No king, no president, no group of capitalists, will hatch a war without justifying it on the grounds that it serves the common good and cannot be avoided for this or that reason, and that the nation’s standing in the eyes of other peoples, hence honor, requires the war. Without a moral justification no war is begun. And finding a good excuse is the first task of those who think a war is needed. The more believable the excuse, the surer the result in all actions requiring the co-operation or toleration of other men.
B. Traven The White Rose
It’s been a disappointing week. I’m glad to see it go.
Fall temperatures in Vermont rarely climb above seventy. On Monday and Tuesday they hovered around 100 adding to the already oppressive pre anniversary build up. I was fortunate, however, as I had the days off and wasn’t at work, in front of the oven loading bread or pulling dough out of the mixer.
So on Tuesday the 10th I had my choice between Thomas Friedman at St. Michael’s College and Elie Wiesel at Middlebury. The cost to see Friedman was fifteen bucks and Wiesel was free so I headed down to Middlebury leaving plenty of time because the woman on the phone told me they were expecting a lot of outsider’s and that the Chapel would fill at least an hour before the lecture began. And she did not mislead. I took my seat around 3:30 and the pews filled up soon after.
The audience, mostly students, appeared to be transplanted directly from an Abercombie and Fitch photo shoot. The girl next to me, in a light blue golf shirt and gray shorts, was attentively reading a rather cumbersome copy of Emerson’s Prose and Poetry. An older woman, toward the front, in a sharp turquoise and purple dress gently waved her American flag patterned hand held fan in front of her face.
Wiesel was greeted with a standing ovation and soon thereafter entered into a depressing and disappointing reflection on the past year. There’s no need to repeat what he had to say because it contributes little to our understanding of what happened and even less so to how we might respond. After a number of platitudes regarding how much the United States has changed, how NY has changed, and how we as a nation awakened to a sense of vulnerability on Sept. 11, Wiesel pronounced that, “for the first time in the history of terrorism these terrorists kill and die without leaving a messageTheir language is death itself.” They have no agony, no grievances. Their desire is utter destruction and death. And thus it is impossible to make sense of what happened, to place the event of that day in a broader political or historical context.
Wiesel posed more questions than he answered and reflected on his own life experience and what it had taught him. No substantive issues were taken up and the questions that followed reflected the general absence of critical discourse. One young man asked what role Wiesel thought television had played. He said he thought it had brought people together. Another asked him if the human suffering exacted on 9/11 was now being used to cause more suffering. Wiesel said he hoped that it wasn’t.
One thing Wiesel did stress was the importance of Academic institutions as places where difficult questions can be confronted and explored. I returned home certain that Middlebury and Wiesel had failed to live up to that expectation.
But not all was last during the course of the week. I found a copy of B. Traven’s The White Rose that I’ve been meaning to read for some time and finally opened it. It tells the story of C.C. Collins, President of Condor Oil Company, and his ruthless acquisition of Don Jacinto’s hacienda, La Rosa Blanca in the Mexican countryside. It is a story of American might and the power of a crafty capitalist who will exercise any means necessary to attain what he wants. It is a story that has been played out in many Latin American countries and one that America seems quite skilled at rewriting, no matter the place or the people.
But it is also the story of Don Jacinto, his family, and his love for his land and all that it means. To Don Jacinto it means more than the millions Mr. Collins offers. He can keep the land and pass it on to his children or give it up in exchange for a life of servitude and debt peonage. Don Jacinto in The White Rose chooses the former, the only choice he feels he can make. The land is not his to dispose of. As it has been passed down to him from generation to generation Don Jacinto must also care for it so that it can be passed on to the next generation.
But Don Jacinto’s decision is a fatal one and his life ends beneath the wheel of an American automobile accelerating in the night as Mr. Collins makes the necessary arrangements to acquire La Rosa Blanca.
Returning to work on Wednesday the eleventh wasn’t so bad. The heat had broken and tropical storm Gustav delivered a much needed respite from weeks of drought and warm weather. Bob wore an orange shirt to make sure we were all on high alert. It wasn’t a somber day. In fact there were more jokes and conversation than usual. And when we lost power that afternoon still with two batches of french bread to bake, a few hundred rolls, and 24 dozen cookies, John, the delivery guy as he calls himself, broke out into a spirited gospel that filled the room. He used all the air he could possibly muster out of his old lungs and left to as rousing a round of applause as three people can give.
But I couldn’t help thinking that day that Mr. Bush is not so different from Mr. Collins and that Elie Wiesel is wrong to say that America has changed, that NY has changed. Such sweeping statements illuminate nothing. Because what has really changed?
As Traven writes, “What do we care about people? All that matters is oil.”
Adam Federman can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org