Story-telling liberty

29. April 2010

I’ve had a few requests for a copy of the speech I delivered at the 2010 Liberty Forum last march. My presentation was recorded on audio and video, but some have wanted a text version. Here’s what I wrote, and I mostly kept to this script, although I wandered away from it a few times. Also, there was a slide show that went along with this which is not included here.

Thanks everyone for showing up to hear me blather; I’ll try my best not to bore you.

To achieve a libertarian society of course we must develop and spread the ideas of liberty, and do so in a manner that persuades. There are various means of doing this, and we each choose means that best suit our own particular talents and skills.

These days libertarians mostly tend to favor two general means: academic discourse, and political theater. Libertarian ideas originated in academia so naturally they must spread initially through academic discourse. Also, since we live in a society in which electoral politics is, we are instructed, the preferred means of changing our governing culture, we formed the Libertarian Party almost 40 years ago with the intent of injecting libertarian ideas into the national political conversation.

Academic discourse has been and remains vital, while political theater has become more controversial of late within the movement. But now I’m going to talk about a different means of spreading ideas, and that is, story-telling.

Humans seem hard-wired to want to hear stories. We tell stories, of different sorts, all the time in our daily lives. The most popular types of stories are rumors.

Rumors can be true or untrue. For example, one rumor has it that Sarah Palin strongly dislikes gays. This is UNTRUE. Her hair stylist for her first major campaign (her town’s beauty pageant) was gay, and she thought he did a fantastic job with her highlights, and used just the right amount of hairspray, and was a pretty likeable person considering his abominable lifestyle.

Jesus of Nazareth was, arguably the most effective spreader of new ideas in history. And he loved telling stories, which were called ‘parables,’ to illustrate some point he wanted to make, and helped his followers remember them.

He told one parable many of us can relate to: the Sower and the Seeds: “A sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell along the path, and was trodden under foot, and the birds of the air devoured it. And some fell on the rock; and as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture. And some fell among thorns; and the thorns grew with it and choked it. And some fell into good soil and grew, and yielded a hundredfold.”

The point of the parable being that as you spread your ideas there will be some who will reject them, some who will accept superficially but not be ready to truly understand, some will be too distracted by other concerns to pay attention; and finally, those who are prepared to receive the ideas and take them to heart – and these are the ones who make your efforts worth-while.

Of course, many people like to tell stories about Jesus:

Jesus came across an adulteress crouching in a corner with a crowd around her preparing to stone her to death. Jesus stopped them and said, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”

Suddenly a woman at the back of the crowd fired off a stone at the adulteress. At which point Jesus looked over and said, “Moth-er! Sometimes you really tick me off!”

Here’s another one:

A burglar broke into a home and while he was looking around he heard a soft voice say, “Jesus is watching you”. Thinking it was just his imagination, he continued his search. Again the voice said “Jesus is watching you”. He turned his flashlight around and saw a parrot in a cage.

He asked the parrot if he was the one talking and the parrot said, “yes.”

He asked the parrot what his name was and the parrot said, “Moses.”

The burglar asked, “what kind of people would name a parrot Moses?”

The parrot said, “the same kind of people who would name their pit bull Jesus”.

The first story works when people know the background story about Jesus and his mother the Virgin Mary, and relates to the frustrations many of us experience when our mothers show up at work and embarrass us.

The second story works even if you don’t know much about Jesus, or Moses, but you should have some passing familiarity with pit-bulls.

Now, the interesting thing about parables and jokes like these, is that it doesn’t really matter whether they are true in a literal sense. What matters is that they ring true, that is, that they conform with the experiences and expectations of the listeners. So long as a story rings true, the listener or reader will willingly suspend disbelief, in order to accept the story; and whether consciously or not, by accepting the story he will on some level accept the ideas embedded in the story.

The defining nature of sci-fi is that it takes some basic ideas, not just of science but also of ethics and social organizations, and uses them to construct an alternative world, fundamentally different from the mundane reality in which we find ourselves. When done correctly, these alternative worlds are believable – that is, they ring true. When they are compelling, they can persuade people as to the value of those embedded ideas. This makes science-fiction uniquely suited for describing libertarian cultures, while we must yet live in and deal with a statist world.

We would hope, of course, that those embedded ideas are libertarian, but unfortunately they don’t have to be for the stories to be effective.

The science-fiction writer Cory Doctorow, in accepting his recent Prometheus Award, notes how “we’re all familiar with [the television program] 24 ginning up these situations in which it seems moral and ethical for Jack Bauer to stick his revolver in someone’s thigh, pull the trigger and blow a bullet into the meat of it in order to get him to tell where the ticking bomb is going.” And how “in Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game we have an incredibly powerful and ultimately manipulative argument for the doctrine of pre-emption, where you have a character who is really one of the most sympathetic characters in science-fiction, I think, who repeatedly finds himself bullied by people who make him feel uncomfortable and who responds by killing them.”

L. Neil Smith, author of The Probability Broach and more than two dozen other novels, notes that our adversaries have long noted the value of story-telling, including that sub-set of stories we call science-fiction. The most famous of the 19th-Century sci-fi writers, H.G. Wells, was a fabian socialist; less famous now but no less influential was Edward Bellamy, author of Looking Backward; at the turn of the last century Jack London produced Iron Heel, about scholars from a 27th Century socialist world finding documents depicting a fascist oligarchy in the United States and a worker’s revolt against it; most famously from the 20th Century, though he was a TV producer rather than a writer, was Gene Roddenberry, who didn’t use the term “socialist” but presented a compelling vision of a society militarized, politically centralized, and utopian in the sense that people “had moved beyond the need to accumulate wealth” and somehow manage a complex economic system without money.

Of course, sometimes statists tell stories on themselves – George Orwell was a socialist who fought alongside communists in the Spanish Civil War, and yet is most famous for two novels, Animal Farm and 1984, which are cautionary tales about socialism run amok.

But libertarians have made their mark in science-fiction, as well. Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is not generally regarded as sci-fi but it did posit a near-future society, and had some sci-fi tropes such as the advanced metal alloy “Rearden Steel,” the holographic screen concealing Galt’s Gulch, and of course John Galt’s own invention, the revolutionary engine that draws power from the static electricity in the air.

Better known as a sci-fi writer, of course, was Robert A. Heinlein, whose political philosophy evolved into libertarianism over time and flourished in his stories The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, Stranger In A Strange Land, and I Will Fear No Evil, among others. Neil Smith has remarked that when the libertarian movement began forming in the 1960s, 80-odd percent of the people calling themselves libertarians said they’d joined the movement because of Rand and Heinlein. A survey by Liberty Magazine conducted in the early 1990s indicated that the fiction books by Rand and Heinlein were more likely than any other, including the highly-respected non-fiction works of Rothbard, Von Mises, Nozick, or Friedman, to have lead people onto the libertarian path.

Of course, Rand and Heinlein were not alone. We also were fortunate to have, for a while, writers such as Poul Anderson, Robert Shea and H. Beam Piper; Larry Niven and James P. Hogan are still around but appear to be retired [Ward Griffiths informs me that both Niven and Hogan have books coming out soon -- sorry, gents]. The most explicitly libertarian authors still active that I’m aware of include L. Neil Smith, J. Neil Schulman, Victor Koman, and Victor Milan.

Now, through most of the time we have had novels, authors have required publishers. Publishers not only get books printed but they also have set up distribution networks which get books into bookstores. Thus, publishers are positioned to act as gatekeepers – in theory, they separate the wheat from the chaff and make sure that only those stories worthy of the sacrifice of many trees make it into print and the distribution channel. In the process, they also can decide which theories of ethics and social organization get a hearing, and which die on the vine.

Heinlein, when he began his writing career, had the advantage of a flourishing market in adventure-story magazines, where he could hone his craft. One of these was Astounding Science Fiction, whose editor, John W. Campbell, nurtured Heinlein and many of the other “golden age” sci-fi authors. Heinlein later published full-length novels, and had his short-stories collected, by Fantasy Press, Doubleday, Scribner’s, Putnam’s, Fawcett, and Del Rey.

Although science-fiction movies have been made since the 1920s, and a few notable motion pictures were made in the 1950s, the locus of science-fiction shifted from the textual to the visual media in the 1960s through the 1980s, as improving technology began to make possible the realization of fantastic worlds as vivid as one might imagine from reading a magazine or book.

The success of movies like Star Wars and Avatar on the large screen, and Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica on the small screen, show that people are still hungry for visions of worlds that aren’t, but might be. Even while the market for science-fiction novels seems to be shrinking even faster than the market for fiction books in general.

So where does this leave libertarians? Not in very good shape, unfortunately. Since the passing of Heinlein and the retirement of Niven, libertarian authors have faced an increasingly up-hill battle in a New York-based publishing world that seems increasingly indifferent at best, and hostile at worst. Neil Smith has not been able to get a novel published by a New York house since 2001. Victor Milan had a book published recently but it was a straight-up adventure story with only low-key political themes. We have one libertarian movie producer who is a box-office success, Clint Eastwood, and he doesn’t do science-fiction.

It seems that the gate-keepers in publishing and cinema who used to at least tolerate libertarians, are excluding us now. The best we can hope for from the establishment entertainment media is to try and glean some second-hand elements of partially-libertarian themes in stories whose authors would object mightily if you accused them of being libertarians.

So while libertarians are spreading through academia and making some inroads in political activism, in the culture war we have sustained losses. But while we might get knocked down, we get up again. And our best hope lies in the fact that the game in popular entertainment is changing.

That game-changer, you might guess, is the Internet, and the alternative distribution opportunities it creates. Print-on-demand publishing has become a viable option, and is quickly losing its earlier stigma. Neil Smith, for example, has signed a multi-book deal with Arc Manor Publishers, to both re-publish Smith’s classic works and several new stories as well under the Phoenix Pick imprint. J. Neil Schulman and Victor Koman have moved into independent film making, and are presently raising funds to produce a movie version of his seminal Alongside Night.

And then there are upstarts like my brother Frank and myself, the people behind Big Head Press.

Big Head Press started because I left the computer game businesses in 2001 so I could home-school my sons, but also needed to work from home so I could help my wife pay our bills. I was able to pick up some free-lance work, including a commission from Susan Wells to co-write and draw A Drug War Carol, but I needed more and steadier work.

I had discovered Neil Smith and his works a few years earlier, and several of our mutual friends thought it would be a good idea to create a graphic-novel adaptation of The Probability Broach. This seemed like an idea whose time had come because in the book business, graphic novels were the only growth segment. We put together a pitch package and shopped the project around to comics publishers, but had no takers. Although both Neil and I had each done some comics work in the 1980s, by 2001 we were unknowns so far as that industry was concerned.

So, in the grand tradition of libertarian visionaries, I went and found an angel investor. Who it is my good fortune to be related to. I called Frank, we developed a business plan, and dove in.

Starting a publishing company is a highly risky business, even in boom times, but we knew that Neil already had a fan base we could build on, and Diamond Comics Distributors offered viable distribution channels, and the Internet promised new marketing tools. So in 2002 we founded Big Head Press, and as I completed A Drug War Carol for Susan, Neil wrote a comic-script adaptation of The Probability Broach. In early 2003 I began the illustration work, which I completed in the fall of 2004.

We promoted the book on the Internet by offering the first 42 pages on-line for free viewing. This seemed to help a bit, but in 2005 we decided to try some-thing bolder. We commissioned three new works, two partially-drawn shorter stories with libertarian themes written by comics-industry legend Mike Baron, along with an all-new story co-written by Neil Smith and Rex F. May, who is better-known as the cartoonist “Baloo.” ROSWELL, TEXAS was illustrated by me with colors by Jennifer Zach, and it was serialized on-line in its entirety, a week at a time, as we produced the art pages.

When the stories were completed, we had them printed and sold them through Amazon and Diamond and Baker & Taylor, a trade-book distributor we hooked up with. This worked well enough that we uploaded the entire Probability Broach graphic novel in 10-page installments in 2006, and doubled our total sales of that book from 2004 and 2005.

We of course were not the only people trying this give-it-away-to-sell-it model. Hundreds of fresh young cartoonists, unable to find deals with the newspaper syndicates, have been putting their gag strips on the Web for free since the late 1990s, and the best few dozen of them have been able to make enough money selling book collections and merchandise that they could earn a full-time living this way. A few of the most popular web-cartoons support small businesses with five or six employees. The most successful strip, Penny Arcade, has its own annual conventions attracting thousands of fans.

Also, Cory Doctorow has been publishing his stories on-line, building an audience for his work, and since he’s only partly libertarian he can get a New York publisher, which he did for his Prometheus-Award-winning Little Brother.

Big Head Press has continued with new projects, including La Muse, TimePeeper, a print version of A Drug War Carol, Odysseus The Rebel, and currently Phoebus Krumm, which is a sequel to Neil Smith’s Henry Martyn books.

Also, noting that Web-browsing readers seem to strongly prefer their stories to update more frequently, we took a shot at re-creating the daily adventure strip. That strip is ESCAPE FROM TERRA, based on short-stories written by Sandy Sandfort, adapted into comics-format scripts by me, and drawn by Lee Oaks, an artist introduced to me by Mike Baron. EFT is a space-adventure set in the late 21st Century, features an explicitly libertarian culture in the Asteroid Belt, and is far and away our most popular on-line feature. We are producing a print-collection of the first 300 or so strips which we plan to premier at the Libertopia festival in San Francisco this coming July.

[Note: Libertopia has subsequently been re-scheduled to October, but we are still releasing the EFT collected volume in July.]

While our reach to date is still pretty small, our potential to break out into the mainstream is good. Every year scores of graphic novels get optioned for movie treatments, and every year the best half-dozen or so movie adaptations actually get produced. Hollywood loves comics as source-material, because both comics and movies are visual media. Producers can look at comics pages and more easily visualize how a movie would look.

Relative to political activism, doing libertarian entertainment has some draw-backs. Almost anyone can attend a political rally or carry a protest sign, but there are only a small portion of us with the skill sets conducive to working in entertainment media. And producing graphic novels costs many thousands of dollars; and even “low-budget” independent films costs tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.

But the advantage of books, graphic novels, and movies is that, generally, more people will pay attention to them, than to academic works or protest rallies. And they will regard entertainment works with a more receptive frame of mind, that “willing suspension of disbelief” our literature teachers always blathered about. In terms of the parable I mentioned earlier, these are seeds more likely to take root in a trod-upon path, or a rocky ground, or under a thorny bush.

Those of us who aren’t able to be story-tellers themselves can still help out, simply by buying libertarian books and movies, and giving them to friends and relatives as gifts. If you know someone who reads and is curious about libertarianism, give them Rothbard’s For A New Liberty; if they’re already sympathetic to liberty but cynical about politics, turn them on to Konkin’s Agorist Primer; if they’re seriously interested in learning about economics, turn them on to any of Von Mises’ works.

But if they’re none of these, but enjoy fiction, give them a copy of The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, or The Probability Broach in either version, or Alongside Night. Or, Roswell, Texas; or Odysseus The Rebel; or ESCAPE FROM TERRA when it comes out this summer. At worst, they’ll get an entertaining read, and at best, there’s a chance you’ll start someone along the path to libertarianism.

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