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Orson Scott Card's "Medieval Views"

My friend and former colleague, the wonderfully incisive Juan Benito, wrote to me recently about an essay written by the science fiction author Orson Scott Card (asterisks mine):

I want to go on the record as saying that I've always thought Ender's Game was a great short sci-fi story for children, stretched to novel length, and that everything else Card has written is crap.

I also want to go on record as saying that when I met Card, although it was not politic to say so at the time, I thought him to be an insufferably arrogant f**ktard. This confirms my intuition:


I wish I had the time for a point-by-point rebuttal of his seriously medieval views, so I had to settle for the pithy summation "f**ktard," which is my current fave epithet of denigration. It should be noted that a person's political views should not necessarily impugn their artistic credibility, but in this happy case Card's views are as stunted as his fiction.

Card's "medieval views" -- medieval being a good one-word summary -- are on same-sex marriage. From his essay:

Humpty Dumpty Logic


The Massachusetts Supreme Court has not yet declared that "day" shall now be construed to include that which was formerly known as "night," but it might as well.

By declaring that homosexual couples are denied their constitutional rights by being forbidden to "marry," it is treading on the same ground.

Do you want to know whose constitutional rights are being violated? Everybody's. Because no constitution in the United States has ever granted the courts the right to make vast, sweeping changes in the law to reform society...

Pardon me? Did Card actually say that? So is he saying that the Supreme Court didn't have the right to issue its decision in Brown v. Board of Education? Going back further, is Card saying that Marbury v. Madison was an illegal and invalid decision -- that the Supreme Court doesn't have the right to interpret the Constitution and strike down laws it sees as un-Constitutional? If the answer is "yes," then he's out of step with 198 years of jurisprudence. If the answer is "no," then he himself disclaims one of the required bases for his own argument.

Regardless of their opinion of homosexual "marriage," every American who believes in democracy should be outraged that any court should take it upon itself to dictate such a social innovation without recourse to democratic process.

And we all know the course this thing will follow. Anyone who opposes this edict will be branded a bigot; any schoolchild who questions the legitimacy of homosexual marriage will be expelled for "hate speech." The fanatical Left will insist that anyone who upholds the fundamental meaning that marriage has always had, everywhere, until this generation, is a "homophobe" and therefore mentally ill...

This is too easy. Just pretend it's 1955 and substitute "interracial" for "homosexual" and "racist" for "homophobe."

In the first place, no law in any state in the United States now or ever has forbidden homosexuals to marry. The law has never asked that a man prove his heterosexuality in order to marry a woman, or a woman hers in order to marry a man.

Any homosexual man who can persuade a woman to take him as her husband can avail himself of all the rights of husbandhood under the law. And, in fact, many homosexual men have done precisely that, without any legal prejudice at all.

Ditto with lesbian women. Many have married men and borne children. And while a fair number of such marriages in recent years have ended in divorce, there are many that have not.

So it is a flat lie to say that homosexuals are deprived of any civil right pertaining to marriage. To get those civil rights, all homosexuals have to do is find someone of the opposite sex willing to join them in marriage...

This is so nonsensical, it's amusing. Card to gays: "You can marry! Just not each other! What's the problem?" Does he actually believe this?

[N]ot only are two sexes required in order to conceive children, children also learn their sex-role expectations from the parents in their own family. This is precisely what large segments of the Left would like to see break down. And if it is found to have unpleasant results, they will, as always, insist that the cure is to break down the family even further...
See "herring, red." No one of whom I am aware -- no one -- wants to see "sex-role expectations... break down." Speaking honestly, I hope my children grow up to be heterosexual. For one thing, I'm selfish, and I'd like to have grandchildren to dote upon. For another, it's still difficult to be gay in this country, with Card's troglodytic comments Exhibit #1. But should any of my children grow up to be gay, I will still love them just the same, care for them just the same, and want for them exactly the same rights as their straight peers -- including the right to marry the person they love.
Of course, in our current society we are two generations into the systematic destruction of the institution of marriage. In my childhood, it was rare to know someone whose parents were divorced; now, it seems almost as rare to find someone whose parents have never been divorced.

And a growing number of children grow up in partial families not because of divorce, but because there never was a marriage at all.

The damage caused to children by divorce and illegitimate birth is obvious and devastating...

This is like the old joke about Microsoft technical support: it's technically correct but has nothing to do with the original question. Card is right that the institution of marriage has broken down over the last few generations. Does he blame gays for this? No, that would be too intellectually dishonest, even for this essay. Instead, he seems to be drawing a line in the sand: "It's too late to turn back the clock on the causes of the breakdown of the nuclear family, but by God, we can stop gays from marrying." And that will accomplish what again?

[S]ociety has a vital stake in child-rearing; and children have a vital stake in society.

Monogamous marriage is by far the most effective foundation for a civilization. It provides most males an opportunity to mate (polygamous systems always result in surplus males that have no reproductive stake in society); it provides most females an opportunity to have a mate who is exclusively devoted to her. Those who are successful in mating are the ones who will have the strongest loyalty to the social order; so the system that provides reproductive success to the largest number is the system that will be most likely to keep a civilization alive.

Ah, here we're getting to it. Monogamous heterosexual marriage, "the system that provides reproductive success to the largest number," is "the ystem that will be most likely to keep a civilization alive." So marriage is about procreation. Okay. I can see that.

Wait a minute, though. We let people who can't have children marry. If the core of Card's argument is that same-sex marriage detracts from procreation, then shouldn't we outlaw any marriage in which the participants can't procreate? If, say, a sterile man marries a fertile woman, that man has just removed a potentially child-bearing woman from the pool of women available to be fertilized. Clearly this detracts from procreation. If a still-fertile man marries a post-menopausal woman, that woman has just removed a potentially child-creating man from the pool of men available to fertilize women.

Calling a homosexual contract "marriage" does not make it reproductively relevant and will not make it contribute in any meaningful way to the propagation of civilization.
Card can't be more clear than he is here. Marriages that are not "reproductively relevant," that "don't contribute in any meaningful way to the propagation of civilization," aren't marriages at all. Tell that to every couple who can't have children, Card. Go ahead. If you can't, then your intellectual dishonesty is staggering. If you can, then your heartlessness is beyond measure.
In fact, it will do harm. Nowhere near as much harm as we have already done through divorce and out-of-wedlock childbearing. But it's another nail in the coffin. Maybe the last nail, precisely because it is the most obvious and outrageous attack on what is left of marriage in America...
This is actually surprisingly honest. Card says that same-sex marriage won't do as much "harm" as divorce and out-of-wedlock childbearing. So if he wants to outlaw same-sex marriage, then clearly he must also want to prohibit divorce and criminalize out-of-wedlock births. Right? Right?

Card goes on to dismiss the genetic basis of homosexuality. I'll leave it to others to dissect that particular argument.

If parents stop transmitting the culture of the American elite to their children, and actively resist letting the schools and media do it in their place, then that culture will disappear.

If America becomes a place where the laws of the nation declare that marriage no longer exists -- which is what the Massachusetts decision actually does -- then our allegiance to America will become zero. We will transfer our allegiance to a society that does protect marriage.

We will teach our children to have no loyalty to the culture of the American elite, and will instead teach them to be loyal to a competing culture that upholds the family. Whether we home school our kids or not, we will withdraw them at an early age from any sense of belonging to contemporary American culture...

The barbarians think that if they grab hold of the trunk of the tree, they've caught the birds in the branches. But the birds can fly to another tree.

And I don't mean that civilized Americans will move. I mean that they'll simply stop regarding the authority of the government as having any legitimacy...

If Card and his like-minded friends go down this path, they'll find themselves in the same place as people who think the government has no right to levy income taxes, or no right to tell them they can't own and use any weapon they want, no matter how destructive: in jail.

It is the most morally conservative portion of society that is most successful in raising children who believe in loyalty and oath-keeping and self-control and self-sacrifice.

And we're tired of being subject to barbarian rules and laws that fight against our civilized values. We're not interested in risking our children's lives to defend a nation that does not defend us.

Who do you think is volunteering for the military to defend America against our enemies? Those who believe in the teachings of politically correct college professors? Or those who believe in the traditional values that the politically correct elite has been so successful in destroying?

This is a great question. Let's see:

  • President George W. Bush: Served in the Texas Air National Guard.
  • Vice-President Richard Cheney: No military service.
  • Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert: No military service.
  • House Majority Leader Tom DeLay: No military service.
  • Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist: No military service.
What about those "politically correct elite"?
  • Former Vice-President and 2000 Democratic Presidential nominee Al Gore: Volunteered and served in Vietnam.
  • Senator and probable 2004 Democratic Presidential nominee John Kerry: Volunteered and served in Vietnam. Received the Silver Star and Bronze Star for bravery. Received three Purple Hearts for wounds suffered in combat.
Okay, I'll bite: who do I "think is volunteering for the military to defend America against our enemies?" I'd say it's the "politically correct elite."

By the way, since by Card's standards, I'm "politically correct" (though not "elite"), I suppose I should point out that I served in the US Army from 1980-84. I was fortunate enough not to see combat. As for Card, since by his own standards, he is one of those who "believe in traditional values," as far as I can tell, he never served in the military.

My friend Juan is right. Card's views are "medieval." But that would be okay if they were logically consistent and intellectually honest. They're neither.

[Disclaimer: I, too, once met Card, in 1997, when I was a principal at a game development firm and I went to meet him to discuss the possibility of collaborating on a game based on one of his books.]


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You have very elegantly dissected Card's barbaric rant against homosexuality. All I want to say by way of comment is how laughable I found his point about monogamy:

Monogamous marriage is by far the most effective foundation for a civilization.

This from a confirmed Mormon apologist whose religion teaches that, even though God has temporarily banned the practice, plural marriage is the ideal and will be the order of the day in the next life!

[I too have met Card, on several occasions. In fact, I we have many friends in common, and know one of his younger brothers well.]

Dude, you're attacking the wrong party. You must be a mudpacker, right?

If so, dude, you got a beef with God.

Was it God who taught you to use hateful terms like "mudpacker," mikemike? If so, he's not a god I want to know.

Almost forgot what I came back to say. I wanted to point to another part of Card's essay:

We will once again be performing a potentially devastating social experiment on ourselves without any attempt to predict the consequences and find out if the American people actually want them.

Aren't Canada, Belgium, and The Netherlands performing this social experiment already? It's like that Onion headline about America's nightmare of peace and prosperity finally ending. I don't see Canadian society devolving into anarchy yet.

Card's analysis is correct as far as I can see. It is his values that are out of step with progress. I think this may be a useful distinction. Muddling the delineation of demonstrable premise->cause->effect sequences (e.g. sexual roles are largely from familial situations -> the social concept of traditional families has been decaying -> therefore?) with differences in values (e.g. asserting that marriage is or is not primarily about reproductive relevance), simply leads to name calling, such as that espoused by Benito in the opening quote. While name calling is a valid expression of a single person's feelings, it doesn't provide the rest of us with a means for predicting what the world will be like if one or the other of the combatants got their way. Consequently, I'd like to focus on some social cause and effect here in the hopes that others will read and be able to choose more intelligently.

One interesting aspect (for me) of this dialogue is the question of whether or not the Massachusets court is overstepping its bounds. There's not a simple, abstract way to determine a correct answer to this question. I was recently looking over a decision from Justice Rehnquist over the constitutionality of a Washington State ban on assisted suicide. The challenge to the Washington law was on the grounds that it violated the 14th Amendment. I was initially aghast to find that the decision began by citing pages and pages of socially accepted behavior and legal precedents which are based upon that behavior, going back even to medeival times and thus referencing non-U.S. law. I was informed by the law student who gave me the case, that this is standard practice for cases involving citizens' rights. Later, I recalled a statement from my friend Joe, who has spent his career in politics. After a number of years in the political machine, Joe said that the function (if not the purpose) of law and government is to resist change. After thinking about that statement and the judicial process, it all began to make sense.

Card asserts that the Massachusetts court overstepped its bounds in that the purpose of our court system is not to introduce sweeping legal change. Indeed, we generally think of our court system as being charged with interpretting the law and its application to specific situations. Both Card and Boosman agree that the "institution of marriage broken down over the last few generations". Thus perhaps Card needs to realize that the court is not introducing "sweeping change" after all, but rather simply legally recognizing social change which has already occurred.

Or, maybe that's wrong and the social change isn't complete. In such a case, more mainstream media dissemenation of the idea that same-sex marriage now is like interracial marriage was in the past is called for. I believe this to be a sound and compelling analogy, however I would like to raise a point about the timing: If public opinion about same-sex marriage has not yet reached a critical mass amongst the american voting public, then proponents of it may wish to be careful about their handling of it right now. If a significant percentage voting public's feelings about these relationships are negative then consider how such people will react if they focus on this issue in the upcoming election. People's feelings are about what's before them at the moment, and many have a tendency to let those feelings obscure other rational issues. Both Card and Boosman that same-sex relationships will continue regardless of the law. So is this really the most important issue to you?

The law, like human behavior, is ultimately arbitrary. Boosman points out that "If Card and his like-minded friends go down this path, they'll find themselves in the same place as people who think the government has no right to levy income taxes, or no right to tell them they can't own and use any weapon they want, no matter how destructive: in jail." I submit that Boosman is wrong about this unless such people's feelings lead them to take (violent) actions which would in themselves be so against mainstream values as to precipitate their incarceration on those grounds. Governments have no rights of any kind. They are in a might makes right situation and, since any dominant government in a region is by definition the "might", they enact policies and laws which preserve the status quo and call it "right", just as Joe once told me. If they don't then violence that ensues is overwhelming as opposed incarceratable and that government either changes its stance or ceases to be in power. In this way, governments are (often sadly) the hostage of social institution.

I think it's worth noting that our societal condition affects the power of our government over the long term. In the afterword to _Shadow of the Hegemon_ card notes America's imminent decline in power, but (IIRC, I've lent the book to a friend and so cannot quote) fails to connect it to a lack of unified social vision. Like many, he references a change in societal values from those dominant in decades or even centuries past, along with this decline in power but fails to establish a verifiable cause/effect relationship. I wish to debunk the myth that "traditional" values have anything to do with prosperity. I submit instead that the actual values of a society are irrelevant to its propserity and the resultant the power of its government but rather that it is the UNITY of vision and values (whatever they may be) which promotes the ability of a society to focus on more mundane issues such us technical education and building industrial infrastructure thereby increasing economic prosperity and international power. If a society's conventions, as reflected by its laws, are not permissive enough for many of its members those members become increasingly dissociated from the society and governmental workings. That is to say, the "underground" increases. The government itself then loses power due to increased internal spending to combat social "problems" (the penal system, quelling dissent, social programs, etc.) and often decreased taxable economic output (as in the prohibition era).

I hope people can be shown that it is their intolerance and not a departure from "traditional" values that hinders societal prosperity. As Card points out, people can become increasingly insular if they dislike the actions of others and at a larger level their government will be prohibitive towards some actions in order to keep the peace. Happiness is the universal human goal, however, and I hope people will really think about whether or not the actions of others unavoidably cause them to be unhappy because of some universal cause and effect. If what you see in others "makes" you unhappy, try thinking and getting to the root of why that it is. If it's not the result of the external workings of the world (which do sometimes change, btw. I'd like to point out to Mr. Card that male/female interaction is no longer strictly required for producing offspring; though it's still the most enjoyable way.) then maybe not only others but you would wind up a happier as the result of some more self-examination and/or a broader perspective. For example, in Orson's case, while I find him a master at the formulaic application of story-telling technique, I'd guess that a little more human understanding could dramatically improve his characterization. Wouldn't that be great? We all have our points to work on though, myself included, and that's true on a societal and cultural level as well: I volunteered at a production of the Vagina Monologues last night and was saddened by the sacrifices activists have to make in order to try to change abuse and mutilations which I had regarded as medeival, but which are still tacitly sanctioned in some cultures today. With those awful descriptions still in mind, I look towards a society of peaceful people as opposed to a society where arbitrary rules are needed to keep the peace.

I'm a card-carrying member of the tree-huggin' gay-marriage-supportin' liberal elite, and I served in the US Army from 1995-2000.

Card is out of mind, out of line, and never was a terribly good writer anyway.

The most surprising thing about Card's essay isn't it's back-assward view of society, it's that this guy actually manages to write books for a living.

I once spent a week at a Creative Writing seminar taught by Orson Scott Card. In this seminar, the twelve attendees each wrote a short story which was then critiqued by all the other attendeee. Most of the Scott was his usual arrogant but amiable self.

One of the short stories written by another attendee of the seminar included some text that I felt sounded homophobic in that it made some very negative generalizations about homosexuals. I raised that concern during the critique portion of the seminar and Card became very angry, beating his fists on the table and declaring loudly that there is no such thing as "homophobia". He was clearly outraged that anyone would even suggest that dislike for all homosexuals is any way wrong.

This was not a seminar for Mormon writers. It was a seminar for students of a state university in North Carolina.

Oh, and if you want to know whether Card thinks that sterile heterosexuals should be allowed to marry, read "Speaker of the Dead" for his depiction of the monstrous harm caused by allowing such a thing to occur.

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