Prime Palaver #9

Eric Flint

May 12, 2002


     I'm quoting below a portion of a letter which just came in to the Librarian, since it raises an issue which a number of letters have now raised.

      ...also i have mentioned the library to some other blind sci fi fans that i know who have a computer and the software to use it and they have all said thanks to you and jim baen for setting up the library but since most of us will not ever buy the books because we can not read the paper ones is there any way that we can help contribute to the authors that have put their books on line ??

 thanks jim

      I've never tried to carry out a systematic statistical survey of the letters I've gotten into the Library -- which now number about 1400. It'd be an interesting and informative project, obviously. But the labor involved would just be prohibitive for me, given that it would take too much time away from the writing and editing work I do for an actual living.

     Still -- if you'll forgive me for lapsing once again into "anecdotal" evidence -- I can tell you for sure that a significant percentage comes from blind people. (As well as, in some cases, people such as Jimmy Grimsley -- see my Introduction to the Library -- who suffer from other medical problems which impede their ability to read.)

     Many of them, probably most of them, raise the same issue that Jim does in the letter above -- is there any way for them to contribute financially to the authors they like?

     So I decided I should address myself to that issue in this installment of Prime Palaver.

     My answer is going to take some time to explain, because it ultimately involves the way I look at the world as a whole. And it's also going to ramble around a bit, so bear with me. I should also make clear from the outset that this is simply my attitude alone. It may or may not be shared by other authors who've put books in the Library. This is my response as a individual, that's all, and it's going to be a lot more personal than other essays I've written here.

      I simply don't care.

     If a blind person can find a way to send a little money my way -- assuming they want to -- by buying a book of mine in some format that suits them, that's great. But they should feel under no obligation to do so, because, insofar as the term "obligation" is involved at all, it cuts entirely in the opposite direction.

     I consider it a fundamental obligation of a modern civilized society to make whatever provisions are necessary to assist those of its members who suffer from especially severe medical problems. And, as a member of such a society, I share in that obligation.

     I stress the term obligation, because I do not consider this "charity." As a matter of fact, I basically detest the term "charity" itself.

     I detest it because, as a rule, it's an evasion. It implies, at least, that the obligation assumed is a result of noblesse oblige. I.e., that it reflects well on the giver, because the giver was under no obligation to give but did so simply because of their superior qualities.

     In a way, of course, being generous does reflect well on the "charitable" person. But not in the aristocratic sense of having a superior personality. It is actually a very plebeian virtue, the old village virtue of a society taking care of its own, and not letting itself get tangled up in a mean-spirited wrangle over who is entitled to what and who is at fault for what and who is... etc. Which, by the way, was the original meaning of the term "Christian charity." It was an obligation, not an option.

     I suspect most people would agree with my opening statement, that "a modern civilized society [is obliged] to make whatever provisions are necessary to assist those of its members who suffer from especially severe medical problems." But many people -- perhaps most -- would add a qualification:

     Insofar as they are not at fault for it.

     Ah, yes. That old -- utterly vile -- aristocratic disclaimer.

     "The deserving poor." With the aristocrats, of course, getting to decide who is "deserving" and who isn't.

     But in the real world, responsibility cannot be so easily assigned. To a degree, yes. Obviously. Nobody ever forced a man to become an armed robber, or an alcoholic, or a... (Fill in the sin or crime of your preference.)

     Not directly, at least. But the factors involved in a person's life which lead them to one or another course of activity are complex. And while criminal or irresponsible conduct should not be excused, the background which produced it also cannot be swept under the rug by those who, because of their own luckier or more privileged life -- for which, oddly enough, they invariably take credit even though no credit is due to them -- found it easy to avoid.

     I've never committed an armed robbery, myself. I was born into a middle-class background, was encouraged as far back as I can remember -- by family and school officials alike -- to see myself as a bright and capable boy with any future open to me that I could aspire to.

     So I never even thought about mugging anybody, or robbing a liquor store. But -- this is the one thing I will take credit for -- I was never so self-righteous or egotistical or smug as to imagine that, had I been born and raised in a different environment, I might have.

     Might have. Who knows? But that "grayness" is where a society's responsibility comes in. Because if a society demands that individuals have to take responsibility for their actions, then it also has the obligation to, as far as possible, remove those conditions which so obviously predispose individuals toward irresponsible or criminal conduct.

     So, to give an example, it is utterly irresponsible -- even criminal, I would argue -- for a society to demand that everyone be "drug-free" while...

     -- it turns a blind eye to drug use among the wealthy, while viciously penalizing it among the poor and working class. (Check the statistics on the percentage of white stockbrokers serving prison terms for cocaine use -- if you can find any at all -- with the statistics for poor black people from inner city ghettoes. Or white factory workers, for that matter. Or consider the fact that -- to give just one example out of a multitude -- a recent study showed that, in the state of Illinois, a black person was 57 times more likely to serve a prison term for the same felony -- simple possession -- than a white person.)

     -- ignores completely -- indeed, even rewards -- the flight of industry to low-wage areas in the countryside or other countries, which has absolutely devastated most of America's inner cities; in short, allows a situation to continue where dealing drugs is the only readily-available avenue for economic advancement, at the same time that it decries the criminality of it all. To call this "hypocrisy" is to slander the term itself.

     -- oh, never mind. I could go on and on, and in a different forum undoubtedly would.


     But if I've never robbed anybody, I am an alcoholic. So let me examine that question, from the standpoint of "obligations" and "charity" and "personal responsibility." (And if anyone's wondering what all this has to do with blindness, hold your horses. I'm getting there.)

     It is now well-established that alcoholism is a physical disease -- not a so-called "mental illness" or "moral failure" -- which is largely due to genetic predisposition. The reason many people are confused about it is because alcoholism is a physical disease -- one of many, by the way -- whose main symptoms (especially in the onset of the disease) manifest themselves in behavior rather than overtly physical symptoms. To simplify, it's a complex metabolic disorder involving liver and brain functions, triggered off by the use of alcohol, to which some people are especially prone because of their genetic heritage.

     Yep, that's me. Largely Irish on one side of my family, Norwegian on the other -- both ethnic groups with high rates of alcoholism. Looking back at it, it's now clear to me that I was sliding into the disease as a teenager. As it happens, I didn't particularly like the taste of alcohol. But, at the time, I was living in a rural area where heavy drinking was a cultural rite-of-passage for teenage boys. And, since I was an outsider who'd moved into the area, I felt the pressure probably even more than most boys.

     To make things worse, the first symptom of alcoholism is that the individual has an unusual capacity for drinking alcohol and showing few if any negative effects. That's because alcoholism begins as a liver dysfunction. An alcoholic's liver can process alcohol much more rapidly than most people -- which means that you seem to be the person who can "handle liquor" most easily. You can out-drink damn near anybody.

     That was true of me, for sure. As a teenage boy in a rural social environment -- the foothills and mountains of central California -- that was my one claim to fame amongst my rough-and-tough country boy peers. My intellectual qualities were more likely to get me into trouble than gain me status.

     Yeah, I was fairly small and no great shakes when it came to fisticuffs. Nor, alas, did I have any particular aptitude for the two other skills esteemed by my peers, which were working on cars and seducing girls. (The latter skill, let me add, being far more often boasted about than actually demonstrated in practice.)

     But... I could drink. By the time I was sixteen, I had earned my country-boy drinking spurs. Which, in those days, consisted of drinking an entire case of beer in one evening without passing out. (What is it today? I don't know. Probably the same thing.)

     I was established. I had my own modest place in the social sun.

     So. Where do we want to start playing the "responsibility game" here, folks?

     Was I responsible?

     Of course. Nobody put a gun to my head and forced me to drink a case of beer in one night. Which I did many more times than once, by the way. I was striving to manage the legendary feat of drinking two cases in an evening. I never managed it, but I did come fairly close a couple of times. I can still remember -- well, sorta -- one memorable night out in the woods when a number of my suitably-admiring and awestruck comrades were cheering me on as I tried -- alas, failed -- to tackle the last six-pack.

     Nor, on the other side of the coin, did anyone not warn me of the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption. Many people did. And, leaving warnings aside, I wasn't stupid and had plenty of graphic evidence of the dangers. I've forgotten the exact number, but several of my schoolmates died or were badly injured in car accidents caused by drunk driving. (Which is a very common cause of death in America's rural areas, by the way, especially for young people. Statistically, way out of whack with the percentage for the population as a whole.)

     But... there was the social pressure, always ferocious for teenagers; and, of course, already the disease was fastening itself upon me.

     By the time I was in college, I had matured enough to be much less reckless in the way I drank. I was now in an intellectual big-city environment (UCLA, in Los Angeles), where "manhood" did not have to be proved in such a crude manner. But I was by now a very heavy drinker.

     Following the usual pattern with alcoholics, it wasn't until I was well into my thirties that I was finally able to recognize and accept the fact that my heavy drinking habits were not really "habits" at all, but a disease. By then, of course, the addiction itself had settled in thoroughly, and I discovered -- as so many other people had before me, and will in the future -- just how incredibly difficult it can be to overcome a physical addiction.

     But, eventually, I managed. Not quickly, nor easily. I quit drinking the first time when I was 35, and stayed off the sauce for some four years or so. Then, unfortunately -- still not really understanding the nature of the disease -- I got overconfident because I seemed to be able to avoid alcohol when I wanted to. So I started drinking again and, within a few months, was drinking more heavily than ever. My life soon became a nightmare, for my wife Lucille and daughter Elizabeth even more than me.

     Finally, in 1989, I was able to quit drinking again -- and I haven't had a drink of alcohol since.

     That was thirteen years ago. I no longer worry about it. I'm still an alcoholic and will be for the rest of my life, barring some genuine revolution in medicine. (Which would be almost miraculous, given our current level of medical science and technology. The metabolic complexity of a disease like alcoholism makes finding a cure for cancer look like child's play.) But if alcoholism has no cure, it does have an extremely effective -- fool-proof, in fact -- treatment. Don't drink.

     I don't. Nor, for many years now, have I felt any urge to drink. Occasionally, for social reasons -- often at science fiction conventions -- I find myself in a bar surrounded by people cheerfully knocking down their favorite alcoholic beverages. It doesn't bother me in the least, nor do I begrudge them the pleasure. I know the statistics, for one thing. The rate of relapse among alcoholics who have managed to stay sober for five years drops below 1% -- a far better rate, in fact, that those for most forms of cancer or heart disease.

     I'm thankful, of course, that I didn't hurt anybody in the course of it. Physically, at least, if not psychologically. (I leave aside several young fellows whom I gave bloody noses. What the hell. I got bloody-nosed too, and, besides, they transgressed the country boy code duello. I'm sure they did, although I can't actually remember any of the drunken details. The country boy code duello is every bit as arcane and elaborate as the code in Renaissance Italy. Almost impossible not to transgress, if you're a sprightly lad.)

     And I'm sometimes amazed that I survived myself, with nothing worse than a few bruises I picked up once when the car I was in rolled on a country road. (Country boys. We all laughed, solemnly assured each other that the fact we were all drunk is what accounted for the absence of serious injury -- too loosey-goosey, y'know, in our inebriated state, to suffer broken bones -- tipped the car back upright -- not all that hard, since there were six of us in it -- and went on our way. The driver did, however, pay a little more attention to what he was doing thereafter. That night, anyway.)

     Most of all, though, there's at least a part of me -- big part, too -- that is oddly thankful I went through the whole experience. Not because I'd wish alcoholism on anybody -- it really is a horrible disease -- but simply because I know it's helped me avoid what I think is perhaps the ultimate of all sins.

     At least I'm not -- most of the time, anyway -- a smug, fat-headed, self-righteous jackass who thinks his shit don't stink. And I'm a lot less concerned about other peoples' faults and failures than I am about my own responsibilities.

     I'm not really responsible, I don't think, for the disease I suffer from. I am responsible for what I do about it.

     And that, in a roundabout way, brings me back to the issue at hand.

     At first glance, of course, blindness would seem to have little to do with alcoholism. The first is clearly not the fault of the sufferer, the latter... well, it's murky.

     True... up to a point. Alas, the real world is always more complicated and contradictory than the Self-Righteous like to claim.

     What about someone who is blind because, through their own reckless conduct, they blinded themselves? Lost their eyesight because of a drunk driving accident -- or got high on some hallucinogetic drug and thought staring at the sun was fascinating? (Just to give two examples.)

     Am I supposed to start demanding that blind people who want to read my books for free present me with medical and police testimony attesting to their good character? Prove to me that they are "deserving"?

     Bah. Such is the false morality of the Self-Righteous and the Holier-Than-Thou. Such is the logic-chopping and ethic-parsing (parsimony, rather) of small and petty souls. Not for them to consider walking a mile in someone else's moccasins. They don't wear moccasins to begin with. They only wear the spiritual equivalent of Gucci loafers.

     It is a fact -- leave all "blame" out of it -- that a modern and complex industrial society will, inevitably, produce a wide variety of instances in which individual people are handicapped, in one way or another. Call it the collateral damage of civilization, if you will.

     At times, of course, clear blame and responsibility can be assigned. And with precious little in the way of extenuating circumstances. To give an example, a chemical corporation which -- knowing one of its products is medically dangerous -- conspires to keep that knowledge secret for no reason other than greed.

     Yeah, sure, piece of cake. (Although, typically, the law will be far more lenient to the executives of such a corporation than they will to a teen-ager who commits a simple burglary.)


     More often than not, there really isn't anybody to blame, as an individual. Unless, that is -- and here is the real danger -- we start twisting the concept of "blame" to suit our own agendas.

     I will give you an example. My sister Kathy suffers from a rare form of cancer which, according to the doctors, is almost certainly environmentally induced. My mother was recently diagnosed with the same cancer, although fortunately not in as severe a form and at a much earlier stage of development.

     No one is positive, because the cancer is so rare that it hasn't been researched as exhaustively as many others. But the medical experts are pretty sure what happened is this:

     Long ago -- over half a century now -- my father was a crop duster for a time. This was right after World War II, when a lot of new insecticides were being enthusiastically promoted by everybody. I stress everybody, because this was long before the modern environmentalist movement began alerting the world to the "dark side" of such things as DDT. My father was just as enthusiastic about them as anybody -- probably more than most, in fact, because his experiences as a pilot in the Air Corps in the Pacific theater had allowed him to see first-hand the ravages of disease and malnutrition in poor countries.

     I had been born by then, but my sister was still a fetus. My father used to come home from work, his clothes reeking with the smell of insecticides, and my mother would wash and iron them. And, the doctors are pretty sure, that was the environmental factor which triggered off the genetic change which, many decades later, produced the cancer in my sister -- and, still later in her life, my mother.

     Why didn't it strike my father, who was more affected than anyone?

     Hell, who knows? There seems to be a definite element of genetic predisposition involved in most forms of cancer. Probably in this one also. So, presumably, he was just more resistant to it -- just as I, perhaps for the same reason or simply because I was no longer in the particularly vulnerable form of a fetus, do not seem to have contracted it either. (Not yet, anyway -- although I do keep an eye out for the symptoms.)

     So. Let's start playing the "blame game." Is my family supposed to hire private detectives and lawyers and biological labs to track down the "culprit"? Assuming we could afford it, which we can't. And assuming -- highly unlikely -- that we could figure out which of the insecticides my father sprayed was the villain in the piece, and then -- almost as unlikely -- track down the company officials who produced it at the time.

     And, even if we did, then what? What we would find at the end? A mustachio-twirling villain who, finally confronted by his accusers, confessed his crimes?

     Well, maybe. But I have a feeling I'd find something else, if I found anything at all. I have a feeling that, in the end, I'd be confronting an old man in a retirement home. Whose only memory of that time was the pride and satisfaction he felt that he was producing a product which was rapidly alleviating diseases and increasing food production. And who had no idea that there was any long-term danger lurking under the surface.

     Or... maybe it would be grayer. Maybe I would catch something in his old eyes that made me think he did halfway-suspect there might...

     But... it was his livelihood at stake, and, like most people, he suppressed his vague sense that something wasn't quite right.

     Just as I, decades ago, suppressed my vague sense that something wasn't right about the way I drank liquor.

     What should I then do? Demand that "justice be done?" Strip him of his few assets?

     Should I choose, then, to ignore the fact that the product which eventually shattered my sister's life probably enabled the life of another girl somewhere else? Who would have died of a disease, or suffered from lifelong disabilities due to malnutrition as a child?

     Tell me, o ye self-righteous ones. Those of you who will instantly point the finger of blame and demand "individual responsibility!" (Though not, as a rule, for yourselves.) What should I do?

     Bah. I left the sandbox and its selfish, infantile morality behind long ago. I am an adult, and a member of an advanced industrial society, who does not hesitate to take advantages of all its blessings. But that also requires me to assume responsibility for its ills, as well -- and not try to shift the responsibility onto someone else.

     That doesn't mean that I am personally responsible for its ills, of course. I'm not, by and large. But it does mean two things:

     First, that as a citizen of such a society, I have a responsibility to denounce and oppose measures which, to benefit a few, would harm the many. (Even if I happen to be included in "the few.") And, secondly, that insofar as I can take measures in my personal life which might make a difference, I should do so.

     So, finally, we come back to where we started.


     Jim, here's my answer:

     I will expect -- I will certainly hope -- that, insofar as advances in technology make it possible for blind readers to pay for my writings, that they will do so. Subject, of course, to the reality that -- as a rule, though not always -- blind people are likely to have a limited budget. Until that time comes, please enjoy my writings. I give them to you freely -- not out of "charity," but because I consider it my obligation to do so.

     In immediate terms, for those blind readers who have access to computer technology which can translate paper editions into a format you can use -- and who can afford it -- I urge you to try Baen's Webscriptions service. All of my writings are or will be available electronically either in Webscriptions and/or the Library, and the cost is quite modest. The same is true for most of the authors who publish through Baen Books.

Eric Flint