Everyone is entitled to their own opinions about Robert Heinlein, but not to their own facts. In a blog post on Heinlein’s novel Beyond This Horizon, David Brin advances a number of claims which are disputable, and one that is utterly bizarre. He alleges that the thought behind Heinlein’s famous quote “An armed society is a polite society” was not Heinlein’s but issued from John W. Campbell, the editor who with Heinlein invented science fiction as we know it.
This claim is not merely wrong, it attempts to traduce a core belief which Heinlein expressed in his fiction and his nonfiction and his personal letters throughout his life. We do not have to speculate about this; as I shall show, it is so amply documented that Brin’s claim passes from being merely tendentious to outright bizarre.
Brin’s error matters to me personally because, as much as I am anything else, I am one of Heinlein’s children. I have closely studied his works and his life, and that study has shaped me. What I have given to the world through my advocacy of open source is directly tied back to what the Old Man taught me about liberty, transparency, and moral courage. And I am never more Heinlein’s child than when I advocate for an armed (and polite) society.
Robert Heinlein was a complex man whose views evolved greatly over time. The Heinlein of 1942, who put into the mouth of one of his characters the line “Naturally food is free! What kind of people do you take us for?” was only five years on from having been enchanted by social credit theory, which underpins his “lost” novel For Us, The Living; in later years he was so embarrassed by this enthusiasm that he allowed that manuscript to molder in a drawer somewhere, and it was only published after his death.
Between 1942 and 1966 Heinlein’s politics evolved from New Deal left-liberalism towards what after 1971 would come to be called libertarianism. But that way of putting it is actually misleading, because Heinlein did not merely approach libertarianism, he played a significant part in defining it. His 1966 novel The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress was formative of the movement, with the “rational anarchist” Bernardo de la Paz becoming a role model for later libertarians. By 1978, we have direct evidence (from an interview in Samuel Edward Konkin’s New Libertarian magazine, among other sources) that Heinlein self-identified as a libertarian and regretted his earlier statism.
But if Heinlein’s overall politics changed considerably and wandered down some odd byways during his lifetime, his uncompromising support of civilian firearms rights was a constant on display throughout his life. Brin observes that was already true in 1942, but attempts to attribute this position to John W. Campbell. Multiple lines of evidence refute this claim.
I have read the volume of John W. Campbell’s collected letters published in 1985. John Campbell had a great many peculiarities and borderline obsessions – many of which he did push his stable of authors to write about – but there is no evidence in those letters that firearms rights was one of them. Nor is it one of the continuing themes in his provocative and sometimes cranky Analog editorials.
Now, based on what Campbell’s writings reveal about him, I would be astonished if his position on firearms rights was much different from Heinlein’s. Both partook of a strain of flinty, deeply American individualism that regarded the Second Amendment as a central article of the national covenant – a folk wisdom which was common across the American political spectrum until the late 1960s, and not before then associated specifically with libertarian or conservative politics as it later became. But for Campbell this does not seem ever to have became a foreground issue.
Heinlein, on the other hand, was a vocal and consistent advocate of civilian weapons ownership both during and after his association with Campbell. This is perhaps clearest in his 1949 novel Red Planet, written after their parting of the ways. In that novel, the bearing of personal weapons is explicitly connected to the assumption of adult responsibilities.
Red Planet is also interesting because, although we might consider the views of Heinlein’s characters an unreliable guide to Heinlein’s own, Heinlein’s letters about the novel reveal much more. His editor at Scribner attempted to delete the section of argument in which weapons-bearing is connected to adult responsibility; Heinlein rejected this, objecting that it eviscerated the book’s ethical core and making very clear that the views of the pro-gun mentor figures in the novel were his own.
Heinlein was to reiterate similar views not only in his later fiction but in the posthumous nonfiction collection Grumbles From The Grave – by which time they were no surprise to any Heinlein fan. And it would be difficult to overstate the influence they had on firearms-rights activists during the dark years between the Gun Control Act of 1968 and our vindication in the 2008 District of Columbia v. Heller ruling.
Heinlein’s gift to firearms-rights activism during that bleak four decades was to be able to draw on the principled case for civilian firearms going back to the framers of the U.S. Constitution and English Republican sources and restate it in language appealing to the brightest children of post-WWII America. But he did more than that, because in Red Planet and elsewhere firearms rights were presented as an inextricable part of a philosophical whole, with the personal firearm both as instrument and defining symbol of personal liberty and responsibility.
My own essay on this topic, Ethics from the Barrel of a Gun: What Bearing Weapons Teaches About the Good Life, I freely acknowledge to be in significant part derived from arguments originated or transmitted by Heinlein. It was after reading him that I – and many other firearms-rights activists of my generation – delved backward into the roots of the constitutionalist/republican tradition and found there a splendid affirmation of the liberty Heinlein taught us to value.
(When time has given us perspective to write really good cultural histories of the 20th century, Heinlein is going to look implausibly gigantic. His achievements didn’t stop with co-inventing science fiction and all its consequences, framing post-1960s libertarianism, energizing the firearms-rights movement, or even merely inspiring me to become the kind of person who not only could write The Cathedral and the Bazaar but had to. No. Heinlein also invented much of the zeitgeist of the 1960s counterculture through his novel Stranger In A Strange Land; it has been aptly noted that he was the only human being ever to become a culture hero both to the hippies of Woodstock and the U.S. Marine Corps. I am told that to this day most Marine noncoms carry a well-thumbed copy of Starship Troopers in their rucksacks.)
I have been a fan of David Brin’s writing ever since the early 1980s; I honored him precisely because he played a key role in reviving the Campbellian/Heinleinian style of SF after the decay and pointlessness of the “New Wave” years. I know what Brin’s roots in the genre are; they go back to Heinlein just as surely as mine do, and he has no absolutely no excuse for not knowing better. The kindest possible interpretation is that he has deceived himself; but I cannot escape the queasy, unwelcome conclusion that he does know better. Brin’s essay stinks of politically-motivated lying.
This indictment of Brin matters precisely because of the vast scope of Heinlein’s influence. By attempting to retrospectively divorce Heinlein from firearms rights and libertarianism, Brin bids to make genre SF, the libertarian tradition entwined with it, and all the other social movements Heinlein influenced into something other than what they are. He is trying on an Orwellian distortion of the past in order to deform the future.