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Race and social status and very old Heinlein... - John [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
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Race and social status and very old Heinlein... [Nov. 18th, 2013|09:34 pm]
John
I've seen a few people talk about how race was used in the US to defend against problems of class. The claim is, basically, you could dump on poor white people in the South because they had slaves - black slaves in particular, white slaves wouldn't do - to dump on.

If I'd heard that when I was young, growing up in a white, working class neighborhood, I'd have thought it was pure-D bullshit.



If I'd heard it as a younger adult, I'd have felt the same way. Oh, I'd defend it in a more high falutin manner than calling it pure-D bullshit, but it would sound too *planned* for me.

One day, I heard a wonderful idea that one should think of ideas as "evolving" - literally. Sure, there's randomness and there are changes, but there's also a kind of natural selection in a society where the ideas that are of benefit to those in power will tend to be allowed to multiply, while those detrimental to those in power would tend to be quashed. Not always, of course, but there are certainly "evolutionary" forces at work in the idea "wilderness".

At that point, I could accept, but not exactly *believe*, in such a possibility.

Until I was re-reading Beyond This Horizon. I'd read it before, probably on a bus trip. Robert Heinlein has a good, soothing storytelling quality for me; I can just pick up almost any of his books and start reading and feel comfortable, even if parts of the books make me a bit queasy. That made it ideal for 12 hour bus trips.

I've heard him called racist, and... well, I'm probably broadcasting white privilege on all channels here, but I always believed him to be pretty good, for his day. His day was pretty bad, of course, and I won't try to excuse any parts of that. But I think that he tried to be non-racist, to the extent that he could, given his background.

I think that one of the scenes in the book was therefore descriptive - his imagination of what people of his day were like. He didn't feel like this (I think) but he knew it happened, and wouldn't hide it. I could be wrong, but keep in mind, he brings this up to show that, in the future, people can't even *understand* the basis for the discussion.

Um. Enough of my defense of an author I admire. Because he is what he is, and ain't what he ain't, and nothing I say will change that.

So: the scene that was stunning to me.

There's a man from Heinlein's day - or a bit earlier. A time traveler - caught in a stasis field for hundreds of years, until eugenics and such have made the human race much more than it was in the past - stronger, faster, smarter, and eventually, telepathic.

And this time traveler commits an awful social gaffe. And he knows it, too. See, in this world, people who carried weapons were accorded great respect (yeah, the NRA would love most of this book), and, for example, if there was a line to be stood in, an armed citizen could walk to the front of the line of the people who were unarmed.

Why? Because. Heinlein was a warrior-type, and held people who abhorred *all* fighting (even if, say, in defense of self, home, family/nation) in contempt. He wasn't a war monger, as I understand it - he wasn't enamored of fighting. He just assumed it was absolutely necessary, because *someone* is willing to start a fight, so *you* have to be willing to finish it. And if you're not willing to finish it, the guy who *is* willing to fight is going to eat your liver for lunch. Since people who don't prevent the consumption of their livers don't tend to last very long, he considered that a Bad Idea. So, if you think it's terrible to fight (even in self defense), he sees you as voting to let your liver be eaten. And yes, he was contemptuous of that, or so it seems to me.

Okay, so this time traveler knows he's supposed to back off for an armed citizen, but he doesn't. And he compounds the error by assaulting him. Since the time traveler is a celebrity, the citizen will skip dueling to the death - but only if he apologizes.

Remember up above, where I said I'd heard this cockamamie theory that social status/class were protected by having someone to dump on? Okay, good.

What's the time traveler's response? He's not going to apologize. He's not a - and I rarely use this construction, but I find I can't help myself today - he's not a n-word.

How did Douglas Adams put it? Something like, "when you're cruising in the fast lane, and have passed a few cars, and are feeling pretty damn satisfied with yourself, and downshift from fifth to second, instead of fourth, causing your engine to leap out of your car in an ugly mess, you are taken aback the way that statement took..." me aback.

Suddenly, that one single, solitary cultural reference made that entire idea, that it was easy to oppress the poor white people because they had black people to feel superior to, that idea suddenly didn't seem at *all* cockamamie. It suddenly seemed downright serious.

Again, I don't think Heinlein was exactly being deliberately racist here; he has his man-from-the-then-present-now-future ask what the bloody blue blazes *skin color* could have to do with *any* of this. And the time traveler doesn't try to answer, realizing that *nobody* understands him about these things, but still.

He made this really, really terrible error, and knew it was a terrible error, and he wouldn't apologize; only people lower in status than him *have* to apologize.

I keep wanting to finish this with some deep and meaningful point, but I can't. All I can is, my eyes opened, just a bit, and I got a bit better of a glimpse at a world I didn't know, but needed to know. And I kinda wish I could tell some people who tried to explain this to me that, wow, I think I get it, just a bit, now.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: ftemery
2013-11-19 05:26 pm (UTC)
Not the best of human nature, but still part of it. Dad comes home from work, yells at his wife, she yells at the kids, they kick the dog. Or go to school and bully the other kids. Heinlein as a writer, but necessarily his own beliefs, creating people who reflect various attitudes and 'what ifs'. What time frame did you grow up in Detroit? I'm not sure it makes much difference. I grew up north and south of there.
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[User Picture]From: wcg
2013-11-20 03:40 am (UTC)
Did you ever hear someone say, "I'm free, white, and 21!" while asserting their independence? Yeah. Same thing.
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[User Picture]From: griffen
2013-11-20 04:55 pm (UTC)
"I may be poor, but at least I'm not black" is at least as much about class as it is about race. More, actually. The concept of intersectionality comes into play here.
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