Personal/Political

On fire, their faces strangely impassive, they kept trying to get up and walk away, only to have their neighbors push them back into the pile of burning brush, beating them with sticks, shouting witch, witch. Why were they not staked down in some fashion? It was as if they were being told: here is the forest you were always skulking off into. Here is your cover and refuge, on fire. Get back where you belong.

Watching the video — as much of it as I can stomach — I’m suddenly grateful to be living in a nation of laws with the era of lynching behind us (I hope)… and also to be living on a mountain two miles from town.

I know how vicious small-town neighbors can be. I’ve heard the jokes about vigilante action against the local gay prostitute who solicits customers by the side of the highway just outside of town. How bad would things have to get before any and all weirdos became scapegoats? According to one line of thinking, witch persecutions are tied to economic insecurity, and flare up during times of widespread scarcity. During the last depression, I’ve heard, the Klan burned crosses in the Catholic cemetery in the middle of town. It’s not just the government you have to watch out for, though clearly the worst, most horrible violence happens when some demagogue harnesses the people’s petty hatreds and jealousies: think Rwanda in 1994, or the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

A few years ago, I read a bunch of books and articles on witch beliefs among the Pueblo peoples of the southwestern U.S. What the ethnographers heard from their informants, over and over, was that trouble starts with envy. Sometimes people became witches without even realizing it, just because they let themselves be consumed with envy for their proverbial neighbor’s ass. Evidently whoever wrote the Ten Commandments was aware of this danger, too. Apart from modern consumer society, I think it’s virtually a universal sentiment. Among the Pueblo Indians, anyone who accumulated too many things too quickly might be a witch — or might provoke jealousy and thus witchcraft in others — and therefore care was taken, traditionally, not to let anyone get too rich or too poor. Witches were thought to be shape-shifters who usually took the form of coyotes, and also traveled in dust-devils, forsaking the proper roads and paths.

Perhaps the people in the video, too, crowded onto a gravel road somewhere in (I think) Tanzania, were waiting to see whether the flames would burn off everything human and reveal the monstrous nature they knew had to be lurking just beneath.

rock oak and beeches b&w

I am not ready to let the colors back in. The sky in black & white retains a pleasing uniformity: it’s either a wall of light or the nightly well. Shadows have authority, making a man appear as solid as a tree and a tree as stolid as a gnomon. I am not ready for brown & green & blue & the grievances of noon. I am not ready to stop being white & seeing white as blankness, the default setting. The kind of self-effacement that ennables is still so comfortable. The old ways might have been wrong but it was a wrongness that required careful attention, like the shape & set of a fine felt hat. It was ugly, yes, but it fit. Now we have such a crowd of proud misfits, loud in their ain’ts & their complaints, shrill as the shills who killed their appetite for books. I watch their hands shaping the air & think, what if someday we all switched to sign language & to Braille? What would that do the hard cell of self? Then perhaps we could free ourselves from the shame of misbegotten speech: the N-word, the F-word, the C-word, the S-word. Then we could all luxuriate in a world of scent & soft outlines — a touchy-feely city on the hill. Then only those without any hands would still stand on the wrong side of the wall, their unbranched shadows inching across the snow.

Prostration had become impossible. I needed a less-demanding god, one I could repair at home with duct tape, a little pine tar, or a well-placed screw. Someone had begun making sandals out of antique plastic Coke bottles, & down at the cafe the kids had learned how to draw a crowd with their impressions of the dialogue in telenovelas, which were the only thing still being broadcast. No one had seen a terrorist in years. I took in a small income in bets, dissassembling & reassembling my rifle in under a minute — nothing wrong with my fingers! The last time the execution bus came through, we all felt a little sorry for it, still on the road at an age when most buses are getting ready for retirement at the edge of some meadow full of goldenrod. The MP driver asked the crowd if we had any volunteers, & I caught my hand twitching in my lap. That’s when I decided I needed some new fire to raise me from my wheelchair, once & for all. Faith is more than what you believe; it’s how you see, & I was seeing too many shades of bruise. It’s what you hear — that murmuration — when you sit in the middle of a crater on a clear night & wait for the artificial stars to inch across the sky, infallible as scalpels. I realized my infrared goggles still work, & sometimes even the heat-seeking missile in my pants. I’m a self-made man.

Over at the cassandra pages, my qarrtsiluni co-editor Beth Adams has been filing reports from D.C. for the past several days: Sunday, Monday, Monday night, and Tuesday. The scene in the capital today certainly sounded like a festival of the dispossessed.

The TV coverage, apparently, didn’t show what really happened: when Bush was introduced, a “boo” arose from all those millions of people that must have been completely audible; it was extremely loud. And when his helicopter lifted off, a cheer arose along with millions of uplifted arms, waving goodbye (quite a few, I’d say, with middle finger raised) — all the length of the Mall. I was a little surprised, and didn’t participate in the booing, but it was not so much rudeness as it was a spontaneous shucking off of a tremendous burden and source of despair, and an acknowledgment that this man never represented us, he was not of us, and Obama is clearly someone entirely other. The day for me was all about being part of that tremendous crowd who felt that America was being taken back, repossessed, by the people who have felt so disenfranchised all this time. Their presence, and the fact that they had traveled so far to be there, was not just a personal desire but also a statement to the world that there actually is another American spirit, and it’s still alive.

UPDATE: Be sure not to miss her final Reflections on the Inauguration.

Don’t miss “Men Without Weakness.” Dale’s take on imperialism is very much like my own, and I link it here to provide perspective on my ongoing series, Postcards from a Conquistador. Stonewall Jackson and William Tecumseh Sherman were cut from the same cloth as Hernán Cortés, I think.

The cold blue eyes look down history, finding us with contempt. He gave up drinking whiskey when he found that he liked the taste of it; he gave up reading the newspapers when they started to praise him. He did take pride in winning battles, but he knew it was a sin: the victories belonged to God, not to him. In winning a battle he found spiritual ecstasy: it was, maybe, the only token of God’s love he would ever believe.

Though I suppose Dale’s perspective, like my own, must’ve been shaped by leftist critiques of imperialism, this post could just as easily have been penned by a disciple of Ron Paul, and I like the fact that he tries to get inside the heads and hearts of men who are all too easily dismissed as monsters, or adulated by latter-day partisans. By the end of it — it’s not long — you’ll also understand why Dale named his blog mole, after the homebody protagonist of The Wind in the Willows. Go read.