Soccer, fanatics, fans, trufans, activists, Hugos and the Militant Tendency

Or An extended rambling on metaphors used to describe people and groupings of people as specifically applied to WorldCon and science-fiction.

Yeah, this post will end up explaining why this is here…

George R. R. Martin is best known as the writer of the fantasy saga A Song of Fire and Ice – more famously known by the title of the first book: Game of Thrones. However GRRM, as he is known, is a fan. He is a fan of Science Fiction/Fantasy and has had a long association with WorldCon and the Hugo Awards. In the recent kerfuffle on the Sad/Rabid Puppy attempt to win a Hugo award, Martin has been quite vocal on his LiveJournal site. He is a gifted writer and consequently his posts and comments are well worth reading not just for his thoughts but in some cases how he expresses them.

However, one apparent misstep by Martin occurred early on in the aftermath of the nominations when he attempted to make a distinction between different kinds of fans:

Worldcon continued… but the steady growth that had characterized worldcon through the 60s and 70s stopped. That 1984 worldcon in LA remained the largest one in history until last year at London. Meanwhile San Diego Comicon and Gencon and Dragoncon grew bigger than worldcon… twice the size, ten times the size, twenty times the size… Dragoncon even went so far as to break with a half-century old fannish tradition by moving to Labor Day, worldcon’s traditional date, a date that had up to then been inviolate. And why not? Dragoncon’s attendees were fans, sure, they were comics fans and Star Wars fans and cosplay fans, and some were even book fans… but they were not “trufans,” as that term was commonly used, and they didn’t care when worldcon was.

(The term “trufans” is an unfortunate one in this argument, since some of the Sad Puppies and their supporters take it amiss, and understandly, when told they don’t qualify. The term is a very old one, however, probably dates back to THE ENCHANTED DUPLICATOR, a parody of PILGRIM’S PROGRESS about the search for “true fandom.” Like “SMOF,” it is at least partially a joke. And if any of this paragraph makes any sense to you, you are undoubtedly a trufan… but don’t worry, you don’t need to know what a mimeograph machine is to be a real fan, I swear).

Despite Martin explaining his usage, inevitably some people took offense – after all, here was an establishment figure (in a sense) denigrating other people’s commitment to a genre(s) they love. He wasn’t of course, but that notion of an establishment figure appearing to elevate one kind of fan above another.

So why bother making a distinction at all? I think the question does matter because if we are to understand the Hugo process as a vote of a community of people it is necessary to consider what kind of grouping of people this is.

I don’t know the exact derivation of the term ‘fan’ but I prefer the notion of the word coming from ‘fanatic’. In many (most?) English speaking countries it has long been associated with partisan supporters of a given sporting team. So in Science Fiction ‘fandom’ the term is a word that was in some ways originally an analogy. Now the derivation of words don’t magically control modern usage or meaning but given that ‘fan’ slid over via an analogy with sport it is worth considering a sporting analogy.

This will be painful because it involves me talking about sport. Consequently the level of bluff and possible BS will be even higher than normal because I know very little about sport. I’ll try football/soccer and for geolocation purposes I will call it generically football, unless I forget to.

So in England a football fan is somebody who likes football and talks about football. However, in England it often feels obligatory to talk about football or at least feign an interest. So merely liking football isn’t what marks you as a fan. No, a football fan is somebody who follows a team and is personally and emotionally vested in the success of that team. They may or may not regularly attend live games of their team but certainly those who do attend games are all serious fans. They share common vocabulary, team colors, and distinctive chants and songs. They also have distinct rivalries – particularly in those cities with two major teams (Liverpool v Everton, Manchester United v Manchester City).

A football fan is therefore not so unlike the many specific fans you might find in SFF communities: Doctor Who fans, Start Trek fans etc. In print media specific writers may have individual fandoms, particularly writers of long on-going series. Both football fans and specific SF/F sub-fandoms are also (to varying extents) partisans for their specific team. Although SF/F related violence between, say, Whovians and Trekkies is not a thing that occurs as such the analogy with fans or football teams is not a feeble one.

Now consider Martin’s notion of trufan. What is a trufan analogous to when considering football fans? The equivalent would be a person whose primary fanaticism is for football in GENERAL rather than a team in particular. That doesn’t mean they don’t support a team or teams but rather that they have a broader interest. Is that superior to a specific interest? No but it isn’t quite the same thing.

Of course ‘fan’ in that sense doesn’t quite work for football. All specific football fans like football but not so much football qua football (OK maybe they do and in fact there is a massive trufan like football fandom that is more general than specific teams – I really don’t know and the analogy is collapsing in the face of my actual ignorance of football.) Roy, help me out…

Abandon that analogy. It is broken.

What else is there? Well, instead of teams, imagine a different kind of partisanship: politics. Now given recent events, you may think that politics is the last thing we need to introduce into this debate. However I’m not so much interested in either ideology or policy in this case. I am more interested in how people engage in politics.

Political parties are strange beasts but they have interesting layers. Firstly there are two kinds of inner-circles. The two kinds overlap substantially but they still differ. One kind is organizational – a political party is an organization and as an organization it has leadership and management. Large political parties in parliamentary democracies will have employees and formal management structures as well as elected officials. The other inner circle consists of the politicians who form a given party’s voting block in a legislature. These politicians will have their own parliamentary organizational structures, decision-making processes and a specific hierarchy. They may also have their own staff and advisers.

Stepping out from those inner circles is a different layer: activists. People who are members of a party and taking an active role in the party. They will help campaign, they will attend conferences, they will take an active interest in the affairs of the party and they may well be part of competing factions within a party. A bit beyond these people are more passive members who may have been more active in the past or may become more active in the future.

Beyond the actual membership are people who typically support the party when it comes to elections. Of those some will be more partisan than others.

The model obviously varies between countries and ideologies. In parliamentary style democracies the social-democratic, labor orientated parties tend to be fairly similar. The Israeli Labour Party may differ on some key policies from, say, the Australian Labor Party but it isn’t hard to spot the commonalities between the British Labour Party and the German SDP. Center, center-right and right-wing parties tend to be more varied but similarities are still there.

The US may differ in many ways from this model because of structure of its representative democracy. Elected politicians often have more independence from their party structure than their European equivalent. Fund raising is also often focused around individuals. Additionally the us Primary elections means that people are involved in selecting candidates in a way that is more public than the kinds of internal party pre-selection processes that occur in the UK. However there is still a broad similarity and grass root activism of people interested in their preferred party can prove to be disruptive to that party’s internal hierarchy – for example Tea Party activism in the Republican Party.

So here is a different analogy to consider for Martin’s trufan remark. The SF/F community is not unlike a political party. The writers and editors and publishers are not unlike the politicians and other professionals in a party. The ‘fans’ in general are supporters, voters, sympathizers of the party and the ‘trufans’ are the activists.

The analogy is imperfect (this is a tautology because if it was perfect it would just be the thing itself) because the professional circle (writers, editors etc) don’t organize fandom. Even so there are many parallels. Many professional politicians are essentially elevated activists. Political parties can split and separate (more so in countries with multi-party democracies). New parties can form around specific issues or due to specific conflicts within another party.

SF/F fandom also has professionals who are elevated fans – in Doctor Who, Russell T Davies, Stephen Moffat and Peter Capaldi had all been active fans when younger. Fandoms split along subgenres or around specific works.

So in this analogy what reflects the two puppy campaigns? To stretch the analogy the puppy campaigns include some professionals (or semi-professionals) some activists and some supporters (akin to regular voters for a party), organizing around an attempt to shift the direction of the fandom/party. This is not unknown in political parties. I’ve mentioned briefly the Tea Party activism within the Republican Party but analogous events have occurred in European social-democratic parties as well.

During the late 1970’s and 1980’s a Trotskyist political group decided that their political strategy would be to radicalize the politically mainstream British Labour Party. Trotskyism had enjoyed a political upsurge during the 1960’s as politically radical people rejected Soviet style communism but wanted to retain early Soviet style Marxism. By the 1970’s factionalism, conflicting personalities and a drive towards ideological purity had led to a variety of different Trotskyist groups. The Militant Tendency was one such group. With a substantial base in some traditional Labour heartland areas (particularly Liverpool), Militant was a notable group and like other Trotskyists groups had its own newspaper and was active in trade unions. Arguably Militant was also less middle class and student focused than other Trotskyists groups. And unlike most Trotskyist groups Militant decided to engage with the mainstream political process and run candidates. The twist was that Militant was going to do so under the banner of the more centrist British Labour Party. This was a policy known as entryism.

Entryism involved Militant focusing its efforts into specific Labour Party branches and youth organisations. By commanding small local majorities they could effectively control the local resources and name of the Labour Party. Their greatest impact was in the city of Liverpool. By the early 1980s Britain was under a Conservative Government led by Margaret Thatcher. Thatcher was a highly polarizing figure who enjoyed a great deal of popular support in the south of England but substantially antipathy in the cities of the North of England, Scotland and South Wales.

Militant used their local majority in Liverpool to take control over Liverpool City Council and pursued an active policy of confrontation with the British Government and the Conservative Party. Naturally other parts of the Labour Party were not keen on Militant effectively controlling a major city council under the name of the Labour Party. The more right-leaning sections of the party were most aggrieved but other sections of the left had their own gripes against Militant’s very traditional form of radical socialism (e.g. Militant wasn’t exactly at the front of issues around gender or sexuality).

The net effect of the Militant tendency was to engender an internecine struggle within the Labour Party. This was part of a bitter time for the labour movement in the UK. Thatcher was in the ascendant, a long and ugly miners’ strike caused additional divisions, a breakaway centrist party called the SDP was created that further split the anti-Tory vote. Meanwhile the conservative press used the Militant tendency as a scary bogey man to discredit Labour. Consequently Militant achieved little except to help Thatcher stay in power and in the end push Labour rightward.

The two Puppy movements have some resemblance to Militant in our party analogy but lack some important qualities:

  • Militant had a unifying ideology
  • Militant had some political goals

The Puppies have lacked that kind of cohesion but it is unfair to expect Leninist discipline for non-Leninists and frankly it is a good thing that they don’t. However it is also unlikely that they will be any more successful than Militant was in achieving any long term goals.

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