My mother-in-law Jessie is 87. Every Sunday morning at 10, my wife Gail calls her and they talk for a long time. At some point I intervene because I know that Jessie has a new joke for me..... often a bawdy one. (Why is it that elderly women enjoy telling younger (slightly) men bawdy jokes?) She has already tried out the jokes on the women at the local public library before telling me. They are very appreciative of her humor and provide her with large print thrillers which occupy approximately one third of her time. Another third is for friends, the rest, TV. Jessie is short, not as slim as she once was, a strait-ahead-shoot'm-dead kind of gal.Last week her joke was about a man with chronic ailments. He's back & forth to the doctor. It hurts here & here. Test after test. No diagnosis. The poor guy is in pain & is distraught. Until one day the doc calls him & says, I've got good news and bad news. Yeah....? Well, the good news is you've got 24 hours to live...... the bad news is I forgot to call you yesterday.
I think I'd heard it before. But I'm a tabula rasa when it comes to jokes. Perennial virgin. I laugh a lot & forget them. I'm the comedian's ideal audience. But this one stuck with me. I was thinking about our President as the doc, the sick guy as the rest of us. And the un-diagnosed illness is epidemic dishonesty infecting both the doc & the people. I don't need to say more. Kind of makes the joke more sad than funny.
But then I happened to see an Australian film called Ten Canoes that tells an Aborigine story. It's a slow folk tale within a folk tale, wise and humorous, mythic and eccentric. The central action, set in time-before-time, centers around a chief with three wives. The second wife disappears. No one knows if she was stolen by another tribe or ran away. His tribe has recently been visited by a mysterious stranger, and they think this may be a bad omen. The chief-without-his-second-wife stews. He wants revenge. He jumps to conclusions and kills a man who had nothing to do with his missing wife. The dead man's tribe confronts him. The chief admits his deed.
He knows that he must now submit to justice. He says that if he doesn't there will be bad blood between the two tribes & they may fight a war which would hurt many innocent people. The prescribed form of justice has the guilty man standing about 40 yards from 10 or so of the aggrieved tribe's warriors. They have lots of spears with stone points and are empowered by their law to heave them at the man. As they rain down on the chief, he is allowed to dance from side to side, much like a modern defendant dodging a prosecutor's arguments, but, inevitably, one pierces his side --- coincidentally, just about the same spot where a Roman soldier jabbed the crucified Jesus. If he hadn't been hit at all, or if he recovers from his wound, he is a free man. But after a long bout with infection and after performing his own painful, dignified death dance, he dies.
Although I've made the film sound heavily didactic, it isn't. It's patient and amusing, with sweet sexual hi-jinks. Especially, though, it is forgiving. It can afford to be forgiving because in spite of the murder and the death of the guilty chief, in spite of the long grieving by the chief's wives and tribe members, everyone knows that justice has been done, their laws have been followed, and that they are free to blunder ahead with clear consciences. Forgiveness only follows and provides closure when it is preceded by justice.
The chief deserved his final dignity because he admitted his mistake and embraced the solemn importance of good law to preserve good community and peace. He embraced his punishment. He needed neither handcuffs, nor prison. His tribe respected him. He gave them the gift of his integrity. We might call him a good sport. Good sports preserve the integrity of the game. The characters in the film are all members of hunter-gatherer societies. Harmony with nature is their essential reality. They have no legal scholars, no money, no scientists, no clothes. And they possess the deepest and simplest wisdom --- if we would preserve the health of the community, we must play by our rules. This is a wisdom that the chiefs in our civilization have learned to avoid. And it is why they have no dignity nor deserve any respect. And it is why they cannot and should not be forgiven.
The law is a curious creature: a loyal dog preserving life and community when it is good, a monster ripping apart community when it is bad. Bad law is written by special interests for their own entitlement, justifying their preservation and enrichment at the expense of others. Chiefs who use their power to re-write law to save themselves when they have broken it, destroy community. They, the powerful, the entitled, are essentially cowards, and use their criminal power to persuade the people to be complicit in their hypocrisy. The powerful who consolidate their power by lying must necessarily make the wisdom in the law illegal, marginalize truth tellers to fenced in "free speech zones", prosecute the honest as subversives.
Our community, our country, is destroyed now. We don't have to wait trembling for climate change or terrorists to blindside us. It's already a done deed by our chiefs who have trashed the law. They have turned the law into a many faceted mirror, legislated tiny holes for themselves to crawl through and then mock us from the other side. You might think of wisdom as the gravity that holds our system in balance like planets around the sun. Our chiefs have legalized anti-gravity and cast us wobbling into the outer dark. All they had to do was make a mockery of our Constitution with lies and signing statements. An aborigine chief would long ago have given himself up to the law to save his community.
What's crucial about this election is that none of the candidates left standing (except for Cynthia McKinney of the Greens) has demanded that the law be upheld and truth be told. No orbit, no balance, no sanity will hold if we allow a president (in this case, a war criminal) to lie to the people to start a war, betray their patriotism, their children, their wealth, their future and not be held accountable. If the candidates for his office do not insist on accountability, they also have no respect for the law. They prefer to take their chances wobbling further off into the cold and outer dark. How many times have we heard the old piety about learning our history so as not to repeat it? Our history teaches us that every war, every military incursion, by the United States since WW II has been illegal, a violation of the Constitution and generally promoted by presidential lies. It would seem that what the powerful learn from history is that immoral ends justify illegal acts and that hired spin masters will tell the heroic story. It's a curious anomaly that the U.S., the most ostentatiously religious country in the world, sold its soul many years ago.
Remember the man with 24 hours to live? The doctor can't cure him. But he can be saved. He needs something his civilization no longer requires of him: dignity, integrity, wisdom. He simply needs to embrace his Constitution. He simply needs to love his community more than himself. One can regain one's soul by demanding to be the object of justice.