28 June 2005

Polite

Like many SF readers, I have a soft spot for Robert Heinlein, sort of in spite of myself. But, as I've said before, I recognize the many shortcomings of his thinking and writing.

There's something particularly unwholesome about the disingenuousness of his aphorisms. Some of them are good food for thought, if you don't take them too seriously. For instance, I'm fond of this matched set:

Democracy is based on the assumption that a million men are wiser than one man. How's that again? I missed something.

Autocracy is based on the assumption that one man is wiser than a million men. Let's play that over again, too. Who decides?

I'll choke back my feminist reaction for a moment — a million men? — and grant that this is a witty and succinct way of framing the moral-and-practical problem how you construct good mechanisms of governance.

But see the aw-shucks, “just plain facts” tone there? It hides a lot of dubious thinking. One memorable such aphorism, repeated by mouthpiece characters in his novels a few times, is

An armed society is a polite society

It's a seductive idea. One thinks of knights and samurai, reflects on the high stakes that can emerge in a heavily-armed argument, and is tempted to just accept the idea.

Unless one has met many Israelis.

Understand that I am a person who, by temperament, generally finds Israelis very charming. Accepting the risks of generalizations, they are commonly articulate, enthusiastic, funny, and opinionated. In short, outspoken. And not in a polite way. I have never met anyone who has ever accused Israelis of being polite. Heck, I have never met an Israeli who has ever claimed that Israelis are polite; they have a marked tendency to complain about the rudeness of their own society. And for obvious reasons, Israel is full of guns — everyone does a stint of compulsory military service, so pretty much everyone in their early 20s is within arm's reach of a firearm at all times.

So by that example alone, Heinlein is simply full of it. I have made this what-about-Israelis? argument countless times. But now I must stand aside, in awe of James Wolcott's vastly superior smackdown of Heinlein's aphorism.

2 comments:

TheWayOfTheGun said...

Israeli-Americans are the only group I know that tends to be leftie but pro-gun. As a pro-gun leftie myself, it is nice to have a few comrades around. I find it quite painful to be in agreement with fuckheads like Bob Barr, even on the question of whether the sky is blue.

Miriam batAsherah said...

Wayofthegun: See also: Lefties in Arizona.

But they're more polite than Israelis.