“You know, Elie, I’ve been thinking about this the last couple of days,” said the skeleton.
What’s that, dad?
“You’re spending too much time talking to a dead man recently. Look, not that I don’t enjoy our conversations, but, I mean, do you think it’s healthy for this chat to be the highlight of your day?” the skeleton turned his head, as though looking around.
You mean as opposed to my mediocre diet, my relative lack of exercise, the less than ideal amount of sleep I get, my solitary life, the lack of a new network of needed doctors thanks to the vagaries of Obamacare, things like that?
“Yeah, you’re right. Listen, what I was really thinking about was the need to be right, where it comes from, how it does its idiot work. My mother, who you learned from Eli whipped me in the face and sealed my fate before I was two, was a powerless, angry woman. All she had was being obeyed, by anyone she could bend to her will. I cannot imagine the terrifying shithole she was born into. Talk about born under a bad sign, the filthy little hamlet off a river outside Pinsk was literally stomped out, rubbed right off the map of the world. Never existed.
“The Jews who eked out an existence there? Fuck ’em, who gives a shit? Poor people, Jews, grind ’em up, pfooo! good riddance, rabbi. I cannot begin to imagine all the nightmare elements that went into making my mother a little tyrant. I never thought much about these things when I was alive, for fear of what thinking about them might do to me. People who claim to love you can use you as a slave? Your family can just be stomped into the mud without a trace? What kind of arbitrary, brutal life are we born into?
“That was one reason I loved animals so much, as your mother also did. I think we transmitted that to you and your sister. A dog will return whatever treatment he gets, will always give you the benefit of the doubt. It’s like animals cut to the chase, to the essential thing we all need in life: caring for each other. It was my pleasure, although I didn’t enjoy it, of course, giving those insulin shots to Sassy every evening. The dog was a complete sad sack, you remember. Nobody particularly liked her, she’d hide under the bed, cower from people for no reason. We knew she had no reason to cringe because we’d raised her from a newborn pup, she never had anyone do anything mean to her. Still, she was an odd dog, very paranoid. Your mother said she was mentally ill, maybe she was, I guess it’s possible a dog can be mentally ill.
“The thing was, Sassy trusted me and I took care never to hurt her. You know, I’d pinch the skin on her back, make a little fold, and the needle was very thin, I don’t even know how much she felt it. But she seemed to know I was doing this for her benefit and was always very calm and trusting when I’d give her the shot. I think now how natural it felt to take such tender care of her and could kick myself again for being so unnatural so much of the time, like in those battles you describe around the dinner table.”
Well, there’s nothing natural about being natural a lot of the time, I suppose. Our society is based on being unnatural, of course, on a false and desperate notion of winning and losing that makes us the best possible, most driven, consumers. We’re in the hands of cannibals, no different in their essential natures than they’ve ever been, like true believing functionaries of the Nazi or any other ruthless single-minded party. You mention the need to be right– that’s the only game in town, a town that can, as far as we can tell, be rubbed out under a jackboot with or without notice.
“The white indentured servants made common cause with the black slaves and Indians during the early days of our great experiment in democracy,” said the skeleton. “It seemed obvious enough to poor whites that they were in the same boat as the other servants and slaves, as well as with the Indians whose land was being stolen by the wealthy whites. Black and white servants became romantically involved, escaped slavery together, often found sanctuary with the Indians, with whom they made common cause.
“This caused a major concern for the wealthy new land barons, you understand. The idea of poor people of all races united and looking for some measure of justice gave the status quo the heebie jeebies. ‘How to keep everything for ourselves?’ wondered the wealthiest and the greediest.
“You read about it in Zinn’s Peoples’ History, Virginia, in the 17th century, actually put it into law– the white man’s superiority over the Negro. A white indentured servant got much better treatment than the average African slave. You couldn’t strip him naked when you whipped him, for example. When you freed the white man after his indenture you had to give him 100 acres to farm, and a mule, and ten barrels of corn meal, a musket, some money. Every white servant knew this was coming to him at the end of his years as a common nigger, and he got it under Virginia law even before the year 1700. The wealthy ‘planters’ created a culture down there that enlisted poor whites to oversee their fellow slaves, where the white man could look down on his inferiors, no matter how low the white man’s station in life.
“That’s what segregation was all about. Even the poorest white trash could walk into a bathroom with plumbing, tile on the walls and floor, doors on the toilet stalls. The Colored bathroom? Hah, sometimes those creatures would just have to do their business behind a bush. You know, not every place had a bathroom where a Negro could sit on a regular toilet, wash their hands in a regular sink. So ‘separate but equal’ was like a hilarious joke told over and over again by winking whites, it was a way of saying everyone got what they deserved.
“The examples are countless. How does the great democracy, who welcomes the poor and starving of all nations to participate in this experiment in human equality, justify forcing the natives off their land, sometimes in death marches, destroying the buffalo herds that are their sustenance, making treaties they will violate over and over, eventually just killing the fuckers en masse? Manifest Destiny. Ask any junior high school student what gave the descendants of white Europeans the right to march over Mexicans, Indians and anyone else in their way and they’ll tell you: manifest destiny.
“The phrase was invented by a newspaper man, caught on quickly. Our destiny is manifest, look, it’s right here, plain as the nose on your face, see? Destiny is in our hands. Like a team one game behind with four games to play, just keep winning, that’s all we can do by way of controlling our destiny.
“Being right, it’s all most powerless people get, Elie,” said the skeleton, slowly shaking his head. “The people you talk to, they are all smiling at you as they think ‘he’s a smart guy, he can seem to justify his beliefs, articulate his values… but he’s a loser.'”
I’ve always been that way, dad, clever with words, able to articulate my values and beliefs. With those things, and a paid Metrocard, I can get on any subway I like. We are judged on one scale here, as you know, what we are worth. And that is measured the only way it can be, in the honest coin of dollars and cents.
“Well, it’s all most people can understand. It’s as manifest as Manifest Destiny. Is it better to be rich or poor? Ask anyone and you will get the same clear, entirely reasonable answer. If your goal is something you can show clearly to the world, how much easier is your life than struggling to advance abstractions? Just say ‘Manifest Destiny’ shoot the savage in the face, force the women and children into an icy river to drown and build your railroad. People who hesitate, who think too much, people like you… well, what is the point?”
Ah, you pose a question I cannot answer today, father. I think I will lie down with that familiar black dog and rest my eyes for a while, as I ponder my manifest destiny.