If I wrote something glorifying a society which had committed multiple atrocities

…including but not limited to active disenfranchisement, displacement of indigenous populations, causing a preventable famine, covering up death tolls, etc, you’d think I was insane, delusional, or simply a horribly socially inappropriate, reactionary type of person.

And yet a subgenre has risen up around a culture which systematically, over the course of hundreds of years, helped drive multiple indigenous cultures to the verge of extinction, perpetrated massacres against the natives of various territories, and whose effects have directly contributed to conflicts continuing within those formerly invaded territories to this day. (And, yes, those things above, too.)

I’m talking, of course, about steampunk.

I feel a little bad saying this, because I do enjoy the aesthetic (gears! buttons! flounces!), but it’s not okay.

Rewriting the narrative so that everyone is empowered and the minorities aren’t treated like third-class citizens in their own country is about as useful as whitewashing a rotten wall. Sure, you might be able to sell the house now, but it’s still a shitty, rotten house. You should expose it for what it is, and then tear it down and build a new one.

And this wouldn’t be even close to okay if we were discussing the Nazi regime (I keep wanting to add other genocides here, but the Serbian massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys was recently denied status as a genocide, so how many of those other incidents are really known? Armenia, Cambodia, various Latin American regimes, various incidents in the Balkans, Rwanda, Sudan…for a good overview of genocide and the man who helped push the term into the UN’s official lexicon, see ‘A Problem From Hell,’ aka light reading per my AP US teacher.)

So why is it okay to paint over the egregiously mercantilist, self-aggrandizing policies of Victorian Britain, and a society that was both internally and externally repressive?

It seems to me there are two reasons regarding the latter.

a) America doesn’t do a particularly good job of teaching how devastating the impact of colonialism was – after all, this is the country which fought off the British (never mind that the people fighting happened to have helped eradicate the original inhabitants) – and frankly, a lot of the real human impact from that era still isn’t out in the open, because it was underreported by the entities in power during that era. (You could make a case for the fact that native collusion undermines the purely negative impact of colonialism, but I would point out that’s only at the outset, and does nothing to change the fact that the society itself was extremely biased. Rudyard Kipling, anyone?)

Since Americans dominate the English-speaking market, we have to be a major focus of change.

b) The countries in which these events occurred are still, by and large, still marginalized. I mean, the last time I recall a strong discussion of post-colonial impact was when the events of the Rwandan massacre were coming into full light – in, what, 2004, ten years after they had actually happened. (Yes, I’m aware that was Belgium, not Britain.) Anyway, we just don’t have it pushed in our face the way the Holocaust was and is – which isn’t to say there should be less of the Holocaust but rather more of everything else.

And there’s no reason that everyone who was affected by it should move to the Western world and enter Western industries to make a point.

They shouldn’t have to.

It is important to own a legacy.

Trying to reinvent a time period which was certainly not pro-woman or pro-minority is not owning that legacy.

(As far as glossing over the internal repression goes…that seems an attempt, albeit one which also does the disservice of failing to explore how strong women during that time period really found power, to criticize reality.)

If we aren’t willing to take an honest look at an era, then why is that era in the picture at all? I understand taking elements from things that exist – I do it myself; who wouldn’t – but not attempting to grab all the trappings of an oppressive time period and treat them as something wonderful, when that society’s rigid morals and classism influenced those trappings, too. I’m not sure anyone would take seriously a setting which looked exactly like ancient Athens and then try to set it up to have equally empowered citizens who only entered age-appropriate dalliances while still writing homilies to the lovely shape in the sand when a boy sits down and where the wealthy women remained inside the house – and even layers and layers of clothing. (Aristophanes’ ‘Frogs,’ I think, unless it’s ‘Clouds.’)

Social history is not independent of politics. Writers should not treat it as such.