Yesterday, I woke up thinking of Edgar Derby and found that the memory of
his death has not dimmed in 29 years.
On a beautiful Southern California afternoon, late in the year of our lord
1976, I sat in a classroom on the campus of Occidental College and listened
as professor Atchity led the class in a discussion of Kurt Vonnegut's novel,
Slaughterhouse 5. We had just read the chapter in which POWs Billy Pilgrim
and his intellectual friend, Edgar Derby, are being forced by their captors
to comb the fire-bombed ruins of Dresden in the search for bodies. Edgar
finds a carved Dresden porcelain figurine, perfectly unharmed. Excited and
awed by this beautiful little reminder of man's creativity, spirituality and
redeeming qualities in the midst of devastation and horror, Edgar picks it
up and shows it to Billy. A German soldier immediately seizes him and drags
him to the nearest wall, where a quickly assembled firing squad executes him
"What do you make of this scene,?" asked professor Atchity.
Due to the intervening years, I couldn't say now if a fellow student first
came up with the interpretation and the teacher endorsed it, or if the
teacher floated the notion and the students assented. Either way, a general
consensus formed that Edgar Derby got what was coming to him. He was a
looter. There were rules about looting. He knew the rules. He broke the
rules. That's what happens when you break the rules.
There was an edge to this analysis. It was not delivered in the manner of a
palms-up shrug and sorrowful shake of the head. It was not tinged with
regret, but vehemence. My fellow students were into it: Edgar Derby was a
loser who just couldn't get with the program.
The prof nodded, agreed that we had correctly parsed the meaning of the
passage, and moved on.
I sat waiting for the punchline, the hand at the academic tiller that would
firmly steer this suddenly wayward vessel back from dark waters and into the
light of rational discourse and maybe some regard for the plain intent of
the author. It never came. The professor agreed with the students--my
academic colleagues, my generation, the sons and daughters of the middle to
upper-middle class. And they weren't just Good Germans. They were Very Good Germans.
To this day, I find that I am still hoping one or two other things happened:
1) everyone in that classroom who said nothing was feeling exactly what I
was feeling, and/or 2) before class, professor Atchity got together with the
five or six students who later actively participated in the discussion and
said "I want you to help me perform a little sociology experiment today...."
But I know that's not what happened. We were students and a teacher
discussing the assigned reading. The prof was not measuring the silence in
the room and strolling back to his office to pen monographs on The New
Conformity, the Death of Empathy, or the Acquiescence of Today's Youth to
Authority in Any Form.
We were one year out of Vietnam, four years away from Reagan and Morning in
America. Already we had been told that the lesson of Vietnam's two million
dead was that the next time we fought a senseless, immoral war for
delusional reasons, we must fight to win. That same year, a young Don
Rumsfeld, in his first go-round as Secretary of Defense, had re-invigorated
the Cold War, telling the country that Russia was embarked on a program to
develop terrifying super-weapons that would leave us defenseless and
vulnerable, and that the absence of any evidence that they were doing so was
evidence of how well they were concealing the evidence.
It was as though he had stepped out of a novel by Vonnegut or Joseph Heller
-- authors who might have justifiably hoped that their work, as widely read
cultural touchstones, had contributed somewhat to the formation of young
minds, instilling the idea, for instance, that it is unwise to put your fate
in the hands of dangerous clowns pushing a mad ideology, or that guys like
Edgar Derby don't deserve to be shot. Slaughterhouse 5 and Catch-22 were on the syllabus for Contemporary American Fiction at every major
college and university in the country. And yet, here we are.
And they're pretty much running the show now, my old college chums. They are
the managers, associates, administrators and vp's; the software engineers,
little league coaches, lawyers, reporters and teachers. They voted in the
last election. They'll vote in the next one. They vote in the majority. They
listen as they are told that a nation that has posed no threat to any other
country for over a decade but possesses vast oil reserves is also in
possession of weapons of mass destruction and must be invaded and occupied.
They listen as they are told this is part of a War on Terror. They listen as
the manifest falsity of the stated reason for the war is explained as an
honest mistake, easily replaced with other reasons.
They listen as they are told that the forced expansion of a virulently
predatory form of capitalism worldwide equals the spreading of freedom and
democracy. They listen as they are told that the further enrichment of the
richest is sound economic policy; that the bankrupting of the government and
slashing of social and environmental programs is about the encouragement of
thrift and volunteerism.
They listen as they are told that a "three strikes" law that puts people
away for life for stealing a pizza is necessary to keep violent felons off
the street and must be maintained; that illegal immigrants -- forced into
this country by those aforementioned predatory practices that drive farmers
into bankruptcy and the ranks of migrant labor -- must not be coddled with
driver's licenses, medical care and schooling for their children, for that
makes the life of indolence that is poverty in our country too attractive
and draws more of them here.
They listen, they nod, and move on. Edgar Derby, they know, was collateral
damage, at most. And, technically, he was a looter. He buttered his bread.
The rules are given to us. They are to be followed. Beyond that, all that is
necessary is our silence.
Reason enough to get out to every peace rally you can, to back the only hope
we have for the future: the 18-to-25-year-olds who are also the power behind
the anti-sweatshop and global justice movements, the initiatives for
fair-trade coffee and against the frankenfood fraud of biotech.
For some reason, they are different from the Occidental College class of
'80. For all our sakes, let's hope they stay that way.
Andrew Christie (email@example.com) is an environmental activist in San Luis Obispo, CA.