Tag Archives: culture

Sunset at a Desert Camp

The Dangers of the Desert

The desert is a dangerous place. We recently went on a peregrination with the Huicholes to Wirikuta, a sacred place in the deserts of San Luis Potosí. Every two years they make the peregrination to collect hikuri (peyote), which they use in ceremonies and for medicine for the two years. It also helps them raise funds for the tribe. Karla has been planning this trip for a while, but I joined at the last minute – actually, the night before we left – because her driver pulled out. So we left on Saturday – along with Lola, Ana and Hugo, who traveled with us – and stayed the night at a friend’s house in Querétaro. The next day we joined the caravan.

As I said, the desert is a dangerous place. For example, a fist-sized fly might invade your car as you’re driving along a straight and narrow road, and the efforts of the driver to remove the monstrous insect with his over-sized sombrero might cause the car to drift off the road and down the embankment, crushing scrub and flinging loose stones and nearly flipping over. That would have been the end of the journey, because the car weighs a couple of tonnes, but I’m not the kind of driver that flips cars.*

Sacred Waterhole with offeringsThe peregrination involves traveling to sites sacred to the huichol (Wixáritari in their language), which were invariably waterholes. This makes sense – in a desert, waterholes are going to be considered holy. There, the shamans gave people blessings with water from the sites. They also blessed vehicles, chanting and spitting water over the engines and keys. The pilgrims left offerings at the sites, such as candles with ribbons, handicrafts, and other things. I thought it was strange to leave man-made objects in these pure natural sites, but Karla pointed out that the rituals kept the sites important to the huicholes, and that protects the waterholes from more serious contamination.

We drove long into the night. During the day the wide desert surrounded by mountains on the horizon is majestic, and the sunsets are awe-inspiring, but at night the view from a moving car is desolate. Eventually we saw a long uneven row of red lights stretching across the horizon, blinking in unison. The line was too long to be some town’s decoration; the lights blinked across about a third of the horizon. Rigel insisted the lights were on ships, bobbing out on the sea, and because it was dark and we had no idea where we were we couldn’t definitively say she was wrong. We could only point out that lights on ships aren’t all red, and don’t blink on and off in unholy unison. All we could do was continue driving with that spooky and unnerving sight haunting the night on our left.**

The desert is a dangerous place. When you’re camping in the desert there are no toilets, and to relieve your bowels the best bet is to walk away from camp for 10 or 20 minutes and hope you find a clump of cactus big enough to squat behind. We’ve been scouts our whole lives, and we’ve taken the kids camping plenty of times, so this wasn’t an issue for us. Of course sometimes, in the dark, in the process of preparing the site you might get turned around 45 degrees or so. Normally this doesn’t matter, but in a place where everything has spines the consequences can be horrendous. I won’t go into excruciating detail, merely mention that some of those shrubs have long spine-covered branches that can go right between your legs as you bend, so always double-check your surrounds.

Symbols in blood on stoneAt one point we all chipped in to buy a lamb, and the peregrination went to the Cerro Donde Nace Las Lluvia – the hill that births the rain. Beyond this, we were told, the true desert began. Here there was a ceremony for the sacrifice of the lamb to appeal for our safe passage. The blood was used to bless things much like the water was, and to write symbols on the rocks of the hill. The children were quite upset about this, having already tried to feed carrots to the lamb. Rigel insisted it was not just that an animal was sacrificed for our safe passage, so Karla suggested we could make a blood sacrifice without killing anything. Rigel got very excited about that, and they used blood from Karla’s menstrual cup. Rigel used it to draw a lamb on the rocks.

We traveled down unpaved roads within an indigenous reserve, and made camp a short way from other groups on the peregrination. There was a scuffle to find or clear places for the tents and cars and fires, and as the sun went down we cooked pasta for the first meal of the day. You can tell we didn’t organise the meals, because there’s no way we’d conclude that food that needed to be boiled was the best choice to take to a desert. Anyway. Since the large bus that was bringing most of the huicholes couldn’t get down the rough roads of the desert, I drove back to the town to give some people a lift. In the dark there is only cactus shrub lining the ruts in the car’s headlights, and I could only hope the guide was good enough and the area uncomplicated enough to not get lost.

That night there was a ceremony around the main campfire, and the night resounded to the cacaphonic murmur of the blessings of the shamans and the rhythmic stamping of the feet of the crowd as they danced. Everyone contributed a stick of wood to the fire, and hikuri was passed around in a pot. The huicholes joked and laughed in their own language.

The desert is a dangerous place. The ceremony went all night, with people dancing and eating hikuri. So people were tired and high when they went to evacuate their bowels. In the morning there was a wide semi-circle of effluent just a couple of metres outside the campsite, and one unfortunately-place steaming pile in a path directly between two tents. It made us long for the days when all we had to watch out for were spines.

The next day we missed the caza de hikuri (hikuri hunt); the huicholes left early to scour the desert for the cactus and were gone most of the day. We took the kids out for a hunt with some of our friends who know the rituals. Hikuri are small cactus, just a little nubbin on the surface with a root system, normally growing under bushes or in the midst of other cacti. Traditionally, the first one that is found is left in the ground, and an offering placed around it – ours consisted of a candle, an “eye of god”, some chocolate and some home-grown tobacco. Some songs were sung to celebrate the hikuri. Then we searched for more of the cactus. The kids became surprisingly good at it, finding a dozen or so between them. I found four, two of which I gave to Karla and two which I left, and then I started collecting them. I came back with five. In the harvesting process the top of the hikuri is cut off and the roots left behind so the cactus regrows. In addition to the first one, any hikuri with flowers is also left behind.
Adults and kids singing in the desert
Karla stayed awake all that night trying different recipes for hikuri, and went most of the following day before the lack of sleep caught up with her. That day we drove to Real de Catorce, which requires driving through a very long mining tunnel before arriving at the town. I was exhausted and had a headache, so Karla took the kids on horseback to the next place on the peregrination while I slept in the hotel. After so long in the desert we all loved the flush toilet and hot shower in the hotel room.

That was the end of our peregrination, bar the drive home. We stopped in Querétaro for a dinner held in honour of Hugo Blanco, the old man who was traveling with us, who turned out to be a very important and respected Peruvian agrarian reform activist. He’s had a serious life, being gaoled for his activism, deported from his own country, and barely escaping Pinochet by being smuggled out of Chile by the Swedish consulate. He’s a very interesting activist, who incorporates environmental protection as a necessary component of improving the lives of indigenous and working people.

People at Dinner with Hugo BlancoWe left Hugo in Querétaro after the dinner and drove back to Cuernavaca. We were stopped in Toluca by some police for a bit of extortion, but Lola called her brother and, after speaking to him on the phone, the police waved us on. I’m not sure what happened, but I’d like to learn how to do that myself. Coming over the mountains to the west of Cuernavaca we passed some fire trucks and police cars parked by the road, and later saw a line of small, recently lit fires from the road into the forest. Cuernavaca has experienced an unusual and sudden burst of forest fires that have threatened the outer suburbs and burned nearby towns, all in the week after the parliament passed a law allowing the governor to sell land in state-owned reserves. There’s a common train of thought that the fires are deliberately set to devalue the land so there is no opposition to its sale, and the police are there as part of the project.

Cities can be dangerous places, too.

* Although, to be fair, I can no longer say that I’m not the kind of driver that runs off the road.
** The following day, while driving down either the same or a different road, we had no way of knowing, we saw a huge installation of electricity generating windmills, and realised these must be the source of the blinking red lights.

Leaving Oaxaca

We left Oaxaca, just before all this mess with the teachers and the government started. That was a coincidence, but the school our kids went to there is one where the teachers are at the protests, so I hope they’re all OK.

My wife’s contract ran out, and although there were offers to extend it a number of factors convinced us to leave. Mainly the heat, and the bugs, and the unclean water. We all had persistent heat rash and we were all sick, and although the mosquitoes are slow and stupid there is an inexhaustible supply… so we packed up and came back to Cuernavaca.

When we were finalising the decision we had a discussion with a gringa who has been living there about four years, married to a local and running Sexy Pizza (which has really good pizza, by the way, especially the supreme). We asked her what the rainy season was like, to see if the plain horridness of the climate would soon come to an end.

“Last year it was awful, it didn’t rain. It’s supposed to rain in May, but it didn’t. Then it didn’t rain in June, either, not ’til the end of July. It just kept getting hotter and hotter. It was horrible,” she said. “But it’s not always like that, my first two years here it did rain. It was crazy. There were hurricanes and storms and everything flooded. So, you know.”

“Yeah. We’re gonna leave.”

So we did. We’re reveling in the cool, and thinking that our trip to Oaxaca was a great success. The main goal was to check that we actually liked living there instead of just holidaying there, and we did discovered we don’t like living there. The government forces killing the protesting teachers is also getting closer to where we lived, to the point where our social networks started seeing posts on how to protect ourselves and warnings to take the kids away.

A lack of internet and free time meant that I didn’t post as much as I hoped to while in Oaxaca. There are some good memories I’d like to share before I drop this trip for good and concentrate on my move to Australia.

The Wedding of the Year

Further along our block some neighbours built a stage that completely blocked the street and had a party, with a full-sized big band playing. They let off the loudest fireworks I’ve ever heard – the sort that remind you of anti-aircraft batteries. We found out the huge party was for a wedding, and the size of the party meant “the bride must be very valuable”, according to one local mother. Across the road they dug a fire pit, about three metres long, one metre wide and I have no idea how deep. They butchered a cow to cook there. They butchered it in one of the neighbouring yards, and there were huge buckets of offal along with all the bits that they would toss into the fire. That’s a lot of meat.

Fire Pit

A Small Dip in Rio Grande

A great way to cool off in Santa Rosa, if you have an hour or two, is to drive to Rio Grande for a dip in the river. It’s mostly shallow beside the town, and the kids loved going there to swim and chase tadpoles and frogs. As you walk you stir up the sand on the bottom, and fish swim in looking for food, so they swarm around you. People wash their clothes there, so there’s some soap and rubbish from that, but besides that it’s very nice.

I said it’s mostly shallow, but Poncho managed to find the one place where he couldn’t stand and had to bounce up above the water before I dragged him out. He was scared, but fine – but for some reason Nerida thought it looked like fun and kept trying to copy him by going into the deep part. She’s an odd girl.

Kids swimming in a river

The General Vibe

In Santa Rosa people sleep in houses, but mostly live outdoors. A lot of houses have the kitchen outside, often surrounded by plants and vines, maybe with a tarpaulin roof. So as you walk along the street you’ll hear sizzling and chopping, and smell cooking. People will sat and chat in the veranda or yard, because it’s too hot to sit indoors. We spent most of the time outside in the hammock and chairs, with the kids on the tire swings.

Just down the street from us there’s a rickety shed built from corrugated iron, and orange light seeps through the slits and holes at night, and sad ranchera music is played inside. I thought it rural romantic, until I realised it is someone’s house, not shed.

Santa Rosa has its own festivals just like every other town in Mexico. This is from a large printed lona with information on the town and calendaria festival:

It is for this that Santa Rosa de Lima is a magical community rich for its popular culture, art, architecture and natural resources, but above all for its people proud of their culture ((milenarias)) which is the expression of a town that has a past, a present and a future.

I think they cut and pasted this from some brochure. I suppose you could argue for the town having culture, and art in the form of traditional clothing, and natural resources in the form of dirt and mosquitoes. But there’s no way you could argue the architecture is anything to take any not of whatsoever.

COMING SOON:
I return to my homeland of Australia and to university… what zany adventures await me? I bet they involve calculus!

Festival Time In Tututepec

Tututepec has its celebration for the anniversary of the foundation of the town in mid-April, a large event that combines the regions cultural highlights – basically dancing and livestock. During the day there was an animal show, a guess-the-calf’s-weight raffle, singers, free food and a horse dancing show. The kids were most impressed when one of the dancing horses shat in the middle of the arena, but that’s kids for you.

At night there was a demonstration of traditional dances. These events are quite common — anyone who has traveled to a Mexican city has likely seen a show like this, with groups from around Mexico dancing on stage. The main difference here is that all the groups were from individual towns within the municipality, demonstrating the traditional dances of that particular town. This is why Mexico is described as having a mega-diverse culture… it’s not just the country or the states that have different customs and traditions, it’s each town, and quite often each suburb or diocese. It’s possible these traditions will ebb away as highways are built across the land and TV and the internet become more common, but it’s equally possible they’ll be maintained, even if it’s only a in retro or anachronistic way.

I was most impressed by the dance from Jamiltepec. It’s the Mexican think I’ve ever seen — and the dancers from Juquila included an El Torrito. The Jamiltepec dance was a little bit cantina, and a lot wedding-of-the-year. The women wore colourful dresses with intricate designs and the men wore the traditional white outfit of rural Mexico. The dancers moved frenetically, had a lot of fun, and shouted a lot. They had a cry of excitement and warning, like a mix between a baying dog and a cock crowing, which they’d let off at random intervals and which reverberated around the square. At one point they formed a circle, and one woman put her fingers on her head like horns, pretending to be a bull, and charged at a man dancing like a matador and waving his paleacate (bandana) like a bullfighter. At the end the man fell over.

The most Mexican part was when the dancing was paused for insults. Everyone would stop and a couple would go up to the microphone, and the man would make vulgar comments about what they wanted to do to the woman sexually. The woman would then give a scathing reply that the man was too pathetic to even jerk off to the woman and it would be a pleasant day in Santa Rosa before she slept with him, and then people would laugh and give the baying crow in appreciation.

The dances from Juquila were very similar to those from Jamiltepec, except that the men wore colourful shirts and the movements were a tad more constrained. However, at the end they pulled out an El Torrito, which is a paper-maché bull in a wooden frame covered in fireworks. They light the fireworks and then charge at people with it, and it’s a hell of a lot of fun. This one was different from those in Cuernavaca in that they concentrated on fireworks that made painfully loud noises rather than ones that spat out dangerous amounts of sparks.

The dances from other towns varied more (and they may have been from other towns in Oaxaca, rather than just the municipality). The most indigenous style had people dressed with colourful semi-circles on their heads that were maybe a metre across, and other garb and decorations that showed prehispanic roots. It’s the first dance I’ve seen that actually included people leaping and gamboling, with a graceful movement where the dancers seemed to follow a curved path in the air. The trick probably involved swinging the legs, and it’s damn impressive.

Another group reminded me of Chinelos on stilts. The dancers were on stilts, dressed in a crude mockery of old-style Spain, and danced to music that jitters and twirls like latino jazz. The dance itself was a weird shuffle, but the movements were precisely defined. I’m sure it was developed in the same way the Chinelos of Morelos were — too mock the Spaniards.

There was a very Spanish dance with just two people, in which they moved energetically and the woman lifted her dress a lot. The final dance was from the municipal capital, Tututepec itself, and was far more sedate. The women wore a white sheet wrapped around them leaving them backless, and the dancers moved slowly and elegantly through the moves.

At the end of each group’s demonstration the dancers through things into the crowded, various bread products in brightly coloured wrapping. The kids passed out long before the end, though, it finished pretty late.

Appropriating Culture By Protesting Cultural Appropriation

One of the side-effects of destroying old power structures is that people no longer have a set-in-stone way to feel superior to others. So they go looking for a way to feel superior, often by finding some terrible injustice and railing against it. If the injustice is committed by people they identify with it allows them to pretend to be humble while feeling morally superior. This can be quite useful, of course, since ending injustice is a great thing to do no matter the motivation. However, once the main work is done, people often see the result and jump on the bandwagon, and the problem that the main work is done is easily overcome by extending the notion to ridiculous ends.

This process is exemplified by cultural appropriation, and there’s a solid argument in the Washington Post against taking it too far. People complaining that someone referencing Russian culture in a novel isn’t a “real Russian” and therefore shouldn’t write about it, complaints against the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston about allowing visitors to try on a kimono. It has reached the point where drawing any kind of inspiration from a culture other than your own, or referencing another culture in any way, or eating another culture’s cuisine, is denounced as “cultural appropriation”.

these accusations have become a common attack against any artist or artwork that incorporates ideas from another culture, no matter how thoughtfully or positively. A work can reinvent the material or even serve as a tribute, but no matter. If artists dabble outside their own cultural experiences, they’ve committed a creative sin.

There are some very obvious issues with this. The idea that westerners should avoid anything from another culture has overtones of racial and cultural puritanism; in order to be a “good Westerner” you have to eschew anything that’s not “Western”, preferably from your own country, preferably from your own racial background, preferably from your own neighbourhood. It’s insulating and isolating, and has a negative effect on empathy and understanding of other cultures. As Cathy Young (the WP author) wrote: “When we attack people for stepping outside their own cultural experiences, we hinder our ability to develop empathy and cross-cultural understanding.”

These attacks are overwhelmingly made by Americans – it’s rare to hear someone from the country whose culture is being “appropriated” complain. Indeed, in the example of the kimono protest described in the article, the number of protesters was tiny, while “many [Japanese Americans] actively backed the museum’s exhibit, as did the Japanese consulate”. In fact: “The kimonos, which are replicas of the garment in the painting, were commissioned by the Japanese broadcaster NHK to accompany “La Japonaise” for the recent traveling exhibit “Looking East”; visitors to museums in Tokyo, Kyoto, and the MFA’s sister museum in Nagoya could try them on as part of the exhibit.”

I’ve showed a lot of Mexicans pictures of white people in “Mexican costumes” and have failed to see any ire at all. The most I ever got was “eso es un sombrero de mariachi, no se usa con jorongos”. (That’s a mariachi hat, it doesn’t go with a poncho.) Mexican Americans may get upset*, but the key word there is American. They might claim it’s offensive to them, but to claim that it is offensive to México or Mexicans is not only an unsupported stretch, it means they’re speaking for an entire country and culture they don’t belong to – a far more egregious case of cultural appropriation.

Mexicans actually get annoyed by exactly the opposite – cultural invasion. They don’t care if someone wears a sombrero to a Halloween party, they care that American companies are buying up Mexican companies and then pushing commercialised Halloween trinkets onto them, replacing Día del Muerto with the American holiday**. That they’re pushing Santa Claus gimcrack everywhere to replace Los Reyes Magos. That they’re trying to turn México into South Texas because they’ve already got the supply chains set up. That’s what really shits any Mexican who gives more than a passing thought to culture.

Dia del Muertos

*I’ve seen people online complain, but I have no idea of their ethnicity. Maybe they’re not even Mexican American.
** I’m looking at you, Walmart. There’s been Halloween baubles on sale for a month or more.

Thicker Than Blood

Notice: This story is written and published under the auspices of AppleSoftBM Literary Entertainment. All Trademarks and Copyrighted words and phrases used have been cleared by their respective owners. Any breach of copyright on this work will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law and physics.

The banging on my NoFale™ security door brought me back to full wakefulness just as I was buying a ticket to slumbertown. The NoFale™ vidscreen showed the anxious face of my brother and I relaxed. He was always anxious about something: The GovMent™ was torturing this person, a corporation was invading that country … he always seemed to find something wrong with the world. I let him in.

“Thank the good whatever,” he said. “I may be in a bit of trouble.” I made some Sparkling Tea fresh from the paradisiacal island of Sri Lanka™ and indulgently awaited his story. I was not at all prepared for what I heard next. “Have you heard of Chutzpah?”

The icy hand of panic caressed my heart. Chutzpah was an “independent underground magazine” as it styled itself, and “a dangerous attack on our rights and economy” as everyone else considered it. At least, everyone with power. Even to have heard of it was to draw suspicion as a dangerous rebel. So I said “it doesn’t ring a bell” as he launched into his story. I was worried that he had gone so far as to purchase a copy from some hoodlum, but it was worse than that — he had contributed.

“I did a series of cartoon strips about an elephant with a hand on the end of its trunk,” he said, and catching the look on my face hurriedly explained it was a metaphor for the power of the common man — a connection I couldn’t make, myself.

I wracked my brains for an infringement but nothing came to mind. Ever since the “Protection of Peoples Copyright Act” was passed in 2023 almost every creative development had been through entertainment companies. These had the resources to check for any infringement by the work being created, and of course also any infringement of the work which, due to the broad wording of the act, could be almost anything. That’s why independent creation was so dangerous.

I was aghast at the irresponsibility of my brother. Without the judicious help of an entertainment corporation there was no way to ensure that his metaphorical cartoons were sanitized, securitized and, above all, legalized. “And uh, is there a, uh…” I tried to delicately enunciate my question but my brother responded to the holding-terror-in-check look on my face with equal bluntness.

“Do you remember anything about Dumbo?” he asked. I was confused. Dumbo? An old kid’s word for a stupid person? Then a vague memory floated through my mind; the demented ravings of my grandfather as he wallowed in senility, about a cartoon he used to watch as a boy…something about flying? A flying elephant? Oh no…

My mind reeled and my blood flushed hot and cold. I largely ignored what my brother was saying, rambling on about writing under a pseudonym and the unfairness of the injustice system, always trying to find a way to justify his disregard for social mores and the law. Still, he was my brother, and I considered ways to hide him from a minor company. My hands clammy with sweat, I asked him which corporation he had inadvertently attacked.

“Disney.”

One word chilled me to the bone. The Wonderful World of Walt Disney (TM). No-one wanted to mess with the Wonderful World of Walt Disney™, which was widely believed to have convinced President Jenna Bush to nuke Brazil in retaliation for ongoing infringement of intellectual property.

I walked over to the CleerVue™ wallglass and gazed distractedly at the advertisements hovering outside, automatically trying to see past them to the streetscape. My skin was now cool and dry, my pulse had slowed.

“Don’t worry,” I told my brother. “You look exhausted, have a strong drink and go to bed, get some rest.” A few hours later, my brother’s profuse thanks ringing in my mind and his snoring sounding in my ears, I picked up the phone and dialed the number everyone knew by heart.

“Organization for the Defense of the Authors Moral Rights and the Works Underpinning the Economy of America the Land of the Brave and Free™. We’re here to help the public, how may I service you?” said the suave voice at the other end of the line.

“I have some important information that may interest the Wonderful World of Walt Disney,” I replied, hoping it would help me avoid my brother’s fate.

The Love-Hate Affair We Have With Copyright

Neil Gaiman, wordsmith that he is, exactly stated my attitude towards copyright in a recent piece in New Statesman:

So I do love it when people grab my stuff and take it and do things with it. I love copyright – I love the fact that I can feed myself and feed my children with the stuff I make up. On the other hand, copyright length right now is life plus 75 years, and I don’t know that I want to be in control of what I’ve created for 75 years after I’ve died! I don’t know that I want to be feeding my great-grandchildren. I feel like they should be able to look after themselves, and not necessarily put limits on what I’ve created, if there’s something that would do better in the cultural dialogue. I loved Les Klinger’s legal case, establishing that the Conan Doyle Estate had basically been ­running a shakedown operation for the last 20, 30 years, where they’ve been getting people to pay money to license Sherlock Holmes when Holmes was out of copyright.

For a vibrant culture we need copyright, artists can do a lot more if they can make a living off their work and not be beholden to wealthy patrons. But for a vibrant culture that copyright needs to be limited, people need to be able to play off ideas and mythos and other culturally relevant concepts…to reinterpret them and critique the underlying messages and all the other good juicy stuff that abounds in a strong, rich culture. There are limits, of course, but those limits are constantly challenged by big media companies, which works against creativity. At the moment, copyright laws are really for the big companies rather than the artists, anyway, and they should be reconsidered and rewritten with the purpose of supporting artists and allowing the referencing that has created strong cultures since humans started banging sticks together and chanting.

Where’d My Nerd Culture Go? Oh, There It Is.

When I was a kid I loved comics – I started off loving Archie, moved on to loving Spider-man and the Silver Surfer, and finally migrated to Hellblazer and Sandman. These were my escapist fantasies: Archie was full of dorky characters who nevertheless had friends and – quite often – girlfriends; Spider-man was the ultimate nerd who beat up the bullies and got the cute girl, while the Silver Surfer was not trapped on this “planet full of madmen” but could roam the galaxies on a cool surfboard; Hellblazer and Sandman were more complex stories, but still offered the dream that life wasn’t as fixed and staid as everyone kept insisting it was. Of course the characters were powerful and beautiful and had proportions that never exist in the human species, but no-one really expected an accurate anatomy lesson*.

My sister and mother had different escapist stories, Mills & Boon and Harlequin books where men were always impossibly handsome and brooding and just couldn’t resist the protagonist, who was normally strong and independent yet desperate to be swept off her feet. Or there were other books, Pride and Prejudice clones, where the normal-looking woman attracted the attention of the most sought-after rich, handsome and unattainable man, aloof and yet unable to maintain his display of disinterest around the protagonist.

Some stories we shared, such as Piers Anthony novels, TV sitcoms and the like.

groinvillainThat was when I was a kid. Now, superheroes are mainstream culture. They’re no longer nerd escapism, they’re intended to be entertainment for everyone, and as such they have to appeal to everyone, which means jettisoning a lot of the wish-fulfillment parts that attracted nerds in the first place. This has happened with a lot of “nerd culture” that I enjoyed growing up, to the point where there isn’t really a nerd culture anymore. This means a lot of people feel not only that their escapism stories are under attack, but that they personally are under attack. If the situation was reversed, and millions of men had started reading Mills & Boon novels, the same type of outcry would be underway but with different segments of the population.

So, the traditional nerd culture that I grew up with has been co-opted, has sold out to the lowest common denominator. And who is to blame for this? I’ll give you a hint: Nerds. I’m not talking about growing up and getting good jobs and suddenly having a lot of purchasing power and so on; I’m talking about the way we took it all too seriously.

Nerds forgot that what they were enjoying was escapism, and started treating it as high art. Batman was an exploration of the psychological damage trauma could cause, Superman a biting commentary on the burdens placed on those with the power to save the world, X-Men an intelligent discourse on the problems faced by the different and dispossessed… We punished cookie-cutter scripts and tepid art and lauded Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Todd McFarlane and Sam Keith, which would have been all to the good if we didn’t also loudly and persistently try to convince everyone else that comics were a valid form of literature that everyone should read, lending copies of Alan Moore and Will Eisner willy-nilly, pushing books by Frank Miller and Jeff Smith onto all and sundry. Of course they all liked it, of course comics became popular, and of course the big entertainment industry began making blockbuster movies about them (something everyone had clamoured for) and of course those movies were targeted to a general audience. What did we expect?

batkissThis will never return to the escapist fantasies of old, and we wouldn’t be happy if it did. Underlying a lot of the you’re-not-a-real-nerd rage is the fear that once “nerd culture” falls out of fashion we will again be mocked for liking it, and further mocked for trying but failing to be cool by liking something that’s gone out of fashion. We can form enclaves where we can enjoy superheroes in our traditional nerdy ways, but whenever they get good they’ll just be invaded again. Besides, there’s a lot to be said for the mainstream superhero appreciation – the escapist comics would work better as b-grade movie schlock rather than Hollywood blockbusters anyway, and there’s a lot of great shows on TV plus the cosplayers at cons are really cool.

Nothing is meant to last forever, and I think this is hopefully also true of the need for escapist fantasies. It’s time we remembered that nerd culture, like any subculture, is just that: A subculture. It’s not mainstream, it’s on the fringes, it’s small groups of people enjoying what they like together rather than desperately flooding friends and family (and social media) with it in the hopes that people will belatedly realise how cool it is, and therefore how cool we are for doing it.

So, I think we should just enjoy the new versions for what they are, ret-cons and inclusiveness and all, and focus on following our passions irrespective of what society is up to – just like we’ve always done. It’s back to the indies for us, the self-published section on Amazon**, the band putting up their songs on YouTube, the pub or cafe meetings to argue about the finer points of radiation protection in space. Stop bitching about people not really understanding what we like, and just concentrate on liking it. The Mills & Boon crowd have done it – just look at the romance section in online bookstores, there’s everything from monster porn to romances that cleverly satirise international politics being published. As far as I can tell they’re just ignoring the bitching about Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey and getting on with enjoying what they like.

* That being said, comic book art did later morph into the realm of ridiculousness.
** I know, this could seem self-serving, but I’ve always waded in the indie section.

When nerds fight amongst themselves.

When nerds fight amongst themselves.