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L. Neil Smith's
Number 511, March 22, 2009

"The Mother Of All Demos"

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The Shoulders I Stand On
by L. Neil Smith

Attribute to The Libertarian Enterprise

From time to time, various interviewers ask me to identify the important influences in my writing and my life. My answers have been pretty consistent over the years, but I haven't had too many chances to go into any detail. Visiting with a friend on the telephone, I realized that three men, more than any others, have helped me to be what I am. I can't thank them, they're no longer with us, but I can tell my readers about them and share the benefits I've received from them.

I've never been anything but a libertarian—and a radical one, at that. But for some reason, my heroes have always been conservatives—and Californians. The other day at the grocery store I found a brand new DVD of Rio Bravo for a reasonable price and brought it home. It was one of those two-disk sets with commentary, a couple of freestanding documentaries, and other behind-the-scenes features I enjoy. I've learned a lot, I think, about making movies from such things.

Rio Bravo, for those of you under the age of forty, is a 1959 western about individual courage in the face of thuggery, directed by Howard Hawks and starring John Wayne. It also features Walter Brennan, Dean Martin, Rickey Nelson, and Angie Dickenson. And as I watched it for the hundredth time in my life, I realized, not for the first time, that I had learned a great deal more from movies like it than merely moviemaking.

Specifically—because my dad loved John Wayne's movies and I saw them whenever he did, usually at the drive-in theater where it seems I spent most of my childhood—I'd learned many important lessons about life from Wayne, and the image he created, developed, and perfected over his long career. A man's word has to be his bond. A bully has to be taken down. Wayne projected certain values—duty to what's right, determination to see it done no matter the cost, personal honor which is an individual's only genuine credential—that are often sneered at these days by slimy, cynical lowlives in the media, government, and academia.

John Wayne helped to build the foundation of my personality. And although I understood that movies are fantasy, I also understood that it's sometimes easier to convey important truths in fiction than in non-fiction. Although I later came to disagree with him about specific issues, (the war in Vietnam), I was confident he'd arrived at what he believed by methods I would recognize and respect. What's more, I brought to my opposition of that war, the values I had learned from him.

A little later in life—I was in sixth grade—I discovered the works of Robert Heinlein and continue to read them today. I have written before this about him and his importance in my life. He, too, valued honesty and decency, courage and determination. Like Wayne, he knew his way around a .45 (not to mention a sword), and he believed that everyone, even kids, should be adequately armed and capable of self-defense.

Heinlein was a bold experimenter, but with a respect for the past. His books are full of ideas he clearly wanted to "try on for size". In one, duelling was a respected custom, young couples sought genetic counselling before having children, and Social Credit theory ruled the economy. In another, people practiced complex "line marriage". In yet another, citizens weren't allowed to vote until they'd served in the military.

Heinlein began his intellectual life as an ardent New Deal leftist. As socialism failed, worldwide, he had the integrity to acknowledge it and journeyed, one step at a time (some say it was with the guidance of his remarkable wife, Virginia), through a growing conservatism, until, toward the end of his life, he became a genuine libertarian and, I suspect, a "practical anarchist", an expression he invented.

His outlook on life was essentially scientific—he often said that if you don't understand mathematics, you don't really understand anything—but at the same time warmly understanding of the foibles of his fellow human beings. We have a civilized obligation, he said, to be kindly with the weak and patient with the stupid, a standard I often have difficulty living up to. He knew (and because he did, so do I) that times change, politics change, technology changes, but people don't.

Socialists left and right may not believe it, but that's a good thing.

The third individual in my collection of real live heroes is Jeff Cooper, a retired Marine colonel (when I knew him) and perhaps the most important, historically, of the three. Wayne made great movies that helped establish my character and those of many others, I am sure. Heinlein wrote great stories that gave us futures worth fighting for.

Over a period of forty years, Cooper, with a little help from his friends, turned the use of the personal sidearm—specifically the 1911A1 Colt .45 automatic—into a martial art. Mostly in gun magazine articles, he wrote extensively, about that and many other subjects, and his writing was always clear, erudite, and frequently witty.

I remember especially when he wrote about being a young Marine officer in World War II, altogether too influenced by Elmer Keith, a staunch advocate of the single-action revolver, thinking that the old Peacemaker was enough—until he had to reload the damn thing in the dark, a driving tropical rain, under Japanese fire. It was in that magic moment that the man I think of as the Yoda of the .45 auto was born.

I never got to meet John Wayne, or even see him in person. I knew Heinlein through the mail and his opinion of my work is a personal treasure to me. Cooper was aware of my work (students at his shooting school, Gunsite, were always giving him my books and essays), and when he came to Denver for a week to teach, I asked him and his wife Janelle to dinner at the Fort, a local restaurant that serves wild game.

On another occasion, I told him about a book I was writing at the time, Pallas, a novel about integrating hunting into modern society, and asked if he knew where I could get a copy of the long out-of-print Meditations on Hunting by Jose Ortega y Gasset, a book he had quoted from and written about at some length. He was kind enough to send me an inscribed copy of a new printing I believe he had something to do with.

These great men loom large in my life, and sometimes they sort of run together in my thoughts. Sure, there are other individuals—among them, Ayn Rand, H. Beam Piper, Robert LeFevre, Zenna Henderson—who are important to me and who continue to inform my thinking and my writing. But in a bad pinch, I find myself wondering what John Wayne would do, what Robert Heinlein would do, what Jeff Cooper would do.

And, to the best of my ability, I do it.

Four-time Prometheus Award-winner L. Neil Smith has been called one of the world's foremost authorities on the ethics of self-defense. He is the author of 25 books, including The American Zone, Forge of the Elders, Pallas, The Probability Broach, Hope (with Aaron Zelman), and his collected articles and speeches, Lever Action, all of which may be purchased through his website "The Webley Page" at

Ceres, an exciting sequel to Neil's 1993 Ngu family novel Pallas was recently completed and is presently looking for a literary home.

Neil is presently working on Ares, the middle volume of the epic Ngu Family Cycle, and on Roswell, Texas, with Rex F. "Baloo" May.

The stunning 185-page full-color graphic-novelized version of The Probability Broach, which features the art of Scott Bieser and was published by BigHead Press has recently won a Special Prometheus Award. It may be had through the publisher, or at


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