March 10, 2004
Triumph of the
Will, or in the name of my father
Because one of
the major themes of the book Im writing now is the nature of human agency
in historical processes, Ive been thinking a lot about whether some individuals
are able to act in the world through drawing on unpredictable determination
or mysterious inner strength, through a ferocious desire to make things happen.
Will gives me a
thrill. If theres anything in President Bushs defense of his post-9/11
strategy that resonates in me, it is the invocation of will, of a steely determination
to stay the course.
I know Im
weak and frightened. Ive always been. When I am traveling or working in
southern Africa, I preemptively flinch at even the slightest hint of tension.
In my first stay in Zimbabwe in 1990, when a policeman politely but quite earnestly
commented that he would have to shoot me if I didnt stop walking while
the presidents motorcade went past and then meaningfully swiveled his
gun towards me, I waited frozen and then returned to my apartment instead of
proceeding onto the archives. I crawled inside like a rabbit frightened by predators,
emerging only with the next day.
I dont mean
to overstate. I have willingly gotten into strange and sometimes threatening
situations every time I have spent time in Africa. Not with fearless bravado,
rather with a kind of sweet and stupid cheerfulness, a determination not to
listen to the warning bells going off in the back of my head. I listen to my
anthropologist friends who programmatically seek out opportunities to attend
unnerving religious rituals and tense, near-riotous political situations and
I wonder wistfully why Im so scared and theyre so brave.
I know that if
it came to it, Id piss my pants in a minute. Big Brother wouldnt
need a cage full of rats on my face in Room 101 to get me to betray my deepest
I found that out
when I traveled with my father in South Africa. When we were confronted with
a rather trivial example of a shakedown by a corrupt official in a game park,
I was ready to unload my rands on the man in a country minute, just because
he had a knife and a walkie-talkie (and, I imagined, a bunch of tsotsi
pals waiting down the trail to ambush us). But Dad just stared him down, and
the guy caved.
Yet here I am willing,
perpetually willing, to talk about what we ought to do in a world where people
want to kill us, want to kill me. What good am I?
than one flavor of will in the world, though, and all of them can make things
happen that would not otherwise happen.
pure will to violence and survival thats a highly masculized combination
of sadomasochism and swagger. We mostly see it our fictions, in Rocky films
or in the umpteen thousandth time that Wolverine staggers through a comic book
stoically bearing the pain of a hundred knife thrusts to his abdomen, but it
really exists. The trick is not minding that it hurts. Mostly in
the real world this amounts to nothing: lacking mutant powers or cinematic magic,
the man of a thousand wounds usually staggers towards death, perhaps performing
some small miracle of salvation or destruction on the way. Sometimes it is more,
a person who shrugs off pain and fear to stagger through to some better day.
This kind of will
is related to but not identical to the soldiers will, the will to fight
when necessary or ordered, the will to act remorselessly if need be, to defend
what is yours and take what you must. My father had some of that. When a crazy
man with a gun killed people at another branch of his law firm, Dad wished hed
been there, believing that he could have stayed calm under fire and stopped
the man before anyone died. Dad used to tell me how the Marines taught him to
kill or disable someone by striking their windpipe hard. I dont think
any of this was bravado, or something he was proud of. They were quiet facts,
stated calmly, based on a belief that if it came to it, he could do what was
needed without pause or regret. I believed him.
will is not the will of the hard man. The hard man is the man who haunts our
nightmares. The hard man is the man who disproves the easy, lazy adage that
violence never solves anything or causes anything meaningful to happen. The
hard man can drive history like a whipmaster drives a horse, frothing, eyes-rolling,
galloping heedlessly ahead. The hard man dreams not of the world he desires:
his will is fire, and burns down thoughts of better days. The hard man only
knows what he does not want and cannot accept, and his determination to strike
out against the object of his fury is mighty. The hard man bombs pubs and buildings
and planes; he cuts ears off defeated rivals, hands off innocent children, heads
When we think of will, the hard man is the one we both fear and yet sometimes secretly desire. He laughs contemptuously at the doubts that afflict us, sure that he floats above us like an iron balloon, unyielding and untouched. We forget too easily why fascism authentically, legitimately attracted many before 1939: not just the purity of its conception of nation, not just its focus on essence, but also the hardness and clarity of its commitment to transformation, its baptismal yearnings.
The hard man's
close cousin is the fierce dreamer, the obdurate idealist, the person who looks
at today and can only see the ways in which it is not some ideal tomorrow. I
may be too quick to accuse some of utopianism--that will require some reflection--but
I do not think I am wrong to fear the utopian's will and regard with suspicion
anything redolent of it.
None of these are
the will to do the right thing even if all the world says otherwise. To do the
right thing, but not quickly, not eagerly, not with braying certainty. The will
to do the right thing comes from men and women bound by honor, directed by wisdom,
burdened by a mournful understanding of their duty. Atticus Finch does not rush
ahead, beating his chest and howling a war cry. Will Kane seeks allies and the
support of his community, even when he wearily understands that he is all alone.
There is no eagerness in him. The lonesome righteous can make horrible mistakes,
auto-imprisoning himself in obligations, like Captain Vere in Billy Budd.
He or she can end up staring with melancholy regret at his dirty hands. This
is the kind of will I most admire, the kind of courage which stealthily rises
to lift the whole world on its shoulders and reluctantly hurl it into a new
orbit. Against the hard man, we raise the quiet man as his opposite.
Dad may have had
the resolve of a soldier, but he also had this kind of determination as well.
He would have stayed the course even if he was the last person left to hold
the rudder. There was a rawness to his integrity: it was like sandpaper, flaying
the sensitive nerve-endings of some around him. It was uncompromising both when
it ought to have been and sometimes perhaps when it would have been better to
bend rather than break. Nor was he tested as sorely as some have been: he never
had to risk his own career, his livelihood, his future the way that some whistleblowers
have. I think he would have, though, if it had ever come to it.
This is the will
I long for now, and its not what were getting. Oh, theyd like
to have us think so, but the lonesome righteous doesnt scorn allies, doesnt
rush to the last stand at the OK Corral. He does his best to avoid the fatal
breach in the social order. He doesnt talk tough and swagger.
Id trust in Atticus Finch, not Napoleon. Id trust in Omar Bradley, not George Patton. I wont trust the hard men or the men who playact at being hard men, those who theatrically declare they will be stopped by nothing. I wont listen to the men who shake their heads sadly at our inability to travel all the way to atrocity, who tell us we must act by any means necessary. But neither will I trust those who lack the will to justice, the will to fight if they must, the will to defend, those who snidely declare in advance that they will blow with the least wind and worry more about their own personal purity than the larger obligations of our times. I may be weak and frightened, but Im not having any of that. Ill trust in the people who both love and defend; Ill trust in the will of the fierce and quiet. Ill listen for the distant echoes of my fathers footsteps.