The Amateur Critic

 by L. Neil Smith

Special to L. Neil Smith’s The Libertarian Enterprise

Idon’t usually reply to critics, certainly never to professional ones, but I thought it might be educational, this time, to go over a list of complaints sent to an e-mail list by one of my less satisfied readers.

The guy’s name is Kyle Williams, and the list, I gather, pertains to the Tennessee Libertarian Party. The complaints were passed along by my friend Steve Trinward who was kind enough to defend me and my co-author Aaron Zelman, of Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership.

The book is our novel, Hope.

I like Kyle because he’s honest — the main reason I’m doing this. Practically the first thing he says is, “As literature, the book has its weaknesses. Did nobody proofread the final copy for typos? The obvious advertisements were also a minor irritation. A few pages were for weapon enthusiasts and didn’t interest me much. Nevertheless, the novel captured my attention and I couldn’t put it down until I finished.”

Judging from the rest of his letter, I’m not sure what qualifies Kyle as a literary judge. That’s a call best left to the future. I’d rather he’d just said there were things about the book he didn’t like. The fact that he found typos — one of the things he apparently didn’t like about the book — is rather unfortunate. We went to great lengths to avoid them, and we now have a list — provided by Steve — of some of the typos that got overlooked and will be taken care of in the next edition.

I don’t know what Kyle means by “the obvious advertisements” — that we used actual brand-names for things? That’s something I’ve done before, in many of my books, because it lends verisimilitude to the work. Alex Hope drives a peacock blue Dodge Durango because I want a peacock blue Dodge Durango. If it had been an ad (termed “product placement” in a work of fiction), then I’d have a peacock blue Dodge Darango now, instead of the same damned old 17-year-old Subaru station wagon.

I also use product choices as an indication of character. Aaron and I even had a bit of disagreement about this before I managed to explain it adequately. Alex, of course, is a billionaire. His choice of a Durango indicates that, while he’s not cheap, he doesn’t put on airs or buy things to impress other people with his wealth and power. It isn’t a Lexus 470 or a Land Rover, and I doubt that he’d be caught dead in a Rolls Royce or an Excalibur. He drives a Durango because he likes it, period. And the reader knows him a little better because of it.

Kyle also observes, “A few pages were for weapon enthusiasts and didn’t interest me much.” Which is too bad for Kyle, but very nicely brings us around to a couple of other important points. I always name the weapons my characters use, either because the real life people they’re drawn on carry those weapons — John Pondoro carries a .45 caliber Glock Model 21 because his real life counterpart does — or because, as with the Dodge Durango, it tells us something about them.

When I gave Alex the .40 caliber EAA Witness that you see in Garn Turner’s wonderful cover painting, Aaron, who knows a lot about guns, didn’t care for the choice. “He’s a billionaire — why can’t he carry something more elegant, maybe something custom-made especially for him?”

Because, I insisted, the Witness is an absolute sleeper, one of the most accurate and reliable self-defense autopistols in the Known Universe, and a tremendous bargain at the modest prices EAA gets for them. I was a gunsmith for many years before I began writing novels, and I should know. I own the gun handsomely displayed on that cover, and it’s exactly the kind of thing that would appeal to Alex, as I saw him.

As for appealing only to “weapons enthusiasts”, well, I’m a former gunsmith, as I said, and generally regarded to be the gunniest science fiction writer on the planet, as well as the gunniest libertarian writer. Aaron is the founder and Executive Director of the gunniest civil rights organization on the planet. Our first novel together, The Mitzvah, is all about a lifelong pacifist finally discovering self-defense.

What did Kyle expect?

But it goes beyond all that. Aaron and I want everyone to be, well, if not a firearms enthusiast, then at least a firearms owner and an enthusiast for the idea of self-defense and the Bill of Rights. I’m extremely proud that my earlier books persuaded thousands of people to obtain their first gun, and I hope that The Mitzvah and Hope do, too.

Listening, Kyle? Get a gun! Make it a good one, because anyone who’ll then say, “Nevertheless, the novel captured my attention and I couldn’t put it down until I finished,” is someone whose life is worth defending.

He then goes on to say, “I was led to believe by those who recommended the book that it would describe how an anarchist society might work. I found nothing of the sort. The book advocates limited government rather than abolition of government.” On the TNLP list, Steve defends me pretty well on that point, but I want to add a little something.

Aaron and I set out specifically to write a book about an America in which the Bill of Rights is energetically and stringently enforced. While it’s true that I believe there’s no use or room for government on this planet, an argument for anarchism — which I’ve made in other novels, like The Probability Broach, Pallas, and Forge of the Elders — simply doesn’t enter into it. I’m also an atheist, but most of the characters — even most of the goodguys — in The Mitzvah and Hope are religious, partly because that’s what’s called for in the story, and partly because Aaron doesn’t share my religious views, or lack thereof, and they’re his books, too. Hope‘s a “how we get there from here” effort, about a man who accidentally gets elected President and seizes the unexpected opportunity to do as much as he can in four years.

I’m sorry that Kyle feels he was misled, but it’s not our fault. Nor is it correct to say we advocate limited government — I prefer to call it “limited statism” — instead, we just start with where we are now. Where we go from there … well, that’s a different story, isn’t it?

Kyle complains, “Hope leaves the presidency intact, as well as the Congress and the courts. He has to. Destruction of the government would destroy the Bill of Rights, the only federal law he seems to respect.”

This is a bit disingenuous. Alex’s view is, of course, informed by mine, in two different but vital ways. First of all, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are not my rules, they’re the statists’ rules — and I’m going to maked damned sure that the rat bastards stick to them.

Secondly — mechanically — the Bill of Rights is the highest law of the land, amendments (it’s in the very nature of amendments to supersede everything else) to a government-chartering document the Federalists rammed through, but which the anti-Federalists opposed as long as there were no guarantees on the part of the government that it would be forbidden to do certain things. It isn’t that Alex has no respect for other federal laws, it’s that they’re legally inferior to the Bill of Rights, and when they contravene it, they’re null and void.

Kyle now turns from disingenuity to perverse misunderstanding, saying, “I find the following to be dangerous … ” and goes on to quote a speech made by the President’s grown daughter (also campaign manager and de facto Attorney General) to the Vice President, who’s a badguy …

“You don’t get it, Mr. Nadalindov, do you?” she smiled sweetly. Uncle John is here to keep you from being attacked by me. Believe me, if I had even a microscopic shred of evidence to support my suspicion that it was you — and your buddies Horrwyrne and Moure — who arranged for my father to be assassinated, you wouldn’t be standing there right now. You’d be lying in a streaming pool of your own blood!”

Kyle then begins scolding Aaron and me about what a loose cannon Faith-Anne, the President’s daughter, is. He even presumes to lecture us on civilization and trial by jury. He fails to notice or doesn’t mention that the man she’s talking to has done everything he can to sabotage her father’s campaign and his administration. She believes he may have arranged for her father to be shot, an event she witnessed from mere feet away and that had other aspects I won’t spoil the story by giving away. She’s not a part of the government here — that’s plain at the outset; among other things, this is a private setting — she’s speaking despite her best judgement, as passion will bring the very best among us to do, as a little girl who watched her daddy get hurt.

A woman, no matter what her age, will always be her daddy’s little girl. At the character level, Hope is about love and loyalty, hatred and betrayal. I’m persuaded to believe that Kyle is either very young or not very socially successful. He lacks experience, and he’s disappointed — and alarmed — because Faith-Anne is not Mr. Spock, and has no desire to be. She knows her judgement isn’t good at the moment and is happy that Uncle John is there to keep her on an even keel.

Too bad Uncle John can’t do the same thing for Kyle, because he really begins to go berserk at this point: “The authors,” he declares in majestic ignorance, “do not seem to understand the relationship between the federal and state governments. The Bill of Rights should apply only to the federal government. Today, the US government applies them to the states through an obvious misinterpretation of the 14th Amendment.”

What utter nonsense. Does he really believe that the Founding Fathers, having thrown off the yoke of British tyranny, would eagerly replace it with the yoke of thirteen (now fifty) petty tyrannies, instead?

Like many suffering under the weight of patriot mythology, Kyle doesn’t care for or understand the 14th Amendment, written for the purpose of guaranteeing Second Amendment rights to blacks in states illegally interfering with them. He’s even more infuriated that we quote from the body of the Constitution, Article 6, Section 2, which reads:

This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.

It’s clear the Founders intended to put limits on the power of states. (I repeat, I’m not a “states’ rights” guy; tyranny is tyranny no matter who practices it, and as Heinlein observed, the most vicious tyranny is a local school board. Groups, as such, have no rights; only individuals do. Is that anarchistic enough for you, Kyle?) Together with the Ninth Amendment, it becomes even clearer what the limits are. States may not violate the rights of individuals as spoken of in the Bill of Rights. Fourteen underlines that, which means Alex is acting morally in libertarian terms, and wholly within his legal authority. It’s just that no President has ever had incentive to do so before.

“Under the authors’ interpretation,” Kyle whines, “the US has the power to trump any state law simply by writing one of its own.” No, Kyle, that power is limited to and by the Bill of Rights. “Notice,” he immediately contradicts himself, “the words ‘in pursuance thereof.’ Only laws that follow from the Constitution are the supreme law of the land.” Quite so, Kyle, exactly. But why are you making my point for me?

“The Second Amendment forbids the US Congress from infringing the right to keep and bear arms,” says Kyle. “It says nothing about a state’s power to do so. The Tennessee Constitution says, in Article I, Section 26: “That the citizens of this state have a right to keep and to bear arms for their common defense; but the Legislature shall have power, by law, to regulate the wearing of arms with a view to prevent crime.”

Actually, Kyle, what the Second Amendment says is that the right to own and carry weapons shall not be infringed. Where practically every other article of the Bill of Rights says by whom, the Second Amendment quite conspicuously does not. For that and other reasons, If I were Alex, I would cheerfully order U.S. Marshalls to arrest and the courts to try any member of the Tennessee government — or any other state government — that made or enforced any law about any weapon.

“If the federal government were kept within its limits,” Kyle confesses oddly, “the greatest threat to freedom would be the state governments.”


Not content, Kyle then whimpers that Alex’s “hamstringing of the police … not even allowing them the protection of bullet-resistant protective gear, strikes me as callous and draconian.” As I’m sure it would anybody, Kyle, who hadn’t read a newspaper, listened to radio, or watched TV for the past decade. The cops are the standing army the Founders didn’t want, a hostile occupying force that must be brought back under control, and if you don’t understand that, then you’ve got problems I can’t help you with, problems that require a lot of couch time.

“[Alex’s] 100-year moratorium on legislation … is just plain stupid, as well as unconstitutional. (Or was that supposed to be a joke?” No, Kyle, it was supposed to be — and will be, sometime in this century whether you think it’s stupid or not — a Constitutional amendment. One your childen and grandchildren will enthusiastically embrace.

In 1972 — the last year I have numbers for — there were fifteen million (15,000,000) federal laws. About when do you think we’ll have enough, Kyle? Twenty million? How about twenty-five million? How about 275 million, one for every person in the country? Or how about passing no more, and repealing, nullifying, or otherwise disposing of as many as we can? I’m aiming at zero. What are you aiming for, Kyle?

Our amateur critic and Constitutional law expert ends by saying, “I would vote for Hope as the (much) lesser of three evils. It is not hard, however, to imagine a better candidate — one who understands and supports the entire Constitution, and not just the Bill of Rights.”

To which I reiterate: the whole mess is their laws, Kyle, not mine. I only need one, the Non-Aggression Principle (and I wonder if this is how Moses must have felt when he told a polytheistic culture that he only needed one god). But they’re damned well going to be limited by their laws, as they promised they would be, or the deal’s off.

Now go play in traffic.


Reprinted from The Libertarian Enterprise for Number 136, August 27, 2001

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