Remember the controversy a few years ago when Michael Richards made his infamous and unfortunate remarks about “stringing up” a heckler? I recall a lot of speculation as to whether his outburst reflected his true inner feelings or whether he was simply backed into a corner on stage and had no idea what he was saying.
Right now I'm less interested in the answer than in why we asked the question. Were we hoping that with enough discussion and investigation, we would eventually come up with some explanation for his behaviour that would be good enough? Were we hoping it would all turn out to be a misunderstanding? Perhaps. Because if we can't manage this, then another question is immediately raised: If Kramer turns out to be a racist, are we still allowed to watch the show?
The old quandary of separating the art from the artist has been on my mind lately for a different reason. A few years ago I finally read a book which is deservedly hailed as one of the all-time classics of the science fiction genre, Ender’s Game, and was absolutely blown away. I’ve given copies away as gifts. There’s a reason Orson Scott Card won both the Hugo and Nebula, for two consecutive years, for both this book and its immediate sequel.
But shortly after devouring the book — along with several of the aforementioned sequels — and wondering why I had taken so long to discover this author, I did what I often do with an author I really like, and checked out his web site. I discovered he was pro-Iraq War, and a devout Mormon. I'd seen enough to know we weren't on the same wavelength, but his books were still good, so I closed the browser and left it at that. I was sure I could come up with some sort of dinner table disagreements with just about any author I enjoy — if I had the good fortune to share a meal with them in the first place, and the poor manners to pick a fight.
Having made such a decision, I congratulated myself on my open-mindedness, and continued to enjoy books by Orson Scott Card while avoiding anything else from him. Then, a setback. Despite my best efforts, I ended up stumbling upon this quotation of his on the subject of gay marriage:
Regardless of law, marriage has only one definition, and any government that attempts to change it is my mortal enemy. I will act to destroy that government and bring it down, so it can be replaced with a government that will respect and support marriage, and help me raise my children in a society where they will expect to marry in their turn. Only when the marriage of heterosexuals has the support of the whole society can we have our best hope of raising each new generation to aspire to continue our civilization.
My question of separating the art from the artist had come back, with a vengeance. This is a man who is actively fighting with all his resources — including the financial position and name recognition fans like myself have provided him in purchasing and talking about his books — against gay rights. Even if I can still separate the man from his work, certainly consumer decisions do have political consequences; thus the Fair Trade movement, and country-specific trade embargoes. Is reading his novels still an option, if I want to consider myself an ethical consumer?