Culture

The Corner

Damned if You Do, Damned if You Don’t

Phil, in relating the sad tale of Laura Moriarty, you write:

In the novel, Moriarty’s fifth, the U.S. government deports Muslims to internment camps in Nevada for practicing their religion, which move is marketed to Americans as “better for everyone’s safety.” This invites indifference from the book’s protagonist, Sarah-Mary Williams, a young white girl who “isn’t concerned with the internments because she doesn’t know any Muslims” and believes media and government reports praising the set-up. That is, until Sarah-Mary meets Sadaf, a Muslim boy interred in one of the camps. After a while, her perceptions change, and she sets out to free him.

Struggling to grasp how this could possibly be offensive? Well, struggle no more. On Goodreads, reviewers take issue with the fact that Sarah-Mary decides to help. This, they argue, is reflective of an offensive ”white savior” narrative by which Moriarty suggests that minorities such as Sadaf need someone white to save them.

It’s perhaps a mistake to delve too deeply into the “logic” employed by the reflexively angry, but I can’t help but wonder what chance Moriarty had of escaping censure here. The conceit of her novel is that a minority group (in this case: Muslims) has been interned by the majority (in this case: non-Muslims). In consequence, Moriarty had only three options going forward: 1) To have her main white character support, or remain indifferent toward, the internment; 2) to have her main white character actively fight against the internment; or 3) to ignore white characters completely and focus exclusively on members of the minority. Per the synopsis, she opted for the middle course, after a brief change-of-heart narrative. For this, she has been attacked.

But wouldn’t she also have been attacked if she’d chosen either of the other options? Suppose that the Sarah-Mary character had been wholly indifferent throughout the book. Suppose that Sadaf had been left to orchestrate his own escape. Suppose that not a single white person did anything to help, or that instead of Sarah-Mary, Moriarty had chosen a non-imprisoned Muslim as her hero. Would that have been better? Would that have spared Moriarty from the “f*** this book” reviews and the “f*** you for perpetuating the idea that marginalized people need to suffer” barbs? Would it be better to depict a society in which white supremacy reins unchecked than one in which a “white savior” does something good?

There’s simply no answer to those questions, of course. Why not? Because there are no rules here. There’s an endgame, and then there is anything that will get us there.

Which is to say that the people who are outraged by this book are simply hooked on anger, and, that in order to ensure that they maintain a healthy supply of it, they have constructed an unfalsifiable worldview in which absolutely everything can be cast as evidence of their marginalization. If this book isn’t written in the first place, well that’s indicative of a broader cultural failure to grapple with the worst fears of America’s minorities. If the book is written, it shouldn’t have been, and serves as ample evidence of the author’s moral rot — and of our culture’s rot too. If the minority characters have to help themselves, that proves we live in a white supremacist hellscape. If the characters are saved by the majority, that merely feeds a “white savior” narrative. And so on and so forth. It’s f*** you for this, and f*** you for that, and f*** you for not knowing the rules we just invented.

When I first heard that there was a controversy around this book I assumed it was because those who had read the synopsis were bothered by the idea that a majority of their countrymen would be fine putting Muslims into camps. That instead we’re seeing outrage because a fictional girl helps a fictional boy escape imprisonment is the silliest thing I’ve heard for a long time.

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