That poor guy who got tied to a tree in Kentucky was on my mind last week.
Census takers have, in certain parts of the country, been lumped in with so-called “revenooers” (to use Snuffy Smith jargon) and generally threatened, shot at, occasionally killed by folks exercising their right to be separate. So they assume. Appalachia, the Ozarks, parts of Tennessee and Kentucky, Texas…a lot of pockets, populated by people who have, for many reasons, acquired a sense of identity apart from the mainstream, and who feel imposed upon if the gov’ment so much as notices their existence. They’d have a point if they truly did maintain a separate existence, but they don’t, and hypocrisy is the least amendable vice to reason. At one time it was bootlegging, today it’s drugs, either marijuana or meth. They don’t seem to get it that if they contribute to the erosion of the public weal then they forfeit the “right” to be left alone. I really believe they don’t understand this simple equation.
Nor, in fact, do they care.
But do I believe that poor man was killed over some disagreement over political hegemony? No. He knocked on the wrong door at the wrong time and asked the wrong question and some good ol’ boys killed him. Scrawling “Fed” on his chest was probably an afterthought, and means about as much as had they written “Cop” or “Fag” or “Stranger.” Whoever did it probably thought he was being cute.
I would point to this and say that anyone who thinks America is free of its terrorists, its fundamentalist jihadists, its unreconstructed semi-literate hate-mongers, its pockets of intolerance where just walking down the street wearing the wrong clothes can get one hurt or killed, then a closer look is necessary. Like such groups and people in foreign climes, the motivations for these folks are many and varied, from religion and political purity to money or sex or just bitter resentments. The binding characteristic is that they hate—not with a red-hot, spikey, enraged hate, but with the harsher, tamped-ash, slow-burn deep hatred of constant gauging, you to them, ranking those who belong against those who don’t, an ever-present, seething, low-grade fever of hate that informs every single thought and action. It’s not so much that something triggers it at the moment, causing an aberrant act of outrage as that they start from a coal-bed of resentment and rejection that they take as “normal.” That makes them harder to understand for most people. The default position for these folks is to despise you because you aren’t like them, and may the ‘verse help you if you have any education, erudition, any sense of a larger civic ecology, and grasp that reality is more than the pathetic network of familial connections that hoards sentiment and incubates the drowning phobias of in-group solidarity and guarantees a cyclic affirmation of hopelessness.
From this, though, I would point out one thing that we tend to forget in America, in the West, that open-mindedness is always based on resources. There must be enough, more than enough, to make people comfortable. Apocalyptic fiction is frightening not so much because the physical world crumbles, but because everyone accepts in the absence of Enough that the small bits and pieces, an apple, a loaf of bread, a piece of sheeting to cover your from rain, a drink of water, is always sufficient reason to throw Plato on the fire and give up on solving problems. People, it suggests, lose morality, even love, when they’re hungry and frightened enough.
I have a house-full of books. I just got a few more yesterday. The pile of unread tomes grows, and it makes me feel rich.
Many years ago, a cousin of mine had to live upstairs from us, with my grandparents, because his mother and father had moved to a county where this cousin did not meet the local school standards. He would have entered their high school a grade behind instead of graduating that year. So he lived upstairs and attended his alma mater so he could graduate.
I ended up having to look out for him. He was stupid. Not in that he lacked intelligence, but he had no concept of how to apply it. He reacted. He did things without forethought. He got in trouble. Consequently, he got me into some trouble. I was not stupid, so the degree of trouble for me was minimized, confined to the problem of what to do with this kid. I quickly reached a point of wanting him out of the house. Which meant that sometimes I did his homework.
I hadn’t had much contact with my cousins for years. There were many reasons for this I won’t go into, but basically they were strangers to me. They were cousins. Fine. Big deal. So what? This is perhaps a blindspot with me, but frankly family as a concept doesn’t mean much to me. I was raised to earn friendship, regardless, and I expected it to be earned in turn. The conditions are immaterial and vary wildly, but just laying a claim on one’s affections simply because you happen to be related is not an idea I subscribe to.
So this kid was, while I “knew” him, pretty much a stranger. One evening we’re conversing about this and that and we got onto the topic of sacrifice. He proudly declared that he’d risk his life for me.
“Why?” I asked.
“You’re my cousin. You’re family.”
“So?” He looked puzzled so I elaborated. “Okay, say you find out that I’m a drug dealer. The police get onto me and it looks like I might be arrested or killed by a rival. You’d fight both for me because we’re family?”
“You’d stand between me and the police.”
“You’re an idiot,” I said.
He looked hurt. After a couple minutes, he asked, “You wouldn’t do it for me?”
“If you were a drug dealer and I found out, I’d turn your ass in.”
“But I’m family!”
“That’s just an accident of birth.”
This was getting beyond his personal calculus.
No, I don’t actually think consanguinity is sufficient reason to extend any more consideration than you would to a casual acquaintance, certainly not to someone who has become a close friend. One of the reasons, I suppose, I have no children. Blood is probably an evolutionary trait to guarantee the success of a given DNA, but in society it is often turned to abuse, an excuse to overlook all sorts of shortfalls. I might have felt different had I had brothers and sisters, but I hope not. All too often, Family is a room with too few doors, and none of them open. The room seems capable of expanding—cousins, nieces and nephews, thrice removed on Great Aunt Mathilda’s side—until you get things like Clans, and they in turn can become Gangs…
I recently read a novel called Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell. It’s a harsh, unpleasant story of Ozark backwoods familial tyranny. I understand it’s about to be released as a film. It portrays the kind of chains family imposes under the most obscene kind of filial blackmail, the way it is used as an excuse to not only forgive but defend criminality, brutality, ignorance, and the perpetuation of a siege mentality that cannot afford to embrace anything genuinely moral. It is at core an argument against a concept of family that holds sway over so much of the human race.
But it also shows what I mean when I say all moral behavior rests on resource. Having enough. Having, perhaps, more than enough. The irony, of course, is that the mindset that such entrenched poverty and the oppressive familial code that seems to emerge in its depths pretty much guarantees that those so trapped will never step outside to find a way to cure their condition. Entropy. Energy always ebbs in a closed system. For growth you need outside energy.
Probably no one in that Kentucky county will come forward to help the police find the killer. They’re “family” after all, and the price of doing right is too steep compared to the consequences of talking to Outsiders.
Sometimes the best way to help a situation is to leave it. Perhaps what the world needs are more doors. Open. We have, perhaps, enough rooms. We need more doors.