Orson Scott Card and how the personal is too political

Jonathan McLeod

Jonathan McLeod is a writer living in Ottawa, Ontario. (That means Canada.) He spends too much time following local politics and writing about zoning issues. Follow him on Twitter.

Related Post Roulette

79 Responses

  1. Jaybird says:

    I admit to not buying Ben and Jerry’s there for a while due to their support of the whole “Free Mumia” thing.

    If you won’t be able to look yourself in the mirror because you did X, then DO NOT DO X.

    This is good advice for anybody.Report

    • George Turner in reply to Jaybird says:

      I didn’t start eating Ben & Jerry’s until I found out their ice cream was chock full of dioxin, part of the fallout from their chest-thumping about switching to dioxin-free cardboard packaging. I found that quite amusing.Report

  2. greginak says:

    In general i agree although there are times when a person or companies behavior just sticks in your craw to the point you hate to give them money. I refuse to go to an exxon station because of the Exxon Valdez and their continuing efforts to avoid paying the fines. We don’t have Exxon in Ak since the disaster so that is easy and when traveling in the lower 48 its usually pretty easy. Once, however, i was going someplace on a big highway with the wife and we were low on gas. I had already avoided an exxon station but the exits were far apart and the needle was nearing E and damn it all the next station was an Exxon, so she insisted. I gave in because it would have been risky to skip that station, but didn’t really like it. But really fish exxon.Report

    • Certainly. I’m a big fan of living intentionally. There are going to be some things that are just too much to stomach. I just think there is sometimes a tendency to let these political opinions affect too much of one’s life.Report

      • greginak in reply to Jonathan McLeod says:

        I agree. Being intentional is good, but if every choice has to be deeply thought out or adhere to a political belief your life is going to get very complex instead of simplified. That complexity in itself takes away energy and attention needed to live intentionally towards a good life. We only have so much energy and it should be spent wisely ie: not debating every darn decision just get on with what is important.Report

    • Glyph in reply to greginak says:

      I think I have only gotten Exxon gas once since the Valdez spill, under similar duress as you describe here.

      I haven’t been as rigid about BP, for some stupid reason.Report

      • greginak in reply to Glyph says:

        If only we had Esso, now there was a good gas station and people you could trust

        I actually do have fond memories of stopping at the Esso station near my house with my parents when i was kid.Report

        • zic in reply to greginak says:

          Wasn’t Esso the company rebranded (perhaps through a merger?) into Exon? I seem to recall all the Esso signs being replaced by Exon signs when I was a kid.

          I also noticed many Esso stations in British Columbia when we last visited Vancouver; but that’s been some time.Report

    • Kim in reply to greginak says:

      Exxon doesn’t own /any/ gas stations anymore.
      You are not hurting them in the slightest.Report

  3. NewDealer says:

    Note, I have never read the books and don’t really plan on doing so.

    I think as liberals we are just used to having more entertainment on “our side”. So when someone writes something that many people love (like Ender’s game) and he or she needs up having “appalling” politics, it surprises us more. Especially when you have someone who hammers away at it like Orson Scott Card.

    As liberals, I am constantly stymied by what Connor Williams called the “Conservative Dissonance” conservative but as you note, I guess many conservatives feel the need to do this part of compartmentalizing. There was an essay on Buzzfeed this week by a 37-year old white Republican from the suburbs of Florida. It was about how much he loves hip-hop and what hip-hop means to him. He is of the right age to love hip-hop but I sincerely wonder how someone can listen to something that is as political as hip-hop and still think it is a good argument for standard GOP/Tea Party talking points. Connor noted in his essay on hipster conservatism that many of Cognitive Dissonance cons can be seen blasting TuPac and making comments in class the next day that sound less than enlightened on issues of race. At least to liberals….Report

    • That’s definitely an “advantage” liberals have… though I always found it a good check on my partisanship (back when I was totally a partisan). I couldn’t just outright dismiss anyone in pop culture who was a liberal, because then I’d have very little to listen to or watch.

      I remember Conor writing about that. I don’t think it requires cognitive dissonance to hold viewpoints counter to those of an artist and still be able to appreciate his or her artistry. Sarah Polley is very opinionated, and I have no interest in listening to her talk politics, but she’s a damned fine actress.

      Further, it’s good to be able to laugh at oneself or accept criticism in the form of parody. That’s why I similarly had few issues listening to the likes of Jon Stewart or watch Bob Roberts. (And some of this stuff is easy to just enjoy on a superficial level.)

      But I agree with you and Conor that people who adopt, nearly completely, some kind of lifestyle or art/music/film that is so completely steeped in ardently differing politics, that it might require come cognitive dissonance to live that way. (Or, you just don’t care about your political foes to such a great degree that you don’t even see their artistic output as having any sort depth to it… which is the sort of thing the I was getting at in the OP.)Report

    • LeeEsq in reply to NewDealer says:

      I’d actually that a lot of entertainment isn’t on the side of liberals. A lot of Hollywood movies and television shows might be liberal on social issues but on economics they tend to be lukewarm at best. I also think that a lot of entertainment agrees with liberals on social issues is more of a happy accident of the 1960s. Before the 1960s, a lot of entertainment was solidly to mildly conservative. The Hayes Code embodied a somewhat conservative vision of society and sought to make movies reflect that vision as much as possible. This was especially true for MGM movies.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to LeeEsq says:

        The Big Important Message movies are pretty much Liberal. If there is going to be a sweeping statement made about the importance of society to respond to (issue), it’ll probably be something like how nuclear power is bad, or fracking is bad, or corporations are bad. If there’s a conservative Christian in one of these movies, he or she will end up being child molesters or otherwise deeply hypocritical unsympathetic characters.

        The Entertainment Happy Fun movies tend to focus on the importance of Being A Man With Principles and One Man With Courage Makes A Majority. There’s usually no discussion of religion at all in these… why alienate potential viewers? (The Avengers had an interesting throwaway line from Captain America wrt Thor: “There’s only one God, ma’am. And he doesn’t dress like that.” Tah-dah! A movie suitable for the Southern Babtist lock-in.)

        The movies that get too preachy tend to not make money. Go figure.Report

    • Brandon Berg in reply to NewDealer says:

      I’m not looking forward to being old. But I sure am looking forward to seventy-year-old rap fans.Report

  4. Mike Schilling says:

    Boycotting Card’s work because of his politics is wrong. You should boycott it because it’s almost uniformly awful.Report

  5. LeeEsq says:

    I think that people on the Left, although I think this is also more common on the Far Left than among liberals, tend to engaging in boycotting certain artists because they do not really believe that anything is not political. In a democracy, you can argue that everything is by nature a political because democracy is about giving the power to people to govern themselves and shape society as they see fit. This means that nothing could ever really be non-political because everything should be in the public sphere. I think this ultimately traces back to the Athenian practice of sending people into exile simply because they weren’t liked by enough people. Since the Far Left tends towards an Athenian mode of democracy even if they don’t know it than nothing could really be non-political to them. The boycotting of people whose opinions you don’t like or who do things you don’t like is simply another way of expressing your political opinion.

    The other issue is that boycotting artists you don’t like is a way to exercise power when you feel powerless. You might not be able to change people but at least you can have some modicum of control by not making their art a part of your life.

    So I understand why some people want to boycott artists because of an opinion they hold. At the same time, I think its kind of foolish. Its whats called Aesthetic Stalinism, the idea that art should reflect the correct beliefs or at least the artist should hold the correct beliefs. Requiring all culture to adhere to certain ideological beliefs has a coercive effect on culture and tends to act as a hamper to beauty and greatness. It also creates an unnecessarily decisive society. There isn’t going to be a magic period where everybody is in complete agreement about everything important. We need to find a way to kind of get long despite our disagreements on practically everything.Report

    • greginak in reply to LeeEsq says:

      I had heard the “the personal is political” line in a lot of feminist thought. There is certainly part of that which is correct, but it seemed to get taken to an absurd degree where every single choice, option and preference is measured on against political preferences. It does lead to be being a serious ideologue.Report

      • I don’t really disagree with either of these fine comments. Like greginak, to a certain extent I agree with the ‘personal is political’ idea. You can’t just turn off your beliefs, but I can’t believe that this necessitates walling of groups of people/art/events from your life based on politics.Report

        • LeeEsq in reply to Jonathan McLeod says:

          The Far Right also has a very strong tendency to make the personal political. Look at the Evangelical crusade against anything that doesn’t conform to their version of Christianity or the need to create an alternative Evangelical version of popular culture, Christian Pop, rather than enjoy regular pop music and go to church every Sunday. More support for my belief that the Far Left and Far Right have a lot more in common than they would like to admit. Like greginak, I think its absurd to make sure that all my cultural preferences mirror my political beliefs. Its too limiting and possibly dangerous. It dehumanizes people who disagree with you. Its also the way towards censorship and ultimately the Inquisition in its worst incarnations.Report

        • Murali in reply to Jonathan McLeod says:

          But you realise that mixing the political and the personal can have really illiberal results. Part of what social conservatives do is mix the personal with the political. Keeping the two separate is what ultimately allows us to say “keep the church personal and out of our shared political spaces”Report

  6. b-psycho says:


    I listen to the music of The Coup, and have done so for years. Am I a communist? No.Report

  7. Richards says:

    I’d read a lot of Card’s work during the 90’s and early 00’s, and knew early on he was a devout Mormon. His best writing has been examinations of family and social dynamics. In any of his novels you were always guaranteed one scene of extreme violence and another written to make you cry.

    Ironically, one my favorites has always been “Speaker for the Dead”, wherein a mature Ender finds out that that what is unacceptable behavior in your culture is perfectly logical to another, and that judgement is all abotu context. His flagrant homophobia would indicate he has forgotten about that.Report

  8. KatherineMW says:

    There are always going to be artists whose transgressions will be just too great to ignore. I get that (I don’t know if I can ever watch a Polanski film).

    I agree with you on this, and I don’t regard boycotting Polanski as political. Objecting to a person’s political opinions, even unpleasant ones, is one thing. Not wanting to give your money to a person who raped a young girl and escaped justice is another. Nobody should buy anything that puts money in Polanski’s pockets.Report

    • George Turner in reply to KatherineMW says:

      But morally, if we all put money in Polanski’s pockets then couldn’t he just buy prostitutes instead of raping underage actresses? Wasn’t that simple truth central to the movie Night Shift with Henry Winkler and Michael Keaton? There was something about running a prostitution ring out of the morgue so innocent girl scouts don’t get raped, as I recall, and feeding mayonnaise to tuna fish.Report

  9. trizzlor says:

    Card is an interesting case. I originally had no interest in the boycott for the same reason that you outline, but then he issued such a tone-deaf and passive-aggressive response to the boycott that I was forced to change my mind. Once he decided to force himself into the issue and essentially say “you’re intolerant if you don’t watch my film” (I’m paraphrasing, of course, read his short statement), I no longer felt comfortable staying passive on the issue either.

    Also, I’m curious if your friend would have gone to see a live performance by Wagner or a live poetry reading by Pound and if that makes any difference?Report

  10. Michelle says:

    I’m far more likely to boycott corporations whose policies don’t align with my ethical compass than I am individual artists. For example, I won’t set foot in a Walmart and I try to avoid all things Monsanto. Corporations have the kind of political and economic clout artists, no matter how popular they might be.Report

  11. Kazzy says:

    I don’t know that I’ve ever formally participated in a boycott. I haven’t been to Chik-Fil-A since that whole brouhaha went down, though I haven’t exactly had the opportunity to. I guess I’ve been in the one local mall that has it since then, but never thought, “Let’s get Chik… no… no… we can’t.”

    For me, I’d say that the personal crosses over to the political if and when the individual makes it such. If you want to oppose gay marriage and vote for Prop 8 and talk to your friends about how gay marriage will ruin your straight marriage, go for it. It will likely never get back to me and, if it does, it probably won’t move the needle much. But if you decide to pen an Op-Ed for a paper or campaign openly and use your celebrity in support of Prop 8… well, you’ve certainly made the personal into the political. At which point I may then decide to boycott the individual. It won’t be reflex… I’d have to really look at what they were doing.

    Generally speaking, I don’t spend a ton of money on media and I’m largely ignorant to the personal lives of media makers so it tends not to come up.

    I think JB is on to something with his initial comment that if you will struggle with having done something, maybe you shouldn’t do it. But if you are only doubting doing something because you think you should doubt doing it or because of signaling or whathaveyou… you probably have bigger fish to fry.Report

  12. Stillwater says:

    I just had a conversation with a friend about this very thing. And I mean exactly.

    “Smedley” was advising me to avoid OSC books and movies because of his personal politics. My response was that I did a pretty good job of distinguishing the personal politics of the artist from the art they create. In this case, the guy writes good books. And Ender’s Game has always – and by that I mean continues – to strike me as a work of genius.

    Why should I give a crap about the author’s political views when judging their work? It’s never made any sense to me.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Stillwater says:

      At the end of the day, it’s a religious argument.Report

    • Brandon Berg in reply to Stillwater says:

      One possible argument for boycotts is that an author’s success as an author is the main reason he has a platform from which to broadcast his views widely. Nobody cares what some guy who wrote a Kindle book that sold fifty copies—all to his friends and family—thinks about anything.

      Of course, the ideal solution is for people to stop thinking that being a good author, musician, or actor necessarily means that you have anything intelligent to stay about politics. But since you don’t control what other people think, you can at least make someone marginally less successful by boycotting his work.

      Of course, this is potentially susceptible to the Streisand Effect—the boycott may bring more notoriety than buying his work.Report

    • Kim in reply to Stillwater says:

      OSC wrote drivel about a scifi mormon thingy. it was dumb. if i had recognized it as being mormon, I’d have stopped after the first.Report

  13. Mo says:

    Is there a difference between there politics and what they do. If OSC was just opposed to marriage equality or even just gave money to Prop 8, it would be one thing. OSC is on the board of NOM. It’s the difference between someone being an anti-Semite vs. someone being in the National Alliance.Report

  14. Marianne says:

    I stopped reading anything Card wrote, and I won’t be buying movie tickets, for 3 reasons:
    1) I got so fed up with his stupidity and homophobia and arrogance that if I DID try to enjoy something of his, I couldn’t. I would just find myself thinking “ARGH, ” .
    2) I found that his politics started infecting his books even more than previously. Has anyone else tried to read Empire? YEAH. ARGH. It’s like he really wanted to make sure I didn’t forget what a jackass he was for more than 4 pages simultaneously.
    3) My red-hot self-righteous indignation at him was starting to screw up my good memories of being a teenager who loved his books. And, I mean, I *loved* many of his books. The Ender stuff. The Alvin Maker stuff. Even, god help me, the plays about Biblical women. And Songmaster – which I find hugely problematic now – but when I was a kid it was one of the first books I’d ever read where people of the same sex loved each other and that love WAS NOT EXPLAINED AWAY AS A DELUSION. I started to find that by continuing to engage with his work, I was spoiling all my previous experience of him. And I thought it was more important to cut my kid self a break than to continue to stomp all over her in the name of facing reality.Report

    • Don Zeko in reply to Marianne says:

      It seems to me that the reason not to read his later stuff is that it got much, much worse than Ender’s Game, Ender’s Shadow, or Speaker for the Dead. His injection of his noxious politics into it is part of the problem, but it’s a problem because it is part of what makes his later books terrible.Report

      • Morat20 in reply to Don Zeko says:

        To me, it’s simple: When his/her objectionable (to me) views start to invest his/her work, I stop reading that work. Otherwise, I rarely care. Companies yes, individuals no.

        It’s a good rule of thumb, that’s really easy to apply, insofar as when authors start getting on their high horses in books (and also filmmakers in movies), the results often suck out loud anyways. So it’s easy not to read it, because it’s stopped being entertainment and started being some form of lecture that I’m regretting having paid for.

        For instance, those..Goodkind books. I forget the world, but they started out as pretty stock fantasy (if high handed with a Marty Stu) and derailed into basically a like 40 page objectivist rant. Which is where I gave up. Because I had JUST read a 40 page objectivist rant that morphed into a 40 page anti-pacifism rant that culminated in the (forever stuck in my memory) line “Armed with just their moral clarity, they charged into battle” which — given I read it during or around the lead up to Gulf War II, amounted to me reading the world’s most pathetic pacifist strawman “rebuttal” right after reading a whole bunch of stuff on economics that Ayn Rand would have called “A little over the top”.

        Even among fans of his series, that book represents a nadir of quality and storyline. Because he stopped writing fantasy and started writing his politics. And generally at that point I stop reading works by those authors, mostly because “The last thing I read by them sucked and was obviously written as therapy — they should just go argue with whomever ticked them off and stop sidetracking their books” and I don’t go back.

        It’s not a boycott. It’s…bad product, and there’s other writers out there who haven’t messed the bed, so to speak.Report

  15. zic says:

    I read most of Card’s early work; including the Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead, which are probably his best books. (I also liked the concepts of relativity on aging in Hot Sleep, but found them poorly developed.)

    I stopped reading because I realized he’s a crappy writer, with a few good works amongst a lot of dreck. And I won’t see the movie because I generally hate movies based on books I like; and suspect we’ll be looking at a Water World or Battlefield Earth, not LOTR.

    When it comes to Card’s bigotry vs. consuming his art, I can understand people doing that; seems similar to not shopping at WalMart, etc. You’re individual boycott may not matter, but it is the promise held out to individuals in a free market system.

    But the deeper issue here is the production of art. There are gifted artists all over the political spectrum; there are artists who don’t think much of politics. There are odd distortions within art markets; for instance, from what I’d seen, I’d guess the best paid sculptors in the US often work within a Christian tradition and earn most of their commissions producing art for churches.

    But an underlying function of art is questioning the status quo; questioning assumptions, and pushing boundaries of personal and civil liberties. So I would expect a lager percentage of artists to be liberal, while the capacity to embrace ambiguity seems to be more common to liberals, it’s crucial to making art.Report

  16. Dale Forguson says:

    I was once offered the opportunity to meet any actor/actress I could name. I declined. I prefer to maintain my illusions rather than be confronted by reality. Performers do a very specific thing in a very controlled environment. Even if they do it well it doesn’t qualify them to guide my political or social thinking. Judging by the news I assume that most entertainers are somewhat shallow thinkers.

    Boycotting, on the other hand can’t really be separated between the individual and the corporate. If the abuse is sufficiently offensive I feel compelled to withhold my financial support as much as I can regardless of who the entity is.Report

  17. George Turner says:

    There’s a recent case that tangentially touches on the topic of political views intruding on art in this story about atheist objections to having a Star of David visible in Ohio’s Holocaust Memorial.

    The Freedom from Religion Foundation wants the proposed Statehouse Holocaust memorial changed by removing what it sees as the Jewish religious symbolism of the Star of David. In a June 14 letter to Richard H. Finan, chairman of the Capitol Square Review and Advisory Board, two foundation officials said they have no objections to a Holocaust memorial at the Statehouse. However, architect Daniel Libeskind’s design includes a cut-out version of a 6-pointed star, usually interepreted as the Star of David, a symbol associated with Judiasm. Arguably, that would be a violation of the separation of church and state set out in the U.S. Constitution, the foundation said.

    It’s not exactly boycotting a movie over a writer’s political opinions, but it is kind of the same thing.Report

  18. James Vonder Haar says:

    We just need to stop trying to use the lash of the market to score political points. There’s a common exchange in these sorts of debates that isn’t particularly helpful:

    A: Your boycott violates my freedom of speech!
    B: Nuh-uh, freedom of speech only applies to the government!

    And things rarely expand beyond that. The thing is, I don’t think freedom of speech was enshrined in the constitution simply as a legal formalism. A country that enshrines this freedom into its constitution but which exacts significant social and economic penalties on dissenters does not meaningfully protect the freedom of speech. It’s not for nothing that Tocqueville claims that “I know no country in which, generally speaking, there is less independence of mind and true freedom of discussion than in America.” Tocqueville thought this was because of the incredible extralegal power majorities had to suppress dissent, and his claims have only gained greater force in the era of the internet and in an economy where self-sufficient farming isn’t an option for the vast majority.

    So, while I strongly disagree with Card’s opinions, and I myself would very much like to some day get married, I can’t see this boycott – or any boycott that targets someone specifically for expressing unpopular opinions – as anything other than illiberal.Report

  19. DavidTC says:

    Everyone seems to be talking about Card’s ‘opinions’. The reason I will not be seeing Ender’s Game is not because of Card’s opinions. It’s really amazing how people keep yammering about his ‘opinions’, just like they decided the Chick-Fil-A boycott was over ‘opinions’.

    There is a difference between an ‘opinion’ and _actively attempting to deny rights to people_.

    No one care what Card thinks, anymore than they care what Dan T. Cathy thinks. They care about those people’s active efforts to support _horrible_ organizations like National Organization for Marriage (Which Card is a board member of.) and Exodus International (Which Cathy’s charity donates to. Well, donate_d_ to.).

    Card’s _opinions_ are utterly moot. Card’s _organization_ is the problem.

    TL;DR: If Card wishes to state his opinions, I will call him wrong and state mine back, and stop there. But if Card wishes to organize in a like-minded group to lobby for laws that cause harm to a group of people, I will organize in a like-minded group to…not give him any of my money at all. (That still seems a little unbalanced, considering he doesn’t _have_ a right to my money in the first place, whereas people do have a right to get married. But we are still writing the ‘people named Orson Scott Card are not allowed to get married’ legislation.)Report

  20. Badtux says:

    Orson Scott Card is a jerk, true enough. But there are a lot of authors who are jerks whose books I can enjoy as books. Thinking about Jerry Pournelle, for example. He’s a total flaming racist sexist jerk, but his books (especially the ones with Larry Niven) generally entertained me, so I read them.

    The problem with Orson Scott Card is that he basically wrote one book — Ender’s Game — that was worth reading. And then when you analyze why it works, you realize that a large reason for why it works is a strong undercurrent of S&M pedophilia. Then you look at the books he wrote after that, and they’re basically religious tracts disguised as science fiction, books featuring young people in basically S&M pedophilia situations, or both. I quit reading Orson Scott Card’s books because I felt dirty after reading them after noticing that, not because of his political views — I had no idea of his political views at the time.

    Orson Scott Card made the mistake of allowing his religious and political views (and sexual hangups) to crush the entertainment value of his books, in other words. Something which also happened with Ursula Le Guin on the left-wing side of the spectrum, now that I think about it — most of her later books were utterly unreadable for the same reason. That, rather than the fact that he’s a flaming a-hole, is why people shouldn’t read his books in the end.Report

    • Mike Schilling in reply to Badtux says:

      This always puzzles me: UKLG gets criticized for the politics and (especially) feminism in her books (there’s even a meme for it “Bad Ursula”), while Pournelle, who writes right-wing screeds, gets a pass.Report

      • Badtux in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        It’s all about entertainment, in the end. Pournelle’s stuff may in large part be militarist jingoism but it’s a fun read because he understands that his job is to entertain, not to preach. The same does not apply to UKLG’s later novels, which became insufferably preachy. My personal politics are much closer to UKLG’s than to Pournelle’s, but I don’t buy fiction in order to be preached at, I buy fiction to be entertained.Report

        • Mike Schilling in reply to Badtux says:

          There’s Pournelle I’ve enjoyed, like …

          OK, not really. He pretty much invented Mil-SF [1], which I consider as big a blight on SF as superheros are on movies. There’s Niven and Pournelle I’ve enjoyed, but The Gripping Hand was a huge disappointment after Moat, and Burning City was so boring, unpleasant, and borderline racist that I gave up on them entirely.

          1. As a career path. There has always been SF about wars and the military, but Pournelle was one of the first to write little or nothing else.Report

        • George Turner in reply to Badtux says:

          So you hate military sci-fi, and as is typical, you blame a human.

          Jerry Pournelle is not the problem. It’s the freakin’ aliens that are the problem. They blast our ships, attack our colonies, try to hit our planet with rocks, steal our water, and enslave us or eat us. Without someone out there protecting our planet, other genres wouldn’t stand a chance and you could just kiss those twinkly vampires goodbye.Report

      • Kim in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        Pournelle is a giant ass. He’s not terribly creative, but he does write decently.
        He’s much more readable when Niven’s contributing.Report