HEINLEIN, VERHOEVEN, AND THE FASCISTS
Copyright © 1997-2013 by Jim Hull
(Please cite the author if you quote from this work)
Back in the sixties, if you wanted to insult a conservative, you called him a "fascist." It was a handy slur that kept rising, sphynx-like, from the ashes of the Second World War to give pleasure to some liberals at the expense of anyone given to old-fashioned political leanings. If you favored an increased military budget, clearly you were fascist. Did you believe in American intervention in some foreign land caught up in a communist insurgency? Then by golly, you're a fascist if ever there was one! For union-busting? Fascist! Against school busing? Fascist! As a catch-all insult, it was as satisfying as slapping people in the face.
Fascism got its name from the political party founded in 1919 by Benito Mussolini, who used his theories - strict obedience to the state and its ruler, glorification of military virtues, anti-feminism, one-party control, big business - to rule Italy from the early 1920s until he was lynched in 1943. Totalitarian governments were all the rage back then: Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, the Soviet Union, Falangist Spain. They were fascistic insofar as they stressed blind loyalty to the state, so it was easy to paint them with the same brush.
Fascism got itself pretty well snuffed during World War II, but the name lingered as a synonym for evil, along with its cohort, Nazism. It was natural, then, should you find yourself annoyed by the posturing of some irritating right-winger, to dismiss him with the epithet, "Fascist!" or even "Nazi!" This was especially fun to do during Vietnam War protests. Of course, the conservatives had fun of their own, calling the protesters "Pinkos!" or "Commies!" and nodding to each other smugly. It was a charming verbal slugfest all around.
The New Yorker once did a thought piece on the dangers of labling every governmental action you didn't like "totalitarian." After all, there really are totalitarian regimes in the world, and the United States patently wasn't one of them. What word, then, would be left to denote the real totalists? Calling the U.S. totalitarian was like crying wolf.
In the same way, calling someone a "fascist"
overdoes it if, say, they merely believe in interventionism or
are pro-business. Fascism, like totalitarianism, offers up
political oppression on a vastly greater level.
In 1959, Robert Heinlein wrote a book for juveniles called Starship Troopers. Aside from the corny title, the book was a page-turner for adults as well and went on to win a Hugo award for best science fiction novel of the year. It had plenty of violent action, lots of Heinlein's patented bright-and-sassy dialog, and a trainload of political philosophy. Heinlein proposed that the best way to run a society would be to give the vote only to those men and women who had volunteered for - and completed - a tour of duty in federal service, which included the chance they'd be sent to the front as soldiers. Their willingness to step forward and put their "mortal bodies" on the line to protect their familes, Heinlein argued, qualified them to make decisions about what's best for their country.*
The book spent most of its pages on a guided tour of Heinlein's idealized military training system, in which young boys and girls were transformed - brutally at times - into responsible, brave, competent soldiers whose highest moral calling was to protect the human species, in this case from a race of overgrown insects bent on galactic domination.
These were noble, if somewhat oddball, sentiments, and one might have hoped to spend many pleasant hours arguing the finer points of such a future and whether it might ever be superior to the American system, whose own franchise has evolved over the centuries from one exercised solely by male landowners to one offered to every citizen over age 18. One might have set down one's apéritif and countered Heinlein with the argument that democracy exists not to make wiser decisions but to prevent one person or group from lording it over everyone else; hence the widest possible franchise.
But such civilized discourse was not to be. The first thing critics nailed onto Heinlein's book was, yep, "Fascist!" To them he advocated a jingoistic, militaristic, zealous society whose heroes were gung-ho killers. It didn't matter that millions of those people had the right to vote, or that - by contrast - no one in Fascist Italy had the vote except Il Duce himself. Any system that glorified militarism must be fascist. Period. Polite disagreement flew out the window.
Tempers have cooled over the decades; the political ardor of the Cold War died out, and the battle lines between liberals and conservatives (and the need for those cute insults) shifted. Meanwhile, many of the book's predictions - that Russia and the U.S. would become friends, that drug-addled children would murder adults in city parks, that schools would become war zones, that criminals would use prisons for post-graduate studies in crime - came ingloriously true. Starship Troopers remained in print, but its words no longer provoked the old angers.
In the late-1990s, Ed Neumeier wrote - and Paul Verhoeven directed - a spectacular film version of Heinlein's book. It was a fair hit, and quickly racked up tens of millions in ticket sales. The special effects are smashing and the gore is plentiful as always with Verhoeven (Robocop, Total Recall). The film adds some silly romantic subplots reminiscent of an Aaron Spelling TV show - hence the catty references to the film as "Starship 90210" or "Melrose Space" - and the acting leaves something to be desired. Still, it's a romp, and the big surprise is that much of Heinlein's philosophy made it to the screen.
But some didn't. In fact, the film implies that the military - not the voting vets - run things in the future, and the filmmakers clearly had a lot of fun presenting officials in Wermacht-style uniforms or Gestapo trenchcoats. Neumeier declared that he wanted to "mess with Fascism" and needle the audience with the idea that if you want a disciplined society, here's what it'd look like. The film's populace gets bombarded not only with bug-launched asteroids but with fatuous war propaganda as well.
None of that was in the book. Neumeier - an avowed Heinlein fan - and Verhoeven expressed pride that they kept Heinlein's philosophy. But what showed up on the screen smacked of the simplistic Heinlein-as-fascist bromides of old. True, important scenes from the book are up there, a few almost word-for-word. But the overall effect, when the omissions and additions are factored in, is of a future frought with mind-control and double-think. Looks fascist to me.
Let's compare Verhoeven's version to Heinlein's book:
What surpises me is that both Verhoeven and Neumeier are smart guys - they worked together on the darkly comic Robocop, and Verhoeven's oeuvre is sprinkled with interesting, intelligent films - yet with Starship they've opted for a simplistic, cynical take on Heinlein's book. Their version has the look of an A-picture but the dialog of a dull TV show. Verhoeven says he wanted a film that would take him back to his childhood in postwar Holland, where he grew up on American war films and basked in their good-guy optimism. Heinlein provides nostalgic pleasures - he was a lieutenant in the navy, and sentimental about heroism - but Verhoeven and Neumeier's vision ultimately overwhelms Heinlein's. What's left would convince anyone that Heinlein was a jack-booted fascist with a flair for violent entertainment.
In fact, Robert Heinlein was something of a Libertarian - maximum freedom for individuals (as long as they don't hurt others) and minimal government - which is just about the furthest thing from a fascist there is. His book promoted an unusual voting system. But it was a republic, with responsible voters, and not a dictatorship, with direction from above. The book took a chauvinistic attitude about humans vis-a-vis aliens. But Heinlein was espousing a hard-nosed realpolitik based on the instinct to survive, not some diatribe on human superiority over others. In any case, you don't have to agree with him. But where's the fascism?
On its own terms the film is good - if
hyper-violent - mindless fun. Watching it, though, was like
going out on a date with someone who looks like your
old flame, but talks like a giddy, mindless stranger. That's a
lonely feeling. At one point in Starship the troops
stumble upon a scene of carnage: humans tossed everywhere, arms
and legs torn off, or the heads gone, or disemboweled. I
thought: "Hey, there's Heinlein over there! In the corner,
missing his head!"
*UPDATE: This article has been changed to
reflect a correction about the difference between soldiering and
federal service; credit Kaz Vorpal and Jeff Raines; see comments
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Quibble - to earn citizenship in
Heinlein's future world you just had to do service - not
necessarily military service - he specifically mentioned
testing spacesuits on Pluto and several other choices (lab
rat I think). -- Jeff Raines
You're correct. In fact, years ago I read somewhere that the book said that ninety-five percent of recruits never saw action. (I didn't want to re-read the entire novel to see if that was true, so I accepted it at face value.) The point was that people who volunteered risked being selected for front-line duty: though the odds were low, the chance was still there, so volunteers showed courage -- and willingness to put themselves between their fellows and the enemy -- just by signing up. And those were the character traits that made them worthy of citizenship.
In your article,
"Heinlein, Verhoeven, and the Fascists", you said
"Heinlein proposed that the best way to run a society
would be to give the vote only to those men and women who
had volunteered for - and completed - a tour of duty in
the armed services."
not attempting to assert support or opposition for
anything you say in the article, which I was only
skimming, but wanted to point out (as perhaps not the
first to do so) that you got that specific detail wrong.
It's an important one. -- Kaz Vorpal
You're absolutely correct that "federal service" was what Heinlein meant. My wording is faulty. I'll change it . . . [see UPDATE, above]. It's useful to point out, however, that all who served risked being chosen for posting to the front, rifle in hand. But 95% would end up in support services. The point was that every volunteer was willing to be sent into battle. And for that willingness to serve -- to put their bodies on the line between the enemy and the women and children -- Heinlein argued (for the story, at least) that they'd make better citizen voters.
Yeah, that's how his supposed militarism jibed with his self-described libertarianism; believers in liberty generally are among the strongest supporters of doing voluntary good in a community. That whole book was his Atlas Shrugged of consensual love of one's fellow man. Fortunately, his lectures weren't quite as tediously verbose as Rand's. -- Kaz Vorpal
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