Fair warning—this post will go myriad places before making its point, but the journey is necessary. I promise it will return to science fiction by the end.
I recently attended a Fandango one-night showing of a film based on research and newly uncovered recordings of two musicians who influenced each other tremendously in ways the public wasn’t aware of. The film was called Soul Doctor. In it, Lisa Simone, the executive producer, told the story of the musical collaboration and friendship between her mother, Nina Simone—one of the truly great 20th-century voices in American music and an influential civil rights leader—and Shlomo Carlebach, the most important figure in 20th-century Jewish music. The details were fascinating. I had no idea that Carlebach’s first songs drew so heavily upon the Black gospel tradition or how profoundly Carlebach influenced Simone’s music.
Nina Simone’s mother was a revival preacher. In one scene in the movie, Carlebach comes to her church and begins singing a traditional Jewish melody to which he’d put words of a prayer in Hebrew. Simone and the congregation begin harmonizing, and a man who had previously said he’d never experienced Jesus suddenly does. Simone later recorded this song and many others of Carlebach’s.
In a later scene, Carlebach is in his House of Love and Worship, a commune he led on the corner of Haight and Ashbury streets in San Francisco from 1967 to 1970, dedicated to bringing Orthodox Judaism to the hippies through music. Simone shows up and invites him to perform with her in a concert in Vienna. Carlebach had escaped Vienna during WWII as a boy; his father had been the city’s chief rabbi. He decides to go, as the ultimate test of his philosophy of love would be embracing the people of that city. And the concert is well-received.
One of the movie’s emotional high points is Carlebach embracing Simone, despite the prohibition in Orthodox Judaism, as Carlebach has learned that cosmic love won’t flourish if men and women can’t unite spiritually in this way. A second highlight is an archival performance of Simone’s most controversial song, “Mississippi Goddam,” a song that demanded civil rights immediately rather than eventually, and the linked scenes with Carlebach’s father marching with Martin Luther King.
The two musicians influenced each other’s music; they validated each other’s journeys—his toward hippy-dippy love, hers of political activism—and it all came together, uniting people across all possible lines. Indeed, the ad for a foundation associated with Lisa Simone that played multiple times before the movie began had the point that all spiritual traditions lead in the same direction, and wasn’t that beautiful?
Unfortunately, the movie lied. It cherry-picked times and events in the two musician’s lives to create the impression that all ended blissfully. It didn’t. Simone wrote “Mississippi Goddam” at a time when she was so angry about America’s unyielding racism that her first instinct was to buy a gun and shoot the first white person she saw. Her best friend Lorraine Hansberry (yes, the playwright) convinced her to write a song instead. From then on, she threw herself into the protest movement, singing at rallies and marches, often at great danger to her life. Of this period, the movie merely said she performed in the South. Soon after, she left the US for Liberia, disillusioned with the prospects for fundamental change in America. When later interviewed and asked about progress on civil rights, she said there were no civil rights in America and no movement either, as everyone involved was dead. What even she didn’t know at the time was that the intensity of her feelings was, in part, undiagnosed manic depression. She couldn’t work; she physically abused her then-teenage child. No wonder Lisa Simone wanted to paint us a selective picture.
While Simone left the movement that had given meaning to her life, she never renounced the ideals that had driven her. Carlebach, on the other hand, abandoned all he had stood for. When the commune moved to Israel and formed a moshav (a type of Israeli communal settlement), the ex-hippies gravitated toward ultra-traditional Orthodox Judaism with its strict separation of men and women during prayer and the prohibition against touching non-family members of the opposite gender. Moreover, the moshav sits very close to the West Bank, and border checkpoints must be traversed to get there from Jerusalem. Neither Carlebach nor his followers said a peep about oppression of the Palestinians. So much for peace and love.
The filmmaker invites us to pretend that love conquered all at the end of the sixties (when it clearly didn’t) and knowing a higher power requires no commitment to social justice, just a vague nondenominational spirituality. And music, of course.
Still, I think the filmmaker’s argument is a load of horse manure. I’m not Black, so although questions might be asked about adherence to the religion that masters forced upon their slaves, especially the tendency of certain parts of today’s church (both Black and white) to focus more on salvation and the personal relationship with God than on fighting society’s injustices, I’m not the one to address them.
I am, however, Jewish, so bear with me as I take you through some current events in Israel. Last week, the Prime Minister approved construction of 1000 housing units in the West Bank settlement of Eli, knowing it would be inflammatory and be regarded as a violation of international law by most people in the world. Three hours later, a Hamas-affiliated gunman shot and killed four people in a gas station near Eli. The settlers in Eli went on a rampage in the nearby villages, killing at least one person. The violence continues as I compose this post.
Two weeks ago, I’d never heard of Eli, population ~4600, so I did some Googling. The most interesting thing I found was that it is the location of the Bnei David Academy, a military prep school for ultra-Orthodox Jewish youth. Five hundred students study there at any given time. They, plus the staff, are a large part of Eli. As for the slant of the teaching there, this passage from Wikipedia on the school is instructive: “Co-founder of the academy, Rabbi Yigal Levinstein, went on record in 2016 claiming gay people were 'sick and perverted' and that drafting women into the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] deprived them of their Jewishness. In 2018 Rabbi Yosef Kelner asserted that women had feeble minds and a reduced spirituality. In April 2019, the head of the school, Rabbi Eliezer Kashtiel, was filmed lecturing to students on the genetic inferiority of gentiles, Palestinians, on their stupidity, and the need for them to be enslaved.”
I will spare you every facile argument to be made here and every caveat to those arguments because if you’ve read this far, you’re sufficiently educated to have already thought of them. I will make one point. Fifteen percent of settlers are US citizens. 2.2% of all Israelis are US citizens. And some of the most radical settlers have been immigrants from the US. Like it or not, much of the world now equates Jews and Judaism with this level of inhumanity, and viewing it as someone else’s problem, not representative of you, is not ethically tenable for Jews, especially in a country raising children who become a disproportionate share of the worst actors. Retreating into spirituality—the Carlebach solution—begs the question of whether it is privileged American materialism you actually worship and call God.
As for the Nina Simone solution, can you even call yourself a decent person if you allow the skyrocketing levels of oppression to crush you to the point of giving up the fight against it? I live in Florida. If you also live here and are affiliated with any religion, ask yourself how much your congregation has done to oppose the denial of medical care to transgender individuals. Or the witch hunt for undocumented immigrants knowingly brought here and employed by the business community. Or the out-of-control cops with a penchant for shooting Black people. Or the denial of the basic human right of body autonomy to women, women who are dying in childbirth at a rate comparable to those in the Global South.
You are not a good person, and your God is a bullshit excuse for ignoring oppression if you remain passive. Ever heard the WWII-era phrase “Good Germans”?
Although nobody would ever consider the arts a standalone solution to these problems, the example of pre-1970s Nina Simone (and so many others) shows how it can be part of it. Music, visual art, literature, film—all affect emotions. Part of solving the world’s problems is seeing “the other” as human beings. In this context, “the other” is anyone sufficiently unlike you in any way that you would expand your capacity for empathy if you walked a mile in their shoes, and the arts can be one way of facilitating those steps.
Numerous studies have shown reading fiction increases a person’s empathy for others. Speculative fiction can be especially good at this. It takes reality and twists it, distorts it, applies a new lens, and leaves you with characters to inhabit, for the length of a story, who are unique and different from you.
Any good writer can take one of the world’s more intractable situations, create characters within that environment, and allow readers to not just think about but also emote their way through this world. The emotional resonance from good fiction will stay with you long after the arguments of an op-ed or essay fade. And the nagging sense of injustice will draw you inexorably back into the struggle.
And that’s why the fascists want to ban books.
My latest attempt at this sort of writing came out in the March/April edition of Dark Matter Magazine. The Israeli protagonist is racist; eliciting revulsion for her beliefs shouldn’t take more than a paragraph. However, I deploy a science fiction trope, mental health side effects of a medication, to guide the reader into an understanding of the fear she experiences as a result of her worldview. Can the reader gain empathy even for a character with many horrible traits? Read it here, and see (free link).
The Israel/Palestine conflict is complicated by an empathy breakdown. Seeing “the other” as human must go in all directions before complex problems become solvable. That’s the point of my story.
And yet, submission call after submission call asks for speculative fiction that is “fun” or “hopeful” or an “adventure.” How are such stories useful? If the goal is identification with a likable protagonist motivated by a worthwhile goal who near-singlehandedly achieves it—an explicit expectation with some markets—how is this any different from 1930s adventure fiction where the swashbuckling white male hero goes on adventures in Africa and prevails because of his “superior” intelligence and culture? Or 1950s science fiction in which a similar protagonist adventures on Mars? Or a 1980s horror story in which blissful suburbia is disturbed by some outside monstrous force and then returned to normalcy thanks to the heroic efforts of the good white people? Just changing the gender/sexual orientation/ethnicity/race/religion of the protagonist doesn’t keep the story from being regressive. We don’t need to worry about the climate catastrophe—science will save the day! Or maybe we’ll colonize space and name the first permanent space habitat Elon. Or perhaps we won’t even bother explaining how our world morphed into the story world and just set rival Marines against each other in space, or rival armies in a secondary fantasy world, or rival Gods in a strip mall in Jacksonville, or whatever. Ka-pow! Good guy or dragon or elder God wins.
Speculative fiction industry Goddam.
At least this isn’t all the submission calls; otherwise, I’d never publish anything. You can’t influence conversations or increase empathy if nobody can read your story.
By the way, for any of you coming to Readercon in Boston this summer, I just found out I got a solo reading slot (and I’ll be on three panels). I’ll be reading a comic fantasy story. But wait, aren’t I the guy who just wrote a discursive-as-all-hell essay advocating the necessity to tell and embody truth to maximize empathy and solve all world problems?
The truth is still there. I can slip it in amidst the silliness. I’m not always dark—I can do “fun.” It’s called satire. But you’ll have to show up to my reading to see (or buy the anthology—it will be out nine days before my reading, and I’ll put the link on my website and social media).