Belated thoughts on Truth, Justice, and putting an end to a pernicious claim about Freedom of Speech.
Last week, Chris Sprouse withdrew himself from the first issue of the upcoming series Adventures of Superman, in which he was originally going to illustrate a story written by Orson Scott Card. That decision effectively put an end to the anger and indignation a lot of comics readers (myself included) felt at seeing DC Comics put a spotlight on the work of a virulent, outspoken homophobe like Card. It started a whole new wave of indignation from people on the internet who insist they’re very invested in the First Amendment.
As for why the issue angered so many people, you’re not going to find a better summation than Glen Weldon’s essay on NPR.org:
But when we do see [Superman] for the very first time, these are the first words that appear directly below, the first epithet applied to this newly-minted creation as it was unleashed upon the world:
Champion of the Oppressed.
There it is, coded into his creative DNA from the very beginning: He fights for the little guy.
And that’s why this bugs me, and why I’m not the least bit curious about what Card’s Superman might be like.
DC Comics has handed the keys to the “Champion of the Oppressed” to a guy who has dedicated himself to oppress me, and my partner, and millions of people like us. It represents a fundamental misread of who the character is, and what he means.
(Incidentally: I think that a lot of other writers, when trying to summarize the whole story, over-sold the idea that the character of Superman has particular resonance with gay people. I don’t think he does; Weldon does a good job making it clear that Superman is everybody’s hero, and no particular group has any special or specific ownership of him. It is an interesting idea, though, that Superman is a long-lasting and purely secular symbol of goodness, truth, and justice, which could appeal to a lot of gay people who feel that religion has abandoned or betrayed them).
As for me, I’m really glad to see Card being held accountable for his statements and his actions. Even if it is just in the court of public opinion, since DC stuck with their decision to hire Card, and Sprouse distanced himself from the controversy but not Card himself. Still, blogs and comments can be enough in this case. There tends to be a kind of lazy defeatism disguised as cynicism whenever ethics meets commerce, where we hear “It’s just business!” used as an excuse for everything from giving production money & producer credit to a bigot, to publishing “speculative” fiction from a murderer.
It’s nice to see more people slowly realizing that only courts and governments are obligated to remain impartial. Commerce, on the other hand, is all about playing favorites, rewarding the people that you like and refusing to support the ones that you don’t. Anybody who tells you that’s not the case — whether it’s in regards to comics, advertising campaigns, or chicken sandwiches — has an agenda of his own.
That’s what started me down this train of thought: a few hours spent following a chain of links across the internet, the kind of thing you can really only do when you’re supposed to be busy doing something else. It started with this series of articles about comics retailers’ reactions to the Adventures of Superman controversy, then eventually made its way to comics writer & editor Mark Waid’s twitter feed and his attempts to deal with pinheads talking about the freedom of speech.
It’s not about homophobia, or misogyny, or racism: certainly not. The people eager to defend Card, or Frank Miller, or Mark Millar, are eager to explain that the big picture is about the importance of the free exchange of ideas, even if those ideas are repugnant to us. In the past, I’ve always tried to keep an open mind and accept arguments like that at face value. I still think they’re dead wrong, but I never thought they were being duplicitous. It was just a different viewpoint and different set of priorities than my own.
But last week I started following some of the commenters on those blog posts, and the people screaming at Mark Waid on Twitter. And I was genuinely surprised to find that without exception, every single one of the people insisting that it was about freedom of speech and not homophobia, could be found elsewhere on the internet arguing against marriage equality.
And you don’t even have to look that closely, and you certainly don’t have to get into creepy invasion-of-privacy territory; it’s right there in their twitter feeds or comments on other blog posts. I’d always assumed that there was a bell curve to these discussions, with the actual outright homophobes being a relative minority, but it turns out that I’d just never bothered to actually follow up on that assumption. It’s revealing to see the free speech that free speech advocates actually engage in when they think nobody’s listening.
Am I claiming that it’s impossible that people could be arguing for Card’s freedom of speech without undermining the rights and equality of gay people? I don’t ever like to say something’s “impossible” — for instance, I’m not willing to completely rule out the possibility that a man can fly. I’ve just never seen anyone do it.
I’m not claiming that everybody who waves the freedom of speech flag is a homophobe, just that a depressing majority of them are. One obvious exception would be comic book (and occasionally video game) writer Peter David. He’s an outspoken proponent of marriage equality and gay rights in general, has been since long before it was “fashionable,” and he’s been awarded for his support. (I also just found out through a web search that Mr. David recently suffered a stroke, and his website has information on how you can help him recover and help with his medical bills).
He also wrote dialogue for a video game that was based on an IP by Orson Scott Card. A few years ago, that game created a controversy similar to that around Adventures of Superman. In response, Mr. David vehemently argued against a boycott of the game, describing the “chilling effect” that can happen when an artist’s work is punished for the views of the artist himself.
It’d be idiotic to even imply that Mr. David’s argument was homophobic, but he was still dead wrong. The problem is that it’s not possible to defend Card’s rights without undermining the rights of me and other gay people.
Obviously, there’s my right to get married without some lunatic Mormon threatening to overthrow the government. Most of the media coverage around the issue of marriage equality is phrased in terms of opinion polls and the turning tide of sentiment among particular demographics and popular votes. That can make it sound like equality is a matter of opinion, like your favorite color or whether you enjoy bacon. But the fact is that there’s a blatant inequality in the US. Thinking of it as a difference of opinion is much like asking someone’s opinion whether the Earth is flat or dinosaurs coexisted with humans. The situation is unfair; the only difference of opinion is whether you believe it’s all right that it’s unfair.
On top of that is the attempt to frame it as a question of freedom of religion — President Obama and others have been extremely careful not to offend any religious groups by asserting that adults in the United States should be able to marry the people they love. The unspoken message there, of course, is that everyone else’s right to freedom of religion trumps our right to marry.
It’s the same whenever an artist’s work raises threats of a boycott: the artist’s freedom of speech is sacrosanct! What’s unspoken is that Card’s right to say that homosexuals are weak-willed and mentally ill trumps my right to say that nobody should give money to a bigoted asshole. We’re told that by trying to silence Card, we’re killing a society that thrives on the free exchange of contrary ideas.
Bullshit. In fact, the usual response to that is to point out the basics of free speech and commerce: it’s not censorship because we’re not trying to silence opposing viewpoints, we’re merely choosing not to support them. I don’t think that’s even necessary. I sure am trying to silence Card. His writing is toxic and provides absolutely no benefit to society. He deserves to be silenced. We needn’t entertain his opinions any more than we should be encouraging those who advocate teaching creationism as science, or making anti-vaccination claims that have no basis in science.
Chastising me for advocating a boycott against a homophobe is like seeing me take an antibiotic and protesting for the right to life of the bacteria. It fails for the same reason that right-wingers’ idiotic complaints of “liberal intolerance” against bigots are idiotic: because there’s no false equivalence or moral relativism involved; there’s right and wrong. The idea that any of us are obligated to support people who are in the wrong is ludicrous. And the idea that their right to spread their toxic beliefs trumps my right to call them toxic is offensive.
So the next time I read someone making a passionate statement in defense of a bigot’s right to express himself, I’m going to think about Superman. And how often he saved Lex Luthor’s life from some disaster of Luthor’s own creation, because it was the right thing to do, and that’s what Superman’s all about. And how every time, Luthor would immediately turn around and start thinking about how to destroy Superman. And how, after the first few times I saw this same cycle repeat itself, Superman started to seem like a real chump.