MONDAY, APRIL 24, 2023
The person who died in jail: "Bring us together," a teenaged girl once said.
Her statement ended up being famous. First, though, Billy Budd!
According to Herman Melville's reporting, Billy Budd was "a seaman impressed into service aboard HMS Bellipotent in the year 1797 when the Royal Navy was reeling from two major mutinies."
The story proceeds from there. We're going to let the leading authority thumbnail the story as shown:
Billy, a foundling from Bristol, has an innocence, good looks and a natural charisma that make him popular with the crew. He has a stutter, which becomes more noticeable when under intense emotion. He arouses the antagonism of the ship's master-at-arms, John Claggart. Claggart, while not unattractive, seems somehow "defective or abnormal in the constitution", possessing a "natural depravity." Envy is Claggart's explicitly stated emotion toward Budd, foremost because of his "significant personal beauty," and also for his innocence and general popularity...
This leads Claggart to falsely charge Billy with conspiracy to mutiny. When the captain, Edward Fairfax "Starry" Vere, is presented with Claggart's charges, he summons Claggart and Billy to his cabin for a private meeting. Claggart makes his case and Billy, astounded, is unable to respond, due to his stutter. In his extreme frustration he strikes out at Claggart, killing him instantly.
When falsely accused, the astounded Budd was unable to speak. Instead, he lashed out at his accuser, killing him instantly. Or at least, so we're told.
The story is reminiscent of the greatest statement of anthropology of which major experts are aware. We refer to the statement attributed to Gene Brabender, the hard-throwing right-hander, in Jim Bouton's iconic 1970 book, Ball Four.
(For assessments of the book, see below.)
Gene Brabender was no one's sophisticate. In Bouton's telling, the right-hander spoke at a moment of high frustration during a discussion concerning a nuanced matter:
"Where I come from, we just talk for a little while," the frustrated Brabender angrily said. "After that, we start to hit."
After that, we start to hit! So it has been, within our failing nation, over the past several decades as partisanship and polarization have given way to parochialism and the politics of "tribalism"—to a type of political Babel.
"Bring us together," the teenaged girl once said, speaking to one of our 46 greatest presidents. That president failed to accomplish that task, but former president Bill Clinton says we should continue to try.
As part of a longer exploration concerning peace in Northern Ireland. Clinton's interview with Joe Scarborough will air tonight on MSNBC at 8 o'clock Eastern. On Saturday, we posted part of what Clinton said in his recent colloquy the Morning Joe host.
In the passage shown below, Clinton responds to a question about the culture of guns. To watch the exchange, click here:
SCARBOROUGH: You were president when Columbine happened. And at the time, obviously we were all horrified, but almost thought of that as a one-off. It's now become a regular occurrence.
You and I grew up in a culture where everybody we went to church with, everybody that was in our neighborhood, they all went out hunting. You've talked about shotguns growing up? Same here.
But it's gotten so extreme. What do we do?
CLINTON: Well, one thing that's pretty clear is, whatever we do, we need to do it more together. And I think we need to start talking across this divide.
I remember when Jack Brooks, who was a congressman from Texas and enjoyed the support of the NRA in every election he was ever in, and Tom Foley, the Speaker of the House from Washington, they both told me that when the Senate put in the assault weapons ban into the crime bill, which I wanted, that if I signed it, we would lose the House.
And we did! And they lost their seats, because of the ability of the NRA to terrify people, but also because we were beginning to lose touch with each other across cultural divides that had always existed but hadn't been barriers you couldn't breach.
"What do we do?" Joe Scarborough said. He was asking an excellent question.
We've highlighted past of Clinton's response:
Whatever we do, we need to do it more together. And I think we need to start talking across this divide.
Clinton went on to say much more about the nation's current state of affairs. We may post more of what he said as the week proceeds.
As we ackowledged on Saturday, early commenters instantly said that Clinton is basically nuts. Despondent experts have told us this:
Where those commenters live, we humans only talk so long. After that, we start to hit!
Given the current state of our polity, did Clinton's advice make sense? Once again, we'll state our overall view, as we first stated it years ago:
We're not sure that there's a way to get "back out of all this." It seems to us that the nation has entered an unspoken state of tribal war—and it's very hard to find a way back out of such situations.
At times of war, our human groups tend to behave in ways which experts say are hard-wired. We tend to see the perfidy being expressed by The Others. But we tend to have a very hard time seeing the shortcomings of our own angry tribe.
At this site, we're a lifelong member of the blue tribe. That said, we regard the vast majority of those in the red tribe as our fellow citizens, neighbors and friends.
In our assessment, respect for Others qualifies as an immutable bottom line.
Over Here, within our blue tribe, we can't wave a magic wand and make members of the red tribe magically change their outlooks, viewpoints, understanding and beliefs. Absent the use of that magic wand, we need to use the tools of persuasion where the two tribes disagree.
We've long doubted the idea that there's really any way to avoid the onrushing war. We're also disinclined to believe that there is any actual way to win some such tribal war.
(Example: See Professor Richardson's well-regarded 2020 book. "How the South Won the Civil War.")
In our view, it's may be too late for President Clinton's advice to help. But if we want to avoid the wages of war, our own blue tribe must heal itself—must refine its own methods.
At the start of the film Gone With the Wind, some silly Southern boys are happily looking ahead to waging war on "the Yankees." An hour later, the camera draws back from downtown Atlanta, showing many acres filled with the bodies of the dying and the dead.
Whichever side you start out on, wars can be hard to "win." Clinton said we should reach out to Others. Along the way this week, we'll be looking at some of the ways our tribe may be failing to win.
Unable to respond to Claggart, Billy Budd lashed out.
According to Melville, the story ended badly for Budd. Are we sure that our current approach will turn out well for us?
Tomorrow: The person who died in jail?
Concerning Ball Four: In 1995, the New York Public Library included Ball Four as the only sports book among 159 titles in its exhibit “Books of the Century.”
In 2011, Time magazine listed it as one of the 100 greatest non-fiction books written since 1923, the year when Time magazine first appeared.
We're not saying those assessments were correct. We're saying they were made.
That said, Brabender's comment lives forever. According to major anthropologists, it may be the single greatest description of our imperfect human race!