I don’t know Elizabeth Moon personally, I don’t know her work, and I don’t have a clue whether her recent post (from a couple of weeks ago) ought to come as much of a surprise.
I do know that there is some really questionable, problematic stuff in her post titled “Citizenship” — and as much as people were calling it a post on Islam, Islam isn’t the main topic.
Which isn’t to deny that most of what’s off-putting and tiresome and all too familiar about it is what she says about Islam; my point is that there’s more in there that’s troublesome, worrisome, and all-too-familiar.
The main purpose of the post may well be — as it seems — to bash on Islam, but she constructs her bashing as a discourse on citizenship, and a fairly shaky one at that, and it’s the shakiness that reveals a deeper, more frightening distortion of thinking — one that is integral not only to the hatefulness in her words, but also its social implications.
I’m talking about the nationalist conception of citizenship that saturates the beginning, starting with a fairly understandable and agreeable statement:
… the person with no loyalty to anything but his/her own pleasure is not a noble hero of individualism, but a pathetic failure as a human being.
There is, of course, more than one way to be a failure as a human being, but this is a form of failure very popular at the moment and–as it has considerable power to make others miserable–it’s one I’m particularly aware of right now. One of the loudest (actually THE loudest) voices on the panel blared at one point “The business of business is profit.” Well…yes. But that doesn’t mean that the business of business is smart, or useful to the country, when business is granted the rights of a citizen but not the responsibility.
… and proceeding on to something much darker and terrifying, in germinative form:
Because citizens have another business, besides whatever pays their rent…the business of a citizen is the welfare of the nation.
The definition of “success” for a business may be rising stock prices, or increased sales…but the definition of success for a citizen has nothing to do with stock prices or corporate income…a citizen is a success–as a citizen–inasmuch as that individual makes things better. It does not matter how: a parent who conveys to their children the responsibility of citizenship–that the world is not their bowl of cherries, but everyone’s bowl of cherries, that they owe something to the society that nurtured them–that parent is a success as a citizen. The honest shopkeeper, the honest craftsperson, the honest teacher, the honest tradesperon, the honest truckdriver; those who obey the laws and make roads safer by their driving or make neighborhoods safer by their cooperation; those who volunteer for tasks like ambulance work or mentoring kids or working in food pantries: these are all doing what successful citizens do…they are supporting the social and cultural infrastructure that supports them.
This is offputting, not because it’s completely wrong–it’s somewhere in the rough neighborhood of a coherent critique of modern society–but because of what it omits or suppressed, and what it hoists up onto a pedestal in the place of what was omitted. You see, I distrust anyone who holds duty to the state over a much more fundamental and important duty: the duty to one’s community and the people in it: neither to a nation, nor to a state, but to other people who share the place with you is where our finest and deepest duty lies.
States are abstractions, just like Islam is, for Moon, a convenient abstraction. Because, of course, people who do things like volunteer to drive ambulances, or work in food pantries, do not turn people away at the door for being Muslim; no, indeed, do the voluntary organizations turn away Muslims (or those who look like they might remotely be Muslim) away from engaging in this kind of voluntary work.
This is an important difference because when you place the welfare of the state as a prime responsibility, you remove people from the equation in a way that we should all, by now, have the wits and the wisdom to distrust. And it’s not just what I’ve seen over here in Korea, where people have both patriotism and nationalism pounded into their heads with a pedagogical hammer all the way to young adulthood: there’s still corruption, there’s still people treating one another like garbage, and guess what? There are the same failures of citizenship Moon describes going on in America, but on an even more profound scale if you ask me.
This is because if the state is where it’s at, if the nation is the locus of a citizen’s responsibility, then suddenly people become a secondary concern. Suddenly, it’s easy to pick and choose groups and admonish them for the actions of a tiny minority. (Like blaming crime on “foreigners,” for example.) When one is responsible to a state, one can construe and weasel about and twist things however one likes: the state or nation doesn’t have a face to grimace at the lie, or eyes you need to look into when lying through your teeth, or fists to punch you in the nose. This is why one cannot have responsibility to a nation or state except through one’s fellow citizens.
If you want to understand the failure of the citizen to the state in the modern world, what you need to grasp is the failure of the community, because the community allowed itself to be supplanted by the simulacrum of community–the internet circle-jerk, the prison-like context of the average public school, the idiocy of most political parties, the occasional picnic with co-workers, or what have you. These are, as teacher and educational reform advocate John Taylor Gatto puts it, “networks” and he means that word in a negative way. Networks, you see, are problematic because they invite a narrow, limited form of engagement (and the suppression of the rest of what makes you human) in contrast to communities which require a much more wide-ranging sort of engagement with one another, including both our positive and negative sides, but also involving common goals and needs and concerns that shine through different beliefs and different approaches preferred by individuals.
Healthy communities are places of negotiation of difference, of compromise and acceptance (uneasy or otherwise), and they are more diverse than anyone realizes because diversity is simply the human norm; at best, the healthiest networks are places where differences are simply suppressed after being labeled as “not for discussion” or “equally good.” Healthy communities are places where human beings must engage across their differences; in the best and healthiest networks, the best we manage is shallow embrace that indeed enacts marginalization and exclusion, and most of the time policy dictates that we ignore differences politely.
(A great example is how online, behviour like trolling is very common. But if someone acted like a troll offline, how long do you think they would be able to get away with it? Well, in a network, like a middle school for example, it might be quite a while, but in a real community, not very bloody long. It’s hard to rant in people’s faces too long before you stop getting invited to the parties and meetings, get asked to sort yourself out, and finally get exiled. And being banned from a website is much less traumatic than being exiled from a community.)
We’ve seen this kind of abstractive state-fetishizing before, of course, and the thing that hasn’t seemed to sink in is that it leads to bad situations. Very bad situations. After all, it was all the vogue, just a few generations ago, in places like Central Europe, in Japan, and slightly more recently in Korea (where magical-racial conceptions of the nation-state were inspired by Japan and Germany after the Korean war; while in the South this was used to suppress diversity of political culture, in the North it led to the Orwellian psycho-state we all love to hate). One reason the talk of honest shopkeepers and duty to the state makes me nervous is how popular such phrases have been in political fascism.
Worse, to prattle on about one’s responsibility to the state is to neglect that human beings have–whether Moon would like to acknowledge it or not–a profound responsibility to themselves. Again, my experience in Korea has driven that home: I am constantly approached by young people who are looking for someone–anyone–to back them up that, yes, if you really, truly hate your major, you should change it. That if you really, truly dream of being a scholar of this or that, you should go for it. That if you really want to do art, you should give it a go. Get a job, sure, but don’t let your mother tell you to give up and become a salaryman or office girl. If you don’t feel you should marry so-and-so, then for Christ’s sake don’t do it, no matter how much everyone you know is pressuring you to do so! Don’t want to marry? Don’t! Because if you look around at all the sullen, tired, unhappy faces around you… trust me, most of those people are in a state where they constantly ignore their own instincts, their own responsibility to themselves regarding their happiness and productivity in this one shot at life that they’ve been lucky enough to have.
Now, I have no more and no less respect for Islam than I do for any other religion. I don’t have a dog in that metaphysical race, having bowed out of the religion business myself ages ago. But I do have respect for human beings, and I believe that if someone identifies himself or herself as a Muslim (or a Christian, or an atheist, or a Buddhist, or whatever), he or she has a self-directed responsibility to find a way to be a Muslim (or a Christian, or an atheist, or a Buddhist, or whatever) to the best of his or her ability. We have a profound responsibility to be ourselves, and true to ourselves, no matter what the Elizabeth Moons of the world rail about on the internet, no matter what racist governments and their arse-licking cronies do to us at airports, no matter what hateful shit is spewed in the media.
Moon’s post, therefore, offends me importantly in that I see her as not just repudiating the responsibility of people to themselves (the state seems a much higher priority to her) but also because she seems to have forgotten that Muslim people have a profound responsibility to themselves to be good Muslims: and that American society (like any society with Muslim people living in it–Korea is one too) has a responsibility to support them in that, as well as to nurture a conception of Islam as something that is compatible with Americanness, just as it realized in the late forties and fifties that, hey, okay, Jews can be truly American too.
If one has no responsibility to human beings — including oneself, and including the people around oneself (and people who don’t well grasp the former cannot hope to truly, humanely grasp the latter) — then the idea of responsibility to a state is incoherent, meaningless, and potentially the root of great horror and sickness.
And the symptoms of this particular malignancy are what worry me most, in terms not only of what I see in Moon’s post, but in terms of what I see going on in America today, indeed in much of the developed world today.
The metastasis of this category error–mistaking a citizen’s responsibility to the state for what ought to be a citizen’s responsibility the self and to fellow human beings alike–is painful to watch from outside of the USA because, frankly, it’s a pathetic irony: one notes that Moon is willing to berate the wife of the former President of the USA, calling her comments about having suffered from the War in Iraq much more than anyone else signs of a “failure of citizenship” at the top. Well, but need anyone remind her that far more Americans supported the invasion of Iraq in a demonstrable, official way than Muslims supported the attacks of 2001?
I don’t mean in the vague, emotional-victimhood sense that is so popular these days: the sense where (as in a story I’ve heard time and again) an American turns on the TV and sees a few Palestinians dancing in the streets after 9-11, and says, “See, they totally supported it!” (Absent even context: were these people dancing in the street on 9-11? Was it for the reason the TV station claims? Did this even happen?)
Sure, I’m willing to believe that a number of Muslims out there in faraway places probably felt a sense of vindication for a few moments when America was attacked. But for that matter, so did plenty of non-Muslims in other countries, from China to Canada. (Oh yes, Canada. You should have heard the jokes that people were making at the time.) Just as plenty of Americans felt relieved when finally “vengeance was theirs” in Afghanistan and, later and more sadly, in Iraq, I am quite willing to point out that lots of people worldwide felt it was about time America got slapped in the face for a little too much hubris, too much meddling in the affairs of other nations, and for being so willingly ignorant of its implication in all kinds of misery abroad.
(And when I look at the long, US-supported dictatorships that screwed up the country where I live, I have to admit it doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to understand why. I’m not saying I agree — it’s possible to support neither what happened on 9-11 nor the things that non-Americans have criticized America for — but I am saying it’s not such a great crime for people to have felt a sense of justice after having had to live in a world order that suited America, regardless of the implications for them individually. If you want to talk about failures of citizenship, what about failures of global citizenship?)
But when I talk about how a large number of Americans supporting the invasion of Iraq, I don’t mean they felt a rush of power, a thrill of revenge, a sense of justice. I mean they institutionally supported it. I mean they didn’t tear apart the Supreme Court that anointed Bush as King, though they, yes, they could have. I mean that they kept that man in office another four years. I mean that they supported it materially, with their taxes, and culturally, with the stories they chose to tell, the websites they chose to promote, and politically, with the officials they chose to elect over the years.
Because, let’s be frank: the war in Iraq was never really a political act, and never had anything to do with terrorism. It was a religious war, except the religion was a newer religion, a religion focused not on gods but on power and money and the immediate future of America’s unsustainable status quo. (Yes, Christianity was used to grease the wheels, but the real religion is much more secular, and we call it Neoconservativism.)
It was, in other words, an orgy in Washington, and a surprising number of peasants were quite happily carting in the grapes and wine and bread and meats and all the available virgins of both sexes. (A number of them to have their bodies blasted apart.) The slaves, if we must cast this Roman pageant further, are Mexican, maligned in the press as invaders, but welcomed by anyone with a stake in cheap labour. The Mexicans, of course, will not end up in death camps. Cheap labour is too useful. But Muslims?
This should give pause to anyone who is about to rant about how bad the Muslims are. Plenty of Islamic societies have problems now. (So do plenty of non-Islamic societies, need I remind you? Visit a hospital in America, if you’re American and happen to have forgotten. Well, I mean, visit one after visiting one in the rest of the developed world, where health care is not a cross between accountancy and the mafia.)
Still, I’m willing to admit from the little I know that it’s been a long time since Islam led the world in terms of science, philosophy, and the rest of that neat stuff. I live in a society that is not my own, and I know the pitfalls of being so respectful of other societies that we fail to be really honest about their warts. The society where I live is pretty frankly racist. Whenever I walk around with a Korean woman, people stare, and it’s not the stare of never seeing a white person before. It’s a nasty, judgmental, disgusted stare. The Korean woman beside me tends to be as put off by it as I am. And I’m white — it’s much harder for the folks who come here from places like Nepal, or India, or Southeast Asia. (Or the children of mixed blood who grow up here.) To pretend Korea doesn’t have a problem with racism is to be dishonest, to disrespect Korean society’s capacity to deal with the problem, and to ignore the suffering of those who have to deal with it. I know Koreans who are very willing to discuss those problems, just as I have known Muslims who railed against all kinds of things they disliked about mainstream Islam, especially those who’d come to Canada from somewhere else.
But the problems of various societies — Muslim and otherwise — aside, to rant about “the roots of Muslim violence” is doubly dishonest: first, because remind me again, who is it that just started two major wars in (and helped destabilize a significant part of) the Muslim world?
But much worse, such prattling dehistoricizes the complex interweaving of religious and cultural violence we see in most “developed” societies, including our own: even the recent genocides in Europe aside (and yes, 1940s is recent, though some are those even more recent than that, including anti-Muslim genocide in very recent memory) — but even setting those aside, Christendom has also been pretty brutally, and pretty consistently, violent towards non-Christians and non-whites on a pretty enormous scale, and not so long ago as we like to pretend. (Not even as far back as the Belgian Congo. Go watch Gandhi, for Christ’s sake.)
Yet we don’t want to talk about the roots of Christian violence — or white people violence, which we white people immediately realize is an incoherent label. Yes, it is incoherent; but guess what? So is “Muslim violence.”
But there’s something else that discomfits me further, and the context for that is set by the palpable rage Moon expresses toward people like Ken Lay is, of course, part of this. The economy is in the toilet in America, and when that happens, nationalism booms. And when nationalism booms, and the economy stays in the toilet, and there is a Most Especially Hated Group — as Muslims unquestionably are in America today — one cannot help but say, “You know, we’ve been down this road before. It does not end well.”
Are we really so absolutely fucking stupid as to reenact the horrors that came of anti-Semitism in the middle of the last century, so soon after the fact, excusing it by picking another group of Semites?
Oh, absolutely we are. Institutionally, socially, culturally, we are utterly moronic. Yes, you, America: you are that stupid. Don’t kid yourselves. Turn on the news and look at the Tea Parties. Look, it’s not totally your fault: you’re human. It’s hard to reform education. It’s hard to inculcate a habit of diversity, compassion, and respect. It’s hard to change human nature. Possible, but hard, and especially under the current conditions.
That doesn’t mean it’s acceptable to keep on down this road. To continue down it, to fail to struggle with all your might against it, to fail to grab that demon by the throat and pummel it till it can no longer grasp your throat, is unacceptable. It is unforgivable, and if you fail to do it, your descendants will revile you. Your children will remember you as shameful. The history books will be rewritten with your society having a special place — but not the place you want, not the place you feel you deserve.
It’s not too late, though. The demon can be pummeled.
And if you think I’m exaggerating, blowing things out of proportion, well, maybe I am. I really, truly hope so. But I have a number of friends outside of America who fear this very slide. In fact, I have a lot of friends outside of the USA who have talked about this in much more graphic terms than I am here: talk of camps, of mass graves, of all kinds of horrifying things. As someone commented elsewhere, it has become a kind of game people play online, now, in the USA: “How can I hate Muslims without being a bigot?” The game might be tiresome if you’re a white American. If you’re anyone else, it’s downright chilling.
And still more chillingly, I must remind you that I have friends within the USA who are bright, and thoughtful, and somehow inexplicably also went along with Iraq, bought into it, and ended up “disappointed” when it came out there the WMD thing was just a ruse. It was perplexing to me, since out here in The Rest of the World we all knew right from the start that Iraq had nothing to do with 9-11. Nothing at all. But these friends of mine seemed to be willing to go along with it, for reasons that still baffle me. They might not go along with whatever comes next — but plenty enough people will happily do so, especially if they’re offered someone to vent their frustration at.
The rights of “suspected terrorists” have already been abrogated and suspended; there are already concentration camps secret prisons full of nobody but Muslims who may or may not be involved in anything nefarious at all (many were not), with torture considered a form of communication in such places.
What comes next is, whether they realize it or not, up to the American people as a whole.
As in every situation, there are smart people who see through the bullshit. Surely there are bright Americans who see through the crap and realize why all this is going on. That’s beside the point, though. The real question is: what are they going to do about it?
The question is whether the smart people are going to sit by and watch the deranged play out this stupid story again, or find a way to change course and go back towards sanity. I’m not a practicing religionist but I do think there’s something to pausing before railing about the splinter in the other religion’s eye… especially when the log in your own eye has been spiked and chained and it’s being used to draw you down a dark and frightening road.
Ms. Moon wants to rant about Muslims, but she seems not to be particularly interested in addressing that greater failure of citizenship endemic to her society (and to most, if we are to be fair), with which she began her discussion. Her rant about Muslims is, indeed, a signal that she herself has failed to grasp the fundamental responsibilities that underline the responsibility to one’s nation (nation-as-people, rather than as an abstract construct).
Allow me to sketch, vaguely, a possible approach to dealing both with the failure of young Americans to integrate across differences, and their failure (according to Moon) to sense a greater responsibility than to their own immediate pleasure and satisfaction.
Imagine a social program, wherein children and adults alike are given a chance to write stories, to workshop them together for free, publish them locally. Where local young people write, are encouraged by both established writers and peers; where opportunities are given to them to read their work to people in their community, to share their work in other ways. Where storytelling becomes a kind of glue between the disparate worldviews and cultures that form communities in the USA, the way Elif Shafak has suggested it ought to be?
Does that sound utopian? Hopelessly dreamish?
Well, but this idea is only a few steps away from Venezuela’s phenomenal El Sistema program, as I discussed here. Imagine a program where anyone, including Muslims but also Christians, Jewish kids, Vietnamese Buddhists, and others can come together and share their writing, their stories. How about programs for the arts, for music, for dance and visual art, where young people of different backgrounds work on creative projects, learning what it is like to be part of a community? Learning what it means to work with, respect, and cherish the contribution of people different from oneself? Learning what it feels like to be part of a huge, important project?
Isn’t that what a nation is? A huge, important, collective project by, of, and for the people? And do we have any real, explicit training for how that kind of a project is supposed to work?
I would gesture at Moon’s post and shrug. Apparently, we do not.
One more thing: turning off comments I can understand, but deleting them after they’ve been posted is cowardly, and a signal that you’re not willing to entertain the possibility you may have been wrong, misspoken, or fucked up. In that, I aspire — as I recently noted — to be more like Peter Watts, who is gracious and sensible in saying he’s been wrong millions of times in the past. (You can see his speechlet at about 1’25” into this video.) Would that more of us were like that.
For what it’s worth, by the way, I think Moon’s invitation to WisCon shouldn’t be revoked. When you silence people who’ve said things that are repugnant, ill-considered, or ill-informed, you deny them a chance to be called out on their errors, and to learn from their mistakes. But I also think people should be ready to walk out if she spews more of the same, since sometimes shaming is the only lesson that penetrates the thickness of a skull. (My own skull included.)
And no, I am not saying I’ll never read her work. I read Ezra Pound, people. You know, the guy who actually used the word “usury” in an anti-Semitic sense; who thought Mussolini was The Real Thing; who ended up in a mental hospital after WWII because he’d been such an avid supporter of the Axis Powers (publications, radio broadcasts, and so on) that the nuthouse was the only politically viable thing to do with him besides executing him for treason. (Though apparently he did exhibit some symptoms of psychosis. Well, but that doesn’t make his politics any less disgusting.)
Still, I know some of my friends, whether they say it or not, have crossed Moon off their list of authors to check out (or read more from). So perhaps I ought to be learning from her mistake, and not posting this. Maybe that the lesson in all this: to stay away from politics, to stay away from posting things that might affect my own potential readership?
But no, I don’t think so. I think there are times when things need to be said, loudly and clearly. Sometimes, there are things more important than your potential readership. Sometimes, someone has to say, “Wait a second, that’s not right.”
That’s the thing about responsibility, y’know.