On a lovely spring day in Southern California,2009, a young man with blue-black hair and dark skin arrived late and winded at the starting area of a much-anticipated track race. A small breeze blew down from the north and a whisper of lilac laced the currents. The young man was of Navajo stock. He had run here from a motel some two miles away. He kept his sunglasses on as he walked now toward the infield. The sunglasses were small ovular mirrors. Already there were runners gathering at the starting line. He appeared deeply distracted, but in fact he was not so distracted that he didn’t notice the lilac-scented breeze.
He was lean and somewhat wild-looking. His name was Kristy Reed. He had ropy arms. He carried with him a small gray duffel bag, which he unshouldered now. He genuflected on the infield grass and retied both his running shoes. The shoes were white and over-worn. He retied each shoe in turn, methodically, rapidly, switching the knee he knelt upon, but when he was finished, the left shoe still didn’t feel quite right. He undid it and retied it again, making the knot looser, so that it didn’t pinch along the top of his foot. Then he tied this knot into a double-knot. There was a fluidity about his movements — movements devoid of anything extraneous — and across the infield, over the stubble grass, a long-legged high-jumper flopped seven feet over a pink bar which flickered in the sunlight.
When he was finished tying his shoes, he remained kneeling and paused to look up at the sky. A solitary hawk rode the thermals high above. He watched it for a long moment. It flew freely. He did not know why the sight of it relaxed him. He did not know either that the hawk was duplicated minutely in each lens of his sunglasses. Finally, he stood and removed his t-shirt. In the mere act of standing, he came up straight without any hitch or hesitation whatsoever — just one moment kneeling and the next perfectly upright. He wore thin black running shorts and a well-worn tank-top of light nylon, which was patterned like an American flag: faded stars and stripes underneath which were faint traces of his own blood that wouldn’t wash all the way out. He had a number-bib that wasn’t official over the top of this. He wrapped his sunglasses in his t-shirt and then stuffed everything in his duffel bag and set this on a pile on the infield. There were a great many people pressed around him. He knifed his way through and stood at the starting line with the elite runners, among whom he alone was the only unknown.
The evening of the day before, at approximately 6:30 PM, he’d gotten off a Greyhound bus and checked into the nearest motel he could find. This motel was a slightly rundown affair, all stucco and concrete, situated just off the interstate, across which the desert stretched away into the wooly horizon.
In his motel room he’d splashed water onto his face and changed clothes. He went back outside. It was warm but not hot. It was early May. The sky spread its flawless blue canopy from horizon-to-horizon. He crossed the interstate and went for an hour-long run in the desert. For weeks now he’d been operating on raw nerves and pure adrenaline, his nervous system stretched membrane-thin. It was coming to an end at last. Far away to the west, he saw the explosive flash of a super-sonic jet.
They were into the main event of the meet now, this race about to begin. He felt a pool of nervy blood slosh in his stomach. He turned his head one way and then the other. His neck popped mutely, like an accordion straw. He breathed through his nose, exhaled. His blue-black hair hung damp, and he raked through it with his thin fingers. The old sensation came back upon him.
When had it started, this feeling?
He could not remember. It seemed now an indivisible part of him, like his eyes or ears, something he’d been born with: the sense that his will would always be enough to power him through.
A sinewy, middle-aged man in khaki shorts and a white windbreaker emerged on the track. He held a starting pistol in one hand and a small microphone in the other. He gazed about him for a moment, philosophically. Then he raised the microphone to his mouth. His amplified voice came galvanized and crackling through the speakers:
“Folks, it is a picture-perfect day for this race” he said, “and if I were a betting man — which I am not — I’d bet you a hundred dollars that we are going to witness here today a true miracle mile.”
He paused. You could hear the breeze blow through the microphone.
“In 1964, when he was a junior in high school, Mr. Jim Ryun, of Wichita, Kansas, became the first high school athlete to run the mile in under four minutes. That day he clocked in at three-fifty-nine flat. One year later, at Balboa stadium in San Diego, California, when he was still running for Wichita East high school, this same Jim Ryun ran 3:55.3, a high school record that stood for thirty-six years.”
Here the man paused again and lowered the microphone to his side. Once more he stared philosophically across the crowd. It was twenty seconds before he resumed:
“Since that day,” he said, “we’ve seen exactly three other high school runners break the four-minute mile: in 1966, one year after Jim Ryun set the record, a high-schooler named Tim Danielson of Chula Vista, California, ran 3:59.4. One year after that, in 1967, the great Marty Liquori, of Essex Catholic High in Newark, New Jersey, ran 3:59.8. In the ensuing thirty-five years, there were several near misses, and yet it was a full thirty-six years before another American high schooler ran a sub 4:00 minute mile, and that young man was Alan Webb, who in 2001 did it twice. As a matter of fact, Alan Webb is the first American high schooler to do it indoors, which was in New York City, in January of 2001. Four months later, on May 27th, at the Prefontaine Classic, Alan Webb shattered Jim Ryun’s high school mile record, clocking in at 3:53.43. That record holds to this day.”
The announcer paused again, though this time he did not lower the microphone but held it fixed against his chin.
“Ladies and gentleman,” he said, “ladies and gentleman. Listen closely to me now, and make no mistake: it is by any standard a big deal to run a sub-four minute mile. And this track meet right here is the Moby Dick of high school track meets. It is the Miracle Mile, the Meet of the Champions — the one that brings together the best of the best — and so it is no surprise that we have among us today not one but two high school runners who, in the last five months, have both come this close to breaking the four-minute mile. And yet I say to you in all sincerity that any one of these twelve athletes among us today has the leg-speed and the power to break the four-minute barrier. Will we see it? We are mere moments from finding out.”
He stopped speaking and moved off to the side of the track.
A buzzing anticipation spread like plague across the stadium.
“Runners, take your marks!”
The runners assembled at the starting line. The Navajo no one knew, who had gotten into this race illegally, was two lanes from the outside — a poor lane, the poorest.
At last the runners situated and at last they grew still.
The crowd fell dead silent.
Thirty seconds passed. The tension mounted.
Finally the sinewy man raised the starting pistol straight into the air. No one breathed.
There was a loud pop and a cottony puff of gun smoke, and the runners leapt.
He was a silent child — strange and silent.
Born on the rez, raised on the rez, dead mother, drunk father, youngest of five children — three girls, two boys — Kristy Reed, neglected and physically abused, was and always had been disquietingly untrue to type:
There was no pegging him, no holding him back, no keeping him in. He broke away from the pack early on, developed a taste for wandering, exploring. He came and went as he pleased, was left largely unsupervised. He did not like school, but he liked to read, and he was thoughtful and quick with numbers. He read everything he could find, so that by age thirteen, he’d built up a quirky erudition that was entirely self-made.
Often he went out alone into the mountains of northwestern New Mexico. He never took anything with him except whatever clothes he happened to be wearing that morning. Invariably when he returned, one, two, three days later, he returned dusty and parched but otherwise exactly the same as when he departed. Nobody knew where he went or what he did — striving for greater heights, perhaps, or deeper depths, narrower caves or more rarified summits, exploring the things others wouldn’t.
One afternoon in the autumn of his tenth year, while he was skipping rocks across the river that ran next to the school bus-stop, a wrestler with a lumpy nose and cauliflower ears — a boy named Benji — came shuffling by, leading a group of eleven high school wrestlers to the area where they would start their daily run.
“Do you want to run with us, Kristy?” he said.
He was not asking seriously, but he was a friendly person, facetious, distantly related.
Benji did not reply, and neither did any of the other wresters. They watched Kristy come up from the riverbank.
He fell in with the big boys — thinner and shorter and younger by far. He’d never run with them before, and the wrestling coach, a stocky white man from southern Utah, eyed him up and down but said nothing. Kristy was dressed in brown corduroy pants and broken hightop sneakers, a gray T-shirt, which he removed now. He had scars on his back from his father whipping him with a leather strap.
They gathered along the bridge that crossed the river. This of course was just another practice run, not a race, but they were always competitive, these runs, the wrestlers all in excellent shape. Lemon-lime leaves carpeted the dirt road. A replica of the silver sky was reflected diagonally across the river. The wrestling coach told them they were only running four miles today, the river-road loop, down to the highway and back, and, goddammit, horse it up those hills, he said.
The wrestlers knew the route well, and so did Kristy, who had once lived in a shotgun shack down that way.
“Give em hell,” the coach said. “Ready?” He paused. “Set! Go.”
They bolted forward, all twelve of them, Benji and another boy named Clovis leading the pack. Right on their heels, however, was Kristy Reed, aged ten. He wasn’t ostensibly pushing himself very hard. He was just running. By eight hundred meters, however, he, along with Benji and Clovis, had distanced themselves from the pack.
A mile in and Kristy was still going strong — stronger, even, than when he’d started out. He was young and small, and yet he ran in a curiously effortless way. The three of them pounded up the first hill, which was short but steep and which leveled out and then dipped and went back up, and here the road was sandy. The river that ran below them flashed in the white autumnal light. The road curved left and simultaneously went up a steeper hill. This hill plateaued for twenty meters and then rose up again, steeper still. A warm breeze poured down into the narrow throat of the canyon.
At the top of this hill, just before the halfway point, where the road sharply descended and they came back around toward the high school, Benji and Clovis, too exhausted to be astonished, watched Kristy push past them. They saw his inky-black hair drip with sweat. They saw the wormy white scars on his back, the odd ease of his gait, but they did not know how exhausted he too had become. Neither did they know that it was the sheer strength of his will driving him forward.
Crossing another bridge where the river road looped back to the highway, back to the starting point, Kristy was far enough ahead now that he was directly across from the other runners — across and on their right — at which point, when they saw how he widened the gap with each stride, the wrestlers, all of them, knew that he had not gone out too fast, as they had initially thought. They knew furthermore, by the look of concentration in his eyes, which was fierce enough to argue insanity, that he wouldn’t fade or let go now, and that the only question left was who would finish second. So that when, twelve minutes later, he pounded across the bridge that was the start-and-finish line, wobbly from exhaustion, he was more than sixty seconds ahead of Benji, who was twenty seconds ahead of Clovis, and for some time it was just he and the wrestling coach standing there alone. Kristy dripped with sweat. Gradually his breath normalized. He didn’t say anything. He was staring into the molecular black water, spotted leaves falling upon the surface. The coach scrutinized him more closely.
“You could be a track superstar one day, if you wanted,” he said.
Jonas Hayat loved to run.
He loved it with his whole body and soul, and he was beautiful to watch. He ran like a panther: sleek and lean and muscular.
His father was Ethiopian, his mother New Mexican. He had four siblings, one brother and three sisters, two of whom were younger, and all of whom, especially Jonas, were inordinately polite and well-mannered and good-looking: blue-eyed and tall, with toffee-colored skin and black hair.
Jonas was born in Los Alamos, New Mexico, but raised in Albuquerque. His father, through a quiet combination of shrewd investments and hard work, had over the years grown quite wealthy, so that his children never knew the privations he himself had known. He’d worked his way through UTEP, ran track, was a two-time All-American, and earned a PhD in nuclear physics. A month after receiving his degree, he took a job in a Los Alamos laboratory.
Jonas discovered running when he was seven-years-old — at which time his father began entering him in local races, a thing Jonas very much enjoyed. This was the summer before he went into third grade. The more Jonas ran, the more he grew to love running. So that within a year, he developed the habit of running all the time. He ran everywhere, no matter his clothes, no matter his shoes. He pushed himself without any prompting or provocation and sought to become faster and faster. And succeeded.
Thus, in sixth grade, his first year of junior high, he exploded into a track phenomena — the fastest junior high miler in the city of Albuquerque. In fact, through all of junior high and high school, he won every race he ever ran.
With one exception.
During the spring of his thirteenth year, when he was in eighth grade and already semi-famous in track circles across the southwest, his school travelled to a meet up north, near the Four Corners, in the town of Farmington, New Mexico. It was a small track meet, and neither Jonas’s teammates nor his coach expected that he would have any difficulty winning. Jonas alone never took his victories for granted, nor did he ever underestimate any of his opponents, and this was a large part of his success.
The mile began late in the day, when the air turned cool. Large shark-shaped clouds swam down from the north, and the horizon looked slate-blue. It was a cinder track. The infield grass was not green but brown. As Jonas situated himself at the starting line, he did not notice the black-haired boy two lanes to his right, whose name was Kristy Reed, and who was the only competitor at this meet representing his school. But it wouldn’t have mattered either way if Jonas had noticed him, for he’d never in his life seen him, or heard his name. Neither did Jonas know that, like him, this same boy had also never lost a race — though his running career, if it could even be called that, was far more haphazard, his competition far less intense.
That afternoon, then, when the starting gun went off, Jonas leapt into the lead, as he always did, and came out of the first turn already ten meters ahead of the second group of runners. He ran alone. He always ran alone. His long legs churned softly. They ate up the backstretch. From the infield grass his teammates cheered him on. A silver discus flashed like a miniature flying saucer in the sharp western light.
At the end of lap one, Jonas had pushed himself even farther in the lead. The runners behind him were dispersing, with a cluster of three battling for second place. Jonas, meanwhile, continued to widen the gap.
But a lap-and-a-half into the race, something remarkable happened:
Kristy Reed, the lone representative of his school, broke away from the pack — and in a truly astonishing burst of speed, he closed in on the leader, so that by the end of lap two and going into the third, Jonas, though still leading, was a mere ten feet ahead of Kristy Reed.
Jonas became aware of footsteps getting louder behind him. The cinder crunch struck his ear with an ominous sound. He increased his speed. He still had plenty. His stride was so long and so fluid.
He came out of the first turn expecting to have partially shaken his challenger, but it was not so: Kristy surged with him. Kristy ran doggedly — fluid and graceful as well, but in an entirely different sort of way. There was an indescribable look of concentration in his eyes: a hyper-focus which everyone noticed, and which among other things clearly conveyed to all the onlookers that he believed he could win this race.
Almost unconsciously, it seemed, the crowd rose to their feet in unison.
Coming around the last turn and into the final lap, Kristy was still ten feet behind and breathing hard, his skin glistering with sweat. The next runners were over half a lap behind. The breeze blew in from the west.
The pistol popped, and they went into the final lap. Jonas, still paying the price for the speed with which he’d run the last four-hundred meters, summoned everything inside him. He increased his speed again. It was a mighty explosion of energy.
He was in the best shape of his life, and it showed. He ran like a panther. He ran with so much heart. He poured it on. His legs spun into a blur. His speed was magnificent. His idea was to break his opponent quickly in this final lap and then just hang on.
The crowd went crazy — a roar the likes of which this little stadium had never heard before. Jonas’s teammates had all gathered around the inside of the track, and they were screaming with demonic ferocity.
Kristy did not hear any of this.
He did not hear the pop of cinder beneath his broken shoes.
He did not hear the roar of the crowd.
His concentration was total. He ran as one deaf. His face looked charged with suffering.
He watched Jonas surge ahead of him — had expected it — and he strove to match it, so that coming down the backstretch, Kristy called forth every ounce of speed his body contained, and sprinting he drew shoulder-to-shoulder with Jonas, who was six inches taller.
Entering the final turn they were dead even. Kristy ran on the outside. Both were drenched in sweat. Their legs were a slurry of speed. The crowd went berserk — in sheer disbelief at what they were witnessing. They all knew Jonas by reputation, but who was this black-haired boy that looked so wild and indomitable?
When they came out of the final turn and into the homestretch, Kristy was hee-hawing for breath, and though he did not increase his speed, he did not slow down either, and Jonas was not able to maintain the blistering pace. So that in the final seventy meters, Kristy Reed broke away from Jonas and crossed the finish line first, delirious with exhaustion.
At fourteen, Kristy ran away. He took a Greyhound bus to Salt Lake City. After that he hitchhiked to Reno and then Sacramento and then San Francisco.
Six months later, he was brought back in a police car. No big deal.
He left again shortly after.
Cops found him a few weeks later, along the outskirts of Denver, beaten by gang members into a state of unconsciousness, and he was brought back.
But there was no keeping him: two months after that, when he was still fourteen, he slipped away from school and the reservation for good.
First he walked and hitchhiked his way to Tucson, then Phoenix, then Las Vegas, Nevada, which he loved.
He loved the lights and all the massive structures and the twenty-four-hour throb of the city. He liked walking among the people, the famous and the rich, the savvy and the talented.
He liked walking down the wealthiest streets, and in his ragged clothing he felt no resentment among the successful, no rancor, no sense of inferiority, no anything except free — free to pursue his own life. It never occurred to him to feel another way.
He sought to know precisely what made the rich and the prosperous different from the poor and the profligate — not so much among the gamblers as among people in general. It was a question that came to occupy his mind more and more. He had spent all his life in and around dire poverty, and now he sought to know poverty’s ultimate source. What was the fundamental thing?
He stored the question in his mind and revisited it every day.
Somewhere in his youth, perhaps cumulatively over a span of years, he’d developed the conviction that he was capable of understanding anything known to anyone. It was an implicit conviction, an almost unconscious sense that lived deep inside him, and he never thought to question it.
He meanwhile slept in stairwells, or on building rooftops, or wherever he could. He worked any job he could find: dishwashing, housekeeping, prep-cook, construction laborer. His work ethic grew Herculean, and he cultivated it.
Not quite one year after being in Las Vegas, walking across the UNLV campus, he saw a flyer announcing a free lecture, which was to be held in the Political Science Department. The lecture was titled “Wealth & Poverty.”
The lecturer was an economics professor with fat fingers and moon-colored hair, who spoke in a hard-to-hear jargon that made little sense to Kristy — or, to judge from the looks he saw all around him, to anyone else present. Kristy slipped unnoticed out the back of the classroom before the lecture was half over.
He walked out into the hallway, down a short flight of steps, and there, off to his left, he saw a young woman sitting alone in an empty classroom. She was reading from a gigantic tome.
She looked at him. Her eyes were stone-gray and her hair, yanked back into a ponytail, was brown and silken.
“Hello,” he said.
He stood in the doorway.
“What are you reading?” he said.
She put her finger as bookmark between the pages and then stood the book upright so that he could see its title. She told him it was called Human Action and said that it was written by an Austrian economist.
Later that very evening, he went to the university library and found this same book, and he began reading it.
He returned to the library everyday for weeks, putting himself through a stupendous effort to finish it — and he did: he read it to the end.
He understood about a third of what he read.
Next he read Das Kapital and understood even less of that.
And so it was now that Kristy began taking ideas seriously, really for the first time in his life, and on a level he never before had. Thus his reading exploded out in all directions at once. He’d read one thing that he only partially understood, and this in turn would lead him to another, which would in turn lead him to another, and so on, until, soon, he’d amassed a wild arsenal of knowledge. There was no streamlining and no specific method to the manner in which he read, and yet what remained in his mind was streamlined and methodical.
He wanted learning for its own sake — for the enrichment he felt it bestowing upon him, the growth of his mind. He found, furthermore, that it created a reciprocity: the more he learned, the more he desired to learn.
During this time also, he never ceased running. He ran in the desert. He ran everywhere. He ran for hours. He had no car, no bicycle, no skateboard. But he had his body. And he had his brain.
He didn’t race, however. He never even thought about it — except for once, when he saw a picture of Jonas Hayat in the newspaper, under this headline:
WILL THIS BE NEXT HIGH-SCHOOLER TO BREAK THE FOUR-MINUTE MILE?
He stood staring at that headline for a long time.
He began at that point to think a little more about racing.
Early one morning, two years after he’d left the reservation, passing by a waste management company, he noticed a Help Wanted sign on its fence, and so he went in and asked for work. He was too young to drive, but they hired him to pick up trash around various properties, and this was a job he enjoyed. He enjoyed it chiefly for the fact that he was left alone. He did his job willingly and well, and he worked tirelessly so that soon they put him on the back of the trucks, where he’d stand and ride and then leap down and throw trash into the great iron maw of the hauler. He grew fast and efficient. He soon became known among his peers as a kind of daredevil — holding himself out perpendicularly and perfectly straight, for instance, like a flag, while the truck was moving, the vertical bar on the back of the truck the flag-post, he so quick and agile and strong, an indefatigable worker. He spoke very little. He did not party and did not play, but his co-workers loved him. His method of working and of moving in anything he did was unorthodox, almost indescribably fluid, and yet totally natural to him.
Work, the clean motions of his body in concert with his brain, this became for him the closest thing he would ever have to a religion.
He did not notice that people stared at him in passing while he was picking up trash, often in pity, though once he overheard a wealthy Native-American man say to his children:
“Look at the reservation trash picking up trash.” The man laughed.
It didn’t have any wounding effect on Kristy but just the opposite: he adopted the title and made it his own:
It had a ring to it, he thought.
That in turn gave him another idea.
He’d first made Pablo’s acquaintance at work, the year before. Pablo was a few years older than Kristy, and yet they’d become good friends despite their age difference. Then Pablo quit and went to work for a different company, and they’d not kept in touch. One dazzling afternoon walking home from work, passing by a sidewalk café, Kristy descried his quondam co-worker, who, like Kristy, was a high-school dropout. Pablo was making his way toward two college students seated at the sidewalk café, both female, both beautiful and black, both of whom were drinking blonde beers, both of whom Pablo sought to charm.
Pablo, an uncommonly handsome and happy soul, well-spoken, well-mannered, black-haired and muscular, approached the two students and said hello.
“Hello!” they answered in unison.
Kristy went up to the counter for coffee.
Just then, another woman appeared from out of the shadows — an upperclassman, perhaps, or a young professor, late twenties or early thirties. She had light leonine hair tied loosely back and cat-eye glasses that were retro and stylish, and that became her. The lenses were filled now with the dazzling daylight. Her features were sharp and attractive but marred by truculence. She wore a buttoned-up gray suit and a charcoal skirt to match. She sipped her Pinto Gris and, swallowing, spoke to Pablo:
“Are you a student?” she said.
“He’s just being friendly, Erica,” one of the two young women said.
But Erica did not appear to hear this.
“Me?” Pablo said. “No, no. Far beyond all that.”
“Oh? Graduated, then?”
“Yes, indeed. With honors.”
“Honors, no less!” Erica said. “What did you study, if you don’t mind my asking? That is to say, in what field of study were you honored?”
“I’m something of a Renaissance mammal, to be honest,” Pablo said.
Both girls giggled. Then Erica laughed too, though not quite as convincingly.
“Mammal?” Erica said.
“Yes. Which is to say that several — ah — fields, as you put it, honored me. Why do you ask?”
“I’m curious to know your opinion of neoliberalism. You see, it’s a subject near and dear to me — as a matter of fact, I’ve just written a book on the subject — specifically, that is, in how neoliberalism informs the current dialogue regarding privilege and the inequality narrative.”
“I grew up dirt poor.”
Erica nodded. “It’s my conviction,” she said, “that neoliberalism is an incredibly powerful concept for understanding that — for understanding not just contemporary American life, I mean, but global politics in general, and that it’s ultimately neoliberalism that wrecked American society, which really started to prosper only after the New Deal and the post-World-War-II era.”
“‘How it informs the dialogue’?” an incredulous voice said from behind. “Tell me: Who talks like this besides someone totally unconcerned with being understood?”
They all turned. It was Kristy. He was sipping his coffee and looking directly at Erica.
“‘First, confuse the vocabulary,’” he quoted. “Do you know who wrote that?”
“Pardon?” Erica said. She eyed Kristy up and down in his raggedy work clothes.
“You heard me.”
“I was just explaining to the young gentleman here –”
“My friend Pablo,” Kristy interrupted.
(“Hiya, Kristy!” Pablo said.)
“Yes, of course,” Erica said, “I was just explaining to your friend Pablo that the concept of neoliberalism is not new –”
“And who said it was?” Kristy said.
“And that, though the many competing definitions of the term can seem complex and confusing,” Erica continued as if she hadn’t heard him, “we should not let that complexity dissuade us from using the term — indispensable as it is to our present-day understanding of privilege and inequality, having moved away from its strict, original laissez-faire denotation to decry a late twentieth-century effort by –”
“‘By policy makers, think-tank experts, and industrialists to condemn social-democratic reforms and unapologetically implement free-market policies.’ Unquote. Yes, I read Elizabeth Shermer’s piece as well.”
Erica was silent.
“I reckon next,” Kristy said, “you’ll tell us all about James Kwak, Noam Chomsky, Peter Singer, and Thomas Nagel with his ‘a-person-doesn’t-deserve-his-or-her-intelligence’ jargon and ‘those who have been favored by nature may gain from their good fortune only on terms that improve the situation of those who have lost out’ — this sort of thing, yes? No? And then from there you trot out all the other egalitarians who can’t accept that it’s okay and inevitable that humans are born into different circumstances and with different attributes — who therefore don’t believe humans can think for themselves and motivate themselves and act for themselves to shape a better life: the life they want for themselves, no matter how difficult the circumstances they were born into? The egalitarians whose life mission therefore is to ‘level the playing field’ through massive governmental force, instead of simply leaving people alone. Is this what you have next for us?”
Pablo and the two students glanced nervously at Erica and then at Kristy.
“I actually believe some amount of social stratification is unavoidable and even somewhat acceptable,” Erica said, “insofar as it invigorates the economy — because, though, strictly speaking, no one deserves her greater natural capacity, nor merits a more favorable starting place in society, I do believe individuals possess an inviolability –”
“‘Founded on justice that even the welfare society as a whole cannot override,’” Kristy said. “Yes, I’ve read that too: John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, page 102, as I recall, in my copy. Is this what you get paid to do, then, Erica?”
“Is this what you get paid to do, Doctor Larsen? Go around bullying people with obscure half-quotes, and talking down to people in the trendy regurgitated jargon of the day: wealth and privilege and inequality this year, but never speaking, of course, about government privilege — of which I am an unfortunate recipient and can tell you with great authority that it is an unmitigated catastrophe.”
Erica didn’t answer. All four of them were watching Kristy, who looked calm. He stared at Erica with lidless fixity.
“It is a common tactic among government-lovers,” Kristy said, “to implement state regulations which create deeper problems, and to then blame ‘neoliberalism’ and the ‘free market’ for these deeper problems which the government controls created in the first place, so that now deeper controls can be demanded — until before anyone quite knows how it happened, a leviathan-sized bureaucracy has been built, which can never be dismantled, and the most destructive side-effect of which is the process of entrenchment: what was once inconceivable in the minds of everyone is suddenly so entrenched that the idea of government not providing it becomes the inconceivable thing — in everything from snow-removal and education, to fire departments, to healthcare and energy, to (most famously) the roads: the message being, if government doesn’t provide it, it won’t be provided. So, Doctor Larsen: Since in trying to humiliate and bully my friend, you bring it up, please tell us exactly what laissez-faire free-market system you and all the others are always speaking of? In fact, I demand an answer to this question, at last.”
“You can’t answer it,” he said, “because one of the greatest myths perpetrated onto humankind, certainly in the last one-hundred-fifty years, is the absurd notion that we do live or ever have lived under a system of true laissez faire.”
“I’m talking about the system of unbridled free-markets,” Erica said, “which is America’s legacy.”
“That’s what I’m talking about too,” Kristy said. “You’re referring, then, to a system created purely in the minds of left-wingers and right-wingers and news media alike — despite the one-hundred thousand pages of detailed government regulations added to the Federal Register, an increase of twenty-thousand pages since 1978, if you’re interested, none of which under a true system of laissez faire would exist at all because there wouldn’t even be a Federal Register. Or do you, rather, mean the laissez-faire system which has sixteen federal cabinet departments and thousands upon thousands of bureaucrats whose only real purpose is to regulate mining, agriculture, housing, transportation, education, labor, commerce, healthcare, and of course energy, the most important of them all, and which cabinet departments are amplified astronomically by the IRS, EPA, FDIC, FDA, CIA, SEC, FCC, FTC, FEMA, NASA, NIH, BIA, and many more, most of which have been around longer than the current iteration of your pet term neoliberalism? Or do you mean the laissez-faire system in which government spending equals forty-two percent of national income, which doesn’t include the billions and trillions spent on bailouts? Is that the laissez-faire system you mean, Doctor Larsen? The truth is that there’s never been anything close to a laissez-faire system — most definitely not in the last one-hundred-fifty years — not in America or anywhere else, though America came the closest, and in so doing created more prosperity, innovation, technology, progress, longer lifespans, and more rags-to-riches stories in a dramatically shorter span of time than any other civilization in human history … by light years. Which is why to this day, people from all over the world still flock to this country seeking to make a better life for themselves and their families. Consider this as well: government — any government — cannot spend a single cent unless it first either borrows, taxes, or prints.”
Kristy was momentarily silent.
“You see,” he said, “there will come a day, decades from now, when you might actually undertake the task of doing some real thinking — of thinking for yourself, instead of believing all the jargon you’re fed in our institutions of higher learning — and when you do, you’re going to realize that you spent many thousands of dollars on an education that was ill-conceived and inaccurate, and that you could have received a far better one for free, by reading and thinking for yourself all along.”
“Maybe, maybe,” Erica said. “But at least I won’t be hauling other people’s trash.”
“What does it profit a person if she gains the whole world but loses her soul?”
When the starting gun went off, nobody expected that this would be anything more than another unspectacular college cross-country race — a five-miler on a rolling golf course, this beautiful autumn day.
But less than a mile in, something spectacular indeed did happen:
An All-American runner named Ryan Butler — from the University of Northern Arizona — went, as expected, way out into the lead, disappearing over a high grassy hill into the unseen undulations of the golf-course.
The pack of runners behind him soon disappeared as well, so that for approximately fifteen minutes the onlookers saw nothing of the race.
When, however, the runners looped around and came briefly back toward the clubhouse, they saw that the All-American Ryan Butler was no longer alone. He was being challenged. He was running shoulder-to-shoulder with a very young-looking black-haired boy, who wore no uniform but only dark shorts and a tank-top patterned like an American flag.
Together these two pounded up the grassy trail, stride for stride. The black-haired boy was not nearly as tall or as mature-looking, but the sense of energy about him was overwhelming.
Coaches and race officials pointed and murmured. More than a few raised binoculars to their eyes.
“He’s a bandit runner,” said one.
“What is a bandit runner?” a young girl said. Her older brother was running in this race. She stood with her parents.
“It’s somebody who’s not officially registered,” said the coach next to her. “Somebody who just hopped in. It is illegal. And confusing.”
At length somebody said he recognized this bandit runner.
He said this bandit runner was a teenager and his name was Kris or Kristy.
“A teenager? Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m certain.”
Several officials at this point moved out onto the course, and when the runners came near, with still a half-mile to go, they sent racing elites after him. They sought to capture Kristy Reed and stop him from running.
By this point in the race, Kristy had pulled slightly ahead of the All-American Ryan Butler, and his look was one of pure intensity and focus — so much so, in fact, that he didn’t appear to notice several people barreling toward him. And yet the instant before they clutched at him, he dodged and slipped out of their reach. They went for him again, and still he evaded them.
“Let him run!” someone yelled from the sidelines.
A few others joined in.
“Let him run!”
A small chant started:
“Let. Him. Run. Let. Him. Run.”
The race officials, if they heard this at all, paid no attention.
Ryan Butler, meanwhile, was back in the lead, pulling away, while Kristy Reed slipped the clutches and grasps of race officials. More came out to catch him.
“Let. Him. Run!”
One official, a young man and former football pro and sprinter, with dark-chocolate skin and long sleek beautiful muscles, succeeded in grabbing hold of Kristy’s forearm. Kristy, still running, slippery with sweat, jerked his arm violently down, broke free. The young man stumbled and fell, but on the grass he swept his foot to trip Kristy.
Kristy lurched, somehow gracefully, and almost avoided falling, but not quite. He hit the grass on his side, shoulder first, unhurt, and race officials pounced. They tried to hold him down, but Kristy rolled. He spun away from them. They grabbed at him but couldn’t capture him. They couldn’t hold on. He rolled away and jumped up.
“Let him run!” more spectators shouted from the sidelines. “Let him run!”
“Let him be!” said the young girl who’d asked the question about the bandit runner.
Officials converged on him and clutched at him, but still they weren’t able to grasp him. He was slick with sweat but also unorthodox in how he moved: fluid and graceful but never doing quite what you’d expect.
There were a great many people now, a large pack of coaches and officials, so many hands reaching for him, trying to hold him back. He was too quick, however, and too canny and too fast. He maneuvered and ran, stopped-and-started, tiring them out. At last, just when a group of three were closing in on him, believing they had him cornered, he broke abruptly left and dove into a shallow pond. He swam several strokes and then bound through a white-sand pit, up across a green and down to a small creek, which he leapt over, and then to a chainlink fence that he mounted like a spider and, still dripping with pond water, vaulted.
His pursuers stopped, but he did not. Neither did he look back. He kept running free of them, and they watched him grow smaller and smaller and then disappear.
The Indian who visited Kristy at his work was tall and thin and handsome. He had very white teeth and a kind smile. He was middle-aged, clean-shaven. His polished shoes gleamed like obsidian. He wore a black suit-jacket and a navy-blue necktie.
“You’re Native,” the man said.
“Yes,” Kristy said.
“Diné,” the man said.
“Yes,” Kristy said.
“What does that word mean? I’ve never known.”
“It means ‘The People.’ Some say it means ‘Children of the Chosen People.’”
“Very interesting. Thank you.”
Kristy didn’t reply.
“You’re a minority,” the man said.
“What do you mean?”
“You’re part of a subordinate group whose members have significantly less control and power over their lives than members of a majority group.”
“I’m a human being.”
“You’re part of a group that experiences a narrowing of opportunities — by which I mean, success, education, wealth, and so forth — which is disproportionately low compared to your group’s numbers in the society.”
“I’m an individual. That is the smallest minority there is.”
“Young man, you should have an awareness of subordination and a stronger sense of group solidarity, if you’ll permit me to say. You are a victim of privilege.”
“I don’t feel like a victim. I feel like an individual human being.”
“And yet you might be entitled to certain — you know — reparations which are owed to you.”
“I don’t want them,” Kristy said.
“Because you cannot correct injustice with more injustice. The only way to correct injustice is to allow equality before the law. You cannot correct racism with more racism.”
“What I’m describing is hardly racism. I frankly find it a little offensive that you imply this.”
“I imply no such thing,” Kristy said.
“I’m sorry. That’s how it sounded.”
“Like an implication?”
“Then I haven’t made myself clear: I’m stating very explicitly that what you’re espousing is racism.”
The tall slender man raised his eyebrows and unconsciously stepped back one pace.
“Racism,” Kristy said, “in addition to being another deterministic philosophy, is also another form of collective-tribalism — of the most barbaric kind. It is a primitive ideology that tries to grant moral-sociological significance to one’s DNA code. It holds that human character is at least to some extent the result of one’s genetic chemistry. It ascribes moral worth to racial pedigree and the genes we’ve inherited. But that’s the opposite of what’s actually true: our rational faculty determines our character. Race is unchosen. Moral worth and character apply only to the realm of choice. Humans are the rational animal. And rationality is a choice. Thinking is a choice. We are born with the rational faculty, yes, which is biological and genetic, but the convictions and thoughts and ideas which shape our minds which in turn shape our actions which in turn shape our character — this is not inherited. This is chosen. Racism is a desire to achieve virtue merely by virtue of one’s genetic inheritance. It’s not so easy or simplistic: Virtue — by definition — must be chosen, or it falls outside the realm of morality. Now please leave me alone.”
The pamphlets appeared suddenly. They were each different in content, but the headline was always the same:
Nobody knew where they came from. Everybody read them. They just appeared. There were so many of them. They were scraps of paper pasted onto cardboard — all different-looking and smudgy, as if mined from trash, and yet laminated and handwritten, and carefully so, in strange but very legible writing, oddly artistic.
Within thirty days, they’d created a small sensation, and the question quickly became:
Who’s responsible for them?
No one knew.
The bandit pamphleteer.
This is the story that’s been kept hidden from you.
This is the story you won’t be told.
There are 310 reservations in America and 562 federally recognized Native nations.
There are 3 million Native Americans in the United States today, approximately 1 million of whom live on these reservations.
The leading cause of death for Native American boys is suicide.
Native Americans have the highest rate of poverty of any racial group in the country — more than twice the national average. They also have some of the highest crime rates and gang-membership rates.
Native American women are raped two times more often than the national average, and the rate of child abuse among Native American children is double the national average.
This is the subject nobody wants to deal with — and so on this subject, in elementary schools, high schools, and universities, you’ll hear over and over and over the same non-solution: centuries of oppression and victimization at the hand of the white man has made the situation insoluble. Until we somehow teleport Natives back to their “pre-contact” place-in-nature, they won’t be helped or succored.
This non-solution has dire ramifications:
The first of those dire ramifications is the mentality that Native Americans should be given as much federal money as humanly possible and reparations for racism, wars, and westward expansion should know no bounds.
The second is that we must somehow perform the impossible task of erasing all indignities that Native Americans have suffered.
The Bureau of Indian affairs (BIA) — founded on March 11, 1824, by John C. Calhoun — and the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE), which are both a part of the Department of the Interior, have approximately 9,000 employees.
That’s one employee for every three Native Americans on the reservation.
Annual federal funding and subsidies is $3 billion per year. This goes to roads, education, agriculture, tribal courts, social services, and overall economic development.
The BIE gets $850 million for providing for its 42,000 students, which is roughly $20,000 per student.
The national average is $12,500.
There are also a number of other federal agencies that subsidize Native Americans:
The Department of Health and Human Services houses the so-called Indian Health Service. It’s budget is $4 billion.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development runs the Native American Housing Block Grant Program, which has a budget of $750 million.
The Department of Education spends $300 million each year on BIE schools — which, in spite of all this, are an embarrassment:
The education Native children receive is an arrant travesty — I know because I lived it. And the BIE, even with all that money, cannot keep the schools from crumbling down: collapsing roofs, gas leaks, wiring everywhere exposed, circuit-breakers popping, no heat in sub-zero weather.
And so on.
It’s not, I assure you, a problem of money.
It’s a problem of money mismanagement.
Which is a problem of government bureaucracy.
Which is a problem of spending other people’s money. Or money that you print.
The cultural perception of Native Americans is just as destructive.
You will hear an over-romanticized account of Chief Seattle, who never wrote that 1851 speech.
A Texas scriptwriter named Ted Perry wrote it, in 1972.
You will hear about small pox blankets and other disease and massacres and starvation and displacement, all of which is absolutely true. You will not, however, hear of Native American brutalities against peaceful settlers, whether Mexican, white, black, Asian, or anything else.
There is a Native American problem and it is huge. There is a sickening lack of education, and a sickening lack of equality before the law.
There is a sickening lack of economic opportunity, because there is a sickening lack of autonomy and private property.
“Property is not only money and other tangible things of value, but also includes any intangible right considered as a source or element of wealth: it is the right to enjoy and dispose of certain things in the most absolute manner” (Lectric Law Library).
That is property. It is as much the right to an act as it is to an object.
The right to property is the right to freedom.
We are not allowed to own our own property on the reservation. This means we exist purely by government permission.
The advance toward autonomy and privacy is the advance toward civilization — true civilization.
The tragedy of the Native American demands immediate scrutiny and attention — not only because it’s crippling and killing a million Natives but because it represents government at its absolute worst (and that’s saying a lot):
Decades of inculcating victimhood into Natives, of throwing money and ever-more money at the problem, when what they really need is freedom and autonomy and the right to own property.
Until this happens, Natives will remain in grinding poverty, beset by alcoholism, drugs, disease, suicide, social pathology — and the inexpressibly helpless fury that can only come from knowing that your entire life is controlled by bureaucrats and bureaucracies.
What I want to tell you is that the misbegotten paternalism of the past century-and-a-half has brought great misery to a great many.
The reservation system, which really began in 1824, is not just pathetically antiquated and broken.
The reservation system is trash.
He had a tendency to brood. His name was Lucien Myers. He was eighteen in years but closer to thirty in experience.
He emerged from his beat-up blue Mustang in the gray morning light and felt this old tendency wash over him. He’d grown up in Cheyenne, on the wrong side of the tracks, and that is where he still lived. He had an older sister named Natalie, who’d gotten married at seventeen. His father worked in the oil-fields. His mother was a short-order cook.
He was a fighter — first, out of necessity, when he was very young, and later for the thrill. He fought like a hellhound, like something wild, like one from another world, and he was quick. He’d come to running when he was in fifth grade, because he had doglike endurance and already a taste then for pushing himself to blinding levels of exhaustion, and he became at that young age something of a local legend.
He caught his reflection now in the relucent glass of his car window and pushed his fingers through his flaxen hair. He was lightly freckled, lean but strong, vaguely handsome, a long lightning-bolt scar that ran across the right-hand side of his face, from cheekbone to jaw. The desert sky hulked up behind him.
I can do it, he thought, and he believed it. Still, an explosion of nerves boomed throughout his entire body the moment he considered it.
He felt himself at unpredictable times — and now was one such — walloped with a sense of something like cosmic despair: something that seemed gigantic and irrevocable and, in a way he could never quite codify in his own mind, closely connected with death. He felt also that he must forever fight against it, despite the fact that it was a battle which could never be won because death could not ultimately be beaten.
Brooding over it, he recalled now his first fist-fight, when he was in second grade, slugging away blindly at a boy named Bobby, who was three years his senior, and who would become his great nemesis — forever linked in his mind with his childhood. They were on the playground, playing baseball. It was late summer. Lucien had slid safely into second base, but Bobby, the other team’s captain, called him out. Lucien protested, and stood up to him.
In his mind’s eye now, he saw the circle of boys gathered around them, howling demonically, and he saw himself pounded down by the older boy, hammered into exhaustion and defeat. Yet he’d not run away or backed down, and he felt himself strengthened by the memory of that. He’d even somehow got in a solid left that day, a wild haymaker that had nonetheless hit its mark and blackened Bobby’s eye — Bobby, who was a fighting fiend and never showed anyone any mercy.
The memories surged.
Lucien closed his eyes and watched the interminable series of fights that followed — fights with Bobby over the course of the next several years:
Six months after the first fight, Bobby had whipped him again. But Lucien got in more than a few solid punches that time.
Next it was at the bus stop. He was nine-years-old now. Bobby, aged twelve, had for no reason picked another fight with him. The bus came before the fight was finished, and though Lucien was losing, he’d bloodied Bobby’s nose, and it was more evenly matched than ever before.
“I’ll kick your ass tomorrow,” Bobby said.
Lucien, bleeding and shaking in both fear and also rage, heard himself agree to meet Bobby the next day to finish what they’d started.
The next day came.
A crowd of boys had gathered. Then the fight was on — and on and on it went: forty-five minutes without surcease, Bobby getting the better of him again but not by much. A teacher broke it up.
They fought again the next day, Lucian horribly bruised and sore from the fight the day before, but back for more. He limped from soreness. His facial cuts stung and both his lips were gigantically fattened. His forearms were terribly tender from warding off blow after blow, and he felt lightheaded and dazed.
These fights went on for weeks. He could no longer concentrate at school. He couldn’t play sports. He couldn’t eat. It seemed an eternal span of brawling that stretched away behind him and loomed endlessly into the future.
Sick in body and spirit, Lucian forced himself every day to confront his eternal foe, who was growing just as brutalized and sick as Lucien. But neither now would be the one to call it quits, though once, in the middle of a fight some two weeks after it had begun, Bobby, panting, bleeding, black-eyed, halfheartedly offered up a truce. Lucien felt as though he’d been shot out of canon when he heard those words. He was reeling and in pain, his upper lip split down the center, but he spit out a mouthful of blood and teeth and came at Bobby yelling that he’d never quit — never — and that if Bobby wanted to quit like a quitter, then goddamn him to hell!
And so the fight went on: the next day and the next day and the next, Lucien coming to loathe and dread the feral rage in Bobby’s eyes. Yet he would never give in, never allow himself to now after it had come to this, after it had come this far, to give in and rest: sweet, sweet rest.
He vowed he would never let himself relax until he pummeled Bobby into total submission. To quit was inconceivable — and so he punched on, doggedly, through the pain and exhaustion and beyond.
At last there came a day when the trading of blows took an even more ghastly turn, and Lucien’s cheek was ripped open from something more than knuckle-and-flesh: Bobby had put a blade-like ring on his middle finger and when he connected, it opened Lucien’s cheek to the teeth.
In a moment, Lucien was saturated in his own blood, but he was also more enraged than he’d ever been, for there had always existed a tacit understanding between them that no weapons would be used, and there would be no below-the-belt hitting and no punching when one was down.
Lucien in a spray of his blood came at Bobby like a beast uncaged, roaring and swinging with such ferocity and strength that Bobby, drained to the last of his energy, was taken completely aback, and Lucien beat Bobby down onto his knees and then down deeper into the mud. He swung and kicked and then snapped Bobby’s arm and broke his own knuckles punching him, battering Bobby into a gibbering slab of meat, and though his speed slowed with each swing now as his vitality oozed out of him after all the days and weeks of fighting and fatigue, he would not stop hammering until the others boys pulled him off, and Lucien stood drenched in blood and panting over Bobby and saying in a voice he did not recognize:
“More, you son-of-a-bitch!? Do you want more!?”
You won then and you can win now, he thought — and trotted a quarter-mile to race, at last, against the runner from Albuquerque who that year was the only high-schooler in the country to run the mile faster than Lucien, and whom he had never met.
Neither of them could have predicted what was about to happen.
It was a Western States track-and-field tournament, and all competitors in every event had perforce met rigorous qualifying standards. The mile began at 3:00 in the afternoon. Jonas Hayat, from Albuquerque, was the favorite, but there were others — foremost of whom was Lucien Meyers, of Cheyenne, Wyoming. The two had never raced each other. A great deal of excitement and speculation surrounded the contest.
It was a pristine and windless day. The desert sun slipped behind a steaming pile of clouds. The milers gathered at the start. A palpable air of anticipation and suspense hung over the stadium. The rubbery track was the color of candied yams, with glowing-white lane lines.
The runners were lean and loose and lightly clad, and when the starting pistol popped and the race began, Lucien immediately surged into the lead, with Jonas right on his heels. Coming down the backstretch and into the second turn, these two had distanced themselves fifteen meters from the tightly clustered pack of runners behind.
After the first lap, Jonas surged and went into the lead, but Lucien, strong and ferocious-looking, glowering in concentration, was right behind with no sign of tiring.
Then something totally unexpected occurred:
While Lucien hung right behind Jonas — almost, it seemed, biding his time to strike — and while Jonas thundered down the backstretch, both men long-legged and lithe and extraordinarily fit, a runner from the clustered pack behind, one who was not in an official uniform nor nearly in as good of physical condition, one who’d been hidden deep within the pack, broke away and shot forward suddenly, coming from behind in a fantastic surge of energy to within striking distance of Lucien and Jonas.
He had wiry arms and long wild hair that was as black as ink. He wore a loose tank-top patterned with stars and stripes. It was Kristy Reed.
Jonas and Lucien finished the second lap in 2:03, a scorching pace at this altitude, with Kristy one second behind them, sweating and panting.
Kristy then went out into the second lane and drew almost even with them. Both Jonas and Lucien sped up in unison, but Kristy hung on, ferociously.
It was then that race officials, alarmed and murmuring as if totally flummoxed over what to do about this outsider, this outlier, this interloper, realized that Kristy had not qualified and was not an official registrant. He was a bandit runner.
Thus, coming into the third lap, they sent people out onto the track after him, and Kristy sped up and went farther to his right, out into the fourth and fifth lanes, slightly ahead of Lucien and Jonas now, but ten feet removed. Lucien and Jonas were meanwhile running stride-for-stride, shoulder-to-shoulder. Then the pistol exploded announcing the final lap. It was a confused moment. There was much shouting, and it was all directed at Kristy Reed.
Lucien saw Kristy on the marge of his vision. He turned and realized what was happening. Only then did Jonas realize it too, and perhaps he even recognized Kristy from all those years ago.
It was Lucien, however, who yelled:
But he was not yelling at Kristy, as many had at first supposed. He was yelling at the swarm of race officials on the track.
“HEY!” Lucien shouted again. “Let him run that goddamned race!”
The race officials paid no attention whatsoever but continued their pursuit of Kristy Reed — who, coming around the first turn into that final lap, had dodged and sped up, moving in a way that was unorthodox and unexpected, farther outside and then darting and zigzagging back, more race officials swarming the track to catch him.
At that point, Lucien also did something completely unexpected:
He broke out into the far lane and forcefully elbowed away several race officials.
“Let him run the race!” Lucien yelled through his breath.
But by then, it was too late:
Kristy was off the track, through an opening in the fence, and out into the stadium parking lot, running away from the race officials who could not capture him.
Lucien swung back inside to match Jonas coming out of the backstretch into the final turn, but by then he’d given up too much ground against such a fast and fit competitor.
Lucien was unable to catch him.
Jonas won the race by a full two seconds: a 4:06 mile, at 2,000 feet elevation.
Rights cannot stop bullets or block club blows, but the person who beats you with a club or fires bullets into you without reason or justification is wrong precisely because of rights.
It is not an accident that wrong is the opposite of right in this context, as well.
Rights are a formal codification of human freedom.
Rights are discoveries, not inventions.
Rights are individual by definition — meaning: they can only apply to individuals.
There are no such things as committee rights, or group rights, or the rights of a tribe or a nation, and the term “human rights,” as the term “individual rights,” is pleonastic.
Rights formally systematize human freedom — which of course includes the freedom to trade.
Rights derive from three things: human individuation, human society, and the power of choice which gives rise to moral agency.
One proof of the validity of rights is found in the fact that the only alternative to acting by right is acting by permission. Whose permission?
Answering that question is where you’ll begin to glimpse the true nature of rights: if humans only act by permission, who gives permission to those whose permission the rest of us are acting under? And who gives permission to those above, and so on?
Answer: no one — because rights are inalienable in the literal sense: they are not granted, and they cannot be revoked or transferred.
In the final analysis, there’s only the right to your own life: all others — from liberty, to property, to the pursuit of happiness — are an extension of that one.
Rights have been under siege from the moment they were first brought into the light. Rights are in some measure vilified by everyone on every end of the political spectrum and everything in between.
Rights are demonized, anathematized, mischaracterized, and utterly misunderstood.
And yet the principle of rights has remained incredibly resilient and will continue to remain so — for one primary reason alone:
Rights are real and rights are true.
They will never be successfully nullified because they live and exist in the human faculty of rationality, which is our quiddity. That’s where rights reside. That’s where rights are rooted: in the human quiddity.
Freedom in its most fundamental form has only one meaning: it is the omission of force.
Freedom is the absence of compulsion.
It simply means that you are left alone.
It means that every individual, regardless of race, sex, sexual orientation, color, class, or creed, possesses the absolute right to her own life — and only her own life.
The thing that distinguishes the free person from the unfree person is voluntary action versus action that is compelled.
Freedom is one of those things that virtually everyone believes in — until everyone finds out what freedom actually means. And then almost no one believes in it.
The difficult thing for many people to accept about freedom is that it doesn’t actually guarantee much of anything.
It doesn’t guarantee success or happiness, or shelter, or a certain income, or food, or healthcare, or a level playing field or a level training field, or anything else that must ultimately derive from the production or labor of others.
Freedom means only that you are free to pursue these things and that if you achieve them, they are yours unalienably, which in turns means: they cannot be taken, transferred, revoked, or made alien.
Government, on the other hand — any government — is by definition an agency of force.
It is an agency that has full legal power over a given geographical area and which may with impunity initiate direct or indirect force upon the citizenry.
This is why government is inherently dangerous, and it’s why government should always be treated as dangerous:
It possesses the legal sanction to level force upon individual human beings.
The waitress watched him while he sat.
She recognized him and was increasingly curious: his wet black eyes, his ropy arms.
Something in him interested her uncommonly, but she couldn’t pinpoint precisely what it was. He had a look — something enigmatic behind his eyes, she thought. He was relaxed yet intense and thoughtful. No party boy, this. He was polite and pleasant but spoke only when spoken to.
He always had a book with him. She liked that. She was bookish herself.
He sat at the coffee counter now, the sun through the window coppering his face, his right arm. His skin was sun-baked and so dark — the color of his black coffee. He stared through the plate glass. In the middle distance, a pair of dust devils wobbled across the desert floor and spun themselves out. He watched them. A triangle of cherry in the glass pie case sat bleeding upon its tin. The coffee tasted faintly of chicory.
She refilled his cup and he said thank you. The sound of the pouring coffee made a soothing plash. Her eyes were striking and gray, her brown hair pulled back into a pretty ponytail. He liked the way she moved, the way she worked. There was lightness and happiness in the motions of her body.
“You’re always reading,” she said.
He smiled. His teeth were snaggled but very white.
“Have I seen you running?” she said.
“It’s possible. Are you a runner?”
“Are you crazy? No.”
“If you don’t run, you can’t win.”
“Is that why you run?”
He didn’t reply.
For a full thirty seconds, neither spoke.
“I feel free when I run,” he said. His eyes were averted when he spoke these words, and only after he was finished did he look up at her. They regarded each other in silence for several beats.
“Do you remember me?” she said.
“Why do you think I’m here?”
Her name was Kelly. She was twenty-years-old, and she was the girl he’d seen over a year before in the classroom, who had shown him the book.
Some twenty days after this meeting in the diner, he visited her at her home, when she was sick with a high fever, and the lights of the city hung in a rippled haze beyond her window. She lived in a bare spacious flat far west of town, in a subdivision along the fringes of the desert. She lay upon her back on a wide black futon on the floor. Her slender white fingers looked flowerlike across the dark-blue sheets. He brought her a bottle of icy-cold water.
“I would say that I’m surprised to see you,” she said, “except for some reason I’m not surprised to see you. I think I half expected it.”
“They told me you were sick,” he said.
She lolled her head on the pillow and looked at him from under heavy eyelids. He did not speak but regarded her frankly.
“I think I was hoping you’d come,” she said.
“Is there anything I can do for you?”
They were both silent, and in the silence a big generator throbbed stupidly outside.
She apologized for the noise and told him she was unable to sleep because of this noise, because city road-crews were tearing up the entire street right out front and rebuilding it. She said that even though they stopped working at 5:00pm, they left their klieg lights on all night long, for some reason, and the generator too, and she said that it was very loud and bright and that the lights and the noise kept her awake, even though she had heavy black drapes. She said she’d even called the city and complained about it, and they told her there was nothing that could be done, that that’s just the way it was.
“You can’t fight the city hall,” she said.
“What is that?” he said.
“Just an expression.”
He looked contemplative. She was in this moment struck by his sprawling and haphazard education, which in the past two weeks she’d come to know: she found endearing the gaps in his knowledge but also the depths, which stemmed from his upbringing, his autodidacticism, his singleminded decision to take upon himself the task of his own education.
“I think it means you can’t fight bureaucracy,” she explained, “because there’s no one human there.”
“Have you tried?”
He looked thoughtful again, deeply thoughtful, his eyes narrowed as thin as saber slashes.
“I suggest earplugs,” he said. “For the noise,” he added, “not the city hall.”
He smiled, and she weakly laughed and said:
“Don’t make me laugh: it hurts my head. I’ve tried earplugs. They don’t really help. I’m resigned to the noise. Besides, I can hear my heartbeat when I wear earplugs, and I don’t like that. It reminds me too much of my own mortality, and that definitely keeps me awake.”
But that night, the lights and the big generator indeed went simultaneously silent and black.
That next morning, the foreman found the generator disconnected — no small job since the generator was fenced-off and secured. He asked the nightwatchman about it. The nightwatchman said he’d witnessed nothing, and so that next night the foreman stationed himself, with a large thermos of coffee, in a hidden alcove very near the high fence that enclosed the generator.
Near midnight he saw a hooded figure sweep through the darkness, leaping lightly over the fence and shutting off the generator by removing the wires and the boot from the spark plugs and thereby instantly abolishing the lights and the noise. This figure then hopped back over the fence and ghosted away into the darkness.
It happened so rapidly that the foreman scarcely had time to react.
The next night, he was better prepared: He had men with him.
Thus when the figure came, they were all three waiting in the dark, and when the figure got inside the fence, the men sprung.
But it was almost as if the figure expected them: he vaulted like a puma over the other side of the fence, and he bound off into the darkness.
The men gave chase.
“Halt!” the foreman yelled. “STOP! This is government property. You are trespassing.”
The figure did not stop but kept running: a hooded blur in the darkness.
The men followed after him at top speed.
The figure did not know that a high cement wall awaited him.
But the men knew.
When the figure came to the wall, he hesitated for just a fraction of a second, but he didn’t stop running. There was a slight hitch in his step, and that was all.
He leapt with all his might and ran two steps up the concrete facade which stood glowing brightly under an apricot klieg and then one more shorter step before leaping again — a wild effort in which he reached for the top of the wall.
He caught it.
Just barely, but he held on with his left hand and hung there for a split second. Then he swung his other arm around and grabbed hold of the top of the wall with his fingertips and started to pull himself up — until one of the men below, who was agile and strong, ran the wall as well and leapt and grabbed hold of the hem of the hooded jacket, striving to pull the figure down, momentarily stopping the figure from climbing over. No sooner had he grabbed hold of the jacket-hem, however, than the figure slipped out of it, leaving the man empty-handed and back on the ground, but exposing the figure’s face as he did so.
It was Kristy Reed.
All three men saw him in the light.
Kristy slipped up and over the wall and dropped down and then vanished into the night.
Four days later, on a Friday afternoon, when Kristy learned that a nameless boy had been caught and jailed for trespassing on government property and shutting off the generator, he went down to the police station and turned himself in. A little later that same day, the foreman and his two men definitively identified Kristy as the person they’d chased and who had evaded them.
He was arraigned three days after that, on Monday, and brought before the judge. The courtroom was spacious and mostly empty. Along the righthand side of the room, a screenless window stood open to receive the desert breeze.
When the judge asked him why he’d done it, he said because he cared for the young woman, who was his friend, and who was ill and unable to sleep for the lights and the loud noise. He said a second time that he cared about her.
“Did you know you were trespassing?” the judge asked.
The judge looked at the papers before him.
“It is my understanding also that you’re a runaway who’s been arrested at least once for truancy, and that you’re not yet eighteen-years-old — not until next month.”
“Yes, that is correct.”
“How do you plead?”
The judge looked at him. Kristy spoke:
“There is deep legal precedent, judge, going back to at least 1786, for escaping and running away with impunity, even from police or other government personnel, when matters of personal safety, injury, and security are at issue.” Kristy paused. “Judge, in a land of freedom, life is worth living because in such a land, under such circumstances, life is full of promise, and it teems with potential. I was born in no such place. I was brought up in no such place. I was brought up in a place where we are not allowed to own the fruits of our labor, which is property, which is an extension of person. In running, I sought to come into such a place. Frederick Douglass said ‘Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails and any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob, and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.’ That is what I come from, judge.”
The judge cast Kristy a long, steady stare.
“You may say that at your trial,” the judge said. “Your bail is set at twenty-thousand.” He hammered the gavel.
The bailiff then came to lead Kristy Reed away, back to the jail cell. He reached over gently for Kristy’s arm, but Kristy slipped lightly out of his reach, and in a liquid-like manner, he went for the open window. He jumped out.
The police chased him, but they did not catch him.
They pursued him down the alleys and the backstreets and the neighborhood lanes, and they pursued him down the labyrinthian ways — and they lost him. They put out an all-points-bulletin, but he was not found.
Quickly, Kristy gathered up his belongings and the money he’d saved, and then he called Kelly from a payphone and asked her if she’d drive him to the mountains, and she said yes.
He gave her money for gasoline and for her troubles. She drove him six hours into a small mining town in eastern Nevada, near the Utah border. During the drive he told her what had happened. She listened intently but did not speak. A green-colored half moon hung low in the sky, the horizon beneath it a band of xanthic light which glowed like something prehistoric.
They drove in silence for a long time, and then Kristy said something to her that she thought very strange and poignant, something which she’d think a lot about, and which she’d never forget:
“Work,” he said, “what you do, the movements of your body guided by your brain — that is the meaning of life.”
She looked at him quizzically.
He told her that there’s nothing more important in life than how you work — whatever that work may be. The motions and movement of your body, he said, as dictated by your brain. He said that whatever else you are and whatever else you become, it develops from that. He said that nothing more fundamental than work is required for the production of wealth and the life you want for yourself, and that no matter what moral code anyone tries to force upon you, whether secular or non-secular, whether centered around God, government, or Gaia, the final measure of value is in the work. He told her that everything else you’ll hear is a swindle, and that competence is the only ethical code you’ll ever need — that anyone will ever need.
She listened closely but did not reply to any of this.
A long silence ensued.
“In the sacred house of the human spirit, each of us dwells alone,” he said.
“Where did you hear that?” she said.
“Something I once read, long ago.”
“Is it true?”
“Yes, it is.”
She glanced over at him but said nothing, and after that they rode in silence the rest of the way, down the long lonely road, the moon above like a giant squeeze of lime among stars winking with a cold and icy light. At last they came to the outskirts of a town she’d never been to, and he got out of her car and stared at her through the open window but did not speak. Then he said goodbye.
You disparage wealth who have never known poverty. You disparage cleanliness and health from a tower of health and cleanliness. Let me tell you something:
Poverty which is neither sin nor vice is also neither noble nor good.
Poverty is hardship.
Poverty is sickness.
Poverty is misery.
Poverty is death.
The words well, weal, and wealth are etymologically related.
Wealth, in a fundamental sense, is that which humans need to survive and prosper.
Wealth is agriculture. It is clothing. It is carpentry. It is masonry. It is mining. It is fishing. It is transportation. It is technology. It is art, banking, finance, accounting, service industry. It is everything humans need in order to flourish.
Wealth is created. Resources are created.
Wealth is a not a finite pool from which we draw and which will one day dry up. It is the opposite:
Like intelligence — and for the exact same reason — neither wealth nor resources are finite or static but developed. They are limitless, just as the human capacity for producing them is limitless.
For all of human history, oil was not a resource, until recently, in the late 1800’s, when human ingenuity created the resource, created this wealth.
New wealth awaits. It always awaits. New resources await.
The source of human progress is human ability, which means above all intellectual ability, and then the physical counterpart of carrying that through.
This process is work.
Liberating human beings — unshackling the brain and the body by allowing humans to innovate and invent and grow and produce and become limitlessly wealthy — this is how you enrich all of society. This is how wealth is created.
It is not trickle-down.
It’s a never-ending deluge, an explosion, an interminable torrent of creativity and wealth.
New wealth arises when someone discovers a new method by means of which humans might better prosper. It is in this sense — the literal sense — that wealth is inexhaustible: because the human mind is inexhaustible.
Wealth brings progress.
Wealth brings health. Wealth brings cleanliness: clean food and clean water.
Wealth brings homes that are warm in winter and cool in summer.
Wealth brings better methods of travel, more security, more comfort, more peace of mind, greater happiness.
And what brings wealth?
Production brings wealth.
What is production?
Production is work. It is labor — and nothing more fundamental than labor is required for the production of wealth.
What brings this about? What creates production? The answer will surprise you:
Private property, which includes money, which is only a medium.
This and this alone is ultimately what creates production which creates wealth, which creates health and food and shelter and clean water and comfort and better human life.
The abundance that you’ve always had and that you take for granted — the abundance you enjoy that many of you want to deprive others of — it was created by the freedom to act and work and the right to own and enjoy the fruits of your acts and your work.
That is private property. It is as much the right to an act as it is to a thing.
Property is an extension of person — we each have a property in our person — and you cannot in any meaningful sense be said to have the right to your own life but not your own property. That is a contradiction in terms.
Property is freedom.
Property is privacy.
Control the property, control the person.
The only alternative to private property is government or communal ownership of property, both of which amount to the same thing in the end: an elite bureau determining for the rest of us what we can do with our actions and the things our actions produce.
I come from exactly such a place. It is a nightmare.
We’re told that no matter how poor we are, we’ll become rich if we but give. Give freely, we’re told, give gladly. Yes, if you choose. But before you can give, you must first have something to give.
Production comes before giving.
And what comes before producing?
The freedom to produce.
Why are some countries so much poorer than others?
The Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto on property and capital, wealth and poverty:
“Many of the poorest countries in the world possess enormous amounts of capital, but their ownership is insecure because of faulty or nonexistent property law or property rights protection. The value of private savings in the ‘poor’ countries of the world is forty times the amount of foreign aid they have received since 1945. [The citizens of poorer countries] hold these resources in defective forms: houses built on land whose ownership rights are not adequately recorded, unincorporated businesses with undefined liability, industries located where financiers and investors cannot see them. Because the rights to these possessions are not adequately documented, these assets cannot readily be turned into capital, cannot be traded outside of narrow local circles, cannot be used as collateral.”
This is why poverty runs rampant.
The greatest environmental degradation and disasters have occurred under regimes with the greatest government control.
True freedom promotes healthy clean environments because true freedom promotes private stewardship and taking care of what’s yours, which among other things increases value.
True laissez faire promotes conservation because it seeks innovation and invention which fosters gain at the lowest expense, which is why developed countries went from using, for instance, expensive copper to less expensive silicon to even less expensive satellite signals and so on.
Freedom promotes better environments because it promotes constant pursuit of more efficient technology.
You hear endlessly about conditions during the industrial revolution, but you never hear how much worse the conditions were before industrialization. You never hear how nobody forced people, including children, off the farms and into the factories — because they went willingly, because it was a far better alternative to working all day and night on the farms and still starving to death. Or selling your teeth. Or selling yourself or your children into prostitution or even sex slavery.
The new inventions and technologies that freedom fosters have lifted us in less than a hundred years to the state-of-the-art place we find ourselves today — and it’s just the beginning. It will only keep going — provided humans are left free and the right to person and property are held sacrosanct.
As long as a society remains poor, the means of dealing with societal issues and externalities, like pollution, necessarily remains poor.
Which is why freer, wealthier countries are cleaner by far than poverty-stricken, statist regimes.
When will the monstrous ideology that’s been exalted to the status of God and religion among universities and humans the wide world over — right, left, or middle — when will this ideology be held accountable at last for creating so much misery, so much poverty, so much destruction and death? The ideology that says it’s virtuous to force people to live for one another — through taxation, through the gulag, through the whip, through whatever means necessary?
Because, I promise you, it is an ideology as dangerous and as dogmatic as any religion — and for identical reasons: they’re both predicated upon a policy of pure, unadulterated blind belief.
He got a job prep-cooking in the kitchen of a hotel-and-casino. It did not pay much, but they provided him a small private room as part of the compensation, and shortly after he’d settled in, he began running again in earnest. He was eighteen. Soon he started running twice a day. He awoke in the morning and drank coffee and then went for a long slow run and then he ran again in the early evening. Sometimes he would run a third time, late a night.
On Sundays, he went to the high-school track, a crumbling and faded asphalt oval with tall weeds growing through the cracks, and here he ran quarter-mile intervals, with a sixty second rest in between each. His first two times, he almost keeled over from sheer sickness and exhaustion, so unaccustomed was he to such rigorous speed-play.
But it wasn’t long before he was back and then beyond — faster and more fit than he’d ever been: running near-sixty-second quarter miles, over and over.
On Thursdays, he went outside of town, to a rolling dirt road that stretched seemingly forever. On this road, he’d run one minute at top speed, jog one minute; two minutes at top speed, jog two minutes; three minutes at top speed, jog three minutes; four minutes at top speed, jog four minutes; five minutes at top speed, jog five minutes.
After five, he’d turn around and run back toward town, doing the workout in reverse order: five, four, three, two, one. These workouts stunned him nearly senseless him with exhaustion, so that afterward he was often too tired to even eat.
He ran the high-desert roads of powdery dirt, under skies so leaden and gray. Skies discharging spates of clean-smelling rain.
He did pushups in his hotel room until his arms shook, fingertip pull-ups off his doorjambs.
One night at around 9:00pm, he called up his former coach from junior high, the stocky white man from Utah. The phone rang a long time before the man picked up:
“Hello. This is Kristy Reed.”
There was a long pause on the other end.
“Are you okay?”
“Yes. Can you get me in this race?”
Kristy didn’t answer.
“The Miracle Mile?” said the coach.
“I didn’t ask that.”
“Are you in good enough shape?” said the coach.
“No. But I will be.”
Toward the close of day some nine weeks later, on a pink-and-blue evening when he had the next two days off, Kristy ran thirty-five miles into the very remote mountains of eastern Nevada — a small pack on his back and nothing else. Here, at the foot of elephantine hills, he slept. The weather was mild. He slept under skies swarming with stars, and he slept long and deep. When he woke, it was late morning. He rose and drank water. He left his pack half-hidden in the high grass and went running in the mountains.
Coming into the woods, a mysterious young man appeared.
This young man had pale skin and wheat-light hair. It was warm and the young man was shirtless. He was also astonishingly lean and muscular. Like Kristy, he had long wormy scars along his back.
He smiled and said hello. He fell in with Kristy and began running beside him. Kristy did not say anything.
“I’ll race you,” the young man said after a while.
Still, Kristy did not respond. He pushed himself ahead so that the man was now a few feet behind him. They came into a series of switchbacks. The way grew excessively steep and difficult.
Suddenly the young man went around Kristy and into the lead. Singlefile, they churned up the inclines. The young man seemed not to sweat.
They ran among ulex and ilex and stunted spruce. Then the flora gave way to granite walls and a flour-like dirt the color of bricks. The sun bounced heavily off the rock. From below, the two men looked liked insects scaling the verticalities. To the south was a ring of stone bluffs, like a cirque.
The switchbacks kept coming. Kristy fixed his eyes on the small of the man’s scarred back. There was no fat there whatsoever, and Kristy could see each striation of each individual muscle squirming beneath the skin. The blue sky brooded above.
Just over two miles up, the switchbacks ended, and the way grew steeper. The trail went relatively straight from here to the top of the mountain. Kristy increased his speed and went around the man, on his left.
At which point, he was walloped by exhaustion.
He looked up.
The summit loomed high above, unimaginably remote.
He could hear the crush of the man’s footsteps right behind him.
He ran on.
He did so by fixing his eyes on a point fifty meters ahead and then telling himself:
Make it to just that point, fifty meters, and then perhaps you can stop running.
Then, after that fifty meter block, he would repeat this process — one foot in front of the other, continuously.
Two thousand meters before the summit, he really thought that it had come down to this alternative: he must quit running or he would die from exhaustion. He felt that these were his only two options now. His breathing had become so labored that his lungs felt as if they’d been scorched out with bleach. Still, the thud of the young man’s footfalls banged loudly behind him, striking Kristy’s ears with inordinate clarity.
He glanced over his shoulder. The man was right there and he was staring straight at him — staring in an oddly serious way.
The man looked so muscular and lean, so capable, that he all at once took on the aspect of an alien organism without any skin or tissue: something bred down to pure bone and blood and sinew — not a robot of titanium and tungsten but an organic thing that would nonetheless rip apart thick slabs of solid steel.
Kristy looked back up. The crenelated summit floated there, less than a mile away now but with the steepest section still to come: the final ascent. The vertical rock had no ending. Against the glassy heavens, the sun resounded like brass in a sea of bottomless blue.
The summit seemed simultaneously to recede.
Off to the right and slightly below, the last trees reared up like scarecrows against the sky.
Kristy noticed, then, that the steps behind him were not quite so audible.
He glanced over both shoulders. He could not see the man on either side.
He felt a jolt of adrenaline slosh like nitroglycerin through his veins.
He kept listening. He could no longer hear footsteps at all, but just then he thought he heard a voice behind him in the distance:
“Resist to blood the desire to stop and that act of enduring will yield up something far greater than if you’d not exercised thereby.”
He shook his head. His sweat flew. Was he hallucinating aurally?
He did not know.
The way grew steeper. Kristy climbed alone now higher into the mountains.
At thirteen thousand feet, his exhaustion wiped out his sonic sense entirely so that he no longer heard any sound whatsoever, including his own footfalls, or his own breath. He was reeling with vertigo. His nose bled steadily, although he didn’t know that. His vision had gone dangerously tunnel. Wherever he looked, he saw a greenish fuzz like a bloom of mold all around the edges of his sight.
In this condition and still running, but only just, he came stumbling into the final ascent. The trail leading up to the mountaintop flattened for approximately seventy meters, during which time he managed to breathe a little easier. It was short-lived. The headwall rose up in front of him like the snout of a mythical beast.
He mounted it.
The trail went away, the final six hundred meters a field of slick talus, the land barren and black.
No trees grew this high up, no flora of any kind. The cornflower sky hung immediately before him now, and in his state of dizziness and disorientation, he considered the possibility that he might fall into that ocean of blue — that he might fall in and drown.
He was running, running, but barely so, one oozy foot in front of the other.
Tiny ptarmigan with feathered feet veered through the rarified air, watching after him, he suddenly thought, piloting him. Ten feet now took on astronomical proportions. Blood ran freely from his nose. His hair hung lathered and ropey.
Halfway up the headwall, he stumbled. The mountain, however, was so steep that he fell only a short distance, down onto one knee — and for that brief moment, in his frenzied state of exhaustion, he thought he would just stay there.
That’s when he heard the footsteps coming up behind him again:
Thump, thump, thump, thump….
His body went numb. He dared not look back. He rose to his feet instantly and wobbled on.
“You’ve not yet resisted unto blood,” the voice said behind him.
The footsteps grew louder.
Kristy stared at the black ground passing beneath him. He felt himself stumble once again, but this time he didn’t fall. He lifted his eyes. Fields of scree bordered the sky — and there stood the isolated stone summit, silently releasing heat into the air. Kristy was hee-hawing for breath. Still the footsteps grew louder. Still the sun burned down. He could feel the man gaining on him by the second, ready to overtake him at any moment.
“Do you understand yet?” The man’s voice sounded like a whisper in his ear.
Kristy jerked his head to the right, but he didn’t see anyone.
“Do you know what it means to bring your body under the subjection of your brain?”
Kristy was forty meters from the top. He surged with the last of what he had. His legs were fire and ice.
The footsteps behind matched his surge.
Thirty meters to go, now twenty, now ten. Still the footsteps came louder. With five meters left, he lunged for the mountaintop — and made it to the summit first.
He immediately swung around.
All he saw was open space: wind susurrating in the treetops far below.
The man was nowhere.
Kristy stood panting and gazing. He was bleeding. He was starved for oxygen. The sky hung right before him, throbbing like a thing alive. Sweat leaked out of his every pore and puddled on the stony ground. He scanned the landscape below. No one was coming up the hill. He turned a slow 360 degrees.
In every direction, there was nothing but mountains, vast ranges of purple peaks stretching away into the rim of the wooly world. In one valley far below, a kidney-shaped lake, white with sunlight, lay glowing as if the light were sourced within the water.
“Hello!” he yelled. His voice was swept away in the wind.
He swayed from dizziness. His nose bled more, and only now did he realize that it was bleeding at all. He took off his stars-and-stripes shirt and pressed it against his face. He started to tilt his head back, but vertigo bashed him like a blow from a baseball bat.
He understood at this time that he was not in his right mind, but he didn’t understand the extent to which. In a sudorific daze, he sat on the rocks.
The air around was absolutely pure. After a moment, he lay down on his back. The sunlight crashed mutely around him, shattering the vitreous air.
At length, his nose stopped bleeding, yet his fatigue was so great that each time he blinked, he felt it more and more difficult to open his eyes.
Sprawled on his back under the meat-eating sun, the sky pressing like a water-sack against his face, Kristy began to shiver uncontrollably.
That’s when he knew he was in deep trouble.
He rose unsteadily from the rocks. The ground beneath him was made mostly of black basalt whose surface bore the scars of ancient lightning bolts, great gouges that scored the stones like hatchet marks. The wind blew dry. It poured into the cavities of his head. There were no clouds, and around the sun the sky shone like steel.
His shirt in his hand was drenched and clammy and smeared with his own blood. He tugged it on and stood for some time. His legs were rubber.
On rubber legs, he wobbled off the shadowless summit.
He slid upon his rear down the steep scree slope. Then he entered the relative cool of the evergreens. His breathing had calmed, but his lungs felt shredded and raw. He was mad with thirst and feverish and unsure of his way.
In the middle of the evergreen forest, he found the path he had run up—or so he thought. He began trotting again, down the path, the quicker to make it to the bottom. The sun thundered above him through the screening trees, long shafts of sunlight crisscrossing like laser-lights through the shadowy air.
One mile down, the trail forked. It was a fork he did not remember from the ascent. Both paths were steep. He stopped and gazed about him, searching for a point of reference. He could not find one. He looked behind. To the north, high above, he saw rising through the trees the windy cliffs of nowhere, where eagles made their nests, and below, dark conifers interspersed with the apple-green quakies, and a slow-churning river that went meandering away at the foot of the cliffs.
He chose the path on his left, which twisted down through slips of slate and buck brush, scrub oak and gorse, and he remembered none of this at all. Then the path faded away entirely.
He did not know where he was. The vegetation grew so inimical that he was soon forced to stop moving completely. He stood there. He looked behind him once more. Retracing his steps was out of the question — so steep was this mountain, so clouded his thoughts, so weary his legs and his body. The undergrowth he stood among had grown almost impenetrably thick, but now he began clawing his way through.
One hour later, lashed and stinging, he came into a lonely glade that was filled with soaring aspen trees and a curious, quaking light. Indigo shadows streamed over the ground. The glade was soft and cool and filled with a deep silence. He was dazed with thirst and hunger. He looked down at the thousand cuts on his legs and arms. His thick blue veins stood engorged on the back of his hands. They ran sinuously into the webbing of his fingers, like small azure streams. He walked deeper into the glade. Wind blew softly through the treetops. The aspen leaves shifted back and forth and made a gentle clack. A ghost of decay entered him through the nose.
Far off, a tide of light slanted down through a great cleft in the the clouds and poured long bars of light. He stood watching it for some time.
Across the way, at the far end of the glade, a crystal brook rattled over the rocks.
He went to it.
He knelt on the sandy banks of the water and touched his lips to the cold black surface. He drank deeply. Pins of light bounced off the bluish stones all along the streambed. The water lay cold and silken on his tongue, a taste of dark flora. It numbed the back of his throat. Mirrored on the surface of the water was the sky above, marbled with clouds, blue and white, like blue bacon. He knelt there for several minutes and watched the reflected sky tremble and dish, his face superimposed upon it like a nereid.
Out of the corner of his eye, he suddenly saw something move. He turned.
It was a tiny salamander crawling off the rocks and arrowing into the water. It was fish-colored and had a tail like a miniature whip. He watched it paddle away into the subsurface currents, and then he saw, deep down, the blurry wobble of baby leopard frog swimming up to the surface: little mountain amphibian with a bony back and muscular legs akimbo, spatulate feet churning away like small paddles. He half wondered if he were imagining things. Or dreaming.
Kristy rose from where he knelt and almost fell back down from faintheadedness.
He walked back into the forest glade. The cold water sloshed hugely in his stomach.
Under the towering quakies, beneath an enormous slab of stone which he dislodged with difficulty, he found a giant cluster of earthworms. They were purple and fat, with white saddles on their backs. They lay squirming in the moist cakey earth.
With both hands, he scooped as many as each hand could hold, and clutching them he went back to the brook, where he went elbow-deep, submerging the worms in the clean water. He rinsed them thoroughly. A stray here and there escaped his clutch and he watched them float like muscle-colored ribbons down the currents. The sun shone on the surface of the water in a diamond-shaped pattern. Kristy lifted the worms dripping from the stream, and then he began eating worms by the handful, pushing them into his mouth without squeamishness or pleasure, chewing and swallowing.
He ate more.
They were cold and viscous. He could taste the moist earth within them, the pure protein their palindromic bodies contained.
He went back into the aspen glade and got more. He found also a serried cluster of mushrooms he knew well. He plucked these mushrooms and went back to the water, with worms and mushrooms in his hands, and he ate both, fungus and raw living annelids. He ate to surfeit. Then he drank more water and went back into the shadows of the glade.
He lay down under the sweet-smelling, softly clacking aspen trees and fell asleep.
He slept for a long time, and in his sleep, he dreamt of a strange women with dark flowing hair and gray eyes, who came to him in white and spoke in a clean acoustical room of polished masonry, next to round pools of radium water that steamed with heat and gently purled. She spoke in a voice he recognized but couldn’t place. Her eyelashes were very long and black and beautiful. They blinked slowly, like the beat of great bird wings. She told him that the only things which can ruin your life are those things which ruin your character. She said that happiness was possible to him, as it was to all people born healthy, and that his happiness needed no further justification than this, because individual happiness was its own end and its own goal and its own soul.
When he opened his eyes, he found himself staring up at the pale sky between spangled aspen leaves — the oceanic sky draining into a reef of green.
How long had he slept?
He wasn’t sure. Over twenty-four hours?
He lay there for some time looking at the sky. By and by, he rose up stiffly from the ground and felt refreshed and strong.
He did not know where he was.
He went back to the little brook rattling in the wan crepuscular light, and he again drank deeply, and as the evening fell, he once more began to run.
He ran deep into the night. He ran for hours. He could see off to his right the bald apex of the peak he’d summited. It was draped in silken shawls of mist that glowed with a mineralized gleam cast down by the swarming stars.
In the dark, he passed through groves of dwarf oak and black juniper whose astringent odors cast him back to his childhood. He ran through.
The stars above burned so brightly that they drew long shadows from the mountainsides and penetrated the eerie caverns beneath the rocks. He watched the Big Dipper come cartwheeling up out of the east and then tumble through space. He ran on. Far ahead in the distance, he saw the flickering lights of the village. Then the mountains were behind him, their great hulking shapes silhouetted dimensionless and pitch-black against space. He was out on a high flat desert now, and he was running, running.
He ran toward Orion pinned gigantically upon the western sky, like thumbtacks marking off incomprehensible coordinates. Slightly to the east of Orion, to the east and a little below it, the Dog Star greenly flickered: brightest burning star in the nighttime heavens, mythical guardian at the gates of all that’s good and true.
He ran deep into the night under sagging skies, stars everywhere, stars and stars, stars falling all around him, long corridors of collapsing matter, as if the heavens themselves were dismantling, and he ran into the vast open country before him.
Hours later, in the predawn dark, he stumbled at last out onto a chalky road. The road ran vaporous in the twilight. He was shivering and sweating by turns. For the past hour, his legs had been cramping in fits-and-starts, and each time he reached to his hamstrings, he felt knots the size of ping-pong balls embedded in the muscle just beneath his skin. Mist swirled around his ankles. His lips were crazed with cracks. He continued trotting down the spectral road.
He came at length to a small river he knew. The water ran swiftly. He stopped running for the first time in hours and walked along the grassy riverbank. The blades were flecked with foam. The fog looked creamy in the morning light. He knelt before the water and dunked his head under. It took his breath away. He emerged dripping. The water was icy and green. He drank breathlessly for a long time. When he raised his head again, the water ran in rivulets down his chin and from the ends of his hair. He scrubbed his face. He drank more water. Then he stripped off his shirt and submerged it. The air around him smelled willowy and cool. Among the mossy banks, river doves unseen cooed with watery voices and green frogs gibbered from their muddy beds.
Kristy stood tottering.
He wrung his shirt and wiped his face with it and then pulled the shirt back on.
While he was standing there, he saw in the braided current downstream the surface of the creek suddenly turn pale. He stared wonderstruck at the whitening water. Then, slowly, he lifted his eyes and stood motionless, watching.
There, over the eastern mountains of the American west, a gibbous moon climbed into the morning sky, suffusing a small quadrant of the firmament with stripes of soft unearthly light, negating the morning stars one by one.
RESERVATION TRASH AND THE AMERICAN DREAM
The American Dream is a dream of aspiration. It is a story of striving. But it is more:
It is a dream of breaking away from the pack.
The American Dream is the freedom of each person, regardless of race, sex, sexual orientation, color, class or creed, free to pursue her or his own life — and only her or his own life.
America is flawed, like every country, and also like every country, America is guilty of great injustices, her soil soaked with the blood of many races.
The American Constitution is flawed — most fundamentally in its failure to make explicit the indispensable link between property and person, and to explicitly state that the inalienable right to your own life must entail the right to your own property, because you cannot be free to pursue your life and happiness if you’re not also free to the corollary of that: the right to use and dispose of your property as you and you alone see fit.
But for all her flaws, America is the only country in the history of the world to formally recognize the principle and the sanctity of individual rights, and that is what, in spite of everything, makes her great and unlike any other country that’s ever existed.
It is this principle that America went to Civil War over. It is this principle that won. And it is this principle — and this principle alone — which must always be turned to if justice and the good are the goal.
The American Dream is about worth and efficacy over privilege.
An actual privilege is a benefit bestowed by one in a position of authority — as in: it is a privilege for me to speak to you today. Or: thank you for the privilege, father, of not having to milk the cows today.
But now I’m told that if growing up, I haven’t been bullied and ridiculed, I am privileged — when in reality this is purely a question of tact and friendliness and good manners, and has nothing whatsoever to do with privilege. I’m told that if I haven’t been assaulted or raped, I am privileged — when in actuality this is purely a question of respect for rights. I’m told that if my mother and father fed me regularly, I’m privileged — when in reality this is not a question of privilege at all but of parenting.
People are not all born into identical circumstances, and it is not the role of government or anyone to attempt the impossible task of equalizing everyone, which would require continual and massive applications of force and expropriation, and which even then could never be fully achieved, though you may look at Pol Pot’s Cambodia as one of the nearest successes.
I was once beneficiary of large government privilege. This is a system wherein our money is granted to us by government benevolence, or not. It is a system where we’re not allowed to own our own property. And it is a system from which there’s no way out — unless you run away, into America, which I did.
But what if all of America were like the Indian Reservations?
Where would I run to then?
On the reservations, bureaucracy cannot be battled. City hall cannot be fought.
We’re allowed to use our property only when government grants us that privilege.
You’re part of the ninety-nine percent, you say. What of that? Your status isn’t fixed, and you are not stuck there. You’re free to work your way along the spectrum — as, indeed, most people do. You’re free to run clear to the top percent, in fact. Your motivation and your desire and your persistence primarily determine this. The spectrum is fluid, and you are mobile along the spectrum. For the first time in human history, the formal recognition and the advance of freedom made such mobility possible and also legally permissible. Under feudalism or any other statist regime, no such mobility exists at all. Under such regimes, your status and your class are fixed. In this way, America expunged the entire idea of class.
Please consider also that under a system of laissez faire, you are completely free to practice any form of government you want: buy your land and build your commune and set up your rules and live that way.
The opposite, however, is not true: virtually any other form of government strictly prohibits — under threat of fines, imprisonment, gulags, concentration camps, and death — its citizens from practicing true laissez faire, which is the full and inalienable right of action, use, and disposal.
That, in many ways, is all anyone ever need know.
Yes, we on the reservations are privileged, make no mistake. We are the epitome of privilege, in fact: because we do not exist by right.
We exist by government permission and privilege alone.
Halfway through the Miracle Mile, coming out of the second lap and into the third, Kristy Reed, who had started this race in the poorest lane, was now running dead last. In his sweat-soaked USA shirt, he trailed behind a cluster of runners at the front of which were third and fourth place.
Twenty-five feet in front of them, Lucien Myers of Cheyenne, Wyoming, and Jonas Hayat, of Albuquerque, New Mexico, were trading back-and-forth for first and second place. These two had come through their first lap in fifty-seven seconds and their second lap in fifty-nine. Both of them knew that the four-minute mile was truly within their grasp.
Kristy sucked hard at the hyaline air, his face aglow with perspiration, his hair dripping. The sky above was biblical, the sun as white as bone. He watched up ahead of him as Jonas went back into the lead.
And then it happened.
Down the backstretch of lap three, Kristy swung out wide and went deep into the third lane, well away from stray elbows and tangled feet, and in a detonation of energy and the life-force that he contained, a detonation that astounded every single onlooker, Kristy blew past the cluster of athletes at whose tail-end he’d been running.
He continued past the runner in fourth place and then ahead of the third-place runner. So that coming around the turn and into the homestretch of lap three, with only the final lap to go, Kristy was now just ahead of fourth and fifth place, some twenty feet behind Lucian and Jonas, who were both surging too, who’d finished the third lap in fifty-eight seconds, the four-minute mile looming ever before them, closer for both than at any point yet in their lives.
The crowd went momentarily silent — stunned at the sudden burst of energy and passion in the wild-looking Navajo boy. But had he waited too long?
All at once, then, the stunned silence of the crowd erupted in mayhem and a unisonic roar. Every person rose up.
The cluster of runners behind Kristy, spurred on briefly by his burst of speed, increased the pace behind him, so that for a time he ran at the head of a tightened pack.
On the final lap, coming into the first turn, the pistol pop still ringing in Jonas and Lucien’s ears, Lucien, fighter that he was, drew up dead even with the sleekly running Jonas. They came out of the first turn like two horses, their legs driving fluidly and muscular. Kristy knew that he must not wait any longer. He knew that his time was now, or it would never be.
So it was now, coming down the backstretch in the last lap of the Miracle Mile, that Kristy made his move.
He broke away from the pack.
He did not hear the thunderous eruption of the stadium crowd, their crazed and incredulous roar at what they were seeing.
He did not hear the driving crush of his own steps or the bloodbeat in his ears or the heave of his own breath.
His gaze was fixed straight ahead on the two men directly before him. His eyes shone with a look of concentration fierce enough to argue insanity. A thin rill of blood issued from his nose, and his USA shirt was saturated in his sweat and blood.
The leaders, meanwhile, were pouring it on faster, still shoulder-to-shoulder. They ran like tremendous machines, so pure and powerful, at the peak of physical condition, pulling away from everyone … except Kristy Reed.
Here he comes behind them.
He was running so fast. His flesh-and-blood legs churned in a way that made them look ghostly and floating. He believed it within him. His toes bleeding, his worn tennis shoes molded to his feet, he ran faster still. The hawk high above rode the thermals freely, looking down with its telescopic eyesight, shrieking beneath the meat-eating, life-giving, thunderously silent sun of America. The crowd dissolved in pure pandemonium. The roar swept out. Every person in the stadium, all the jumpers and vaulters and throwers on the infield, everyone stopped and watched in suspense, stupefaction.
Lucien and Jonas came into the final turn together, and at that point Kristy, just behind them, swung out far into the second lane. His heart was gigantic. It pounded gigantically in his chest.
He ran so fast. His heart was as big and as deep as the ocean.
He drew up even with Lucien and Jonas, and all three men came out of that final turn like a slingshot and into the last hundred meters of the race. They were gleaming with sweat, screeching for breath. Kristy’s windpipe felt seared. He ran in the third lane now. He summoned all the speed his body contained, his soul.
The stadium went berserk. They saw the passion in him. They felt it. Kristy drove himself into a higher gear still, and Lucien and Jonas, who ran with so much depth and so much beauty, could not match him. He was unstoppable. Kristy at last broke away from the entire pack and still he poured it on faster.
He crossed the finish line easily in first place — three minutes and fifty-five seconds — with a higher gear inside him yet, and still he did not stop running. He ran off the track, into the tunnels that lead out of the stadium and over the black industrial parking lot and into America, and then he ran across the roads that led him away — away in his blood-and-sweat-soaked USA shirt, and back into the wide-open country beyond.