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 lash?

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 countries!

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 to me.

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