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QUESTION:

I have noticed that in several stories you have written, you illustrate communist-like governments that can easily be taken as an evil in the story. For example, these governments force the lawbreakers to admit their wrongs on live broadcast or face several deaths ("A Thousand Deaths" in Flux); control TV viewing for the good of the people ("We Try Not To Act Like It" in Flux); and suppress religion and limit the number of children a family can have (Ender's Game). Are you trying to make a point with these strong examples, or is it merely coincidental that this element appears in your stories?

-- Submitted by Justin Ng

OSC REPLIES: - February 2, 2000

Such governments occur in the real world. In fact, by nature all governments are oppressive to those who want to do the things that the law prohibits. But to those who are glad to have that behavior punished, the government is merely protecting their society. If a government perfectly reflects the will of the vast majority, but what the vast majority wants is evil, then is that a good government (i.e., democratic) or a bad government (i.e., does bad things). Every government does things that somebody thinks are bad.

Having said that, naturally I have my list of things I want governments to do and not to do. I also have my list of beliefs about which government methods are effective, and which are not. In the U.S. right now, for instance, we have a weird combination of government by poll combined with government by elitist fiat -- a government that combines the worst features of democracy (the passing and shallowly held opinions of the masses treated as an unalterable given) with the worst features of aristocracy-masked-as-meritocracy (i.e., "We deserve to make the rules because we're smarter"). The terror of the Stalinist Soviet Union or Hitler's Germany was effective in keeping the rulers in power, but ineffective, ultimately, in making the country prosper. So sometimes my stories show how ineffective some governmental methods can be, and sometimes they show how vile some government actions can be.

And sometimes they're just tossed in to show that societies are able to think of some of the most absurd things to enthrone as customs, laws, or traditions. (Just drive through a dazzlingly lighted neighborhood at Christmastime and think, what rational connection is there between these lights on the houses and the ostensible point of the festival? Of course, my house is ablink with lights, too. But that doesn't mean it's not a strange custom to have evolved.)

And, to show another absurdity, look at the way we legislate language. The F-word, which was long banned from polite society, was declared to be constitutionally protected speech regardless of how it offended others; but the N-word, long banned from polite society, was declared to be a word that could be censored because it offended others -- and not just censored, but used as the basis for determining what constituted a "hate crime" and what didn't. Obviously there is no principle involved at all, merely the fact that the people deciding which words are protected and which can be punished have their own list of words so bad that free speech can be tossed. Personally, I think neither word should be protected because every rational meaning they convey can be conveyed easily in other language without giving needless offense -- but what intrigues me is that the very people who ban one word are "liberal" and the people who would ban the other are "oppressive" -- even though the behavior and the motive in both cases are identical. Further, the ones called liberal are the ones in power who are actually getting their way, while the ones called oppressive are powerless to get their way and so are not oppressing anyone. Go figure.

The absurdities of society are reflected in government. But the fundamental principle is this: Governments can't do anything, in the long run, without the consent and collaboration of many and, ultimately, most citizens. They require a relatively small band of willing collaborators to carry out the commands of those making the laws, and they require that the great majority remain passively compliant. If, over a period of time, the people continue to obey a law, however unfair or onerous, one can only conclude that they consent to it. Because laws that the people do not consent to are not obeyed -- and in the attempt to enforce them, governments destroy themselves against the immovable rock of the public will. (I speak not of the public opinion, which changes hourly.) The current state of our infanticide laws (okay if done in midbirth or even after, as long as a physician is involved, but a crime if done by amateurs in school bathrooms) is, to me, unbearable. But how unbearable? Apparently not unbearable enough for me to become an activist. Ditto with most people, who voice their disapproval of such mid-birth or post-birth "abortions," but still refuse to vote in such a way as to bring about change in the law. The effect is that I and all the rest of you who are not activists are giving our tacet consent to the status quo. The government reflects, not the will of the people, but the will of the people who care most weighed against the will of the people who care little. By some measures, American tolerance of infanticide and abortion is as unfathomable as German tolerance of genocide; by other measures, they are not even similar issues. Governments, in the long run, come to reflect the people they govern.

And that, I hope, is what shows up in my stories.

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