Tuesday, September 11, 2012

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 fail; 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? 


Bill said...

I truly feel that an actor like Michael Clarke Duncan--not just an actor, but an actor of color--is responsible for getting work, and that's about it. Maybe I feel that because the nuances of culpability and my ability to judge at that level are too intricate. The people who are to blame are the people in power who didn't need to green light the project, or who could have modified it.

Yeah, Heinlein. I don't think you're being too hard on him. You're not even saying that other people are bad for buying or liking his books. You just say you think you'll make a personal choice not to include him in your canon.

I used to love watching Seinfeld reruns. Then Kramer did his racist thing. It made the show hard for me to watch, so I don't watch it anymore. There are other things to watch, or better to read.

It's not like you're taking a piece of bread out of a hungry man's hand.

Anonymous said...


He's a great sci-fi writer. He was just racist. It's like Kant being a great philosopher. His ideas on race make Heinlein seem innocent. You're not being hard on the man for some of his ideas. His ideas inspired his art. He had white majorities living in South America. As for him being a product of his time how does one explain John Brown or Montaigne? They were against racism long before Heinlein was born. Living through the civil rights time frame and seeing what was going on at the time gives him no excuse.

I don't know how much freedom you have at school but if you're secure enough in your career that class might be a good idea. Hell, you can probably put out some books about it as well. There is a lot of material out there. You've had to have seen the negative reactions to the new Spider-Man. I can see this ending up on cable news somehow.

It would be interesting if you taught a class about sci-fi and race theory. You've got a lot of material to work with.

Jay Rothermel said...

I first read Heinlein after reading Thomas Disch's evisceration of him in "The Embarrassments of Science Fiction" and "The Dreams our stuff is made of." I just finished H. Bruce Franklin's excellent Marxist monograph a few weeks ago; it can be read for free here:

While I found most Heinlein novels never quite got me involved, the shocking nature of "Farnham's Freehold" led me to gulp it down in one day. On each page I kept saying, "He cannot go further in revealing himself this way, surely." Wow, was I wrong!

This post is one of the reasons I love this blog.

Thank you!


Anonymous said...

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?

Some people speak clearly and forcefully about what they believe. Others take the oblique approach or never really address the issues. You shouldn’t be too offended by Robert Heinlein. He didn’t say anything that most white folks don’t believe anyway. If you reject him you might as well reject everything else in western literature over the last 300 years or so.

BTW, never was a Heinlein fan. He did support Philip K. Dick during a time of need and I can respect that.


chaunceydevega said...

@Bill. I love me some seinfeld. one of the show's running jokes is just how myopic a small group of insular new york jews actually are from people of color. george's my best black friend episode is a class. Festivus for the rest of us!

@Vic. Kant? Racist? How dare you. Check out the book Race and the Enlightenment or Mills' work--you likely already have--on this stuff. I don't know. Once I see what is working behind the scenes and how it informs the metanarrative I am turned off.

@Jay. I will reed Farnham's Freehold. I am afraid it will raise my blood pressure; but so many folks have told me about it I got to check it out.

@Ray. What did he do for Dick? I didn't know that.

ellemarie said...

Wow! Some of Heinlein’s views on race read like something that would be spouted by a 19th-century eugenicist. Were you too hard on him . . . I don’t think so. Your characterization of Heinlein as a “gifted visionary and futurist” is interesting in light his in some cases seriously old-school views on race and racial essentialism. “Visionary” and “futurist” are words that I easily associate with lefty, progressive ideas and politics in a broad sense. Maybe that’s wrong of me. I’m not a big sci-fi person, at least not with respect to the literary side of it, so I’m curious to know whether/how the politics of the worlds and futures they create track with the politics of the authors. Do serious sci-fi fans care if the two do or don’t correlate?

Anonymous said...


Digging through my memory bank, I think he either loaned PKD some dough or offered it at a time of need. I remember reading that somewhere.It stuck out to me because I wouldn't think to associate them. I have a bias against Heinlein's generation of sci-fi writers. Dick was more counter-cultural to me. Heinlein was down with Hubbard, Vogt, and Asimov from my understanding. They actually had some kind of military intelligence connection if I remember correctly. No conspiracy theory.I fact checked many moons ago.


A. Ominous said...

Dude, I *did* warn (no pun intended) you....

A. Ominous said...

"Is there something in his vision that can be salvaged apart from his personal bigotry?"

IMO: who cares? It's PULP. No great loss. Of all the literary talents, Imagineering (the "visionary" bit) is the easiest to come by. Higher Literary qualities (such as Ms. Flannery's) deserve more strenuous effort at rehabilitation when the writer is icky-of-soul.

Shady_Grady said...

Each reader must decide for himself or herself whether or not an artist's personal views hinder appreciation of their art.I don't think there is an easy or consistent answer to this. Sometimes they do; sometimes they don't.

You dig around a bit and the further back you go in terms of age, the more openly racist some whites will be. I was never really a huge Heinlein fan, mostly because of stories like the aforementioned "Farmham's Freehold". But that said whatever racism Heinlein had was dwarfed by people like Robert. E. Howard and HP Lovecraft. I AM fans of those writers despite that they were more racist and less skilled than Heinlein. People are complicated...

CNu said...

Shady Grady is truth!

Accept no substitutes....,

I've warned about biopolitics for years now, to no avail. Heinlein ain't said a thing that the ongoing science isn't showing with greater and greater vividness (ancient species "denisovans" are precursor to modern melanesians (aborigines) and no other modern human grouping) - mostly what you can accuse Heinlein of doing is not giving a damn about black folk's racial vulnerabilities and sensitivities - and basically asserting right up front that it is of no consequence to him whatsoever.

I ain't mad at him....,

A. Ominous said...

Idiotic apologia for a not-terribly-bright crypto-Nazi (Heinlein was not quite as intelligent as the huckster-smart Ayn Rand, after all) from a slightly brighter one. Eugenics has been jiggling the lock on Public Opinion for quite some time; maybe lots of web-spread half-truths based on skewed readings of "hard" science will do the trick this time, and CnU can get a comfy job as a toilet-cleaning Kapo in a Kamp, where he can abuse some Negroes with Master's approval.

CNu said...

lol@dilettante expat jiggaboos thirsting for the onanistic thrill of their next rhetorical nigga moment...,

A. Ominous said...

Har! Lacerating.

oiojes said...

I have a strong opinion that an artist should be judged as an artist on his work and not on ancillary material. Any public figure should be judged on what they say and Heinlein reveled in being a public figure. So the question is whether you're being hard on Heinlein the writer or Heinlein the public figure? I think these two points of view are seperable though that is perhaps an old fashioned idea.

As a public figure you can be as hard on him as you want.

The question regarding his work is to determine if its particular sensibilities are better, worse or equal to the same sensibilities of the contemporary culture. I could argue Twain transcended the sensibilities of his contemporaries but that Bret Harte did not.

Heinlein's contemporaries were not just other SF writers. Ayn Rand, Norman Mailer and James Jones are in the same writing environment. Was he better, worse or similar to his contemporaries?

IMHO, his arly novels are no worse than other novels of the time. Women are pretty much subjugated. People of color are essentially white or non-existent. Towards the end of the fifties he starts to go off the rails.

I can write a whole essay on Heinlein but I won't subject you to it here. He did try to bring some real physics and engineering into SF. I would argue that modern hard SF really owes its start to Heinlein. But, unfortunately, he brought some misguided social engineering as well.

Razor said...

Writers of fiction (acting as well, at least for me), unlike the genre of nonfiction, need their readers to willingly follow them wherever they are leading, it is integral to enjoying the experience. You allow yourself and your imagination to be held captive, so to speak. You want to trust the invisible hand taking you on a journey.

On the flip side, you can approach non-fiction in an even adverserial manner and without real commitment aside from your attention. No harm , no foul, unless you bought the book under false advertisement ( ie.,a friend you trusted). Of course, much of non-fiction can turn out to be far too much fiction after all.

Writing the race problem out of one's sci-fi books can be tolerable, where the writer is brilliant, until you realize that the writer intentionally left out the chapters they would write of the total and complete genocidal eradication of your kind, at the behest of their editor, in order to sell more books to the people of color who enjoy the genre.

To me, the gift and genius of the writer of fiction is the most magical and intriguing. The loss of that has to be agreat disappointment.

Anonymous said...

I went and found the exact quote I did in another place (I FINALLY FOUND IT) and repost it here as my only commentary on Heinlein:

Most Heinleinian Libertarians I knew in my mid-twenties were trust fund kids who were "into polyamory". To their credit, they threw pretty epic parties, and didn't mind sparking one with a brown, dirty socialist girl. In retrospect, I imagine it was an attempt to get into my pants.

Chuckie Jesus

blavag said...

Wasn't it Asimov who said somewhere that you should never get to know your favorite author in person?

And SF has always had strongly reactionary currents as Moorcock pointed out 40 years ago in "Starship Stormtroopers":

Yes, Heinlein was a racist and a sexist and a militarist and surprisingly naive. In that sense he was a prisoner of his time and place and generation but he was an intelligent enough man and should have been able to see past all that. He didn't and his writing suffered for it. And as his fame and success led him to further isolate himself from a changing society those intellectual and moral failings remained unchallenged.

That was too bad for RAH, though I still enjoy his pre-Stranger work, but it does make him very pedagogically useful when addressing the awful mess of eugenics and social Darwinism that were popular and "scientific" until 1945,

Hofstadter's work you know but students might find the following useful:


(Hugely flawed but an interesting and probably correct presentation of attitudes at the time)

and of the consequences of de facto segregation,

and of the very odd bunch that took a reasonably progressive for his time Heinlein and turned him into the warped creature he became. See

oiojes said...

In the interest of explicit referrals, the above Moorcock article also condemns Tolkein, Lovecraft, C. S. Lewis, Frank Herbert, Isaac Asimov and Richard Adams.

Personally, I think Heinlein led SF out of the technological dark ages and, unfortunately, into the libertarian dark ages.

I have since read the Heinlein letter and to me it has the same libertarian flaw I've seen elsewhere.

He starts with something I believe is correct: guilt is a personal emotion. One should feel guilt for things one has done and not for things one has not done. I therefore do not feel guilt for the crucifixion of Jesus, the slaughter of the Jews or the owning of slaves.

But this is where Heinlein, and the other libertarians stop. They deny the concept that along with personal guilt there is the concept of personal responsibility and social justices.

Guilt derives from the failure of living up to personal responsibility. One of those responsibilities is social justice.

While I'm not personally responsible for the act of slavery, and hence not guilty, I am responsible for my part in the world I live in. This includes choosing to perpetuate or destroy the aftershocks of slavery.

I think Heinlein and his ilk have the moral integrity of a child eating stolen candy and saying it's not their fault because they didn't do the original stealing.