Was Cherokee Writer William Sanders the First Victim of Cancel Culture?
3 March 2023
I feel a little guilty putting “Cherokee” in the headline. It’s important information, especially since William Sanders was proud of his heritage — his biographies mention that he was a powwow dancer, and his stories often featured Native Americans — but Sanders, like many writers of color of his generation, did not want his work defined by his social identities. He said, “Better to define myself by what I do: I am a writer.”
To be precise, he was a highly respected writer and editor who was valued for bringing an under-represented viewpoint to the science fiction genre. At the beginning of 2008, he seemed to be winning the attention he deserved: He had won the Sidewise Award for Alternate History twice, his online magazine, Helix, had been nominated for a Hugo Award, and he had been invited to be the 2010 Guest of Honor at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, aka ICFA.
But in the summer of 2008, to use today’s terms, he was canceled. ICFA rescinded its invitation, Helix may have failed to win in its category because of Sanders’ cancellation, and since then, the people who talk about diversity in science fiction rarely mention the genre’s first Cherokee writer. If you believe as I do that canceling is a new version of the ancient desire to punish (see Cancel Culture: Older than Socrates and Newer than the Internet), William Sanders may have been the first victim of cancel culture.
What follows is a revised piece that I wrote soon after Sanders was canceled and long before mobbing was called cancelling.
Mobbing William Sanders: The Powwow Dancer vs. the People of Privilege
“But why so little published fiction by real Indians — a people, after all, with a wonderfully rich storytelling tradition? One little-recognized problem lies in what might be called the expectation barrier. White America has certain definite ideas as to what it wants to hear from Indians — at least the publishing industry thinks so, and for once it is probably right — and the Indian writer whose work fails to fit the accepted template can expect a lot of frustration.” — William Sanders, reviewing Sherman Alexie’s Reservation Blues
“You have to remember, the SF writing community is mostly a lot of very nice people who have led very sheltered lives. They’re very easily shocked. It’s always amazed me that so many of these people who write all this stuff about strange worlds and fantastic adventures are such conventional, boring types in person. As A. J. Budrys once said to me, ‘They are a cautious and conservative lot, these probers on Man’s ultimate frontier. A trail of sheep shit marks their passing.’” — William Sanders, Chronicle, February 2004.
In 1991, I saw a biplane with a Confederate flag on the cover of a paperback novel, The Wild Blue and the Grey. The back copy promised a story about a Cherokee pilot in an alternate Earth’s world war. I bought it knowing nothing about the writer, but I knew I liked the way his mind worked. When anyone asks me about alternate history stories, my short list of recommendations includes a couple by William Sanders. His Sidewise Award-winning “The Undiscovered” is one of the few unique visions in a field filled with generic tales — it’s a sad and funny story about Shakespeare living among the Cherokee. You would think science fiction readers who value diversity would be promoting William Sanders today. He was a Cherokee and a damn fine writer. What more could they want?
Too many — especially those from expensive private schools where liberal identitarianism has been promoted since the 1980s — want someone who shares their middle-class manners and identitarian beliefs. Sanders, a self-described “redbone hillbilly”, a graduate of Arkansas A&M University who served in Vietnam, had no time for ideologues.
In 2006, he co-published an online magazine called Helix SF. The first issue included Janis Ian’s “Mahmoud’s Wives”. Sanders commented,
There have been a number of complaints and criticisms of that story. Not, as you might think, from enraged Islamist types (we’ve been rather disappointed, actually; we were hoping for at least one little old fatwa) but from whining super-PC types in this country.
Believe it or not, we even got a letter from one nitwit who said [Ian] should have named the characters Doug and Griselda. “Doug’s Wives” would have been more Politically Correct, you see.
When you annoy people like that, you know you must be doing something right.
Take no prisoners!
That last line was his motto. He wrote bluntly and honestly and expected to get as good as he gave. He made many enemies, and I’m sorry to say I let myself become one over something I can’t even remember today.
Helix SF developed a reputation for solid stories from a diverse group of writers. Sanders helped launch writers like N. K. Jemisin and Yoon Ha Lee. When he noticed he had acquired a lot of stories from women, he published an all-female issue. The International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts (ICFA) invited him to be their Guest of Honor. He was becoming one of the genre’s grand old men.
But after he was at the heart of one of fandom’s many flamewars, his invitation to be a Guest of Honor was rescinded. A writer who should be included among science fiction’s first prominent writers of color has been deliberately forgotten.
His redbone hillbilly ways didn’t just ruffle the feathers of people who believe in white bourgie etiquette. He set their feathers on fire and laughed when they threw fits. I’ll say as little as I can about what follows because I despise writers who set their scenes like stage magicians carefully controlling what the audience sees. I’ll only offer a bit of advice which many of us failed to remember at the time: Never assume you know what something means if you do not know its full context.
In July, 2008, Sanders returned a Helix submission with a personal note. The submitter then committed one of publishing’s cardinal sins: he made his rejection letter public. Since the letter was shared on many sites, I’ll share it too. Sanders wrote:
No, I’m sorry but I can’t use this.
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.) 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.
However, as I say, I can’t use it. Because Helix is a speculative fiction magazine, and this isn’t speculative fiction.
Oh, you’ve tacked on some near-future elements at the end, but the future stuff isn’t in any way necessary to the story; it isn’t even connected with it in any causal way. True, the narrator seems to be saying that it was this incident which caused him to take up the jihad, but he’s being mendacious (like all his kind, he’s incapable of honesty); he was headed in that direction from the start, and if it hadn’t been the encounter with the stripper it would have been something else.
Now if it could be shown that something in this incident showed him HOW the West could be overthrown, then perhaps the story would qualify as SF. That might have been interesting. As it is, though, no connection is shown and in fact we are never told just how this conquest — a highly improbable event, to say the least — came about.
There are some other problems with the story, but there’s no point in going into them, because they don’t really matter from my viewpoint. It’s not speculative fiction and I can’t use it in my magazine.
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.
Flames raced across fandom’s electronic turf. Identitarians concluded Sanders was talking about all Muslims and denounced him as racist. Islamophobes insisted he was telling the truth about all Muslims or Middle Easterners or both. Sanders tried to clarify his meaning in a comment left at the site where the writer had shared the rejection:
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?
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.
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.
(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.)
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.
The rejected writer agreed with Sanders’ explanation and made a new public post in the hope of ending the uproar he had created:
There is a truly despicable Muslim character in my story. Sorry, world. Maybe I was playing into prejudices. Sanders was talking about that character, so it wasn’t an out-of-the-blue rant, it was targeted to the content of my story. In context, his comments were directed at MY character and those types of extremists. People are taking it out of context and interpreting it too broadly if they think that Sanders was referring to all Arabs or all Muslims. I’m sure that if my character was a Timothy McVeigh-like extremist, Sanders would have used different but equally scornful language. The extremism of MY character is what drew his ire, and so if there is any blame it’s MY blame.
But third options are invisible to people who only see black and white. Nick Mamatas, then editor of Clarkesworld, wrote a popular LiveJournal post insisting that what he inferred must have been what Sanders had implied. Others, including Tor editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden, agreed with him. And, to my shame, so did I. In a comment at the Nielsen Hayden’s Making Light, I wrote:
The Cherokee do have a problem with racism. They were slave traders. A Cherokee chief, Stand Watie, was the last Confederate general to surrender. More recently, the Cherokee voted to exclude the descendants of their black slaves from the tribe (and the tribe’s gambling wealth), even though many of those people were culturally Cherokee, living the life and speaking the language.
On the other hand, Sanders is just a racist.*
In the modern sense that race equals ethnicity.
Mamatas and Nielsen Hayden and I failed to do what anyone concerned with literary implications should have done: We did not look at Sanders’ body of work. His Journey to Fusang is set on an Earth where China and the Moors arrived first in the Americas. Its characters include Muslim Comanches. No one who read it thought Sanders was Islamophobic. Like everyone who played more-literary-than-thou with Sander’s hastily-written notes, we assumed he was racist because we sifted his words through our preconceptions. No one can be more wrong than writers and editors who believe they read infallibly — we were no different than witch-hunters who found Satan guiding the pen of pagans and heretics.
In “Conversations With A Mean Old Bastard”, Sanders noted that Mamatas was not an impartial judge. Helix had been nominated for a Hugo Award and Clarkesworld had not, so, as Sanders put it, the “poor fucker probably was wild with jealousy.”
In another popular denunciation of Sanders, Tobias Buckell wrote:
…the various stages of calling someone with a prejudice or racist belief or action out are very similar to the Kubler-Ross model of catastrophic loss.
Denial: * Example — ”I feel fine.”; “This can’t be happening.”
Anger: * Example — ”Why me? It’s not fair!” “NO! NO! How can you accept this!”
Bargaining: * Example — ”Just let me live to see my children graduate.”; “I’ll do anything, can’t you stretch it out? A few more years.”
Depression: * Example — ”I’m so sad, why bother with anything?”; “I’m going to die . . . What’s the point?”
Acceptance: * Example — ”It’s going to be OK.”; “I can’t fight it, I may as well prepare for it.”
Buckell was right that some people accept the worldview of their abusers— the FBI concluded that 27% of hostages show some degree of Stockholm Syndrome. But for people whose worldview is incompatible with identitarianism, these are the more common stages:
Amusement: “Are these people really that crazy?”
Bargaining: “Okay, they are that crazy, but we got along in the past. Let’s try to get along again, okay?”
Anger: “Keep your crazy cult beliefs to yourself!”
Rejection: “Fuck. This. Shit. I’m gone.”
Sanders raced through those steps with fandom’s identitarians baying at his heels. First he wrote:
Certain people, in response or sympathy to the things being said about me, have requested that their stories be deleted from the Helix archives.
Wait, wait; this was originally MY suggestion. One person, whose excellent work had graced the pages of Helix on two occasions, had voiced such strong sentiments that I wrote to her and, among other things, offered to delete her stories from the archives if she felt that way about it. She replied at first in the negative, but later changed her mind; but anyway, I want to make it clear that this began as an offer that I made.
I made it to only that one person, and I confess it did not occur to me that anyone else would make a similar request; but a couple more did.** Their requests have been honored as well.
But I have been informed that there are other Helix authors who are also participating in the slagfest, in private venues; and perhaps there are others as well who while not openly falling in with the lynch mob, still share the basic sentiment.
So I would like to publicly announce that if there is ANYBODY who wants his/her/etc. story removed from the Helix archives as well, a written (emailed) request to me — not Lawrence, not Melanie — will be honored.
(That is speaking strictly of archived stories. Anything in the current issue will stay there, as per contract, for the duration of the quarter.)
But it’s not fair for Melanie to have to keep fucking with this; she’s already had a hell of a lot of extra work handed her because of it. So this offer is not going to remain open indefinitely. Speak up within a reasonable time — such time to be determined entirely by my caprice; tough shit if you don’t like it — or forever shut your pie-hole.
I should add that if anyone feels strongly enough to want to return the money they were paid, we will not accept it; I suggest donating it to Obama’s campaign instead. However, so far nobody has made any such offer, and I don’t seriously expect it.
PLEASE SPREAD THIS AROUND. For this one occasion, everyone — that includes the lurkers too — has my formal permission to quote the entire text of this message, starting with the 5th paragraph above. (Preceding text being of no relevancy or interest outside this ng.) In fact I’d appreciate it. I want the word out.
What I don’t want is some damn fool coming around a month from now with “I didn’t know! Nobody told me!”
So if you agree with the Sanders Whiners, you’ll be doing your cause a service by getting this out. And if you don’t, then you’ll be doing US a service by helping speed the process so Melanie can put all this extra work behind her.
The first person was N. K. Jemisin. When Yoon Ha Lee also took up the offer, Sanders wrote,
Certainly I would not want to continue to publish a story against the author’s wishes, especially a story like this one that never did make any sense and that I only accepted because I thought it might please those who admire your work, and also because (notorious bigot that I am) I was trying to get more work by non-Caucasian writers.
That fanned the flames. “Non-Caucasian” was deemed racist even though it was used by a man no one would mistake for Caucasian.
After Jemisin’s, Lee’s, and Margaret Ronald’s stories were deleted from Helix, Sanders put a notice on the web pages where they had been:
Story deleted at author’s pantiwadulous request.
His joke was deemed sexist, perhaps because feminists are not supposed to wear panties, or maybe it was an expression that identitarians didn’t know — Sarah Palin once told Chris Christie not to get his panties in a wad, and no one accused her of being sexist.
Shortly after that, Sanders wrote:
Why should you have to do all this extra work for nothing, just so some silly people can make a big grandstand play to impress their bloggy pals with the Correctness of their convictions?
I am hereby making a change to the aforestated offer. Effective as of now, any Helix contributor who wants his/her work deleted from the archives will have to pay for the privilege. Specifically, it’ll cost you forty bucks, payable to Melanie.
Though Sanders had said his offer to take stories down would not remain open indefinitely, that created the next uproar as people quibbled over the principle and the price. Sanders then canceled the chance to pay to have a story removed:
All right, that’s it. It’s been long enough; there’s been ample opportunity for anyone else who felt soiled by the contact with Helix to step up and speak up and pay up.
I don’t believe there are going to be any others (the imposition of cash charges seems to have had a distinctly damping effect) but if there are, tough shit. You had your chance and you didn’t take it.
That fall, Sanders shut down Helix. Sometime later, he wrote “Conversations With A Mean Old Bastard” and answered a few important questions:
Why was he offline for days, and why was he so harsh to Yoon Ha Lee?
I’d been on a bike in the wind and the heat for days, and I hadn’t slept well the previous night. And worse than everything else put together, I’d visited my wife at the hospital in Norman, where she’d been for a year and a half, on my way home, and found out that her condition had taken a new and extremely disturbing turn for the worse.
And here was this message by another Helix writer, wanting in on the offer I’d made to Nora; and a look down the list showed me a couple more — and at that point I blew up. Here I’d tried to give a special break to one of my favorite Helix authors, and it was turning into a fucking exodus! It was just too much.
So, yes, I was pretty brutal in what I said to Yoon Ha Lee. Of course I didn’t mean what I said about her story, or my reasons for accepting it; I was just saying that stuff in order to hurt her feelings, because I was in a hell of a lot of pain myself and she’d pushed me over what little edge I had left.
Yeah, I admit it, I was too rough on Yoon Ha Lee, and it’s unfair that she got the full blast for what four people had done. And I don’t offer the above as justification — but then I don’t feel any need to justify myself. I had nothing against Yoon Ha Lee, but she had, after all, asked for it. Not that there was anything rude or offensive in her message, but she’d chosen to side with the people who were giving me shit, and you know, when you go fucking with somebody you have to accept that there may be consequences. I’m a normal person; when you hit at me, I hit back, and if at all possible I’ll hit hard enough to discourage you from doing that again.
(I said I was a Christian. I never claimed to be a good one. I used to feel bad about this until I realized that trying to be like Jesus was presumptuous.)
There’s another thing, too — I was being attacked by a God-damned hysterical mob. I had all these dipshits coming at me from all over, screaming their hate; they’d been at it for a week or more and getting crazier all the time. When the wire is down and the Claymores have all been fired and your forward positions are being overrun, it’s time to go to full auto and blow the shit out of everything that comes at you. Yoon Ha Lee, or anybody else who chose to be part of that mob — or side with them — was, as far as I’m concerned, asking for it.
What did he mean by “sheet head”?
“Sheet head” is, of course, a rather crude play on “shithead.” Obviously it refers to people who are known (stereotypically, and incorrectly) for wearing textile head coverings — and indeed requiring their women to do so. Therefore it should be obvious that “sheet head” refers to a Muslim who is a shithead. More exactly, to a Muslim who acts like a shithead in the name of his religion.
Consider, for example, the young thugs who have assaulted non-Muslim women on the streets of European cities for dressing in ways they considered “immodest.” Obviously they were acting like shitheads; but “terrorist” would be too strong a term. Or the “religious police” of Iran and Saudi Arabia; no one would deny that they are shitheads of purest ray serene — well, no one but another shithead — but what they do isn’t what is usually meant by terrorism.
Or the gibbering whackjobs who demonstrated in the streets of Europe because of a few cartoons in a Danish newspaper; it would be a great exaggeration to call them terrorists, but they certainly were being shitheads.
Was the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas an act of terrorism? No, but it certainly was one of the most spectacularly shitheaded acts of the sheet heads.
So no, I never have used the term — which I’ve been using for years — to refer to Muslims in general, but I’ve never restricted it to terrorists alone, either. And never claimed that was what I meant in that email.
…Of course I’ve made derogatory remarks about certain Muslims, but then so has everybody, even other Muslims. And I’ve been known to make derogatory remarks about the Muslim religion, but that’s entirely different. Religions are fair game in my book — a religion is nothing but a set of opinions, after all, and what’s wrong with ridiculing somebody’s opinions? I’ve said plenty about Christianity, too, and I’m a Christian, even if I don’t always act like it.
Which brings up another point: I also use the expression “Jeebus Nazi” to refer to Christians who behave like shitheads — the exact equivalent of “sheet heads” — and none of these PC geeks have ever complained about that.
Was his language racist?
Racist? Of all the stupid things people have said during this affair, that has got to be one of the stupidest, but it’s been one of the most pervasive. Some of these people have the God-damnedest ignorant-ass ideas…Muslims aren’t a race, for God’s sake. Islam includes believers from all the major races.
Of course I realize that “race” is nowadays quite commonly used to refer to ethnic groups, but incorrectly so. “Race” simply refers to a set of genetically transmissible characteristics producing certain physical differences, distinctive but not enough so as to constitute a separate species. For example, the familiar “Baltimore” and “Bullock’s” orioles, formerly considered distinct species, are now classed merely as races of the Northern Oriole (Icterus galbula); likewise with the various races of the Northern Junco (Junco hyemalis) and so on.
“Race” is a useful scientific term for classifying variations within an animal species — and people, in case you’ve forgotten, are animals. (Homo sapiens, a name devised in the days before blogs.) That some have used it for evil purposes doesn’t mean it has no validity. If we get rid of every word that some shithead has used for evil purposes, we’ll be reduced to gestures and grunts. Which in the case of some of the Blogtrotters would be an improvement, but —
…All the same, if any Muslims were offended, they never said anything to me about it, or to anybody I know. Not this time, not back in ’06 when this first came up, not when we published Janis Ian’s “Mahmoud’s Wives” — not so much as an indignant email. All the shit that came our way was from PC Westerners. If that surprises you, you haven’t been paying attention.
Did this result in the closing of Helix?
Actually we decided when we first started out that we’d go for two years, which would have ended with the spring issue; but then it looked as if we had a shot at a Hugo nomination, so we decided to go ahead and finish out this year.
Of course the Blogtrotters don’t believe that; they’re convinced that they brought down the Evil Empire with their hooting and turd-flinging. But I’d point out that earlier this year, before this shit started, I’d already announced that I was only going to take a very few more submissions, and that was why.
Several years earlier, Sanders had announced his retirement, then written more stories. On his site’s bibliography, he said about a story written after his retirement,
I said I’d retired; I didn’t say I’d quit. This one insisted on being written.
Sometimes artists announce their retirement when they think they’re done, and then the muse returns. If not for the “sheetstorm”, who knows what other stories might’ve insisted on being written?
Well, there’s never much point in playing “what if”, for all that it’s a game Sanders and I loved. The identitarian posse decided an old Indian wasn’t acting white enough for them, so William Sanders rode into the sunset.