March 10, 2004

Triumph of the Will, or in the name of my father

Because one of the major themes of the book I’m writing now is the nature of human agency in historical processes, I’ve 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. Through will.

Will gives me a thrill. If there’s anything in President Bush’s 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 I’m weak and frightened. I’ve 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 didn’t stop walking while the president’s 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 don’t 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 I’m so scared and they’re so brave.

I know that if it came to it, I’d piss my pants in a minute. Big Brother wouldn’t need a cage full of rats on my face in Room 101 to get me to betray my deepest commitments.

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?

There’s more than one flavor of will in the world, though, and all of them can make things happen that would not otherwise happen.

There’s a pure will to violence and survival that’s 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 soldier’s 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 he’d 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 don’t 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.

The soldier’s 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 off journalists.

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 it’s not what we’re getting. Oh, they’d like to have us think so, but the lonesome righteous doesn’t scorn allies, doesn’t rush to the last stand at the OK Corral. He does his best to avoid the fatal breach in the social order. He doesn’t talk tough and swagger.

I’d trust in Atticus Finch, not Napoleon. I’d trust in Omar Bradley, not George Patton. I won’t trust the hard men or the men who playact at being hard men, those who theatrically declare they will be stopped by nothing. I won’t 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 I’m not having any of that. I’ll trust in the people who both love and defend; I’ll trust in the will of the fierce and quiet. I’ll listen for the distant echoes of my father’s footsteps.