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Friday, May 4, 2007
Talkfest of the week: Romney and "Battlefield Earth"
Forget Mitt Romney's untruthful statement, last month, that he's been a "hunter pretty much all [his] life" (read: he's hunted twice). And forget what he said to the Associated Press, last week, about how it's "not worth moving heaven and earth spending billions of dollars just trying to catch [Osama bin Laden]." These slip-ups may cost him a few votes, sure. But when the ex-Mass. gov. told Fox News, on Monday, that one of his favorite novels is the 1982 sci-fi epic "Battlefield Earth," by L. Ron Hubbard, the media went berserk.
The Times's Jim Rutenberg blogged about it immediately, coyly noting that, when posed to a presidential candidate, "What's your favorite novel" is a question "the answer to which presumably gives insight into leadership," wink wink nudge nudge. He said no more.
Two WaPo writers were less cautious, and made much of the fact that Hubbard was not your run of the mill SF writer, but also the founder of Scientology. "Yikes, that doesn't strike me as the way to go for a candidate who's trying to convince Middle America that Mormonism is not exotic," commented Congressional reporter Lyndsey Layton, in a live chat on Tuesday. In a live chat on Wednesday, WaPo Book World columnist Michael Dirda mused: "Hmmm. Is Mitt Romney a Scientologist? This is the only logical explanation."
Why is this the only logical explanation? Because, America's critics and pundits -- whether left or right of center -- seem to agree, "Battlefield Earth" has no redeeming qualities. It is such a lousy novel that nobody could possibly enjoy or admire it, we're informed by the chattering class; so Romney could only have been making a political or religious point of some kind by claiming it as one of his favorites. At TNR's website The Plank, Michael Crowley said: "Isn't naming a novel by the hilariously nutty founder of Scientology more than a little loaded?" David Weigel at Reason magazine's blog Hit & Run said: "'Battlefield Earth' is awful. Nobody reads that book except Scientologists and smartasses who want to giggle at Scientologists, and even they start to cash out by the 7000th page or so."
"The whole tumbling horror of the 'Battlefield Earth' experience is so profound it nearly comes out the other side and achieves a kind of perfection of awfulness," insisted John Dickerson, in a Slate essay on Wednesday. "There must be something we can learn about Romney by examining this answer," he claimed, only to shrug his shoulders a few paragraphs later and conclude: "You simply need a deep level of weird to like 'Battlefield Earth.'" (Conservative pundit-turned-MSNBC anchor Tucker Carlson agrees: On Wednesday, he told viewers, "I am concerned about what our potential president is putting into his brain. If you are reading for fun, and not some sort of twisted research project, but voluntarily reading L. Ron Hubbard, as a novelist, I think it's a real red flag.")
So... we all agree that there's obviously some hilarious and telling point to be made about Romney, based on his enjoyment of "Battlefield Earth," but none of us can figure out exactly what that point is? I, for one, get suspicious when pundits agree to trash something. What is so threatening to everybody about "Battlefield Earth," anyway?
Dickerson is honest enough to admit that he hasn't actually read "Battlefield Earth," and I strongly suspect that none of these other folks have, either. I, on the other hand, have read the whole thing. In 1983, when I was 15. Yes, it's badly written, for the most part. But as post-apocalyptic science-fantasy novels go, it's not the worst one I've ever read. (That honor goes to: the 1971 Roger Zelazny novel "Damnation Alley." Or maybe Michael Crichton's "Andromeda Strain.") Romney's high school English teacher should have turned him on to "On the Beach" or "A Canticle for Leibowitz," maybe, but if enjoying schlock fiction means you're crazy, I don't want to be sane.
What does it mean that Romney likes "Battlefield Earth"? Here's an answer: IMHO, people who enjoy post-apocalyptic novels have a reactionary and/or utopian streak running through them; they enjoy narratives about the collapse of Western civilization because they're unhappy with the state of that civilization and would like (or imagine they'd like) to see the slate wiped clean. Once upon a time, James Fenimore Cooper novels thrilled educated Frenchmen for the same reason. Romney's brand of idealism may be jejune, but he's no more crazy than are the readers of other 1982 post-apocalyptic novels: "God's Grace," by Bernard Malamud; "The White Plague," by Frank ("Dune") Herbert; or the first installment of Alan Moore's "V for Vendetta" comic book series. If this sort of thing holds absolutely no appeal for Tucker Carlson and Michael Dirda, perhaps it's because they're (worryingly) satisfied with the current state of affairs?
If Romney had named the Book of Revelations as his favorite apocalyptic fiction, then there might be reason to worry. But "Battlefield Earth" has a happy ending: Rugged, never-say-die humans from around the planet join forces, educate themselves, work hard, and finally restore democracy on Earth, and in the rest of the universe. That's not so worrisome, is it? So cut the guy some slack about his taste in literature. Let's get back to bashing him about his flip-flopping on abortion, shall we?