Friday, July 06, 2007

Heinlein: "Our Noble, Essential Decency"

Robert A. Heinlein was my first favorite author. He would be 100 tomorrow. As a child, I lived for his stories of space exploration and heroes, written at a level and with the enthusiasm and optimism young minds can grasp. He published one book each year targeted for the juvenile audience and I read them all.

So did others. According to Michael Belfiore's new book, Rocketeers, most of the folks now building, testing, flying and financing the private race to space also grew up reading Rocket Ship Galileo, Red Planet, Destination Moon, and Have Space Suit—Will Travel among others. It is Heinlein's dream they live when they launch their exploratory craft and sell tickets for Earth orbit or tours to the back of the Moon.

In later years, Heinlein broadened his writing, building a libertarian philosophical structure that swayed gently with his political wanderings from socialist to conservative and back again.

Towards the end, his imagineering was less impressive even as his writing skills expanded. I finally left his audience after reading Job: A Comedy of Justice.

Throughout his life and his writing, he maintained firm hold on three principles:

  1. Science in the hands of good people will enrich the lives of all. His enthusiasm for science and his delight in imagining its uses lasted his entire life and suffused his every work.
  2. The military can be a national force for good, both within and without. From his own experience as a graduate of Annapolis and in his service as an officer in the Navy until tuberculosis demanded retirement, to Starship Troopers and beyond, Heinlein believed in the principle and the practice of good men fighting for their society.
  3. Freedom is man's most cherished possession. His writings illuminate a social order that is structured not so much by rule of law but by rule of society. "An armed society is a polite society"is a fine one-liner and bumper sticker, but is also proven true in our own experiences nearly every day in the 41 states that now either allow or encourage citizens to carry arms. It's opposite is also proven true every day in countries around the world.
Heinlein's contribution to his profession is the realization that in science fiction it is not the hardware that carries the story, not the machine that sets the plot. It's the people, the characters that populate the imagination, that respond to good and evil, to opportunities and challenges.

He was, in all of his various social costumes, an optimist. In all his books and stories, in all his views of the world, mankind succeeds, in his view because it should.

John Derbyshire at NRO unearthed a piece that Heinlein wrote for Edward R. Murrow's radio show, "This I Believe," in the 1950's.

It's worth reading today, to understand the optimism necessary to write exquisite science fiction, to understand the promise of the America he loved, to understand ourselves.
Our Noble, Essential Decency

by Robert A. Heinlein

I am not going to talk about religious beliefs but about matters so obvious that it has gone out of style to mention them. I believe in my neighbors. I know their faults, and I know that their virtues far outweigh their faults.

Take Father Michael down our road a piece. I'm not of his creed, but I know that his goodness and charity and loving kindness shine in his daily actions. I believe in Father Mike. If I'm in trouble, I'll go to him. My next-door neighbor's a veterinary doctor. Doc will get out of bed after a hard day to help a stray cat—no fee, no prospect of a fee. I believe in Doc.

I believe in my townspeople. You can knock on any door in our town, say, "I'm hungry," and you'll be fed. Our town is no exception. I've found the same ready charity everywhere. 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 my fellow citizens. Our headlines are splashed with crime. Yet for every criminal, there are ten thousand honest, decent, kindly men. If it were not so. no child would live to grow up. Business could not go on from day to day. Decency is not news. It is buried in the obituaries, but it is a force stronger than crime.

I believe in the patient gallantry of nurses, in the tedious sacrifices of teachers. I believe in the unseen and unending fight against desperate odds that goes on quietly in almost every home in the land. 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.

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.

I believe in Roger Young. You and I are free today because of endless unnamed heroes from Valley Forge to the Yalu River. I believe in—I am proud to belong to—the United States. Despite shortcomings—from lynchings, to bad faith in high places—our nation has had the most decent and kindly internal practices and foreign policies to be found anywhere in history.

And finally, I believe in my whole race—yellow, white, black, red, brown—in the honesty, courage, intelligence, durability, and goodness of the overwhelming majority of my brothers and sisters everywhere on this planet. I am proud to be a human being. I believe that we have come this far by the skin of our teeth—that we always make it just by the skin of our teeth—but that we will always make it, survive, endure.

I believe that this hairless embryo with the aching oversized braincase and the opposable thumb—this animal barely up from the apes—will endure, will endure longer than his home planet, will spread out to the other planets—to the stars and beyond—carrying with him his honesty, his insatiable curiosity, his unlimited courage, and his noble essential decency. This I believe with all my heart.

Contrast that with the world view in which we are immersed today, from whatever media, and ask yourself, "What does a society do without optimism, without confidence in itself?"

UPDATE: The USS Robert A. Heinlein? Maybe so.

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