Pete Amachree artwork

Steampunk Has Its Own Cancel Culture

Noam Chomsky is probably the world’s most famous anticapitalist. David Frum is a former speechwriter for George W. Bush. I doubt they agree on much, but they agree free and open debate is vital to a democracy — and that it’s currently being attacked by the far left as well as the far right.

With 151 other leading intellectuals, including Margaret Atwood, Francis Fukuyama, Michael Ignatieff, Garry Kasparov, J.K. Rowling, Salman Rushdie, Gloria Steinem and Thomas Chatterton Williams, they caution in a letter to Harper’s that resistance to the illiberalism of the right must not harden into a dogma of the left.

Specifically, they worry that the “censoriousness” of so-called cancel culture is creating a “stifling atmosphere” in which authors self-censor their stories, books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity and editors are fired for publishing controversial opinions.

Their laments will sound familiar to anyone who has been involved in the politics of steampunk. The movement has been taken over by social-justice warriors, who brook no dissent from woke orthodoxy.

Left-wing domination

Given its roots in the nineteenth century, it’s hardly surprising that steampunk might have some issues with gender and race. A lot of early steampunk was Western and white. The style did attract reactionaries who longed for a time when white men ruled.

But that was 15 years ago. Since then, the politics of steampunk have been dominated by the (far) left.

There are no conservative steampunk activists. The only people who mix their politics and steampunk are left-wing, from the bloggers at Steampunk Anarchists and Steampunk Journal to activists “Steampunk Emma Goldman” and “Prof. Calamity” (who was declared “steampunk’s first political prisoner” for being arrested at a G20 protest) to authors Phenderson Djèlí Clark, China Miéville, Dru Pagliassotti and Charlie Stross to Kate Franklin and James Schafer, formerly of the website Parliament & Wake, to self-described steampunk post-colonialists Jaymee Goh and Diana M. Pho to Margaret Killjoy, the first editor of SteamPunk Magazine. Various steampunk events, organizations and fans have recently expressed solidarity with Black Lives Matter. (Which I don’t think should be a left-right issue, but it is.)

All the editors of SteamPunk Magazine, the most-read publication of steampunk non-fiction, were either anarchists or anticapitalists. Around the time of Occupy Wall Street, it was claimed that steampunk and Occupy went “hand in hand“. Steampunk as “reactionary nostalgia” was denounced. I ran the only steampunk e-zine that published right- as well as left-wing opinions, called the Gatehouse Gazette. When we made the mistake of publishing a defense of neo-Orientalist fiction, opponents organized a boycott. The magazine’s popularity never recovered.

No patience

Bigotry exists. Women and people of color in the steampunk community have reported abuse and harassment. A prominent steampunk event was canceled after the organizer was accused of sexual misconduct.

But woke activists who are determined to rid steampunk of such injustices have no patience with those who doubt the problem is structural — or, in some cases, doubt the problem exists. (Count me among the “probably/hopefully not structural”.) As the authors of the Harper’s letter put it, there is

an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.

Another steampunk event was canceled after the organizers tried to preemptively ban any attempt at cultural appropriation, which extended to Asian-Americans being forbidden from wearing Asian steampunk outfits. The organizer of a third event gave up after he was smeared as a Nazi sympathizer for questioning if it’s right to punch Nazis in the face and telling potential attendees he did not want to encourage violence. There was an attempted boycott of a steampunk band that included the slur “gypsy” in one of its lyrics. There was an attempted boycott of a steampunk forum that wouldn’t allow discussion on politics. A steampunk fan’s business — which had nothing to do with steampunk — was boycotted after he posted something mildly in praise of Donald Trump on his personal Facebook page. Steampunks who come out as right-wing are mocked and blocked. (Hence my doubt you can be right-wing and steampunk anymore.)

The right isn’t immune to such antics. One steampunk author was accused of writing a “left-wing polemic” for including gay and queer characters in her book. Some (white) men will be offended when you explain that nineteenth-century role-play is no excuse to mistreat women or people of color.

But the right doesn’t rule steampunk, and thinking in terms of left or right, you’re either with us or against us, is part of the problem. Trump’s neofascism isn’t the only alternative to vindictive wokeness. Not every critic of cancel culture is an enemy of social justice. “Problematic” behavior isn’t incorrigible. Don’t attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.

Tone-policing

I was blind to racism in steampunk once. I didn’t realize how widespread sexism still was until #MeToo. If a person of color says something you did or said is racist, I know now to take them seriously. If a woman tells you something you did or said is sexist, listen to her. When you’re creating a costume or writing a story, it’s your responsibility to educate yourself. Don’t assume that just because it’s role-play or fiction, it’s fine.

But denouncing a person, in public, for a single infraction, and inviting all your friends on Twitter to pile on, isn’t proportionate. Nor is it likely to be effective. People will hunker down under such circumstances rather than recognize the error of their ways.

Call for a little civility in the current climate and you’ll be accused of tone-policing, but I remember when civility was supposed to be part of the attraction of steampunk. There used to be a sense of a community, where political differences could be set aside or at least accepted without a fight.

Now you run the risk of logging onto Facebook or Twitter and finding hundreds of hateful messages for something you may have said or written a decade ago. Such public shaming can ruin lives, but that doesn’t stop people who hadn’t even heard of you 5 minutes ago from joining in.

To cite the Harper’s letter again,

it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought.

Don’t think, tweet.

Decline

All this is having an effect. A decade ago, steampunk was riding high on the success of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. There was an explosion in new blogs and books. Artists, fashionistas and musicians turned steampunk into an aesthetic.

Now authors struggle to sell their steampunk stories. The only steampunk movie of recent years, Mortal Engines, was a commercial and critical failure. (Although steampunks are looking forward to this year’s Tesla.) Once-popular steampunk magazines and websites have disappeared. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, prominent steampunk events were forced to cancel due to lackluster ticket sales.

It’s hard to say how much of this decline is the natural ebb and flow of any subculture, but the unwelcoming politics of steampunk can’t help. If people are forever branded a bigot in the steampunk community for wearing the wrong costume or making one bad remark, then we can’t be surprised if they stop buying our books and start coming to our events.

Art on this page by Pete Amachree.

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8 comments

  1. Thanks for such a well written and important article. Cancel culture, if unchecked, prohibits free expression and ideas.

  2. Interesting, Nick, but you think about half the US population support a neofascist? I could write a book about my disagreements with President Trump (maybe I should!) but calling him a neofascist is crying “Wolf!” very loudly indeed. I’m more tempted to apply the neofascist label to vindictive wokeness, but it’s a temptation I’ll resist.

    1. Maybe if the American left hadn’t called every Republican in the last twenty years a “fascist”, conservative voters would have taken the warnings in 2016 more seriously.

      I think Trump is absolutely corrupt. He has no respect for the rule of law, Congress or the Constitution. He believes his word should take precedence over the law and that soldiers should carry out his orders even if they are unlawful. He admires “strength” and strongmen. He encourages violence against peaceful demonstrators, proposes to lock up his opponents but lets felons out of prison if they are his friends. He invokes the rhetoric of civilizational collapse, valorizes the victims of crimes committed by “Others”, is obsessed with beauty, masculinity and fitness, proposes autarky, and believes he is the only one who can “save” America.

      I know fascism is a big word, but at some point you have to call a spade a spade.

      More, if you’re interested, here and here.

      1. I think the man is a blowhard and a prick but I don’t think he has the vision to be fascist. His ilk doesn’t want to turn the US into Nazi Germany, but rather modern Russia.

  3. Incidentally, I greatly enjoyed “Mortal Engines” both as novel and movie and cannot easily account for the movie’s box office failure, except that, like most such failures in this century, it actually made a lot of money (about 90 million dollars gross) but simply cost too much.

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