The Third International after Lenin

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Heinlein's Freehold

He Could Apparently See the Future: The Whiteness of Sci-Fi and Robert Heinlein's Libertarian Racism

When I was in the 3rd grade, my class practiced reciting the names of all of the countries in the world. We got to the continent of Africa and I was doing okay. The teacher would point to different students and ask us to read a few names off of the list. As fate would have it, I got to read the "N's."

Nigeria. Okay. Namibia. Okay. Niger? That was a problem. I said "nigger." The teacher, a nice white woman, looked embarrassed. She asked me to repeat it again, and to work harder on sounding out the words. "Nigggerrr" I said...holding the "g" for emphasis. Thankfully, we proceeded onward; my peccadillo ignored by the other students and the (now relieved) teacher. She must have reasoned that the only black kid in the class just said "nigger," and either his peers had the good sense to ignore it, or he was blissfully ignorant of what he just did.

Thank the fates.

That was an epic face palm moment; my using the phrase "grok" and shilling for Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange World a month ago was a similar instance of retroactive face palming. It is good to be embarrassed on occasion--it keeps one humble. Why? Because what you think you know, and in fact do not, is often more dangerous than what you know that you do not know.

A week and a half ago I went to Chicon 7 and had quite a good learning experience. There, I almost attended a meeting of the Heinlein society and other events interfered. After reading more about Robert Heinlein, a foundational figure of golden age science fiction (a genre that solved the race problem by "white washing" the future), I am glad that I did not play myself by attending such a celebratory gathering.

Separating a person from their art is not an easy project. For example, the recently deceased Michael Clarke Duncan starred in Green Mile, one of the most racist movies in recent memory. He was also a brother from Chicago who seemed genuine, and happened to be the lead actor in a movie that carried racial implications which were likely outside of his understanding.

By comparison, Robert Heinlein was a serious thinker who presented himself as such. Consequently, I hold him to a different standard. I give folks their agency. As such, here are some of his thoughts on the race question, and why I may have to jettison him from my personal canon.

From The World SF Blog:
Anyway it wasn't me:
But I don't have any prejudice for Negroes, either. I don't feel any guilt over the fact that slavery existed in this country from 1619 to the Civil War. I didn't do it. Nor did any of my ancestors to the best of my knowledge (which is pretty complete) own slaves. I had many relatives and one grandfather on the union side during the Civil War, none that I know of on the Southern side other than one cousin we aren't proud of—Jefferson Davis. But I'm not accepting any guilt on his behalf, either—I didn't do it. 
But really it was good for them:
Nor do I feel responsible for the generally low state of the Negro—as one Negro friend pointed out to me; the lucky Negroes were the ones who were enslaved. Having traveled quite a bit in Africa, I know what she means. One thing is clear: Whether one speaks of technology or social institutions, "civilization" was invented by us, not by the Negroes. As races, as cultures, we are five thousand years, about, ahead of them. Except for the culture, both institutions and technology, that they got from us, they would still be in the stone age, along with its slavery, cannibalism, tyranny, and utter lack of the concept we call "justice." 
And are they really equal? 
Buz, one of the sacrosanct assumptions is that the two races, white and black, really are "equal" save for environmental handicaps the Negro has unjustly suffered. Is this true? I don't know, not enough data observed by me, not enough reliable data observed by others, so far as I know. Obviously the two races are different physically, not only in color but in hair, bony structure, and in many other ways—blood types, for example. Must we nevertheless assume that, despite obvious and gross physical differences, these two varieties are nevertheless essentially identical in their nervous systems? I don't know but I do know that in any other field of science such an assumption would be regarded as just plain silly even as a working hypothesis, more so as a conclusive presumption not even to be questioned.
It's a free market innit:
However, this question as to whether the two races are "different" or "equal" or what need never come up if we are concerned only with equality under the law—if each man is free to make of himself whatever he is capable of making of himself. When I hire a mechanical engineer I am not concerned with his skin color but I sure as hell am concerned with his grasp of mathematics, his knowledge of strength of materials, of linkages, of power plants, of instrumentation, etc.—and if he can't cut the buck, I certainly do not want to be forced to hire him because of his color. Nor does it matter to me (at the time of hiring) that he "never had a chance" to learn these things. 
Goodness. Not to be outdone, the whole letter itself is far more racially noxious and toxic.

Perhaps Heinlein had access to a time machine, as this passage from his letter sounds like something written by the libertarians in the Tea Party GOP:
I had better shut up or I'll never finish this letter—I started out in this vein just intending to make a passing comment on your article. "Equality before the law"—Is it right to force white children to ride buses halfway across Manhattan in order that a kid in Harlem can sit next to a white child in second grade? I don't think so; I think the white child is being discriminated against because of his color.
To his credit, Heinlein was a gifted visionary and futurist. Yet, I was not prepared for how Heinlein's letter was so "forward thinking" and "futuristic" in how it anticipated the type of white supremacy that would come to maturity in the post-civil rights era and the Age of Obama.

Teach me something. Am I being too hard on Robert Heinlein? Should I separate his art from his racism? Is there something in his vision that can be salvaged apart from his personal bigotry?

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