Volume 26, Number 1, Fall 2007

An Interview with Jim Lesczynski

By Rick Triplett

Rick Triplett: Science fiction author and libertarian L. Neil Smith describes your book, as the best in a quarter century. Leaving your book aside for the moment, what books have influenced you?

Jim Lesczynski: I guess Neil and I have a mutual admiration society, because many of his books are favorites of mine both for reading pleasure and polemics. My favorite Smith novels are The Probability Broach, Pallas, and Forge of the Elders. They’re really well written, entertaining as hell, and have important messages. I’m also a big fan of Vin Suprynowiczu’s two nonfiction collections and The Black Arrow.

Libertarians are great at writing essays, articles and academic treatises, but with a few notable exceptions we’re far behind in the pop culture race. I especially wanted to write something that would be accessible to “kids” in their formative years, which I thought Pallas did quite well. Atlas Shrugged is great, but most people are adults by the time they read it, and by then we have to undo all those years of socialist propaganda. I wanted to get them on the pro-freedom track before it was too late.

Other books that were a big influence on me were anything by Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut or Hunter Thompson. I always had a very strong anti-authoritarian streak, long before I knew what a libertarian was. As a kid I absolutely loved Mad Magazine, but kids today don’t read it much, as far as I can tell. I think that basic disrespect for authority and sacred cows is about as important a value as we can possibly teach children.

RT:How would you characterize what you do in your work as a libertarian activist?

JL:I’ve been called by a NYC radio reporter “the Abbie Hoffman of the libertarians,” and that’s probably a good analogy. I’m a guerrilla activist, and I specialize in humorous stunts and street theater that make a political point. I’m probably most notorious for organizing “Guns for Tots,” which was a mock toy drive where we collected toy guns and gave them to poor kids in Harlem to protest NYC’s proposed toy gun ban. That got me international coverage, including two appearances on the Daily Show and several appearances on CNN. Another time I caused a small riot when I gave away free cigarettes to protest the city’s tobacco tax hike. I also organized an “Unauthorized Protest” in Central Park of the Republican National Convention after Mayor Bloomberg scared off the big anti-war groups by denying them “permission to protest” in the park. And I hired a witch to put a curse on the proposed site of a taxpayer-funded football stadium. I find that having fun with political activism is the best way to be effective.

RT:Your book seems to be offered as a “juvenile”; yet, like the Heinlein juveniles, it presents several complicated ideas so clearly that I readily recommend it to adults. Did you have a target audience in mind?

JL:I definitely had a pre-teen audience in mind, although I also wanted it to be something that adults would enjoy as well. Heinlein’s and Smith’s juveniles were both inspirations for that, as well as the Harry Potter books. (I should also mention that I think the Harry Potter books, while not explicitly libertarian, have a generally pro-freedom/anti-authority tilt, especially Order of the Phoenix and Deathly Hallows.)

RT:I’ve read a lot of bad first novels, and yours is head and shoulders above them. Have you had any training or experience in writing fiction?

JL:My undergraduate degree was in Creative Writing, and I wrote a lot of short fiction during and after college, although I rarely published any of it. In my 20’s, I wrote about 400 pages of a completely different novel before deciding it was crap and abandoning it. Writing fiction is a good break from being a corporate shill.

RT:What do you do for a living? How would you describe your daily life?

JL:I earn my living as a marketing manager for a financial services company. My daily life is relatively sedate, I think. I live in Manhattan and commute to work by subway. I’ve always been of the “work to live, not live to work” philosophy, so I usually try to get home in time to have dinner with my family and play with my kids before their bedtime. When I’m not at work or at home, I’m most often at some libertarian event or political activity.

RT:I’m assuming you either have kids or have worked with them a lot, since you portray them so well.

JL:I have three kids, but my oldest is now five, so my experiences with them didn’t really help much in writing the book. I just promised myself when I was young that I would always remember that kids aren’t the idiots many adults assume they are.

RT:I assigned your book to some of my students, and one of them asked whether a game played in the book, “Smear the Queer,” indicated author prejudice. I said that this is the way kids talk, and that it is easy for them to echo prejudices they are too young to understand. Do you have any comment on this?

JL:“Smear the Queer” (a.k.a. “Kill the Carrier”) was an actual game we played on my elementary school playground. That part wasn’t really meant as any sort of big message, other than to show that the protagonists are thoroughly politically incorrect.

RT:You have chosen to publish a book of fiction. Why is this? What role do you see fiction playing in forming the future?

JL:I think fiction is where big ideas are popularized and gain broad acceptance. We’ll always need intellectuals and polemicists to lay the theoretical groundwork of the movement, but we need novelists, screenwriters, and lyricists to get those ideas into the popular culture. The abolitionist movement made slow but steady progress over generations through pamphleteering, but it was the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin that provided the tipping point.

RT:What do you think distinguishes your novel from other pro-freedom fiction?

JL:There are a lot of great novels that do a wonderful, terrifying job of showing the horrors of government. I love 1984 and Fahrenheit 451, and I’m a huge fan of modern pro-freedom classics like Unintended Consequences and The Black Arrow. We do a great job of portraying the future dystopia of totalitarianism. However, there are very few novels that take the alternate approach of portraying “a future worth fighting for,” as Smith describes his own work. That’s what makes Smith’s best work truly important, in my opinion, and it’s what I tried to accomplish with The Walton Street Tycoons. Of course, Smith’s work is pure science fiction, whereas my novel is not. There are a lot of people who just won’t read science fiction, for whatever reason, so I think it’s important to create these “libertarian utopias” in other genres.

RT:Do you think the libertarian “movement” is losing ground or making advances? What do you think is the most important thing that liberty-minded individuals can do to improve our future?

JL:I think the intellectual movement itself is advancing slowly or perhaps even in neutral, but nevertheless I remain optimistic about the future of freedom. I think the most important thing that liberty-minded individuals can do to improve our future is something that seems to come naturally, which is to embrace the technology that is making government more irrelevant every day. Technology is empowering individuals to create their own decentralized media and their own unregulated, untaxed marketplaces. The former is accelerating the dissemination of pro-freedom ideas, and the latter is making government regulation obsolete. I think Wikipedia, Craigslist and their successors will do more to bring about freedom than any politician.

RT:Thank you for taking the time to share your ideas with readers of Prometheus!

JL:It was my pleasure.

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