Heinlein’s Political Evolution

Thursday, June 26th, 2014

Jeet Heer is baffled by Heinlein’s political evolution:

Heinlein went from being a left-wing New Dealer in the 1930s and 1940s to flirting with the John Birch Society in the late 1950s and supporting Barry Goldwater in the 1960s — and yet, he insisted that his politics were unwaveringly consistent. “From my point of view what has happed is not that I have moved to the right; it seems to me that both parties have moved steadily to the left,” Heinlein wrote his brother in 1964. Patterson, as was his wont on all major issues, sides with his subject and maintains that Heinlein’s politics remained fundamentally unchanged through his life. Heinlein was no “rightist,” Patterson assures us, but a lifelong “radical liberal” with a “democratic soul.” Patterson never explains how that “democratic soul” came to believe that the right to vote should be severely restricted, a position Heinlein advocated not just in Starship Troopers but also in nonfiction works.

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Some of Heinlein’s friends speculated that his shift in politics was connected to his divorce and remarriage. That’s too simplistic an explanation, but Heinlein acknowledged that Virginia helped “re-educate” him on economics.

In truth, Heinlein’s shift to the right took place over a decade, from 1948 to 1957. In the early 1950s, the Heinleins travelled around the world. The writer was already a Malthusian and a eugenicist, but the trip greatly exacerbated his demographic despair and xenophobia. “The real problem of the Far East is not that so many of them are communists, but simply that there are so many of them,” he wrote in a 1954 travel book (posthumously published in 1992). Even space travel, Heinlein concluded, wouldn’t be able to open enough room to get rid of “them.” Heinlein treated overpopulation as a personal affront.

Heinlein had caught a bad case of the Cold War jitters in the late 1940s. He accused liberal Democratic friends, notably the director Fritz Lang, of being Stalinist stooges. With Heinlein’s great talent for extrapolation, every East-West standoff seemed like the end of the world. “I do not think we have better than an even chance of living, as a nation, through the next five years,” he wrote an editor in 1957. The USSR’s Sputnik launch in 1957 and Eisenhower’s moves toward a nuclear test ban the following year both unhinged Heinlein, who called Ike a “slimy faker.” By 1961 Heinlein concluded that even though it was a “fascist organization,” the John Birch Society was preferable to liberals and moderate conservatives.

Comments

  1. Why would it have been so horrible had he been a rightist? I’m sick of people rushing for the smelling salts when an author talks about limiting the franchise but being unfazed by politicians with actual power spouting lines that could have come from Lenin.

    Ah, the “Cold War Jitters,” that lamentable and completely unreasonable paranoia that arises from a nuclear-armed country, ruled by men accustomed to the execution or imprisonment of millions of their subjects, that just annexed half of Europe and is looking hungrily at the other half.

  2. Bruce says:

    I know of no real change in Heinlein’s practical or theoretical politics. He grew up within the Pendergast machine, worked it to reach Annapolis, and continued to see it as the ground state of normal politics all his life. Not as a utopian or dystopian possibility, but as how things always worked and always will. Heinlein’s lifelong blood-feud with Mrs Grundy doesn’t seem to have changed from fetus to grave either.

    As to Heinlein saying R and D both moved way left in the twentieth century, who on Earth doubts it? The John Birch Society of the 1950s might have been a branch of the Wobblies in 1910.

  3. Bruce says:

    Heinlein’s hatred of Mrs Grundy may have extended to knowingly supporting Marion Zimmer Bradley, her husband, and Arthur Clarke: as pedophiles, as enemies of his enemy.

  4. Toddy Cat says:

    That’s a pretty rough accusation, Bruce. Is there any evidence to support this? I was always under the impression that Heinlein disliked Bradley and Clarke for their leftist politics.

    And yes, SC, it’s always funny when leftists go on about people wanting to limit the franchise, when in their socialist utopias, no one got to vote at all. But that’s “equal” so I guess it’s OK…

  5. Isegoria says:

    Scipio, rightists are hateful and stupid. Everyone knows that. And the Communists were well-intentioned, which is all that matters, right?

  6. Rollory says:

    Orson Scott Card has made the same comment — that his politics have stayed completely consistent; it’s just everybody else that has changed around him. So he went from radical liberal to reviled anti-gay caveman, while insisting that his principles have remained exactly the same the whole time.

    I believe it.

    Not to say I agree with all of Card’s (or Heinlein’s) principles.

  7. Bruce says:

    Read Robert Heinlein on the Breendoggle for a supportive letter Heinlein sent Marion Zimmer Bradley when her husband was caught humping kids. Deirdre dislikes Heinlein, but I think the letter is real. It doesn’t show Heinlein knowingly supporting a pedophile. It shows Heinlein supporting an acquaintance attacked by Mrs Grundy, that fell fiend.

    Clarke and Heinlein were friendly until Clarke opposed SDI/Star Wars. I wouldn’t know a pedophile if I met one socially. I’m not a great judge of character. I’ve never hung around sexual experimentalists. Heinlein was a great judge of character. Heinlein had a couple of open marriages, after a very active career as a hound. So I’d say ‘knowingly supported a pedophile’ is possible, not proven. None of these people were Catholic priests; none had a big organization with several millennia of informed cynicism regarding human nature to inform them, much less a transcendent faith in God and any Christian gentleman’s self-knowledge of Original Sin. All of these people were interested in social experiments and sexual experiments. Most experiments fail. Most social and sexual experiments fail disgracefully. Harsh, yes.

    I like Heinlein’s books a lot, and he was a very impressive man. Clarke was smart and talented and his books will last, and I like his books- wouldn’t trust him near small boys. MZB wrote some fun space opera, which I still like, then some feminist fantasy in the same background, which I never read. Some of the defenses of MZB ‘her books saved my life’ suggest she wrote some stuff I never heard of — say, When Baby’s Daddy Has a Gun: The Cautious Pedophile’s Guide. But probably it’s just feminist gay self-dramatizing.

  8. Toddy Cat says:

    Thanks, Bruce. I wouldn’t say that Heinlein knowingly supported a child molester, but I think that you have a point. Heinlein was certainly no choirboy, and I think that his anti-Puritanism may have got the better of him. Disappointing, but there you are.

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