To keep up with all the responses to my “Who Killed Steampunk?” story, I’ve spent more time than usual reading Never Was‘ Twitter feed in the last couple of months. I follow almost everybody Twitter recommends to me, as long as they look or sound relevant to steam- or dieselpunk, and I follow back almost everybody who follows Never Was. So I made no effort to tailor this feed politically.
What I get is half steam- and dieselpunk and half left-wing politics. I don’t see any tweets that suggest they’re from a person who is center-right.
This isn’t new. I asked eight years ago where the steampunk Republicans were. Nor am I the only one who worries steampunk has become an echo chamber. Others who have written on this topic include Professor Elemental and Moriarty Viccar, both of whom are left-wing.
I can think of three possible explanations:
- Twitter is left-wing.
- Steampunk is left-wing.
- Right-of-center steampunks don’t tweet about politics.
The average Twitter user is younger, better educated, better paid and more progressive than the rest of society. (The research is about American Twitter users, who are about half the total. I couldn’t find figures for other parts of the world.)
Moreover, woke activists on the far left and Trump fanboys on the far right tend to be more active on the platform, giving the impression that they are in the majority. They’re not. (See The New York Times and the Hidden Tribes of America project. Again, the figures are for the United States, but it’s not hard to imagine that in other countries, users who care the most about politics also tweet the most about politics.)
So Twitter skews our perception in two ways: its user base is not representative of the population at large and the users who tweet the most about politics are often radicals.
If Twitter isn’t a good gauge of public opinion, it may not be a good gauge of steampunk opinion either. Unless steampunk really is disproportionately left-wing, in which case the reason there aren’t more right-wing steampunks on Twitter is that there aren’t more right-wing steampunks.
I hope that’s not true. I want steampunk to be welcoming of people of different political beliefs, but nearly everyone who writes, or has written, about politics and steampunk spans the spectrum from center-left to radical left. Examples include the self-described Steampunk Anarchists, Prof. Calamity, Phenderson Djèlí Clark, Kate Franklin and James Schafer, formerly of Parliament & Wake, Jaymee Goh, Steampunk Emma Goldman, Margaret Killjoy and the team at SteamPunk Magazine, China Miéville, Dru Pagliassotti, Diana M. Pho, Charlie Stross and the aforementioned Moriarty Viccar.
On the right, there is, well, me. (And I’m pretty centrist.) There are a few prominent dieselpunks who are right-wing, but steampunks? I can’t find any and the ones I used to know are gone.
If there aren’t more (vocal) center-right steampunks, I fear it’s because left-wing activism has either driven them away or is causing them to stay quiet.
This activism came in two forms, as I wrote in “Who Killed Steampunk?” There was an attempt by anarchists to co-opt steampunk. That failed. There has also been a (sometimes overly zealous) effort to rid steampunk of misogyny and racism. That has been far more successful.
Don’t think conservatives left because they wanted steampunk to be misogynist or racist. Some, perhaps — and, with what’s happening in the United States, I can understand the temptation to conflate “conservative” with “misogynist” and “racist”. Millions of American conservatives voted for a misogynist and a racist.
But it would be a mistake to paint everyone with the same brush. The right-of-center people I know who left steampunk aren’t bad people. They got tired of being called a bad person, especially when they had no desire to bring their politics into steampunk in the first place.
(Before anyone argues that art and fiction are inherently political; that’s not the point. The point is that these people either did not agree or didn’t realize it.)
The inevitable response
I can predict the reaction: poor white guy complaining that people of color and LGBTs stole his hobby. I know, because that’s the reaction I got to “Who Killed Steampunk?” (I’m gay, by the way. We’re not all left-wing.)
It’s an easy way to shut down the debate. Impugn someone’s motives, assume bad faith, and you don’t have to engage with a word they say.
But then don’t complain in the next tweet that you’re having trouble selling your novel or selling out your event. If you insist on bringing your own politics into steampunk but can’t tolerate the politics of others; if you effectively ban half the voting population from the movement and throw out a few center-left “neoliberals” for good measure, you’re dramatically shrinking your audience — and mine.
I’d be the last person to claim steampunk didn’t have a race problem. I was part of the problem. But it’s another question how we deal with it — and misogyny, and homophobia, and ableism. If people are forever branded a bigot in the steampunk community for making one bad remark, then don’t be surprised if at some point they stop buying your books and stop coming to your events.
And it’s another question entirely how we treat people who haven’t said or done anything wrong, but who simply don’t share our political views. If we constantly signal that their views aren’t welcome, then at some point they might take the hint and leave.
A little respect
We have writers here at Never Was whose politics are different from mine. Some are pretty far to the left, others are more to the right. Sometimes we talk about politics. Most of the time, we talk about the passions we share: steampunk and dieselpunk. That’s what brought us together. That’s why we’re here.
If anything, the fact that we share a hobby makes the political arguments easier. It’s never fun to disagree with a friend, but when you have something other than politics in common, you probably won’t lose respect for them even if you don’t respect an opinion they hold. You might even come around to their point of view.
The only people who benefit from polarization are extremists. Politics may be inescapable, but it’s not the only fact of life. Try to see the person behind the label. Avoid the temptation to put people in boxes. Remember we’re all steampunks. If nothing else, we share a hobby — and it’s not like there are millions of us. If we want steampunk to thrive, it can’t belong to one party or political persuasion.
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What are these “Conservatives” and “Republicans” you speak of? Imaginary creatures perhaps? Should we mount an expedition in search of them?
But seriously, thanks for a very good article asking a very good question, whose answer would appear to be “Yes, but don’t show and don’t tell.” A bit like being gay in the US military used to be. The situation seems similar in much of the arts in the USA and UK and elsewhere.
There is, of course, no law that says Steampunks and Dieselpunks must be equally divided between Right and Left, politics-wise. But you rightly highlight the danger of people self-censoring themselves. That danger has been termed “Hollowness” by many, and “Preference Falsification” by the economist Timur Kuran.
A famous fictional example of “Hollowness” is G. K. Chesterton’s story “The Man Who Was Thursday”, where a secret policeman infiltrates a group of anarchists but eventually discovers that, unbeknownst to each other, all but one of the anarchists are really secret policemen!
I broadly class myself as a Centrist Libertarian, and your politics have never seemed very right wing to me, but the centerline is in a different place in the world outside the arts.
More generally, I marvel at how we still persist in trying to force our politics into just two rather arbitrary categories, based on the seating arrangements of a French Parliament that last met over two hundred years ago!
That’s why I think two-party systems are the worst. They lead people to think there are only two positions on any given issue and they lead to tribalism. Many people don’t pick a party that fits their beliefs; they adjust their beliefs based on the positions of their party. That’s how so many Republicans switched from pro-free trade to protectionist, for example.
Being a Swedish dieselpunker, I can only say that our political spectrum in general is different from yours, ours being nationalist (white) -conservative (blue) – liberal (orange) – environmentalist (green) – social democrat (red). Eight parties in the parliament and a ruling orange-green-red alliance. Here even the blue parties tend favor pro-choice, gender equality, and LGTBQ+ rights
Sweden’s steam/dieselpunk community is generally tolerant, and I have met fellow steam/diesel enthusiasts of all political hues except white.
As you highlight, Nick, on the surface, it would seem that Steampunk and Dieselpunk should be popular with conservatives. After all they focus on periods of history in which there were rigid social classes; women were marginalised even when highly skilled and there was a strong military ethic. People ‘knew their station’ in life and generally remained in it; colonialism was seen as something ‘good’ for the world. The Steampunk and Dieselpunk genres see such times augmented, even extended.
Added to that, almost in the names themselves, these two genres celebrate heavy industry (and in dieselpunk, nuclear power and weaponry) of the kind which is now being challenged by environmental campaigners but is receiving strong backing from conservatives in Europe, North America and elsewhere.
Perhaps what stops the genres falling into being a right-wing fantasy is the ‘punk’ element. Though I know that Michael Moorcock felt the punk part had died, perhaps it is represented in the stories which do feature women in strong roles to the extent that an SF I know described Steampunk as ‘airships and lesbians’ and some book cover artists certainly seem to play on that. All literature is currently being challenged on its basis of representation, not simply the characters but its authors too. It is still rare to find a story like ‘Clockwork Fagin’ by Cory Doctorow that features disabled characters, whether in Steampunk or other genres. However, the best writing in any genre will challenge that genre’s boundaries.
Ironically, perhaps, Steampunk has more authors who are looking to include diversity and, somehow, they have managed to escape the backlash that mainstream SF has faced from conservatives. I guess it is because it is a sub-genre and I know from my own book sales, one that only interests niches of fans. In many ways Steampunk should be the genre for conservatives who want to put the Third World ‘in its place’, fear the ‘Yellow Peril’ (a term coined by Kaiser Wilhelm II after all) and promote the use of coal and oil. However, I think that they have ended up, especially in the USA, instead working in a genre that lies a short way from Steampunk and Dieselpunk and that is Alternate History.
It is very easy to browse through Amazon or other providers and find book after book which sees the South having won the American Civil War and being all the better for it. Beyond such books is an even stronger genre (at least in the English language) of what I term ‘conspiracy theory novels’ often on the basis of stopping an Islamist invasion of the USA or the ‘ordinary people’ of the USA rising up to assert their 2nd Amendment rights in the face of a gun control President. These books effectively, have ‘skimmed off’ the conservatives from engaging with Steampunk and Dieselpunk. Just as you might see these two genres as left-wing, there are other very popular ones out there, that play with history, and are almost exclusively populated with right-wing writers.
Conservative/Libertarian here. I left Twitter last year because of the vitriol aimed at anybody who doesn’t tow the Progressive party line, and the outright banning of vocal conservatives (read: “conservative”, not “bigot/racist/misogynist”). On Facebook I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut about anything conservative or supportive of Judeo-Christian morality unless I want to invoke a dogpile of sneering, hateful, myopic responses. The sad thing is the pile-on is usually at least 50% people I know in real life who would NEVER say nasty things to me in person. Do they actually think I’m a horrible person who hates puppies and children and “people of color” and wants all women to be barefoot and pregnant? That’s the impression I get online. There’s definitely a shrill minority who overreact to everything and think they represent the population at large. Those are the people driving Libertarians and Conservatives away from the public (online) fora. Yes, there are dingbat conservatives out there, but they are also a minority. Even the Liberal/Progressives I know see that it’s the Left side of the aisle that seems to keep bringing elephant guns to squirrel fights and declaring that if you have a differing viewpoint on any given topic then you are a Bad Person and Wrong! It’s wearisome and ultimately boring (in the classical sense of the word). I’m happy being a neo-Victorian/Steampunk in my own way, reading what I want to read, and making stuff for our local shindigs. The online communities have lost their luster for me. Too many people don’t know how to read and write, and that makes any online communication fraught with danger to begin with. We conservatives are out there and active, but just as in the entertainment industry, we’ve learned to keep our heads down until we reach the elevated status and influence of a Chris Pratt or Doug Jones.
AS posted on my own FB page back on June 22nd of this year…
Woke / Cancel Culture is killing so many forms of art it’s depressing. I keep catching myself writing something or creating something to share and I hesitate to post it and I ask myself if this is going to be worth the trouble. Is the juice worth the squeeze?
I write an opinion column about every aspect of life from the perspective of a man (obviously myself) with my specific background and personal history and experiences. This is why I like/dislike this, why I enjoyed this movie or book or didn’t… these are my opinions.
I promise you that if I have an unpopular opinion there will be at least one or two people who will come down on me for it. It’s not enough to simply disagree with someone, Woke / Cancel Culture now dictates that anyone with an unpopular opinion has to be vilified and deplatformed.
I disliked the Gillette 2 minute long commercial “We Believe” and I stated why… mostly because it’s pandering tone from a multi-million dollar corporation who is trying to exploit the #MeToo movement because of their faltering sales due to other companies who are selling a superior – and less expensive – products. You would have thought I called Mother Teresa a “crack whore.”
The blowback of that was shockingly bad. Clearly, most of the people who didn’t like what I had to say didn’t even read what I wrote. Just because I didn’t like the ad I’m clearly “racist.” The attacks against me were brutal and uncalled for, but it wasn’t the first nor the last time it’s happened.
I don’t dare post my review of “Captain Marvel” because someone is going to be pissed that I didn’t like it for the “correct” reasons. Then there’s the other extreme – Toxic Fandom. The other extreme of Cancel Culture.
We’ve crossed the threshold into ridiculousness… thanks to Woke / Cancel Culture ONE unpopular opinion is enough to get you deleted from a social media platform by many of the same people who claim they want an “open dialog with differing opinions.”
Because of what I’ve experienced. I can assume this is why so many other people are quitting Facebook, Twitter… and so on. Or we are overly cautious…
I promise you I will piss someone off my stating this.
And while I’m pissing people off with my harmless opinions… Pineapple and Anchovies belong on Pizza. Together. AT THE SAME TIME ON THE SAME PIZZA.
Your proposed pizza toppings are against God and nature and specifically forbidden in the Old Testament! All non-Kosher pizzas should be cancelled!
Slightly more seriously, Mother Teresa has been the object of cancel pushes since the 1990s, when she was still alive. She was condemned for being too Catholic, I think.
My views have rather changed since reading ‘The Mammoth Book of SteamPunk’ [sic] ed. by Sean Wallace. I guess many people will first come to the genre through an anthology like this and it is one of quite a few that I have read. What distinguished it from others was that, in contrast to most steampunk I read, it came from 2012 rather than the 2000s. It signalled to me that in the second decade of the 21st Century the genre has certainly moved toward liberal, even left-wing values to a far greater extent than I had seen in stories before then.
In almost all of the 30 stories the protagonist is disabled, BAME and/or gay. Feminism is dominant throughout and even grows to being anti-men in James Morrow’s horrific story. There is also far more focus on the oppressiveness of the industrial age and how it kept in place social hierarchy that the authors seek to challenge.
Reading these stories, which can be seen as ‘mainstream’ steampunk, it is clear that these views are now at the heart of the genre. Older views about the wonders of technology and portraying a Victorian social structure are now clearly out. It is no surprise to me that my reflection on the opportunities and challenges women face in a steampunk context in my novels, now seem very tentative and lacking the conviction that these much more successful authors show in heaps even just simply in this anthology. I am basically 20 years too late in my writing in the genre.
One other element from that anthology is how many of the stories are shading from ‘hard’ steampunk into fantasy. This may be the sign of the future for the genre. With authors having said all they feel they can say in stricter steampunk settings there may be a shift towards its tropes becoming simply elements of a broader fantasy palette in the way elves and dragons have long been.
As to Twitter, it is certainly not left-wing. My greatest exposure to right-wing (and even extreme right-wing) views, is via Twitter, even with me, like most users, creating an ‘echo chamber’ of like-minded people in who I follow.
The one platform I have found which is clearly right-wing is Pinterest. No matter what images I search for, I still find pro-Trump memes appearing all over my feed. They are so virulent that not only do they call for the arrest of any leading Democrat of the past 30 years and treat elected members of Congress as idiotic terrorists, but also portray Trump’s family in the way that the Romanov family were treated in pre-revolutionary Russia, as astounding people who should be adored, even beatified.
My opinion is that of one of the johntshea’s: conservative steampunks have largely taken a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach and hunkered down, lest they be descended upon by hoards of raving leftists in a reenactment of the last scenes of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” In the current political environment, it’s better to keep one’s head down.
Keep one’s head down indeed! And wear a helmet. And use a periscope. Not that I’m even slightly conservative, of course. Oh no, heaven forbid! I, for one, WELCOME our new Politically Correct overlords!