Aug 7

No, no, he just SOUNDS bigoted!

Posted by A Writer


I'm late to the party on this one, but I couldn't let this event pass without commenting on it in some fashion.  The problems all started when William Sanders, editor at Helix (a reasonably well-known sci-fi webzine) rejected a story submission.  Hmm…that seems innocuous enough.  Maybe things got really out of hand when the rejected author posted the rejection on his website?  But again, that's no different than what the good people at LROD do every day.  So what on earth could have caused the blogosphere to hit the Apocalypse Now button?  Maybe if we take a look at the letter itself:

No, I'm sorry but I can't use this.

Well, perhaps a bit pointed and dismissive, sure, but that's par for the course for some editors.  Certainly nothing over the top here…

There's much to like. I'm impressed by your knowledge of the Q'uran and Islamic traditions. (Having spent a couple of years in the Middle East, I know something about these things.)

Why, this is even a bit encouraging.  What's the problem?  I can't imagine why…

You did a good job of exploring the worm-brained mentality of those people – at the end we still don't really understand it, but then no one from the civilized world ever can – and I was pleased to see that you didn't engage in the typical error of trying to make this evil bastard sympathetic, or give him human qualities.


Oh.  So that's why.

Yep, it turns out that Sanders actually rejected this author's speculative fiction piece with a straight-up racist screed.  Because it doesn't stop there: after some more explanation about how this isn't speculative fiction and thus isn't appropriate, he finishes his letter with this gem:

And I don't think you're going to sell it to any other genre magazine, for that reason – though you'd have a hard time anyway; most of the SF magazines are very leery of publishing anything that might offend the sheet heads. I think you might have a better chance with some non-genre publication. But I could be wrong.

Uh-huh.  He actually said, straight-faced, "sheet heads."  In a rejection letter.  From a "professional" editor.


Now under most circumstances, you might expect the editor of a public, well-known publication to either deny that such a letter was ever sent (which would admittedly be ridiculous, but denial is the first fallback), claim that it was taken out of context, or issue a full and profuse apology.  But not this time; when William Sanders takes a hit, he comes out swinging.  His comment on the website entry–and hold on to your hats:

Son, hasn't anybody ever told you that public posting of a private email message is contrary to the rules both of accepted internet practice and common courtesy?

Glad we've established the rules of common courtesy, which apparently wouldn't apply to any of the people Sanders has defined as "sheet heads," but let's look further:

I do appreciate your efforts to be fair – certainly far more so than most of the other people in this ward, ah, group – but the fact remains that you've done something both socially and professionally unacceptable in posting it at all. So if you had any idea of submitting anything else to Helix, forget it. I won't work with people who pull this kind of shit.

You see, kids, posting private letters is socially and professionally unacceptable.  Spewing hate speech like it's going out of style, on the other hand, is just fine.

I suppose this is what I get for trying to be a nice guy, and give you a little encouragement rather than the standard thanks-but-no-thanks form rejection. Silly me.

Encouraging?  Yes.  Racist?  Yes.

(I notice, too, the presence in the lynch mob of another person I've tried to help, and to whom I thought I'd been particularly kind. No good deed, etc.)

Of course none of these people have read the story, and so they fail to grasp the context – that I was talking not about Muslims, or Arabs, or Oompa Loompas or any other religious or ethnic group, but about terrorists and violent extremists. (That being, after all, what your story was about.)

Ah, and here we finally get the first whiff of plausible deniability–the sheet heads and worm-brained people are actually terrorists.  Which makes sense, of course, because the terrorists in the Philippines, the ones in Ireland ten years ago, Timothy McVeigh, they all…

Er…hmm.  That's odd.  In fact, the only ones who fit this "sheet head" description are the non-white, Muslim kind–the ones who traditionally (from the Fox News view of the world, anyway) wear turbans. Which makes one wonder why Sanders wouldn't use the term "bomb-happy street thugs," or "suicidal maniacs," or indeed any other term that doesn't specifically refer to Muslims.  Perhaps that's because Sanders is, I don't know, an utter liar?

But I don't feel any need to defend myself, or Helix, to these people; indeed I doubt that there's anybody outside their little Mutual Masturbation Society who gives a damn what they think about anything at all.

They are cordially invited to have intercourse with their precious selves. I'm sure most of them could use the practice.

A charming finish. Unfortunately for Sanders, though, lots and lots of people outside the so-called MMS gave much more than a damn about it; writers and editors from Tobias Buckell to Jim Hines to Patrick Nielsen Hayden slammed Sanders on their blogs, and soon lots of writers who had previously been published by Helix starting sending requests for their material to be removed.  Sanders started by ignoring the requests, then agreeing to them, then charging $40 for the privilege of removal (I swear I'm not making this up), and finally removing the stories and leaving this quaint tag line in its place:

This story removed at author's pantiwadulous request.

It takes a special kind of bigot to invent a new word while in full-out bigotry attack mode, by the way.

In the process of all of this, though, Sanders managed to double down by responding to an Asian-American contributor to Helix who had requested her work be pulled with this delightful soupcon of hatred:

[Your story] never did make any sense…[I only accepted it] because (notorious bigot that I am) I was trying to get more work by non-Caucasian writers.

Hooray for intellectual consistency!

What troubles me most about this episode isn't really Sanders' bigotry, though, contemptible as it is.  I've seen a whole host of racists from the light-handed tell an off-color joke from time to time types to the full out burn the cross on the lawn kinds (and both are on the same continuum, by the way.  You don't get a pass because you only tell, or laugh at, a "harmless" Hispanic joke once in a while.), and the existence of people like Sanders, while fortunately getting rarer, isn't a shock to me.  What is shocking is how many people decided to come to his defense, actually making comparisons to Hunter S. Thompson and objecting to what Sanders terms the "PC waterheads'" (what's left after water and sheet heads, by the way?  Poopy heads, if we keep moving down the same path of maturity?) assault on free speech and, the real culprit here, someone who dared to air Sanders' rejection letter in a blatant violation of privacy.


Okay, folks, let's break this down.  

1.  There is no right to privacy associated with a rejection letter.  None.  You sent the author a letter, and that's it.  If I want to post every rejection or acceptance letter I've ever received and start making fun of the letter-writer, I've got every right to do that.  Moreover, please get over yourself. You're not an intelligence agency, though you seem to have the same level of knowledge about Islam (i.e.: none).

2.  Free speech gives me, you, and anyone else the right to say whatever we want about whomever we want without fear of imprisonment or abuse.  It does not give me, you, or anyone else the right to say whatever we want and not face the consequences in a similar fashion: in other words, to have to listen to any number of people who wish to register their public displeasure with what you've just said.  Free speech is not free license.  If I run out on the street and start screaming racial epithets into the sky, I don't have the right to expect that people will just smile peacefully and walk by.  Someone, or everyone, would have the right to stop and yell equally offensive epithets, or non-offensive speech, right back at me.  They would not have the right to threaten me, my family, or my home–and I wouldn't have the right to threaten them either–but they would certainly have the right to respond in kind to the exercise of my free speech.  

If someone was trying to stop Sanders from speaking, that would be wrong.  But the idea that people are out of line for vehemently and publicly berating Sanders for his idiotic bigotry is so laughable as to almost defy description.  The bottom line is the injured party is certainly not some two-bit editor of a quarterly webzine, or the rejected author (who backpedaled from his posting of the rejected letter at a prodigious rate of speed), or free speech advocates.  It's not even the other authors previously published in Helix who didn't deserve the guilt by association they've gotten in some corners.  No, the injured party is the group of people who read Sanders' letter, and his ever more shrill and defensive responses to the attacks on his words after that, who knew that he was referring to them: their culture, their heritage, themselves.  That group is the real loser in this whole mess.  And for Sanders and his defenders not to understand that, but instead to hunker down behind an array of "that wasn't supposed to be public" walls and "you're attacking my right to free speech" trenches, is not only disingenuous but flat out despicable.

There is no missed context, or misquoting, or misinformation here.  But there's one hell of a missed opportunity to close rather than widen the racial divide.  And on that score, Sanders deserves every bit of vitriol he gets. I hope he'll understand why someday.  But in the short term, I'll accept a good old-fashioned tongue-lashing.  I suspect it's more benign than what he would have allowed the "worm-brained" "sheet heads" if given the opportunity.

Leave a Reply