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William T Vollmann

The Promise Archive William T Vollmann Envisages A Magical Place Were Every Promise Of Every Leader Is Indelibly Engraved For All To See

Americans value business shrewdness, but abstract reasoning is despised as pontification, and memory is irrelevant. Perhaps we were always self-absorbed children, but a relatively weak and frequently benign federal government used to let us solve our own problems. By no means do I care to idealise America’s past. The chicanery, brute force and outright genocide to which the American Indians were subjected; black slavery; the Mexican war; the campaign in the Philippines; the internment of Japanese Americans; McCarthyism – these sadden me without surprising me. They are just manifestations of human nature. Pick any country – France, England, China, Russia. None behaved any better over the centuries. But what I do idealise, is the American Constitution. I believe in the right to privacy and to protection against unreasonable search and seizure. That is why I hate this president for his so-called Patriot Act. During the Clinton and Reagan administrations, asset confiscation had already become an addiction for the authorities, under the auspices of that odious “war on drugs”. The situation is now much worse. I believe in freedom of speech and of peaceful assembly. I loathe the president for fencing off protesters into semi-invisible “free speech zones”. I believe that only Congress ought to declare war, and that the matter should be put to a vote first. Deviation from this isn’t a new thing: Johnson did it at the beginning of the Vietnam War. But the current president has gone further, and that is why I would like to see him sitting in a cell in The Hague. I accept that as societies change, so must liberties and obligations. Although I support the

Second Amendment, and proudly own several handguns, I respect the good faith of people who argue that private ownership of firearms should be banned. Even the First Amendment’s freedom of speech provision may at times require alteration and limitation. What alarms me is the creep of authoritarianism over each and every amendment. Why is this so imperceptible? Because, as I said, we never learned to reason, and we failed to remember. So, I would like to see established, an archive of promises: a politician assures us something will happen, by a specific date, and with certain beneficial consequences. It is then incumbent on us to set benchmarks, so that means and ends can be measured. For instance: “Mr President, how will we know when your war in Iraq has been successful? Please be as specific as possible. Once you find a link between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda, will that be a victory? Or will Saddam’s demise suffice?” No doubt the answer would be: “We’ll have won when there’s democracy in Iraq. And I, your subtle genius of a president, define democracy. The cheque is in the mail and I won’t come in your mouth. Trust me.” But politicians also make assertions whose truth or falsity can subsequently be measured (e.g. global warming is not a problem). All these concrete

statements will be engraved on the walls of our archive. I imagine the place would have a similar ambience to a presidential library. The impression to be conveyed by its construction is that a leader’s promises will be permanently remembered for or against him. Pay ten dollars and come on in; we’ll buy eternity with your money. Beyond the gardens and the atrium, runs a great hall of marble in which the articles and amendments of the Constitution have been engraved. Below each, the visitor will find citations and summations of major court decisions, which will determine our interpretation of it. If space and the separation of church and state permit, certain non-sectarian fundamentals of human decency, such as The Golden Rule, will also be carved on our walls. Next, we enter a suite of informational chambers. Welcome to the torture display! Here is a map of the world, and posted upon the likeness of each country, is a history of specific allegations and rebuttals, together with their sources (Solzhenitsyn details methods used in the gulag; Brezhnev insists that there never has been and will never be any torture in the great USSR). Other rooms devote themselves to war, environmental degradation, gender inequality, street crime, police assaults on personal liberty. Now for the wing that gives meaning to the forgoing. Each

leader gets his own room. What does President Harding stand for? What has he actually done? Currently, we remember his administration for its scandals. But were they all scandals? Read the walls and you will find facts and vows, all engraved in stone! What did President Jefferson promise the Indians? Under whose administration were which oaths broken? It’s all over the wall. Every time we get a new leader, we add a room. 200 years after he leaves power, we can re-panel it for someone else if we wish. Harding may be of small consequence in the 22nd century; Jefferson will still be relevant. Where will the computer monitors be? What of bubble memory and vapourware? There will be none; because promises and deeds are unchanging. A president gives his rationale for the war he launches, and that’s the yardstick. Our current president’s friends, the people who engrave the Ten Commandments in our courthouses, will surely praise the Americanism of this procedure. In Jefferson’s administration, the right of the federal government to build a road within the territory of a state was contestable. In the administration of the current oaf, the government neither questions its right to detain me nor apologises when it does. Wouldn’t it be beguiling to wander from room to room, to see how they got from there to here?

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