Aug 16 2010 5:19pm

American, Like Me

I first came across the notion that government derived its authority from the consent of the governed in a Heinlein book. I don’t remember which, but I remember the frisson of shock that went through me.

You see, I grew up in a country that was a monarchy for far longer than it has indulged in any appearance of representative government. And “appearance” is not meant as a derogatory comment on the Portuguese government. It tries. It does the best it can. But it is working under the combined legacies of Rome—government by corruption—and the mental equipment of the long-gone monarchy, which holds that all land/wealth belongs to the state and the citizen holds it by consent of the state.

The idea of inverting that was heady stuff. This guy, Heinlein, was a madman, possessed of the sort of fire the gods lend to you before they smite you. I had to read more and I did.

My first taste of The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress scared me. You see, I had studied the French revolution and I was all too familiar with the “script” of bottom-up (though not really) revolt as played out in Europe through the centuries. But I read the book. Then re-read it. This idea of having a government that lets the citizens go about their lawful occasions without enforcing the results was bizarre. And attractive.

With all that, I absorbed a good bit of the notion of the idealized frontier, the idea that it makes men better (or kills them, so the ones who survive are better.)

It wasn’t until many years later that I understood the true revolutionary nature of what I’ll call for lack of a better term “American spirit.” That spirit—that humans should always move forward, that the misfits could always go to another frontier, that, to quote The Door Into Summer, the future would always be better than the past – all of it is part of a very important component of the American experience.

We come here, by ones, by twos, by huddled masses (I hear entire neighborhoods came from Sicily to NYC) and we put down new roots and learn the language. And even if the entire neighborhood came over, there isn’t the weight of an entire country behind it—the crushing weight of tradition and “we’ve always done things this way.” The linguistic severing that occurs is important in itself. There are notions that are carried in words, even if the experience is forgotten. (In my native region the slang term for both “pig” and “blond” is “russo.” The Rus used to raid off the coast and come up the rivers. I don’t think anyone remembers that, but the association of blonds and pigs remains.)

Leaving behind the native culture enables one to shed a great many (arguably not all) of the notions that shackle the culture of origin. We don’t have to try to build a democratic republic over Roman notions of patronage, Arab notions of female modesty, medieval notions of honor, or even romantic-period notions of the value of tradition and decay as a good thing. We can—we are given the chance—to start afresh.

What does this have to do with Heinlein, you ask? Well, Heinlein introduced me to this, even if I couldn’t put my finger on what made some things possible in America and not anywhere else. Heinlein introduced me—perhaps not to the real America; these things always exist half here and half in aspiration—to America’s dream of itself. And while, unlike Heinlein, I have other religious beliefs, my belief in America does have that same religious dimension his did.

Not to the piece of land, as such. Look—Portugal has a nice Mediterranean climate and while it might have sweltering summers it does not have the humidity of the Eastern U.S. Pine forests are quite nice. The rivers are ridiculously polluted, but if Lake Erie could come back from the dead, so could Portuguese rivers.

No, what Heinlein introduced me to and I fell in love with and still love, is this notion that we can form a “more perfect Union.” The belief that every person is born with a right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” And, more importantly, the belief these can be attained.

To the extent that President Obama had a point when he spoke of American citizenship being more than the effect of being born in America (or raised here)—Heinlein made me an American.

But there is more than that—often in Heinlein’s works (yes, even in the Juveniles, which I read only as an adult, as they weren’t in print in Portuguese when I was a child, so they had to wait for me to come to America and find them in English)—America is gone, or if not gone, not itself anymore.

However, on Mars and on a transformed Earth and on far-distant worlds (Citizen of the Galaxy) his characters fight for liberty and pursue happiness. Does this make them American?

As we now know it, yes. But if that dream of the frontier and personal freedom could appeal so strongly to a little Portuguese girl, it must be at its heart a universal aspiration.

Which means his characters aren’t just American. They’re the embodiment of the dreams of ever-improving, ever-renewing humanity.

They are human.

Sarah A. Hoyt was born in Portugal where she would probably still live if she'd never read Heinlein. Please, don't tell her parents this, it would only lead to self-recrimination. Besides she's quite happy in the U.S. amid other fire breathing idealists who believe all that Liberty stuff.  When not waxing poetic on her country of citizenship, she writes stories and books, the latest of which in SF is Darkship Thieves, in mystery A French Polished Murder (as Elise Hyatt), and in historical fiction No Will But His.

Robert A. Heinlein: The Blog Symposium: ‹ previous | index | next ›
Ben H
1. dripgrind
I'm not here to label Heinlein as a "racist" or a "sexist".

But I think we can all agree that, by deploying the right rhetorical flourishes, we can make out that anyone who disagrees with our opinions about Heinlein is a shitty person.

We can waste time splitting hairs about whether he was "racist" or "racially progressive for his social milieu but still with inevitable residual racist elements" or "not racist". Although the middle one is obviously right. But agreeing on that kind of compromise wouldn't let us get very far in the vital business of feeling better than other people.

Sure, those *other* people can go over Heinlein's writing with a fine-tooth comb and gather so-called "evidence" about his views. But remember: his female characters only reflect his best attempts to imagine the inner lives of women. That has *nothing* to do with how he viewed women in real life.

If you judge him by how he portrays women, then you are forgetting this one simple fact: women are also Americans. And if you're not American, you're not human.

In conclusion: our teeth grated, and my nipples went spung.
Liza .
2. aedifica
dripgrind @ 1, over two-thirds of your comment have nothing to do with the post at hand. Why not comment on one of the recent posts that it's relevant to?

Later (4:15 CDT): dripgrind, I apologize for commenting in irritation before taking time to calm down; I've been increasingly annoyed at reading the comments about racism and sexism (from both viewpoints) and was irritated to see one on this unrelated post. I'll let my original comment remain here since I did post it.
David Dyer-Bennet
3. dd-b
It's fascinating to see how some of this looks from the outside! I was born and raised here in the USA, and during a period (and among people) who were pretty unhappy about a lot of the things the USA was doing (Vietnam war, pollution, etc.). We tend to blame the US for these problems, and find aggressive patriotism pretty thoroughly co-opted by our opponents.

Our expansion west, especially, was rather hard on the previous occupants of that land, and on the land itself. So I've always been somewhat conflicted with Heinlein's great frontier visions.

So, as I say, it's fascinating to see an outside view.
Ben H
4. dripgrind
@aedifica - I saw this post as another step in the pro/anti Heinlein rage spiral, which I also find annoying.

I could have placed my comment better, but it's hard to find a single post in the Hoyt/Walton tag team that epitomises the whole debate. I have also commented on
Bill Patterson
5. Bill Patterson
Don't know whether or not this is useful, but when Heinlein was growing up Frederick Jackson Turner's The Frontier in American History was a dominant shaper of opinion.
Bill Patterson
6. Foxessa
Thin stuff for someone who can go head to head with academics in whatever that might apply to RH.

I have a lot of Portuguese friends, far more from Brasil. Many of those include African origins in their heritage. They would say something rather different because their experience isn't yours. That you have Portuguese roots doesn't really apply to the argument you are trying to make, which I, for one, am still trying to figure out what it is.

Just sayin.
Bill Patterson
7. PaintedJaguar
Foxessa - That's because Ms. Hoyt isn't so much making an argument as she is expressing a point of view, which is based on her experience.

To the extent she is making an argument, I take it to be that one of Heinlein's primary motifs was advocacy for a set of values which though they are found in American culture, are inclusive in nature and transcend race, ethnicity and country of origin. The debate would be about exactly what those values are, of course.

I don't want to spam, so please also see my comment here.
8. Freelancer
Her point is actually quite clear. There is a fundamentally human attribute, the craving of liberty, which can be found in all people, in all places. The peasant farmers living in czarist Russia, the tribal nomads of the Bedouin, each carry within them the desire for a more abundant, a more fulfilling, a more significant life. Wherever the culture itself is most reponsible for impeding that desire, people with the will and the courage break free and head to someplace less repressive.

It isn't about values at all. It's about the freedom to follow the values of your own conscience, and not have a nation's set of values thrust upon you against your will.

In all the world, in all of history, no place has been more attractive on those grounds than America. Imperfect as she is, it is the land that wants most for people to have the chance to carry out those desires.
Bill Patterson
9. Tocks Nedlog
Foxessa wrote: "That you have Portuguese roots doesn't really apply to the argument you are trying to make, which I, for one, am still trying to figure out what it is."

-- If you don't know what the argument is, then how do you know that the info doesn't apply?
Bill Patterson
10. Foxessa
That applied to the exclusive title, "American Like Me," which left out seemingly all those African heritage Portuguese speakers.

When one, such as the poster, is making a claim to represent a people, particularly when claiming there should be no issue of exclusion around the discussion matter, and then not even notice that one is ommitting very large, significant groups, you're kind of left with garble.

Assim é a vida.
Bill Patterson
11. Tocks Nedlog
I thought she was relating the experience of someone that grew up in another country -- any other country -- and then came to America . . . the experience of someone who was able to compare and contrast, firsthand, the two cultures/societies and come to a conclusion based on that difference about what might be special about America.
Rigel Kent
12. rk3001
Foxessa said:
That applied to the exclusive title, "American Like Me," which left out seemingly all those African heritage Portuguese speakers.

When one, such as the poster, is making a claim to represent a people, particularly when claiming there should be no issue of exclusion around the discussion matter, and then not even notice that one is ommitting very large, significant groups, you're kind of left with garble.

Assim é a vida.

This is such a mess it's hard to know where to begin. The post title, "American Like Me,", actually leaves out anyone who is not her as she is not, as you claim, trying to speak for an entire people; but for herself.

She is describing her own experiences as an immigrant. To a certain extent she does compare that experience to other immigrants but that's all. She's certainly not trying to speak for all Portuguese, whatever their origin.

In another comment on this post you said you know other Portugueses speakers who would say something different because they're experience was different.

To that I have to say, "So what?" Everone has different experiences. Are you trying to say nobody has a right to relate their experience if there's somebody somewhere who has a different experience?

That doesn't make any sense at all.

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