Orson Scott Card: we are not in need of powerful stories but righteous actions

11

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.

11 thoughts on “Orson Scott Card: we are not in need of powerful stories but righteous actions

  1. Eduard A. Erdtsieck says:

    Mr Card, in his belief, that the US should remain “a dominant” force in the world, ignores the fact that in the last 29 years we have not been good neighbors. We have fought wars without fully disclosing its actual objectives and costs, in blood and taxes, to our own people. Our Wall Street financial institutions have undermined the world financial structure for their own enrichment. Finally, our national policy toward 1 billion Muslims is still unsure whether they are evil aliens out to kill us from another dimension. Or are we brothers in a religious tradition originating with Abraham in the OT? Whose God promised him that he would be a father over many nations.

    One hundred years ago the world was ruled by Empires, Prussian, Ottoman and the Japanese Rising Sun and numerous kingdoms. They are now gone and so should be sentiments like Mr.Card. Should these thoughts not be re-educated in the Communist Camps under Mao and Stalin?

    Today, there are many nations and people striving to overcome their profligate rulers. Many of them have blackberries and computers and are willing to speak out and do something about their fate.

    Does Mr Card’s wish for “good days” of the past makes him a conservative?

  2. mormongandhi says:

    Hey Madson,

    This was an excellent article! Thank you… “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”. Excellent. Gandhi would rejoice at such a statement.

  3. Joseph says:

    Wow, there are so many flaws in what Card is saying here, I don’t know where to begin. One that disturbs me is a great deal equating military imperialism with fidelity in marriage. This creates an outrageously false dichotomy that to believe in fidelity in marriage means you have to also unquestioningly believe in every war your country engages in. What about Mennonites or other such religious groups that reject violence? What about Wendell Berry? Card would do well to read a Wendell Berry book. In this talk as well as other things he has written he likes to set up the straw man of the “intellectual elitist” that we have to become a conservative to reject (another false dichotomy). Wendell Berry would help punch a hole in that hot air balloon you’ve created by showing you what questioning the intellectual elite really means. Try Berry’s essay “The Loss of the University.” Or the essay posted recently here at MW titled “Inverted Economics.” Card would also do well to read Hugh Nibley, an “intellectual elite” Card was friends with at one time, and Card even expressed admiration for. I would recommend Nibley’s essay “The Unsolved Loyalty Problem, Our Western Heritage.” Nibley demonstrated better why it’s hard to maintain the U.S. imperialist message (it’s largely because it’s hard to maintain loyalty with falsehoods).

    I don’t know what happened to Orson Scott Card. “Ender’s Game” almost had me crying as a teenager, and did more to turn me against unquestioning loyalty to warfare than any non-fiction essay could have. Interestingly enough, Ender’s Game was also a prescient warning of the devastation “video game” warfare would end up having (Ender’s Game preceded the Gulf Wars and computer-guided missiles). It is also a wonderful demonstration of the destructiveness of labeling another culture “other” and indiscriminately killing them. Card’s short story “America” is a wonderful demonstration of why U.S. culture has been doomed for a long time, and why. It’s much better than this bit of logical fallacy prone political rhetoric he gives about the “dismantling of America.” Those, Orson Scott Card, were powerful stories. Your recent novel Empire is a joke. I guess like Ezra Pound and William Butler Yeats (who refused to anthologize the beautiful poem given above), what you have to say in your art transcends your weaknesses as a philosopher.

  4. Joseph says:

    I just noticed that a slipped into addressing Card personally (as the post did) without much explanation. When I direct accusations at a “you” in the comment above, Card is the recipient, not anyone at the MW.

  5. J. Madson says:

    Joseph

    what book is Nibley’s essay “The Unsolved Loyalty Problem, Our Western Heritage” in?

  6. Joseph says:

    “Ancient State: The Rulers and the Ruled”

    I believe the paper originally appeared in Western Political Quarterly in the 50’s. It’s of course addressing primarily loyalty oaths from the McCarthy era, but I think the principles still apply.

  7. tariq says:

    Good article, J.
    There’s a word in the Book of Mormon for people who tell the kinds of stories that Card is arguing should be told; flatterers. Flatterers were people like King Noah and his wicked priests who told people that they were a good, strong, righteous people, even though they were not good, strong, or righteous. Abinadi was the kind of person that Card is arguing destroys strong cultures. Abinadi was a non-conformist. He told a story that went against the dominant culture. He told a story that threatened the way of life of the dominant culture, and because he told that story, the flatterers executed Abinadi. America has no shortage of flatterers, people who will tell us what we want to hear; People that will tell us that we are a good, strong people and that whatever we do is right; that our wars and corporate greed and discrimination against people based on sexuality, gender, or race are righteous and that we shouldn’t feel bad about anything we do because America is number one. But, just as the people of King Noah’s time needed non-conformists like Abinadi to tell them the truth, rather than tell what will make them feel good, we too need non-conformists who will tell true stories, not flattering stories.

    We need people who will exercise what the Cynic philosophers of Ancient Greece excercised; Parhessia, or fearless speech. The cynic philosopher Diogenes told people what they needed to hear, not what they wanted to hear. Card seems to believe that parhessia is hurting our society, and that we need more flatterers to sooth our consciences with vain lies; people who, like FOX News, will tell us how great we are, even when, and especially when, we are behaving like idiots.

    One of the more ironic parts of his speech was when he talked about the need for people to conform to the dominant culture’s norms concerning marriage and love. Card argued that non-conformity in that respect was a corrosive element in society. Obviously he had in mind those troublesome gays who just won’t get in line. I would think that an LDS person would be aware of the fact that the early Mormons who practiced polygamy certainly did not conform to dominant cultural norms in that respect.

    Card bases much of what he says on the premise that the U.S. used to have a great culture, but that nowadays it is being destroyed by people who won’t get in line with the dominant narrative; people like anti-war activists, advocates for women’s equality, people who don’t believe it is ok to discriminate based on sexuality or gender, people who won’t send their children off to war, and atheists (how dare they not believe what I want them to believe!). My question to him is, when was America so great? What past America is he reffering to? The days of segregation? The America in which black people were enslaved? The America in which women were second class citizens who weren’t even allowed the most superficial rights such as voting? The America in which black people were lynched? The good old days when it was ok to beat or kill queer people? The America that dropped napalm and agent orange on Vietnamese women and children? There is a reason why these guys who are nostalgic for the good old days are always wealthy white men. If you weren’t white, or wealthy, or a man, then those days weren’t so great. Perhaps he is longing for the great America that was so intolerant that his own people, Mormons, had to flee the country, and settle in the middle of the desert, just to be able to live without the constant threat of being killed by anti-mormon mobs. Card is a fiction writer, and his version of a good, strong, righteous America is just that; fiction.

  8. J. Madson says:

    Tariq

    enjoyed your comment. We actually have a family business ironically called Diogenes. You gotta love that guy. Im going to have to go back and study Abinadi again.

    As to the myth that things were so much better in days past, I get physically nauseous every time I hear it in church. Society is so terrible now and things were so much better back in the day. Back in the day for white males of course, as you point out.

  9. ali abrar says:

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    life cycle is revolving around this cycle. To understand this we should learn or we should get knowledge of some things like our religion, our living style, things around us and most important previous history.

    There are more than eight hundred billion people on this earth and there are 365 different religions in this world from which a few are famous and majority of religion are not famous to rest of world. From few famous religion five religions are very much famous (Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Jewish, Buddhism) and among all these five religions there are different kind of groups and every group claim that they are on right path e.g. in Christians some believe in that chariest is the only spirit in this world and other believe that chariest is not only one but there is an addition of holy mother then the power complete and same is the case in Hinduism some of them believe in different gods and so that they have conflicts between their religious groups and same is the case in Islam, Jewish and Buddhism. If we calculate sincerely with neutral mind then we find a fact that every group from any religion should be of between 10~20% of the world and considered that they are right and rest of the world 80~90% peoples are wrong. Every religion have its fantasy of revival of their religion and for this every religion has its character which is know by different names in different religions. And also have the concept of great evil and the war between evil and that character is known ascrusade war
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    • Joseph says:

      Cool. Reviewing it I see that while Nibley was dealing with the Cold War, he might as well have been writing about the War on Terrorism. And Card takes the exact positions Nibley points out the flaws of. Thanks for sharing.

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