Hey, look, a post! Someone catch it before it runs off!
On a slightly more serious note, I just finished rereading Robert Heinlein’s Friday. Well, I say “reread”, but it has probably been over ten years since the last time I read it. The interesting thing is just how differently I viewed and understood its topics, now that I am older and… well… older. Suffice to say, this was an exciting read as a child, and a more-than-intriguing read as an adult. I would explain, but even the slightest explanation could give away some key detail of the story, and it is so masterfully crafted, I would be loathe to ruin it for you. However, in my personal opinion, this stands out as one of Heinlein’s “Must Read” books. Others on that list, at least for me, in no particular order, and possibly forgetting one or two, are Number of the Beast (but only after reading as many other Heinlein books as you can get your hands on), Job: A Comedy of Justice (especially if you are a Christian), Starship Troopers (because the book is as amazing as the movie is sucky, though Jolene Blalock is supposedly going to be in a third ST movie, God save us), Beyond This Horizon (read it and you will understand why), and Glory Road (one of my favorites).
So, now that you can see where my tastes lie, I can explain the purpose for writing this post. Like I said, this second reading of Friday was interesting, simply due to all of the things I found that I had missed before. One such thing (and, in all honesty, there were a lot… I was pretty naive way back when) was towards the end, as Heinlein was wrapping up all of the various threads of the story. It follows below (hopefully quoting this large of a tract will not cause problems):
Boss made a notation. “We’ll discuss it later. What are the marks of a sick culture?”
“Boss, fer Gossake! I’m still learning the full shape of the Shipstone complex.”
“You will never learn its full shape. I gave you tow assignments at once so that you could rest your mind with a chance of pace. Don’t tell me that you’ve given no thought to the second assignment.”
“Thought is about all I’ve given to it. I’ve been reading Gibbon and studying the French Revolution. Also Smith’s From the Yalu to the Precipice.”
“A very doctrinaire treatment. Read also Penn’s The Last Days of the Sweet Land of Liberty.”
“Yes sir. I did start making tallies. It is a bad sign when the people of a country stop identifying themselves with the country and start identifying with a group. A racial group. Or a religion. Or a language. Anything, as long as it isn’t the whole population.”
“A very bad sign. Particularism. It was once considered a Spanish vice, but any country can fall sick with it.”
“I don’t really know Spain. Dominance of males over females seems to be one of the symptoms. I suppose the reverse would be true, but I haven’t run across it in any of the history I’ve listened. Why not, Boss?”
“You tell me. Continue.”
“So far as I have listened, before a revolution can take place, the population must lose faith in both the police and the courts.”
“Elementary. Go on.”
“Well… high taxation is important and so is inflation of the currency and the ratio of the productive to those on the public payroll. But that’s old hat; everybody knows that a country is on the skids when its income and outgo get out of balance and stay that way – even though there are always endless attempts to wish it away by legislation. But I started looking for little signs, what some call silly-season symptoms. For example, did you know that it is against the law here to be naked outside your own home? Even in your own home if anybody can see in?”
“Rather difficult to enforce, I suspect. What significance do you see in it?”
“Oh, it isn’t enforced. But it can’t be repealed, either. The Confederacy is loaded with such laws. It seems to me that any law that is not enforced and can’t be enforced weakens all other laws. Boss, did yo uknow that the California Confederacy subsidizes whores?”
“I had not noticed it. To what end? For their armed forces? For their prison population? Or as a public utility? I confess to some suprise.”
“Oh, not that way at all! The government pays them to keep their legs crossed. Take it off the market entirely. They are trained, licensed, examined – and stockpiled. Only it doesn’t work. The designated ‘surplus artists’ draw their subsidy checks… then go right ahead peddling tail. When they aren’t supposed to do it even for fun because that hurts the market for the unsubsidized whores. So the hookers’ union, who sponsored the original legislation to support the union scale, is now trying to work out a voucher system to plug up the holes in the subsidy law. And that won’t work either.”
“Why won’t it work, Friday?”
“Boss, laws to sweep back the tide never do work; that’s what King Canute was saying. Surely you know that?”
“I wanted to be sure that you knew it.”
“I think I’ve been insulted. I ran across a goody. In the California Confederacy it is against the law to refuse credit to a person merely because that person has taken bankruptcy. Credit is a civil right.”
“I assume that it does not work but what form does non-compliance take?”
“I have not yet investigated, Boss. But I think a deadbeat would be at a disadvantage in trying to bribe a judge. I want to mention one of the obvious symptoms: Violence. Muggings. Sniping. Arson. Bombing. Terrorism of any sort. Riots of course – but I suspect that the little incidents of violence, pecking away at people day after day, damage a culture even more than riots that flare up and then die down. I guess that’s all for now. Oh, conscription and slavery and arbitrary compulsion of all sorts and imprisonment without bail and without speedy trial – but those things are obvious; all the histories list them.”
“Friday, I think you have missed the most alarming symptom of all.”
“I have? Are you going to tell me? Or am I going to have to grope around in the dark for it?”
“Mmm. This once I shall tell you. But go back and search for it. Examine it. Sick cultures show a complex of symptoms such as you have named… but a dying culture invariably exhibits personal rudeness. Bad manners. Lack of consideration for others in minor matters. A loss of politeness, of gentle manners, is more significant than a riot.”
“Pfui. I should have forced you to dig it out for yourself; then you would know it. The symptom is especially serious in that an individual displaying it never thinks of it as a sign of ill health, but as proof of his/her strength. Look for it. Study it. Friday, it is too late to save this culture – this worldwide culture, not just the freak show here in California. Therefore we must now prepare the monasteries for the coming Dark Age. Electronic records are too fragile; we must again have books, of stable inks and resistant paper. But that may not be enough. The reservoir for the next renaissance may have to come from beyond the sky.”
This section attracted my attention for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, it was the most compact and single-location explanation of Heinlein’s on personal beliefs I have encountered in all of my readings. Sure, it leaves a few little things out, and sure, it spends a lot more time on things that could easily be explained away, but it is the best I can come up with at the moment. Second, and on a more intriguing note, it is remarkably prophetic. For reference, this book was written back in 1982, and while what he wrote may have been pertinent back in those days, it is even moreso today. All of those symptoms that Friday listed, as well as the one keystone element Boss mentioned, are happening right here, right now, all around us.
What can we do about it? I honestly do not know. At this point, I would wager that the sickness afflicting our society is sufficiently entrenched that it would take something more than we are capable of to get it back to a state that is a little more… civlized. As the quote goes, democracies only last so long as the people do not realize they can vote themselves whatever they like… And while America is a democratic republic, it would appear as though the Founding Fathers did not make it enough of a republic. However, in the end, the future of a society depends solely on the actions and mentalities of its individuals, and thus it is recumbent upon us to try and make something our our lives, and therefore our society. As such, it is our own, individual, responsibilities to try and uphold the society as much as we can… after all, America is the worst place in the world – except all of the other places.
Regardless, the indications mentioned, well, they are just about everywhere… the ratio of actual workers versus welfare leeches is growing more and more slanted, the country is balkanizing before our very eyes (with thousands of illegal immigrants refusing to absorb into society, megacities becoming more and more separated from the country, terms like “african-american” being so commonplace as to be accepted, etc.), people becoming less satisfied with the efficacy of the police and judicial system (more often than not, with good reason – I am not one to write off both groups as a whole, but they both have remarkable shortcomings these days), and rudeness is becoming a matter of course (with “roadrage”, people suing each other over even the slightest of perceived slights, and so forth). Of course, Heinlein is far from a sociopolitical mastermind, and he is not a seer, and he is not a statitician, and so on, so forth. But he is a damned good author, and an equally skillful observer of the human condition, and while some of the stuff he says causes you to scratch your head and wonder (not many things, granted), the rest are so on the money, it is eerie.
Do not misunderstand me… I am not quite ready to write America off just yet – far from it, in fact. But it really is time to start considering what we are so actively allowing to happen in America… what we are demanding to happen in so many patheic instances… and what we are allowing to happen through simple inactivity.