Mitt’s Favorite Book: Sci Fi Nostalgia

Pepper in "Battlefield Earth"

Periodically on this blog I look at the favorite novels of prominent people in order to see what insights we can gain. (See previous posts on Barack Obama, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Clarence Thomas, and a range of presidents.)  I was therefore interested when Mitt Romney mentioned Ron Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth as his favorite novel. Not being a science fiction fan, however, I was not prepared to read it to figure out why.

Fortunately, Daniel Oppenheimer of Salon knows the book well and does the analysis. Hubbard is the founder of scientology and it sounds as though Battlefield Earth is a thesis novel in the way that Ayn Rand’s novels are. Apparently the hero, Jonnie Goodboy Tyler, has managed to oust an evil tyrant who ruled earth, along with 16 known universes, for thousands of years. In the power vacuum that results, Tyler must put together a credible society, which he does through brilliant diplomacy as well as by figuring out how to settle Earth’s 60 trillion galactic credit debt. Oppenheimer notes that, to do this,

he draws on his recently acquired knowledge of ancient Earth economic theory to persuade them that their interests would be best served not by reaping wealth through war, as they’ve been accustomed to doing, but by introducing free market capitalism, and commercial banking, to the universes.

Oppeheimer then connects the dots:

It does not require an esoteric reading of Hubbard’s text, in other words, to identify conservative notions of the kind Romney seems to hold. It’s full of explicit commentary about the stupidity of taxes and the dangers of an overly intrusive state. The Earth government that Jonnie helps set up after the dust settles is a kind of paternalistic libertarian utopia, in which no one pays any taxes except what they volunteer as donations; the rest of the expenses are quietly covered from Jonnie’s personal account. There’s even an offhand insult of “some nut named Keynes,” whose bad theories Jonnie encounters while cramming for his meeting with the Galactic Bank.

Earth’s foreign policy, once the Psychlos are gone, is like a neoconservative fantasy of what the Forces of Freedom and Light could do if we had a Death Star and were willing to use it. Jonnie coerces the signatures on his pan-universal peace treaty by showing his rivals a holographic recording of the nuking and subsequent implosion of the Psychlo planet. He then calmly explains to them that he’ll do the same to their planets if they don’t comply. They sign, and freedom rolls forth.

It sounds like gunboat diplomacy, which proved somewhat effective in the Eisenhower 1950s and a lot less effective in the Bush 2000s. This raises some cause for concern given that Romney has been surrounding himself with foreign policy neoconservatives (most notably the cantankerous John Bolton), has accused Obama of apologizing for America, and has urged a hard line on (among other issues) Iran, the Palestinians, China, and Russia.

But Oppenheimer cautions about pushing connections too far, and I agree. We all have our guilty pleasures, and one can like superhero fiction without being simplistic oneself. John F. Kennedy may have loved the James Bond novels of Ian Fleming but he realized that the Cuban missile crisis was about real people, not fictional scenarios, and proved capable of engaging in nuanced diplomacy.

On the other hand, it does make me nervous that, in his mid-30s in the midst of the multiculturalism explosion, Romney was drawn to a 1950s-style fantasy. As Oppenheimer describes the book,

Even for 1982, when the novel was published, it reads a bit retrograde in its earnest celebration of white guys kicking ass. There are almost no women, and the few who show up are virginally pure. There’s a sentimental ethnotyping of the various surviving human populations (Chinese people are good at cooking and understanding the rules of courtly etiquette; Scottish men all sound like Montgomery Scott and dress like highlanders). And the white guys are total Übermenschen. Jonnie himself was “a muscular six feet shining with the bronzed health of his 20 years,” with “corn yellow hair and beard,” and “ice-blue eyes.” It was as if Hubbard hadn’t gotten the memo that it wasn’t the 1940s anymore, when he and his buddy Robert Heinlein had helped work out the formula for this kind of high adolescent science fictional adventure tale.

The so-called “golden age of science fiction,” presided over by Issac Asimov, was a time when the genre dreamed of technological fixes, gleaming spaceships, and the like. It was the age of Sputnik, “better living through chemistry,” General Electric’s “We bring good things to life,” the Jetsons. In the 1970’s, thanks to Ursula LeGuin and African American author Samuel Delany, science fiction would become more complex, more multicultural, more psychological and, to my mind, more interesting. When one looks at Romney’s problems relating to women, Latinos, blacks, and the poor, one wonders if he is drawn to throwback fantasies that simply confirm his vision of an America that is slipping away.

Romney periodically says that Obama doesn’t understand America, but I’m beginning to think that it is he who doesn’t understand America. Bain Capital was a perfect job for a nerdy (and smart) science fiction geek of the 1950s persuasion because messy human issues don’t interfere. It seems clean because you don’t focus on the people who lose their jobs or the communities that are disrupted when the businesses go under. Private equity is all about maximizing efficiency and investor return.

While Obama, like Romney, has a wonkish Mr. Fix-It side, he also thrills to novels like Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon and Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, which make deeper psychological, moral, and spiritual demands of their readers. Given that the job description for our commander in chief calls for him to make extraordinarily difficult decisions (do we let a car company go under with all the jobs at risk? do we jeopardize relations with Pakistan, put men’s lives in danger, and go after Bin Laden?), I find it a comfort that Obama can draw upon the wisdom of first-rate literature. I haven’t read Hubbard but it sounds as though Battlefield Earth is lacking this wisdom.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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