A Really Free and Enlightened State

Today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Henry David Thoreau. His importance to me as a writer and philosopher can’t be overstated, even though I often get a bit weary and eye-rolly over how frequently he is quoted in certain circles. I’ve visited Walden Pond, and his grave in the town of Concord, MA, several times. I hope to take my mom there some day, as she too is a fan and honorary member of the Thoreau Sauntering Society.

The following is an excerpt from his essay, “Civil Disobedience.” He wrote it after he spent a night in jail in 1849 as a protest against the Mexican War. He deemed American’s violent, imperialistic actions illegal and refused to pay a poll tax, which led to his incarceration. Reading Thoreau, much of what he says is particularly relevant today. Please forgive the male-specific references throughout as a sign of the times.

There will never be a really free and enlightened State, until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly. I please myself with imagining a State at last which can afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor; which even would think it inconsistent with its own repose, if a few were to live aloof from it, not meddling with it, nor embraced by it, who fulfilled all the duties of neighbors and fellowmen. A State which bore this kind of fruit, and suffered it to drop off as fast as it ripened, would prepare the way for a still more perfect and glorious State, which also I have imagined, but not yet anywhere seen.

A Conversation About Freedom

This conversation from a book I was fortunate enough to receive an advanced reading copy of, Cry Father, by my friend Benjamin Whitmer (due in September, so pre-order now!), was on my mind this past Friday. The 4th, of course, being one of those holidays with an overwhelming “You’re either with us or against us!” tone as it relates to the qualities of our beloved United States of America. Lest I be accused of being less than grateful for the cosmic good fortune of being born within these borders, I will say I love a hot dog, a cold beer, and a pretty, well-endowed girl in a stars-and-stripes bikini top as much as the next guy. But, you know, I’m not on board with a lot of that other stuff people seem to feel obligated to say about how “free” we are in this country.

Rather than rant I’ll leave it to fiction. This excerpt is a conversation in a bar between a crooked border patrol agent (Carmichael) and the book’s primary character (Patterson), in a bar. Technically I’m not even supposed to excerpt this book because it isn’t the “finished” copy, but fuck it. This is good stuff.

9781476734354_b0410“You really Border Patrol?” Patterson asks. He knows he probably shouldn’t be asking questions, but he can’t help it.

“Remember the Alamo!” Carmichael yells. Every head in the bar snaps around. He flashes his badge and they all return to what it is they were doing. “I’m fucking with them. I wouldn’t bust them on a bet.” He sighs happily.

“Isn’t that your job?” Patterson asks.

“On the clock.” Carmichael shrugs. “These’re the only things keeping us free, these places.”

“How do you figure?” Patterson asks.

“Think about it,” Carmichael says. “You’re out on the street, you’re on somebody’s radar all the time. And you’re always breaking the law. You know why?”

“Why?”

“Because there’s too many of ’em to count. There’s laws about everything. Smoking. Eating. Mattresses. Even crossing the street. You know how many laws apply to you in Mexico when you need to cross the street?”

“No idea,” Patterson says. “I’ve never been to Mexico.”

“None, that’s how many. In Mexico, if you need to cross the street, you cross the street. They figure if you’re a fully functioning adult you can probably make it across a street without state intervention. That’s freedom, son. And it ain’t here. Here they’ve got things like jaywalking ordinances. If you can think of anything more insulting to your freedom I’d like to hear it.”

“I’ve thought about it.”

“Think you could name all the laws you’re subject to? Right now at this very moment?”

“No,” Patterson says. “No idea.”

“Fuck no, you can’t. Nobody can. You couldn’t follow all the laws if you tried. You can take it from me. I can’t even name all of them. If somebody wants to put you away, they don’t have to invent a reason. They can just scan through the law books, find one or two you’re breaking, and there you are, you sorry son of a bitch, you’re in jail. Because they’re always watching you. You can take that from me.”

“They hate us for our freedom. That’s what I heard.”

“Horseshit,” Carmichael says. “That’s one thing about Mexicans, we hate them for their freedom. That’s what all those peckerwoods down on the border with their rifles and their lawn chairs are protesting. That somebody has the right to just act like they’re free. To go wherever they want, freely. Drives them bugshit. I know, I have to deal with them.”

“So why is here free?” Patterson asks. “Why this bar? It’s in this country, subject to the same laws as everybody else.”

“No it ain’t.” Carmichael shakes his head. “Nobody’s watching here. You’re invisible. None of these fuckers even exist. They can come and go and nobody even notices. Nobody wants to notice. This country hums along on the simple fact of them not being noticed.”

“They’re free because they don’t exist?”

“Exactly. There’s nobody watching them, and when you’re in one of their shitholes, there’s nobody watching you. With them it’s almost like you’re living in America.”

“You really do love your job.” Patterson’s a little impressed.

“Fuck yes. I love every one of these little son of a bitches. Those who think they’re protecting America by keeping these people out, they’re full of shit. There ain’t no America left in the places they’re protecting. Their fucking malls and their fucking crosswalks and their fucking subdivisions. Freedom’s something that’s been designed out of those places.”