The Girl Who Owned a City
OT Nelson, 1975
After a virus wipes out everyone over the age of twelve, the surviving
children find themselves on the verge of starvation. In a Chicago
suburb, ten-year-old Lisa Nelson thinks of ways to get food that the
other children haven't thought of, such as breaking into a grocery
warehouse and driving out to a farm, but this makes her a target of
gangs of boys who steal her stuff. Lisa tries to turn the local kids
into a militia, but finding that her street is impossible to defend,
relocates them to the local high school. The high school is as
defensible as a castle, and after they recruit enough children that
the population swells to over 500, as populous as a city. Well, a
small city. Okay, a town. Small town. Village, really. Hamlet.
Imagine Stephen Ratliff read The Fountainhead before penning
one of his Marrissa stories. This is really dire.
First of all, the writing is awful. Yes, it's a children's book, but
I've read enough well-written children's books to know that prose can
be simple without being simple-minded. Nelson is especially fond of
describing the tone of statements whose tones are already completely
obvious. "'In other words, Charlie, use your head. I know how hard
that must be for you,' she said sarcastically." "'Good thinking,'
Lisa complimented him." That's annoying, I thought annoyedly.
But this is a minor issue, relatively speaking. I mentioned
Marrissa a moment ago,
and not just because Nelson has the entire postpubescent population
succumb to Ratliff Gas. No, Lisa is unhinged in much the same way
that Marrissa is unhinged. They have the same combination of
megalomania and weirdly inappropriate affect. All the adults are
dead, starvation and warfare threaten to claim the surviving
children... and a ten-year-old girl is genuinely puzzled at the fact
that the other kids don't consider the post-apocalyptic struggle
fun. Until I read this book, I would not have believed for
a moment that that girl could be anyone other than Marrissa. But
here we have Lisa, and sure enough, she is insistent that survivalism
is Real Fun. She even uses the capital letters.
The difference is that Marrissa was the product of a sheltered
Appalachian man-child, an unwitting conduit for his provincial values
who was just trying to tell Star Trek stories as best he could; Lisa
is a didactic instrument, the hero of a political tract. And the
politics of The Girl Who Owned a City are not just libertarian
but bugfuck libertarian. The key passage is that in which Lisa
responds to complaints that she keeps referring to the high school
as her city when, as Jill points out, "we've all helped to
build it" and that therefore the "kids are starting to call you
selfish. They don't like it when you call it yours. They want to feel
they own it too." Lisa's reply? "Selfish? I guess I am. But, there's
more to it than that. Don't forget, it was my discovery. The
place was just sitting here empty, belonging to no one. I found it,
planned it, filled it with my supplies, and now I run it."
She adds, "If the city belonged to no one in particular, we'd
form a group that would vote on things. And that would be bad."
Jill objects that voting is good. Lisa retorts, "No, Jill. I know
that you like to share things, but it just doesn't work out the way
you'd like it to." She explains that if she shared power and ran
things democratically, "the group would argue all the time" and
"they'd be too busy to accomplish anything," continuing, "I do own
this place and I don't force anyone to stay. I didn't force you or
anyone else to come here. It's a free thing." Jill protests, but
Lisa is firm: "Freedom is more important than sharing, Jill. This is
my city." Then she concludes, "And if you, or Craig, or anyone else
doesn't like it, then you can use your freedom... and leave."
This is far from the first time that Lisa has told Jill off about
her unfortunate attachment to the concept of sharing. Earlier, Jill
had been taking care of a bunch of younger kids, but they were
unhappy even though they had lots of toys. Lisa's diagnosis:
"They do too much sharing and it isn't working at all." Instead, she
says, each kid needs a toy of his or her very own that no one else
can play with. Lisa declares that she will provide a toy from her
conveniently unlimited supply to every kid who brings her a can of
gasoline. Why not just give the kids the toys? "They need to be able
to say to themselves, 'I worked hard and did a good job and I
earned my toy.'"
Now, that last point sounds innocuous enough, and I can certainly
relate to it; when I encounter people my age or older who are living
off of trust funds or mooching off of their parents I can't help but
think, "Gah, how do you have any self-respect whatsoever?" But
there's something very curious about Lisa's sense of earned ownership.
Lisa is a scavenger. She says the high school was her
discovery. "Discovery"?! It was sitting right there on a hill plain
as day! All she did was decide to claim it. She says it's filled
with her supplies. What makes those supplies hers? Only the
fact of her saying so. By this logic, I could just as easily walk
through the streets of her town pointing at every unoccupied building
and saying, "Mine, mine, mine, mine," and soon I really would
own the city.
How could I enforce my claims, you ask? Doesn't matter! The
philosophy Nelson sets forth in The Girl Who Owned a City
— which is basically identical to the one that Steve Ditko
proselytizes for in Mr. A — dictates that ownership is
not about who has the power to control property, but merely
who has the right to do so. And so while libertarianism may
declare freedom as its central value, in enshrining property rights
as inviolable it is in fact no less a freedom-limiting social contract
than the welfare state. Nelson, Ditko, and others of their ideological
stripe make it a cardinal sin to steal or to initiate force; the plot
of the second half of The Girl Who Owned a City revolves around
Lisa's machinations to retake the high school after an outside gang
forces her out, and concludes with her righteous return to the city
that she owns. But how is saying that we all must agree to respect
each other's property claims, however specious, and that those who opt
out will be met with retaliatory force, any different from saying that
we all must agree to contribute to the general welfare, and that those
who opt out will be met with retaliatory force?
After all, in life, you technically have absolute freedom.
You can do anything you are capable of. I mean, that's a tautology.
Say you live in a welfare state but don't want to pay your taxes.
(And what is libertarianism but an elaborate defense of the feeling
that "I don't wanna pay taxes!"?) Fine! Don't! True,
you will likely be arrested — though you're free to try to
resist and take on the risk that you'll be killed — and go to
jail — though you're free to try to escape and take on the
risk that you'll be killed. Now, you might say that that's stupid.
But how is it any different from Lisa's claim that everyone is free
to leave her city, knowing that outside the city walls those who
leave will almost certainly fall victim to disease, starvation, or
gangs? How is it different from the sweatshop owners who say that
their employees are free to leave and find better jobs if they can,
knowing that there are no better jobs to be had? It's called wage
slavery for a reason — how does fear of destitution,
homelessness and death restrict freedom any less than fear of the
Lisa would probably argue that wage slaves are free to start their
own businesses. With what capital? This is where the
notion of "earning" runs into trouble. "Earning" suggests ownership
is based on merit. As if life were a race in which everyone gathers
at the starting line and has an equal chance. But how did Lisa
"earn" her supplies, "earn" her city? Yes, she was the first one
to think of going to a grocery warehouse and the first one to think
of moving into the high school... but she was also lucky enough to
have been ten when the Ratliff Gas hit and not five (or, needless to
say, fifteen). She was lucky enough to be living in suburbia with
easy access both to farmland and to the remnants of civilization.
In short, to borrow from the old saying, she was born on third base
and took that as permission to spend the entire book patting herself
on the back for reaching home plate before all the people who started
out in the batting box. And yes, it's true that she didn't fall over
on the way home or run the wrong way or wet her pants or anything,
but still, The Girl Who Owned a City is a perfect example of
libertarianism as a philosophy that attempts to make a virtue out
of winning unfair contests.
This is especially true in a world that hasn't been conveniently
vacated, a world in which Lisa's guiding principle of "finders
keepers" doesn't apply because everything has already been found.
Lisa herself provides an amusing illustration of this when she says
that her dad (and it is no coincidence that Lisa's last name is Nelson)
"was telling me about new cities owned by individuals, and they worked
out much better [...] In fact, there was a whole country being built
that way — I read about it in a magazine. The place was called
Minerva, the Republic of Minerva." The Republic of Minerva was a scheme
in which a couple of kooks dumped a bunch of Australian sand onto a
reef in Tongan waters and declared it an independent country; within a
few weeks the two had a falling out and the project collapsed, though
it didn't really matter because Tonga sent in the army and annexed the
place. That worked out much better than all those stupid public
The girls on the cover of the book have breasts but in the story none
of them are over eleven. Did they have early puberty in 1975?
Guy Delisle, 2005
Pyongyang is a memoir, in comics form, in which Guy Delisle
recounts his two months in North Korea overseeing an animation project
that has been outsourced by his French studio. It could just as easily
be titled The Man Who Owned a Country, as North Korea is little
more than a nation-sized cult centered on Kim Il Sung. It's such a
bizarre place that it's hard to believe that it really exists, so the
cartoony art this book employs may not have been the best choice; it
makes the story seem like it's taking place in the wacky world of the
funny pages. But North Korea is a real and darkly fascinating place
— I'd read many travelogues of Western visitors to North Korea
before I encountered Pyongyang, which may make me a bad audience
for the book. Though Delisle is fine as a narrator, the chief value
of his story is the content, and there wasn't much here that was new
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