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July 9th, 2007

  The Lost Eden of Robert A. Heinlein


On The Corner the other day, by way of commemorating the centenary of the sci-fi writer Robert A. Heinlein, I posted Heinlein's contribution to the 1950s radio series "This I Believe."

Eschewing any religious or metaphysical affirmations, Heinlein laid out his social credo:

I believe in my neighbors … in my townspeople … in my fellow citizens." He went on to write about his local priest, whose "goodness and charity and loving kindness shine in his daily actions … If I'm in trouble, I'll go to him." (Heinlein was an atheist, by the way.) Heinlein's next-door neighbor, he tells us, was a veterinarian: "Doc will get out of bed after a hard day to help a stray cat — no fee, no prospect of a fee.

Heinlein went on to praise the charity and conscientiousness of his fellow citizens: "For the one who says, 'The heck with you, I've got mine,' there are a hundred, a thousand, who will say, 'Sure, pal, sit down.' I know that despite all warnings against hitchhikers, I can step to the highway, thumb for a ride, and in a few minutes a car or a truck will stop and someone will say, 'Climb in, Mack. How far you going?' … I believe in the honest craft of workmen. Take a look around you. There never were enough bosses to check up on all that work. From Independence Hall to the Grand Coulee Dam, these things were built level and square by craftsmen who were honest in their bones."

Heinlein even had a good word for politicians: "I believe that almost all politicians are honest. For every bribed alderman, there are hundreds of politicians — low paid or not paid at all — doing their level best without thanks or glory to make our system work. If this were not true, we would never have gotten past the thirteen colonies."

That one Corner posting brought in more reader e-mail than an average ten columns. I have only just got through it all. The general tone was, I am sorry to say, rather sour. Reader X was representative:

Mr. Derbyshire: 
  1. Most Americans are unlikely to see or even know a priest these days. You just don't see many around much. The days of the local priest involved in community affairs are long gone, along with the priests.
  2. Most people will not have a doctor in their neighborhood. Doctors now live in upscale neighborhoods, as far away from the rabble as possible.
  3. The honest workmen now speak Spanish and live in run-down apartments in the seedy parts of town.
  4. The low paid politician has vanished. The surest route to wealth is politics, followed closely by government service. These folks don't live in town much either. They live in the part of town with the doctors.
  5. A popular fiction writer would never be able to write such an essay these days. He would not know much about workmen, teachers, town folk and the like. He would have a big house next to the doctor and politician. They would spend cocktail hour talking about how the rabble in town would not allow their servants to become citizens.

You'll notice a theme here. I suspect the reason the old order came crashing down was that the new order allowed the elites to leave town. Once they were unburdened with the task of mixing with hoi polloi, the old order was not of much use to anyone, particularly the elites.

I think Reader X is over-egging the pudding, but he has a point. The way the post-WW2 meritocracy eventually shook out, there was a social separating, a sort of chromatography. America has always had elites, of course, and we have always had an underclass of some kind. Both seem to be much bigger now than they were then, though. Furthermore, if you subtracted off the elites and the underclass in Heinlein's time, what was left — the great middle — was far more homogenous then than it is now, its members much better acquainted with each other. The social distance between (say) a doctor and (say) a cop, was smaller then than it is now.

In a later post, I made some follow-up comments of an obvious sort about how Heinlein's essay made the 1950s seem like an awfully long time ago:

I am in broad sympathy with the many people who have observed that the 1950s were, with numerous obvious qualifications, a sort of Golden Age of American civilization. What on earth happened to us?

Well, the Great Disruption happened. An old order, with its many unsatisfactory features, ended, and a new one — also with many unsatisfactory features, but different ones mostly milder in their unsatisfactoriness — came up.

The main reason the 1950s looks so good to so many of us is that in moving from the old order to the new, we lost much of our civilizational confidence. You may say that that confidence was misplaced, or an illusion; you may even say that it was obnoxious, and good riddance to it; and you may be right on all points. There is something awfully attractive about civilizational confidence though. Like innocence, once gone, it can't be recaptured. Those of us who recall it shouldn't be blamed for missing it.

The point here is that the "social capital" Heinlein describes — the neighborliness and mutual assistance, the networks of clubs, associations, friendly societies, and volunteer organizations that hold communities together — was a key underpinning of that civilizational confidence.


Along with the Great Disruption, another thing that happened was diversity. This came upon us in three ways.

First, there was the rectification of racial injustice — the striking down of legal segregation, and the shaming-out of Jim Crow and his northern cousins*. Second, there was the 1965 Immigration Act, which ended the 40-year-long near-moratorium on immigration, and abolished the old preference for Europeans. Third, there was the uncontrolled flow of Mexicans and Central Americans across the southern border from the late 1970s on.

Heinlein himself seems to have been free of racial prejudice, as free as anyone in his time. (Only at the very end of Starship Troopers do we learn that the book's first-person narrator is Filipino.) Still, Heinlein's America was 90 percent white-European, 10 percent black-African, and "other" at the rounding-error level. Since, in most places and job categories, blacks did not compete much with whites, and mainly lived in their own parts of town, it was easy for white Americans to regard them as essentially invisible.

In that sense Heinlein's America, while technically multiracial, was not diverse. From ages 12 to 16 — which is to say, from 1957 to 1961 — I read nothing but science fiction, a vast mass of the stuff. Most of it was American; most dealt with imagined futures; and most of those imagined futures — including, that Filipino notwithstanding, Heinlein's — were solidly white-European.

With the coming of diversity, much changed. Some of it changed for the better — especially if you were a capable black American, or an impoverished Mexican peasant. One thing that changed for the worse was, that we lost much of the easy neighborliness of Heinlein's essay. It is a regrettable fact that the sense of common interest, common citizenship, and mutual support that Heinlein describes in his (essentially) monocultural and monoracial America is much reduced in a diverse society.

The most recent person to learn this has been Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, whose researches into "social capital" have led him to conclude what, as a left-liberal, he was desperately reluctant to conclude: that diversity and social capital are inversely proportional: more diversity, less social capital.


Reader Y brought to my attention the following passage from James Baldwin's 1956 novel Giovanni's Room, which is about homosexual life in the Paris of that time:

Nobody stays in the garden of Eden. Jacques' garden was not the same as Giovanni's, of course. Jacques' garden was involved with football players and Giovanni's was involved with maidens — but that seems to have made little difference. Perhaps everybody has a garden of Eden, I don't know; but they have scarcely seen their garden before they see the flaming sword. Then, perhaps, life only offers the choice of remembering the garden or forgetting it. Either, or: it takes strength to remember, it takes another kind of strength to forget, it takes a hero to do both. People who remember court madness through pain, the pain of the perpetually recurring death of their innocence; people who forget court another kind of madness, the madness of the denial of pain and the hatred of innocence; and the world is mostly divided between madmen who remember and madmen who forget. Heroes are rare.

Reader Y adds the following comment: "In the context of your remark, the 1950s would be 'Eden,' conservatives would be those going mad with the pain of perpetually remembering that Eden, and liberals would be those going mad by trying to forget it."

This reader too, I think, somewhat overstates his case. Thoughtful, well-read conservatives (is there any other kind?) will readily tick off some of the huge 1950s negatives: union power, 97 percent top income-tax rates, environmental despoliation, Jim Crow, female talent and energy stifled in housewifery, and so on. In the matter of social capital, though — the subject of Heinlein's essay — the 1950s were indeed an Eden.

There are few places in the U.S.A. today where people feel like that now. Not none, but few. I drive a good deal, in town and country, but I can't recall the last time I saw a hitchhiker. If I did see one, I would not pick him up. (Come to think of it, it's been a long time since I heard an American address a stranger as "Mack.")


Watching the recent furor over the Senate immigration bill, I found myself wondering if this was perhaps a first in U.S. history: a sort of Peasants' Revolt against the now-enormous and massively-entrenched (and increasingly endogamous) elites. It has long been a commonplace, confirmed over and over again by polls, that the elite-commoner gap on the immigration issue is wider than on any other.

It may be that this is only the first of many such issues. As the elites pull away from the rest of us, and the rest of us become more atomized and disorganized — "a heap of loose sand" in Sun Yat-sen's memorable phrase about the late-Imperial Chinese — we may be headed for the kind of intractable elite-commoner hostility predicted by Michael Young in his 1958 book The Rise of the Meritocracy. I don't think it is fanciful to see an element of this in the current widespread anger towards the political class — the president's approval ratings down in the 30s, and Congress's even lower.

Some of that is anger at particular policies — Iraq, the immigration bill. Much, though — a rising proportion, I believe — is systemic: a feeling that the elites are now running the show for their own interests, Latin-America-style, with not much regard for ours. As my reader X (see above) correctly observed: "The low paid politician has vanished. The surest route to wealth is politics, followed closely by government service."

I think that is the right context in which to see the Scooter Libby semi-pardon. Just as friends don't let friends drive drunk, elites don't let elites do jail time.

The Libby case has of course a political dimension, with diehard Republicans mostly furious about the prosecution and diehard Democrats mostly happy. Outside the zone of the politically passionate, however, the whole Libby affair is seen in terms of (a) political high elites of opposite tendencies using the law as a weapon in their power struggles, and (b) political high elites of the same tendencies taking good care of each other. (In Libby's case, very good care indeed: "Republicans have raised millions of dollars for Libby's defense," we are told.)

We are not far here from the attitude that so annoyed Matteo Ricci when he tried to get political conversations going with commoners at wayside taverns in 16th-century Imperial China, only to be told: "Oh, that's for the court officials to deal with among themselves. It doesn't concern folk like us." We are, on the other hand, uncomfortably far from the participatory structures of a free republic.

The mirror image of the Libby case is the prosecution of the two Border Patrol agents Ignacio Ramos and Jose Alonso Compean. As with the Libby prosecution, you can make a case here on the precise letter of the law (our own Andy McCarthy has been assiduous in this regard on both cases), but to ordinary citizens reading of the offenses committed, and the progress of the prosecutions, both the Ramos-Compean and the Libby sentences seem absurdly disproportionate.

Why did President Bush use his clemency power, on exactly that basis, in the one case, but not the other? It is especially odd when you consider that Compean and Ramos are both from poor Mexican-immigrant backgrounds — a class of people for whom the president has expressed special favor and regard.

The answer is surely that Scooter Libby is one of the Big People, while Compean and Ramos belong to the Little People, who are of no account to elite panjandrums like George W. Bush. Our political system is now run by the Big People for their own interests. If they ever deign to notice the Little People, it is with disdain and contempt. Compean and Ramos? Why, they didn't even go to law school!

This indifference, this disdain and contempt, is mostly hidden behind smokescreens of bogus "compassion" and ostentatious, self-serving religiosity — especially around election time. Elites know that when their group protectiveness shows itself openly through the smoke, it is greeted with widespread public disgust. (The approve/disapprove/don't-know numbers on the president's decision to commute Scooter Libby's sentence are 21/47/32.) They know, but they care less and less.

As the separating-out of our society continues — as we get ever closer to the Latin American model — our rulers will no longer need to bother with smokescreens. They will be able to attend to their self-interest undisturbed, as the elites to our south do, bribing or outwitting the commoners if discontent rises to uncomfortable levels — or perhaps, like Mexico's current elite, just exporting them.

It's a form of society, and it might be stable (or it might not — the narrator in The Rise of the Meritocracy is torn to pieces at last by a low-IQ mob). It's a long way from the America of Robert A. Heinlein, though.

*  first lived in this country in the early 1970s, I was doing menial jobs, often alongside black Americans. I was fascinated by the folk wisdom they had concerning relations with whites, and among themselves. A catch-phrase I heard particularly often was: "In the South, you can get as close as you like, but don't get too big. In the North, you can get as big as you like, but don't get too close." Another favorite: "If you're white, all right; if you're brown, stick aroun'; if you're black, git back." [NB: A reader tells me this second one shows up in a song by the blues singer Big Bill Broonzy http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Bill_Broonzy. To be precise, says my reader, it "is taken from the chorus of a song by Big Bill Broonzy, called "Get Back." Broonzy died in 1958. The song appears in the record Big Bill Broonzy Memorial (Mercury MG 20822, 1963), and the liner notes say "… it's worth remembering that Bill sang this one some twenty years ago," which would make it the early 1940's. Whether the saying originated with Broonzy, or whether he was just retailing a proverb, I do not know.]