Novelist Orson Scott Card is coming to Marvel with an Ultimate spin on Iron Man, and he's bringing a cloud of controversy in his wake. Paul O'Brien asks, should Card's homophobic views make a difference to potential readers?
03 January 2005

It may be the holiday season, but the important business of writing about comics never stops.

As I write this, the industry is pretty much shut down for the holidays. Still, there are plenty of things from the end of 2004 that I haven't covered yet, with one of the main stories being the announcement of Marvel's ULTIMATE IRON MAN miniseries. Not because the comic itself is particularly interesting - although Marvel insist that it's "the most imaginative, groundbreaking comic of 2005", and we all know they'd never exaggerate about something like that. No, it's the reaction to the writer that interests me more.

ULTIMATE IRON MAN is written by novelist Orson Scott Card, whom Marvel can legitimately bill as an international bestseller and multi-award winning author. If you'd never previously heard of him, join the club. He's mainly, though not exclusively, a sci-fi and fantasy novelist, and those genres tend to be almost as insular as comics when it comes to creating huge stars with little profile outside the audience. Still, by any conventional standards, he ticks the boxes for being a big name author.

It didn't take long after this announcement for people to start grumbling about some of Card's political views, and announcing that they wouldn't be buying the book. Card has an oddball combination of views. He's a self-described Democrat who supports George W Bush, and you don't find many of them. A lot of people linked to this article, first published last February. Basically, it's a lengthy attack on the decision of the Massachusetts Supreme Court that the state constitution required gay marriage.

'Marvel can legitimately bill Orson Scott Card as a best-selling author.' Card starts off complaining that the court is plainly giving the constitution a meaning that its writers did not intend, which is a perfectly fair separation-of-powers point about judicial activism, and one to which I'm relatively sympathetic.

However, he then goes on to a whole load of other reasons why gay marriage is a bad thing period, all of which would apply whether the decision had been taken by the court or the legislature. Apparently it's a threat to civilisation. "Civilisation requires the suppression of natural impulses which would break down the social order." (To be fair, Card appears to consider everything other than monogamous, lifelong marriage to be a threat to the social order.)

The semantic implications of recognising homosexual partnerships as marriages would apparently be catastrophic, and a note of paranoia creeps in as he explains that, "Television programs will start to show homosexual 'marriages' as wonderful and happy (even as they continue to show heterosexual marriage as oppressive and conflict-ridden). The propaganda mill will pound our children with homosexual marriage as a role model. Society will bend all its efforts to seize upon any hint of homosexuality in our young people and encourage it."

By the end, he's positively foaming at the mouth. "The dark secret of homosexual society ... is how many homosexuals first entered into that world through a disturbing seduction or rape or molestation or abuse." Parents of homosexuals should grieve at "the abduction-in-advance of their grandchildren". He then goes into a climactic rant about the death of America. You get the general idea.

Now... does any of this matter?

''The propaganda mill will pound our children with homosexual marriage as a role model.'' After all, ULTIMATE IRON MAN could have nothing to do with any of this stuff. Actually, I'm told his recent novels have gained a reputation for rather obvious soapbox ranting about his worldview, but let's give him the benefit of the doubt on that point. Card is undoubtedly homophobic, a term that he strenuously rejects, seemingly on the basis that he thinks it connotes mental illness. It doesn't; it simply defines a given set of views. (Before any of his fans e-mail me, can we just take it as read that I'm much more concerned about the accepted meaning of the word "homophobic" in modern English than some nitpicking semantics about the literal meaning of the Greek root phobos?)

Whatever we may think of Card's views, they hardly place him miles outside mainstream opinion. On the contrary, you'd probably find a substantial proportion of the population that agree with him. We tend to overlook the existence of these people since, naturally enough, we tend to spend time with those we like and agree with - besides which, more right wing and conservative views skew heavily towards the older age groups, and I don't spend all that much time discussing politics with the retired.

Nonetheless, liberals tend to assume that they live in a heavily liberal world in which Card's views are confined to a bunch of drooling hicks, in much the same way that Card evidently considers himself to represent a powerful segment of mainstream opinion under assault from some numerically irrelevant "elite".

'A substantial proportion of the population probably agree with Card.' This is the point where homophobia diverges from racism. Pretty much everyone agrees that racism is a bad thing. Of course, that doesn't mean that people aren't racist; but at least they try to justify themselves from an "I'm-not-racist-but" approach. They attempt to explain why they're not racist, even if they are, because they concede the principle. Only white supremacists and the like actually argue for the legitimacy of racism per se, and they're nutcases, completely outside mainstream opinion.

Homophobia, on the other hand, remains widespread; but we tend to treat it in exactly the same way, as an opinion so self-evidently wrong that anyone voicing it is plainly an idiot. And that can't be right. A significant segment of society is still prepared to argue for homophobic attitudes. An opinion so widely held cannot be confined to the mad and the stupid. The unenlightened and terminally ignorant, perhaps, but that's a different thing.

Tolerance of intolerance is a difficult issue for liberals. Ultimately the dividing line has to be that you can believe whatever you want; it only becomes a problem when you start doing something about it. I'm thoroughly sceptical that there are any political opinions so offensive that they deserve to be banned; if it's so clearly wrong that it deserves banning, it's probably also so clearly wrong that there's no need.

For that matter, I'm not a huge fan of defining liberalism in terms of 'tolerance'. The language of tolerance suggests things that you don't like but reluctantly put up with. I don't 'tolerate' homosexuality, any more than I tolerate the sky and tolerate the grass. What's to tolerate? I tolerate homophobes, not homosexuals.

None of which is to say that liberals should put aside their distaste and rush out and buy an Orson Scott Card publication. The entertainment possibilities of spending an evening in the company of his personality, albeit mediated through his writing, strike me as slim.

This has nothing to do with boycotting him, a term that is hugely overused. I don't boycott Orson Scott Card - how can I, when I don't particularly want to read him in the first place? It's not a principled stand on his opinions; it's far more pragmatic than that. With opinions like that, he just doesn't sound like much fun, does he?

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