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book review

Authors and their Politics

So apparently, the whole “Demonization of Orson Scott Card” thing is bugging me more that I realized. It came up on a friend’s feed on Facebook, and I went over and wrote something horribly, amazingly disjoint on the subject. (No link, because it’s embarrassing.) I figured I’d take another shot at explaining myself, in case it came up again.

Firstly, it’s worth mentioning that Card is imperfect, and deserves to be criticized for some of his views. That’s actually important, because if you’re not willing to enforce a principle defending people you don’t like, then you don’t actually have principles — you have sophistry that you trot out in defense of principals.

(Full disclosure: I haven’t read any Card in about twenty years. At the time, he only seemed able to write the same three stories, over and over again. I have no real clue what he’s written since then, except Ender’s Shadow, which supports my critique.)

Secondly, what got me going was the idea that, “if the wrong people believe something, then what they believe must be wrong.” I can go into the example of what Card believed in detail, but that’s not very important to the discussion. It’s that Slate presented this belief as obviously wrong because Card believes it. In this manner, they actually treat Card as worse that Hitler, as nobody seriously argues that vegetarianism, animal rights, and conservation are wrong because Hitler supported them.

(In fact, it’s more a sign of how messed up Hitler and the Nazis were — they would do things to Jews that they outlawed doing to animals.)

And so, extending that thought, this means that an author (Card, in this case) is perfectly capable of doing something right, separate from his beliefs. Just because you disagree with an artist on one point, doesn’t mean you should discount his work out of hand. This would mean I, as a libertarian, would dismiss Firefly out of hand because Josh Wheedon’s politics run entirely counter to what is presented in that work. And, in this case, a leftist would miss out on Ender’s Game if they judged an author simply by his private beliefs.

All that said, Firefly and Ender’s Game play fair with the audience. The plots of both go where they need to go, and don’t get sidetracked by the authors’ politics. I’m not telling you that you should read an author who gets preachy — those that write “message” or “advocacy” fiction generally don’t do a very good job, no matter their politics. Avoiding them because they can’t write is perfectly fine in my book.

Recommended: How We Decide

I finished How We Decide (by Jonah Lehrer) three weeks ago, and I’ve been remiss in recommending it. The book is about how the human brain works (or doesn’t) and how to take advantage of it. The book is so good that I’m planning to get a copy when I buy my iPad. (I originally checked it out from the library.)

One of Lehrer’s conclusions is that your brain can be thought of as two computers. There’s the one that we’re aware of, that’s maybe as powerful as an old calculator. Its advantage is that it can be directed consciously, so is useful for novel situations and simple decisions (or math). The other one is usually referred to as the emotional brain. It’s like a massively parallel computer that outputs a heuristic: an output that’s good registers as a happy emotion, while an output that’s bad registers as fear or anxiety. It’s good for really complicated decisions (if you spend the time giving it input), but can be overwhelmed by novelty.

Obviously, there’s more to it than that, or Lehrer would not have been able to write a book about it. Read it.

Terror and Liberalism

Back in 2003, Paul Berman wrote a book called Terror and Liberalism, a liberal call to action against Islamic terrorism.

Berman constructs his argument simply: he first establishes the existence of pathological mass movements, using Albert Camus’ The Rebel as a framework for that argument. Berman links the fascists and communists together, claiming that they progress through the stages of rebellion, nihilism, the creation of a movement, and end at Armageddon — where the faithful face the damned in a final confrontation.

Berman then moves to the strongest part of the book: his examination of the works of Sayyid Qutb. Qutb could be described as the father of modern Islamic jihad, and Berman condenses his works into a brisk 52 pages. In the end, though, Berman concludes that

Qutb’s doctrine was wonderfully original and deeply Muslim, looked at from one angle; and, from another angle, merely one more version of the European totalitarian ideal.

The philosophical connection thus established, Berman then moves on to providing examples of Muslim totalitarianism, from Iran and Iraq to the Sudan and beyond. It is a sobering march of depredation, one which good men (and women) should oppose.

Berman then turns to the forces that prevent such opposition, and discovers them unmobilized. They stand inert, or even assisting the totalitarians. Berman chronicles their efforts, starting with the French Socialists of the 1930s, some of whom collaborated with the Nazis in the worst possible ways, and ending with a scathing review of Noam Chomsky, who claimed that Americans caused 9/11. Berman says:

Ultimately, the error was conceptual. […] It was an unwillingness, sometimes an outright refusal, to accept that, from time to time, mass political movements do get drunk on the idea of slaughter. […] It was a belief that the world is, by and large, a rational place.

Berman’s book concludes with the aforementioned call to action, to attack the root of Islamism by reinforcing the liberal ideas for which we fight. (Berman even points out that Bush picked up — and dropped — that ball when he pushed Women’s Rights as one of the reasons for invading Afghanistan.) Seven years on, we can conclude that — apart from an individual here and there — the Western Left has ignored Berman’s call. This is unfortunate, for those who paid attention to the Anbar Awakening can see some of his ideas put into effect by military forces.

Even seven years on, this book is still worth a read, if for no other reason than for its summary of Qutb’s commentaries.

(Paul Berman has a new book out, The Flight of the Intellectuals. He’s also interviewed by Michael J. Totten. An interesting part of the interview is Berman’s admission to being afflicted with “Bush Derangement Syndrome” and his effort to separate Bush’s personality — which drives him nuts — with his actual record.)