Friday, June 27, 2014

Friday Semi-Open Thread: The Personal vs. the Political? Was Robert Heinlein a Racist, Libertarian, Hypocrite?

As is our recent habit, do treat this as a semi-open thread. What items of public interest or concern would you like to share with the friends and readers of WARN? Any interesting finds to offer this week?

A question.

How do you balance uncomfortable and unpleasant knowledge about a given writer/author/actor/musician or other creative worker's personal life with your appreciation and enjoyment of their work?

One of my ex-girlfriends refused to listen to Miles Davis because he was a woman beater.

We argued a few times about the need to separate the person from their art. She was beautiful. Miles was not. I shut my pie hole and let her win the debate. Other matters took precedence.

Last summer, I finally read Robert Heinlein's tome Stranger in a Strange Land.

The book is considered a "classic" of science fiction. I felt obligated to read it--even more so after attending the World Science Fiction Convention here in Chicago where almost every other panel seemed to mention Heinlein and his "Golden Age" peers.

I was "grokking" everything that week. I grokked my friends. I grokked the birds and squirrels at the lake. I grokked my beer. I grokked my buffalo chicken wings. I tried to grok myself.

I then learned from a student about Heinlein's book Farnham's Freehold. I then did some more research and discovered his ugly, bigoted, and racist attitudes about black people.

Heinlein's thoughts on the subject?

A gem:
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.”
A rotten pearl:
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.
An antecedent and precursor to contemporary white supremacist colorblind racism?
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.
I was embarrassed for having surrendered to Heinlein's mystique after having read only one of his books.

Jeet Heer's review of William H. Patterson's book Robert A. Heinlein, Vol 2: In Dialogue with His Century Volume 2: The Man Who Learned Better has cemented my distaste and discomfort towards reading any more of Heinlein's work.

Like most Ayn Rand types--their foremother included--Heinlein was a libertarian hypocrite who sucked on the government tit while deriding the very idea of government.

Heer writes about how:
Heinlein became a midshipman at Annapolis in 1925 and graduated near the top of his class, but his promising Naval career ended when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1934, forcing him to retire. His disability pension proved an indispensable life jacket, making possible his entire career as a writer. Heinlein not only weathered the Great Depression, but also pursued a wide variety of interests—he speculated on a silver mine, took graduate science courses, sold real estate, and tried his hand at architecture—before settling into science fiction. Aside from his naval pension, Heinlein also took money from the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to study art. 
Later in life, as a libertarian, he would rail against “loafers” and the welfare state but in his leftist days he knew how much he depended on the government. As he acknowledged in a 1941 letter, “This country has been very good to me, and the taxpayers have supported me for many years.” The popularizer of TANSTAAFL ate more than his share of subsidized meals.
Such politics are despicable. In the Age of Austerity and Neoliberalism, especially as channeled by the Republican Party and their ideological cousins in the Democratic Party, Ayn Rand's philosophies are a threat to the Common Good and American prosperity. I have no interest in reading such material for pleasure. Yet, I want to find a way to rationalize reading Robert Heinlein's other work and finding some small amount of enjoyment from the experience.

How do you solve this puzzle in your own life? Are you able to separate the artist from their art? Any tips or thoughts on how to approach Heinlein's fiction?


Shady Grady said...

There is no way or no need to rationalize. Bad people can create good art. They always have and always will.

As far as musicians who abused women it might be easier to list those who haven't instead of those who have. It is easy to make a stand about someone's crappy politics or racism or sexism if you are unfamiliar with their art or don't like it. There would be no, for example HBO "True Detective" were it not for Robert Chambers and HP Lovecraft, each of whom thoroughly despised Black people.

I enjoy the art or I do not. There are exceptions to this rule but they are my own hypocrisies and I would never think that anyone else could live by them.

Learning IS Eternal said...

Your current attitude toward this author is not unwarranted. Many people feel let down by Frederick Douglas for the obstacles he faced and triumphed on his/our behalf as a people to find out he eventually married white. A mass of black folk don't believe you can be for and care about the plight of blacks while "sleeping w/the enemy." they'd look at him no different than Kanye.

I can't listen to R. Kelly knowing what we all know. Instead of being cast out of the heaven that is entertainment he is being sought after for features.

In a nutshell, characters sometimes break kayfabe or you find out who they really are. Disappointment comes from expectation. I can do w/o a record from a pedophile but it would be a lot harder to just discard Douglass's work so pertinent to black folk and what is being accomplished here @WARN because of his personal life.

ChuckieJesus said...

I got into Heinlein when a penpal sent me a copy of Job: A Comedy of Justice. I found Stranger sometime after that, and then lost interest in him and gained interest in other things. When I found out about his fucked up views of black people, it cold bummed me out. I haven't read anything of his, since.

I still watched Starship Troopers because that shit's classic Verhoeven, and Verhoeven gives disco sparkles to sci-fi.

I used to smoke out with libertarian types back when I was in my twenties. The fuckers infuriated me, but there's a lot to be said about the peaceful nature of the herb. I kinda dug on all that personal liberty shit, I mean, who doesn't want to be treated like the god-king of their own world, but then you scratch the surface and find out that it's masking a whole lot of sociopathic shit. I'm too much of a socialist to be a libertarian, but there's distrust of cops in both these communities, if you see what I'm sayin'.

In short, yeah, fuck a bunch of Robert Heinlein.

joe manning said...

Does the artist have any redeeming social value? We can separate the art from the artist insofar as he/she has a saving grace or two. As an expose of "othering" Heinlein's "Stranger in a Strange Land" should be appreciated. Ideally, Heinlein invented "Stranger" to allay his guilt and to make amends for his racism. Similarly, Woody Allen may be a pervert but he makes us laugh. OTOH Ayn Rand is the quintessential amoral libertarian who peddles utter contempt.

RPM said...

CDV, I was wondering if you were going to cover this topic this week what with prick Oldman being in the news. It's hard to find any influential person in history who wasn't an asshole. And while i judge all politicians and leaders for their crimes(Jefferson was a rapist, FDR illegally imprisoned Japanese Americans making him no better than Bush or Obama, Clinton killed a million Iraqis through sanctions that caused mass starvation) I do separate artists from their work. Why? Because otherwise we would have no art to enjoy. Orson Welles was great but a temperamental prick. Ditto for Brando. Those two cared about civil rights but they were sexist assholes. Hitchcock, Kubrick, and so many others you'd never want to spend more than a few minutes with if you had the chance.
My sister once told me that she never wanted to meet some of her favorite musicians because she knew they'd be jerks and didn't want that coloring how she looked at their work. You can't enjoy something someone's done if they have been a dick to you personally. I like a lot of jack London's writing but, christ, that guy was a horrible bigot. Fun fact: he coined the term 'the great white hope'. 'Before Adam' is still a great book even though it was written by a racist fucker. As I look at it, all art belongs to the masses so it doesn't matter what the author was like. Many authors were(are) plagiarists. How I approach works by bastards is simple. If it is just an exercise in their bigoted mindset I ignore the work and don't waste any time on it. If London wrote a 300 page book about how blacks are inferior I just wouldn't read it. Same deal if Mark Twain had written a 400 page book about why Native Americans were savages which he thought his whole life. We separate the art from the artist because we have to, otherwise our libraries and dvd collection would be quite empty.
There is nothing pure in the world and with a little time you can make a case why you should dislike every actor throughout time. One of Spider-man's creators was a Ayn Randian whack job. Should we tell every child that they shouldn't like Spidey because the artist who drew him bought into that sociopathic racist ideology? We are all hypocrites that like works whether it is artistic, historical, political or whatnot made by shitheads. All art is subjective so you can make any excuse as to why you should or shouldn't like it. Having a sexist, racist creating it is a fine reason not to like something. As long as you don't become an apologist for artists shitty behavior that you like, you'll be ok. Like Chinatown, hate Roman. See how easy. Imagine if he wasn't the rapist he is but rather the cameraman or film editor working on that picture was. Would you still want to boycott it or would you not care because they weren't as important in your mind to the finished product? Finally good call with your ex. Sex is more important than defending any creep no matter the talent.

joe manning said...

Gerald Horn's "Counter-revolution of 1776" shows that the Revolutionary War was largely a way to forestall the abolition of the African slave trade. And his "Race to Revolution" demonstrates that mainland and Caribbean slavery constituted a monolith. Catch him on democracy now.

Miles_Ellison said...

If you like sausage, you probably shouldn't watch it being made. As far as Heinlein is concerned, I read Stranger in a Strange Land in high school and Starship Troopers somewhat later. Didn't really like either book. Starship Troopers, from what I remember, seemed vaguely fascist.

On another note, I find it more than a little interesting that some conservatives who champion the philosophy of Ayn Rand thump their bibles while ignoring her rather muscular and strident atheism, and champion increasingly unsubtle racism while ignoring her dismissal of it as the "worst form of barnyard collectivism."

balitwilight said...

For me, I judge the artist based on the art, but informed by the life.

If an author creates humane fiction but was a reprehensible person in real life - then I still value the fiction because that transcendence represents a sort of grace that art offers. But the seams often show and the artist is never far from the art...

When I was younger I used to read a lot of Heinlein. He wrote some very good short stories, such as "All You Zombies". But, even as an unsophisticated young reader I could detect an off-putting crypto-facist undertow to many of Heinleins novels. To me, Heinlein's stories had too much of the phony macho superman Hemingway-esque swagger, but not enough of Hemingway's humanity. I became increasingly irritated by the oppressive emphasis in all of Heinlein about "what manly men do in manly situations, etc".

I didn't know then about his racism, but the facist fingerprints are all over Heinlein's work. Even H.G. Wells, who wrote science fiction much earlier than Heinlein - in a time of even bolder racism - was able to embed humanist themes in his fiction and critiqued racism and the class structure. So, as far as I'm concerned, Heinlein fails the test in every way.

Gable1111 said...

Life is art, to a large extent, and its very difficult, from the perspective of, for lack of a better word, the consumer, to separate the life of an artist from his or her work.

That said, it is a reasonable expectation, I believe, that a person's art would be a reflection of their life, and if integrity and consistency informs how one lives, to some extent.

But art as reflector works both ways; its a "two-way mirror," if you will. Much of what one sees in the art and the extent to which they may appreciate it or not, has a lot to do with who they are and what they bring to it.

For example, I was shocked initially when I heard about the dalliances of MLK with other women while married. But the reflector of his life, I was not in a position to judge that, due to my own "history." And thus it did not take away, at least for me, an appreciation and respect for King's life.

In any case, bottom line, when you read or otherwise consume the works of an artists, aspects of the life they lived will be part of the prism through which you view it; its inescapable. You cannot help but think about things that may trouble you about the artists, as you read his/her works. To the extent that may affect your appreciation, depends.

Shady Grady said...

Bruce Miller said...

Bruce Franklin's 1980 book "Robert A. Heinlein: America as Science Fiction" deals in several places with anti-Asian and anti-black racism in Heinlein's stories. He writes of *Farnham's Freehold* that "Heinlein himself can (and does) point to the many Black characters in his fiction who do not have stereotypical roles, including the most interesting human in *The Star Beast*, the hero of *Tunnel in the Sky*, and half of the intertwined protagonist of *I Will Fear No Evil*. Nevertheless, *Farnham's Freehold* expresses the most deep-seated racist nightmare of American culture, one that dates back in literary expression at least to *Cannibals All! or, Slaves Without Masters*, George Fitzhugh's 1857 pro-slavery tract." Franklin looks at the books in their historical context, and he says of *Farnham's Freehold*, that Heinlein's "monstrous vision of Black cannibals enslaving, debauching, and devouring the white people who survive a twentieth-century Armageddon was apparently generated by [his reaction to] very specific events in the 1960s." (p. 157)

chauncey devega said...

Great sharing. I will need to track down that book and also Fitzhugh's work. Folks forget the racist subtext--in many cases overt elements--in classic sci-fi. See the fear you alluded to in The Time Machine too.

Runic said...

Was Farnham's Freehold the one where the heroes develop a virus that only kills Asian people? Because I know that happens in one of his books.