Sep 13 2007

Heinlein on Theocracy and Cultural Decay

Posted by PAgent in Books & Comics, Current Events

I’ve been thinking about the works of Robert A Heinlein lately. I do believe I’ve read his entire body of work, starting with a copy of “Starman Jones” in 5th grade. For most of that time I would have unhesitatingly told you he was my favorite author. But over time my adoration for his work faded.

For one thing, he seemed to get a little crazy. The philosophical musings that made Stranger in a Strange Land so fascinating were, in some of his later works, taken to some disturbing places. His books became less about creating wonderful landscapes and memorable characters, and more about inside jokes and removing the stigma from incest.

Over time I slowly distanced myself from RAH. Oh, I’d tell people they should read his stuff, but I wouldn’t recommend his very early works (too much like Boy Scouts in space), or his latest (too damn freaky).

But lately I’ve been thinking more about those wonderful books, the books that I haven’t read in more than twenty years and that kindled my abiding love for science fiction. Going through a catalog of RAH works, I was reminded of Revolt in 2100, a collection of three stories including If This Goes On…, in which a small resistance fights to overthrow an entrenched American theocracy. At the time, it seemed like the purest of science fiction indeed. Lately however, I see fellow Americans, sometimes even political candidates, that seem to be willing to toss the Constitution onto the trash heap, and embrace an implicit, or even explicit, theocratic government.

Imitating Janus, I want to take a few moments to look both forward and backward while considering some of the words of Robert A. Heinlein, words that I find to be more accurate and frightening now than at any other point in my lifetime:

It is a truism that almost any sect, cult, or religion will legislate its creed into law if it acquires the political power to do so, and will follow it by suppressing opposition, subverting all education to seize early the minds of the young, and by killing, locking up, or driving underground all heretics. (Postscript to Revolt in 2100, 1953)

Take sex away from people. Make it forbidden, evil. Limit it to ritualistic breeding. Force it to back up into suppressed sadism. Then hand the people a scapegoat to hate. Let them kill a scapegoat occasionally for cathartic release. The mechanism is ages old. Tyrants used it centuries before the word ‘psychology’ was ever invented. It works, too. (Revolt in 2100, 1953)

When any government, or any church for that matter, undertakes to say to its subjects, “This you may not read, this you must not see, this you are forbidden to know,” the end result is tyranny and oppression, no matter how holy the motives. Mighty little force is needed to control a man whose mind has been hoodwinked; contrariwise, no amount of force can control a free man, a man whose mind is free. No, not the rack, not fission bombs, not anything; you can’t conquer a free man; the most you can do is kill him. (Revolt in 2100, 1953)

And last but not least, consider this extended passage from 1982:

What are the marks of a sick culture?

It is a bad sign when the people of a country stop identifying themselves with the country and start identifying with a group. A racial group. Or a religion. Or a language. Anything, as long as it isn’t the whole population.

A very bad sign. Particularism. It was once considered a Spanish vice but any country can fall sick with it. Dominance of males over females seems to be one of the symptoms.

Before a revolution can take place, the population must lose faith in both the police and the courts.

High taxation is important and so is inflation of the currency and the ratio of the productive to those on the public payroll. But that’s old hat; everybody knows that a country is on the skids when its income and outgo get out of balance and stay that way – even though there are always endless attempts to wish it way by legislation. But I started looking for little signs and what some call silly-season symptoms.

I want to mention one of the obvious symptoms: Violence. Muggings. Sniping. Arson. Bombing. Terrorism of any sort. Riots of course – but I suspect that little incidents of violence, pecking way at people day after day, damage a culture even more than riots that flare up and then die down. Oh, conscription and slavery and arbitrary compulsion of all sorts and imprisonment without bail and without speedy trial – but those things are obvious; all the histories list them.

I think you have missed the most alarming symptom of all. This one I shall tell you. But go back and search for it. Examine it. Sick cultures show a complex of symptoms as you have named… But a dying culture invariably exhibits personal rudeness. Bad manners. Lack of consideration for others in minor matters. A loss of politeness, of gentle manners, is more significant than a riot.

This symptom is especially serious in that an individual displaying it never thinks of it as a sign of ill health but as proof of his/her strength. Look for it. Study it. It is too late to save this culture – this worldwide culture, not just the freak show here in California. Therefore we must now prepare the monasteries for the coming Dark Age. Electronic records are too fragile; we must again have books, of stable inks and resistant paper. (Friday, 1982)

4 Responses to “Heinlein on Theocracy and Cultural Decay”

  1. Betsy Says:

    I have been thinking of Heinlein a lot lately, particularly the timeline he laid out/mapped his books to. Aren’t we exactly in the middle of The Crazy Years now?

    If we’re not there officially, well…we’re certainly there in spirit.

  2. OmegaMom Says:

    I still like Farnham’s Freehold and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. But, yeah, RAH’s later stuff got…obsessive with familial sex. Ick.

    The manners thing…that’s an interesting one.

    So what brought this up? Just mulling things over?

  3. PAgent Says:

    I had a recent discussion with a buddy of mine who passed on some personal experiences with how badly (and stupidly) the administration had bungled the early parts of the Iraq conflict, coupled with my reading an article that forsaw the imminent end of the American Empire as a direct result of our disastrous foreign policy over the last six years. Finally, trying to add books to my Shelfari account recently reminded me of what I had been reading in junior high and high school.

    “Revolt in 2100″ came strongly to mind as something that at the time I thought could never, ever happen here. Now, I fear it could happen all too easily.

    Personally, I think the arc of American civilization is on the downhill slide. We’ve gone from a nation that valued self-reliance and self-determination, to one that celebrates selfishness. We place more importance on style than substance. If you try and talk about the value of hard work and integrity, you get a blank look (unless you’re talking to illegal immigrants). Our role models are Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, and hip-hop artists that elevate profanity and misogyny to new heights. And our leaders are far too concerned with managing power blocs, personal enrichment, and wielding power to actually govern. Politics used to be considered public service.

    We’ve seen this before. Last time they called it “Bread and Circuses”.

    Maybe I should tag this a “rant”.

  4. Mick Says:

    As you probably concluded, I am also a big RAH fan. I read the wacky stuff when I was in high school and it was pretty influential on me. I stopped reading him in college and have definitely moved away from his hard-core libertarian, individualist stance, but not very far.