Tuesday, April 24, 2018
The Heinlein Experiment
This happened around 20 years ago, at a SciFi convention in California, but I'd like to know if there are any fans out there who remember seeing it.
Back then, in California at least, a lot of conventions were pushing a strict "weapons policy" that limited or outright forbade any "real" or even "realistic looking" weapons. Given the imaginations of SciFi fans, "realistic looking" covered a lot of ground, even more than Democrats give to "assault weapons". Remember, this was at the height of the popularity of gun control.
This led to an amazing number of stupid actions. I met a ten-year-old boy in a Ninja costume who complained that his plastic "throwing stars" had been stolen by an officious gopher. I met a fantasy fan dressed as a wizard who'd had to have a plastic "peace-tie" attached to his wizard's staff. I met an asthmatic fan who'd had to fight to keep his asthma-inhaler from being confiscated because it looked like a ray-gun. Needless to add, I'd made my opinion known -- loudly and often.
In the midst of all this, some fans at a northern convention went out and bought me a present: an electric guitar with the body shaped like an AK-47, and a form-fitting guitar-case to match. I had a good laugh over it, dubbed the instrument "Hambo", promised I'd learn to play it and would bring it back and perform with it at the same convention next year. Well, I kept my promise -- though it involved buying some heavy-duty cables and an amplifier, and experimenting with different kinds of strings and slide techniques.
The year rolled around and I came to the convention, as promised -- but I came prepared. I'd hunted up the convention's archivist-videotaper and let him know when I'd be arriving. I also took care to have my and my colleagues' luggage collected at the front door curbside and sent up to our room, so that I walked into the hotel carrying nothing but my gun-shaped guitar case, with the gun-shaped guitar inside. Yep, the videotaper met me at the door and dutifully followed me around inside, recording my adventures. First, trusting my roommates to handle the hotel registration and pick up the keys, I went straight to the convention registration table to pick up my membership. The Con-Reg clerks spotted my guitar-case, and the videotaper, giggled like mad and handed over my badge and convention books. We all carefully ignored the prominently-posted flyers displaying the Weapons Policy. One of the clerks deliberately asked: "Is that the guitar you were awarded here last year?" I happily agreed, and added: "I promised then that I'd bring it back and play it for the filk-track, so here it is." The videotaper caught it all.
Next I went to the dealers' room, where I made my usual first circuit, greeting friends -- who likewise spotted the guitar-case and snickered -- while the videotaper dutifully followed. I'd reached the far end of the room when one of the dealers, a bookseller as I recall, looked over my shoulder and then quickly asked: "Oh, is that the guitar I head about? Can I see it?" Guessing that something was up, I cheerfully agreed. I laid out the case on the table and flipped the lid open, revealing the gun-shaped guitar -- which the dealers admired and cooed over while the videotaper recorded.
Just then, up came huffing a member of the ConCom, glowering furiously. She glared at the exposed guitar, glared at me, opened her mouth -- and then saw the videotaper, with his camera aimed straight at her. She shut her mouth quickly, opened and shut it a couple more times, then asked sulkily: "Did you bring that here just to defy our weapons policy?"
Carefully not breaking character, I looked innocent and replied: "Nonsense. I was awarded this guitar by the Filk fans at this convention last year, and I promised I'd play it here this year, so here it is."
The petty enforcer glowered at me, glowered at the videotaper, then turned her back and walked away quickly. Dealers all over the room, who had seen the whole thing, exploded into a storm of giggles. One of them came up to me and announced: "You know, there's space on the schedule for a write-in panel, and I really think that convention weapons-policies deserve a panel of their own. Would you like to serve on it?"
Well, of course I would -- just so long as it wasn't before noon. He promised to write it in for after lunch, and trotted off to gather more panelists. And the videotaper recorded it all. Seeing that the stage was set, I didn't bother heading off to Convention Security -- which otherwise would have been my next stop -- but commented that I had to go up to my room and get unpacked. Scene end: fadeout.
Fade in: a large discussion room filled with at least a hundred fans, five people (including me) seated at the table in the front, with hastily-printed name-cards before us. The same videotaper is standing in the back of the room, camera now mounted on a tripod, recording everything. The panel moderator announces the title of the subject and opens the panel for discussion.
Now I'll name no names, except to mention that I recognized three of the other four as published authors -- including a distinguished older gentleman with snowy hair and moustache, and a dark-complected middle-aged athlete. I was seated at (wouldn't you guess!) the far left end of the table. The fourth panelist (seated at the far right end of the table) was a fiercely passionate-looking young man in a slightly-rumpled sports shirt whom I'd never seen before. The topic fell like a stone into a pool, and away we went.
The topic of SciFi convention policies soon slid into the concept of gun control and weapons control in general, and patterns soon emerged. The white-haired gentleman quoted facts and statistics and their verifications, the athlete described his own experiences, the other panelist and I varied between the two, and we politely waited until each of us was done speaking before cutting in with a relevant fact, figure or anecdote. It was the Terribly Passionate Young Man who cut in without warning, shouted refutations without basis, argued purely from emotion, insisted that no really moral person could possibly disagree with him, and quoted slogans. Four of us argued patiently that "hoplophobia" -- fear of weapons and armed citizens -- was irrational as well as unconstitutional. The fifth (guess who!) insisted that weapons are always evil because "they kill people!", and that any connection with them -- even in harmless imitation -- was evil by similarity, if not contagion (which is classic Magical Thinking).
After more than half an hour of this, I was fed up and looking for an opportunity to break the pattern. I found it when one of the other reasonable panelists rather pointedly brought up Heinlein's famous quote -- "An armed society is a polite society" -- and the Terribly Passionate Young Man promptly down-shouted him with an unsupported slogan: "How can you say that, when more guns in a society mean more gun-crimes?!"
At that point I stood up and said: "I propose an experiment."
That, of course, caught the attention of the audience -- they being Science-Fiction fans.
"An experiment to test Heinlein's Hypothesis, right here and right now. Will someone please close the doors so we won't be interrupted?"
Two or three fans hastily stood up to close the doors, and then stand beside them to make sure they wouldn't be easily opened.
To the audience I went on: "In the last 40 minutes you've all had ample opportunity to see for yourselves just which of us up here on the panel have been reasonable and polite, and which have been... not so much." Then I turned to my fellow panelists and said: "Members of the panel, will each of you take out and display here on the table all the weapons that your have on you right now?" While everyone else absorbed that idea, I promised: "I'll go first."
I knew, of course, which weapons I always carry with me, and I'd made a pretty good guess about the others. So, while everybody else was still reeling, I pulled up my sword-cane and drew it, and laid both blade and sheath down on the table. When I drew and set out my little-bitty North American Arms .22 revolver it was almost anti-climactic. By the time I'd pulled the folding-knife off my belt, the next panelist was reaching back between his shoulder-blades -- from which he drew a very respectable Bowie knife; by the time I'd gotten into my belt-purse and took out my plastic airport-knife (disguised as a thick comb), he'd also laid out a small semi-auto pistol. The white-moustached gentleman laid out a classic Colt .45 semi-auto and a couple of folding knives. I didn't see where he drew it from, but the athlete laid down a small wakazashi short sword -- followed by a cluster of throwing-stars. The audience was dead silent, watching.
Finally, all the panelists finished displaying their weaponry -- except for the Terribly Passionate Young Man at the end. Everybody looked at him expectantly. At last he pulled out his key-chain -- on which was a tiny (one-and-a-half inch) folding knife, and threw it down on the table -- and then started laughing hysterically.
I turned to the audience, poker-faced, and said: "I believe you have enough evidence to draw a conclusion."
The whole audience broke into uproarious laughter, which continued until the end of the assigned hour, while we panelists calmly packed up our assorted weapons and put them back where they'd been.
The Terribly Passionate Young Man was the last to put away his key-chain knife, and all that time he only sat there thoughtfully, not saying a word.
And the videotaper recorded the whole thing.
I never got that videotaper's name, but I hope he kept an edited copy of all that footage. I'd really love to see it, after all this time.