“If the law is too mild, private vengeance comes in.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
No, I’m not entirely well, but a plaintive comment by a regular Gentle Reader that he was experiencing “Porretto withdrawal” has – temporarily, at least – restored enough of my energy and determination to write something substantial for him…and for you.
Writers of fiction tend to be a clannish breed. We talk mostly to one another, listen to what others of our kind have to say in preference to commentary from “outsiders,” and strive to seine information about social trends from the patterns we detect…in fiction. What we believe we discern from others’ stories often helps to determine what we’ll write thereafter. It’s been that way for me, at least.
But the information available that way can have another kind of value. It can point to what’s happening to attitudes in the larger society. After all, people buy the kind of fiction they do because it speaks to their personal needs. I’ve mentioned that before in discussions of heroes and heroism in fiction.
People need heroes. The explosion of superhero fiction speaks to that rather plainly. Moreover, they want their heroes to be the sort of people they can admire unreservedly. For that reason, the day of the “antihero hero” appears to be just about over.
But what do we mean by hero these days? Has it changed at all over the years? I’d say so. Time was, a hero could be morally flawed in small to moderate ways as long as he was good in the “big” ways: e.g., protecting innocents’ lives and opposing blatant injustices (as long as it was at little or no cost to him personally). The trend appears to be away from the “gray” hero and back toward the entirely “white” variety.
But that’s not all. Fictional heroism is moving toward the promotion of persons who perform “extra-judicial justice:” in less academic terms, vigilantes. That sort of hero is guided by his sense of right and wrong, and damn the “official” law and its enforcers if they disagree. Louis Redmond was like that. So was Andrew MacLachlan. And of course, obscure heroes such as Jack Reacher are like that, too.
But for a long time, heroes of that sort were disfavored. A hero had to “stay within the lines” to earn the plaudits of readers. I sense that that particular constraint has weakened considerably…and that the weakening speaks to a hunger, not specifically for heroes, but for justice.
Justice, to many eyes, is in short supply today. Miscreants have been getting away with outrages that prior generations of Americans would have deemed unthinkable – even impossible. If you’re a regular Gentle Reader of Liberty’s Torch, I’m sure you don’t need a long list of examples. Those outrages have fed the hunger to see justice done, to which contemporary fictional heroes are an answer.
You cannot have a coherent society in which a high degree of natural justice is not enforced and maintained. At best you’ll have the sort of bifurcated society that existed in the old Soviet Union: an “above-ground” layer sustained and kept peaceful in large measure by an “underground” layer that fills in the gaps; at worst you’ll have utter chaos in which nothing is safe. Cosa Nostras, Yakuzas, and Bratvas arise and prosper because they answer a demand. Sometimes, the demand is for justice.
I’m on this subject today because of an eBook I purchased back when the adventure of digital publishing was just gaining momentum: Carlos G. Cooper’s novel Corps Justice. I hope Mr. Cooper won’t object too strenuously to the following excerpt from that novel. Protagonist Cal Stokes is trying to explain the operating ethic of his company, Stokes Security Inc., to his friend Brian:
CAL: Are you really so naïve to think that the police can do anything they want? Come on, doc. You’ve seen the shitty things people do in this world.
BRIAN: I know. I guess I never really thought about it that much until now. It’s like the cops are handcuffed from doing their duty. Reminds me of those times in Iraq when the Rules of Engagement kept my Marines from killing bad guys.
CAL (nodding): Exactly. If they don’t do things by the book these good cops that don’t get paid squat could lose their jobs. The law’s made it to where police hesitate because they’re worried about getting in trouble.
BRIAN: Yeah. Last week I saw that some cop was getting sued by a guy who got shot while robbing a bank. The cop shot him AFTER the guy shot one of the tellers and refused to give up. It’s bullshit.
CAL: Yep. That’s where Corps Justice comes in.
BRIAN: Explain that.
CAL: Like I told you before, my Dad lived and breathed the Marine Corps way. It was my fault he got out of the Corps, but you could never take the Corps out of him. That, mixed with his moral sense of right and wrong, made him adopt his motto about Corps Justice.
BRIAN: So is this Corps Justice like a company credo or something?
CAL: Kind of. It’s more of an overarching guidance for SSI employees for when they encounter gray areas.
BRIAN: Is it written somewhere?
CAL: For obvious reasons we can’t publish it….
1. We will protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.
2. We will protect the weak and punish the wicked.
3. When the laws of this nation hinder the completion of these duties, our moral compass will guide us to see the mission through.
For reasons I hope are obvious, Stokes Security would have to be utterly sure that a candidate’s moral compass points true North before bringing him in.
Now, that’s fiction. There is no Stokes Security Inc., as far as I know. But my God, how well it’s sold! Carlos G. Cooper has tapped the Zeitgeist. People want to see natural justice: the defense of the vulnerable and the punishment of the criminal. That’s how justice has been understood since Hammurabi…but in recent years, “official” justice in America has been wildly at variance from the natural standard.
Fiction can mitigate certain appetites, but it cannot satisfy them completely. We buy fiction to be diverted and entertained, but we live in a real world in which we’ve lately seen many unpleasantly real departures from natural justice. There will be consequences. Indeed, there have already been some. Private parties have stepped up in an increasing number of situations. There will be more of them.
Of course, the mandarins of “official” justice are displeased by this. They seek to squelch it before it becomes an unquenchable fire. Attempts to prosecute effectuators of natural justice have been much in the news. Kyle Rittenhouse is only the best known.
It might be wild and erratic. It might be “rough;” it often is. And it might involve as effectuators persons who, in other circumstances, we’d be inclined to disapprove. But for as long as “official” justice falls short of the natural standard, it will survive and flourish. Fiction alone cannot slake the hunger.
Watch for it.