Alarmed in 2006 by the hard lines of American political language, Orson Scott Card, an otherwise respected sci-fi novelist, was led to write the dumbest book of his career, Empire. It is his future history of the Second American Civil War. It is Card’s depiction of how a society slips into civil war, presented as a cautionary tale for an America polarized by ideology. That is where it flubs, I think; more momentarily.
It is not much of a civil war that Empire depicts. There’s an assault on the Oval Office, knocking off the president and several cabinet folks, leaving a rather large crater where a good part of the West Wing used to be, and, oh, oh—a dump truck backs over the vice-president’s limo, killing him as well. This is swiftly accompanied by New York City’s secession from the United States.
Don’t cheer yet. New York is innocent, seized by a leftist coalition calling itself the Progressive Restoration. Most of the country is sort of ho-hum about it, but newspaper editorialists are divided. Yes, really. New York is to become a real-time experiment in leftist living. Like nobody’s heard of San Francisco, huh?
All this is engineered by a secretive, deep-pocketed George Soros-type figure backed up by some mechanized two-legged war things, and hover bikes, the only true sci-fi elements in the story.
It falls to a Captain Malich and an elite (is there any other sort?) team of commandos to set things right. I should issue a spoiler alert about now. However, since I am probably the only First Things guy actually to have read the book, or who ever will, spoiling the story hardly matters and I figure it falls to me to warn you about it. Card takes the daring step of killing off Captain Malich in the middle of the book. The turn leaves his readers with a new protagonist and, darn it, I never quite liked the second one as well as the first.
The leftist conspiracy reaches into the Pentagon. Malich’s own secretary offs the poor boy right there in the building and the rest of his team must shoot their way out. They make it out alive; dumb book, like I said. The conspiracy also includes elements of Congress and an array of leftist organizations. Suppression of the New York revolt falls to a patient presidential successor, who resists calls to send in the Marines and simply isolates the city; okay, that wasn’t so dumb.
Meanwhile, the real war has our elite commandos flushing the Soros-like master from his lair out in the Northwest.
Everything turns out okay, despite plot holes large enough to swallow eighteen-wheelers. Control over the Pentagon is reasserted, Congress is tamed, New York rejoins the Union; I think I have hit the high points. It has been five years since I read it. Yeah, I finished it. Even dumb books exert a certain charm.
In a lengthy epilogue, Card explains he thinks the same could happen in real time, today. Just as sexual seduction begins with talk, Card believes civil war starts with polarizing political language. The epilogue cranks on both the left and the right, even if his story sees the left as more threatening. Stark political language leads one side or both to think the other is capable of violence and is plotting to do it. The one arms in self-defense, and so the other as well.
The failure of compromise over grievances prompts one side to set out to “make things right.” That describes about every civil war you’ve heard about, whether territorial (as the first American civil war) or ethnic (as Bosnia and other places). Card’s example is neither territorial nor ethnic, but ideological. He laments that the growing inflexibility in political discourse might erupt into ideological cleansing.
And now, a brief excursus. Carl Braaten, my friend and a famed Lutheran theologian (one can be both), as editor of Dialog in the 1990s, asked me to contribute on the theme, “Lutherans Left or Right: Does it Matter?”
I thought it did not—not for Christians honestly trying to exercise their baptismal vocation as citizens. One may vote Democrat or Republican, usually without expectation of going to hell. The problem I saw was a church elite marching sternly to the left. That was trouble, lifting this cause or another, “baptizing” it and slapping on a bible verse to “Christianize” it, always tilting politically left. I noted I would be just as disturbed if things leaned right (the worst political/religious brochure I ever saw explained why “Congressman” Jesus would have voted for the MX missile system). Ideology grown in denominational hothouses is really unhelpful, both to Christians and American civic life, and especially—from a Lutheran view—to a theology of the priesthood of all believers, believers called to exercise part of their priesthood in the voting booth.
Based on my own political experience in the 1970s, I related I did not in all my time in politics know any politician prepared to live or die by the rigidities of an ideology. What I saw were real men and real women making real decisions affecting real people in real places, and they typically sought real solutions. They were partisan, sure; it was politics. One of the best political tricks is to brand your opponent as an ideologue. But finally it does come down to reality: real people, real choices, for real reasons.
Today I am told I could not say that. The ideological rigidity Card fears is hovering over and around the Capitol Building. There is a congressman, someone’s favorite example, said to have signed one hundred thirty-six pledges during his campaign, things he vows he will or will not do. If he sticks to them he has foreclosed almost every avenue of possible compromise. He is an idiot.
Maybe, or maybe he too is caught up in a great and as yet undecided civic debate on the role and limits of government in questions of debt, taxes, public spending, entitlements, and tax codes. If that’s the case, and I think it is, his one hundred thirty-six theses (geez, Martin Luther only had ninety-five) is just what his constituency wants, until they come to want something else that might work better.
That was my real argument: Americans are pragmatists, not ideologues. They vote for what they believe works. They hired Obama because they were firing Bush (never mind that his term was expiring; they were firing everyone tainted Bushy). That worked not so well, so voters fired most in Congress who supported Obama. I make no predictions for the next election, but if things aren’t better I would expect to see more “Under New Management” signs on government buildings, regardless of party.
The process of American political debate is messy, loud, frequently over-the-top, raucous, and often raw. But that’s American politics as it always has been. Except for our singular failure, the real American Civil War, it has always worked. Card’s future history of the Second American Civil War will stay safely on the fiction shelves where it belongs.
Russell E. Saltzman is the mission development pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church, Gothenburg, Nebraska, and the author of The Pastor’s Page. His previous On the Square articles can be found here.
Orson Scott Card, Empire
Carl Braaten, Because of Christ: Memoirs of a Lutheran Pastor-Theologian
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