Monday, November 8, 2010

Elizabeth Moon and posterior-interior cerebration within the American left

I have, from time to time, enjoyed the SF novels of Elizabeth Moon, mainly the Familias Regnant stories. She is not one my favourite SF writers, but I have never done other than enjoyed reading one of her books. I am sure that, over the years, she has engaged many an adolescent (and not so adolescent) male in her tales of smart, badass women and the notion that female naval admirals is just where the future goes.

In other words, she has practised more reaching-the-public feminism than many a “who reads this constipated jargon anyway?” academic feminist, convinced of the superiority of their cognition—not least because most of the public would not even be able to understand the thoughts said academic feminist expresses in such a way as to ensure they don’t.

Elizabeth Moon recently (Sept. 11 2010) published a meditation on citizenship on her livejournal. The first ten or so paragraphs are moderately liberal-Democrat in tone on the need to contribute to society and criticising the American right as having a selfish conception of liberty, white flight from attempting to create racial balance in schools as undermining public schools as vehicles of social integration, while using crass statements by Ken Lay of Enron and Laura Bush as examples of blind self-involvement.

Then she moves on to the point that creating a nation of immigrants means that immigrants have some responsibility to fit in. Living in a country with a considerably higher proportion of foreign-born citizens than the US (25% of Australian residents are foreign-born compared to 14% of US residents), I take her point, one that is expressed moderately sensibly. Certainly, well within the realm of reasonable discourse:
The point here is that in order to accept large numbers of immigrants, and maintain any social cohesion, acceptance by the receiving population is not the only requirement: immigrants must be willing and able to change, to merge with the receiving population. The new place isn't the old place; the new customs aren't the old customs. "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.
She then proceeds to make some fairly obvious points about proposing to build a new Islamic centre at or near the site of the 9/11 attacks:
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. Not only were the attackers Islamic--and not only did the Islamic world in general show indecent glee about the attack, but this was only the last of many attacks on citizens and installations of this country which Islamic groups proudly claimed credit for. That some Muslims died in the attacks is immaterial--does not wipe out the long, long chain of Islamic hostility.
She also makes her own position (politely) clear:
It is hard to believe that those making the application did not know that--did not anticipate it--and were not, in a way, probing to see if they could start a controversy. If they did not know, then they did not know enough about the culture into which they had moved. Though I am not angry about it, and have not spoken out in opposition, I do think it was a rude and tactless thing to propose (and, if carried out, to do.)
There is absolutely nothing morally or intellectually offensive in any of this. Her expressed opinion puts Elizabeth Moon well within mainstream US opinion on the issue, given polling finds that nearly 70% of Americans (and 71% of New Yorkers) oppose the proposal: indeed, it puts her on the liberal wing of that mainstream opinion.
What she is after is a bit of give-and-take and what disturbs her is that she is not seeing or experiencing enough of it from Muslims she reads about or meets:
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. I would appreciate the same courtesy in return (and don't get it.)
But—and here’s the thing—she take Islam, and its doctrines, seriously:
The same with other points of Islam that I find appalling (especially as a free woman) and totally against those basic principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution...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 to have them understand what they're demanding of me and others--how much more they're asking than giving. It would be helpful for them to show more understanding of the responsibilities of citizenship in a non-Muslim country.
Wicked her!

Now, the historically illiterate will no doubt refer to C19th and early C20th suspicions about Catholics, or more recent suspicions about Vietnamese or whoever (even though Elizabeth Moon has already made that point).

Right, please nominate the Catholic (or Vietnamese, or whoever) equivalent of 9/11 (or the Bali bombings), or the jihadi networks more generally, in the historical experience of the United States or the Commonwealth of Australia; go.

What makes Islam and Muslim migration a much more difficult issue is the beliefs and actions of many Muslims: beliefs and actions that, alas, have a lot of history and doctrine behind them. In her US liberal-polite, wanting–to-be-reasonable way, Elizabeth Moon is grappling with these realities.

And it is a very liberal-Democrat form of politeness and reasonableness she presents. (The goals of libertarians don’t “only benefit themselves” for example: and there is plenty of perfectly genuine patriotism among Tea Partiers—neither group is, en bloc, failing to understand the requirements of citizenship.) But still, by admitting there are genuine, and specific, issues with Muslim integration, Elizabeth Moon broke a major progressivist taboo.

And was promptly punished for it by being “dis-invited” from being guest of honour at a feminist science fiction convention, along with getting a lot of online opprobrium.

Her post was, apparently, “an anti-Muslim rant”. No, actually, it wasn’t; as anyone who reads it—and whose cognition is not stuck somewhere within their own posterior—can tell for themselves.

But it gets better. A definition of feminism was promulgated for the convention—this being a feminist science fiction con after all. Read the definition. Particularly this para:
Feminism is many things to many people, but one way to describe it is as a belief in the social, political, and economic equality of all. Feminism is part of a larger constellation of movements seeking social, political and economic equality for all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, gender identity, creed, ability, status, or belief.
Notice anything about it? Reclusive Leftist certainly has. I will just let her go to town on it:
Notice anything? Like maybe the fact that this definition of feminism doesn’t even mention discrimination based on sex? We have “gender identity” and “sexual orientation,” which covers the GLBTQ crowd, but what about just plain old sex discrimination? Apparently, equality regardless of sex just isn’t on the menu.
Notice anything else? Like maybe the fact that this isn’t a definition of feminism at all? Feminism is a movement and political philosophy that addresses the systematic oppression of females because they are female. What WisCon is offering up instead is just a general definition of liberal social justice. Sexism isn’t even mentioned.
Oi vay!

I am sure the posterior-interior cerebration on display in the dis-inviting of Elizabeth Moon, and in describing her meditation on citizenship as an “anti-Muslim rant”, is warm and cosy. Reassuring even. It is just not, in any sense, useful. Not for understanding the world, nor changing it for the better. Elizabeth Moon’s feisty, competent heroines are much more useful for the latter.

If you want to understand why the left side of American politics just got an almighty electoral shellacking, the sort of sneering, intolerant, intellectually incompetent, not-talking-to-you (but will shout-at-you) self-delusion that Elizabeth Moon has experienced is part of the story.

ADDENDA A poll finds that US Muslims only support the proposed mosque slightly more (43%) than atheists/agnostics/no-religion (42%) and other non-Christians (41%), are the group least likely to support moving the proposed ground zero mosque to another location (14%) but the most likely group to support making it an interfaith centre (30%), making US Muslims marginally against the proposal (43% in favour, 44% interfaith centre or another location).


  1. "Please nominate the Catholic (or Vietnamese, or whoever) equivalent of 9/11 (or the Bali bombings), or the jihadi networks more generally, in the historical experience of the United States or the Commonwealth of Australia."

    I don't know about Australia. In the USA, the historical equivalent of Jihadi networks would be the Fenian Brotherhood and related organisations, and the equivalent of 9/11 would be their 1866 invasion of Canada. And the parallel in English history is even clearer - after all, November 5th was only just the other day.

    Historically speaking, the beliefs and actions of many Catholics really were troublesome - the anti-Catholic prejudice was not created out of whole cloth. The views of Ayatollah Khamenei, while appalling, are clearly not as bad as Regnans in Excelsis, the Edict of Fontainebleau, etc.

    Like many feminists, Moon claims to want give-and-take but her balance is somewhat lacking. If she considers that it is leaning over backwards to "let Muslims believe stuff" then no wonder she feels oppressed. And how dare those Muslims offend her by expressing a different view on foreign affairs! Freedom of conscience and freedom of expression are not special privileges handed out by Ms. Moon for which Muslims (or anyone else) should be grateful.

    I'm sorry, I normally like your blog a lot, but this post really annoyed me.

  2. The Fenians are the closest example, but they were Irish nationalists: they were fighters for Ireland that happened to be Catholic (and there had been prominent Protestant Irish nationalists such as Wolf Tone) rather than specifically motivated by religion. Particularly as Catholic Emancipation was mostly done by 1829. And their efforts were strictly retail killings rather than wholesale ones.

    The C16th and C17th examples are of interest in that, in some ways, we are living in the return of the C16th, hence torture coming up as an issue again (alas). But they were issues with a religious group who were every bit as local as the Protestants, which changes the dynamics a bit.

    I was not agreeing with Elizabeth Moon on every point, merely objecting to the casting of her outside the realm of reasonable discourse.

  3. At some point I want to write about this issue, and I'll be drawing pretty heavily on your piece and a piece by Russell Blackford. Not sure when I will get around to it, but am just flagging it in advance.

  4. There has to be a middle ground between the kind of prejudice that views all Muslims as primitive terrorists and the kind of attitude that denies that there are problematic widespread things happening inside the Islamic world.

    Here are two columns I found very sensible concerning the "Ground Zero" Mosque.

    This is another issue where I found myself alienated from both sides of the debate.

    About immigration, I think there is a bigger issue. In the past it was completely clear that immigrants adapted to the hegemonic national culture in their new country. The melting pot was aggressive and not very tolerant toward new immigrants. There were cultural enclaves, the Chinatowns and Little Italies, but they were supposed to be just a stage and not the norm, or they were viewed negatively. Immigrants could and did maintain aspects of their original cultures, but it took 2nd place to the culture of the new country, and they did it against the strong push of the melting pot and the (often condescending) expectation that they adapt and shed the old culture.

    Today, it has become more acceptable for immigrants to keep their original culture, and it has also become much easier with global communication and fast travel.

    What are the consequences?

    Has the power of the melting pot weakened, or are people not putting enough faith in its ability to work in the long run even if it does not seem to now?

    Is the melting pot still legitimate?

    What policy changes should be made to help the melting pot work?

    Should the world move to more free immigration or should immigration be restricted?

    Are Muslims unique in their resistance to the melting pot?

    Are European countries having a more difficult time because they are less used to immigration or because they were too tolerant of the kind of particularism that works against the melting pot or both?

  5. Lorenzo, post is up. I've got a bit theological, I'm afraid -- spot the Lutheran education!

  6. One of my favorite authors. Pro-business sci-fi. A little weak on free market economics, misunderstanding the alternatives and substitutions possible. But independent and resourceful heroes-herions.

  7. JVG: Yes, I have always liked her writing too. (I am also amused that an American SF writer portrays a dynastic state so positively.)