Big Head Press

L. Neil Smith's
Number 616, April 24, 2011

"Cut off all government transfer
payments to billionaires"

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Little Bits of Junk
by L. Neil Smith

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Attribute to The Libertarian Enterprise

Watching an old National Geographic or Nova documentary on NetFlix the other day I was reminded all over again of how badly the English language has been mangled to achieve the objectives of collectivism.

The program was about new discoveries being made with regard to Mayan civilization, which turns out to be a thousand years older than previously believed. I've always been interested in archaeology in general, and I'm planning a sequel to my vampire novel Sweeter Than Wine that will concern itself with the macabre character of various meso-American civilizations. But the TV program had a sub-theme, as well.

A couple of them, really.

The first was rather easily dismissed. The documentary's writers were apparently unaware that so-called "slash-and-burn" agriculture has been a way of life for Third World farmers for thousands of years. The idea is that typical jungle—pardon me, "rain forest"—soil is poor and thin, but, unless you're a member of the environmentalist aristocracy, banging out a script in some air-conditioned New York or Hollywood office or apartment, then you have to work with what you've got.

So what you do, if you're in the farmer's position, is set fire to whatever stretch of land you plan to farm, burn the trees, bushes, and weeds to ashes, and return their nutrients to the soil they leached it out of. You plant, tend, and harvest your crops, then, when the season ends, move to the next stretch of jungle, leaving the previous one to lie fallow. Try to think of it as just another loop on the Circle of Life. Only the most pathological rain forest huggers are unaware that, in the tropics and subtropics, the "ravaged" ground will be covered up again, soon enough, by opportunistic weeds, bushes, and eventually trees.

What we're dealing with here, of course, are the same subgeniuses, who proclaimed to the world that it would require centuries for Prince William Sound and the Gulf of Mexico to recover from their vile and reprehensibly capitalistic exposure to a natural product—petroleum -- that Mount Saint Helen's (which must somehow have been capitalism's fault, as well) would remain barren for a thousand years, and that SUV exhaust and the farting of domesticated ungulates are not only heating up the atmosphere of lovely Mother Gaia, but of Mars and Jupiter, as well.

But I greatly fear I have digressed. Again.

What this otherwise interesting and enjoyable documentary on the early Mayans whined about—even more than Third World agricultural techniques—was the fact that descendants of these ancient people were venturing out in the thulies without government approval or, more importantly, academic sanction, finding pyramids and other structures abandoned by their ancestors before tenured treasure-hunters could, burrowing into them and laying claim to their inheritance, which they then used to supplement the crappy income that comes of subsistence farming.

These people were constantly referred to as "looters" by the documentary's writers and the featured academics, who, unbelievably, begrudge them—and their hungry children—what Indiana Jones' girlfriend Marian Ravenwood accurately called "little bits of junk", a phrase that I firmly believe should be tattooed across every academic archaeologist's torso simply to remind him of the proper priorities in life.

Backwards, so he can see it in the bathroom mirror.

Or upside-down, across his stomach.

Robert Bakker of hotblooded dinosaur fame has criticized proposed laws that make amateur paleontology a crime, pointing out that most good finds begin with non-professionals stumbling across interesting new materials. Unfortunately, many such laws are already in place for archaeology, with government, in effect, preclaiming everything under the topsoil before it's discovered, a clear-cut case of underground Marxism.

You often hear supporters of such laws snort, "That ought to be in a museum!" when they spot some desirable something on a collector's mantlepiece. But isn't it infinitely better off there, than hidden in a museum basement where most "nationalized" artifacts and fossils end up? And given the miserable track record socialism has earned in every other field of human endeavor, isn't it socialists who belong in a museum?

Believe me when I attest that archaeology is important to me for many reasons and has been since I was about five years old. Much like paleontology, it tells us where we are by showing us where we've been. Sometimes it explains how we got this way and warns us of mistakes we shouldn't make again. And it's just plain splendiferously mysterious and interesting—like an old adventure radio serial. My very lovely and talented wife is preparing herself even now for a second career in archaeology. She'd like to be curator of a private museum in the Southwest.

What fun we're going to have!

But not only is there nothing under the ground worth depriving some poor farmer's family of a meal, of arresting, jailing, possibly killing him over, there is yet another extremely important ethical consideration.

Or two.

What, precisely, is the moral distinction between a pot-hunting farmer, on the one hand, digging into a hill and extracting something for profit that will improve his life and the lives of his kids, and a college professor, on the other hand, from some faraway country, doing exactly the same thing for profit in the form of tenure and scientific prestige?

More importantly, since National Geographic or Nova or whoever brought the expression up first, who's calling whom a looter, here? Where does the mazuma come from to mount an expedition to the ancient Mayan Empire? And who writes the tenured college professor's salary check?

In what passes for American civilization, a native receives great sheaves of paper from uniformed government minions upon which he's required to make marks, preparatory to handing over half the gold he extracts from nature with hard work and the sweat of his brains. If he refuses to do this, the Emperor's scribes eventually send out thugs to kidnap the native, terrorize his family, and steal his house and other goods, all so the archaeologist can go play Howard Carter in the Yucatan.

Before you mention grants or donations to the National Geographic Society or the Public Broadcasting System, just how reliable do you think they'd be if they weren't an alternative to forcible payments to the government? The proper term for such a phenomenon is secondhand extortion.

So I ask again, who's the looter, here? Some poor local farmer trying to feed his family? Or the pampered star of classroom and public television, living lavishly on money taken at gunpoint from his neighbors?

To ask the question is to answer 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 more than 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 is currently running as a free weekly serial at

Neil is presently at work on Ares, the middle volume of the epic Ngu Family Cycle, and on Where We Stand: Libertarian Policy in a Time of Crisis with his daughter, Rylla.

See stunning full-color graphic-novelizations of The Probability Broach and Roswell, Texas which feature the art of Scott Bieser at Dead-tree versions may be had through the publisher, or at where you will also find Phoenix Pick editions of some of Neil's earlier novels. Links to Neil's books at are on his website


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