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Stranger in a Strange Land: An Analysis on Polyamory, Free Love, and Author Tracts

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Renegade the Unicorn

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DISCLAIMER: This blog entry discusses sensitive and potentially controversial and/or triggering subjects such as dubious consent, cult mentality/brainwashing, sexism, homophobia, racism, and overall things people would consider "yikes", especially nowadays. Viewer discretion is advised; approach with caution.

Robert A. Heinlein. Considered one of the most celebrated and important authors of modern-day science fiction, Heinlein is primarily known for a number of things - staunch libertarianism, deep philosophical and political themes in his work thereof, and not afraid to push boundaries of good taste and the medium of writing itself. 

And, unfortunately, his penchant for controversy (and more importantly, how our perspectives on media can change over decades) is what we're talking about today. Heinlein's most important novel within the popular culturesphere is 1961's Stranger in a Strange Land, primarily because it helped inspire that decade's counterculture movement and its' values. As someone who has always found kinship with the hippies of the sixties (whether it's my strong advocacy for libertarian socialism, love of animals and the environment, or more relevant to this blog entry, polyamory and sexual freedom), I quickly became enamored with this book and the ideas it put forth. That was, until rather recently. You see, one of my favorite YouTube channels is Overly Sarcastic Productions, who specialize in discussing literature, history, philosophy, mythology, and related topics. They put out a video discussing the novel and brought to light a number of things that are equally as controversial about the book as its central focus. Namely, discussions of homophobia, sexism, and most importantly, Heinlein's assertion that his way is the "right" way, and that nothing (especially not a couple of minor things like society reacting-fairly appropriately, I might add-with shock and horror to the values put forth, or consent (no means no for a reason; not everyone is secretly sex-starved and repressing inhibitions, Heinlein) will get in the way  of humanity embracing the HETEROSEXUAL (emphasis here) polyamorous sex cult that is the "Church of All Worlds" .

So, without further ado, I'm going to discuss the problems with Stranger, which can be boiled down to four or five points: 

  1.  Cult mindset, and how Mike Valentine Smith's movement checks off most of not all the boxes in regards to it.
  2. How Heinlein, for all his progressive thought, still advocates for reactionary attitudes towards non-heterosexual people.
  3. Heinlein's hypocritical views towards organized religion.
  4. How Heinlein not only exploits, but objectifies women in order to "set them free" of inhibitions.
  5. Disregard for the idea of consent.

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The "Church" of All Worlds: Thou Art God A Cult

Within the context of the novel, the Church of All Worlds is a new religious movement founded by the novel's protagonist Michael Valentine Smith in an effort to elevate humanity into a new state of being. Built on the principle of "Thou art God" , the Church advocates for sexual freedom and indulgence of desires so that humans can "grok"; that is, to understand and become one with not only each other but the universe itself. However, as OSP point out, the Church reads more like a cult from a modern day point. But what, exactly, defines a cult? According to Dr. Michael Langone, cults are defined by thirteen characteristics:

Quote

The group is focused on a living leader to whom members seem to display excessively zealous, unquestioning commitment.

The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.

The group is preoccupied with making money.

Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.

Mind-numbing techniques [such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, debilitating work routines] are used to suppress doubts about the group and its leader.

The leadership dictates -sometimes in great detail- how members should think, act and feel [for example: members must get permission from leaders to date, change jobs, get married; leaders may prescribe what type of clothes to wear, where to live, how to discipline children, and so forth].

The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leaders and members [for example: the leader is considered the Messiah, or an avatar; the group and/or the leader has a special mission to save humanity].

The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which causes conflict with the wider society.

The group’s leader is not accountable to any authorities [as are, for example, military commanders and ministers, priests, monks, and rabbis of mainstream denominations]. The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify means that members would have considered unethical before joining the group [for example: collecting money for bogus charities].

The leadership induces feeling of guilt in members in order to control them.

Members’ subservience to the group causes them to cut ties with family, friends, and personal group goals and activities that were of interest before joining the group.

Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group.

Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.

, how do the Church fit into these 13 characteristics?

1. The group sees Michael as a father, leader, and lover who knows what is best for them.

2 and 3. The Church is intent on recruiting all of mankind, and making money off of them via rankings and initiatory circles.

4. No one even dares to think of questioning Michael's authority lest they "disappear" .

5. The Church uses mind numbing techniques under the pretense of gaining psychic powers.

6. Michael dictates how the Church's members should act and think.

7 and 8. The Church has a very elitist mindset, claiming the humans who do not join them will eventually die out.

9. Michael, as a near literal god, claims that no one on Earth has authority over him; the Church's members even go as far as commiting (and advocating) murder to justify themselves.

10. The Church insinuates that all (heterosexual) humans are inherently sexual, and that inhibitions are tantamount to guilt.

11, 12, and 13. The Church's members are encouraged to cut off any past ties with non-Church members, devote themselves to the organization, and live in polyamorous, communal "nests" with their fellow water brothers.

So yes, the "Church of All Worlds" is, indeed a cult. Given Heinlein's ties to L. Ron Hubbard, I am not shocked that he had a similar (albeit fictional) religion.

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Heinlein and Homophobia

Now, as stated earlier, Heinlein, in spite of his advocacy for polyamory, actually made it clear (in no uncertain terms) that the polyamorous sex cult of the Church of All Worlds was explicitly heterosexual; as OSP (again) point out, he says that love should be free...unless you, in any way, are homosexual; he further says that masculine men are disliked by homosexuals (which goes hand in hand with the stereotype of gay/bisexual men being effeminate), and Jubal encourages Michael to think along these lines. This not only runs contradictory to the otherwise progressive themes about sexuality (more on that later) of the book, but also shows that Heinlein was very much a man of his times even when he was going against the grain in terms of societal norms. That certainly does not excuse his homophobia, but it goes a long way towards explaining it.

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Meet the New God, Same As the Old God

The world of Stranger in a Strange Land is a post-WWWIII Earth, one where organized religions have taken on a megacorporation -like status.  Of particular note are the Fosterites, a megachurch where vices are encouraged and only considered "sin" if done outside of the church's authority. 

Does that sound familiar at all? If you guessed "The Church of All Worlds" , you win! This oxymoronic portrayal of religion is a hallmark of the book's inherently contrarian viewpoints and serves to paint Heinlein as a hypocrite. Michael Valentine Smith basically tears down the old world order in an mission to "save" humanity, only to put an almost-exact same system in its place and ensure humanity becomes a ruthless race of elder gods, leaving it far worse than when he found it.

Did I mention this is portrayed as a good thing?

In essence, Michael (and therefore Heinlein) imply that no matter what, the system will never change and that things will likely be worse; but in their view, that's perfectly fine so long as your goals and viewpoints are accomplished! /s

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Heinlein and Women

One of Stranger's central themes is that of sex-positivity, and the idea that women should enjoy sex openly and freely. While I am apt to agree with Heinlein on these viewpoints, he and I differ in opposite directions as to how to go about it. And suffice to say that Heinlein goes about this idea...rather poorly. Namely, in how one of the novel's main characters, Jill, is "converted" into these views by Mike and Heinlein's self-insert Jubal. A prudish and conservative woman, Jill is portrayed as a rather reactionary figure towards Mike's views of free love and sex as the ultimate expression of understanding and closeness. A strawwoman, if you will. So how do Mike and Jubal get Jill out of this mindset? By pressuring her to become a stripper, of course!

Uhhhhh... :sealed: Come again?

 She's, in essence, PRESSURED to become a stripper to "free her inhibitions". And now here's where my problems come into the forefront - Jill doesn't do this of her own free will; at the very least, that's how I read it. She does this because Mike, the supposed savior of humanity tells her to. This not only runs contradictory to what Heinlein was intending, but if anything, it shows Heinlein objectifying women in the name of feminism. This is actually a common criticism of Heinlein's work - he writes strong female characters, and yet gives into pandering misogynistic stereotypes at the same time. It's a symptom of the larger problem - hypocrisy and contradiction. And this is clearer nowhere else in my final criticism of Stranger: a disregard for consent.

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UIN - Unsafe, Insane, and Nonconsensual

Ultimately, my problems with this book boil down to one idea and one idea only - the idea that there isn't such a thing as consent. Mike tries to impose his radical ideas by forcing them into humanity, without understanding that a majority value their own freedoms of choice. Thus, it's no shock when humanity reacts through an equally extreme measure - violence. Jubal, by the end, is himself a stranger in a strange land - he still values his own individuality in a world that has gone down a path of free love and peace - albeit not one of their own choosing. 

In short, Heinlein certainly has a number of good ideas...he just advocates for them in the worst way possible.

 

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My Own Opinions

Now that we have my big issues with Stranger in a Strange Land out of the way, I'd like to discuss my own personal viewpoints on the subjects presented; each of them will act as a counterargument to one of the five issues above.

 1. My religious beliefs, and the seven core values I try to live by.

2. My views on polyamory and free love.

3. My views on organized religion.

4. My views on voyeurism and exhibitionism (per site rules, I will not go into explicit detail, just an overview of my general thoughts).

5. Why I place a crucial emphasis on consent and differing opinions in my relationships with my partners.

 

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Luci(fer) in the Sky With Diamonds

I make it no secret (at least on here, anyway) that I am a Luciferian. But what exactly does that mean? Is it the same thing as Satanism? ...Well, yes and no. Luciferians and Satanists have generally similar views, but have differing ways of approaching them. Wikipedia explains it better than I can.

Quote

Though associated with Satanism, a philosophy based on the Christian interpretation of the fallen angel, Luciferianism differs in that it does not revere merely the devil figure or Satan but the broader figure of Lucifer, an entity representing various interpretations of "the morning star" as understood by ancient cultures such as the Greeks and Egyptians.[26] In this context, Lucifer is a symbol of enlightenment,[27] independence, and human progression and is often used interchangeably with similar figures from ancient beliefs, such as the Greek titan Prometheus or the Jewish Talmudic figure Lilith.

Luciferians generally support the protection of the natural world. Both the arts and sciences are crucial to human development and thus both are cherished. Luciferians think that humans should be focused on this life and how to make the most of it every single day. The ability to recognize both good and evil, to accept that all actions have both positive and negative consequences, and to actively influence one's environment is a key factor.

In short, Satanism focuses on indulgence and rebellion not only for its own sake, but only in the short term. Luciferians focus on indulgence not as a form of going against the grain, but as a path to enlightenment. And being nondogmatic, Luciferians have a wide variety of beliefs and interpretations: some see Lucifer in a literal sense, others see him as purely symbolic. I myself am in the agnostic camp. Could Lucifer exist as a literal being? Possibly, but whether he does or not is irrelevant. What matters is learning from him, and applying the teachings to one's own life and self. My values as a Luciferian can be broken down into seven statements and values. 

Quote

1. Indulgence: indulge in whatever way you wish, so long as you don't intrude on others or violate common sense and ethics/the law.

2. Kindness: Be kind to those who deserve it, and be rude to those who don't. Do good not for any moral standard, but because you want to, and do so as you see fit.

3. Consequentalism: Morality is not static nor objective. What matters is not the intention, but the result. Your actions have consequences.

4. Fallibility: Humans are fallible creatures, and make mistakes. Be aware of your own flaws, and admit when you make mistakes.

5. Forgiveness (When it is warranted). If someone makes a mistake and truly shows that they're sorry, forgive them.

6. Pride. Be proud of yourself and your accomplishments. There's nothing wrong with it.

7. Knowledge. Seek to expand your knowledge, and be open-minded about new things.

In opposition to my virtues are corresponding sins.

Quote

1. Hedonism. When one indulges to excess and for its own sake, then it becomes problematic. Even moreso when it violates ethics and the law.

2. Cruelty. Being cruel to others when it is warranted and proportional to the offense is not a bad thing. Excess and disproportionate cruelty, however, is.

3. Infallibility. Convincing yourself that you are not in the wrong is not only ignorant but dangerous, as it breeds "moral superiority" and narcissism.

4. Mercilessness. Being unwilling to forgive others to an irrational degree carries the same weight as disproportionate cruelty.

6. Hubris. Be proud of yourself, but ensure your ego doesn't grow too big.

7. Ignorance. Being close-minded and unwilling to learn creates hatred and bigotry.

As you can see, my beliefs (like many Luciferians) are rooted in secular humanism and encourage appreciation of the arts and natural world, as well as acknowledgement of the natural human condition. We are not inherently "sinful" but freethinking, flawed human beings.

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All You Need Is (Free) Love

Let me get this out of the way first: I have no problem with monogamy itself (though I did a few years back, when I was first discovering the ins and outs of what being "polyamorous" meant). If you want to have a single partner, then more power to you. I will fully understand and support you on that. What I do have a problem with is monogamy as an enforced construct: socially, religiously, and legally. Speaking from my sociopolitical standpoint as an anarchist, I see the construct, not the concept, of monogamy as an infringement on an individual's right to have personal and intimate relationships. Boundaries and ground rules should be respected above all else in a relationship. No one-not religious institutions, not government institutions, and especially not societal norms-should be involved; so long as all parties involved are consenting adults, who cares what happens behind closed doors? Certainly not me, that's for damn sure.

Now, free love and nonmonogamy are, in the popular imagination, heavily associated with promiscuity. This is due to a combination of factors - namely, a skewered view of the counterculture (certainly not helped by its "mainstreaming") and dozens, if not thousands of young people either losing sight of their ideals and falling into drug and sex-fueled hedonism or not sharing the counterculture's values at all and hopping onto the bandwagon of psychedelia. 

There is a big difference between nonmonogamy and promiscuity. Nonmonogamy simply means having multiple simultaneous romantic and/or sexual relationships, with all parties consenting. Promiscuity is just sleeping around. My views on promiscuity are that it is only dangerous when all involved don't use protection and common sense. Thanks to our broken educational system's insistence on "abstinence-only" sex ed, this is an unfortunate reality.

But what of marriage? In order to make my views on the socioreligious institute known as "marriage" more clear, allow me to relate a small anecdote.

So I'm reading the TV Tropes page on Glory Road (another Heinlein novel), and...holy shit, I think I've found something he and I can actually agree on.

Quote

Marriage in Star's society comes in infinite varieties and with infinite customs; the one rule she makes about it is that everyone has to respect everyone else's rules. In Center, the heart of the Empire, they work on a "toss your shoes" rule. Marriage is as simple as moving in, and if she wants you out, you'll find your shoes on the doorstep.

 See, I have very similar views on marriage as Star's society does; in my ideal world, the legal and religious aspects of marriage are done away with in favor of a mutual partnership that can include as many men and/or women as one likes. For instance, my main partner (my "girlfriend" of almost four years now) and I consider ourselves married even if we are not legally recognized as such. Were we to extend that mutual partnership to others, we would need to set ground rules and respect/acknowledge each others' boundaries and limitations.

I believe in polyamory because I believe in its purest form, love should be shared with others. And if you were to ask me what unites us as a species, it's love. Plain and simple.

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(Don't) Give Me That Old Time Religion

Like Heinlein, I am critical of organized religion for a number of reasons: its hypocrisies, its influence towards shaping how society, and most importantly it's insistence on blind obedience and unquestioning dogma. Either you revere Mohammad/Jesus/Yahweh, or you hate them and are sentenced to eternal damnation. In my view, that encourages not only anti-intellectualism and groupthink, but also fearmongering. But does that mean I hate practitioners of the Abrahamic faiths on a personal level or religion in general? No, and especially in the latter case, no. I don't hate religion as a whole. In fact, I think religions can and should have a place and positive impact on people and society. And I certainly don't hate Jews, Christians, and Muslims on a personal level (fundamentalists aside). If anything I find Jesus' original message to be something that I can completely understand and relate to: we don't suffer because of some original sin, but because we are human; so long as we accept that we suffer, we understand the universe on a deeper and more personal level. That original message, however, has been lost under the centuries of violence, persecution, and games of political chess perpetuated by those ostensibly meant to carry on the teachings of Jesus and his disciples.

 

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Let's Go Sunning

Hooooo boy...I've been dreading these particular topics, both out of fear of being reprimanded, potential ridicule, and because they're generally uncomfortable topics to talk about. But if my buddy @Kyoshi has taught me anything, it's self acceptance. And if there's anything I need to accept about myself, it's that I'm pro-voyeurism, pro-exhibitionist, and pro-nudist. All three of these have fair amounts of controversy, and it's easy to see why: potential privacy issues (voyeurism), slut-shaming/exploitation (exhibitionism), and a whole host of ethical and legal issues (nudism). To which I've thought a lot about. Take these as general suggestions on how society could approach these issues and not exactly how they should. I'm not here to preach the gospel, I am here to make you think.

-Voyeurism: The best way to approach voyeurism is through the same way I've been discuss throughout this blog. Through explicit permission and consent. Depending on if it's in private or in public, the consenting parties would have to either discuss the terms and conditions between themselves, record such (either through video, audio, or both) and frame it as a binding contract that can be voided at any time. If such occurs, criminal charges would be able to be filed (depending on circumstances).

-Exhibitionism: I am of the opinion that men and women should be proud of their bodies, and not be afraid to show them off however they see fit. However, some are not comfortable with this idea, and for good reason. That is why the solution lies in optional dress codes. Have different establishments cater to the exhibitionist crowd by outlining what constitutes a loose dress code that respects their right to express themselves while also respecting the rights of others.

Nudism: I cannot tell a lie, I would very much like to practice a nudist lifestyle within private. My girlfriend and I have even discussed it in our potential future plans. Unfortunately as I live with family, I cannot do so. And let's not even go into public nudism and its legal/ethical can of worms. My solution? Follow the European model - designate places where clothing is optional (for added protection, ensure these are 18+ places: you'll need to show ID before entering). This way, everyone wins.

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Let's Talk About Consent

Consent. What is it and why is it so important to me? Consent, by its traditional definition, is permission for something to happen or agreement to do something. Within the specific context of sexual activity and freedom, consent is voluntarily allowing oneself to engage in such activities without threat or authority. So why is it such a big deal to me? One, it's common sense. Two, I used to be a person who didn't take how others would feel about certain actions; most notably, this is why and how I got myself banned for four years in here (2015-2019). There's good reason I keep bringing my ban up from time to time. It's not in order to draw pity, nor is it a badge of dubious honor for me. If anything, it's a badge of shame, and one I keep bringing up to show that I made a huge mistake; one that, for better or worse, helped shape me into the person I am today. Thirdly, how can I respect my partners as lovers if I don't respect them as people first? The answer is I can't. Sure, sex is great, and I'd be a fucking liar if I said I didn't enjoy it (even if it is only cyber). But to me, sex is only one half of being poly. The other is laughing at your partners' dumb jokes, telling them things will get better, and most importantly telling them you love them as much as possible. Because no other words mean the world to them.

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This has been the inaugural entry in Tales From the Punchbowl. I'll see you next time.

Discuss below your thoughts on polyamory and free love, or relationships in general.

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