Robert A. Heinlein, “Double Star”: Franchise Politics and the Virtues of Empire

I am starting a new volume of The Library of America this week and shifting away from the non-fiction writings that dominated my discussions of Henry Adams and William James.  Rather than explore the 2,400 pages of Adams’ history of the early American republic, I decided to set Adams aside for now and take up the second volume of the collections’ sampling of 1950s science fiction.  This volume begins with Robert A. Heinlein’s Double Star.  I started the blog with science fiction writers of the same generation as Heinlein and we see right away that his life compares with these others (go to the first four posts of this blog for my comments on these works).  Like the others, Heinlein made his name in pulp magazines, lived through the second World War (Heinlein served in the Naval Yards), and lived through the emergence of science fiction as a major genre of American writing.  He also saw its entrance into American television.  One of his famous novels played no small role in the sexual revolution.  Stranger in a Strange Land questioned the rationality of monogamy by looking at it through the eyes of a Martian stranger.  One result of this work was the establishment of (perhaps) the first organization of the sexual revolution promoting ethical non-monogamy, the Church of the All Worlds.  The model of this pagan group existed in the novel first.  His politics are all over the map and change throughout his life and his works.  Throughout everything is a strong believe in individualism and personal autonomy, which led him to embrace some aspects of Ayn Rand’s philosophy but also free love and the ideas of Margaret Mead.  When and if, The Library of America publishes a larger collection of his work, I will say more about Heinlein, I am sure.

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Double Star tells the story of a actor with the appropriate name Lorenzo Smyth who is hired to mimic a politician who has been kidnapped.  The politician his is mimicking is John Joseph Bonforte.  Bonforte leads the Expansionist political party within a constitutional imperial monarchy.  While the name seems to suggest an expanding Earth empire, Bonforte and the Expansionist Party actually supports the broader imperial coalition with Martians as civic equals of humans.  In this way, the Expansionist Party looks a bit like the politics of the Roman Empire, which eventually granted citizenship to all free males in the empire and remains one of the more interesting examples of a mult-ethnic empire.  The Ottomans seem to have established a similar model that incorporated Christians, Shia Muslims, Arabs, and Jews into the Empire on relative equal footing, something that nation-states have failed to do, as evidenced by the rise of ethnic cleansing in the age of nationalism.  Anyway, their main political opponents are the humanists (which Lorenzo Smyth is sympathetic too).  They oppose Martian incorporation into the empire.  The Martians look, speak, and act differently and are too clearly “the Other” for any true equality.  As with much science-fiction of the 1950s, the influence of Jim Crow and its challengers would have been clear to any reader.  I will bracket these racial allegories because they are mostly boring, and speak instead of the possible virtues of empire.

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It is not my view that empire is an ideal system.  Nation-states, however, are grounded on principles of difference.  Wilson dreamed of each “nation” enjoying self-determination, certainly not each individual.  Who would have the job of determining which people are a nation?  It often fell to the educated elite, who define the language, folklore, and history of a people and pushed it onto the people via a system of forced public education.  People who fell out of this definition would be excluded from the rights of citizenship and best.  At worst, they would need to be excised.  This is the history of the nation state.  Were empires better?  In many ways not.  They were not by definition participatory, but they were by definition ethnically diverse.  They did not typically force a singular identity on all of the people.  In many cases, as long as you kicked up taxes and remained peaceful, empires tended to leave you alone.  Not so the nation-state.  In Double Star, Bonforte (his ideas given voice by a clever actor) sees empire and expansion in this way.  “My opponent would have you believe that the motto of the so-called Humanity Party, ‘Government of human beings, by human beings, and for human beings,’ is no more than an updating of the immortal words of Lincoln.  But while the voice is the voice of Abraham, the hand is the hand of the Ku Klux Klan.  The true meaning of that innocent-seeming motto is ‘Government of all races everywhere, by human beings alone, for the profit of a privileged few.   But my opponent protests, we have a God-given mandate to spread enlightenment through the states, dispensing our own brand of Civilization to the savages.  This is the Uncle Remus school of sociology–the good dahkies singin’ spirituals and Ole Massa lubbin’ every one of dem!  It is a beautiful picture but the frame is too small; it fails to show the whip, teh slave block–and the counting house!” (97)  Bonforte presents two models of empire.  One based on the domination of one people over another, bringing oppression under the model of civilization, the other on diversity and shared solidarity.  In a sense, it is the same conflict with have toady over globalization.  Is globalization the simple bringing of Western modernity to the far corners of the world and the exploitation of the world’s poor for the benefits of a few rich nations, or does it present the possibility of transnational solidarity.  Both can be labelled empire.

At the end of the novel, Bonforte dies and Smyth is in the position of having to take on his role as Bonforte for life.  In a sense, he becomes Bonforte in everything but DNA.  I am reminded of Adams’ critique in Democracy.  Everyone, he seems to suggest, is acting.  But each politicians acting has the goal of enriching themselves.  Here, we find that given the institutions of political parties, each politician is potentially interchangeable.  Smyth was a skilled actor but essentially anyone could have been Bonforte, simply by learning his speeches, philosophy, and values.  This is franchise politics.  In American politics today, when a candidate for office goes off messages, it can be a crisis for the Party.  Politicians are hired to sell a product, the message of the party.  The face, behind the message (as long as there are no sex tapes or other dirty secrets) is essentially irrelevant.

What begins implausible (an actor taking over for a politician) ends up being for us very familiar and a painful reminder of how shallow our democracy is.  We do elect actors and salespeople to speak for us.  That they may promote values that we share make the deception no less odious.

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One response to “Robert A. Heinlein, “Double Star”: Franchise Politics and the Virtues of Empire

  1. Pingback: One Year Anniversary | Neither Kings nor Americans

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