Wednesday, July 29, 2009


Catching up with William T. Vollman’s writing output is hard to do. Even as I was finishing up his condensed version of his seven volume series called “Rising Up and Rising Down,” he himself was just seeing into publication his fat new book, “Imperial,” about the illegal immigrants crossing the border in the Imperial Valley of California and Mexico. He is a poetic journalist, if you can accept that category, who mixes his fact-finding and interviews with evocative images. There’s an excerpt at the NYTimes today if you want to see for yourself.

“Rising Up and Rising Down”
is an attempt to come to terms with some kind of moral rules that will help us make decent [sic] decisions about violence, mostly based on relationships. He has gone into war zones and ghettos to see what is there and has not been a fellow in a lab coat but rather a companion to those in trouble. He leans on the lip of the great maw called “Violence” that swallows so many and counts its bloody teeth. I was wondering how I could make any of this new when we stare at so much banal violence in the daily newspapers and television. What reference point can we share?

Netflix to the rescue, as so often. Last night I watched “The Proposition,” a so-called “Western” but set in Australia, an even harsher and more ancient frontier than the American Desert. It directly confronts these kinds of moral boundaries: spouses/protection, family/allegiance, races/oppression, settlement/disorder, colonialism/genocide, and righteousness/punishment. The story is balladic: there are brothers, the youngest can only be saved by sacrificing the oldest, and the outcome hinges on the decisions of the middle brother. The point is not really how the plot ends: it is all in the getting there and like Vollman, the writer (a song writer of considerable stature) sees poetry everywhere. As the actors commented, the intensity is increased by the fact that people went to America willingly and in search of a New Eden. The founders of Australia were felons deliberately banished to Hell.

BILL’S OBSERVATION: “Give me a soldier anytime. For straightforwardness a soldier cannot be beat. Like cops, doctors, mothers and whores, they’ve been through it and they cannot be fooled.”

Therefore, the real pivot of this story is the Captain who is supposed to protect the settlement and dearly wishes to protect his wife. He suffers over ends/means as he tries to obey Vollman’s SHEPHERD’S MAXIM: As authority enlarges itself, its obligation to protect from violence the individuals it controls increases, and the ability of those individuals to defend themselves from violence correspondingly decreases.

The self-appointed mayor and “owner” of the town obeys CAESAR’S MAXIM: Should I extend mercy beyond expediency, then I have the right to commit whatever aggression I please. Though I didn’t notice much mercy as he orders the youngest brother to be whipped to death to satisfy the blood thirst for vengeance in his town dwellers. He’s also a believer in TROTSKY’S MAXIM: No one who disagrees with me is allowed to judge me.

The Irish Murphy brothers’ principle is THE AMERICAN MANTRA: Because the right to self-defense remains inalienable, each of us can and should maintain a self-reliant distrust of authority. This idea was undoubtedly born in Britain where England and Rome struggled to control the pre-existing tribes but Robin Hood always wins over the Sheriff of Nottingham. Because of the colonialism of this little island, Australia shares this conviction -- at least in the Outback -- and no displaced population more so than the Irish who arrived in chains.

So the Brit attitude has been governed by CORTES’S MAXIM: In order to secure and defend my ground, I have every right to conquer yours.

That quickly drifts over from land ownership to people ownership, as blacks of both America and Australia know, so then operations are governed by THE KLANSMAN’S MAXIM: If I believe your race or culture threatens mine, I have the right first to threaten you back, then to remove your threat by violence.

This in turn triggers in both America and Australia (and oh-so-much in Ireland) THE VICTIM’S MAXIM: If any members of your side harmed any members of my side, then your side is in the wrong.

There are other assumptions like this buried in the minds of voters, politicians, businessmen, teachers, and so on -- none of them dug out, defined, examined and either rejected or reformed. All of them can lead to horrendous violence, if only the slow self-destruction of drugs and alcohol.

There are two interacting assumptions that Vollman doesn’t directly define but that I’ve been pondering here in Montana. They both come from sports violence, which seems to be increasing regardless of lip-syncing about “sportsmanship.” They are particularly strong in the small towns and reservations of this high prairie or maybe I just think so because I see it first hand.

One is that Winner takes all. The other is that Being the “last man standing” is the same as winning. In a place where survival is tough, the idea of controlling everything is a very attractive one. Not only does it protect the group to which you have allegiance, whether family, tribe or town, but also it increases power because other people will have to come to you to beg for survival.

That’s when the other rule kicks in: if winning depends more on the weakness and neediness of others than it does on true excellence of leaders, then it is always a temptation to cut the minority losers down, regardless of what they deserve.
Weak persons then begin to turn to the victim’s maxim and the Klansman’s maxim, keeping track of offenses against them and waiting for a moment of weakness in the winner, which always comes sooner or later.

Aside from the Golden Rule, worthy religions oppose the “winner takes all” idea with the principle that if the weakest among you are protected, then also the strong can prosper in peace, because there will be no need to accuse and suppress them.

Would someone please write out this idea on paper, wrap around something heavy enough to be thrown, and heave it over the wall into the Republican party? I don’t think they are enough in the modern times to read a blog. Or particularly books as fat and frequent as Vollman’s. Anyway, if you drop Vollman on them, they’ll be squashed. Maybe they would sit through “The Proposition,” but they might not get the right message.

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