What, Me Radical?

by L. Neil Smith

Special to L. Neil Smith’s The Libertarian Enterprise

Irecently gave a copy of my new book Lever Action to one of my daughter’s skating friends, a pretty, fascinatingly bright 16-year-old being raised as a genuine Algore-voting, wine-and-cheese-gobbling, Volvo-driving, heartbleeding, bedwetting socialist … er, liberal.

We’ve had a couple of political knockdown-dragouts in the time I’ve known her. (Her mother’s amiably combative, too.) She can be out-argued. I’m three times her age, twice her size, and have been butting heads this way since the Kennedy Administration. But she will not be intimidated out of the position she defends so nobly (having been indoctrinated into it by her parents and the public school system they adore). Her poise and courage are admirable. The only time I ever threw her off is when I told her (unfairly but incontrovertibly) that she’ll find herself agreeing with me in another 10 years.

Lever Action is my only nonfiction book, so far, a collection of articles and speeches I’ve written over the past 20 years when I was supposed to be writing novels. My daughter’s friend was delighted with the gift. The next time I saw her, she reported that she’d taken it to school where one of her teachers read part of one essay to the class — and immediately proclaimed me to be … a “radical”.

A “radical”?


Of course I’ve been proud to wear the label since I was about my little friend’s age, follower of Rand that I was, one of Heinlein’s children. But it got me thinking about what I mean by “radical” and what other people seem to mean. No doubt to the teacher, I’m what my grandmother used to mean whenever she called me a “communist”.

I was a full-fledged Randite at that point in my life, highly annoying to others, writing a highly annoying column for the highly annoying campus paper during the highly annoying Goldwater-Johnson campaign. My grandmother had all the political acumen of a tub of Mazola oil. What she meant by “radical” was someone who is not only unorthodox (and highly annoying), but ill-mannered enough to be that way in public, embarrassing her in front of her bridge club.

Since then, I’ve been accused of being “radical”, in that same way, by those who claim to be what I’ve been all along: libertarian. What they mean, I think, is that I’m inconveniently principled. I insist on stepping forward for what I believe (and what they claim to believe, as well, when it isn’t costing them anything) no matter how hard it gets, no matter what I stand to lose by refusing to fudge just a little, no matter how silly I make myself (or them) look.

I’ve lost plenty, and I’ve written about it, so I’m not going to repeat myself here. Needless to say, I don’t have a huge gaggle of right-wing, anti-abortion, Lincoln-worshiping sugar daddies I have to mollify by trimming the edges of my convictions. I’m accustomed to looking silly. I must have looked silly to my Soviet affairs expert editor at Random House when I predicted, based on what investment guys call “fundamentals”, the collapse of the USSR a decade before it happened. I know I looked silly when I predicted that Y2K would amount to nothing. I’m accustomed to looking silly — and being proven right.

Let me tell you what my “radicalism” looks like to me, from the inside. But instead of using it (as I’ve been trying for the last 40 years, to fix a broken civilization), let’s limit ourselves to dealing with a flat tire.

“Flat?” is the first thing you’ll hear moderates, gradualists, crybabies, and general-purpose nitpickers (MGGNs) whimper. “How can you say it’s flat? Isn’t that unduly harsh? Won’t you just turn people off, talking like that? Isn’t it really only flat on the bottom?”

Obviously you can’t begin to fix a problem until you identify it correctly. Is that “radical”? Or is it simply the minimum performance acceptable under the circumstances, regardless of how others see it?

Next, you must open up the trunk and get out the jack, the jack-handle, and a tire-iron.

“But wait!” scream the MGGNs again. “Don’t you see what you’re committing yourself to, opening that trunk? What will people think about the cold, unbending tools you’re threatening that poor, innocent tire with? Where’s the love in that tire iron? Where’s the warmth in that jack? Can’t we use kinder, gentler tools? You’re going to get your hands dirty — and make us look bad doing it!”

All of this is noise, of course, and irrelevant. Either you change the tire and get rolling again, or you sit on the shoulder bandying words with Nerf-brained droolers until the county repaves the road over you. Guess which choice most of the libertarian movement has made for 30 years.

“Be realistic — we have to compromise!”

By jacking the car only halfway up? By removing only three of the lug nuts? To switch metaphors for a moment, by having the surgeon only remove half the cancer? Otherwise, you might look arrogant, mightn’t you? You might look intransigent. You might get well.

“Can’t we leave the old wheel on, for the sake of tradition?”

If at this point, you don’t utter the magic words, “Blow me,” or something like them, you’re a better man than I am. But you’re still a “radical” if you insist on looking past all the hot air and free advice and understand that the tire has to be changed. It’s a simple, mechanical necessity.

Likewise, to me, what others call “radical” is simple, mechanical necessity. If our country is a police state, there’s no future in euphemizing it. If a law is unconstitutional, the baboons who passed and enforce it are criminals who belong in jail. If Republicans and Democrats spout crap, it’s crap. If our own leaders are cheap crooks, they’ve got to be pitched out on their ears. If that’s impossible, somebody has to get in their way.

Simple, mechanical necessity. If you can’t be a howitzer, be a hemorrhoid.

Simple, mechanical necessity. If some MGGN denounces you as an “extremist”, rest assured it’s because he doesn’t believe in anything himself. If an MGGN dismisses your ideas as “simplistic”, it’s because he hasn’t any of his own. (My wife points out that if you make a problem complicated enough, you can’t be blamed for not solving it, or even trying.) The world is full of MGGNs who have ideological gangrene and lack the guts to tell the doctor, “Go ahead and amputate.”

Simple mechanical necessity declares that if you have principles you want others to follow, then you’d damn well better express them unambiguously and follow them yourself. That’s all I’ve ever done. It’s all I’ll ever do. And I guess that’s what makes me a “radical”.

How about you?


Reprinted from The Libertarian Enterprise for Number 124, June 4, 2001

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