What, Me Intolerant?

by L. Neil Smith
Patronize Me!

Attribute to L. Neil Smith’s The Libertarian Enterprise

First published in Issue Number 19, December 1, 1996.

I’ve been reading political humorist P.J. O’Rourke’s latest book, Age and Guile Beat Youth, Innocence, and a Bad Haircut. If you don’t know this guy’s work, do something about it—immediately. As usual with his books, after I picked myself up off the carpet and wiped the tears (and other fluids) of helpless, hysterical, virtually catatonic laughter from my face, I started thinking.

Mr. O’Rourke and I (I’d like to refer to him as “P.J.”, but I admire his writing so humbly it’d be too much like Luke Skywalker calling Yoda by his first name, Montmorency) are just about the same age and lived through just about the same … times. (I was torn just now between writing “horrible times” or “wonderful times” and that about sums the dickens out of it, doesn’t it?)

Basically, we’re talking Sixties here. A great deal of O’Rourke’s career has been dedicated to telling us how he started out as a “bedwetting liberal” who believed everything and, by the grace of God and the National Lampoon, wound up as the sort of guerilla conservative he is today. (Some individuals would label O’Rourke a “stealth Libertarian”, but I won’t be the one to “out” him.)

In all my political life, I’ve never been anything but a Libertarian. Like many others way back then, I opposed the war in Viet Nam. Unlike many others today, I still oppose the war in Viet Nam, or anywhere else, for that matter.

For example, the War on Drugs.

U.S. out of America!

As I read Bad Haircut, for some reason I found myself thinking about “my” entry in some science fiction encyclopedia that my wife stumbled across while we were otherwise enjoying the little-known (and unquestionably kinky) author’s pleasure of viewing his latest book in a bookstore for the first time. (In case you’re curious, it was the new TOR edition of The Probability Broach, and Barnes and Noble’s splendidly decadant addition of a coffee bar makes it downright perverse .) The encyclopedia entry asserted a number of things about me, some of which were almost true, but it finished by calling me “intolerant”.

Now it always comes as a surprise to me to learn that I impress people as cranky, or that sometimes I intimidate them. I’m aware that I have something of a scowl, which I inherited from my father, and which is likeliest to be in evidence when I’m merely thinking about something, in perfect and amiable contentment.

Often I feel myself growing … crusty. I didn’t start out like that. My life and times have made me that way, exactly as yours will eventually make you. You can only take so much exposure to phenomena like Jimmy Carter, Tammy Faye Bakker, C. Everitt Koop, Roseanne Arnold, and Waco Willie Clinton before you feel yourself transmogrifying into exactly the kind of grumbly old bag of fart that your mom and dad used to drag you to visit on Sundays in the nursing home.

Still, my political and personal philosophy is characterized by nothing if not tolerance. If I’m intolerant of anything, it’s intolerance. If I say that you own your own life, and that I own mine, and that what you do with yours is your business—no matter what—just as long as you respect my equal right to do with mine as I wish, what the bleeding gums is that, but tolerance?

If I say the only thing I’ll ever try to stop you from doing is initiating physical force against me and mine, and that I’ll defend to the death your right to do anything else, what in the hallowed name of Linda Lovelace is that?

Still, according to this volume which purports to be encyclopedic, but which is really a catalog—in the sense that the best, most useful place for it is hanging handily from the inside wall of some rustic two-holer—I’m intolerant.

Let’s see what that could possibly mean. Suppose I say what’s mine is mine; you say it’s the property of God, unnamed Others, or the State. In any case it’s forfeit because you have more votes (for which read, “guns”) than I do. Does my unwillingness to surrender voluntarily the slightest portion of what I have created to your thieving and murderous claim—does that make me intolerant?

Suppose I say this nation runs on certain promises, represented by the first ten Amendments to the United States Constitution— their adoption being an absolute condition put on the ratification of the rest of the document—that must be kept, no matter what, or the deal is off? Does that make me intolerant?

Suppose, at 50 (although I admit that I was like this at 31, when I began my first novel, The Probability Broach, or at 15, when I first read Atlas Shrugged) I have no time or patience to spend listening to the drivel of socialists, but tell them, to their faces and in public, without pulling any punches, that they’re all hypocrites, mass-murderers, barbarians, and thieves—and then move on to topics that I find more interesting. Does that make me intolerant?

Suppose I’ve moved from publisher to publisher during my career because, sooner or later, some editor decides that he’s gonna tone me down or even make me write something less than I believe it’s desperately important to let people know before civilization collapses about their ears. Does that make me intolerant?

My wife Cathy observes that if right is tolerant of wrong, wrong wins. We have plenty of object-lessons, all around us, to illustrate that indisputable fact. As I write this, America trembles on the crumbling brink of a civil war, basically between those, as Robert Heinlein advised us, who believe that human beings ought to be controlled, and those who do not. Those in the former category are either dully unaware of the fire they’re playing with, in deep denial about what they’ve done, or just don’t care how many men, women, and children they have to machinegun, poison-gas, and incinerate to get their way.

For most of my life, from the moment of a peculiar (but outwardly mundane) incident that happened to me in the fourth grade, I have felt that it was my personal obligation, my destiny, to prevent that world-ending catastrophe if I can.

Perhaps that makes me intolerant—or something worse. But I’m stuck with it. When I looked around for something like the Force, it was apparently out to lunch. So I authored The Probability Broach and I published The Libertarian Enterprise (and tried about a hundred things that didn’t work) instead.

Considering what I believe to be at stake, here, and considering what I believe to be my role in it all, and especially considering how I feel about those who have made it needful to spend my life this way, instead of becoming an astronaut, the captain of a submarine, a paleontologist, or a gourmet chef—and that I still retain something like a sense of humor, haven’t blown up anything, or gotten hanged like John Brown (yet)—I’d say I’m pretty damned tolerant.

Wouldn’t you?