What’s amazing is that the difficulty of creating this situation of “fully democratized information” is entirely economic rather than technological. What I describe with books is close to what Google Books and Amazon already have. But of course, universal free access to full content horrifies publishers, so we are prohibited from using these systems to their full potential. The problem is ownership: nobody is allowed to build a giant free database of everything human beings have ever produced. Getty Images will sue the shit out of you if you take a historical picture from their archives and violate your licensing agreement with them. Same with the Walt Disney Company if you create a free rival to Disney+ with all of their movies. Sci-Hub was founded in Kazakhstan because if you founded it here they would swiftly put you in federal prison. (When you really think about what it means, copyright law is an unbelievably intensive restriction on freedom of speech, sharply delineating the boundaries of what information can and cannot be shared with other people.)
But it’s not just profiteering companies that will fight to the death to keep content safely locked up. The creators of content are horrified by piracy, too. As my colleagues Lyta Gold and Brianna Rennix write, writers, artists, and filmmakers can be justifiably concerned that unless ideas and writings and images can be regarded as “property,” they will starve to death:
Is there a justifiable rationale for treating ideas—and particularly stories—as a form of “property”? One obvious reason for doing so is to ensure that writers and other creators don’t starve to death: In our present-day capitalist utopia, if a writer’s output can be brazenly copied and profited upon by others, they won’t have any meaningful ability to make a living off their work, especially if they’re an independent creator without any kind of institutional affiliation or preexisting wealth.
Lyta and Brianna point out that in the real world, this justification is often bullshit, because copyrights last well beyond the death of the person who actually made the thing. But it’s a genuine worry, because there is no “universal basic income” for a writer to fall back on in this country if their works are simply passed around from hand to hand without anybody paying for them. I admit I bristle when I see people share PDFs of full issues of Current Affairs, because if this happened a lot, we could sell exactly 1 subscription and then the issue could just be copied indefinitely. Current Affairs would collapse completely if everyone tried to get our content for free rather than paying for it. (This is why you should subscribe! Or donate! Independent media needs your support!)
At the end of last year, I published a book on socialism, and at first some conservatives thought it funny to ask me “if you’re a socialist, can I have it for free?” They were quieted, though, when I pointed out that yes, they could indeed have it for free. All they needed to do was go to the local socialized information repository known as a public library, where they would be handed a copy of the book without having to fork over a nickel. Anyone who wants to read my book but cannot or does not want to pay for it has an easy solution.
I realized, though, as I was recommending everyone get my book from the library rather than buying it in a bookstore, that my publisher probably didn’t appreciate my handing out this advice. And frankly, it made me a little nervous: I depend for my living on my writing, so if everyone got my book from the library, it wouldn’t sell any copies, and then my publisher wouldn’t pay me to write any more books. We can’t have too many people using the socialized information repository when authors are reliant on a capitalist publishing industry! In fact, a strange thing about the library is that we intentionally preserve an unnecessary inefficiency in order to keep the current content financing model afloat. Your library could just give you DRM-free PDFs of my book and every issue of Current Affairs for free, but instead they make you go to the magazine room or check out one of a limited number of copies of the book, because while we want books and magazines to be free, we cannot have them be as free as it is possible to make them, or it would hurt the publishing industry too much. (Libraries preserve the fiction that there are a select number of “copies” available of a digital book, even though this is ludicrous, because abandoning the fiction would hurt publishers. They could offer every book ever written to anyone at any time. They just can’t do it legally.)
Like any totally-normal-not-at-all-obsessed person, I spend a lot of time thinking about automatons.
Mostly, I shake my fist at the sky like an old man complaining that kids these days only like their sleek, human-passing, electric robots and no one cares about the wind, fire, water, and clockwork powered beings that preceded them. Is MonkBot not sexy? With that sweet, sweet segmented mouth action?
Automatons are usually thought of as no different from golems, living dolls, or patchwork girls. Just another category of animated being: nifty, sure, but so what? But automatons are, and have always been, important. And for two thousand years we knew that.
In the arc of human invention, automatons predate paper. That means before we thought “sure would be nice to write things in a convenient and portable manner” we thought “sure would be nice to have an inhuman creation in our shape that moves.” Then we immediately looked at this thing we’d made and instead of believing we’d become gods, we thought we’d created them. In ancient Rome and Egypt, as well as during the medieval period, automatons were representations of the divine. Even after they shifted into the realm of entertainment, automatons were singular wonders, art that brought joy to the viewer.
By remembering automatons we remember how the prioritization of art can become bulldozed by wants of industry, the miraculous giving way to the profitable. These creations are still essential to study, because when humans create in their own image they also create a tangible snapshot of the values and visions of the world at that moment. Sometimes, that image is of religious devotion. Sometimes, it’s an image of intellectual curiosity and wonder. But sometimes they are darker, cautionary tales exposing how power operates against the powerless.
‘For me, the image of an unarmed biracial teenager with his arms up immediately evokes the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” chant. It’s a phrase that some Black Lives Matters protestors are still using in 2020 to call out police brutality. But even if audience members don’t make the same connection as I did, they can still recognize how unfair it is that Miles is held at gunpoint for something he didn’t do, and how terrified he is in that moment. Whether viewers are aware of what real-world connections the scene evokes or not, they are still exposed to an important lesson. It’s an image that simply wouldn’t have carried the same weight if we didn’t see Miles’ true face.
I could go on forever about all the subtle touches that made the story of Miles Morales such a beacon of representation when it was released…but the film’s many accolades speak for themselves. Into the Spider-verse won the Academy Award for Best Animated feature film. And it did so without turning Miles into a spider (or a verse, or anything else) in telling his story. Audiences watch him defeat supervillains and earn the respect of allies, seeing him as a biracial teenager for the movie’s entire runtime. It’s a sentence that bears repeating: Miles is himself the entire time.’
“But the commercial success of Native literature proved to be a double-edged sword. After the mass-market success of the 1990 film Dances with Wolves, a memoir by Cherokee author Forrest Carter, The Education of Little Tree, was rereleased in 1991, becoming a best seller and even garnering the praise of Oprah Winfrey. Except there was no Forrest Carter: the name was the pseudonym of KKK leader Asa Earl Carter, credited with writing segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace’s infamous 1963 line, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever.” Stories of whites appropriating Native American stories and identities are all too common; ironically, Carter’s feel-good memoir became a bellwether for what was expected from Native writers and poets. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, a white writer named Tim Barrus wrote under the pseudonym Nasdijj and racked up numerous literary commendations. Such imposters created suspicious and defensive conversations about who is or isn’t a Native writer. As such, what does or doesn’t count as Native art is sometimes defined by a narrow anthropological lens and a pressure to produce something “authentic.” Conversely, those imposters created a track that many Native artists used to become more commercially accessible.
So it’s about time the unique and diverse viewpoints, ways of being, and humor of Native people were transferred to a popular genre like science fiction. What happens when one goes, as Roanhorse does, beyond the safe and comfortable zone of 20th-century Native literature, into a place where a character’s strength is a propensity for killing and violence via a dark power bestowed upon her? When guarded artistic representation becomes challenged, the wall erected to protect tribal peoples from what they deem as discouragement and condescension from outsiders gets built taller. Distinctions between traditional and modern art styles becomes blurred, critique becomes defensive with politicized motives as primary, and the artist’s aesthetic vision is dismissed.
Because Roanhorse is of mixed African-American and Native (the Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo tribe) descent, Storm of Locusts caused a stir among a collective of Navajo writers and academics regarding who should be allowed to write about tribes and cultures beyond their own. And while legitimate concerns about potentially harmful stereotypes should always be raised, the framework for what’s considered appropriation has grown significantly broader and wider in recent years, casting a shadow over the YA fiction world, where Roanhorse’s book has also been placed for marketing purposes.
For instance, the Chinese-American writer Amélie Wen Zhao’s novel Blood Heir faced a firestorm of criticism by fellow YA authors (and a “Twitter mob”) for alleged racism because sci-fi slave characters were described as “bronze.” As such, it was also deemed appropriation for a Chinese-American writer to include implications of African-American slavery in her book. Zhao clarified that the slavery in her book was meant to “represent a specific critique of the epidemic of indentured labor and human trafficking prevalent in many industries across Asia, including in my own home country.” Eventually, however, Zhao relented to the intimidation: though Blood Heir had been scheduled for a June 2019 release, the author pulled her own book in January. The book’s fate is at this point uncertain; as one literary agent told Vulture, “No one wants to be called a racist, or sexist, or homophobic. That stink doesn’t wash off.” The case is the same in Native art circles: being deemed a cultural appropriator is a mark generally reserved for bilagáana people and is considered on par with being a plagiarist.
There have always been grumblings against white writers like Barrus and the late Tony Hillerman, who wrote a long-running, award-winning Navajo Tribal Police mystery series (which his daughter Anne Hillerman has continued) and was honored formerly by the Navajo tribal government as “Special Friend” of the tribe. As a Native American writer who lived on the Navajo Reservation for several years, is married into the Navajo tribe, and frequents the area often, however, Roanhorse seems an odd lightning rod (pun intended) for accusations of appropriation.
While there are cross-cultural similarities among the 573 federally recognized America Indian tribes and Alaskan Native Villages within the boundaries of the United States, it must be understood that indigenous identities are not of a one-size-fits-all, pan-indigenous nature but have diverse cultural, geographical, and language differences.
While no work is immune from critique, the Native American art world is witnessing a dangerous trend of “appropriation” arguments escalating toward de facto censorship. Many people will outright agree with and defend the statement by Joy Harjo, a Muscogee Creek and US poet laureate, who wrote in a 2017 blog post entitled “Erasure,” “What about enlarging the purview of the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990 to include the literary?” This act was initially proposed to prevent forgeries of Native arts and crafts. The penalty for a first-time offense is a fine of up to $250,000 in addition to a five-year prison term; a business could face up to a $1 million fine for producing counterfeit crafts. Suggesting that the IACA apply to literature would put potentially controversial art under the government’s microscope. Unenrolled tribal descendants who don’t appease the colonized concepts of blood quantum requirements would fall under this act — unless they catered to political pressure to appease cultural committees like Saad Beez Hózhǫ́’s propaganda-like definition of art should be.
While Harjo’s suggestion was made with the best of intentions — whoever thinks their intentions are meant to hurt? — her proposal could theoretically ban Roanhorse’s books from being produced: under those rules, she wouldn’t have the authority to write about Navajo culture. While it’s unlikely this suggestion would ever be deemed constitutional, it must be noted that on most Indian reservations there are few legally coded free speech rights, so attitudes like these are not an anomaly. (For instance, a Blackfeet man once sat in jail for five days after a post on Facebook complaining about tribal corruption.) Moreover, consider the optics of the US poet laureate advocating government control of literature-as-crime, while those nodding in agreement or condoning it by silence are not right-wing fascists but academics and fellow Native American writers. This is not only failing to see the forest for the trees, but also setting a wildfire to burn it down. “