“Sheet-heads:” The New Nazis

August 6th, 2008

When I recently reviewed the Summer issue of Helix SF (http://www.helixsf.com/) for the August issue of IROSF (http://www.irosf.com/), I made no mention of the controversy then [and now still] festering over Senior Editor William Sanders’ use of the term “sheet-heads” to describe jihahis/Musims/Arabs –- the target of the reference is not quite clear, although Sanders has insisted it refers only to terrorists. He has also argued that his use of this term can not be considered racist, since neither Muslims nor Arabs are strictly speaking a race; nonetheless I think it is clearly species of bigotry, as the argument is a species of sophistry.

In fact, I had for some time been aware of his use of this term, well before the present controversy. But I do not consider it my job as a reviewer to discuss or condemn the political statements of a magazine’s editor –- bigoted or not. My job is to review the magazine’s fiction and not its politics.

It is not possible, though, to pretend that politics does not exist in fiction. Fiction has always been a vehicle for political statements. But a reviewer, I believe, should critique the stories, not the politics. Analog, to take one example, often appears to be taking a right-libertarian stand in both its editorial content and its fiction. This is not a position with which I am particularly sympathetic, but I consider my job as a reviewer to consider whether a libertarian story is a good story, not whether its ideology suits me. Grounds for condemning it might be cardboard characterization, clumsy plotting, awkward dialogue, or heavy-handed polemic, but not the ideology itself. If I find a well-written libertarian story, I will recommend it as readily as any other.

Unfortunately, it often seems to be the case that there is an inverse relationship between political zeal and quality of fiction. One way this manifests is in characterization: the ideological opponent is cast as the Bad Guy. When I was a kid, watching crummy westerns on the black-and-white TV, it was always easy to tell the Bad Guys; they were the ones wearing the black hats. They were there in the story to be shot down by the Good Guy. They are villainous because they are villains, bad because they are Bad Guys. Like the Nazi.

Everyone knows that a Nazi is a Bad Guy. He is there in the plot to be killed by the Good Guy, to demonstrate the superiority of the Good Guy and the triumph of the Good Guy’s cause, when he kills the Nazis. We know he is the Good Guy because he kills the Nazis. It is always OK to kill the Nazis. That’s what they are there in the plot for, to provide someone who can be killed without moral compunction. The Nazi is not really human. His death means nothing.

This is bad writing, bad characterization. It is sloppy, cardboard, one-dimensional writing. Nazis might have been created on purpose for lazy authors. Their uniforms clearly identify what they are, like the villains who sneer and snarl and twirl their mustachios. They kill and torture gratuitously and kick dogs and steal candy from babies, all to make sure that the reader knows that they are the villains.

And very often these villains reflect bigoted stereotypes. The Jap. The Injun. Dehumanized figures, like bug-eyed aliens, who exist only to be hated and killed in order to advance the author’s hero, or some cause the author approves. And the “sheet-head” phenomenon concerns me now, because I see a tendency to make the Arab/ Muslim the new Nazi, the latest non-human villain who exists only to serve the author’s ends. And this is why I must disapprove of terms like “sheet-head.” “Sheet-heads,” whatever they are, are a stereotype. “Sheet-heads” are the thinnest, one-dimensional cardboard villains, the latest incarnation of the stock Bad Guy.

This is a phenomenon I must condemn as a reviewer, because it is bad writing. But beyond this, I feel it is necessary to condemn the sort of bigotry that produces such stereotyping in fiction, that enables it, that publishes it.

An example is the story “The Contractors,” by William Sanders, published in Helix #3 (http://www.helixsf.com/archives/Jan07/fiction/Q3_sanders_contractors.htm). In this piece, the protagonist is a hitman in the employ of the devil, and both the targets we see him take out are Arab terrorists, the implication being that these are characters so evil that even the devil can’t stand them. Sheet-heads: the new Nazis.

12 Responses to ““Sheet-heads:” The New Nazis”

  1. David de Beeron 07 Aug 2008 at 4:11 am

    er, Lois there appears to be some formatting problem on the posts. This keeps showing up between paras:

  2. Sam Grahamon 07 Aug 2008 at 8:12 am

    Not just limited to books and short stories, this happens regularly in films too: throughout the 80s the Generic Evil Guy was always soviet, come the collapse of the USSR they had to cast around to find some other evil cannon fodder for the good guys to shoot and settled on The South American Drug Runner (or his slightly less well known cousin The Eastern European Drug Runner.) This decade the evil of choice is the terrorist, and the most common lazy-shorthand for that is the Islamic Extremist.

    Ticks all the boxes: wears “funny clothes” so you can tell them from the good guys, speaks a “funny language” so they’re obviously evil. etc etc.

    As for Muslims or Arabs not being races, oh, so he’s not being a racist bigot, he obviously thinks that makes it ok? Never mind the fact that races emerge from and are basically just longer-lived cultural and social groupings. Not wanting to derail your post but that sort of sophistry really makes my blood boil.

    I’d find your position a rather uncomfortable one to be in, to be associated with someone whose publically stated position was so unacceptable to my own beliefs. As you say though it’s lucky that most of the fiction that shows this sort of bigotry is simplistic.

    But then, it would be wouldn’t it? Bigotry often comes from an inability to see “the other” as anything other than a one-dimensional dehumanized figure, to fail to see the common points you share and that the other person has motivations and history just like yourself, that they have complex reasons for their actions just like you do, and that from their point of view, what they’re doing makes as much (or as little) sense as your own behaviour.

    Not being able to make that connection will always result in poor characterisation when it comes to writing.

  3. David Louis Edelmanon 07 Aug 2008 at 10:36 am

    David @ 1: Not sure why/how that happened, but I’ve fixed the formatting on Lois’ post.

  4. Lois Tiltonon 07 Aug 2008 at 11:14 am

    Thanks, David.

    I couldn’t see whatever it was on my browser.

  5. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 07 Aug 2008 at 1:22 pm

    Saying the “sheet” thing is anything other than a slur on people who wear headcloths is sophistry–I heard the “towel” variant long before 9/11, as a racial/religious slur, but changing it to “sheet” and saying it only refers to terrorists, when none of the 9/11 terrorists to my knowledge wore any sort of head covering?

    The desire to pain some group as the mooks so the protagonist can play two-fisted action hero is unfortunately extremely old. I’ve been reading a lot on tvtropes.org and while there isn’t a specific page for Islamic terrorists–it instead existing as footnotes for the “Western Terrorists” page ( http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/WesternTerrorists )–there’s a lot of insightful comments about the desire to not offend leading to not just Western Terrorists but Terrorists Without a Cause.

    There’s also a pretty insightful round-up of all the various Nazi tropes.

  6. Lois Tiltonon 07 Aug 2008 at 1:53 pm

    Interesting site!

  7. Wenamunon 07 Aug 2008 at 5:05 pm

    There is at least one book–and I think at least two–on the subject of the Western portrayals of Arabs, chiefly in films. One is Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, by Jack G. Shaheen (Olive Branch Press, 2001[!]). It is an interesting–if disheartening–annotated list of more than 900 films, each of which does, to one extent or another, as the subtitle suggests.

  8. Constance Ashon 08 Aug 2008 at 1:03 pm

    One thing one can put up against ‘the sheetheads’ is what we see us doing in Jarhead, the memoir and the movie made from it.

    On the basis of what we read and see we could as easily characterize everyone in the U.S. marines and military as brutal psychopaths, who are also incompetents running / driving / dancing / flying around with massive lethal weapons and using them against no one but civilians.

    Love, C.

  9. [...] “Sheet-heads:” The New Nazis [...]

  10. Jacobon 05 Nov 2008 at 11:59 pm

    In the article a huge thank you all for the cause, a lot of people are using

  11. Lois Tiltonon 07 Nov 2008 at 12:17 pm

    Jacob, I think your post got cut off.

  12. amenodimenoon 31 Jul 2009 at 1:05 pm

    That’s good man, keep it going.

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