“The fool on the hill sees the sun going down, and the eyes in his head, see the world spinning 'round.” – Paul McCartney
Last year, 43 people met their fates at the hands of government employees who were commissioned to snuff out the life of America's most notorious criminals. People, of course, like to argue about the merits of capital punishment and whether or not the government should be in the business of offing its most loathsome citizenry, but I'll save all my arguments for it and against it until another day. Today, I want to talk about “Fools,” and I have a good story about someone who was once executed on death row that illustrates the rhetorical point I want to make.
The number of people killed by the government, with full intent and in front of reporters who witness the event in order to write about it, is down by more than half since 1999 when we ended the Millennium off with a bang by launching 99 criminal explorers into the dark void of The Great Unknown. One of the first lessons they teach in a basic news reporting class is the list of values that make a story “newsworthy” typically includes such factors as prominence, proximity, timeliness, impact, and human interest. Even when we're knocking off the nation's ne'er-do-wells on almost a weekly basis, it makes for a pretty good news story; however, back in 1966, when the country went that entire year with only being able to check off one name from its list of people on Death Row, putting someone into an electric chair to toast the soul out of them made an exceptionally good news story.
James French was only thirty years old when the State of Oklahoma strapped him into an electric chair and sent his wind sweeping down the plain, but by then, he was ready for it. French was one of those people your parents warn you about when you are learning to drive and you're tempted to pick up hitchhikers. Contrary to traditional parental wisdom, not everyone who is meandering around this country by sticking out a thumb and taking rides from strangers will kill you – I, for one, hitchhiked from Athens, Ohio to Yellowstone National Park and back when I was a vacuous college student, and I made the whole trip without killing anyone. French, however, was one of those horror movie type of hitchhikers who pretty much ruined it for all the nonviolent ramblers who are simply out to score a free ride. I don't know if it was just a rookie mistake or what, but French had only made it from Texas to Oklahoma when he decided to take his benefactor hostage for a while and then kill the fellow for his car.
After French was caught and he came to the inescapable conclusion that he was going to have to live out the rest of his days in prison, French decided he would rather have the management shorten the length of his stay rather than prolong it. Three years into his new career as a lifer, French murdered a cellmate in order to insure that he could get his name added to the list of people waiting for a coveted oneway ticket to ride Old Sparky to the Outer Banks of Eternity. Back in the mid 60's, it was easier to catch a ride in a rusty pickup truck on a dusty two-lane road in Texas than it was to secure a seat in an Oklahoman electric chair.
Perhaps it was the heat of that hot day in August of 1966 when French took his final walk that inspired him or maybe he'd been thinking about it from the moment he found out he'd won his chance to be the only guy to be killed by the government that year, but French came up with the perfect rejoinder to the reporters who were anxious to have a good quote from the prisoner when they asked him, “Do you have any last words?” French said to them, “Hey, fellas! How about this for a headline for tomorrow’s paper? ‘French Fries’!”
This type of sardonic remark is what separates genuine fools from mere posers. Contrary to whatever you have heard, fools are not stupid. Fools recognize where they are and who they are with, and nonetheless, they say whatever's on their mind without regard for its propriety or its ramifications for themselves or others. A genuine fool isn't courageous in face of danger; a fool is unconcerned by it.
There are lots of ways of dividing people into two groups: the rich and the poor, the young and the old, and those who prefer chocolate over vanilla – to name a few. Separating people into the groups “the intelligent and the obtuse” doesn't really get at identifying the qualities of fools because fools are neither intelligent nor obtuse. Fools exist in a space that is not defined by their degree of knowledge or intelligence, but is distinguished, rather, by their heedless behavior. There are people who support the systems that direct their lives (call them “followers,” perhaps); there are people who fight against the systems that direct their lives (call them “rebels”); and there are the people for whom the system doesn't really come into their decision making – not because they rage against it or want to challenge its prescriptions, but because they simply don't believe the rules that applies to everyone else actually applies to them, and these are the people who merit the title “fools.”
A rebel can be an idealist who images a better world in which the systemic order that controls people's lives has changed, and a rebel can be willing to accept the consequences of challenging the system that controls them. A rebel understands (or at least works under the assumption that he or she understands) the motives of the authoritarian forces that are in control, and the rebel operates to subvert the powers that are indifferent to their notions of injustice. A fool, on the other hand, is no rebel. A fool has no desire to change the system because the fool is either unaware of the system or believes the system is unaware of them. A fool isn't necessarily stupid and willing to sacrifice his or her own dignity to appease the Powers That Be; a fool lives unconcerned with the opinions of the Powers That Be because the fool is too preoccupied with living in a world defined by the fool's own epistemological boundaries.
In many card games, the Joker is a wildcard that can replace any other card and thus, act like a magical card that randomly appears from a player in need of taking a hand. In the original games based upon the Tarot decks where “The Fool” (the card that later became the Joker in modern decks) appears, “The Fool” card does not replace another card (that is to say it takes on the identity of another card) it merely temporarily excuses the player from following suit. Thus, the original wildcards were not like cards with superpowers that could suddenly out-trump any other card on the table, the purpose of the original Jokers were to create a space for the player where the rules were temporarily suspended and did not apply to the player. Thus, fools are neither people who either seek to win by following the order supplied by the rules nor are they people who seek to change the rules for the benefit of themselves and others; fools are people who simply exist outside of the game, and they allow us to recognize how we are playing the system that they, themselves, cannot recognize. That's enough for now to think about. As we approach the first day of April, let's just remember that people do not choose to be fools, fools are merely who they are.
Keep thinking rhetorically and I'll be back in a couple of weeks. I'll be taking next weekend off to spend time with the family and to recover from an anticipated overconsumption of chocolate bunny ears.