Wednesday, September 07, 2016

A Fearful Deference to the “Order of Things” Confronts Melville’s Billy Budd

I want to share this extraordinarily profound and eloquent (not ‘eloquent’ in the sense that a Trump supporter on CNN confidently described a recent campaign speech by Trump) passage from Tom Wicker’s book, A Time to Die: The Attica Prison Revolt (Haymarket Books, 2011; first published by Quadrangle/The New York Times Book Co., 1975). It comes at a point in the micro-historical narrative of events surrounding the Attica Uprising when “negotiations” with the prisoners in D-yard appear to have ended and Wicker has just gotten off the phone with Governor Nelson Rockefeller in a futile, last minute effort to persuade him to meet with the “Observers Committee” (which consisted of 14 individuals invited by the rebelling inmates and an additional 23 other members) so as to, among other things, buy time in order to enhance the probability that a “massacre,” as an otherwise predictable result of the effort by authorities to re-take control of the prison, would not occur. In short, Wicker was “hoping the governor would become alarmed from his descriptions of the violence he thought impending and would be encouraged by the possibility of reassuring the inmates with his presence:”

“He wondered if the trouble was not, rather, that to the Rockefellers of the world, those institutions, processes, and arrangements by which humans had sought to order their affairs had become, finally, more important than the people who had erected them and sought to live by them.

Perhaps that was why the state for all its good intentions and the system for all its idealistic trappings—democracy and representation and due process—so often produced injustice and myopia and indifference and rigidity. Perhaps that is why men like Tom Wicker [in the Preface, Wicker explains his use of the third person] could perceive the system as basically sound, the state as fundamentally well-meaning, the people as mostly decent—yet stumble time and again on the inequities and callousness and brutalities wrought in the name of society. Perhaps the fault lay not in any system but in men’s profound instinct to establish and maintain, at all costs, an order of things.

Never mind, if so, the intrinsic value of Attica, the ‘institution’ then in question, its palpable responsibility for the injustices and wastage happening within it. The state could sustain Attica, even call it a ‘correctional facility,’ because it was an institution, and official at that, a part of the order of things, serving that order against the frightening possibilities of unruly humanity, undisciplined conduct. Re-opening it, restoring the order, was more important than that many lives might have to be sacrificed to do it. Captain ‘Starry’ Vere could see no higher duty or obligation than maintenance of the King’s established naval code. Indeed, he told his brother officers that ‘in receiving our commissions we in the most important regards ceased to be natural free agents.’ So it was not only they who condemned Billy Budd to death, but only ‘martial law operating through us’—the order of things.

Similarly, neither Rockefeller nor any of his officials wanted to cause loss of life. But the order of things was operating through them. Institutions and processes required of them a way of doing and believing, a system of behavior, to which they gave allegiance, sometimes passionately, sometimes pragmatically, usually without question. ‘Tell me whether or not, occupying the position we do,’ Captain Vere demanded to know, ‘private conscience should not yield to that imperial one formulated in the code under which alone we officially proceed?’ Rockefeller could have put the question to Wicker as dispassionately. 

Institutions must not only function, whatever the end result; the order of things must be preserved. The powerful must not be at the beck and call of the powerless even when suddenly the powerless wield momentary power, for the powerful are obliged to meet great responsibilities to the order of things. That order gives them their power and must survive the moment. Governors must not deal as equals with lawbreakers; that would endanger the order of the things. Amnesty must not be granted to offenders; they must pay a debt to the order of things. If policemen and armies, being human, sometimes go too far, use unusual force, that is deplorable, but still they are the necessary enforcers of the order of things, what is the alternative? Only the unimaginable—that the order of things be sacrificed to life.”


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