Note: In this wide-ranging autobiographical interview, Grossberg shares his encounters, conversations and/or connections with Timothy Leary, George R.R. Martin, L. Neil Smith, Bruce Sterling, David Brin, Sissy Spacek, Gore Vidal, Ray Bradbury, Roy Rogers, Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, Roberto Rossellini, Nicholas Ray, Marianne Williamson, Susan Sontag, Roy Childs Jr., James Hogan and Robert Heinlein, among others.
TOM JACKSON: Could you tell us about yourself, including how you became a writer and arts critic?
MICHAEL GROSSBERG: I probably started thinking of myself as a future writer in grade school while growing up in Houston, Texas.
I always loved to read: nonfiction and fiction, including science fiction but also some of the great popular literary classics (from Hugo, Dumas and Poe to Swift, Stevenson, Melville, Shelley, Carroll, Dickens, Sabatini, Kafka, Joyce, Camus, Huxley, Orwell and especially Mark Twain.)
A lot of my reading naturally led to writing.
I discovered that I love to write about the arts in high school, when I became a staff writer and critic for the Three Penny Press, a mimeographed legal-sized “daily newspaper” (printed school weekdays) at Bellaire High School in Bellaire, a Houston-area city. It was a large school, almost like a college, with about 4,200 students, including such later luminaries as actors Randy and Dennis Quaid, New Age author Marianne Williamson and other classmates who appeared in the Texas-based Oscar-winning film The Last Picture Show.
TOM JACKSON: Marianne Williamson, the presidential candidate?
MICHAEL GROSSBERG: Yes, but back then Marianne was an aspiring actress, very talented and stylish, and a very smart student, in several of my advanced classes, including English.
I cast Marianne and directed her in Love Street, a short psychedelic film I conceived about an LSD trip gone wrong during a high-school date. Her performance was excellent. I taped her and a male actor doing dramatic emotional voice-overs highlighting their date conversation and drug-induced epiphanies that I superimposed over largely abstract visuals, starting with voices heard amid blackness, then a marijuana cigarette lit in the dark. That expanded into a phantasmagorically exploding succession of surreal lights – shot from Christmas lights, neon signs and blurry/fast camera pans, etc. – pulsating in waves as the hallucinogenic drug affected the perceptions and mood of the two teenagers on a date.
Love Street – and Pablov, another short film I directed, conceived as an Eisenstein-style tightly edited montage about daily high-school existence – were honored as two of the three top winners in the high-school division of the Houston Film Festival. That changed my life, because part of my award was a summer pre-college fellowship at Rice University’s Media Center. That opened me up to a veritable world of cinema, initially with expectations that I might become a filmmaker, but ultimately leading to me becoming a film critic in college and later a working, award-winning film/theater critic.
TOM JACKSON: What happened during the film fellowship?
MICHAEL GROSSBERG: At Rice University that next summer, I studied film-making and worked on another short film (with mixed results) while daily reserving a small video room to watch almost 200 of the world’s greatest classic and foreign films (projected from old Ampex two-inch videotapes). I was a glutton for the arts, often watching two or even three films a day.
For the first time, I got to see many of the greatest films of the 20th century from around the world – something almost impossible for almost anyone to access back in the 1960s and 1970s, before the modern era of videos, DVDs and Netflix, when few if any of such classics were shown on television and rarely screened at art-film revival cinemas. It was a treasure house.
Among the films I checked out from their large video library were the major cinematic landmarks, starting with the 1910s – such as D.W. Griffith’s epic Intolerance, his atonement for and guilty follow-up to the racism of his Birth of a Nation. Democratic President Woodrow Wilson, a eugenics-Progressive-elitist-warmonger and the most explicitly racist President in U.S. history, praised and screened that incendiary Ku Klux Klan drama at the White House.
(What I’d like to know: How come The New York Times hasn’t re-evaluated and shredded Wilson’s reputation yet? In his case, it’s long overdue.)
I also saw the greatest films from the 1920s (Chaplin, Keaton, Murnau’s Sunrise, Pabst, von Stroheim’s Greed, Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, and Lang’s Metropolis, perhaps the first classic sf film) and the 1930s (Lubitsch’s pre-Hayes-Code Trouble in Paradise, Renoir’s Rules of the Game, Vigo, Lang, more Chaplin, etc.)
Not to mention becoming familiar with the subsequent decades of classic foreign films by Bergman, Fellini, Antonioni, Rossellini, Ray, Bunuel, Ophuls, Cocteau, Carne, Vigo, Truffaut, Godard, Pasolini, Kurosawa and so many more.
As a bonus, that summer I had a chance to meet several legendary film directors that Rice University brought in to speak to us and others, including Roberto Rossellini (Ingrid Bergman’s former husband, though I didn’t know that then) and Nicholas Ray (Rebel Without a Cause.)
Rossellini (Rome, Open City), by then retired and elderly, reminisced about the pioneering era of Italian neorealist cinema.
Ray, wearing a black patch over one eye (for some unexplained reason, and I was too young and shy to raise my hand and ask about it during the Q&A), discussed the pressures of working within the conventional studio system of Hollywood film-making in the 1940s and 1950s, while expressing hope about the then-emerging 1970s era of independent film-making.
Before I fell in love with theater, I fell in love with film.
My Rice University experiences paved the way for my later career as a film and theater critic.
TOM JACKSON: Now that so much of the world’s film heritage is widely available online or via libraries, what classic films do you rank highest?
MICHAEL GROSSBERG: If I had to pick only a top-dozen list of older classic movies from the great directors worldwide, that would be excruciating to narrow down.
No way to list all the best (and better-known) American film classics, but my personal (older) favorites include Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush, Buster Keaton’s The General, Orson Welles’ bravura and Shakespearean Citizen Kane, Casablanca, Hitchcock’s romantic spy drama Notorious, John Huston’s early film-noir crime drama The Maltese Falcon (“the stuff that dreams are made of”), Ernst Lubitsch’s WWII-timely and actually funny anti-Nazi comedy To Be Or Not to Be and the Marx Brothers’ comedy Duck Soup, which embodies the anarchic, irreverent and libertarian aspects of popular American culture.
If the focus is narrowed to foreign films, though, I’d recommend seeking out these world classics first, listed in chronological order:
* Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925), a Russian silent film, anti-authoritarian in its story of the battleship crew’s mutiny against a brutal tyrannical regime and the resulting street demonstration that prompted a police massacre in the middle of the 1905 Russian Revolution. (If the Prometheus Awards were broadened beyond science fiction and fantasy to embrace any and all great libertarian fiction, this film would not only be nominated, but definitely inducted into the Prometheus Hall of Fame.)
* Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), that decade’s great science fiction film and a dystopian futuristic tale that helped shape the modern imagination
* Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (1935), his best British thriller (and inspiration for a charming modern play)
* Jean Renoir’s anti-war Grand Illusion (1937)
* Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939), an observant French comedy about class
* Marcel Carne’s Children of Paradise (1945), a gloriously romantic French drama set in the theatrical world of 1830-1848 Paris and shot during the Nazi occupation
* Jean Cocteau’s poetic and mysterious Beauty and the Beast (1946), a clear influence on Disney’s later plot-enhanced animated, stage and film versions)
* Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950), similar in its multiple-perspective plot structure to the great American films Citizen Kane and All About Eve
* Luis Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel (1962), half of the source material (bookended with Bunuel’s 1970s film The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie) for Stephen Sondheim’s next and likely last musical, now in progress; can’t wait!)
* Federico Fellini’s surreal semi autobiographical 8½ (1963), about an Italian film director struggling for inspiration for his next picture (It inspired the Tony-winning musical Nine, later made into the pretty-good 2009 movie musical.)
* Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966), a surreal psychological drama about two women and the shifting mysteries of identity
* Francois Truffaut’s Day for Night (1973), an observant, bittersweet and wry valentine to the emotionally bonding and intense process of movie-making
TOM JACKSON: Backing up to high school again, what were some of your earliest reviews?
MICHAEL GROSSBERG: I fondly remember the first film I reviewed for my high-school paper: “Z,” director Costa Gavras’ satirical political drama.
The film, which won the 1969 Oscar for best foreign film, was a smart, skeptical and wry look at the corruptions of power in Greece’s then-dictatorship.
(While now somewhat dated, when I saw it again recently on TV, the film stills holds up pretty well, largely because of its dark humor about power politics and government bureaucracy and incompetence. In retrospect, it’s a resonant illustration of Friedrich Hayek’s seminal chapter in The Road to Serfdom about why the worst tend to rise to the top in politics or any bureaucratic systems based on institutionalized coercion.)
TOM JACKSON: What kind of stuff did you write about in college and how did that lead you to a journalism career?
MICHAEL GROSSBERG: At the University of Texas at Austin, I worked in several capacities in the 1970s for the large student newspaper The Daily Texan – most enjoyably, as an editorial columnist.
I wrote columns about basic libertarian principles (human rights, self-ownership and non-aggression); the economic and moral case for, and practical violent-crime-reducing benefits of ending the War on Drugs; the consumer benefits of airline deregulation (a hot topic then and an actual free-market reform implemented with strong Democratic support during the Carter administration); the Austrian-school-of-economics insights into the government interventions and monetary inflation that distort the accuracy of the information network of the economy’s decentralized price system and thus indirectly fosters the boom-and-bust cycle of malinvestment; and other topics.
One column/profile I wrote about Timothy Leary (who was about to visit the campus to speak) challenged popular misconceptions and outlined what he actually believed (including some libertarian futurist themes similar to Robert Anton Wilson’s writings.) When Leary arrived, he read the column and asked to meet me – a happy surprise – and complimented me on being a rare writer and journalist who actually “got” him. He appreciated the way I accurately summarized his real views at a time when the media significantly warped public perceptions about him and his quasi-libertarian futurism.
I still treasure Leary’s compliment. And I’ve dedicated my journalism career to continuing to be as accurate as I can in every profile, feature and review.
The Daily Texan column that had the most public impact, though, was one making the ethical and libertarian case for repeal of (selectively enforced) sodomy laws as the next major step towards ending State repression of gays and lesbians. Dozens and dozens of people, mostly strangers, came up to me on the UT West Mall in the days and weeks after that column appeared and fervently thanked me for my bravery. (I hadn’t thought of it as bravery, although by then I was out as a gay man only to my friends and fellow UT libertarians, not the general public through my newspaper columns. I just considered the overdue extension of full individual rights to gays and lesbians a vital and timely issue to address as a libertarian.)
TOM JACKSON: Didn’t you also write reviews in college?
MICHAEL GROSSBERG: Besides Daily Texan editorial columns, I wrote film and book reviews while working as a copy editor in the same office as student cartoonist Berkeley Breathed (who later did Bloom County).
My rave review of director Brian de Palma’s film Carrie praised the film as “666 times more entertaining than The Omen” and quoted Henry David Thoreau that “most men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
That was the first of many times in my career as a film or theater critic that a newspaper display ad quoted me… Of course, they picked the “666 times” comparison. As I recall, my review also surprisingly sparked Sissy Spacek (a fellow Texan) to send me a hand-written postcard thanking me for my review, which had praised her performance as Oscar-worthy (unusual, at the time, for horror or sf films). Spacek was later nominated for an Academy Award for best actress.
During my UT/Daily Texan years, I am proudest of my award-winning book review of The Second Sin, a collection of witty and wise observations by the brilliant libertarian psychiatrist Thomas Szasz.
One of Szasz’s aphorisms that I quoted in that review has stuck with me ever since: “In the animal kingdom, the rule is: Eat or be eaten. In the human kingdom, the rule is: Define or be defined.”
Szasz offered profound insights into the always-contested and changing nature of human culture – especially relevant to my career in communication and journalism and my life focus on knowledge.
That’s one reason why I feel it’s so important to explain better why libertarianism is neither Left nor Right but a consistent and principled advocacy of liberty and human rights for all.
TOM JACKSON: How do you explain it?
MICHAEL GROSSBERG: In terms of political philosophy and intellectual history, I consider libertarianism, broadly defined, as in many significant ways the true resurgent liberalism of the 21st century.
Of course, there are and have been different brands and types of liberalism over the centuries, with legitimate differences to explore. Compare, say, John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty and Herbert Spencer’s The Man Versus the State to George H. Smith’s The System of Liberty: Themes in the History of Classical Liberalism and Deirdre McCloskey’s important upcoming restatement Why Liberalism Works.
Yet, in tension with some 20th century brands of interventionist, paternalistic or State-expansionist liberalism, the Latin root of the word ‘liberal’ most deeply relates to liberty.
The history of liberalism, rightly understood, champions Liberty by limiting Power, especially the brute force institutionalized by the State.
I came to appreciate that more clearly, partly from reading my late lamented mentor Roy Childs, Jr., especially his essays in Liberty Against Power . Many others informed and extended my thinking, though, including Szasz, Rand, Hayek, Murray Rothbard, Tibor Machan, Robert Nozick, Henry Hazlitt, Rose Wilder Lane (The Discovery of Freedom), H.L. Mencken, George Smith, Jeff Riggenbach, Bill Evers, Wendy McElroy, Sharon Presley and others).
A caveat: Definitions matter. Clarity in concept is the foundation of accuracy and insight.
For example: Government, most accurately defined by the great sociologist Max Weber, is the only human institution that claims a legitimized monopoly on the (final) use of force within a given geographical territory.
In short, behind the velvet gloves of even the more limited and democratic governments are always fists. Thus, freedom-lovers must remain vigilant and skeptical about any overreliance on enhanced State Power to achieve even worthy goals – truly the “road to serfdom.”)
Leftists, socialists and progressives took over that very-positive name “liberal” by the early 1900s. Many were well-meaning, of course – but the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Meanwhile, by the end of the 20th century, modern interventionist liberalism had pretty much degenerated into the moral narcissism of merely a superficial Politics of Good Intentions. (And don’t bother checking one’s assumptions – or looking honestly at the empirical consequences, which so often hurt the very people State programs are nominally designed to help, especially the poor and minorities.)
Like politicians who wrap themselves in the flag or con men who attend church to lure fellow congregants into their get-rich-quick Ponzi schemes, some of these actually illiberal thinkers cloaked their technocratic elitism, utopian delusions and sometimes, unconscious power-lust with a “liberal” label.
Basically, they stole the good reputation that true (classical) liberalism had established over centuries battling tyranny and slavery.
Genuine liberalism/libertarianism, which empowers the people by liberating their energies through limiting the initiation of force and unleashing the voluntary mutual aid and trade of the free marketplace, is what truly generated the extraordinary and widely unexpected progress toward greater peace, prosperity, longevity, social equality, innovation and illumination that’s accelerated during and since the Age of Reason and Enlightenment. (Not that that age, like our own and every other, didn’t have significant blind spots, inconsistencies and flaws.)
For wide-ranging evidence of such progress, I recommend Steven Pinker’s recent bestseller Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress and Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist – two of the most important books since 2000, guaranteed to lift your spirits and broaden your perspective beyond (most of) the fears and anxieties of our era.
Both I consider “libertarian futurist” in their basic vision and thrust (although Pinker prudently makes a point of separating his brand of liberalism from libertarianism.)
TOM JACKSON: How do you view “libertarian futurism”?
MICHAEL GROSSBERG: Basically, it’s just the creative and fertile nexus between the most-informed speculative visions of human possibility explored through science fiction – and some fantasy – with standard modern libertarianism (the Reason Foundation and Cato Institute offer gateways to much of the mainstream thinking, while Libertarianism.org is the best introduction to its rich intellectual history).
When F. Paul Wilson won the first Prometheus Award in 1979 for Wheels within Wheels, he coined a definition in his acceptance speech: “A libertarian futurist, in case you didn’t know, is someone who, when you tell him that nothing is certain in this world but death and taxes, will differ with you on both counts.”
More seriously, libertarian futurists believe recognizing and nurturing arts and culture that illuminate core values of civilization can be as vital as positive social or political change (and often more fun) in achieving universal individual rights and a better world (perhaps eventually, worlds!) for all.
I wouldn’t want to change the name of the Libertarian Futurist Society, especially after almost four decades.
Yet, now that more self-avowed socialists and progressives are rejecting “liberalism” (after half a century of exploiting, corrupting it and twisting its meaning almost to Orwellian “Freedom is Slavery… Ignorance is Strength” extremes), libertarians want it back!
Why not rehabilitate its reputation? After all, no other intellectual movement has done a better job exploring, rejuvenating and updating classical liberal principles to the daunting challenges and fresh uncertainties of the 21st century.
Alternatively, if rehabilitation of such an overused and tattered label proves too difficult to promote as a New Liberalism, I can offer another historically resonant name for today’s reincarnation of the age-old movement towards the fulfillment of what Adam Smith called “the simple system of natural liberty.” (By the way, Smith wasn’t just referring in The Wealth of Nations – and his vital companion book on ethics, empathy and virtue Theory of Moral Sentiments – to “the economy” but to the full material and spiritual range of human values and choices that Ludwig von Mises later outlined in Human Action) .
Call it the New Abolitionism, reflecting not only the 1970s-era abolitionist spirit of Murray Rothbard (then at his uneven best) but also to honor and invoke the last truly successful libertarian movement in U.S. history: the Abolitionist campaign to end slavery. That was a milestone, after millennia of slavery by and of all races worldwide going back past Rome and Egypt (when the Jews were slaves) to dimly recalled antiquity.
TOM JACKSON: What was your entry into science fiction fandom? And as an Austin resident through much of the 1970s, did you know Bruce Sterling, Lewis Shiner and other sf authors?
MICHAEL GROSSBERG: I went to my first sf convention while growing up in Houston and attending junior high school. It was strange to see all the fans dressed as Star Trek characters or medieval-Renaissance citizens (apparently, Society of Creative Anachronism members).
Once I moved to Austin, I indeed met and got to know quite a few of the local leading sf lights. I was a particular fan of Bruce Sterling, a UT graduate whose early cyberpunk stories I began reading and very much enjoyed. I had several fascinating conversations with Bruce, who struck me as brilliant, imaginative, kind and open-minded (more than many with differing views, I’ve found). But we more often ran into each other at bookstores – Half-Price Books began in Austin, as I recall – than at the annual Armadillocon conventions.
TOM JACKSON: What other sf authors have you met and/or interviewed?
MICHAEL GROSSBERG: Many, especially after regularly attending sf conventions and several Worldcons (in Denver, Los Angeles, Baltimore, Atlanta, Chicago and other U.S. cities.) Among them: Robert Heinlein, Harlan Ellison (always the feisty rebel and “bad boy” of sfdom, even in his maturity at the L.A. Worldcon, where we had an argumentative but typically still-friendly encounter in the con’s media/press room), Frederick Pohl (always gracious), David Brin, and Robert Silverberg.
I met Silverberg briefly at a Worldcon. As I recall, he seemed comfortable with the label of an avowed libertarian (as he acknowledged while sitting down for a drink). Yet, he rarely wrote fiction exploring such themes; the major exception is the individualist/liberation focus of A Time of Changes .
I’ve nominated that Nebula Award winner for best novel for the Prometheus Hall of Fame. Silverberg may be the last major (libertarian) sf writer who hasn’t been recognized through the Prometheus Awards – and neither he nor we are getting any younger.
Plus, I treasure the time I spent with two late great Prometheus-winning authors who I wish were still around: Ray Bradbury (a wonderful, wise, down-to-earth gentleman and humanist who I spent most of a day with when he spoke at a Future of Freedom conference in southern California) and James Hogan (who I enjoyed talking to while he had a beer – I don’t drink – at a later Worldcon amid discussions of maverick thinking).
I also had a memorable conversation with George R.R. Martin at the L.A. Worldcon in 1984, decades before his Game of Thrones success.
We talked mostly about Fevre Dream, his 1982 novel that somehow elegantly fuses Bram Stoker’s vampires with Mark Twain’s Mississippi riverboat stories. Martin, a big shaggy bear/Hobbit of a guy, was pleased that I admired the novel, which had been underestimated and largely overlooked.
I also had an intellectually stimulating phone interview with David Brin, a brilliant thinker and writer whose The Uplift Wars, a 1989 Prometheus finalist, remains one of my favorite sf novels (for its sophisticated exploration of emerging sapience and meta-foundational sapient-rights themes).
Brin and I discussed the critical self-awareness that’s a vital leitmotif of American and Western culture, science and rationality, the messy evolution of liberal and libertarian politics, consciousness (including the implications of the subtle energies felt in transcendental meditation and the self-attunement technique), and much more.
Most intriguingly from an LFS perspective, I recall Brin sketching out his nuanced, evolutionary views that our messy, still-barbaric world culture might be currently stuck in more conventional tribal politics than any humanists would wish… but that our rough and roughly liberal/democratic international order may be evolving, despite and through genuine difficulties, towards a more libertarian and/or at least a less authoritarian future.
Of course, that was then – the 1990s! I’d love to catch up with Brin (who explored more of those themes in his excellent non-fiction book The Transparent Society) to find out how his thinking has evolved since, especially in the context of the 21st century’s darker post-9/11 anxieties and worrisome Left/Right populist/extremist trends.)
TOM JACKSON: What happened after you graduated from college?
MICHAEL GROSSBERG: Like many people who become writers, I struggled to freelance, living frugally while working at day jobs.
After returning to UT to get a second degree in journalism, I won a summer Pulliam fellowship to work as a copy editor and reviewer at the Indianapolis News and then worked full-time for two years as a reporter and critic at the Victor Valley Daily Press in California’s Mojave desert.
You could see the whole Milky Way galaxy almost every night that far outside any city, something wonderful and transforming that I hadn’t seen before in Houston, Austin or Indianapolis.
Sometimes, on a cool but not-freezing desert night, I’d lie down on a blanket and just stare up at the galaxy – and imagine. Is there intelligent life out there in the universe? (And by the way, when can we expect to evolve more intelligent life right here on Earth? What we laughingly call civilization is very young! It’s earlier than we think – and contrary to media-sensationalist doomsday fears, our resilient and cooperative species is likely to stick around for quite a while.)
As a Daily Press reporter and feature writer, I occasionally interviewed Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, who lived near me in Apple Valley. Roy was always a gentleman, quotable and easygoing, about his old film/TV career. (Trigger warning: Their home was built in the shape of a horseshoe, not far from the now-defunct Roy Rogers-Dale Evans Museum, where a certain horse had been stuffed for display.)
At the Daily Press, I began regularly writing film reviews – and some theater reviews – as a Sunday columnist while covering various news beats as a reporter – including George Air Force Base.
That’s where I got the opportunity to fly past the speed of sound above 30,000 feet and do a 5-G/zero-gravity complete loop in an F-4E Phantom jet over Edwards AFB. That was exhilarating, flying with an Air Force pilot and briefly taking over the stick – and likely the closest I’ll ever get to fulfill childhood dreams of visiting outer space! (Sigh…)
Amusingly, in retrospect anyway, during pre-flight training the military officers showed me how to use a thigh-pocket in my borrowed flight uniform to retrieve a bag in case of vomit. They were professionals but I glimpsed one privately smirk at the certainty I’d throw up, as most civilians apparently do. I became determined to avoid fulfilling his expectations, if humanly possible.
Plus, I had a secret strategy: So when the overwhelming urge began to rise during that awful peak of feeling that full five-gravity weight (no fun at all, and something that makes me wonder what the limits of space tourism might turn out to be), I simply began meditating using the TM technique I’d learned in 1972.
With transcendental meditation, I had begun to regularly sense the body changes (lower pulse, different brain waves, shift in galvanic skin response, etc., according to a 1970s Scientific American article about meditation) and also the subtle flow of the energy field from “chakras” (whatever that is) that the world still has only a vague pre-scientific understanding about, but which I can report is definitely not based on belief or faith – because I didn’t believe in it. Yet, it’s real (unlike Peter Pan’s Tinker Bell, whose existence is fueled by belief.)
Just one minute of that meditation far up above the clouds that day calmed my nerves and shifted my energy enough that the reflex to vomit faded. Thank God!
My masculine dignity was preserved; I showed those guys!
TOM JACKSON: How did you wind up in Columbus, Ohio?
MICHAEL GROSSBERG: The skills I developed from all my years of freelancing and working for many publications – especially news/arts reporting, feature writing and reviewing – helped me edge out about 125 other journalists nationwide to get a plum job as film/theater critic and arts reporter for Columbus’s daily newspaper.
After a few years, I switched to focus on theater, which led me to becoming a leader for two decades in the American Theatre Critics Association and organize ATCA’s two best-attended national conferences – first in 2000 in Louisville (at the Humana Festival of New American Plays) and then in 2007 exploring Cirque du Soleil and other theatrical productions in Las Vegas. (I could tell you more about the latter, but what happens in Vegas… )
For three decades, I worked full-time as a “newspaperman” (a now-archaic term for the now-seemingly-archaic but still-vital realm of daily newspapers, so important to American democracy and liberty as watchdogs of government to ensure its transparency and accountability).
In the process, I covered everything from theater, film, books, stand-up comedy, visual arts, and the ups and downs and ups of central Ohio’s resilient arts groups. I especially enjoyed the opportunity to review plays and musicals in central Ohio, New York and around the country.
In the fall of 2015, I “semi-retired” but continue to freelance as an award-winning theater reviewer and arts feature writer.
A big bonus: Seeing and reviewing so much exciting theater!
Among my favorite plays, reviewed from their original Broadway runs: Doubt, The Pillowman, Wit, Proof, Arcadia, Six Degrees of Separation, Metamorphoses, War Horse, August: Osage County, Love! Valor! Compassion! and How I Learned to Drive.
Among the best musicals I’ve had the privilege to review on Broadway: Les Miserables, Sweeney Todd, Ragtime, Spring Awakening, Crazy for You, Chicago, Falsettos (hey, I’m gay and Jewish!), Jersey Boys (my partner’s favorite musical) and Hamilton. (That’s the latest mega-hit, and it’s a manifold pleasure, despite some ways in which the immensely talented Lin-Manuel Miranda can’t resist falsifying history for the sake of contemporary polemics. In the process, he demonizes Thomas Jefferson and twists some key facts in Ron Chernow’s biography, the musical’s source material.)
TOM JACKSON: How did you get interested in science fiction and libertarianism?
MICHAEL GROSSBERG: I’ve always loved to read and read widely, far beyond what was assigned in school.
If I’ve had one strong conviction since childhood, when I began reading at the age of three, it’s this: Everyone should read – and ideally, should be taught to read first by parents or siblings, preferably using the most reliable system: phonetics! – because reading opens up windows into new realms of possibilities.
As a boy, I devoured Robert Heinlein’s juvenile novels (Citizens of the Galaxy was a favorite), as well as novels and stories by Andre Norton, Theodore Sturgeon, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Arthur Clarke, Frederik Pohl, Cordwainer Smith, Jules Verne and other golden-age writers.
Yet, only much later, mostly outside academia and through extensive reading, did I discover the rich (and actually mainstream) tradition of classical liberalism and libertarianism.
If I hadn’t developed my own Great Books-style reading program on my own – and dropped out of college for a year to intensively read the classics, having belatedly realized that I’d naively at 17-18 missed my chance as a National Merit Scholar to attend St. Johns’ College on a scholarship – I likely would never have discovered it.
That’s what eventually led me to develop my philosophy in a perhaps unique way. (I did read Ayn Rand, but for me, it didn’t begin that way.)
When I was 12 years old, I began reading Gore Vidal, who I still consider a good novelist and debunker of political rhetoric.
By the way, my old college roommate, the economist/historian Jeffrey Rogers Hummel (Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men: A History of the American Civil War) recommends Vidal’s Burr and some of his other cynical-realist American History novels for their relatively high level of historical accuracy that sees through our euphemistic modern mythologies.
Meanwhile, I viewed Vidal as a philosophical ancient-Roman Cynic, while I grew up feeling more like a romantic idealist. A thought experiment: If reincarnation is real (???), then Vidal definitely had a previous life as a Roman Senator and jaded aristocrat. Just read his Roman-history novel Julian to get a sense of his deep affinity for and understanding of that world.
As a teenager, I read Vidal’s then-daring gay-themed early novel, a small but significant step in my growing awareness of my sexuality.
Vidal, however, influenced me most with his non-fiction essays in which he described his “civil libertarian” views. At 12, that was my first exposure to that term, which reflected my already-strong love of the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights, which I treasure as a noble effort to limit the power of majoritarian government to violate the rights of minorities or individuals.
A libertarian joke: If only the Bill of Rights and First Amendment had ended after the first five words: “Congress shall make no law…”
TOM JACKSON: What other authors shaped your evolving views?
MICHAEL GROSSBERG: Academic philosopher John Hosper’s Libertarianism, which I came across by accident in a Bowkers book catalog as a 1972 paperback and mail-ordered that year (well before our instant-access Amazon era), allowed me to finally “connect the dots” between civil libertarian, classical liberal and modern libertarian thinking.
Even more crucially, I began to glimpse their historic link to the ideals of “classical liberal arts” education, so important to building on the best of the past in the arts, sciences, history, culture and philosophy.
(Here I’ve often found instructive the dazzling and illuminating observations of Camille Paglia, a self-avowed Democrat-libertarian feminist and one of our most fearless public intellectuals since the passing of Orwell, Rand, Szasz and Christopher Hitchens.)
It may seem strange to some, but my intellectual progression was very natural.
Growing up in a Jewish liberal Democratic family and a grandson of immigrants escaping anti-Semitism and the draft in Eastern Europe just at the start of World War I, I never forgot that two of our cousins died in concentration camps during the Holocaust, one of the most horrific consequences of Hitler’s “Nazi” (National Socialist) ideology.
Let’s also never forget the belated warnings of liberal avant-garde writer-critic Susan Sontag, who in a brave 1982 speech explained why communism/socialism in theory became fascism in practice. (In the 1990s, I met Sontag and chatted with her briefly, just before we watched a Humana Festival play in Louisville, Ky., about the intriguingly parallel themes explored by Szasz, who tried to expose the dangers and hypnotic delusions of falsely literalized metaphors, and Sontag’s intriguing book Illness as Metaphor.)
In short, since childhood, I’ve become piercingly and poignantly aware that I was part of a historically oppressed minority group – and that many lessons of history haven’t been learned – or are being forgotten.
Everyone suffers, and everyone confronts the tragic aspects of life at some point. While I’ve suffered my share of losses and grief, I try to be grateful for my life’s blessings – having belatedly realized that gratitude is a key to happiness. (Thank you, Dennis Prager!)
Yet, many times since adolescence, reflecting my heritage of self-deprecating Jewish humor born of suffering and resilience, I’ve thought to myself that it often feels like I’ve been carrying the burden of membership in three different minorities.
One is a religion, one a sexual orientation and one a still-misunderstood, often-caricatured ideology. (For instance, consider the vile falsehoods and shoddy historicism of Nancy MacLean, thoroughly exposed and refuted at the salutary blog Café Hayek.)
Plus, now that I’m 67 and as I look back at my upbringing and my now-departed parents, I appreciate more how my coming of age was influenced by my mother Esther Grossberg, a pioneering travel agent who had the beauty and passion of a Susan Hayward and the soul of a confident entrepreneur a la Dagny Taggart; and my father Fred Grossberg, an attorney active in the Anti-Defamation League, B’nai Brith and A.C.L.U., who often defended the powerless and poor (such as maritime workers at the Houston Ship Channel).
So starting with admiration for my Dad’s work, I grew up revering the Bill of Rights and civil liberties.
Yet, back then, as a secular humanist/ liberal, I knew almost nothing about economics, and had picked up by osmosis the worst stereotypes about business and calumnies about capitalism. That was – and is – a serious gap in my (and every American’s) education.
Only much later did I come to understand why the First Amendment and freedom of the press only came to flourish as a practical reality in this country because of its limited government, relatively free markets and private property.
After all, no functional independent press, or any practical right to dissent, is possible in any socialist/fascist/communist country where the government controls the people by nationalizing the economy and basically owning the printing presses.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, I also read and was influenced by some of the leading countercultural writers (non-Marxist… I saw through that pseudo-scientific pseudo-religion early on), especially Erich Fromm, Paul Goodman, Ken Kesey and Tom Wolfe.
More thinkers today should take into account Fromm’s sobering insight that many people don’t really wish to be free – perhaps because they fear its burden of responsibility and/or are reluctant to face reality (which takes courage, with no guarantees of success).
Meanwhile, back in junior-high school, all the arty and “liberal” students in my class had been passing around several “subversive” novels like samizdat in the classrooms (every now and then reading the books in class surreptitiously, hidden behind textbooks.) One of those books was Ayn Rand’s short early novel Anthem, which classmates admired as a poetic fable affirming our nascent creative liberal individualism.
That was my positive introduction to Rand, followed by The Fountainhead in high school and Atlas Shrugged as a college freshman. Those were and are very powerful and complex novels, not easy to grasp (and easy to misinterpret, both by Rand’s admirers and detractors). That was especially true, given my background and upbringing.
Yet, one thing I quickly recognized was that in spirit and philosophy, Rand was clearly informed by and advancing the classical-liberal tradition. She condemned tyranny and irrationality (including such evils as racism and anti-Semitism) while upholding reason, universal human rights and the pursuit of happiness as moral ideals. Contrary to stereotypes, Rand wasn’t rightwing (or leftwing, though she was an atheist and humanist). She largely transcended partisan polemics.
Before and in college, I’d seen and heard many references to the value of a classical-liberal-arts education. Some years later, mainly due to my Great Books reading, I began to glimpse how the classical-liberal order, while resilient, has fragmented. That fundamentally civilized social-political order, and the previous consensus over it, was disintegrating on the rocks of a reactionary resurgence of statism, tribalism (read Jonah Goldberg’s relatively ignored Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy) , pseudo-science and Orwellian group-think that’s blind to Lord Acton’s often-misquoted dictum that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Such power politics, always a temptation given the shaky evolution over the past 250,000+ years of our imperfect homo sapien species, undermines the full flourishing of humanity.
Worse, it fails to respect human dignity and moral autonomy as the proper foundation of law and society. (The University of Chicago economist/historian Deirdre McCloskey rhapsodically makes the case for liberty, free markets and a better understanding of history in her seminal Bourgeois Dignity and its two – a bit overwritten – Bourgeois sequels.)
So I found it strange when some students in The Ark, the large off-campus Austin co-op where I was living in the mid-1970s, vilified Rand as “right-wing.” I’d ask them if they’d ever heard of any conservatives who favored, as Rand and libertarians did, repeal of victimless crime laws, abolition of the draft, legalization of marijuana, and consistent defense of the Bill of Rights and freedom of expression. That often gave them pause – and some cognitive dissonance.
TOM JACKSON: What was your personal situation in 1979, when the first Prometheus Award was given by L. Neil Smith? Did you immediately notice the award, and what did you think about it at the time?
MICHAEL GROSSBERG: In 1979-1980, I was struggling to establish myself as a freelance writer (including reviews and features for Reason magazine and local alternate weeklies and was about to start editing Free Texas, a tabloid).
When I heard about the Prometheus Award being presented for the first time to F. Paul Wilson for his novel Wheels within Wheels, I was excited about the focus on culture, rather than politics – and especially the focus on libertarian sf.
That’s because, as an sf fan since childhood, I’ve found fiction and art very congenial fields for exploration of new ideas and trends. Meanwhile, libertarian ideas seemed during their explosive development in the 1970s-1980s to offer a new set of tools with the heft to solve many pressing social problems and end injustices, with rich subtleties and counterintuitive analyses to explore.
Heady times to be young!
Thus, I felt that the Prometheus Awards had immense potential.
Yet, I wondered how such an award could be sustained, especially with such a large initial gold prize and without any formal organization. (At the time, I was basically living on such a tight budget as a freelancer that the prize would have covered several months of my living expenses.)
I didn’t hear much, if anything, about the Prometheus Award in 1980 or 1981 and wondered whether it was a one-shot deal. I certainly hoped it would continue, but as a year passed, then another, I worried it might not.
TOM JACKSON: What sparked your involvement with the Prometheus Awards and your connection with L. Neil Smith?
MICHAEL GROSSBERG: When I attended Denvention II in the fall of 1981 in Denver, Colorado – my first Worldcon – I was thrilled to meet and have stimulating conversations with several leading sf writers, most notably Robert Heinlein, but also L. Neil Smith.
It became clear in Denver that Heinlein was a revered figurehead in some ways to the libertarian movement, especially to libertarian sf writers and fans… Later, when I interviewed Heinlein during the L-5 Society convention in Houston in the early 1980s, soon after the LFS was formed, he was gentlemanly, acted like a proud “godfather” of the LFS and libertarian sf fans, but also projected the aura of a West Point general who didn’t suffer fools gladly. (For instance, when I asked him to describe the themes he explored in his most recent novel, Friday, he looked at me impatiently and just said: Read the book!) His wife Virginia, meanwhile, was so warm, sunny and sweet throughout the L-5 weekend. Overall, Heinlein’s obvious interest in, pride over and explicit support for the Libertarian Futurist Society and Prometheus Awards felt like a paternal blessing.
But to back up a bit to that pivotal New Year’s Eve (or was it New Year’s Day?) phone call in 1981-1982. I was honored, but a bit surprised when Neil reached out to me. As I recall, Neil told me that he hadn’t been able to sustain the Prometheus Award, because he realized he wasn’t an organizer, administrator or fundraiser. Yet, he knew that I was a libertarian sf fan and wondered if I might be interested in finding a way to sustain the awards.
Neil also knew he had potential conflicts of interest, as an sf novelist himself, and thought the award should be run by Libertarian sf fans and critics.
I had a problem, though, because I was already busy helping establish the nonprofit Free Press Association – a group of journalists organized in 1981 to support full First Amendment rights and present the Mencken Awards for outstanding libertarian journalism.
The FPA made a difference and continued into the 1990s with national conferences in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles and speakers including columnists Clarence Page and Nat Hentoff (Free Speech for Me, but Not for Thee: How the American Left and Right Relentlessly Censor Each Other).
Yet, because I’ve always felt that the arts and culture are vital – for personal enrichment, self-expression and personal growth, but also as a crucial foundation to preserve and advance civilization (and by the way, far more fun and far less fraught than the dismal realm of politics) – I promised Neil that I’d try to organize an umbrella organization to help sustain the awards.
TOM JACKSON: That was well before our era of emails and the Internet. So how did you actually organize the Libertarian Futurist Society and reach out to other libertarians and sf fans across the country?
MICHAEL GROSSBERG: It wasn’t easy, but I was dedicated to saving the Prometheus Awards, if that was possible. Yet, I really didn’t know whether it was possible when I began.
Back then, there were no emails or, for most people, home computers. (I wouldn’t get my first computer, a Kaypro without a hard drive that required two insertable disks to operate, until several years later.)
What I promised Neil I’d do was write up a brainstorming, fundraising and membership letter to all the libertarian sf fans and libertarians I knew of, hoping for a sufficient response to organize a non-profit group.
I photocopied and mailed that multi-page letter, along with an attached questionnaire for people to fill out and mail back, with hopes of getting broad input (and better ideas) about how to set up, structure and activate both a nonprofit organization of libertarian sf/fantasy-fiction fans and a workable judging procedure to sustain the Prometheus Awards. (On my very limited freelance-writer’s budget, that was a hell of a lot of stamps and stationery!)
TOM JACKSON: What was in the questionnaire?
MICHAEL GROSSBERG: The questionnaire asked everyone about their level of interest and their suggestions – including what kind of organizational structure might work best; whether a dues-paying structure could pay for expenses, including the gold prize; and what name for the group might resonate best.
There was a lot of debate over the group’s name, with other popular naming options including the Prometheus Foundation – a play on words evoking Asimov’s Foundation series – and the Libertarian Futurians, to parallel an early golden-age sf fan club). But I thought the LFS might be a way to offer a libertarian futurism as an alternate to the world-government tendencies of so many 20th century futurists, and the World Futurist Society.
We asked people to share the names and addresses of others who might be interested in joining this group as Advisory Members. Within a few months, we developed a core group of about 50-60 dues-paying patrons, all libertarian sf fans who shared the view that the Prometheus Awards were worth saving. Our shared vision: culture, not politics, was a vital realm in which to spread positive visions of a free future with liberty, peace, prosperity, tolerance, diversity and justice for all.
TOM JACKSON: When you began trying to establish the Prometheus Awards as an ongoing activity, who were your most active initial allies? Are some early co-conspirators still active in the LFS?
MICHAEL GROSSBERG: Happily, many co-founders and early supporters are still around, and many deserve recognition.
Victoria Varga made a huge difference to the LFS, especially in its early years, as the first LFS Director and also as one of the editors of Prometheus, the LFS’ printed and mailed quarterly published from 1982 to 2016. Back then, the LFS was small and spread-out nationally, without a board of directors (established in 1999) or separate finalist judging committees (ditto, 1999) to whittle down nominees to a reasonable slate of about five finalists.
The Prometheus Awards – and the Prometheus quarterly of reviews, opinion and news – wouldn’t have survived and thrived without Varga’s talent and heroic persistence as writer, editor, administrator and awards coordinator.
Other key early members included brilliant libertarian telcom/Internet analyst Milton Mueller (the first Prometheus editor in 1982 and later an associate editor), and prolific writer-editors William Alan Ritch and Lenda (Len) Jackson, who edited Prometheus from 1989 to 1993.
Later Prometheus editors included William Stoddard (1999 to 2004), Chris Hibbert /Bruce Sommer (2004) and Anders Monsen (2005-2016) – all of whom, I’m happy to report, continue to be active as LFS board members, judges and/or award nominators.
Of course, many other libertarian sf fans supported, sustained and were involved with the LFS and/or wrote for the Prometheus quarterly during its early years and subsequent decades, including John Aynesworth, Jody Webber Berls, Jorge Codina, Greg Costikgan, Terry Floyd, Fred Foldvary, Steve Galeema, Matt Gaylor, John Hilberg, William Howell Jr., Bonnie Kaplan, Carol B. Low, Lux Lucre (Kerry Pearson), Lynn Maners, James P. McEwan, Fred Moulton, Andrea Millen Rich (also a seminal libertarian entrepreneur who ran Laissez Faire Books for years), William Ritch, Amy Rule, Karl R. Sackett, Robert E. Sachs, Sylvia Sanders and Ben Olson, Dagny Sharon, Dan Shaw, Bruce Sommer, Dave Tuchman, Adam Starchild, and Neal Wilgus, among others.
Plus, novelist Victor Koman, novelist Brad Linaweaver, libertarian activist/writer Samuel Edward Konkin III, sf writer Joseph Martino, editor/writer Robert Poole, Jr., and writer/editor Jeff Riggenbach, whose lively writings contributed so much to the early Prometheus quarterly and awards-related debate over what’s “libertarian sf,” our perennial and seemingly inexhaustible topic of debate.
In its first decade or two, the Prometheus quarterly often resembled an intellectual and aesthetic forum for a wide variety of (sometimes clashing) viewpoints, with feisty letters, reviews and responses.
As Konkin used to say, and post as the slogan of his New Libertarian magazine, “Everyone in this publication is in disagreement!” That reminds me of another old joke: If a dozen libertarians gather into a room, you”ll hear two dozen opinions. Sadly, too many early LFS supporters who were often in that “room” (Gaylor, Konkin, Pearson, Rich, Sacks, Tuchman and most recently in August 2019, Linaweaver and J. Neil Schulman) have passed over the years.
I miss them and their vital involvement.
Yet, four decades after the first Prometheus Award was presented by Smith in 1979, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the Prometheus Awards, very much part of their legacy, carries on.
* Coming up soon on the Prometheus Blog: A 40thAnniversary Retrospective: Introducing a Reader’s Guide to the Prometheus Award Winners
* See the recent related LFS interview with L. Neil Smith on his work, the Prometheus Award, his influences and how he views Michael Grossberg’s efforts to sustain the awards
* Membership in the Libertarian Futurist Society is open to all freedom-loving sf/fantasy fans.
4 thoughts on “Interview: LFS founder Michael Grossberg on how he became a writer, critic, sf fan & helped save the Prometheus Awards”
Regarding my comments in the interview – conducted in September 2019 – about Democratic president Woodrow Wilson, the racist warmonger and imperialist-interventionist who eagerly involved the U.S. in World War I with horrible long-term consequences for the world (including setting the stage for World War II), it’s good to finally see (in June 2020) that the eugenicist/white-supremacist is belatedly being recognized for who he truly was.
From a June 29, 2020, news report: “Princeton University’s board of trustees announced on Saturday its plans to rename the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, stating, “racist thinking and policies make him an inappropriate namesake for a school or college whose scholars, students, and alumni must stand firmly against racism in all its forms.”
It’s about time! (Way past due, actually.)
P.S. I’m opposed to the Orwellian obliteration of humanity’s checkered history by flushing it down the “memory hole” a la Orwell’s classic novel 1984, a Prometheus Hall of Fame inductee and well worth rereading in 2020, and thus oppose the destruction of historical statues of Founding Fathers like Washington and Jefferson or anti-Nazi civilization saviors like the WWII British prime minister Winston Churchill. Such complex and flawed figures – unlike truly evil dictators like Lenin, Stalin, Hitler or Mao – should be remembered with statues honoring their civilized achievements, ideally documented in accompanying educational plaques and materials that also remind us and don’t obscure their flaws and their problematic eras.
But there’s no good reason I can see to continue naming a modern ivy-league university’s school of international affairs after Wilson, arguably the most illiberal and authoritarian U.S. president of the 20th century.
I met Michael G. when living at a co-op near the UT Austin campus in the West Campus district (which is now being transformed by highrises), and he was one of the first people I met after moving to Austin in ’75 from Nashville where I had attended Vanderbilt. Michael introduced me to libertarian thought of which I had never encountered. I was vaguely familiar with Rand but had only read the “Ayn Rand Speaks To Students”* tract which as a hippyish student type myself, I rejected entirely. \
Michael as more philosophically studied than me at the time introduced me to the philosophical meaning of the word “materialism”, which ironically has taken a central role in my blogging on the internet in the past 15 years as I reject philosophical materialism and its handmaiden, scientific materialism. Also ironically have been urging Michael to become active in this debate and the intense and growing debate over neo-Darwinism and the hegemony of philosophical materialism in the West.
Looking forward to more visits with Michael, which are learning experiences in condensed form.
*Don’t think Rand was a particularly good futurist – she in that tract ridiculed hippies and one device for that was her goading the reader to imagine hippies as unlikely computer programmers (yuk yuk Steve Wozniak and Bill Gates). I think her idea of a computer programmer was more akin to computer operators who at the time were in peripheral rooms operating card readers and line printers.
Michael – Your Dad would be so proud of you. If there is awareness or energy of some type from our loved ones, know that your Dad is beaming! Enjoyed your history. Remembering brings a big smile on my face….our visits to Columbus….your visits to Houston. Looking forward to next spring.