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THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 25, April 1, 1997

Making Liberty "Respectable"

By Wendy McElroy
mac@headwaters.com

Exclusive to The Libertarian Enterprise

         One of the most puzzling aspects of libertarianism to me is why the movement dismisses its fiction writers, especially those who specialize in science fiction.
         This attitude is all the more baffling when you consider how many of us became politically aware through the novels of Ayn Rand. Moreover, some of the most prominent science fiction writers explicitly call themselves libertarian: Robert Anton Wilson, James Hogan, David Brin, Vernor Vinge .... They are among the most successful libertarians in our culture, and they all make a living through the propagation of ideas. Yet when have you heard them give speeches at movement conferences? Which libertarian magazine publishes their editorials, or even reviews their books? To their great credit, Laissez Faire Books offers a small but decent selection of science fiction works, but who else acknowledges and exploits the dynamic raw energy of these pro-liberty writers?
         Socialists have always feted the literati among them -- Sinclair Lewis, Upton Sinclair, Lillian Helman are merely a few of a long list of examples. But modern libertarians are loath to grant legitimacy to those who fictionalize ideas, rather than footnote them.
         This has not always been the case.
         Literature played a prominent role in Benjamin Tucker's 19th century periodical Liberty, for example, with Tucker keeping current on the state of art in France, England, and America. For example, when Max Nordau published his anti-modernist Degeneration (Entartung), Tucker was discerning enough to solicit a critique from the one man best able to handle it -- George Bernard Shaw. Shaw's subsequent essay, entitled "A Degenerate's View of Nordau," was the first article by the British literary giant to appear in America. Among the literary works Liberty translated and published were: Claude Tillier's My Uncle Benjamin, Zola's Money and Modern Marriage, Octave Mirabeau's A Chambermaid's Diary, Felix Pyat's The Rag Picker of Paris, and Sophie Kropotkin's The Wife of Number 4,237.
         This fascination with cosmopolitan literature led Tucker to publish The Transatlantic (1889-1890), a biweekly literary magazine. The advertisement in Liberty promised: "Every number has a complete translated novelette, a piece of European Music, a Portrait of a Foreign Celebrity and part of a translated European Serial." The Transatlantic consisted of 'the cream of the European press translated into English." Predictably, much of the literature which interested Tucker had political implications. When Oscar Wilde's plea for penal reform, "The Ballad of Reading Gaol", was widely criticized, Tucker enthusiastically endorsed the poem, urging all of his subscribers to read it. Tucker, in fact, published an American edition. From its early championing of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass to a series of short stories by Francis du Bosque in its last issues, Liberty was a vehicle of controversial, avant-garde literature.
         Moreover, various 19th century libertarian theorists were applauded for their fiction as much as their "non": Voltairine de Cleyre is the finest example.
         This level of respect for the power of fiction is unheard of in contemporary libertarianism, yet I do not believe that today's libertarians consume fewer novels than Tucker's clique. Why, then, does the movement discard its fiction writers?
         I believe part of the answer lies in the movement's drift toward "respectability": and, in terms of ideas, this means "academic respectability" ... not science fiction.
         Anecdotes are a poor method of argumentation but since I'm merely presenting my impressions here, let me give two examples of this unfortunate drift.
         The first is a personal one. In 1982, I published a comprehensive index to Tucker's Liberty, which was used as an organizing centerpiece for a scholar's conference on the Tucker circle. Because I had only a high school degree, I was barred from attending even as an audience member. I say this with no bitterness. It was their money, I was not pursuing an academic career ... and they wouldn't have invited Tucker, either.
         The second anecdote concerns a different institute, which swore its determination to reach the "mainstream" through sponsoring journalism and writing seminars. "Who", the organizer inquired of me, "could do a presentation on science fiction?" I prepared a list of several names, including those of Robert Heinlein (who was still living), L. Neil Smith, and J. Neil Schulman. "No, no," she shook her head in annoyance as she scanned my suggestions, "who can do a presentation?" In the end, they settled on philosophy professor from England, who had just started to teach a class on modes of "being" in SF.
         It would quite literally take days to list the many times I have witnessed the dismissal of quality work in favor of pieces with greater "prestige" or "respectability". Often the people dismissing the work openly acknowledged that it was superior to the respectable, mediocre one which was chosen. I don't believe this is the way of the world. I think it is the way of an ideological movement which is slightly embarrassed by its own ideas and radical background.
         Most libertarian institutes, for example, would be mortified by the almost manic enjoyment of ideas that erupts during science fiction conventions. They would grimace at the late-night boisterous and beery discussions on how a future anarchist society could be sculpted. "Not relevant", they would declare with disdain, and turn back to yet another interpretation of Tocqueville, as though his reflections on 18th century American society were the true path to 21st century liberty.
         I am extremely fond of Tocqueville and I value the continuing legacy of his work, but I am baffled by why the movement is so inflexible that it must exclude Heinlein in order to make space for more discussion of Hobbes. Why must it be either/or? I am irritated by the uncomfortable silence that falls over a table of scholars when Vernor Vinge's thrilling story "True Names" is raised as a brilliant exposition on how to preserve individual liberty and privacy in cyberspace.
         True, ignoring the contribution of science fiction writers is not unlibertarian: it violates no rights. True, judging ideas by their pedigree rather than by their content is not a criminal offense: it is the norm of our culture. And, true, people have the right to refuse association with anyone for any reason. I staunchly defend that right.
         But as long as we are listing truths:
         It is still true that Benjamin Tucker would not be invited to seminars by libertarian institutes who claim to be his ideological descendants; nor would Lysander Spooner; nor Herbert Spencer. It is still true that some of the bestselling libertarian writers remain unacknowledged by outreach institutes, precisely because those writers are "popular". To paraphrase one of my favorite lines from Tennessee Williams (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof): there is a powerful odor of hypocrisy about this.


A contributing editor to Liberty magazine, Wendy McElroy has published widely in feminism beginning in 1983 with Freedom, Feminism and the State (CATO) and most recently in 1995 with XXX: A Woman's Right to Pornography (St. Martin's Press). Her articles have appeared in such diverse publications as National Review and Penthouse. Her 'day' job is writing and editing documentaries, some of which have been recorded by Walter Cronkite, George C. Scott and Harry Reasoner.


A Juror's Creed: As an American juror, I will exercise my 1000 year old duty to arrive at a verdict, not just on the basis of the facts of a particular case or instructions I am given, but through my ability to reason, my knowledge of the Bill of Rights, and my individual conscience.
-- L. Neil Smith



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