mánudagur, október 18, 2004

fable for our times

Thoughts on the Wild West and the Global Test


Realpolitik from saga Iceland

There was a rancher out in the territories name of Ravenell. He was an uncompromising sort of man, and over time he earned a reputation for being unfair in his dealings with other men. At one time or another he had run roughshod over the grazing land or water rights of just about every smaller rancher in the area, and being kind of a big rancher himself, the biggest for miles around, that meant that Mr. Ravenell had trampled on pretty much everybody at one time or another. Men who felt they’d been wronged and who’d gone to him to see about payment of damages of that manner of thing found that they could not get a hearing. Ravenell laughed in their faces.

More than once Ravenell had even been party to disagreements where people got pretty badly hurt or worse, but even when just about everyone agreed that Mr. Ravenell was in the wrong and that he owed it any number of men to make it right, no one of those men was ever able to get a posse together to go and do anything about it—this being the frontier, far from the reach of the officers of the law, sheriffs and such, posses were the means of doing something about troublemakers and lawbreakers. But Mr. Ravenell was a powerful man. He was just too tough to go up against, and he knew it, and so he continued do what he pleased without bothering himself about what other people thought about it.

It so happened that Ravenell shot and killed a man he had hired to look after his stock. The fellow, Ernest was his name, had done something that Ravenell had specifically told him not to do—ridden a particular horse of Ravenell’s. It wouldn’t have been such a big deal but that Ravenell had sworn up and down that he would shoot any man who rode that horse, and it was common knowledge that he had done so, just as it was common knowledge that Mr. Ravenell was not the sort of man to break his word. And though there were a lot of people who thought that that was a pretty ridiculous thing to swear up and down about, you couldn’t exactly say that Ernest hadn’t been warned. In any case Ravenell shot him him dead.

This is where luck began to change for Mr. Ravenell. Ernest had a cousin, a rancher in another part of the district, a man named Sam, and Sam took this business pretty ill, and he resolved to do something about it. He rode around to all the famers and ranchers in the district and to try to get them to meet to discuss the state of affairs. They agreed that this was a good idea, and in fact they extended an invitation to Mr. Ravenell to come talk terms. Word of this meeting got to Ravenell, but he did not concern himself about it. He reckoned it was unnecessary that he show up and beneath his dignity besides. Anyway, even if they did decide that he owed this Sam something for the death of his cousin, they would be unable to do anything about it. They never had been able to before in these sorts of affairs.

But this was when, as I said, luck changed. Some kind of tipping point had been reached with regard to the collective ill-will Ravenell had earned for himself. The farmers and ranchers met, talked, compared grievances (which now included being slighted yet again when Ravenell didn’t even deem them important enough to meet with), and agreed that Ravenell had had it coming to him for a long time now and needed to be taken down a peg or maybe more than one. He would be declared an outlaw and be run out of the district. A posse formed up and stood to ride out. Ravenell got wind of this, but too late. The best men of the district showed up at his ranch, rifles in hand, and set about telling him how things were going to go. He had not even bothered to watch the gate, much less get his own men together and arm them.

This is how things were going to go. Mr. Ravenell was to forfeit his ranch, all his stock, and all his goods except what he could carry himself. He was to move out of the district. The posse confiscated the most valuable goods right then, while Mr. Ravenell watched. They tied him up along with his men so they wouldn’t get in their way. In fact they treated them in a pretty brutal and dishonorable way; they hung them by their ankles upside down from the rafters of the house and maimed a few of them pretty badly. This was by no means the usual way of doing things, even where troublemakers and criminals were concerned, but a lot of resentment had built up over the years.

Things turned out such that Sam moved onto Ravenell’s ranch and became a much wealthier man than he had been before. This was in part because he took over Ravenell’s herds, but also because people had a very good opinion of him, seeing as he was the man who taught that bully a much-needed lesson, and with neighbors who were also friends, he prospered. Ravenell slunk away wounded and in disgrace and set up house again on an undeveloped spread with a run-down farmhouse on it the next district over.


This is the point where I could stop, toss out the moral that truly pride goeth ever before a fall, and issue a dire warning for our own leaders operating in the Wild West of international relations that their hubris in discounting the importance of other nations’ opinion of our actions as a nation is going to get them and by extension all Americans in serious trouble sooner rather than later. But that is not exactly the point I am making, though it is a good point, and that is not the story I am telling. That is not, in fact, the way the story goes, for actually I am retelling, albeit in compressed and Americanized form, a 14th-century Icelandic saga about a farmer named Hrafnkell who lived in the east of Iceland in the days of the medieval Commonwealth. The disputes among the landed farmers of Commonwealth Iceland that are recorded in somewhat fictionalized form in the Icelandic sagas bear a sometimes uncanny resemblance to the strained dealings among nations today. This is because the Commonwealth, having no King, no higher authority, or executive arm, was in essence a collection of sovereign individuals all jostling against each other, trying to keep the inevitable disagreements that arose between them from sparking too much violence, all the while trying to maintain, or better yet, improve their individual standing in society. It was a sort of libertarian paradise---or hell, depending on your point of view. The Wild West in the days before law came to town was not so dissimilar, which is why this story can be updated for the American reader without doing it particular violence. Sovereign nations, having no higher authority to appeal to either, behave in a very similar way. Some very thought-provoking parallels come into view if one is in the habit, as I am, of reading Icelandic sagas. Your suspicion that I will draw a lesson at the end of my retelling of this one is correct, but the story does not end where I last left you.


The story does not end there because our Mr. Ravenell, as I have been calling him, has a second rise to power. He works hard on his new land and builds up his herd. He is more careful in his dealings with people. As he becomes a richer man, he makes himself useful to others in their own dealings, and he gains a reputation for being a good friend in need. And as he grows richer in alliances, he grows richer in material things, and some years on he is again quite a powerful man, but one who is regarded in a new light. Ravenell lives on his new and now flourishing spread, while Sam, the man who had brought him down, lives on what had been Ravenell’s ranch.

Then something else happens. Sam’s brother Avery comes back out west to the district. He’s been away this whole time making a name for himself as something of an adventurer back East, taking part in the Civil War, and becoming known as a solid sort of fellow as well as a crack shot. He plans to set up on his own, but for the moment he is staying with his brother.

Ravenell hears news of Avery’s return. And he hears one day that he will be travelling along a certain route with only a small group of men. Ravenell rides out with some of his own men, ambushes Avery, and guns him down together with all his companions. He then rides to his old ranch, where Sam is not expecting him, and sets out to this upstart how things are going to go.

Sam will forfeit the ranch and all such profit as he has had of it since he moved in. He will return to his old farm, where Ravenell will permit him to live out his days, provided he never get uppity in any way again. As for death of his brother Avery, Ravenell owes him nothing for that, since it was not a greater harm than the torture inflicted on Ravenell during the confiscation of his goods. As to the killing of Avery’s men, that was no worse that the mistreatment and maiming of his own men at the same time. As to the killing of his cousin Ernest, for that Sam had been compensated more than enough already, enjoying as he had Ravenell’s ranch and wealth for those several years. The two men are, Ravenell says, even.

And that is the way it in fact goes. Ravenell moves back onto his old, now even richer farm, and Sam is forced down to his original station in life, or even rather lower. Sam does go back to the farmers and ranchers who he’d talked to at the beginning of things and tries to get their support again against Ravenell. They tell him to get lost. He dies a man of modest means and no influence, wheras Ravenell enjoys power, prestige, and a good name for the rest of his days.


There is a big discussion among the people who study saga literature about to what extent Hrafnkell / Ravenell undergoes a reform of character during the course of the story. That question is mostly beside my point here. I do want to point out whether or not the essential core of Ravenell’s being changes in the course of the tale, what he learns by the end that he hadn’t known at the beginning is how to pass the global test. Furthermore, his actions are an example of how passing the global test and ensuring one’s own security are not contradictory.

Let me unpack that for you.

I tell this tale for the benefit of those who were disturbed by Senator Kerry’s use of that phrase, “global test,” to show how I understand that phrase myself. Everything I have heard from Sen. Kerry has led me to believe that this is also how he understands the global test, though most likely he has come to his understanding by a route that does not go through a 14th-century Icelandic prose work. Be that as it may.

When we meet Ravenell at the outset of the tale, he has a name for doing what he likes in his own self interest, up to and including killing men. He does not pay damages or compensation for his actions ever. He relies on his own strength, which is objectively greater than that of his nominal peers. He does not bother to justify his actions to anyone. He does not talk terms, attend meetings, or any of that sort of thing.

At the end of the tale, Ravenell has learned to talk about his actions in the language of fairness and balance, in the language of making things right to people who feel that they have been wronged. This is the crucial difference. In his speech to Sam, he sets out how the harms on both sides balance out. Sam himself is still aggrieved want wants revenge, but the larger community of farmers and ranchers will not lend him support this time. Why? Because the community has accepted Ravenell’s justification for his actions. He has successfully made the case that he and Sam are quits; he has passed the global test.

President Bush would have us believe that attempting to pass any kind of global test would necessarily compromise the ability of the United States to act freely in its own interest and in its own defense. This is not so.

Observe the example of Mr. Ravenell. He has clearly not gone soft during his years as a poorer man. He reclaims his old land and former wealth and station. He even kills several more men for whom he does not pay compensation. He still acts perfectly freely in his own interest—the only change is in how he portrays those actions to the larger community. The change in his rhetoric makes him secure long-term in a way that his bullying ways of might-makes-right did not. Before, grudges were steadily building up against him, with disastrous results. After, his might rests on right, on the community opinion that Ravenell has behaved in an acceptable manner.

But make no mistake: Ravenell is not relying merely on a nice-guy image. Look carefully at how he ensures his future security. He does not go after Sam and kill him, which might have seemed the obvious route. He waits for the return of the brother, Avery, and takes him out. Why? If he had killed Sam, it would have fallen to his brother to take action, just as Sam had taken action after his cousin Ernest was killed. Avery, popular war hero and crack shot, would have been much more dangerous still on the loose than Sam. Ravenell does exactly what he needs to do, but then he can make the case that he has done the right thing.

President Bush and his administration, I shouldn’t need to point out, have said again and again that they are not interested in making that case. They do not care to make themselves popular among other nations or justify their actions to anyone. They have run the country much as Ravenell ran his affairs before being humbled, and with some of same results: a great deal of resentment against the US is building up overseas (incredibly, really, considering the surge of goodwill after 9-11), and that resentment cannot possibly be good for American security.

Senator Kerry has shown that he has an understanding of the importance of alliances and of justifying the country’s actions to its own citizens and to the world. He is already better thought of overseas than President Bush , and this could only help him in the rhetorical task that is the global test. Sen. Kerry is also determined that nothing interfere with the defense of the nation’s security. Simultaneous dedication to both those ideas is what is needed to reclaim our former station in the world as a respected member of the community and a secure one. The fact that Kerry knows that dedication to both is possible makes him the better candidate in this election. The fact that Bush thinks that it is impossible to do both makes him the worse candidate by far and a danger to the long-term security of the nation.

Postscript: The saga of Hrafnkell is readily available in at least two fine translations, one by Hermann Pálsson (Hrafnkel’s Saga and Other Stories, Penguin Classics, 1970) and another by Terry Gunnell in the collection The Sagas of Icelanders (with preface by Jane Smiley, Penguin, 2000).
Hvaðan þið eruð