Saturday, September 18, 2010

Moonstruck

Over the last few days, the science fiction blogosphere has united in entirely justified outrage over author Elizabeth Moon's LJ post "Citizenship," in which she claims that "When an Islamic group decided to build a memorial center at/near the site of the 9/11 attack, they should have been able to predict that this would upset a lot of people."  Smarter and more knowledgeable people than myself have combed through the post, in its comments (now deleted by Moon, though there are screencaps of some of them) and on their own blogs and LJs, to point out its errors, its thoughtless and erroneous assumptions, and the bigotry that underpins such statements as "many Muslims have all the virtues of civilized persons" and "Muslims fail to recognize how much forbearance they've had."  I won't try, therefore, to repeat or belabor their points, but I am struck by the number of otherwise quite critical commenters who have nevertheless praised the first half of Moon's post, in which she discusses the responsibilities of a citizen towards the state and her definition of good citizenship, and who have propagated the meme that the post only goes south in its second, more overtly racist half.  To my mind, "Citizenship" makes as many troubling statements in its discussion of citizenship in general as it does when it turns to the subject of American Muslims, and in fact I would say that the same objectionable philosophy underpins both halves of the post.

"Citizenship" fails, in my eyes, in its third paragraph, in which Moon explains that "the business of a citizen is the welfare of the nation."  Though this is somewhat understandable in light of the more incendiary arguments that follow, I'm shocked that such a statement, which so cavalierly reduces one of the fundamental questions of modern democracy--perhaps even of human civilization--to a glib axiom, was passed on with so little comment, and even with approval, by its readers.  The business of the citizen is the welfare of the nation?  One might just as easily say that the business of the nation is the welfare of its citizens.  Both statements are equally right, and equally wrong.  More precisely, how you respond to them depends on the kind of society you live in, whether it prioritizes the individual over the community, or the community over the individual.  There are merits, and flaws, to both approaches.  A society that views the individual as the servant of the state can devolve into tyranny and totalitarianism, stifle creativity, art, and science, and encourage the proliferation of a corrupt and unaccountable bureaucracy.  But it can also answer the basic human craving for meaning, purpose, and the desire to belong to, and work towards, something greater than ourselves, all of which are more difficult to come by in societies that prize individuality, which allow and even encourage their members to place their own wishes above the needs of the state.  Those societies can descend into hedonism and unsatisfying selfishness, rewarding greed and short-sightedness, but they also give space to those who are different, who don't belong, who have new ideas and new ways of seeing the world, in which they can flourish.

These are, of course, very reductive descriptions, if for no other reason than that humans gravitate towards community-oriented organizations precisely because of that need for meaning and a sense of belonging I talked about, so that even the most allegedly individualistic of societies has strong community-oriented currents running through it, and often there are hierarchies of communal affiliation, or affiliations that overlap--a person can belong to a faith, a race, a locality, a sexual orientation, an ethnicity, and several other types of groups before they belong to a nation.  But the fundamental question--is the business of a citizen the welfare of the state, or is it the other way around--is sound, and the answer we give to it, as individuals and as communities, defines the civilizations we live in.  To pretend that this question has a right or an easy answer is to mark oneself out as, at best, a shallow thinker, and at worst, a demagogue.  To ignore the atrocities that have been committed against individuals in the name of the state's welfare is inexcusable.

Moon writes:
What distinguishes the unsuccessful citizen?   Some old-fashioned vices:  greed, dishonesty, laziness, selfishness, cruelty, anger/resentment/, refusal to take responsibility for his/her own acts and their consequences.   Anything that degrades the resources of the nation--including the human resources needed for a healthy society--anything that harms the nation--brands those who do it as unsuccessful, bad, citizens.
She goes on to give examples of bad citizenship that will probably strike most of her readers, including the ones who were later outraged by her anti-Muslim comments, as unobjectionable--substandard construction, prison rape, outsourcing employment--but can she really be ignorant of the rhetoric she's using, and of its associations?  Can it really have escaped her notice that accusations of laziness, selfishness, and refusal to take responsibility for one's actions are used the world over to deny the state's responsibilities towards its citizens, to argue against welfare, unemployment benefits, and health care?  How can she--the mother of an autistic child--lose sight of the fact that within living memory, people deemed worthless or unproductive were sterilized and even euthanized, in order to keep from degrading the resources of the nation?  Does the fact that Moon's definition of what is in the best interest of the nation rings true for many of us outweigh the fact that the system, the philosophy, that that definition is being plugged into is dangerous, easily exploited, and prone to abuse?

If you believe, as Moon claims to, that the business of a citizen is the welfare of the nation, then her objection to the Park51 project is entirely reasonable.  By outraging the majority, the project's instigators have upset and thus harmed the nation, and their actions are therefore inexcusable (never mind that the immediate community actually responded to the project with either support or indifference, and that the outrage over it was only fanned by politicians who often had no connection to New York).  Take this approach to its logical end, and you'll have to conclude that an individual has no right to protest injustice or even the status quo, because in so doing they are upsetting and distracting the majority, dividing the commonality, degrading the resources of the nation.  As several commenters on Moon's post have pointed out, despite her starry-eyed claim that fighting for justice is one of the definitions of good citizenship, very few governments have adopted this definition.  Crusaders for justice--abolitionists, suffragettes, pacifists, civil rights activists, anti-war protesters--are almost invariably denounced as traitors, disturbers of the peace, enemies of the nation.  That's because, in a way, they are--they are seeking to change the nation, to uproot the injustices in which some of its citizens' privilege is rooted in, in some instances to end one nation and erect another in its place.  By Moon's logic, they have no right to do this, and it is only her intellectual dishonesty that allows her to claim that her definition of a good nation--one in which the individual works for the welfare of the state--is one in which injustice can also be vanquished.  To put it another way, Moon is assuming that the starting position of her hypothetical nation is a just one, and that anyone disturbing the status quo must be doing so for insidious reasons.  The reality is that privileged individuals always think their societies are just, and resent those who draw their attention to the injustice in which their privilege is rooted, often denouncing them as enemies of the state.  In much the same fashion, Moon also resents the imposition on her privilege to dislike and distrust Muslims, and to paint them all with the brush of terrorism and fanaticism, and therefore decides that the Muslims trying to build a community center two blocks away from ground zero are being bad citizens.

I have some sympathy, as I think a lot of people must, to the notion that Western civilization has placed too great an emphasis on the individual, that we've lost a sense of community and our responsibility for it, and that that loss is as harmful to us as individuals as it is to our nations.  At the same time, however, I can see the dangers of sublimating oneself to a group--all too clearly, from my vantage point.  A Jewish proverb asks: if I am not for myself, who is for me?  And if I am for myself, what am I?  I think that this is a question that we all have to struggle with, and one that democracy was on some level invented to solve, though it has yet to succeed.  To assume, as Elizabeth Moon apparently does, that the answer is to decry individualism and prioritize the state, is to lose sight of all the injustices that brought democracy and free society into existence.  Such an assumption, and such an oversight, will inevitably lead to injustice.  In this case, it leads to the conclusion that there is something wrong and offensive about a Muslim community center near ground zero, and to an inability to grasp the outraged reactions to this opinion.

7 comments:

intertribal said...

Excellent post.

Nancy said...

Thank you. I'm not plugged into the SF blogosphere deeply enough to realize that Moon's post had caused a controversy. I subscribe to her blog by RSS (as I do yours), and I usually avoid reading comments, so I'd missed the uproar.

However, her post had annoyed me greatly. While I was outraged by the second half of the entry, I wasn't able to fully put my finger on what bothered me so much about the post as a whole. Last week, I reread excerpts of King's "Letter From Birmingham Jail," but I didn't think about Moon while I was reading it. Now your post has brought the two texts together for me, and opened a few doors in my thinking.

Thank you for making these connections and for your thoughtful analysis of Moon's writing.

Anonymous said...

In many places here, you're reacting to the connotations of Moon's post rather than what she actually says. You say so yourself: "can she really be ignorant of the rhetoric she's using, and of its associations?" and "Does the fact that Moon's definition of what is in the best interest of the nation rings true for many of us outweigh the fact that the system, the philosophy, that that definition is being plugged into is dangerous, easily exploited, and prone to abuse?"

That's using guilt by association, just as much as Moon's post uses it, and there are more than a few places where you've overstated Moon's POV to create false dilemmas and push her further down the slippery slope fallacy you've constructed around her similarly bad rhetoric.

And that's a shame, because if I ignored the poor arguments both of you use, I would agree with the substance of your post more than Moon's. But since yours is the reaction piece and since I believe you when you say you're sympathetic to some of Moon's points, I don't think it's a very constructive reaction--mainly just more fog.

Yonmei said...

I had literally just finished reading volume one of Vatta's War at the time someone linked me to Moon's Park51 post.

What occurred to me (what I wrote in response) was that Moon has no difficulty with people who cause a disturbance and offend others in order to Do The Right Thing. Providing those people are born to (what she perceives as) that privilege - young aristocrats like Kylara Vatta or Esmay Suiza.

What this brought out for me - I re-read the other couple of Elizabeth Moon novels I own - is how much Moon's novels are about aristocracy and aristocrats, how central the concept that some people deserve privilege, is to her space operas. And that's what I get out of "Citizenship" - that fundamentally, Moon sees the rights of citizenship not as inherent and inalienable, but as a privilege for a privileged class, which may ("by forbearance") be allowed to those not of that privileged class.

Simen said...

I'm reading a book about North Korea at the moment, and that country strikes me as "the business of a citizen is the welfare of the nation" taken to its logical extreme. I think that if we must pick either one extreme or the other, either we exist for the state or the state exists for us, the latter is preferable by a wide margin. Of course, the truth is that in any real society, in any existant state, even the most totalitarian states in the world, the state will provide some benefit to the citizen, and the citizen will have some responsibility to the state.

I haven't read Moon's post, and it sounds like that's for the better.

Anonymous said...

"She goes on to give examples of bad citizenship that will probably strike most of her readers, including the ones who were later outraged by her anti-Muslim comments, as unobjectionable--substandard construction, prison rape, outsourcing employment"

Prison rape and outsourcing employment? WTF.

Do people really regard e.g. a Spanish supermarket that imports Israeli oranges as commiting a crime in the same way as a rapist?

kellicat said...

I've read both Moon's post and The Deed of Paksenarrion and I find myself agreeing with your assessment of the first half. I'm disgusted by her attitude, but not entirely surprised because I could see traces of it in her fantasy books.

When I read The Deed of Paksenarrion, I could definitely detect a lack of worldliness when it came to cultural issues, especially the demonization of the humans on the southern continent of her fantasy world compared to the more gender-equal Northern continent and the standard use of orcs and dark elves as Always Evil Species. When I wrote my review of this trilogy I was annoyed by the black and white morality, but I didn't connect it to Moon's attitudes in the real world because it seemed like standard fantasy for the early '80s. Now I'm wishing that I had paid more attention to that aspect.

In any case, I've given away my copy of Deed and I don't miss it at all, and I certainly won't be reading any more of her books.

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