On Immoral Artists

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I guess the definition of a lunatic is a man surrounded by them.

-Ezra Pound

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I have a number of very smart, interesting, compassionate friends who have united against an outspoken conservative Mormon author named Orson Scott Card whose science fiction novel, Ender’s Game, is being made into an Oscar-season feature film starring several high-profile movie stars. Card has said some very, very objectionable and a few frankly insane things, especially offensive and worrisome to gay and African-American people, among them that he expected President Obama to recruit a national police force from “young, out-of-work urban men” (ah, the dog-whistle of “urban”) and that “[r]egardless of law, marriage has only one definition, and any government that attempts to change it is my mortal enemy.” Wait, he goes further: “I will act to destroy that government and bring it down.” (You can read more of Card’s ravings at his website.)

parental advisoryOrson Scott Card is a career science fiction writer; this is a very difficult thing to be and requires a great deal of talent and stamina and a certain amount of bloody-minded stubbornness, and it is perhaps unsurprising that several of its brotherhood are, frankly, cranks. It’s a very white, very baby boomerish fraternity and there are quite a few of its number who hold opinions that would not go over very well as party conversation among the thoroughly brained. There’s a very successful writer named Dan Simmons, for example, whose book The Terror is in development at AMC; his last novel, Flashback, was billed by the publisher as “a nightmare journey through Obama’s America” and featured hordes of immigrants, government benefit programs, and an Islamic caliphate as the various contributors to the collapse of the American state.

I want to take a moment, before I really start to make my case, to own a certain amount — gobs and gobs, really — of privilege: demographically, I am not a lot different from either of these guys. Like Card, I am very religious. Like both Simmons and Card, I am white and male and have a good place to live and enough to eat and don’t have to cross the street when I see a police officer. Bearing all that in mind, I find myself quietly horrified when I see my liberal friends organizing boycotts and angrily telling each other (and their friends and neighbors) that no one should “support” these writers and others like them by patronizing movie theaters where their films are playing. There are a few reasons this bothers me, and the first one is pretty obvious: logistically, it is totally impossible to participate in popular culture without giving money to someone or something you don’t like.

It’s entirely fair at this point to say that I have no idea what it’s like to be gay or black or a woman and see someone the rest of the culture lauds and respects spewing hatred in your direction. And it’s right, too — I don’t. Women and minorities have to live in fear of people like me. That’s sobering and depressing and there are times when I’ve been on the subway platform or the sidewalk late at night and a woman has crossed the street or hurried out of the station to avoid giving me the opportunity to accost her. It’s a funny position to be in: you always want to say something to put the other person at ease, but “don’t worry, I’m not going to assault you” isn’t exactly a comforting thing to hear in any context, so I tend to just give women their space.

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Really, the only time the culture has decided it doesn’t just love people who look, talk and believe like I do has been recently, during the New Atheist movement, which generated quite a bit of writing (and some wonderful fiction, notably Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series of fantasy novels) about what a shit I am. Obviously, though, this is the equivalent of a papercut where the history of, say, gay characters in entertainment media is a sucking chest wound, but I think it’s indicative of a mindset that is worryingly familiar to someone who grew up very evangelical.

That’s why I find myself very worried and frankly a little afraid when I see friends who style themselves liberals organizing boycott campaigns around films and books produced by writers who believe things that they find offensive and harmful in the abstract. Part of the reason this upsets me, I’ll admit, is that there are many people who find things I believe offensive and harmful, and here I think it’s very important to draw parallels. I think that gay people should be allowed to get married. I think that the government should tax the wealthy a lot more than they do. I am a pacifist. Lots of folks, many of whom agree very strongly with guys like Card and Simmons, think that these beliefs are harmful, even evil and immoral.

Part of the reason I’m no longer as deeply involved in the evangelical Christian movement as I was as a teenager and a college student is that there are strong forces both social and political against art that I love very deeply. Many conservatives believe very strongly that it’s morally wrong to expose yourself to work that doesn’t explicitly illustrate Christian notions of redemption and sacrifice — never mind that plenty of material by celebrated Christian writers like Tolstoy and Chekhov doesn’t really fit into this rubric. Within conservative circles, there’s a lot of very deep discussion of a work’s “worldview” — its take on larger issues raised by the events of its plot, and the suggestions about morality made by its thematic concerns. Anything that deals overtly and sympathetically with gay relationships or even sexual relationships outside of marriage is branded pretty vigorously as, at the very least, inappropriate for anyone under 18, and probably inadvisable for everyone else. The word “edifying” is used a lot, and the characters of the authors themselves are deeply scrutinized.

Perhaps obviously, this approach to art and literature is one of the most significant reasons I’m a devoted, omnivorous reader, moviegoer, music lover. What was initially one of the less interesting ways to have a rebellious youth — namely reading and listening to and watching anything transgressive or offensive — turned into a deep appreciation for a lot of art that people who live outside of fundamentalist Christianity already know is good. Naked Lunch turned out to be terrible, but Lolita was astonishing. Nine Inch Nails is kind of boring; Lou Reed is great. But it’s also true that, even having mellowed, I hate this approach to art. It offends me. It’s one of the few things that offends me. And I see it more and more from my friends on the left, and that’s much of the reason I’m on the left. It’s important to separate the expression from the expressor; the art from the artist. It’s also vital: the list of good artists who are bad people goes on for quite a while (Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, V.S. Naipaul, Picasso, Byron, Norman Mailer…google any of them).

This is not a call to read work by writers you hate personally, nor to read work that you don’t like. If you’re Jewish, you have every right to loathe philandering anti-semite Roald Dahl and change the subject every time somebody brings up Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. If you’re a woman, it will not surprise me very much if you don’t like David Mamet’s plays. There’s a comic book called Fables that I enjoyed right up until the author made his political ideas a part of the storyline, and I put it down and haven’t picked it up since. If you do the same thing for the opposite reason, I’m in no position to judge.

But I can’t support someone who believes it’s his job to gin up public opposition to a work of art because the artist thinks bad things in his spare time. Somehow, in the last few years, this has become an acceptable way to talk about artists, likely because everyone is now more publicly available than they used to be, and out of context, lots of folks look foolish. And frequently, someone like Roman Polanski, who raped a minor, gets tarred with the same brush as Scott Adams, who said some stupid things. This isn’t the way it ought to be. We ought not to give ourselves excuses to ignore work we might find offensive — I know this from personal experience. Upset yourself. Offend yourself. It’s the best thing you can do. Read Crime and Punishment even though you’re a committed Marxist. Read Ender’s Game even though you threw a party when DOMA was overturned. Read Marilynne Robinson even though you think Christianity is an idiotic mistake. It’s the only way to grow wiser. I will also say that Ender’s Game is a good book by most reasonable standards, and worth reading today. It foresees the then-future of warfare with startling accuracy and compassion for everyone involved, and it is finely written and surprising. Simmons, too, is an excellent writer with an incredible gift for description. His novels, especially The Hyperion Cantos, are brilliant, bursting with great ideas. It would be a shame to miss them because the author has said some dumb things and even written a dumb novel.

And it is important to grow wiser. We can no longer reasonably consider culture a civilizing force, as the critic George Steiner so wisely pointed out. “[I]t is not only the case that the established media of civilization – the universities, the arts, the book world – failed to offer adequate resistance to political bestiality;” Steiner wrote in 1967, “they often rose to welcome it and gave it ceremony and apologia.” The stakes are too high for us to assume that we are always on the right side, and so, especially when we are most certain of ourselves, it must always be best to at least seek to understand our opposition, not so that we can abandon our principles, but so that we can continue to understand people whose ideas are untenable, hateful, even bestial, as human beings, rather than as mere avatars of those ideas.


Curator’s Note:
Read CFR contributor Jake Olbert’s alternative take on Orson Scott Card and the call to boycott Ender’s Game.

  • Erik Haagensen

    Hear, hear. Excellent piece, Sam. Thanks.

    Free editor’s note: Unless “Ender’s Game” is the only science-fiction novel that Card has written, in the first sentence it should not be set off by commas.

    But again, well said and very much worth saying.

    • We look forward to the day when we’re staffed sufficiently to worry about such things, Erik. But thank you for the note and we hope you’re equally pleased with the post itself.