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It's possible that the late Aaron Zelman, legendary founder and longtime Executive Director of JPFO saved my life -- or at least my career. But then saving lives, either as a medical corpsman or as the leading standard-bearer for individual liberty, seemed to be his calling.
In the late 1990s, various individuals had been telling me (and telling Aaron, too, apparently) that we ought to get to know one another.
It's easy to understand why they should think so. Aaron and I were gun guys, and believed the right to obtain, own, and carry weapons is absolutely essential to protect and extend our personal freedom. Even more, both of us understood perfectly that compromise on that or any basic principle is just a complicated way of committing suicide. I didn't know the fellow personally, but I had certainly heard of him and was happy he was out there, doing his work as I was trying to do mine.
The latter had become harder for me lately. I can't explain it, but our home had been damaged by a flood, and the sense of violation must have been similar to what a rape or burglary victim feels, except that there was nobody to blame. Although I had enjoyed a reputation for being among the most prolific of novelists, for about 18 months afterward, I would sit at the keyboard and nothing would come out of the ends of my fingers. I think I wrote one essay during that bleak period.
Then somebody told me Aaron had an idea for a novel he wanted help writing. Any experienced writer will tell you that lots of people have an idea for a novel. Most of them want somebody else to write it. But when I talked with Aaron for the first time on the phone, I could tell that he -- and his idea -- were different. He'd had it in his head for more than a decade, but it was as topical as that day's headlines. It involved people who felt real, relationships, matters of conscience, individuals taking a stand, and even had space for a bit of violent action.
We agreed at the outset (somewhat reluctantly on my part) that there would be no sexual content. Aaron didn't want to offend his contributors and members, and, on reflection, that seemed fairly reasonable.
I took notes, prepared an outline, signed a contract, and that was the beginning of a professional and personal relationship that was to last for more than ten years. Thanks to Aaron's boundless energy, enthusiasm, and grim determination, my "writer's block" was suddenly over.
Among other things, I no longer had time for it.
The novel was The Mitzvah, and any weaknesses it may have are entirely my fault. I don't play well in groups, as a rule, and had never had a collaborator before. It took some getting used to. The way it worked, thanks to the Internet, I'd write a chapter, Aaron would read it and then call me (he never felt entirely comfortable online) to offer comments and suggestions. I'd always hated working with editors, especially the "hands-on" kind, but this was completely different. Aaron's judgment was excellent, his criticisms were always rendered with respect, his ideas for improving the book were almost always good, and I looked forward to what became his almost daily calls.
I still miss them to this day.
Along the way, thanks to Aaron, I learned far more about Judaism and Jewish culture than I'd ever thought I'd know, and -- this was absolutely typical of the man -- far more about Roman Catholicism, as well, since the novel is about a liberal, pacifist Catholic monsignor who suddenly discovers that he's actually an adopted Jewish war orphan whose real family were formidable anti-Nazi partisans. In one of our initial discussions, I wondered aloud how well I could handle the religious content of the book, since I have absolutely no religion myself. "But that makes you the perfect person to write it!" Aaron declared.
For my part, I think I helped Aaron see the differences between conservatism and libertarianism more clearly. In the end, he almost always came down on the libertarian side of issues, although he had little use for the Libertarian Party itself. Not long afterward, we wrote Hope by the same method, a story of the first libertarian President. "What would it be like," Aaron wanted to ask -- and answer, "if we no longer feared our government?" I'm hearing odd but pleasant echoes of that little novel today, from one Presidential candidate in particular.
About the same time that I started The Mitzvah, I began writing essays, expressing the principles we shared, asking the questions -- sometimes pointed and harsh -- that he wanted asked. They are still to be found on the JPFO website, and I included some of them in my most recent book, Down With Power: Libertarian Policy In A Time Of Crisis.
After a decade, I finally met Aaron in person on a trip my wife and I took to Chicago. We had lunch at a restaurant near his home. In his plain shirt and straw farmer's hat, He was exactly as I'd always imagined him, a physical cross between two men who were not, perhaps, as faithful friends of freedom as he was, Abraham Lincoln and Pete Seeger.
Aaron Zelman was born in 1946, on March 4th, which I always felt was entirely appropriate. That was his way: "March Forth!" Aaron was one of the few historically great men I have ever known. I will forever be extremely proud and happy to have marched beside him for a time.
A fifty-year veteran of the libertarian movement, L. Neil Smith is the Author of 33 books including The Probability Broach, Ceres, Sweeter Than Wine, And Down With Power: libertarian Policy In A Time Of Crisis. He is also the Publisher of The Libertarian Enterprise, now in its 17th year online.
Visit the Neil Smith archive on JPFO.
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