Like a Geek God #4 by Mark Pursell
The Uncomfortable Question of Orson Scott Card
Separating the art from the artist is a necessary element of art appreciation in any medium, but in the Information Age, it’s easier said than done. The Internet affords a heretofore never-experienced level of accessibility to one’s favorite singers, writers, actors, etc. And unless you’re a conscientious objector to all things Internet—even if you are—exposure to the thoughts and feelings of pop culture figures is nearly impossible to avoid. Odds are you’ll stumble across Katy Perry’s tweets or some distillation of them even if you don’t use Twitter…even if you’re not a fan. The least thing a pop culture figure posts, tweets, pins, or reblogs becomes a refraction of that person and, in an era where we paw frantically at surface-level approximations of connection like rats at a pleasure-inducing switch, is endless turned over and microscopically examined until every trace element of the person in question is shaken out, squeezed dry, raked over. In essence—for good or ill—these figures become their social media posts. You are what you tweet.
You’d think that his new paradigm would cause pop culture figures who are in the public eye, whether by choice or consequence, to adopt a hard line of circumspection regarding what they let fly in the blogosphere. However, many of these creative types—especially those who have crossed over into the sphere of true celebrity—elect to control their own content on social media rather than turning it over to the auspices (and more objectively critical eye) of a social media manager. It’s a gamble that you see play out with varying degrees of success and return investment, particularly in the world of pop music. Cher’s loveable tweets about politics—mispelled and sometimes inscrutable but always knowledgeable—have only served to increase her still-potent pop culture capital. Others, such as Lady Gaga or Kickstarter wunderkind Amanda Palmer, trade on accessibility to their fans but run the risk of alienating people when their off-the-cuff online posts betray hints of narcissism or perspectives of entitlement.
Unfortunately, what this means is that, more than ever, being a fan of a given pop culture object seems to demand that you simultaneously must be a fan of the pop culture creator. Separating the artist from the art is much less of a given; it’s been my experience in the last several years, especially, that people feel little responsibility to distinguish their feelings about a piece of pop culture from their feelings about the person who created it or embodies it.
This whole question of online accessibility and art-from-the-artist is particularly problematic for geeks. The entire concept on which the notion of being a geek is predicated is intense, unapologetic enthusiasm, often to obsessive or minutely-detailed levels. The persons at work behind many of our beloved geek culture touchstones are as revered (or reviled) as their creations. Joss Whedon, Russell T. Davies, J.J. Abrams, Christopher Nolan; these creative personages attract devotion worthy of saints, and loyalty to match. And they are far from the only ones. Fortunately, for the most part, geek culture grande dames tend to be more judicious with their online postings than your average pop music star. But what happens when a widely lionized geek icon takes to the public sphere to air opinions that are not only unpopular, but unhinged?
Which brings us to the uncomfortable question of Orson Scott Card.
Orson Scott Card is a true geek icon. He has written many famous and well-loved science fiction novels, but arguably the most famous, and the byword of his personal celebrity, is 1985’s Ender’s Game, an enduring classic in which gifted children are enrolled in a high-pressure school focused on military simulation; the ostensible purpose of the program is to train a new generation of warriors to battle a particularly aggressive interlocutor of Earth (but, of course, all is not what it seems). Ender’s Game has enjoyed great success and fame in the decades since it’s release, spawning a bestselling franchise for Card and, as of 2013, a long-awaited adaptation for the big screen. I’m personally a huge fan of the original Ender’s Game novel and could have happily gone my entire life knowing nothing about Orson Scott Card other than that he existed and at some point in the early ‘80s wrote this book of which I am so fond.
But the Internet—or really, the 24-hour media cycle—will insist on broadcasting information that I, and many others, could happily have gone without knowing. Card, a longtime member of the Mormon religion, has gone on record in multiple op-ed pieces since 2009 as being opposed to gay marriage for various nonsensical reasons. Go ahead, Google “orson scott card gay marriage.” I’ll wait. (The most entertaining of Card’s assertions is that the gay marriage “agenda” is a vehicle for leftists to establish anti-religion childrearing norms).
This is all embarassing enough—by going on record repeatedly about your opposition to marriage equality in this day and age, you cast yourself headlong into the eventual “wrong side of history” pot along with the enemies of the civil rights movement, the enemies of women’s suffrage, the enemies of abolition…take your pick—but it turned out to be the very thin icing on a much more complex layer cake of crazy. In a May blog post, Card attacked President Obama directly, accusing him of totalitarian maneuvering and intentions to set up his wife, Michelle, as a puppet dictator. The blog goes on to theorize that Obama intends to arm urban gangs and mobilize them as his own fascist national police force.
It’s a difficult moment when the person responsible for creating something you love betrays himself to be not only disconnected from facts and logic but also guilty of cultivating a personal brand of bigotry and racism that, inexplicably, seems alien to the moral quandaries and lessons of compassion found in their work (like, for example, Ender’s Game itself). It is impossible, whenever something like this happens, on any sort of scale, to not feel deceived, hoodwinked, shaken down. As a political lefty and a gay man, it’s equally impossible to sort of not take this particular incident personally. And I’m not alone. There is a movement to boycott the release of the Ender’s Game movie, a movement with a high-enough profile that it has been written about extensively in the online media and which has prompted direct comments from director Gavin Hood and star Harrison Ford (all to the purpose of distancing the movie from Card’s ravings).
Because of the echo chamber that is the Internet, a baby-with-the-bathwater tendency is usually what greets celebrity outbursts like this. But is that right, or even fair? Does Orson Scott Card’s personal status as a righty whack job invalidate the excellence of the Ender’s Game novel or its themes? Yes, some people (including yours truly) zealously defend the distinction between art and artist, and some people come to that understanding due to work in a given academic or professional discipline. But we are all geeks—superfans, if you will—and in a world that is ready at any moment to throw a scrap of gossip or a loony sound bite at our feet and watch us turn on our icons, our institutions, and sometimes each other, the “art-from-the-artist” paradigm is more important than ever. Do I agree with Orson Scott Card and support his views? No. Will I ever directly and knowingly give him my money again? Absolutely not. But am I also going to burn my copy of Ender’s Game (which, it must be said again, is devoid of the fringe sentiments Card has been publicly voicing)? Not on your life. The book is not the man, and the man is not the book. The question of the movie is a bit more complicated, but I wasn’t going to see it in theaters, anyway; how you handle that is between you and your god. Ultimately, I think, the lessons we can take away from this, or from any time celebrities use the media-net as a megaphone for whatever nincompoop notions pop into their pinheads, is not to turn with vitriol on the objects that bring us joy or enlightenment or meaning just because of the people behind them. Like so many other situations related to the Internet and its pitfalls, we must learn—and strive—to react without being reactionary.
Mark Pursell is a lifelong geek and lover of words. His publishing credits include Nimrod International Journal, The New Orleans Review, and The Florida Review, where he also served as poetry editor. His work can most recently be seen in the first volume of the 15 Views of Orlando anthology from Burrow Press. He currently teaches storytelling and narrative design for video games at Full Sail University in Winter Park, Florida.