently the bombing and shelling by invading Allied armed forces were extremely accurate, only killing committed Nazis, as those militaries overran Germany.

PG finds the intolerance for those who lived and wrote in earlier times when their books were solidly within the contemporary mainstream to be childish. He will also predict that the college-aged youths of 2060 will find a great deal to condemn about the political correctness, accompanying mental rigidity and cowardly fear of societal criticism on the part of those who held such foolish, blinkered and intellectually bigoted beliefs during the ignorant and retrograde early decades of the 21st Century.

Children's Books, Non-US

35 Comments to “Enid Blyton had racist views. But I still read her”

  1. “He will also predict that the college-aged youths of 2060 will find a great deal to condemn about the political correctness, accompanying mental rigidity and cowardly fear of societal criticism on the part of those who held such foolish, blinkered and intellectually bigoted beliefs during the ignorant and retrograde early decades of the 21st Century.”

    They’re also going to hate that so much of our data won’t be there for them to mine. Even if you ignore all the forced trimming away of the past, most of the present will be gone or made unreadable long before our own deaths.

    Digging through a storage box of odds and ends I found an old ((c)’97) ‘movie CD’, which had a player for Windows 95 that Windows 7 won’t even try to load. The main file’s just an ‘AVI’ format, but 7 can only play the audio because at some point in the past the definition of an AVI file was changed.

    I know others have had the same fun with documents and databases, the next software update can’t read files made two or three revisions ago (so if one person in the office upgraded – everybody in the office had to upgrade (and saving things to the cloud doesn’t fix the issue.)

    Fun times to come – only to be lost in the next format change/hard-drive crash. 😉

  2. Richard Hershberger

    When regarding an important figure from the past, considering whether to honor this person, we often are confronted by that person’s failings. But we all have failings. This is the human condition. Refuse to honor a person with failings and we refuse to honor anyone.

    So what to do? This really isn’t that hard. Simply ask what what exactly it is we would be honoring this person for? Often the person’s failings are incidental to the honor. Yes, Washington owned slaves. No, that isn’t why we honor him.

    Sometimes, however, it turns out that the failings are why some people want to honor this person. Robert E. Lee would be a footnote in history were it not for the Civil War, in which he chose the wrong side. Honor him and the slavery discussion becomes central. To pretend otherwise is to sweep it under the rug and hope nobody notices. Or for a more blatant example, Nathan Bedford Forrest after the war was a terrorist working to minimize the effects of emancipation. You don’t like me using the word “terrorist?” Tough. If you want more political correctness, go find a safe space for yourself.

    So turning to John Campbell, he is honored for his influence on the course of science fiction. The direction he took it is exactly on point to the criticisms, and the argument for removing his name from the award. If you want to argue in support of the direction he took the field, knock yourself out. But otherwise, this isn’t simply human frailty unconnected with the honor.

    • Campbell was a child of 1910. His views were forged by pre-depression Newark. Like them or hate them, pretending he didn’t exist or he didn’t elevate the tone of the magazines–they were freaking pulps, not literature–is like pretending the sun didn’t come out this morning. And it says more about you than him; he’s dead and buried and he did what he did. Which was sell SF magazines by the ton and helped the writers of the time make a living based on what sold in that time in place. Not on what people may or not like today.

      Vilify him if that makes you feel good but it won’t change the past or affect a field that moved past him and his times three generations ago.

      Might as well vilify Aristotle for the geocentric theory while at it. Just don’t be surprised when future generations vilify us for worrying about the dead past instead of the future.

    • Thing is, Lee’s story is a bit more complicated than that. Lee’s problem was misplaced loyalty–he did not join the Confederacy because he was a fan of slavery (his views on the topic are a matter of controversy)–he joined the Confederacy because Virginia did, and Virginia did not join the Confederacy until after Fort Sumter and Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers to put down the rebellion, at which point it could be said that there was a legitimate principle involved rather than just whining about an election not going their way.

      Note: Lee’s fellow Virginian, George Thomas, made the better choice. And should be honored far more than he has been.

      • Richard Hershberger

        The thing is, you don’t get credit for holding nuanced views on slavery while also being a slave owner. You especially don’t get this in 1860. Washington and Jefferson had tried it a half century earlier, basing it on the premise that the slave economy was winding down naturally and preferring a soft landing. This was not entirely indefensible. It is pretty much what had happened in the northern states, after all. Then the southern economy switched from tobacco to cotton. The range of acceptable Southern opinion on slavery restricted. You no longer had talk of accepting that slavery was a bad thing and we just need to figure out how to transition away from it. In 1860 there was no room for nuance among slaveholders.

        And it all comes down to slavery, a century and a half of chin-stroking notwithstanding. Abstract principles? What abstract principles? “States rights!” OK, what specific right was it that the southern states were concerned about losing? The right to own slaves. There was no pretense otherwise when the states seceded. That all came after the war, when the defense of slavery was no longer seen as a winning argument. There was a brief period when the North took black civil rights seriously, but that ended with the end of Reconstruction. At that point the “states rights” chin stroking served Northern interests, in exactly the same way that the US distinguished which were the “good Nazis” after World War Two. Once you decide it is in your interest to work with these people, it is no longer in your interest to vilify them, however justifiably.

        • Please do us all a favor, and respond to the comment that was actually made, rather than the one that you want to respond to.

    • Lee would not be a household name like he is now, but he had a very long and successful career as an engineer and soldier before that.

    • Incidentally, this—

      So turning to John Campbell, he is honored for his influence on the course of science fiction. The direction he took it is exactly on point to the criticisms, and the argument for removing his name from the award. If you want to argue in support of the direction he took the field, knock yourself out. But otherwise, this isn’t simply human frailty unconnected with the honor.

      —is rich.

      The award is no longer named after John Campbell, but after Astounding, the magazine that he edited for more than half his lifetime, and the one publication that most perfectly expressed ‘the direction he took the field’. So if you’re against that direction, you should be against the name ‘Astounding Award’, too.

    • Time to remove every thing that honors Barack Obama, William Clinton, Lyndon Johnson, James Carter, Harry Truman, Franklin Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson – do I need to go back another century? Or do the “enlightened” first need to carefully balance the scales of whether their evil deeds and thoughts outweigh the good? Apparently, you are one of those “enlightened,” qualified to judge.

      By the way, when will you be agitating to give up the “Hugo”? The direction in which HE took the field was certainly more heinous and worthy of condemnation by the woken. I am keeping an eye on it, and will certainly try to grab the abandoned trademark when the hypocrites are foolish enough to shoot their other foot.

  3. Richard Hershberger

    “Campbell was a child of 1910.”

    Yet lots of people who were born in 1910 turned out to be better people. There always are three groups: one working for justice, one entirely prepared to pitch a hissy fit at any sign of justice, and a large group in the middle just trying to get through the day. That middle group doesn’t inspire admiration, but if we are being honest about ourselves, it is where most of us fall. If we were Germans in the 1930s, we would likely be keeping our heads down.

    So I give a mulligan for the middle group. But being born whenever isn’t a free pass for everyone.

    As for this not changing the past, that would be a really great response, were anyone suggesting it would. As it is, it is kind of a weird non sequitur.

    • There always are three groups: one working for justice, one entirely prepared to pitch a hissy fit at any sign of justice, and a large group in the middle just trying to get through the day.

      That assumes that you already know exactly what justice is and how to achieve it. This has never been true. The people you describe as ‘pitching hissy fits’ are also working for justice as they understand it. The fact that they disagree with you does not necessarily make them wrong.

      So knock off the lectures from an assumed position of total moral superiority.

  4. Can we go after Woodrow Wilson and the Progressives now?

  5. As a side note, most of the people who think they would have swum against the tide of public opinion in earlier times regularly demonstrate that they would not have done so.

    When was the last time they had an opinion that was not propagated by those who hold the commanding heights of the cultural landscape, or a more extreme version thereof? Answer: never.

  6. The underlying point is the assumption that we today are so morally superior to past generations and totally above reproach so we are entitled to vilify and erase the dead. With no fear of the future’s judgement.

    Looking around, all I see is the same old sins wrapped in different rhetoric. Good story material but little comfort otherwise.

  7. The underlying point is the assumption that we today are so morally superior to past generations and totally above reproach so we are entitled to vilify and erase the dead. With no fear of the future’s judgement.

    Looking around, all I see is the same old sins wrapped in different rhetoric. Good story material but little comfort otherwise.

  8. It is the height of arrogance for Ng to assume that she would have picked the “right” beliefs in the past, given the water she would be swimming in.

    It is the height of arrogance for Ng to assume that in the future, the ideas she holds now will be judged “correct.”

    That’s what makes this all so very stupid. It’s sheer self-aggrandizement, and nothing more. It changes nothing, it helps no one. It’s a cheap and easy way for Ng to present herself as superior than she is. Vanity, vanity, it is all vanity.

    And what Ng fails to realize is that she and her ilk are creating a rule that should — for the sake of justice — be held against her: a body of work should be judged based on whether the creator has the “correct” ideas now, or will be judged in the future to have had the “correct” ideas now.

    I do not believe for one minute that she and her fellow travelers understand that this is the rule they’re making, the seed that they’re sowing, so it’s tough to have any respect for her and them. I certainly hold no respect for the rule itself. I believe cancel culture is a thing? When it comes for her, no tears should be shed, for she will have reaped what she sowed.

    I am also honestly doubting the sci-fi / fantasy-writing chops of someone who is unable to grasp different cultures than her own. And the past is another culture. How can she write a convincing alien if she can’t put herself in her grandparents’ shoes? I would similarly never read, for example, fantasy written by someone who thinks the medieval era was “misogynist.” The resulting work would be too stupid and tedious.

    Writers of speculative (and historical) fiction need to be able to grasp people according to their time and their understanding of the world. And have the humility to grasp that in the future, they will be considered primitive, or a heathen, or whatever taboo -ist, will exist in the future. Shoot, there are certain areas where I would be disappointed if the future generations don’t judge us as primitive; failure to anticipate such judgment is a huge failure for a sci-fi writer.

    • One of my favorite alternate history series is Birmingham’s AXIS OF TIME, that features a mid 21st century multinational fleet (after decades of war with Islamist powers) getting ported to early 1942. (Most in the middle of the Battle of Midway.)

      One of the best parts is the contrast between the very diverse and liberal (but no-nonsense battle hardened) uptimers and the depression era adults they interacted with.

      (The series started tradpub but has moved to Indie because of…economics.)

      The best part of the ongoibg is how the uptimers see their “allies” (correctly) as little better than the Nazis and Soviets… and how they to set about to “doing something about it”.

      People who can’t let go of their prejudices to do justice to their chosen millieau and characters have no business writting SF&F.

    • “Writers of speculative (and historical) fiction need to be able to grasp people according to their time and their understanding of the world.”

      This.

      I was watching a couple of youtube videos about Japan during WWII, and the commentator was careful to point out what they ‘knew’ at a what time – the ‘cloud of war’ – and how that caused them to make several errors that cost them the war.

      And the same needs to be understood by fiction writers writing about the future. Say we have Klingons to deal with, why they do or don’t do things will be because of their worldviews and upbringing – not ours.

      • If somebody spent the bulk of their lives working in the parochial, masochist monochromatic world of NYC publishing, especially in the 30’s and 40’s one could hardly expect them to be bastions of sensitivity, 21st century style.

        It’s like expecting a 50’s urban low life mobster to use terms like “gentleman of latin-american descent” instead of the snappier “spic”.

        Understanding where people come from isn’t condoning anything, just accepting reality. And if you don’t understand reality, fiction will be based on quicksand.

        • Demonstrating an understanding of reality through fiction can lead readers of that fiction to also understand the reality. That is the danger .

  9. A minor and perhaps peripheral point, but one that does illustrate how casual, careless and ignorant statements about the past can become part of a progressive world view.

    The OP refers to The Sixth Column (aka The Day After Tomorrow) as a racist work, possibly due to the faulty memory of a long ago reading, but equally possibly because they’ve just read this judgement somewhere, and in either case because they believe its unflattering presentation of the “PanAsians” is racially prejudiced. The book is actually a mash up of two tropes, the invasion trope (projected near future alternate history, cf Chesney’s The Battle of Dorking) and a very Campbellian super science story. The “PanAsians” though – despite the book’s background story – are a straight stand in for the 1940 Japanese Empire and the real objection to the presentation of their behaviour in the book is that it fails to reflect just how barbarically the Japanese were currently behaving in China – or to fully predict their misbehaviour in World War 2. Specifically the PanAsians are not nasty enough.

    It is of course an early work – with a plot dictated by Cambell – and this shows. Apparently there isn’t an ebook version so I cannot say how often “slanty (eyed)” and “flat face” appear though their occurrence in a conversation in a hobo jungle is a natural response of the hobos to the people wishing to send them to labour camps rather than evidence that the book itself is racist. And one of the earliest recruits to the resistance is the PanAsian American Frank Mitsui showing that the difficulty is with the culture rather than the ethnicity of the enemy. To that extent PanAsian Americans do rather better than the actual experience of Japanese Americans under FDR.

    • Baen has it.

      https://www.baen.com/sixth-column.html

      More, the book’s climax depends on japanese american Frank Mitsui sacrificing himself to save the crew. Too much subtlety for some, apparently.

      It has the “honor” of being banned in at least one school district. Too adult.

      —-

      “Removed from the Beardstown, Ill. High School library (2008). A parent requested its removal and a committee determined the novel ‘rather very adult in nature’ and, because the library already had a large selection of other valuable science fiction and spy literature, the committee elected to remove the book from the high school’s circulation and donated it to the public library.” (Source: “Books Challenged & Banned in 2008-2009,”

      BTW, it is rated 4.5 stars at Amazon and Google play. 4 stars other places. So much for the OP.

      As for “racist” terminology, it wasn’t long ago I saw an otherwise literate and informed commentator decry a book where a character referred to “ragheads”. The idea was that the character being a crusty soldier and veteran of the middle east wars wasn’t enough justification.

      • Felix, thanks for the ebook link. There isn’t one on Amazon UK and Amazon.com hides the ebook from me (as it sometimes and apparently arbitrarily does for UK residents) until I turn on a VPN and pretend to be in the USA.

        As for “ragheads”, if your military don’t use realistic terminology for the enemy the result will not be believable (though I guess that MilSF writers have an advantage in that their aliens are not going to complain). However much it may provoke progressive disapproval some of the terms used WILL be derogatory. This will not always be the case of course and you can have your WW2 Germans talking about Tommy or Ivan (Yvan) but the Brits will be referring to the boche or the huns. And is a historical term like Fuzzy Wuzzy considered insulting? I’m pretty sure that it will meet with modern disapproval even though, if Kipling is to be believed, it was used with considerable respect for the British Army’s Hadendoa opponents.

        • The modern folks who consider themselves morally and intellectually superior to everyone who has ever lived want entire segments of society banned from fictional depiction. Along with that goes a ban on depicting real and widespread behaviors that have been with us forever.

          But, all is not lost. I can’t wait for the next Banned Book Week where they rush to the barricades to defend Holden Caulfield from some rural preacher. Nuance…

        • When it comes to BAEN books I prefer to buy direct because they charge the same as Amazon, but divide what would be Amazon’s share between them and the author. Plus their prices are reasonable enough.

          One of tbe few cases supporting a publisher actually helps the author. Or their estate.

          Now, back to the regularly scheduled debate.

  10. The thing that amazes me is that it’s clear that Sian Cain, the author of the article in the Guardian, intentionally misrepresents what Campbell actually did say. Read it for yourself: http://www.baen.com/Chapters/9781625793171/9781625793171__10.htm.

    Here are a couple of quotes that blow Cain’s complaint right out of the water:

    “The trouble of the Barbarian in the city-culture stems from the fact that they are a race-within-any-and-every-race.”

    He talks about the hypothetical drugging of barbarians and ends with the following question: “What’s your brilliant solution to the problem of the born Barbarian in your own family . . . ?”

    This doesn’t negate the interesting conversation above about Lee and Forrest above and simply shows that Passive Voice comment are far more intelligent than the Guardian (a low bar to exceed I know).

    • Here’s the money quote, in my opinion:

      They were race riots, all right—but the races involved were Barbarians vs. Citizens—and neither skin color, religion, or home background had anything whatever to do with it.

      Which will not stop people from calling Campbell racist on the basis of that very article, since it has already been decided that he is a doubleplusungood crimethinker and must be unpersonned. And as Richard Hershberger was good enough to inform us all above, there is always one faction that pursues justice at any given time, and he always knows exactly which faction that is. Right now, if you don’t hate John W. Campbell, Jr., in the approved way and to the required extent, you are Against Justice and therefore a doubleplusungood crimethinker yourself.

      Right, Mr. Hershberger?

  11. It’s all absolutist thinking.
    It’s not enough to say, “It was a different time. Everbody smoked.”* You have to condemn everybody that didn’t measure up to today’s sensitity standards.

    That may work for today’s tribalistic IdiotPoliticians™, but I can’t see how it helps authors in any way. For one thing, its hard to get ideas into closed minds. Sometimes you have to step back and “think different”. Or think the unthinkable.

    * Kudos to the Warehouse 13 crew, btw.

    • The trick I think (which too many writers don’t do) is to explain to the reader (without boring them to death) that the times were different and how and blend that into how/why their characters were of (or bucking) the ‘normal’ for the time/place of the story.

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