April 30, 2010 by J. Madson
Orson Scott Card spoke recently on the dismantling of America. You can read an overview and excerpt here
Here is my short response to Mr. Card’s speech, at least the excerpt I have seen.
Mr. Card presents a number of good points about preserving the good in our culture but then mixes in an ideology that is, in my view, more dangerous than the very ones he decries. I refer to his idea that America should be dominant among the world economically, militarily, and culturally. Certainly we should strive to be culturally the best we can, have a thriving economy, and even I would concede some form of national defense but what concerns me here is the imperialist mindset that Card seems to endorse here and perhaps more overtly in his other political writings.
Rather than worrying that “[a] Strong Culture must have powerful stories explaining why it is a Good Culture” perhaps we should consider that a good culture must have actions that explain or demonstrate why it is a good culture. Stories that explain why something is good should matter only if they are true. To sacrifice anything to a false narrative or a false story is a form of idolatry.
Mr. Card is certainly correct in his assertion that stories or narratives can be destructive. Indeed, to a large extent the destruction and death we imposed in Iraq was based on stories and narratives that explained why we were good and the other evil. Mr. Card decries the scapegoat phenomenon in others but in mimetic fashion quickly descends into his very own scapegoating. As Rene Girard taught, scapegoating is rooted in the creation of the other. Certainly, stories, true ones, should be guarded jealously, but there is even a greater danger in creating and defending stories that are false. I believe that certain myths and narratives need to be deconstructed, need to be destroyed, in order to unbury the truth covered with myths.
The word myth comes from Greek muthos meaning to close or keep secret. This is what we do when we engage in telling stories about why we are good while conveniently ignoring the truth. We engage in selective storytelling. We tell stories about “good” violence that binds our community (see Mr. Card’s first point no. 4). These myths speak of our violence as being against people or ideologies labeled evil. Those we fight are infidels, evil, or any other pejorative. In essence, they are different, not like us. This is, in short, the myth of redemptive violence:
“Righteous violence against evil violence secures a civilized future, says the myth.”
There is an ancient model for such thinking. It is that of building cairns. Ancient Israel would kill those it scapegoated and then bury them under stones that became altars or cairns (Joshua 7-8). Enemies bodies would form the foundation of city walls illustrating that their culture was in fact founded on murder and scapegoats. My concern with Mr. Card’s ideology is that unlike the Joshua from Nazareth who entered the Jordan, neged or with his being oriented to God, that it embraces the ancient Joshua whom the text says crossed the Jordan neged or with his being oriented to his enemies. To orient our lives with respect to our enemies is the foundation of mimetic desire which can only escalate more and more until we create the very apocalypse we fear. As Christians, we are asked to orient our lives not to death, not to enemies, but to God. Our allegiance is to truth and God not cultures. As Gil Bailie pointed out so well,
“Ultimately, then, it was another Joshua – the Yehosua about whom the Gospels were written – who stepped into the Jordan in a truly decisive way, not “opposite” (neged) his hated in enemies, but “in the presence of” (neged) his God. This Joshua/Jesus became the victim of the kind of sacrificial violence over which his ancestral namesake presided, and, to make the parallel complete, he left behind him no “cairn” that might be turned into yet another sacrificial shrine. They went to the tomb and found it empty.” Violence Unveiled, 166
Unlike myths (selective stories that keep things secret), truth telling means not forgetting and not covering up lies. The truth that will set us free (John 8:32) is called aletheia in the scriptures. This comes from the root letho meaning to forget. the “a” at the beginning negates the forgetting. In other words, truth means to not forget, to not build cairns, to not tell stories that explain why we are good but to tell true stories. This will set us free. Free to change and repent. If a culture is good we should defend it, but wherein it has erred we should engage in repentance or metanoia as the NT uses the word (literally change your mind, your story, your narrative). Indeed, changing our narrative and paradigm is an essential part of repentance. We should be able to hear the words of John, change your paradigm, change your narrative/story, change your way of seeing things, for the kingdom of God is at hand (Matt 3:2). This is the same spirit Jesus spoke of when he said that his crucifixion would set loose the parakletos (spirit) upon the world (John 16). This parakletos (defender of the accused) as opposed to satan (the accuser). This spirit is what he promised would show us how wrong we are about righteousness and condemnation. To tell stories, to tell myths, is to deny this voice. It is to forget and deny the truth. This is voice of Samuel telling the Nephites that their narrative, their storytelling, their powerful stories of why their “strong culture” was a “good culture” was founded on myths.
The empty tomb speaks to this truth. Jesus condemned the Pharisees and others for covering the murdered dead with tombs of myths and national narratives (matt 23:29-32). Just as the cairns of ancient times, the tomb functioned to hide, conceal, and keep secret the truth: that they were in fact murderers just like their father. There should be no more tombs, no more cairns, no more myths, selective narratives, or anything but the empty tomb. Truth telling individually and nationally means not forgetting our past, not forgetting those who we have attempted to conceal in tombs of powerful stories explaining why we are a good culture.
Mr. Card suggests that it is wrong to suggest:
“We mistreat other countries. We mistreat the poor. When we’re in conflict with other countries it’s our fault. Of course they hate us — we deserve their hatred. Their cultures are just as good as our culture — in fact, they’re better. Anybody who wants to be a soldier to fight for Amerika is a crypto-fascist, a violent dangerous person. Good people don’t want to be soldiers because soldiers are just killers with permission.”
However, we must be willing to ask the hard questions and not cover up any more murders with stories, with myths, with cairns. We must be willing to give up scapegoating, give up myth telling, and not forget, not cover up. This is the painful truth telling required of Christians. To seek truth wherever it leads. If we mistreat other countries we are not in need of better stories but repentance. If we mistreat the poor we do not tell more myths but begin the painful process of changing (metanoia). If we share a burden of the blame for conflict we do not need to close or keep secret our part but proclaim our guilt from the rooftops and ask for forgiveness. If our modern military does foster a spirit of hating one’s enemies and not turning the other cheek, then we do not need selective narratives but to try and hear the voice of the Samuel’s crying at our national borders and beyond.
If in Mr. Card’s zeal to defend the sacrificing of lives and reluctance to kill pro patria, the truth about our own sins is closed and kept secret, then are we simply engaging in a form of patriotism that is a
“thinly veiled form of collective self-worship, celebrates our goodness, our ideals, our mercy and bemoans the perfidiousness of those who hate us.” War is a Force That Gives US Meaning, 10
Mr. Card is right to point to certain pernicious beliefs and opinions in his list but he then sprinkles among them a number of myths that he would like us to believe. This is no surprise given his nearly decade long crusade to defend the so called war on terror, something he apparently sees as a cultural war between infidels and his own faith/culture. This mindset is only partially removed from the mindset of the fundamentalist muslim who sees the conflict in the same terms: a conflict between a good righteous culture and a decadent american culture. Such attitudes coupled with storytelling is what leads to apocalypse just as easily as any alleged rot from the inside. As Chris Hedges explained,
“once we sign up for war’s crusade, once we see ourselves on the side of angels, once we embrace the theological belief system that defines itself as the embodiment of goodness and light, it is only a matter of how we will carry out murder” War is a Force That Gives US Meaning, 9
One would hope that after witnessing one of the bloodiest centuries in human history that Mr. Card would realize there is nothing “sweet” or “proper” about nationalism or dying pro patria. Isn’t this the very platitude that history’s worst tyrants have exploited with stories and narratives about their cultural goodness? The proper decorum when we are asked to kill and die for national myths is to cry repentance. Wilfred Owen, who witnessed the sweetness of WWI had a a slightly less proper view than Mr. Card about pro patri mori. It is worth citing in full. Perhaps we can listen to this Samuel’s words when he tells us that if we had seen the cairns and myths firsthand, we “would not tell with such high zest, To children ardent for some desperate glory, The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori.”
Dulce Et Decorum Est
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.
GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!– An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.–
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.