Heinlein’s Forrestal Lecture

Chaos Manor reminded readers today that Amazon sells the CD recording of Heinlein’s lecture at the Naval Academy for $12.95, if you want to personally experience that historic hour when the Dean of Science Fiction outlined his moral vision for the survival of the human race.

Heinlein delivered the James Forrestal Memorial Lecture to the Brigade of Midshipmen at the United States Naval Academy in April 1973. He spent the beginning of his lecture talking about freelance writing and the balance speaking on patriotism. A version appeared in Analog as a 5,800 word guest editorial titled “Channel Markers” in January 1974. Others took an excerpt from the latter portion of the lecture and published it under the title “The Pragmatics of Patriotism” (and it was later included in Expanded Universe.):

Why would anyone elect a career which is unappreciated, overworked, and underpaid? It can’t be just to wear a pretty uniform. There has to be a better reason.

As one drives through the bushveldt of East Africa it is easy to spot herds of baboons grazing on the ground. But not by looking at the ground. Instead you look up and spot the lookout, an adult male posted on a limb of a tree where he has a clear view all around him – which is why you can spot him; he has to be where he can see a leopard in time to give the alarm. On the ground a leopard can catch a baboon… but if a baboon is warned in time to reach the trees, he can out-climb a leopard. The lookout is a young male assigned to that duty and there he will stay, until the bull of the herd sends up another male to relieve him. Keep your eye on that baboon; we’ll be back to him.

Today, in the United States, it is popular among self-styled ‘intellectuals’ to sneer at patriotism. They seem to think that it is axiomatic that any civilized man is a pacifist, and they treat the military profession with contempt. ‘Warmongers’ – ‘Imperialists’ – ‘Hired killers in uniform’ – you have all heard such sneers and you will hear them again. One of their favorite quotations is: ‘Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.’

Reading this after so many years, I had a personal thought that I wish I could have been as effective as that baboon in the tree when I was calling out problems with recent Hugo rules changes. Instead, it seems to me the Worldcon was a picnic for leopards.

[Via Chaos Manor.]

3 thoughts on “Heinlein’s Forrestal Lecture

  1. “One of their favorite quotations is: ‘Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.'”

    This is a serious misuse by Heinlein of the way that phrase was used, by the way. What it meant was that there were many people who would defend bad idea by falling back on claiming that they were good ideas simply because they were patriotic ideas, and therefore must be good ideas, no matter what.

    It wasn’t in any way a claim that “patriotism” was a bad thing; it was a claim that people shouldn’t use claims of “patriotism” as a defense for anything and everything, and shouldn’t claim that their ideas were more patriotic than the other fellows, and thus better ideas.

    Heinlein seriously misunderstood this usage. It wasn’t an insult to patriots at all, at least as used by most people who used it.

    This isn’t to say that there weren’t then people who sneered at the military: of course there were; there still are, although I think less so. I’m just debating the usage of that particular phrase, not the observation that there are always some with contempt for the military (a sentiment I abhor, myself).

    Also, not everyone joins the military out of patriotism. Some join it for a paycheck, or to put discipline in their lives, or to run away from the current lives, or for adventure, or for any of a number of other reasons.

  2. I don’t know if Samuel Johnson would agree that Heinlein misused his quote. The quote focuses attention on a person’s motives for characterizing ideas in patriotic terms, rather the the ideas themselves.

    Although the next step in this dance might have been to call upon you for evidence of how the quote is “used by most people who used it,” I believe that even in 1973 it was no longer a commonly used phrase. Heinlein himself would have been hard pressed to supply citations.

  3. I have to confess I didn’t realize the quotation was from Samuel Johnson. From Lt. Heinlein’s description of the speaker, I always thought he was referring to Oscar Wilde.

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