Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Orson Scott Card, and separating creator from creation

Today I'm going to ask a question that I'm not at all certain I have an answer to:  Is it possible to separate creative people from their works, especially in cases where the work is good but the creators themselves are reprehensible?  Or outright crazy?

I bring this up, of course, because of Orson Scott Card, whose book Ender's Game is brilliant, but who personally seems to be a grade-A wingnut.

First, we had the revelation that Card had served for years on the board of the National Organization for Marriage, an organization whose entire raison d'ĂȘtre is opposing gay marriage.  (He quietly resigned in 2009, possibly because he knew that it would result in bad press for the upcoming movie version of his book.)  The story came out anyway, of course, as did homophobic vitriol he'd written that included the following [Source]:
The dark secret of homosexual society -- the one that dares not speak its name -- is how many homosexuals first entered into that world through a disturbing seduction or rape or molestation or abuse, and how many of them yearn to get out of the homosexual community and live normally.
He still refers to the gay marriage question as requiring the "radical redefinition of marriage," which I find wryly amusing, given that he's a devout Mormon.

Be that as it may, his anti-homosexual opinions are sadly commonplace.  Not so his more recently revealed opinions, which move him from "narrow-minded right-winger" directly into the "card-carrying loony" column.  Because now Card is now claiming that there is a leftist conspiracy to trash the Constitution and turn President Obama into an emperor [Source]:
Obama is, by character and preference, a dictator. He hates the very idea of compromise; he demonizes his critics and despises even his own toadies in the liberal press. He circumvented Congress as soon as he got into office by appointing "czars" who didn't need Senate approval. His own party hasn't passed a budget ever in the Senate.

In other words, Obama already acts as if the Constitution were just for show. Like Augustus, he pretends to govern within its framework, but in fact he treats it with contempt...

Michelle Obama is going to be Barack's Lurleen Wallace. Remember how George Wallace got around Alabama's ban on governors serving two terms in a row? He ran his wife for the office. Everyone knew Wallace would actually be pulling the strings, even though they denied it. Michelle Obama will be Obama's designated "successor," and any Democrat who seriously opposes her will be destroyed in the media the way everyone who contested Obama's run for the Democratic nomination in 2008 was destroyed.
How will Obama accomplish all of this? By hiring gang members as his personal hit men, of course:
Where will he get his "national police"? The NaPo will be recruited from "young out-of-work urban men" and it will be hailed as a cure for the economic malaise of the inner cities.

In other words, Obama will put a thin veneer of training and military structure on urban gangs, and send them out to channel their violence against Obama's enemies.

Instead of doing drive-by shootings in their own neighborhoods, these young thugs will do beatings and murders of people "trying to escape" -- people who all seem to be leaders and members of groups that oppose Obama.
All righty, then. I guess that's clear enough.

What is a bit perplexing is how little of this nuttiness comes through in Ender's Game, a book that is rightly popular and is (in fact) required reading in 10th grade English classes in the high school where I teach.  How could someone who has so clearly gone off the deep end can write a book as morally complex as this one?   (I know more than one person who is boycotting the movie, largely because of a desire not to put more money in the hands of a person who has such repellent ideas.)

Of course, Card is hardly the only author whose odd personal life has given readers pause.   Robert Heinlein, whose Stranger in a Strange Land, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and Starship Troopers are classics of science fiction, was during his life a peculiar mix of forward-thinking and reactionary. (What other nudists who supported Free Love can you think of who worked on the Barry Goldwater campaign?)

And of course, you get into even deeper water when you throw actors, artists, and musicians into the mix.  I know one person who can't even watch a Tom Cruise movie because of his role in suppressing negative press for the Scientologists.  I have less of a problem here, because when Cruise is on the screen, he's playing someone else, after all.  (There's still the difficulty of bankrolling someone who is morally reprehensible -- I do get that.)

So, it's a question worth asking.  Do the repulsive and (frankly) counterfactual beliefs of people like Orson Scott Card give us a reason to avoid their creations, even if those creations have their own merit?  To what extent can you separate the creation from the creator?  I suspect, from personal experience, that this may not even be possible. In addition to writing Skeptophilia I write fiction, and it is undeniable that my views of the universe have a way of creeping in -- however much I try to make the characters their own people, with their own worldviews and their own motivations.  And sometimes it works better than others.  For example, I deliberately tried to shake up my own sensibilities when I wrote the novella Adam's Fall -- the point-of-view character is an elderly and devout Anglican clergyman, and (I think) a highly sympathetic and complex man. The separation isn't quite so clear in other cases, though, and when a friend read my novel Signal to Noise, she said about the main character, "Um... you do realize that Tyler Vaughn is you, don't you?"

I'd be interested to hear what my readers think about this question, particularly apropos of the homophobia and conspiracy-theory aspects of Orson Scott Card's beliefs.  Do these diminish your enjoyment of his fiction?  Or stop you from reading it entirely?  Should it matter what sort of personal life an author or artist (or, for that matter, a scientist) leads?  Should it matter that geneticist James Watson thinks that Africa will never amount to much because "their intelligence is [not] the same as ours"?  Does the child molestation conviction of biologist Carleton Gajdusek decrease the worth of his research into the etiology of mad cow disease, research that led to protocols that have undoubtedly saved lives?  Does it make a difference that Isaac Newton, the "father of mathematical physics," was a narrow-minded religious fanatic who spent his spare time poring the bible for secret messages so he could figure out when the Antichrist was coming to Earth?

Myself, I think this just points up something that bears remembering: humans are complex. We are all combinations of good and bad -- some of us, really good and really bad.  What positive things we might accomplish don't excuse us from the repercussions of our darker sides, of course; but perhaps we should stop being surprised when they occur in the same person.

Maybe the problem here is our desire for clear-cut heroes and villains.  People are never two-dimensional, however easier it might make the world if they were.  Realistically, we shouldn't expect them to be.  When we are surprised at how odd, and seemingly self-contradictory, the human mind can be, perhaps it's our assumptions that are at fault.


  1. I can't read Ender's Game anymore without hearing Card's rants in the back of my mind. It's completely ruined the book for me. That said, while I've heard that Dan Simmons has said some similarly offensive and unpleasant things, I haven't read or heard any of them, and can still read his work quite happily. As for whether there *should* be a separation between art and artist? I have no clue how to even start with that question...

  2. This has been a very good and thought provoking article.

    I read Ender's Game for the first time in 5th Grade (17 years ago). I have reread it and all the other works associated with it many many times. It was is and always will be one of my favorite books of all time. It had a very profound impact on my life.
    I know what he has said and done. I know it is morally reprehensible. But his books are amazing and I will read all of them until he stops writing I will also be first in line for the midnight showing of the movie.

  3. What makes it worse is that I suspect him of being a closet pedophile that even he may not realize. There's little too much of an undercurrent of naked boys in Enders's Game to be purely plot-driven.

  4. Carried to its logical extreme, the idea that we don't want to buy things that financially support people whose opinions we find repugnant, would extend to any job they might have. Is it really fair for me to organize a boycott of a restaurant because the burger chef writes a letter to the editor expressing opinions I dislike? Of course, if he comes out to lecture me during lunch, I might not find that a pleasant dining experience, but then we're talking about his job performance, and about me personally -- other people might be amused by it or like it.

    It's easy to think that people you disagree with are misinformed, disingenuous or evil. But in fact, nearly everybody wants what they think is best for people; we just disagree on what that is (or come at it from different directions that don't superficially appear similar). They may be provably wrong, but given how many things there are to be wrong about, and how very, very difficult it is to be objective about everything, you can be statistically certain there are things you're wrong about too. People generally mean well, and shouldn't be penalized for disagreeing with you. That's a distancing move.

    If you want to bring people around, you have to involve them in dialogue and make sure they know they've been listened to. Only then will they be willing to listen to you. If you insist that they hold the right opinions before they get to eat, you're just making the polarization worse and inviting retaliation. I'll just do business with my in-group, you just do business with your in-group, and we're all worse off for never encountering anyone who challenges our opinions.

    (An alternative approach to trying to bring people around, BTW, is to look at the trends and note whether the people you disagree with are rapidly dying off. Maybe you don't need to do anything.)

    So if you don't enjoy Orson's work for whatever reason, don't read it (or watch it). Making a big noise about it and writing to the studio, however, is going too far. Unless you would welcome, let's say, a librarian being fired from their job in a small Texas town for being too liberal. Morally speaking, this seems the same.

    If you only believe in the value of diversity when dealing with people who largely agree with you, then you don't really value diversity.

  5. You mention musicians above; Jerry Garcia is a perfect example of an incredibly complex individual who was known, and deservedly so, for being great in one area. He's certainly no role model in almost any other area than music.

    David Gerrold, a well-known science fiction author who happens to be gay, has done a good job explaining his stance on Card: he finds Card's opinions execrable, but respects his work and even appreciates that Card has provided an opening for a real conversation on the subject of gay marriage.

  6. A similar conundrum exists with the late Steig Larson's "Girl with a Dragon Tattoo" series. The original is also in my top-ten list. But do I contribute to enriching his estranged father and brother who refuse to share it with his life-long life partner (as suspected co-author) because he died without a will?

  7. It is funny you mention Orson Scott Card because I have been reading some of his books lately and it appears some of his latest work (books like Empire and its sequel) are almost blatantly right wing propaganda. Still they were entertaining in their own way.

    As far as separating the creation from its creator. I don't have a problem with it. I can easily go see a Tom Cruise movie while making fun of the guy for believing in Scientology.

    Hell if I stopped watching movies because I disagreed with something a director or an actor might believe in I would have very few films left to choose from.

  8. Perhaps the most disappointed I've been in a celebrity was when I learned of Card's true colors. Just before going to watch the Ender's Game movie trailer, in fact, which I was highly anticipating. I can think of no other book that has been as incredibly influential on me as Ender's Game, and I've read it countless times. I am now an entirely opposite person from him, being extremely liberal, a freethinking skeptical atheist, and bisexual. But Ender's treatment of, and sympathy towards the Buggers, in spite of the abuse and pain his own species caused him, was a very valuable lesson to me. It's a shame Card thought such a thing was only possible in fiction.

  9. Going through the archives I'm showing up late to this discussion.
    But I have to say I'm disappointed that Gorden Bonnet presents Card's "thought experiment" paranoid and partisan though it was, as Card's actual "claim that there's a
    leftist conspiracy to trash the constitution and turn Obama into an Emperor."
    When Card explicitly says, in no fewer then 3 places during his rant, that this "will never happen" and is "fiction".
    But "anything can happen" wink-wink.
    While Card's rant reeks or conservative hack talk-show alarmism and I dis-agree with his notions of plausibility, he's not building a case for an actual conspiracy here, but a fictional one.
    He doesn't believe this will actually happen.
    That's too important a caveat to just leave out entirely.