In Terry Pratchett’s books, Lady Sybil Ramkin Vimes’ family motto is “What is ours, we keep.”
I’m sure it started out the way most things in Pratchett’s books started out. The Ramkins are an old family, who intimidated their way everywhere and who conquered a lot of places and took a lot of wealth. At least that has been the view of them throughout most of the books. Sybil herself is a good egg, devoted to saving dragons, but the Ramkins are, by and large, one of the rapacious noble clans.
And then in the last book, something happened. The “What is mine I keep” was turned on its head, in a way, which brought me to the realization that property, hereditary or not, is a double edged sword. As is ownership: of things, of self, of talents, of career, of EVERYTHING.
Two things. This is not a political article – mostly – but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that yesterday was Victims of Communism Day. Or that if you haven’t read The Black Book of Communism, you should.
The second thing I’d like to mention, it that I sort of already knew all this, instinctively and through my toenails, as I seem to know most of this stuff. I just didn’t put it together in moral terms, till recently.
I grew up in the seventies and eighties with the communists and assorted stripes of collectivist taking the moral high ground. After all, the rest of us were for things being unfair. We wanted people to have more stuff than others. And even if people got there naturally, well, it was wrong, because not everyone has the same capabilities. Even if you got what you have by chiseling stuff off the rock, with your bare hands, well, not everyone has the same tough hands you have, you know, and why aren’t you more compassionate?
Even people who were strong anti-communists – and paid for it in career – seemed to bow to the communists and take a sort of moral back seat to them, and say “I know they mean well, it just doesn’t work.” This still goes on. In a lecture, yesterday, my kid was shown anti-communist films from the seventies, and his classmates laughed, because, you know, communists aren’t evil. They’re well intentioned, after all. (Read the Black Book Of Communism. DO.)
I said this is not a political column. It’s not. At the same time this stuff is so ingrained and has become such part of our society that it’s hard to get at the basis of morality and – eventuality – the basis of managing a writing career, without going through it.
For instance, the idea of “equality” we have is mostly Marxist. The equality before US law is not an equality of results. But we assume that equality of results is desired. We assume that if someone has more than others, this was somehow acquired by immoral means. We talk about “Giving more to the community” and “Having more than our fair share.” All of it is nonsense in real world terms. It can only be talked about in terms that concede that Marxism is moral.
Part of this is because Marxism slots, perhaps fatally, with a part of the monkey brain. In a small hominid band, if someone is taking more food than the others, he IS hogging it; he is greedy; and he is stealing from others.
In our society in which “resources” are what you make of them… not so much. In our society where what you create is what matters for life, not so much. In the chaotic system of a global economy, not so much.
And we come back to “what is mine, I keep.”
Look, I know some people are born with more than others. They’re born with more talent, more intelligence, more ability, more tenacity. Some are born with more things, too, but that’s nowhere as important in the long run. However, some people are born with more than others. Most of us realize that round about kindergarten. It is immediately followed by ourselves or others realizing “it isn’t fair.”
“Fair” works in kindergarten, which is much like a small hominid band. (Or a band of small hominids. Eh.) There are limited resources, and if you take too many graham crackers you are being greedy and your crackers will be redistributed. This works, because the teacher, who is in charge of the class, makes you do it.
There is no teacher in charge of life. I know, I know, but it’s true. NO TEACHER. This being the case, there is no “fairness” in life. There is no “honor” in life. There is no “equality” in life.
Heinlein and Shakespeare have both been there before me, but the truth is you could take all of reality and distill it down to the last atom. And you’d not find an ounce of fairness. Not an atom of justice. Not a hint of equality.
These qualities exist only in the mind of man.
Does that mean then that there is no morality? That the life of man devolves to nature, red in tooth and claw? How can I claim that’s good?
I don’t. There is morality. Morality starts with the individual. Over time we’ve found that the only thing that distinguishes us from animals is to devise ways of getting along – ways of jostling together – and we’ve discovered – sometimes against our best instincts – that some ways of living together are better than the others. Those societies where it doesn’t start with the individual always end the same way, whether you call them absolute monarchy, communism or enlightened oligopoly. Always. It’s always the mass graves and the small group of rulers, who preside over an increasingly more impoverished society. It’s always the famines and the purges. And I’ll explain why, in a moment.
So we start with the individual and with “What is mine, I keep.” This means each individual has a right to self defense, to begin with. And if you say no one is disputing anyone’s right to self defense, you are wrong. It starts in kindergarten, where these days “fighting” is punished equally, whether you are the aggressor, or not, because “violence never solved anything.” (All of these teachers are hanging hopefully on the line, to confirm that with the City Fathers of Carthage.) It goes on to people being charged with using “excessive force” to defend themselves from attack or home invasion.
Not being allowed to defend yourself, means you can’t KEEP what is yours. Keep both in the sense of own and control. Which immediately makes you a possession of those in authority to defend you. And on the other side of that – and not as far as you’d expect – there’s the mass graves. Because, well, if they can choose to defend you or not, then they can also remove you if you become inconvenient to the “common good” which always has to be judged by someone, after all (remember, life has no teacher overseeing it) and is always judged by those with the capacity to exert force.
Once you grant an individual the right to self-ownership, you can’t go about saying he has to give back to the community, though, or that what he’s doing isn’t fair. Unless he’s actually actively impairing others’ rights to self-ownership and exertion of their talents (the reason government is a necessary evil) he should be allowed to own himself to the final extent of the law.
What is mine, I keep. That means I use or not, protect or not, increase or waste. It is mine. My body, my talents, my effort, my responsibility, my stuff, and the more tenuous web of feelings granted to me by others and by me to them: my friends, my kids, my husband. And then the stuff that falls under honor-and-credit. What others know about me, based on accumulated behavior: my career. My reputation. My trustworthiness. They’re all mine.
What is mine. I keep. This is what is known as being a free man.
It is also a crushing responsibility. You have the right to squander everything that is yours, to the last penny, the last ounce of strength. It’s your choice. You use your mind to do it.
What does society owe you then? Nothing. Am I saying you should be cast out into outer darkness, where there’s crying and gnashing of teeth? No. I’m saying that if you husbanded what is yours, even if you’re broke – I’ve been dead broke three times in my life. I mean DEAD broke, considering soup kitchen as only way to a meal that day broke – and even if in ultimate analysis it’s not really your fault, you will have an immaterial safety net. Honor and credit. Friends. A community that will come through for you.
But that would be shameful, you say. Society shouldn’t make you feel ashamed.
Why not? What business is it of society whether you came to this legitimately or not? Whose job is it to judge? Who is supposed to make it “fair”? Do you know every one from whom money will be taken by force (taxes are always enforced by physical force) to help you? Do you know they’re not as needy as you are? Or that this taking won’t make them spiral into a situation like yours? HOW do you know? WHO are you making into your judge, your “teacher”? And if you don’t know them personally, if they’re not part of “what is yours” why would you do that? You’re making yourself property, a chattel. Even if you think you’ll gain by it, you’re surrendering the right of self-ownership. And that, in my view, should make you feel more ashamed.
It’s very scary to keep what’s yours. You could lose it all. It’s also very freeing. You don’t grant anyone the right to take it from you – or to take you from you.
For years now, writers have been living in a kindergarten class. Teacher decided on the value of our work. Teacher decided what was right and what was wrong, what was “worthy of being read” and pushed and promoted, and what was “hack work, not to be published, or to be buried deep in the never-upturned midlist.”
Turns out teacher was wrong, and has squandered most of their credit, their honor, and their money too. And the new kid in town – ebooks, though mostly Amazon just now – has taken their power and their control, not yet to the same extent, but close to the way they took writers.
And now they’re crying, and it’s not fair, and they want teacher to make it fair. They’re playing with fire. A government that can favor them can also shut them up. But they don’t care. They want it “fair.” And they want to make sure only the “worthy” books get read.
Any author who isn’t at least experimenting with indie is a born slave. I love my one remaining traditional publishing house and have (I think. I don’t know if she’d agree, but I hope so) a good relationship with the publisher. BUT it still behooves me to have alternate career paths, to have other ways of getting my words before the public and – bluntly – other ways of making money.
Why? Because what is mine, I keep. My talent, my ability, my work, my CONTROL. What is mine, I keep. I can destroy it or increase it. It’s my right. I’m a free woman. I grant no one the right to control me, or keep me, or impair me.
(Holds up both middle fingers to every one who thinks that publishing “needs” those who know better to look after it.) There is no such thing with fairness. There’s only this:
What is mine, I keep.