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A Tribute to J. Neil Schulman

1953 - August 10, 2019
 

 

 

by Joseph O'Neill

 

On August 10 this year we lost Joseph Neil Schulman, a libertarian and science fiction icon. Neil was not a founding member of the Karl Hess Club, but he might as well have been. For years he was a strong contributor to and vociferous commentator on Club proceedings. He even continued with frequent long-distance visits after he moved to the late Art Bell's Kingdom of Nye (Area 51 adjacent, Nevada).

Another popular attendee was Neil's mother, whom Neil had cared for faithfully in her dotage. When Neil's decades-long friend and neighbor, our own Samuel Edward Konkin III, died in 2004 with no nearby relatives, Neil stepped up to the plate efficiently managing all post-mortem affairs. Sam famously was opposed to Government-issued ID and, accordingly, had no driver's license, Socialist Insecurity Number (SIN), etc. Statists sometimes tell you you must have ID, otherwise, when you die, no one can identify your body, inform your family, etc. Well, that was no problem at all for Neil, who still got everything squared away just fine, including getting Sam's mortal remains repatriated to his native Alberta. Now Sam lies beside his father in the tundra, presumably cheering on today’s Albertan Rebels from six feet under, giving the lie to another statist myth about ID. Neil notably also organized Sam's magnificent memorial at the Alpine Village with a stellar cast of libertarian eulogists.

It was also at the Alpine Village that Neil delivered the lecture at the very first meeting of the Karl Hess Club in 1994. The topic was Neil's then recently published, masterful gun-rights manifesto, Stopping Power: Why 70 Million Americans Own Guns. In Stopping Power, Neil made an overwhelming case in favor of gun rights and against gun control. Much gun rights writing avoids tough issues. Not Stopping Power, which took the gun grabbers' hardest arguments head-on and dismantled them systematically, rigorous and ingenious logician that Neil was.

Among other venues, Neil promoted Stopping Power on the Dennis Praeger radio show -- excuse me, the Dennis Praeger "program"! Now Praeger is the "Court Philosopher of the Ruling Elite." I.e., simple-minded objections to the Neocon agenda are handled by morons like Hannity; tough ones get kicked upstairs to Praeger. But Praeger does have libertarian streaks. For example, he's an advocate of smokers' rights and a free speech absolutist. So he is decent and open-minded. Neil was supposed to be on Praeger for a short segment, but Praeger was so impressed with Neil's masterful rhetoric, he kept him on for the full hour! And afterwards… Praeger went out and bought a gun, for the first time in his life! So, Neil accomplished that rarest of feats -- he actually changed someone’s mind using reason!

Neil embodied the finest anarchist and libertarian currents within the Jewish intellectual tradition. He published a marvelous collection of fiction called Nasty, Brutish and Short Stories -- a gloriously funny title. Clearly, Neil did not tremble before that false idol, Hobbes. Mainstream intellectuals deem Hobbes's reasoning to be unassailable, because it is statist and authoritarian. Yet they never mention his anti-Christianity, as that might undermine its public relations effect. Neil regarded one story in that collection, "Day of Atonement," as his ultimate statement on Judaism. The story is profoundly thought out, nuanced, insightful, hilarious, and provocative. An extraordinary piece.

In Stopping Power there's also a section called "What It Takes to Get Me to Put on a Yarmulke." This is the address Neil gave at synagogues and other Jewish gatherings on gun rights. Again, funny and well argued. Among other things, Neil was a great advocate of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and a great opponent of the 1938 Nazi Waffengesetz, widely seen as model legislation for later US gun control laws. Neil was a member of the late Aaron Zelman's excellent organization: Jews for the Protection of Firearms Ownership, which also welcomes non-Jewish members. Thus, Neil found a way to be true to his culture that was also true to himself.

Against and among the various dominant political currents, Neil also steered a true course on civil liberties. Many on the American Right support the Second Amendment but no other freedoms, beyond, perhaps, the freedom for the superrich to amass unlimited wealth and power. Many Old School Lefties courageously defend the rights of the accused, but disavow the Right to Keep and Bear Arms. DLC Democrats and Neocons are de facto Fascists who pay lip service to Freedom of Speech or of the Press. (They rarely mention other freedoms because much of the public is unaware they exist.) Civil liberties for these authoritarians are useful excuses for invading foreign countries, but are not to be practiced within the U.S., where they are rashly sacrificed on any pretext. In fact, these people believe all social problems stem from an excess of human freedom, rather than from their true source, elite entitlement. The PC Left is ideologically and irrationally, explicitly opposed even to Free Speech, let alone to other rights, and is utterly detestable.

Neil, heroically engaging all these malevolent forces, proposed an "Unabridged Bill of Rights," i.e., one that contains both the Second Amendment and all the others. He promoted this concept to the ACLU, of which he was a card-carrying member. He famously rewrote the Bill of Rights in today's English composing a text resolutely true to the Founders' intent, yet expressing our rights more forcefully, unambiguously, and with universal clarity for everyday folks, sparing little room for Fascist misconstrual and misrepresentation. Would that our Nation put these rights actually into force!

Neil was an unapologetic advocate of the rights of the accused, unafraid to join unpopular causes. He supported, for example, Scott Peterson, accused of murdering his wife, Laci. Neil pointed out that, "There was no crime scene," and that the only direct, i.e., non-circumstantial, evidence against Peterson was the notorious single hair in the needle-nosed pliers, a flimsy basis for sending anyone to Death Row. Better known was Neil's support of OJ Simpson during his trials for the murder of his ex-wife Nicole, about which Neil wrote a book.

I asked Neil at the time how much research he had put into that book. Characteristically for Neil, it was an enormous amount. While I still share the consensus view that the case against OJ was overwhelming, Neil did make a pretty good argument. In any case, speaking up for OJ was shrewd strategy on Neil's part. The great Brian Eno, for example, calls himself a "non-musician." Thereby, he profiles himself whilst side-stepping comparison with thousands of virtuosi out there. Instead of competing with a slew of anti-OJ books, Neil wrote perhaps the only pro-OJ book, which also won him enviable access to the OJ Defense Dream Team. Not to say Neil was not a true believer in OJ, or whatever cause he advocated.

Again in the 1990s, Neil founded Pulpless.com. The idea was that the customer downloads ebooks from the Internet rather than buying paper books at a bookstore. No kidding, Neil had that brilliant concept years before Amazon Kindle. (Given Amazon's recent censorship policies, I wonder if they call it "Kindle" because they ultimately wish to burn books?) Unfortunately, as an inventor told me, it's never good to be the first one or the last one in a business. The last guy obviously is late to the party. The first guy? Well, every great invention with a famous inventor actually had one or more predecessors. Thomas Newcomen made a steam engine before James Watt. There were cars (e.g., from Daimler) before Henry Ford. RCA and Sarnoff did not invent television, they stole the credit from Philo Farnsworth. And so on. You don’t want to be the first guy, you want to be the second or third guy, who gets the device really working for mass production. Neil, sadly, in this case was the first guy, whom no one took seriously at the time. Now ebooks are huge.

In science fiction, Neil had an imagination to rival that of the great Philip K. Dick. To give one example. One evening, once more in the glorious '90s, I was in my home office, working and listening to the radio; it might have been Mike Hodel's Hour 25, a tremendous sci-fi show of the day. Anyway, the radio said, "If you go outside right now, you can see the Russian space station passing by with the naked eye in the next 5 minutes!" So, I ran out to the backyard, looked up, and… nothing! But then… sure enough… the space station, like a great hunka junk, came flinging by low in the sky with a red beacon blinking all the way!

At the next Hess meeting, I told Neil. Instantly, he said. "Hhm, a new sport? Trap shooting of low-orbiting satellites with hand-held missiles? I must put that into my next novel." It was something worthy of that other Neil -- L. Neil Smith -- and our Neil came up with it in a snap. His works are crammed with edgy and delightful innovations of this kind.

More than an innovator, Neil was a literary craftsman. This comes out in his novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Many sci-fi authors fail, for example, in describing kinetic scenes, e.g., of an erotic dancer. For all the fervor an author invests, such scenes fall flat for me; the 2D page poorly rendering 3D choreography. Not so with The Rainbow Cadenza and its thematic depictions of laserium concerts. With adroit technique, Neil brings the concerts to life letting the action unfold step-by-step in your mind. It's extraordinary. Neil also knew how to write a page-turner, how to work-in multiple overlapping concepts, how to surprise the reader. And his humor is biting and pervasively recurrent.

Neil's funniest book is Escape From Heaven. "A real hoot!" as one KHC member said. The premise is a second war between God and Lucifer. But, in contrast to the war in Milton, this time, Lucifer prevails. To the point that God agrees to a plebiscite among the Earthly mortals to decide once and for all who shall rule the Universe. The vote drive commences. The hero, a rightwing radio talk show host, is selected by God as His campaign manager. Hollywood, needless to say, is on Satan’s side.

This last point was made clear to me by Roman Polanski's film The Ninth Gate. Here, Johnny Depp plays a rare books dealer hired by a wealthy client to procure a centuries-old Satanic tome. Old book experts have a webpage where they make jokes about all the errors in the movie. The Ninth Gate gets everything wrong about bookbinding. But, according to experts on the occult, it gets everything right about Satanism! So you see where Hollywood’s priorities lie.

Neil knew that all too well, and the bits about movie stars are the funniest parts of the book. My only objection to Escape From Heaven was the scene where the talk show host, like Our Lord, is tempted in the desert by Lucifer, who, like in The Ninth Gate, takes feminine form. The talk show host effortlessly parries all of Lucifer's facile arguments, which was anti-climactic. I would have preferred something like Dostoyevsky, who in the Brothers Karamazov rephrased Satan's arguments from the Gospels in more powerful form. After all, it often requires penetration to tell right from wrong, and the two may flip as we delve beneath the surface. In Neil's defense, God might have picked a talk show host as His campaign manager due to his skill in dismissive rhetoric. Anyway, Escape From Heaven is marvelous and highly cinematic. I hope someone shoots it someday.

On Neil's film career. I restrain myself to a remark made by a successful independent filmmaker, which Neil also endorsed, "I admire anyone who has finished even one movie, no matter how good or bad, because it's so hard to do." And Neil did it -- twice. Neil was the son of Julius Schulman, one of the world's greatest violinists. Considerable musical talent filtered down to Neil, as seen in his films, for which he composed original works. The title song of Alongside Night is sung by Neil's beloved daughter Soleil, a great artist in her own right and the apple of his eye. In the end, Neil realized, somewhat late in life, his long-standing dream to make movies, something few of us can claim.

I conclude with Neil's celebrated episode for the 1980s television revival of The Twilight Zone, "Profile in Silver." I've never seen the show, but after hearing about it for years, when Neil died I finally looked up the script and actually read it. Brilliant! Gorgeous! Moving and highly aesthetic! Among other artistic coups, Neil recreates, on the page, the personality of JFK, which Neil had to have known from TV as a kid in the '50s and '60s.

I'm no JFK worshiper but, in Neil's portrayal, we do find a leader of tremendous poise who knew how to connect with people individually and en masse, in public and private, intimately, but without losing a shred of dignity. "Profile in Silver" also has a masterful twisting and turning plot with spoken and unspoken elements beautifully effected. This is a jewel in Neil's literary crown, which has now been passed on to all of us as his enduring legacy.

Thank You.