It's unusual, and a little disconcerting, to be asked to write an article summarizing a series of events of which one was a part. This goes double when the venue in question, The Internet Review of Science Fiction—
It started, as much Internet nonsense does, with an email. Luke Jackson, a writer living in Los Angeles, submitted a science fiction short story to Williams Sanders of Helix, an online magazine. The emailed rejection letter explained that the story was not sufficiently science fictional enough for Helix, and that Jackson may wish to try non-genre magazines. Sanders said a few other things as well:
I'm impressed by your knowledge of the Q'uran and Islamic traditions. (Having spent a couple of years in the Middle East, I know something about these things.) You did a good job of exploring the worm-brained mentality of those people—
at the end we still don't really understand it, but then no one from the civilized world ever can— and I was pleased to see that you didn't engage in the typical error of trying to make this evil bastard sympathetic, or give him human qualities.
Later in the letter, Sanders also referred to Muslims and people from the Middle East as "sheetheads," concluding that no magazine in the genre would publish a story that offended them as this one likely would. Jackson posted the letter at William Preston's blog—
Then stuff got funny. Sanders and others, such as long-time editor of Asimov's Science Fiction, Gardner Dozois declared that the publication of the letter was both a violation of professional ethics and copyright infringement. Many others dissected the letter and subsequent remarks by both Sanders and Jackson. N.K. Jemisin, who had twice published with Helix and was amongst those dismayed by the Islamophobic commentary, had a discussion with Sanders which ended with her stories being removed from the Helix archive, where they had been contracted to remain indefinitely. The text of these stories, and those of three other writers, was replaced by "Story deleted at author's pantiwadulous request" on the Helix site, pantiwadulous being a neologism for "redolent of wadded panties," one presumes. Sanders then declared that anyone else who might wish their story removed from Helix's online presence would have to pay $40 for the privilege, the amount representing an hour of work by Helix's website designer, Melanie Fletcher.
This is life after power. Nearly eight years ago in an essay I published in The Village Voice, I predicted that email would collapse the layers of bureaucracy between customers and corporate heads, and that this would lead to flame wars between employees and customers. Written as an homage to Notes From the Underground, the essay was widely misunderstood—
Well, yes, of course I am.
Computer-mediated-communication has served to collapse hierarchies, and not only between layers of corporate power. The hierarchy between the recipient of a message and the general public has also been collapsed—
Life after power is both liberating and humiliating. Liberating for those who did not previously have power, and humiliating for those who used to have power going spare. It is no surprise that editors of long standing were shocked to hear that writers often share their rejection letters with the public—
Historically, those with power got to decide what ethics were. Why is it so awful to talk about money? One major reason is purely a convenience for the employing class—
These days, ethics are in flux. This is not a bad thing; every new suite of technologies leads to new ethics—
Both sides of this online slapfight were interested in claiming not the moral high ground but one based on power, on the ability to declare "thou shalt not." Thou shalt not spread another's email, thou shalt not call Muslims sheetheads and then lie about it by claiming that you really meant terrorists, thou shalt not keep my story on your site, thou shalt not humiliate me by taking down your story because I will call you pantiwadulous and charge you for the pleasure. I'm still a bit enamored with power too—
We're also all haunted by old rhetorics. Sanders, for example, appealed to context when he claimed that the letter was really about terrorists and not Muslims or people from the Middle East. However, the Internet is a medium of perfect recall, and thus we knew exactly what Sanders wrote and could easily see what it meant. For example, had Sanders meant terrorists, this is what his letter would have looked like:
I'm impressed by your knowledge of the Q'uran and Islamic traditions. (Having spent a couple of years in the Middle East, I know something about [terrorists].) You did a good job of exploring the worm-brained mentality of [terrorists]—
at the end we still don't really understand [terrorists], but then no one from the civilized world [as terrorists only exist elsewhere] ever can— and I was pleased to see that you didn't engage in the typical error of trying to make this evil bastard sympathetic, or give him human qualities.
Doesn't fly, not unless Sanders spent his years in the Middle East hanging out with terrorists. Appealing to an incomplete context is a good rhetorical ploy for the pre-net world, but doesn't work anymore. Nor does Sanders's insistence that one needs simply to read the story—
The anti-Sanders crowd was also haunted by the past; in the past magazines were disposable. They went out of print. The unsold supply was pulped sooner than later, and most copies ended up in the trash or in a bus depot somewhere. Even those few pulp collectors never dared open their magazines to read them. Now though, the Internet is forever—
If there is power at all these days, it is the power of harnessing an audience. Thus folks like Sanders actually feel threatened by Tempest, a blogger with a few publications under her belt. I regularly receive emails from people frantically warning me against saying this or that—
Helix, with its pantiwadulous endgame, demonstrated its essential powerlessness. To remove some stories—
And that's how we win.