Print Edition: November 20, 2013
Hyenas nipping at the heels of Mufasa.
That’s what I think of whenever I see a reference to the campaign to boycott Ender’s Game: a swarm of mangy scavengers slowly overwhelming an old lion. Obviously, this is emotive and reactionary thinking, but it does cause me physical pain to see Orson Scott Card so demonized. I thought that being one of the finest (and most progressive) sci-fi writers of his generation would garner him more respect, but, just as Ender himself was transformed from hero to villain in the aftermath of victory, a changing society has come to revile Card.
As the boycott is all but a spent force at this point, I’m not going demand that it be defied or repealed. I have two major problems with it, one concerning accuracy and one concerning the conception itself. I’ll start with accuracy as the more pressing of the two.
Much of the web coverage of the boycott consists of a series of assumptions peppered with links both to each other and perceived evidence for those assumptions. Most of them, whether the official “Skip Ender’s Game” page, or articles from Salon, Vice, The Huffington Post, or a dozen other pseudo-news sources, lead with titles calling Card anti-gay or homophobic. Vice, as well as a blog article featured on the official boycott page, accuse Card of being racist, and other sources marginalize him for what they consider his “neo-conservative” (read: crazy) political views.
The last two accusations are laughable, and I’m impressed at the nerve of any editor willing to put them in print. Card’s books incorporate characters from a variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds, and more accurate criticism recognizes him for his intelligence and sensitivity. One of the earliest heroes in Ender’s Game is a boy named Alai who is both dark-skinned and Muslim – not a combination often given sympathetic representation in 1980s popular fiction. As for Card’s political views, while he is obviously conservative, the only bigotry I find is in those trying to marginalize him by cherry-picking quotes from his blog, The Ornery American, and decontextualizing them. The most common quotes come from a recent, May 9 post titled (tellingly) “Unlikely Events” which begins with the following disclaimer:
“This is the column where I predict how American democracy ends. No, no, it’s just a silly thought experiment! I’m not serious about this! Nobody can predict the future! It’s just a game. The game of Unlikely Events. It isn’t my work as a writer of science fiction and fantasy that prepares me to write about unlikely events. My job in writing sci-fi is to make impossible events seem not just possible but likely. Inevitable.”
After such an intro, is it surprising that Card goes on to construct an unlikely series of political decisions which lead to President Obama becoming the first American dictator? No. Does Card claim this series of events should be taken seriously as a legitimate threat to American democracy? No. Should anybody be treating this blog post as a serious expression of Card’s political views?
Not unless their true rhetorical goal is blatant character assassination, which, while unsurprising, is a little disheartening. The Huffington Post after all, ran this story under the headline “Orson Scott Card Outdoes Himself With Insane, Racist Rant.” No one ever accused the bloated Huffington empire of being anything more than a bread-and-circus show (with the occasional lucid hiccup), but the sheer libelous audacity is breathtaking.
Which brings me to my second problem: the concept that, in this circumstance, libel and character assassination are okay. Most of the recent posts on Card begin with a reiteration of the accusations that the author is either anti-gay or outright homophobic, before leaping into non-factual allegations about his political or racial views. By harnessing the social condemnation of these loaded terms, by painting Card as a monochromatic villain, they’ve found a way to avoid having to be fair, truthful, or even logical in their assault. Culturally, the homophobe, like the racist, pedophile, and fundamentalist, represents the “other.” We are not them, indeed have no relation or connection to them, and therefore can engage in self-righteous hatred of them without moral qualification.
Consequently, the all-important question (culturally) becomes: “Is Card a homophobe?” This matters to those deciding whether to enjoy his work because Card, unlike other accused literary homophobes, chauvinists, molesters, sexists, or tyrants, is still alive and capable of using his profits to further his interests.
This question, unlike the others, is not absurd. Card is a member of the Church of Latter-day Saints, and has been involved in campaigns to protect a hetero-normative definition of marriage and family. The work most often cited as evidence for his homophobia is a 1990 essay called “The Hypocrites of Homosexuality,” which, eye-catching title aside, was actually an astoundingly liberal work for a Latter-day Saint to publish at the time. In 1990, 75 per cent of Americans believed homosexual sex was “immoral” and “gay marriage was illegal in literally every jurisdiction in the world” (Noah Berlatsky in The Atlantic). Most of us under 30 were not exactly concerned with sexual ethics in 1990, and therefore don’t understand how much the world has changed in the last quarter-century. To judge Card’s essay by the zeitgeist of 2013 ignores historical and social context, as well as the intricacies of the work itself. It also ignores the intricacies of Card as an articulate and sensitive intellectual, who added a clarifying defense to the piece post-publication:
“This essay was published in February of 1990, in the following context: The Supreme Court had declared in 1986 (Bowers v. Hardwick) that a Georgia law prohibiting sodomy even in the privacy of one’s own home was constitutional. I was also writing this essay to a conservative Mormon audience that at the time would have felt no interest in decriminalizing homosexual acts. In that context, my call to ‘leave the laws on the books’ was simply recognizing the law at that time, and my call to not enforce it except in flagrant cases was actually, within that context, a liberal and tolerant view – for which I was roundly criticized in conservative Mormon circles as being ‘pro-gay.’ Those who now use this essay to attack me as a “homophobe” deceptively ignore the context and treat the essay as if I had written it yesterday afternoon. That is absurd – now that the law has changed (the decision was overturned in 2003) I have no interest in criminalizing homosexual acts and would never call for such a thing, any more than I wanted such laws enforced back when they were still on the books. But I stand by the main points of this essay, which concerns matters internal to the Mormon Church.”
Some of the ambiguity in the public interpretation of Card’s position comes from the slippage of meaning between secular marriage as defined by the state, and sacred religious marriage as defined by the Church of Latter-Day Saints. As our society struggles to decide upon an acceptable application for the term “homophobe,” as well as the limits of “freedom of religion,” unjust attacks like the one levied against Card will occur. Still, we need to aspire to a greater level of accuracy and respect in our conversations, instead of “othering” those, like Card, whom we have decided to fear or despise.
We are humans, not hyenas, after all.