Sunday, June 28, 2009

Orson Scott Card's "Empire"

I just finished reading (actually, listening to) a 2006 novel by Orson Scott Card called "Empire". It was a good story, as his always are, and thought-provoking, as his usually are.

I highly recommend reading it, so I won't spoil it by giving away too much of the story here, but it's set in the present, and is a story about potential civil war in the United States, more or less between the radical left and the radical right (exactly who starts it and why is something of a mystery through most of the book, so I won't spoil it by being more specific). Card also includes an after word where he discusses his reasons for writing the book, and that's what I wanted to post about.

Card points out the inanity of the liberal/conservative dichotomy in our current political structure. There are many issues facing the nation, and the conservative and liberal ideologies are bundles of ideas about each, bundles that don't really have any kind of internal consistency or reason. For some reason you can't be in favor of the Iraq war and believe that homosexuals should be allowed to marry, or pro-gun and in favor of amnesty for illegal immigrants, or... you get the idea. Abortion, gay rights, foreign relations, drug policy, fiscal policy, taxation, gun rights, environment, welfare, intellectual property... there are a lot of different issues, and many of them are completely unrelated. Yet if you espouse, say, the "conservative" position on one issue, you're automatically assumed to buy into the rest of the conservative bundle. And if you really want to fit in, politically, you'd better not stray too far from one party line or the other.

Even worse, as Card points out, is the vitriol that the two major parties direct against one another and against anyone who doesn't agree with every point in their position bundle. From my perspective Card overstates the problem, but I understand why. He's a fairly public figure who writes a lot of political opinion pieces, but his beliefs don't clearly fit into one camp or the other, so he gets railed at and even despised and ridiculed by both.

I see this all the time on slashdot. Whenever the topic of Orson Scott Card comes up, and it comes up often given that he's one of the great science fiction authors and slashdot is loaded with scifi-loving nerds, there are always dozens of posts slamming and ridiculing him for opposing gay marriage and calling him a conservative extremist. These posts, just like the pundits we see on TV, boil his statements on the topic down to single-sentence summaries and even one-word labels, neither of which do any justice to the nuances of his real opinions. They're so oversimplified as to be simply wrong.

Meanwhile, if his name comes up on the pro-gun forums I also frequent, he's equally reviled and despised there as a hated liberal, because he supports gun control and is critical of free-market capitalism.

The real crux of his complaint, though, isn't so much the bundling of issues but the level of fear, anger and distrust that we direct against anyone who chooses a different bundle than we do. And the thrust of the book is that those extreme emotions are so powerful in the radical wings of the two parties that it's not inconceivable that it could lead one side or the other, or both, to decide that they must take up arms against the other. He addresses the question of whether or not it's possible for a civil war to occur when the sides are so intermixed, without clear geographical boundaries, by pointing out the examples of Rwanda and Yugoslavia, where exactly that happened.

I don't know if I fully agree with his conclusion about the feasibility of a right/left civil war in the United States. In his examples the sides were divided by religion and/or ethnicity which are more powerful than political ideology. But after reading the book I have to grant that it's possible. I know for a fact that radicals on both sides of the divide do believe that those on the other are actually evil, and it's not inconceivable that some of those extremists might take up arms in sufficient numbers and with sufficient organization to create a war.

And once the shooting starts, if it's big enough, then all the rest of the people may well be forced to choose sides, because if they don't then both sides will consider them the enemy.

War aside, though, I also agree with Card that the approach that both of the parties are taking is destructive. They're so divisive and so vitriolic that real discussion of the issues is nearly impossible. The media doesn't help any, either, since their idea of a "balanced" discussion is two partisans angrily talking over one another.

From my perspective, the whole thing would be amusing if it weren't so sad. I simply don't care about most of the issues they get so up in arms about, and where I do care my positions don't align at all well with either of the bundles. What I do care about, deeply, is the centralization of government power and the importance of the rule of law and the Republican style of government. But neither side really talks about that. And given the current system there is simply no place for voices that don't align with one side or the other. If you're not a Democrat or a Republican your opinions may as well not exist for all of the public discussion they'll get.


  1. I haven't read it yet so I can't comment, but it did look really good, which is why I got it. Orson Scott Card always has really good books, and the point I usually like is he doesn't generally take sides. No one is good or bad, they just are.

  2. I've never understood how OSC can be so intelligent and fair in most of his books and still claim to be a liberal Democrat.

    I liked Empire.

  3. Sorry, I meant I HAD never understood.


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