Monday, September 06, 2010

An Armed Society is a Polite Society

“An armed society is a polite society” is the Robert A. Heinlein quote I see used often by conservatives and gun enthusiasts. That and “Tanstaafl! (There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch). The quote is from his novel “Beyond this Horizon” which was first published in 1942. Interesting fact: he finished the novel the day before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. The full quote is spoken by a character called Mordan Claude who is an administrator for the office of genetics. He befriends the novel’s main character, Felix Hamilton, while attempting to persuade Hamilton to mate in order that his superior genes may pass on and enrich the species. Felix is reluctant to create progeny because he feels life has no purpose. That is the crux of the story, that and a revolution by inferior radicals who feel they are being repressed when they’re really not, they’re just stupid and selfish.

This quote is an interesting example of how taking a quote from a work of fiction out of context can be tricky. Heinlein addressed the nature of fiction when answering a question in 1973 about his famous character Lazarus Long, a man who has lived over 2,000 years. The interviewer asked him what a man that old would know that we don’t. Heinlein replied, “I haven’t the slightest idea; I’m not even a hundred, yet! Remember, this thing’s a work of fiction.”

Here is a more complete quotation: “Well, in the first place, an armed society is a polite society. Manners are good when one may have to back up his acts with his life. For me, politeness is a sine qua non of civilization. That’s a personal evaluation only. But gunfighting has a strong biological use. We do not have enough things to kill off the weak and the stupid these days. But to stay alive as an armed citizen a man has to be either quick with his wits or with his hands, preferably both. It’s a good thing.”

When quoting from a work of fiction to make a point I think you hit some quicksand when the quote is coming out of the mouth of a character. This quote is a good example of this problem because, although this is a very polite society, it’s also a violent society. The reason everyone is so polite is not because the presence of armed males (only males generally go armed) has brought a mutually assured head wound type of peace; everyone is so polite in a Victorian way because one slip of the tongue will likely put you in a situation where you will have to defend your life. Maybe this fulfills some kind of Wild West macho fantasy for those gun enthusiasts but if the frequency of violence that is apparent in this novel existed in today’s world it wouldn’t be the gun rights utopia they are dreaming of. I doubt most that adopt this quote are aware of the nature of the society Heinlein created for this novel.

There is a scene where Felix Hamilton is eating dinner in a pay restaurant with his friend, Monroe-Alpha Clifford. Food is free in this society, by the way, spending money at a restaurant is considered a good way to flaunt your wealth. They are dining in the balcony of this restaurant and Clifford, because he’s a clumsy and dorky math whiz, while attempting to crack open a crab leg flips it into the crowd below. Hamilton, because the dinner was his idea, “assumes the honor” and negotiates an apology with the alpha male of the offended party and what could have been an offense that resulted in a duel if the offended party didn’t feel satisfied is resolved peacefully. After their parlay ends a third party interferes and insinuates that the two men are candy asses for not having a shoot out in the middle of a public place. Felix then resolves this dispute by putting a slug from his pistol into the chest of the offending loudmouth. If that is not frighteningly enough it turns out the lout was attempting to insult the gentleman on the floor in order to coerce him into a duel. We later learn that it was an assassination attempt. In this society it is acceptable to resolve simple social offenses in public with firearms and no one bats an eye when it is revealed that one man was attempting a political assassination in broad daylight with an insult that would be expected to force the other to resort to deadly violence. Also in this society young men that go armed in public are called “braves.” Polite? Oh yeah! Violent and deadly? You betcha!

Another problem with this quote is that the idea of an armed society is a polite society did not come from Heinlein. It was a theory that science fiction editor, John W. Campbell, had asked Heinlein to investigate. So, if a quote you find supports your views comes from the mouth a character in a novel, a novel that is exploring a concept that is not even necessarily supported by the author is that quote still relevant to the person using the quote to promote his agenda? I say no. Taking a quote from any document and taking it out of context without considering the work as a whole is lazy research.

Here is an example of how to quote a work of fiction properly. Back in 2004 I read this column in the New York Times by Verlyn Klinkenborg about global warming and how an issue this large will not get addressed until it is an emergency:

In a way, the true puzzle of global warming isn't the mechanics of man-made climate change -- the feedback loops, the damage to the ozone layer, the shift in oceanic oscillations, the melting of the ice-caps, the desertification of formerly productive agricultural lands. Those can be studied and understood. The true puzzle is human nature. In every one of these accounts of climate change and environmental degradation, the authors note the inertia of the global system, whether they're talking about economic or climatic models of the future. But there's another kind of inertia built into the system too, and I know no better account of it than a passage from Isaac Asimov's ''Foundation,'' the opening novel in his classic series about a science called ''psychohistory,'' which combines psychology and statistics. ''The psychohistoric trend of a planet-full of people contains a huge inertia,'' says Hari Seldon, the ancestral hero of the foundation. ''To be changed it must be met with something possessing a similar inertia.''

This is a way of saying we live as we have always lived. Sometimes -- like now -- nearly everyone is aware of dramatic changes in the world. Yet we continue to live in the assumption that we can ride out the changes without changing ourselves, coasting, as we have always coasted, on the historic wave of human development. What it will take to wake us up is a wave of equal size traveling in the opposite direction. That wave is already on its way

As you can see, a little context goes a long way.

What bothers me most when I see these Robert Heinlein quotes used to support causes is that he was a thinker who could hold opposing ideas in his head at the same time. He isn’t the hippy idealist people see in the novel “Stranger in a Strange Land” and he wasn’t the militarist people see in “Starship Troopers.” He can’t be pigeon holed that easily. He’s too complex for soundbites.

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