Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Picktures and Pieces 16: Belly Up Boys!

Belly Up Boys!

by Gary L. Herstein, Guest Blogger 

Let me tell you a story.
Well, first, let me explain why I want to tell you a story.

Science (for example) can give us a pretty compelling account about what and how things are, employing the tools of logical coherence and empirical adequacy. However, once we've gained some sense of what and how things are, we've yet to determine what we should do about them or why we should care. For that we need a different kind of understanding, not just logic and facts. We need a convincing story. So let me tell you a story about why I want to tell you a story. I hope you’re convinced.

My favorite saloon in all of North America (among those still operating) is The Palace in Prescott, Arizona. Opened in 1877, the Brunswick bar in the Palace was a long time in the making. Hand carved and originally assembled in North Carolina, it took three years for the bar to be manufactured and shipped out to Prescott. From 1880 onwards, this bar – and I mean this quite substantial piece of wood, not merely the saloon that houses it – has serviced a great number of patrons, including the Earp brothers. Yes, those Earp brothers. So to this day, you can lean upon the bar that supported the arms of Virgil, Wyatt and Morgan Earp, as well as Doc Holiday. This is a considerable achievement since (for all intents and purposes) the entire town of Prescott burned to the ground in 1900 (more on that in a minute).

Prescott served as the territorial capital on several occasions during the 19th Century, and this informed the planning of the town. In particular, the center of the town is a large, well manicured block surrounded by huge Elm trees whose sole building is the structure which now serves as the Yavapai county courthouse, but back in the day it was the territorial capital. Immediately across the street from the old capital is and was a line of saloons known as Whiskey Row. Along the row stood The Palace.

On July 14 1900, the town of Prescott caught fire. As you may well imagine, an Arizona community built of pine and lacking any significant access to large volumes of water would be just the sort of thing that would go up like a roman candle. The patrons of the Palace knew perfectly well that there wasn't diddly they could do to stop that fire. But they could certainly save one of the few things in their hard-working lives (they were primarily miners) from being erased. Consequently, they got together and hoiked the entire bar, the mirror, the back- and side-boards out of the saloon and across the street into the town square where the fire couldn't reach it. Oh, and they saved the booze as well, of course. The heavy-lifting done, they returned to their drinking by the warm glow of the evening's fire.

So, the story goes, Barry Goldwater once quipped that the biggest mistake of his life was not buying the Palace when he had the chance. It is a good story, even if it isn't true. It fits into Goldwater’s own story in a handsome, even integral way. It happens that Goldwater launched his bid for the Presidency from the steps of the Yavapai county courthouse, just across the street from the Palace, in the same broad square where the Palace's Brunswick bar was saved some sixty-four years earlier. And this makes Goldwater’s story deeply problematic.

The beautiful Brunswick bar that makes the Palace a place worth owning – as opposed to just another saloon – was saved by a community of people acting in concert. But Goldwater’s story is one of the heroic individual unburdened by the fetters of government. Now, one might argue that the people who saved the bar were individuals acting out of their collective sense of self-interest and not at all like a government. However, more than a few political theorists have used just such terms to describe what a government is, and several of these theorists are people of whom Goldwater would approve. This is a little bit of a slippery slope, albeit only a little bit of one. However, it does lead us up to our next question: What about the fire that created the 1900 threat?

While Goldwater railed against the governmental intrusion that forbade businesses from exercising unchecked racism, he offered not a word of protest against the equally intrusive governmental building and fire codes, such as led to Prescott being rebuilt with brick rather than wood: protecting property was acceptable, but defending persons in their personhood was governmental excess. Along a tangential but related line, Goldwater declared that the Constitution was sacred and that government had no business in education because education is not mentioned in that document. But the Ninth Amendment of the Constitution – which Goldwater seems to have neglected – explicitly declares that not all rights are enumerated. So one cannot appeal to the Constitution and claim that education (or, say, health care) is not a right merely because it isn't mentioned in that document. So we must ask against Goldwater, how can property be a right but personhood not?

Goldwater’s story of the rugged individual, the cowboy, toughing it out on his own, unfettered by governmental intrusions, is not a bad story per se, but it is too small to accommodate the real world. Consider that more contemporary cowboy than the Earp brothers, the rodeo rider. The Palace saloon once again looms large in this mythology, as a centerpiece in the Steve McQueen movie, Junior Bonner. Leaving aside the specifics of the characters and their development, the rodeo rider is able to survive only because he is embedded in a large community not only of like- minded individuals, but of rules, procedures and governance. Most especially, there is the fellow traveler of the rider who rushes in to play tag with an angry bull when the rider himself is kissing the dirt. When things go wrong, the community rallies to its own and, indeed, it is time to send in the clowns.

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