Tuesday April 18, 2006
What Would Heinlein Do?
Heinlein was an ideological libertarian. You could call his politics right wing, and they were, on many of the left-right axes. But Heinlein never would have sat still for the Patriot Act and the daily and deep incursions on liberties that have come to characterise life in America and increasingly Britain and other parts of the world. He never would have accepted that you had to take away freedom to save liberty.
Doctorow is employing a common rhetorical device, here—asserting that some famous historical personage would surely have agreed with him on some current controversy—but what I know about Heinlein, based on his own writings, doesn't suggest to me that his positions would be as easily predictable as Doctorow thinks they are.
For an example of what Heinlein actually thought about "deep incursions on liberties", take this letter written by Heinlein to John W. Campbell, dated January 4th, 1942 (from Grumbles from the Grave, pp. 34-35), in which Heinlein is taking Campbell to task over the latter's "armchair opinions" about Pearl Harbor:
"Aid and comfort to the enemy, phui. Morale damage, hell." (From your letter) I am going to have to be rather directly personal about this. It may not have occurred to you that I am a member of the armed forces of the United States at the present moment awaiting orders, for sea duty I hope. Such comments as you have made to me might very well damage the morale of a member of the armed forces by shaking his confidence in his superior officers. There happens to be a federal law forbidding any talk in wartime to a member of the armed forces which might tend to destroy morale in just that fashion—a law passed by Congress, and not just a departmental regulation. It so happens that I am sufficiently hard-headed, tough-minded, and conceited not to be much influenced by your opinions of the high command. I think I know more about the high command than you do. Nevertheless, you were not entitled to take the chance of shaking my confidence, my willingness to fight. And you should guard your talk in the future. It might, firsthand, secondhand, or thirdhand, influence some enlisted man who had not the armoring to his morale that years of indoctrination gives me.
Bear in mind that my advice to you is based on a law, specifically intended by the Congress under the Constitution to restrict the freedom of speech of civilians in wartime in their relations with the military. If you don't like the law, write to your congressman about it. If you feel you must express yourself, write it down and save it until the war is over—but don't tell a member of the armed forces that his superiors are stupid and incompetent. Don't write to Ron [L. Ron Hubbard] in such a vein. He has not my indoctrination and he is in the battlefield. If you feel that the high command is incompetent, take it up with your congressman and your senators. Those of us in the service must work under the officers that are placed over us—it doesn't help to try to shake our confidence in them.
I'm not sure whether the law Heinlein wrote about is still on the books (I hope not), and my purpose is not to accuse Doctorow of somehow damaging the morale of active-duty military personnel. I mean only to point out that Heinlein circa 1942 seemed perfectly comfortable with a law "specifically intended...to restrict the freedom of speech of civilians in wartime", a law far more directly restrictive of civil liberties than any part of the Patriot Act. What's more, Heinlein apparently supported this law strongly enough to admonish a friend in private correspondence not to break it.
Trying to posthumously enlist Heinlein (or any dead author for that matter) in some modern political cause strikes me as a dubious enterprise. Heinlein's views were all over the map, and they changed significantly over the course of his life. Look at him from one angle, and you see a socialist, an internationalist, a libertarian, and a radical advocate of free love. From another angle, though, you see a militarist, a patriot, an anti-communist, and a supporter of free enterprise. I have to admit I don't know how Heinlein, at any point in his political evolution, would have reacted to today's political circumstances—and that's exactly the point, because neither does Doctorow.
[Update: Holy cats, look at all the people! Welcome, everyone. If you liked this post, you might also enjoy these earlier ones: "Gulf" by Robert Heinlein, The Lensmen Series, Earthless, and the others about science fiction or (if you're language-oriented) linguistics in SF.]
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I'd agree with you that Doctorow makes a huge assumption of what Heinlein would think - and gets it wrong. The best evidence I can think of that supports this is the world Heinlein describes in one of his most famous works, Starship Troopers - it was a whole society based on the limitations of some people's liberties, as they are commonly understood in the modern west. It also lends the impression that Heinein may have - at some point, had the belief that everything that someone might want to call a 'liberty' is not absolute, but soemthing that had to be worked for. It's not too hard to get from there to the conclusion that Heinlein may have seen the restriction of certain liberties for the common cause as a necessary thing.
I would point out - and this is something that even Reynolds didn't comment - the distinction that Heinlein makes specifically talks about members of the armed forces - not a law that affects the larger civilian populace, only those under the jurisdiction of the UCMJ. And such laws are a part of the UCMJ to this very day (example - the AF General encouraged to retire for calling Clinton a draft dodger - same premise)
That difference in and of itself throws the question back open - what would Heinlein do?
Maybe some day we can ask him...
As another that grew up on Heinlein, I feel that he would have been as ambivalent about the PATRIOT Act as I am. I thoroughly support the provisions that are aimed at the conflict, however I think that it became a catch-all bill for all the sooper-dooper "crime fighting" provisions our "lords and masters" have been wanting to slip into code for a long time. For example, if you want to deny drug profits to terrorists and free up law enforcement to protect us from someone other than ourselves, maybe you should rethink prohibition.
Posted by: Richard at Apr 19, 2006 6:31:32 AM
I think WindRider is mistaken that the UCMJ (or its predecessor then in effect, the Articles of War) would have had jurisdiction over what a civilian said to a service member. It governed the conduct of service members primarily and civilians only incidentally (such as on posts overseas).
On the larger point, thinking about the whole of Heinlein's opus, I agree Doctorow is just wrong. Heinlein was something of a libertarian, to be sure, but of a rather peculiar sort which I would describe as a responsiblities/rights model: The only ones who ought to have a voice in society, it seems, were those who shouldered their share of the burdens of protecting it. In that he echoes Franklin's famous comment when asked what sort of government the Constitutional Convention had come up with: , A republic, if you can keep it!
As a libertarian, Heinlein was concerned with what economists call the 'free-rider' problem and I think that sense permeates books like Starship Troopers, Farnham's Freehold, Glory Road, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and even Stranger in a Strange Land.
Posted by: CatoRenasci at Apr 19, 2006 7:03:54 AM
I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Mr. Heinlein back in the '80s during a space access seminar. He passionately defended and advocated SDI; among his arguements was basically that the US was the finest country on earth, well worth defending by whatever means necessary. In Expenaded Universe, if I recall correctly, he included a letter advocating not signing the above ground nuclear test ban treaty.
I'd say this would make him enough of a hawk that the Patriot Act wouldn't overly trouble him; especially when it's not being used to prosecute citizens at random (we aren't rounding up protesters, for example).
Posted by: Catch22 at Apr 19, 2006 8:37:57 AM
I don't think RAH was referring to the Articles of War, but to the Espionage Act.
"At the outset of World War I, Congress passed legislation designed to suppress antiwar speech. The Espionage Act of 1917 (ch. 30, tit. 1, § 3, 40 Stat. 219), as amended by ch. 75, § 1, 40 Stat 553, put a number of pacificists into prison. Socialist leader Eugene V. Debs was convicted for making an antiwar speech in Canton, Ohio (Debs v. United States, 249 U.S. 211, 39 S. Ct. 252, 63 L. Ed. 566 ). Charles T. Schenck and Elizabeth Baer were convicted for circulating to military recruits a leaflet that advocated opposition to the draft and suggested that the draft violated the Thirteenth Amendment's ban on involuntary servitude (Schenck v. United States, 249 U.S. 47, 39 S. Ct. 247, 63 L. Ed. 470 )."
Posted by: Verkan at Apr 19, 2006 8:39:00 AM
I tend to agree with all here and disagree with Doctorow (with a nod to this blog for reprinting Heinlein's correspondence). In fact, I think one could infer from Heinlein's writings that he would be supportive of invading Iraq.
I also agree with the observation about the responsibilities/rights model, but would point out that in I Will Fear No Evil, the model was only taxpayers could be Citizens and only Citizens could vote. As part of the compact, a social welfare state was instituted whereby non-taxpayers were taken compensated with guaranteed subsistence, albeit without voting rights or much ability to move up in society. Kind of like Europe today.
Posted by: Another Thought at Apr 19, 2006 8:48:56 AM
I have to agree with Richard contra Doctorow; I think Doctorow has a far less nuanced and accurate view of PATRIOT than is helpful for such a discussion. (This is explicable, if not strictly excusable, by the sheer commonness of such views. Almost all of PATRIOT is, from a liberties point of view, pretty harmless, as even our usefully-paranoid friends at the ACLU say. And yet it's still lazily and clumsily used as a shorthand for non-existent repression.)
(On the other hand, I almost always think Cory Doctorow is wrong, so take it with a grain of salt.
But on the notional third hand, what else can I make of his rant about how the TSA are the Stasi, and vipers? As if they disappear people, or murder them from instinct? The worst the TSA does is follow stupid rules inflexibly, and be generally incompetent. That's not the hallmark of a Secret Police, it's the hallmark of bureaucracy.)
Posted by: Sigivald at Apr 19, 2006 9:34:40 AM
Indeed, according to his essay in "Expanded Universe", one of Heinlein's motivations for writing "Starship Troopers" was the test-ban treaty.
Really, though, there are two (or possibly even three) different "Robert A. Heinlein" that you might talk about. There's RAH the Young-Adult Sci-Fi writer, RAH the angry reactionary firebrand, and RAH the Venerable (and slightly daffy) Old Guy who wears libertarian colors but really just wants social sanction for his dirty sex fantasies.
Posted by: DensityDuck at Apr 19, 2006 10:06:01 AM
Another example of Heinlein's attitude towards dissent in war time can be found at the end of Time Enough for Love, when Lazarus Long travels back in time to the beginning of WW1. Granted, this is fiction, so one can't take it as necessarily Heinlein's views -- but given his (well-known) tendency to preach in his latter fiction, and the lack of any indication in the text that he disagreed, plus other evidence from elsewhere, I think it's reasonable in this case. In any event, LL is shuned at first for disagreeing with WW1 (knowing as he does what the outcome will be), but then agrees with the shunners, enlists and gives a speech about how, once war is declared, we all have to move forward in lockstep. Or words to that effect.
I agree that we just can't know what RH would have said. I've thought about this from time to time, and I always go back and forth on it -- part of me hopes that Doctorow is right, and that he wouldn't be taken in by Bush's justifications for legal tyranny; but part of me thinks that his "patriotic" impulse to support the current government without dissent would have overcome his libertarian beliefs. Of course we can't know. But it is a depressing fact that more of Heinlein's supposed ideological heirs -- i.e. self-proclaimed libertarians -- have done the latter than the former in the past six years.
The law to which Heinlein referred almost certainly was the Espionage Act of 1917. It contained a section outlawing some criticism during wartime as seditious. It was used extensively during WWII, there having been a number of individual prosecutions of domestic Fascists, several group ones (German-American Bundists, mostly) and one mass trial (30 defendants), a farce in 1944.
Posted by: Bleepless at Apr 19, 2006 10:56:13 AM
An intriguing discussion. But I have to go back to Tensor's original point -- trying to recruit a dead man's support for causes he never knew about is, at best, suspicious.
And it's considerably more difficult with respect to Robert Heinlein than it would be for most others. Not only did the man change his political leanings as he grew older (he ran for political office as a Democrat in the mid-1930s, and openly supported Barry Goldwater in the sixties) -- but by WWII or so, he had already become extremely cagey about discussing his own personal views in public. (He made it clear on a number of occasions that his books were entertainment... and that his personal life was his own business.)
As Spider Robinson once pointed out, you can find approval for an extremely wide variety of viewpoints in Heinlein's work. Which of them were Heinlein's true opinions?... Heinlein himself refused to say. Personally, I think the man was a good enough craftsman to be able to write, convincingly, about points of view not his own.
(Just one example: for those who think of Heinlein as a fierce defender of democracy in general and of the United States in particular, reread "Star Beast", and take a closer look at Mr. Kiku -- the unelected career civil-servant bureaucrat who overrules his elected boss repeatedly, and eventually gets him fired. That elected official -- who is obviously an American -- also gets a serious dressing-down from Mr. Kiku, who is not, over American priorities vs. world priorities. Does this tell us anything about Heinlein's political views? No, it doesn't... but it makes for a great story.)
It can be pleasant to play the "what would Heinlein do?" game. But let's remember that the purpose of that game is to inspire us, not to put words in a dead man's mouth.
It is perfectly possible to be inspired to do great things by our role-models from years gone by... while admitting to ourselves that those same role models might not agree with what we've done. I think it's a safe bet that Heinlein has inspired a lot of people over the years... some of whom no doubt were inspired to do things that Heinlein would have despised.
In the end, we don't know what Heinlein would have thought about the world of 2006. And fortunately, we don't need to know.
Daniel in Brookline
Excellent post. You missed, however, the two thoughts that struck me at the end of reading Doctorow's post:
1: This convinces me to never read anything by Doctorow (esp. his books).
w: I am now far less likely to read either of the books he reviewed. Which is, posibly, too bad. But reading things by fruitcakes who bitch about "George Bush's America" (screw that noise. It's MY America, thank you very much) tends to push me away from whatever they're blathering about.
Lord, what a wonderful conversation. Trying to divine what Heinlein would or would not have thought of any given political issue is a fool's game. At best, if you narrowed it down to a Heinlein period, you might be able to make a halfway reasonable guess.
Even that, though, just confuses the writing with the writer--not everything that he wrote was meant to be a holy political pronouncement of truth. Some of it was simply a way to engage people in interesting thoughts inside of some great stories. I wish I had my copy of Grumbles with me because somewhere in there, if memory serves, he makes that very case in one of those cranky letters.
The man was a great author and a brilliant thinker. I can honestly say that my political beliefs wouldn't be what they are today if I hadn't been exposed to him early in life--and I think I'd be poorer for the lack. But I've never read his novels (or his essays, for that matter) and come away feeling the need to follow his philosophical footsteps like some mad disciple of science fiction.
Gotta agree with Gred D. When you use the language of the Looney Left, you've marked yourself as someone whose opinions are based on a fantasy that I don't share. ("George Bush's America" indeed).
But I have to thank him in one regard. I've found that these preachy books based on thinly disguised contemporary events rarely age well. I'm not going to buy a book I'd never consider reading again.
Posted by: Raoul Ortega at Apr 19, 2006 1:02:24 PM
Anecdotally, facts I kind of remember:
During World War II, Robert Heinlein, Issac Asimov, and L. Sprague DeCamp worked at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.
Heinlein ended up there because he was not fit for any other job, due to his age and his health. Nevertheless he was determined to somehow serve his country when it was attacked.
Regardless of what he wrote, thats what he actually did, in time of war
Posted by: Carl Zeichner at Apr 19, 2006 2:25:28 PM
It was Mustin Field, aka The Navy Aircraft Factory, near Philadelphia not the Navy Yard, and Heinlein worked for Buddy Scoles, a friend and contemporary at the Academy who commanded, and his successors as an aircraft R & D engineer. Scoles was the pilot of the lead plane in the 1931 flight from the Lexington that Heinlein helped save in the incident described next to the story "Searchlight" in Expanded Universe. I agree, trying to determine WWHD is both fun and futile. I think, however, he'd be a bit concerned by some positions being taken with regard to the Detention of Enemy Combatants Act recently amended by Congress. The recent transcript of oral argument before SCUS would give him greater concern when he listened to the positions espoused by the Soliciter General with regard to the President's and Congress' ability to de facto suspend habeas corpus, absent insurrection or invasion.
Recall Heinlein's personal history:
He was a career naval officer, until forced out of the service by tuberculosis. Then he was a vaguely socialist political worker, a key part of Upton Sinclair's movement during the Depression.
The Navy let him back in during WWII. He met Ginny (she was actually his commanding officer) and married her. Ginny was, by all reports, as libertarian as one can be, more from personality than sober political choice. She clearly influenced him in that direction as years went by.
Most of Heinlein's novels, including all the juveniles, date from after he married Ginny. When we think of the "libertarian Heinlein", we're seeing Ginny's influence as much as his own character. It's useful to remember that he didn't start out that libertarian. The WWII-era letter to JWC is an example of the pre-libertarian Heinlein. Another is the political book published as "Take Back Your Government", written before WWII, in which he clearly favors a military draft.
Posted by: Steve at Apr 19, 2006 3:32:30 PM
I'm sorry, but you're quite wrong on several points, however unimportant they may be to the current discussion. There was nothing "vaguely" Socialistic about Upton Sinclair's orientation or the aims of EPIC, the organization Heinlein joined, worked for, and represented as a candidate for the California Assembly in 1938. Sinclair was a registered Socialist who changed his party affiliation to run for and win the Democratic nomination for governor in 1936. EPIC was socialist, and took over the Democratic Party in California for a few years. Read _The Campaign of the Century_, by Greg Mitchell (Random House 1992) if you've any doubt whatever. The Navy declined to recall Lieutenant (j.g.) Robert Heinlein to active duty during World War II. It employed him as a civilian engineer at Mustin Field. He was never commanded by Ensign (later Lt (jg) and Lt -- and yet later during her time on the rolls as a reserve officer, Lt.Cmdr.) Virginia Heinlein nee Gerstenfeld. In fact, she was assigned to work for a team he supervised. I spent the last three years of her life talking to Ginny daily. Ginny never thought Heinlein's alleged "change" in politics had anything to do with her influence. He and she disagree over the years on many points and nuances. Isaac Asimov's charge and speculations to the contrary, very few of the folk who actually knew, beyond a few visits, the Heinleins believe her influence was responsible for any change. Heinlein made up his own mind politically, and what confluence of opinion he and Ginny shared was simply a result of their separate decisions.
Heinlein didn't marry Ginny until three years after the war, in 1948, after his divorce from Leslyn, his _second_ wife, was final. That, incidentally, was after he wrote the first juvenile and more than just a few other novel-length stories, albeit they may have been serialized in the original versions, e.g., _"If This Goes On--"_; _Methuselah's Children_, _Beyond This Horizon_; _Sixth Column_, as well as _Rocket Ship Galileo_ (and of course _For Us, the Living_). They did not cohabit during the interlocutary year. I never noticed Ginny's opinions as deriving from anything other than sober political choice, in the three years I spoke daily with her; and she wasn't quite as conservative in her libertarianism as she may be portrayed by others. For example, she despised G.W. Bush's position on stem cell research, and frequently said so. And why.
How To Be a Politician, aka _"Take Back Your Government!"_) was written in 1947, not before WW II, although it reflects Robert and Leslyn's activities concerning EPIC before the War, in which they helped recall Los Angeles Mayor Frank Shaw, among other things. I don't recall a statement favoring a draft in it. Perhaps you'd provide a page citation? By contrast you might take a look at the procedure for declaring an offensive war described in _For Us, the Living_, plainly written before the War. Reads pretty much the same as that proposed by Smedley Darlington Butler in his infamous "War Is a Racket" speech, doesn't it?
There's a comprehensive Heinlein biography being written by a man named William Patterson scheduled for publication within a couple years, probably by the July 7, 2007, centennial. He's well over halfway done. It'll clear up a lot of erroneous chatter about Heinlein and avoid ground for misstatements such as are common. Watch the Heinlein Society website and we'll let you know when it becomes available.
Heinlein's then unpublished first novel, _For Us, the Living_ written before his December 1941 letter to Campbell, plainly refers to libertarian positions and uses the term.
Consider "The Puppet Masters", where Heinlein seemingly endorses extreme wartime limitations on individual privacy when the US is faced by a subversive alien invasion force.
I defer to David Silver's legal training and experience, not to mention his dedication to the Heinlein Society and alt.fan.heinlein and massive knowledge of things Heinlein.
However, I have a little nit to pick - on September 11th, 2001 we were indeed invaded - by at least 20 enemy operatives who commandeered airliners and turned them into kamikaze planes in an attempt to decapitate the US Government and business community. We also suffered a biological warfare offensive (thankfully, a badly-conducted, ineffectual attempt at one, but lethal nonetheless).
Whether this justifies suspension of habeas corpus is something for better-trained minds (folks who went to law school) than mine. I simply submit that our situation may well be worse than the one which caused Abraham Lincoln to suspend habeas corpus during the War Between the States.
We have no idea how badly our country is infiltrated - but we DO know that among the flood of illegal entrants into our country through the southern border are many individuals from the Middle East - and that Al Qaeda has bargained with youth gangs to bring Al-Qaeda operatives into the United States. Potentially, Bush is facing a much graver sedition and terrorism problem than Lincoln did.
As far as Doctorow's statements regarding RAH's views regarding the PATRIOT act, I have to admit to skepticism. Mr. Heinlein certainly had libertarian credentials - but also credentials as a civic militarist, an advocate of a strong national defense and someone with less than total admiration for those who assert the right to subvert one's nation or aid its enemies in wartime.
But Heinlein also seems to have been strongly aware of the potential for abuse inherent in the police power in general, and especially the ways in which "emergency powers" can be abused. This is a recurring theme in his novels, if nothing else. A fellow poster of ours at alt.fan.heinlein recently was jailed for about a week under anti-terrorist legislation - for possessing a bottle rocket at a football game.
The Robert A. Heinlein who worked with Upton Sinclair's socialist group in California and wrote the short story "Our Fair City" could have predicted that.
I find this part of Doctorow's review interesting:
"the daily and deep incursions on liberties that have come to characterise life in America and increasingly Britain"
If he had been studying what has been happening to Britain over the last few decades, he would see that they are a long way ahead of us when it comes to the erosion of civil liberties. But if he acknowledged that, then he couldn't blame it all on Bush...
Posted by: jic at Apr 19, 2006 6:43:17 PM
Worth mentioning, too, that Heinlien clearly believed his country was at war when he wrote that stern reply to Campbell, while Doctorow apparently believes we're currently only "at war." Or at least I can easily imagine Doctorow arguing such in response to your post, Tensor.
Posted by: dan dragan at Apr 20, 2006 2:17:22 AM
"Worth mentioning, too, that Heinlien clearly believed his country was at war when he wrote that stern reply to Campbell, while Doctorow apparently believes we're currently only "at war." Or at least I can easily imagine Doctorow arguing such in response to your post, Tensor."
I've seen and answered several objections over the years since 2001 along those lines - that when Heinlein and Campbell's correspondence took place we were "more" at war than we are now. And truthfully, there's some justice to the statement.
I'd have thought by now that a fuller military mobilization of the United States would have been asked for by the President and Secretary of Defense and granted by Congress. I personally blame Donald Rumsfeld in part for the loss of my son's life in Iraq because he stoutly resisted a greater material and manpower committment in Iraq that might have diminished the intensity of the "insurrection."
We are facing a worldwide totalitarian threat that makes both Fascism and Communism look weak by comparison, for its rationale is based deeply in religious and racial extremism.
Worse still, we are seeing a resurgence of totalitarianism in Russia spearheaded by Putin, who is in turn being counselled by his old KGB boss Khodorovsky and many others prominent in the coup attempts against Gorbachev and Yeltsin; and an incredibly large military armament push by Red China, which is orchestrating anti-American activity all over the planet.
Finally, we seem to be facing on the home front an organized separatist movement that would take the states from California to Texas away from the United States, eventually placing them in a Marxist dictatorship; even now, the border into the United States has been forced several times by armed columns of vehicles from Mexico, their exact agenda unknown.
If there were ever a time for (at least) a replay of FDR's quiet transformation of the American economy into the arsenal of democracy and preparation for military mobilization on the grand scale - it's NOW.
And I freely admit that I have neither Heinlein's nor anyone else's reticence about a military draft. It's time for some of the 290 million or so folks who enjoy our freedoms and our economic bounty to begin lending a hand to those whose patriotism compelled them to defend our country. Of course, some of those millions should be back in their home countries - not in the United States of America.
Just before World War I, we faced a similar "armed illegal immigrant" problem - and we had to send an Army task force headed by Black Jack Pershing to deal with it. It's time.
Posted by: Vance P. Frickey at Apr 20, 2006 5:19:38 PM
It is probably always more comfortable for people to use appeals to authority when that authority is safly dead.
I think Woody Allen best summed it up with, "Well I am X, and you know nothing of my work." Though I like the Saturday night live skit best, where it was Castro who stood up and denouced the rebels who had taken over a school.
Guy who wears libertarian colors but really just wants social sanction for his dirty sex fantasies.
Posted by: DensityDuck at Apr 19, 2006 10:06:01 AM
I always read the book sex as " for his very juvenile sex fantasies."
Yeh 12-14 yr old boys
Posted by: luv_v_autour at Apr 30, 2006 10:05:28 PM
Quoting Wind Rider...
"The best evidence I can think of that supports this is the world Heinlein describes in one of his most famous works, Starship Troopers - it was a whole society based on the limitations of some people's liberties, as they are commonly understood in the modern west."
This is somewhat akin to reading "1984" and assuming Orwell was in favour of Big Brother.
No it isn't.
Posted by: tootie-marie at May 1, 2006 7:58:14 AM
I know far less about Heinlein's life and works than probably everyone in this discussion, but it seems like the right forum to ask about a couple of things that have always genuinely disturbed me about his work. The folks in this discussion mostly seem like thoughtful and smart people, and I'm hoping you can help me understand.
1) In "Farnham's Freehold," Heinlein imagines a future society ruled by vicious and cruel African-Americans who oppress white people. How is this any any less reprehensible and racist than something like "The Turner Diaries"?
2) What in the world is up with Heinlein's approval of incest, seen in "Farnham" and later novels?
3) Is Valentine Michael Smith of "Stranger In A Strange Land" anything more than a perverted sociopath (and I don't use the term lightly) who uses his enormous mental powers to satisfy his own pleasures and kill anyone who opposes him? I don't remember a single instance in the book where he appears to genuinely see other people as human beings whose rights are equal to his own - or even to be truly real at all.
It is tempting to try to view his more repulsive statements as deeply ironic Swiftian satire, but I can never get past the gut feeling that Heinlein himself believes most of the obvious bullshit in his books. I genuinely can't understand why his opinions have not turned people off from his writing, nor why people claim that his views on society and politics are somehow deeply enriching and thought-provoking. Sure, he had a fine prose style and could usually be counted on for highly readable prose. But everything I've read by him--maybe eight novels, although all of them read before I realized what was bothering me about him--suggests a man who is functionally racist, views women as little more than sperm banks, and who talks a lot about individual freedom but who would be happy as a clam in a fascist state as long as his own interests weren't threatened.
(And I've only read Doctorow's posdts on Boing Boing, but I find little there to suggest that he's anything other than shallow and irritating, as much as I sympathize with him politically.)
Posted by: Dean Johnny at May 8, 2006 7:41:32 AM
I'm a former member of the United States Air Force in Intel.
I grew up on R.A.H. and I am prety certain that he would agree that our current state of agression in an undelared war (yes, check it my friends there is no official war) does not justify the ectremes that have been taken against liberty.
"Go Shopping" out of one side of the mouth while the other issues "Code Red" alert levels would not wash.
A political system that excludes citizen participation by requiring everyone to register to form a political club wouldn;t wash (and that's in "Take back your Government!").
No, R.A.H. would likely support fighting the enemy - here and at home - and restoring Democracy in America.
And Dean Johnny is dead wrong on Heinlein's character concerning sex and race.
Posted by: Paul G. at Jun 17, 2006 11:01:48 PM
To answer Dean Johnny's questions about Robert Heinlein's work and philosophy (not, by any means as an authority thereon, just as an ordinary reader who has had to justify his views on literature to college professors in writing),
1) In "Farnham's Freehold," the future world Heinlein imagines is not controlled by "African-Americans" - it comes after thousands of years in which the term "American" ceases to have any meaning aside from geographical location, and the "Africans" who run the world do so after the rest of the world has been more or less depopulated in the nuclear war which happens early in the book.
The resulting situation couldn't be further from "The Turner Diaries," which is a racist diatribe directly concerned with our country in the present.
Heinlein's intent in writing "Farnham's Freehold," by contrast, actually WAS Swiftian social satire. Remember that early in the book, Heinlein gives us an unblinking look at Grace Farnham, as unappealing a white racist as appears in the pages of fiction; then he shows us "Duke," Hugh Farnham's son, who is not much less nasty and racist than his mother - and Heinlein then shows their relationship to be literally Oedipal, still before we meet the new masters of the world). All of this plays out before we see "Uncle" and his cannibalistic minions (Dean, you forgot to throw that in while mischaracterizing "Farnham's Freehold").
Heinlein turns the tables on us in mid-book, showing how the abuses committed by Europeans on Africans (read David Hochschild's "King Leopold's Ghost" for a depressing, exhaustive, well-researched look at the worst of what "civilized people" were capable of doing to innocent bystanders in Africa) might be mirrored in a future after nuclear war has thrown the Northern Hemisphere into savagery, allowing "civilized people" from Africa to come to North America many centuries later to do what "civilized people" from Europe and North America did in Africa.
I defy you to say that Heinlein paints the "civilized people from Africa" one bit worse than the historical record shows Europeans to have been in the Congo and other parts of Africa. Heinlein, so far from being a racist, is rubbing our nose in what the white race did in Africa by making turnabout fair play - a venerable and accepted literary technique.
There's even a prescient look at the long term consequences of global warming - I mean, how could Heinlein have been more liberal and forward-looking, even by modern standards?
As Heinlein observed of his many contemporary critics, the difficulties you raise with "Farnham's Freehold" go away if you actually learn how to read the English language. The difference seems to be between reading as an intellectual and as a pseudointellectual.
2) Heinlein does not approve of incest in his books - his characters do. Or are you saying that John Steinbeck approved of coat-hanger abortions because he has one of the characters in "East of Eden" perform one on herself? Dean, you seem to be appropriating book-burner logic in criticizing Heinlein - instead of reading with insight and at least an attempt to think, you're going through the work of Heinlein for things to accuse him of.
Robert Heinlein as a writer held a mirror up to society. That means he didn't bowdlerize conversations his characters have or actions they take - he wrote characters doing either what he had seen them do or what they might logically do in a future society in which there was more freedom to examine our social taboos critically than existed when he wrote (or at present).
Specifically, in the matter of incest Heinlein examines what might happen under several future - not present - circumstances in which our societal taboos suddenly become inoperative - in "Farnham's Freehold," this would be after a nuclear war, when suddenly the Farnham family, their domestic servant and their house guest ARE humanity for all they know, and the taboos appropriate to 1960s America suddenly become irrelevant; in "Time Enough for Love" and the ensuing books set in that universe, science has allowed the hazard of re-inforcement of unfavorable recessive genes to be separated as a legal and moral issue from interfamily relationships. That we readers might find the results nauseating at times (as in a purely logical look at our attitudes toward incest as opposed to our society's deeply held views and strictures on the subject) is precisely the point Heinlein is trying to make. If we re-read these books with his intent in mind, rather than gathering notes for the prosecution, then Dean's criticisms lose much of their force.
Again, this isn't Heinlein "approving," it's Heinlein "speculating," which when he writes about the future he and all other science-fiction authors are allowed to do. Of course (as Heinlein has Jubal Harshal and Lazarus Long observe), this sort of speculation is hazardous specifically because it subjects the writer to being singled out by the other monkeys in the cage (so to speak).
3) And in "Stranger in a Strange Land," Heinlein specifically introduces us to a human who is NOT human - a Martian - and shows us how our cherished customs, taboos, and prejudices might appear to him.
Moreover, he gives this observer from another world human form but utterly unhuman abilities, upbringing and perspective, so that he isn't simply a feral wild child set loose in modern society but a character who can make intelligent comments on our society from outside. The correspondence Heinlein had with his agent Lurton Blassingame shows Heinlein specifically intended to challenge as many of our society's sacred cows as possible in "Stranger in a Strange Land."
Dean's reaction to the actions of the title character of "Stranger in a Strange Land" shows that Heinlein succeeded admirably in his intent. Again, Dean has read Heinlein not with insight or an attempt to understand what is going on in the novel, but purely with an intent to gather material for the trial of Robert Anson Heinlein for Heresy Against Everything We Hold Dear.
The very same criticisms that Dean levels at Heinlein and his characters could be aimed with equal justice at the Talmud, the Koran, the books of the Old and New Testaments (as Heinlein demonstrates in the case of the story of Lot - and Saint Peter's glowing approbation of Lot in the New Testament), Philip Roth's "Portnoy's Complaint," Jonathan Franzen's "The Corrections," the letters and nonfiction works of Sigmund Freud - the list goes on.
My point is that if Dean were not leveling his criticisms at Robert Heinlein but at one of our world's many sets of sacred scriptures, or the work of Pulitzer-winning modern novelists, or the Father of Psychoanalysis his comments would instantly be recognizable for what they are - shallow provinicialism masquerading as outrage. It's time that critics of Robert Heinlein grew up and used the same criteria for judging him that they use for everyone else.
Posted by: loup_garous at Jul 9, 2007 1:42:50 AM