Robert A. Heinlein: The Blog Symposium

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.


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