Many writers have all the virtues of civilized persons

(Title shamelessly stolen from Matt Withers.)

Science fiction has always liked to think of itself as either a vanguard or a bubble — preferably both at once. The truth is — as would be too dead obvious to need saying, if not for the stories we’ve kept telling ourselves about ourselves over the years — that science fiction is a product of society and its hopes and fears are a product of society’s hopes and fears.*

So it’s sad, but not particularly surprising, to see a prominent science fiction writer break down and give voice to her pent-up resentment at having to be nice to Muslims all this time.

But Muslims fail to recognize how much forbearance they’ve had. Schools in my area held consciousness-raising sessions for kids about not teasing children in Muslim-defined clothing…but not about not teasing Jewish children or racial minorities. More law enforcement was dedicated to protecting mosques than synagogues–and synagogues are still targeted for vandalism. What I heard, in my area, after 9/11, was not condemnation by local mosques of the attack — but an immediate cry for protection even before anything happened. Our church, and many others (not, obviously all) already had in place a “peace and reconciliation” program that urged us to understand, forgive, pray for, not just innocent Muslims but the attackers themselves. It sponsored a talk by a Muslim from a local mosque — but the talk was all about how wonderful Islam was — totally ignoring the historical roots of Islamic violence.

… I feel that I personally (and many others) lean over backwards to put up with these things, to let Muslims believe stuff that unfits them for citizenship, on the grounds of their personal freedom. … It would be helpful for them to show more understanding of the responsibilities of citizenship in a non-Muslim country.

A couple of days ago James Fallows wrote a post called “A Harsh Thing I Should Have Said.”

Earlier this week I wrote an item about an incredible instance of public bigotry in the American intelligentsia. I decided not to push the “publish” button, because — well, I didn’t need to say it. Other people were pointing out the bigotry. … But Nicholas Kristof’s column today makes me realize I was wrong. The upsurge in expressed hostility toward Muslims — not toward extremists or terrorists but toward adherents of a religion as a group — creates an American moment that isn’t going to look good in historical retrospect. The people indulging in this… deserve to be called out.

He wasn’t talking about Elizabeth Moon’s incredible instance of public bigotry, of course, he was talking about Martin Peretz’s — which only goes to show how right he is that the problem here is not one or two bigoted essays by one or two willfully ignorant individuals but a climate of bigotry and willful ignorance. It’s public (technically-)intellectuals like Mr. Peretz that give voice to and cover for the fears and hatreds of the public; it’s authors like Ms. Moon that give voice to and cover for the fears and hatreds of fandom. It’s because we’ve allowed such a climate to be created that Ms. Moon feels comfortable taking the occasion of 9/11 to vent her petty nativist bullshit.

Because that’s all this is: venting.

It certainly has nothing to do with its ostensible subject, the Cordoba House / Park51 project, because it’s clear from Ms. Moon’s post that she doesn’t know thing one about it — she calls it “a memorial center at/near the site of the 9/11 attacks,” which by my count is three errors and a lie in twelve words. But I don’t blame Ms. Moon for the lie; she’s only repeating what the media’s been telling her — what our climate of bigotry and willful ignorance has been telling her.

It certainly has nothing to do with the compatibility with the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence of what “Muslims” believe, or Ms. Moon would demonstrate some awareness that Christians like herself — “Christians like herself” insofar, that is, as Sayyid Qutb is a Muslim like Feisal Abdul Rauf — believe, when it comes to the proper government of the United States, some crazy-ass shit.

It has nothing to do with actually existing “Muslims,” because (as Fallows says in a follow-up post) the term, which covers something like a quarter of the human population, is so broad as to be meaningless.

And it certainly has nothing to do with the responsibilities of citizenship, or Ms. Moon would understand that responsible citizenship requires us to stand up for what’s right — including the “personal freedom” of people we don’t know and may not like — always, not just when it’s easy, or not just until, like Ms. Moon, we get tired of it.

We all do get tired sometimes and we all do behave irresponsibly — as citizens, as human beings. But it’s telling that what Ms. Moon is tired of is not a decade of culture war, a decade of actual war, a decade of greed, a decade of cruelty and hatred and cynical opportunism, a decade of the worst people in the Islamic world and the worst people in Christendom clamoring for Armageddon.

She’s tired of feeling like she has to watch her tongue around those damned Muslims.

I can easily imagine how Muslims would react to my excusing the Crusades on the basis of Islamic aggression from 600 to 1000 C.E. … (for instance, excusing the building of a church on the site of a mosque in Cordoba after the Reconquista by reminding them of the mosque built on the site of an important early Christian church in Antioch.) So I don’t give that lecture to the innocent Muslims I come in contact with. … It would be helpful to have them understand what they’re demanding of me and others — how much more they’re asking than giving.

It’s sad. But, as I said, not surprising. America is full of privileged people who are tired of being nice to the less privileged. And until we have justice, it always will be. It’s sucky but there it is.

All I can say in response is what Ms. Moon herself says — something with which I agree wholeheartedly.

“Acceptance” is a multi-directional communications grid. Groups that self-isolate, that determinedly distinguish themselves by location, by language, by dress, will not be accepted as readily as those that plunge into the mainstream. This is not just an American problem — this is human nature, the tribalism that underlies all societies and must be constantly curtailed if larger groups are to co-exist. It is natural to want to be around those who talk like you, eat the familiar foods, wear the familiar clothes, have the familiar cultural references. But in a multicultural society like ours — and it has been multi-cultural from its inception — citizens need to go beyond nature. That includes those who by their history find it least comfortable.

Brave words and true.

Especially from a self-proclaimed “small-town Texas gal” engaged in telling New Yorkers how to live.

* Anybody who’s surprised that a book like The Windup Girl won the Hugo and the Nebula in the third year of the Great Recession, the year of Deepwater Horizon, and the year of the first commercial voyage through the North-East Passage without icebreaker escort has failed to grasp this.

Which she doesn’t, actually. See David Mitchell, “If Britain decides to ban the burqa, I might just start wearing one.” Quoth Mr. Mitchell: “In a free society, people should be allowed to do what they want wherever possible. The loss of liberty incurred by any alternative principle is too high a price to pay to stop people making dicks of themselves. But, if people are using their freedoms to make dicks of themselves, other people should be able to say so.”

Personally, I don’t give that lecture to “innocent Muslims” because I don’t want them to think I’m fucking insane. Excuse the Crusades or the Ummayads, I mean, Bizarro am paperclip the stoplight, puny Earthling!¤ Katherine Hepburn as Eleanor of Aquitaine: “Of course he has a knife, he always has a knife, we all have knives! It’s 1183 and we’re barbarians!” (Actually, the speech that follows is worth quoting, too, in this context: “Oh, my piglets, we are the origins of war: not history’s forces, nor the times, nor justice, nor the lack of it, nor causes, nor religions, nor ideas, nor kinds of government, nor any other thing. We are the killers.”)

¤ Apologies to Patrick.

29 thoughts on “Many writers have all the virtues of civilized persons

  1. I’ve never bothered to find out if the people who put all Muslims in the same bucket do the same with all Christians, but I’m willing to bet they don’t. I think they’d have no problem seeing a difference between between my sister-in-law and Joseph Smith (I want to use Koresh, but I can’t remember if he was actually Christian), for example, so why is so hard to remember that in general, religions–even the ones that are not yours–are a spectrum of beliefs and fanaticism?

    On the other hand, I had to go read the original source material (I hate you) because I was hoping that she really does have to watch her tongue to avoid talking about the Crusades with strangers. I sympathized with that notion because I myself like to stop Christian men on the street and explain to them that i don’t resent them for systematically oppressing the women in their religion so much that it became culturally acceptable for the last 1700 years. (okay, it’s not so much on the street as “in the bar, while I am drinking” and not so much “christian men” as “anyone who stands too close to me.” I think “I’m a historian” should forgive a multitude of sins.)

  2. I am always baffled when people assert that humans like to herd together in ‘like’ groups. Only when under stress for resources … When, happy, relaxed and sure of ‘enough’ we are a gregarious and inquisitive species which has mostly figured out that there is actually a connection between gregarious and inquisitive and ‘enough” ( or even ‘more than enough). It’s why cities are pretty darn attractive despite their stresses. And why we call it ‘civilisation’.

  3. Personally, I think you’re being harsh and unfair calling it public bigotry. The reality is that Elizabeth Moon, like a lot of people, feels pain at the memory of what happened on 9/11. There’s also still a lot of fear, especially about a group about whom people don’t know that much. This is always the case in American society — people fear what they don’t understand. I am not against the Mosque near 9/11. I do not hold the majority of Muslims responsible for a few fanatics’ actions. But I do have compassion for the anger and pain many Americans feel because college classmates of mine died in those towers. What Elizabeth Moon and others like her need us compassionate, concerned people to hear them, explain the other side, and remind them that 60 Muslim families lost loved ones on 9/11, too. We’re all in this together and only by working for greater understanding can we hope to prevent another 9/11 and learn to get along as brother and sister human beings. Harsh, over the top criticism like yours doesn’t help.

  4. What’s sad in all this is that for all the hand-wringing, a muslim life has never meant as much to Fallows or Kristof as an Israeli one. Zionism is racist ideology. Ethnocracy is not democracy.

    Since I can’t link to an arab commentary without offering some sort of guarantee that he or she is not somehow linked to “extremists”, since we know that ni-rs have to be lead by saints in order to gain any respect at all] I’ll link to an Israeli journalist, Amira Hass, in Haaretz

    Where has the hypocrisy gone?
    No one thinks to ask about the consensus among the residents of Palestinian cities and villages on whose land the settlements have been built. The millions of Palestinians don’t count at all.

  5. Mr. Schmidt, some situations call for compassionate understanding, and some call for calling bullshit. Some call for both. I understand where Ms. Moon is coming from, but I’m also doing her the courtesy of treating her as an adult.

    As for the question of bigotry, see Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Because there are no bigots.” The depth of Ms. Moon’s pain and fear isn’t really relevant to whether the sentiments she expressed are bigoted sentiments.

  6. Perambulous, I’m not a regular Kristof reader, but Fallows, in my experience, while a little “establishment” is generally pretty even-handed. And on this blog you’re welcome to link to Arab commentary or Iranian commentary or any commentary you like.

  7. ” The reality is that Elizabeth Moon, like a lot of people, feels pain at the memory of what happened on 9/11.”

    But two separate New Yorkers showed up and pointed out that she was not respecting their pain, as people who were directly, personally affected by 9/11, as people who lived in the city and who knew how enormously far two blocks was on the island.

    She ignored them. As she ignored all the passionate, eloquent, polite, and personal people talking about what the pressure to assimilate had meant to themselves and their families.

  8. Pain and fear may or may not be required for Moon’s views. Bigotry most certainly is. Otherwise, how can you go from a small group of terrorists to 1.2 billion people? Without collective guilt, there’s nothing to grasp here.

    And her (decade-old, second-hand) distress doesn’t explain away anything. What are ‘real’ bigots? Robots? Vulcans?

  9. No, well, no. I am compassionate and I am sorry and a bit sickened by all the (deserved) contempt that is poured on her. But I am not taking “she still feels pain at 9/11” as an excuse. Unless she lost somebody personally, then what she feels is the same horror and pain of shared humanity that we all felt and feel. Since one of my close relatives (now) worked a block away from the WTC that day, I may well be able to claim a greater personal connection, but that’s not the point.

    If we don’t feel pain and horror at the pain and horror visited upon our kin, humankind, we are less than human, and we do not deserve that higher form of citizenship that is usually referred to as being a mensch.

    But it can’t be horror that is greater when the catastrophe falls spectacularly and in the glory of full-color television upon the artificial tribe you have decided to swear fealty to and so construct your identity.

    It can’t be horror that doesn’t feel as much pain for those under the green glow of bombardments over Badghdad. It can’t be horror that only feels for the Christian slaughtered in tribal wars in Sudan and Aceh and not for the Muslims or Hindus slaughtered next door. It can’t be horror that decides not to know what it means living day by day in Gaza.

    I first felt that stomach clutching sense of grief for something that didn’t touch me personally when I read stuff about the more or less contemporary coup in Chile. It wasn’t my country, it wasn’t my people, it was half a world away, and I still felt sick with grief at Victor Jara’s smashed hands.

    No, sorry, but if you think that 9/11 is the most sickening tragedy to have happened to the world in living memory, even leaving aside the wrongness of instituting a hierarchy of horrors, then you haven’t been paying attention, and that would unfit you for citizenship of the human race, were it not for the fact that such citizenship cannot be renounced or withdrawn and weighs on all of us as a duty.

  10. Personally, I keep stumbling over

    to let Muslims believe stuff that unfits them for citizenship

    as if she thought there was some act of will she could exercise that could make them stop believing; as if they don’t call that thingy “inalienable” for a reason. Maybe she could punish them for it (I wonder what she’d choose) but she is thankfully incapable of stopping them.

  11. “And on this blog you’re welcome to link to…”
    I guess that means you didn’t read her.

    Israeli moderates are the logical equivalent of the European right, worrying about the demographics of a state they define in terms of ethnicity. If you defend that concern in Germany you should defend it in Israel. Never mind the fact that the neither Israel nor “Israelis” existed 70 years ago, and that the native population is if anything more “Jewish” in terms of genetics than the more heterogeneous but still genetically linked European immigrants who took their land.

    Being “even handed” is a way of avoiding responsibility for taking a position one way or the other. You’re responding to this open bigotry only because it’s open, not because it’s bigotry.

  12. I’d appreciate it if on my blog you could start from the assumption that you’re dealing with compassionate people of good will, at least until proven otherwise, and not make unwarranted assumptions about either my motives or my political positions. Assuming I’m some asshole who’s going to write off any Arab opinion as “extremist” is not a good start, and neither is assuming I’m unaware of the colonial history of the Israeli state.

    As for my motives in calling Ms. Moon to account, you’re right in a sense, but not the sense I think you mean. I’m responding to public bigotry publically because not to respond to it is to contribute to defining decency down and creating a climate in which people think anti-Muslim bigotry is acceptable, which it really fucking isn’t.

    Finally, I’m not really here, today, to talk about Palestine or Zionism, and I’d appreciate it if you didn’t try to derail this discussion or turn it into a soapbox.

  13. My reference to “public” though it’s true it wasn’t clear was to the public world you’re a part of, which for all of us is small. I stand by my assumptions.
    But you’re right, it’s your soapbox, not mine.

    I’m out.

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  16. “Science fiction has always liked to think of itself as either a vanguard or a bubble — preferably both at once. The truth is — as would be too dead obvious to need saying, if not for the stories we’ve kept telling ourselves about ourselves over the years — that science fiction is a product of society and its hopes and fears are a product of society’s hopes and fears.”

    I really hope that in this case Elizabeth Moon is not in the vanguard; I friend whose judgement I generally respect fears the right’s ‘Muzlims is n*ggerz’ campaign, precisely because it targets a tiny minority whom the MSM has been happy to paint as evil for the past few decades. He points out that the right has failed with a similar targeting of gays (after a couple decades of success), and that their targeting of Latinos is going to bite them in the electoral *ss pretty quickly.

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  18. The problem with the term bigotry today is the way it’s applied or misapplied, Mr. Moles. Ms. Moon is expressing things a lot of people struggle with, even some Muslims I know. And the reality is that the standard asked for by many Muslims is special treatment not afforded others. Christians and conservatives are regularly called bigoted for stating their beliefs. The people calling them that are being bigoted in their own statements because time and again they are objecting to people who disagree with them and failing to understand and respect the free speech and religion of those individuals. And I am not talking about people who make blatant statements here, but people who happen to believe marriage is a term defined by God and that gays should have a different term for their unions. This is is their religious belief, yet they are called bigots. This is just one example of many. You are misusing the term the same way, and that’s what I am objecting too. Her fear is natural. Her concern that Muslims are asking for special treatment without showing proper sensitivity to events and people’s feelings are valid. This is not all Muslims. This is a few. But that doesn’t make her a bigot. I have read her comments again, and even though I don’t agree with most of them, the reality is they are not of a nature bigoted. Only bigoted because you perceive them as being offensive to your touchy feely feelings of tolerance.

  19. A belief that homosexuality is inferior to heterosexuality is, by definition, a bigoted belief. To take one example. Beliefs don´t afflict people, Christian or otherwise; we are responsible for our own, because we form and hold them ourselves.

    There´s nothing wrong with calling someone bigoted when they claim to believe bigoted things. It might be hurtful, and it is insulting, but it is not unfair when it is true.

    It is bigoted to assert that all members of a group share a set of beliefs by virtue of membership, and kind of silly to present oneself as tolerant and sensible in the same post.

  20. I’ll give you an example to prove my point.

    There are people ready to let Muslims build a community center near Ground Zero, while a Greek Orthodox congregation is not being allowed to rebuild their church which was already there but destroyed in the attacks. How is that not unfair bias of one group over another?

    People have become like sheep. No critical thinking. Whatever the media and pundits say. And it’s ridiculous. Freedom of speech and freedom of religion were once high values in this country. You may not agree with what was said or the religion, but you damn well respected people’s right to think it and worship it. Not any more. Now, if you don’t agree with them, you’re a bigot and villain. Both sides are guilty of this to some degree, but I see more of it coming from the Left. It’s scary. We could lose so much. Maybe we already have.

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  22. Why did you write such a huge essay when all you had to do was link to the post and say “RACEFAIL”? Are you getting paid by the word, here?

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