Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Brass Cannon

“… the liberal believes in the permanence of humanity’s imperfection, he resigns himself to a regime in which the good will be the result of numberless actions, and never the object of conscious choice. Finally, he subscribes to the pessimism that sees, in politics, the art of creating the conditions in which the vices of men will contribute to the good of the state.”
Raymond Aron, L’Opium Des Intellectuals p. 292

The Brass Cannon

The Brass Cannon. …Such a simple title, for such a big concept.

In the lengthy novel, the title object suddenly appears in the middle, is seen only for a paragraph, yet the shadow remains to the final page.

The setting is an age when transport is so expensive that you generally bring only the clothes on your back. Hence the young viewpoint character is quietly amazed at the behavior of his traveling companion, his old professor. The prof doesn’t know if he will arrive alive, or, instead, suffer a heart attack from the escape of Earth’s vicious gravity. Yet, next to his body, Professor Bernardo de da Paz places a little brass cannon that he purchased on Earth.

I sometimes wonder what would have been the affect if, on coffee tables scattered over America, that title had been there since the mid1960’s, glaring in mute accusation. The title of another novel from the same author, Stranger in a Strange Land, had been on the table at the house of the “idealistic” organizers of the tragic Kent State riot. “…Four dead in O-hi-o.” At the time I remember a few students quoting Mao: “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” (or rifle or cannon)

The idealistic title The Brass Cannon, chosen by Robert Heinlein was, alas, changed by the editor, who apparently thought fans of sf wouldn’t recognize it as science fiction. (Idiot!) As for the actual title, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, it’s such a mouthful that I can’t bring myself to be critical of anyone who “disrespects” the book by calling it “Moon.”

An earlier version of Professor de la Paz would be the town doctor in Heinlein’s 1949  Red Planet subtitled A Colonial Boy on Mars. Like the Lunar doctor of philosophy, the Martian doctor of medicine was also a philosopher of simple things beyond the “biggies” like democracy and revolution. Once he reminisced about what television sets were originally intended for: His grandfather had witnessed TV sets in bars being used to show wrestling matches. I thought of this when the big expensive HD TV’s first came out: too expensive to be seen anywhere but in bars.

Another memorable line of the doctor’s, because he had been involved in local politics back on Earth, was (from memory) “Every law that was ever written opened up a new way to graft.”

Perhaps he’s right. Perhaps graft is as practical as a cannon. When my hometown of Calgary, Alberta was considering a “number of bags” limit on weekly garbage collection, an alderman disparaged the idea saying, “People will come out with bags the size of (the town of) Cochrane.” Money and practicality, not idealism, was again the deciding issue when City Hall considered the idea of changing all the residential speed limits from 50 kilometers per hour to 40 kph. I don’t recall whether the morality of subverting the integrity, the honest calculations, of the professionals of road engineering was even mentioned. What I do recall is that changing all those signs would cost one or more million dollars, and that, anyway, many drivers practically ignore their speedometers. The idea was dropped.

I enjoy driving. When I go cruising along in the good old U.S. of A. I am mindful of how, for an awake citizenry, the Constitution is a practical force: Hence I drive the “Military and Interstate Highway System” often shortened to “the interstate,” a road that needed the plea of “military” use to get around the law, written generations before Hitler’s autobahn, against ever building any such road systems in the US.

After opening the sunroof and singing “Do you know the way to San Jose?” I might try a 1960’s advertising jingle from the Saturday morning cartoons of my youth:
You can eat them on the run; eat them just for fun,
Eat them when you have a party,
When you want a snack, you can eat them from the pack,
Or warm and crispy, good and hearty,
Pop tarts, great new treat,
New-ew-ew from Kellog's,
Pop tarts.

Except they weren’t new.

And they weren’t from Kellog's.

Whoever had first started producing the tarts has gone the way of all unpersons.

Kellog's saw, copied, and then, to quote a confederate cavalry officer, got there “first-est with the most-est.” Maybe that’s not fair, not ideal, but that’s how things work in this world of Saturday morning tarts and toy cannons. As my friend, a religious fundamentalist small-business owner put it, “As long as you are within the letter of the law you are morally OK.” The executives at Enron did break the law, and were prosecuted. The men on Wall Street who plunged our entire planet into a recession didn’t, and weren’t.

It should come as no surprise that what happens within a practical democratic nation also happens between groups of nations. When I was with NATO I often went mountaineering in Switzerland. Along the mountain roads, quite blatantly, were inset rusty brown tank traps, still operational, these being a big part of the reason why Hitler’s autobahns were never extended into Switzerland. The point is not that the Swiss diplomats would sing songs of peace, in sweet harmony, with their cultured German counterparts, but, rather, the Swiss could give a sober accounting of the tank traps, steel cannons and so forth. It must have taken several days of diplomatic meetings to recite the entire military inventory.

As for the earliest brass or iron cannons, according to legend they often were inscribed with: “The final argument of kings.”

Any colony, whether on Mars or Luna, that builds their own cannons to enable them to safely open up their minds to be able to think, and then to argue “in favor of revolt,” is a colony that includes “dirty traitors” against the king. Unless they succeed. Then the former colony includes “founding fathers.” And the new state receives diplomatic recognition.

(Here in town a college stand up comic noticed that many a young student has had his father give recognition to having one’s “own roof.” He asked: What’s so magical about a roof?)

Sometimes cannons are set along the coast. My brother’s university dormitory, at UBC, “Fort Camp,” was an old barracks for the shore defense gunners. (Against the Japanese) Back in the old days of sailing ships the distance a shore cannon could project force was 3 miles. It is most assuredly not coincidence that for so many years the legal International Limit for territorial waters was also 3 miles.

Meanwhile, from the age of sail and on through the steam age, one of the best navies has always been the Royal Navy. I remember as a youth, back when the limit was usually 3 or 12 (depending on the country) miles, reading a British navy book where all of the ship-to-ship missiles, and all of the ship to shore missiles, had a range of 200 miles. While I was reading the book, world diplomats were meeting to discuss extending the International Limit.

I like cannons, and in writing this all too brief essay I don’t mean to discourage the idealism of any young students at Kent State or UBC. If the mass of men and women, unlike you and me, don’t voluntarily restrain themselves unless they are forced to, well, "it’s no biggie." In my own lifetime I have cherished seeing a goodly spreading of democracy and the furthering of international cooperation. For me, knowing the Rules of Human Behavior is like having rules for the writing of sonnets: it just makes things more fun. The Rules mean that good laws, whether in Calgary or internationally, will be practical, enforceable, and suggest a side effect of graft. “A force in motion continues until it meets an opposite motion.”

It all starts with taking people as they are: They mean well, of course, and, like my dear religious friend, they need forces both judicial and physical, even brass cannons, to help guide them to stay safely on the road. From a distance I can watch generations of people passing by as they keep trudging along the low road to morality.

The high road, lost in the misty uplands, is only for the angels.


“In the course of the last forty years, the only part of the world that has enjoyed peace is the continent divided between two zones of political civilization both of them armed with atomic bombs.”

Raymond Aron, Les Dernieres Annees Du Siecle (The Last Years of the Century), p. 68

Sean Crawford
Calgary, at the ending of
The first decade of the second millennium

 ~ The man quoted above would be pleased to know that the European Union, instead of  an individual, was awarded the 2012 nobel peace prize

~The two quotes are from James Clive’s essay on Raymond Aron, from pages 32 and 39, quoted in Cultural Amnesia. ( a really exciting book)

~William Shakespeare did not invent the phrase “pot calling the kettle black” but he used the concept in one of his comedies, and he used a “cannon equivalent” in (I think) the comedy Twelfth Night. In Will’s day there was a problem with cannons: as they aged they weakened, and you never knew if one was going to burst into dangerous shards. So I laughed when a character retorted, “That was ill shot with elder cannon.”


  1. I've been looking all over for the "you can eat them on the run, you can eat them just for fun" jingle - I thought it was from Pop Tarts but couldn't verify it. I found your blog from a Google search. Thanks!

  2. You're welcome.
    Thank you for explaining, for otherwise my statistics feature "search terms" would have showed your jingle phrase, and I would have wondered if you were a young intern from Kellogs or something...
    As you may already know, if your google search turned up another essay of mine, one where someone else was looking up that jingle. Small world!