Monday, April 4, 2022

An Open Letter to the "Anarchist" Vandals of Wallace, Idaho

Wikimedia Commons.

Wallace, Idaho, is one of those blink-and-you'll-miss-it places. This tiny town, nestled in a valley between two mountain passes, was once billed the Silver Capital of the World, a boast that was not misplaced in its mining heyday. Today, Wallace and its surrounding communities rely mostly on tourism to survive. Wallace itself is filled with restaurants, hotels, and little artisan craft stores to attract road-weary travelers who may be looking to hop off I-90 for a break as they make their way to someplace else. It's a nice place to live. We've even had a few movies filmed here, including the 1997 action-adventure flick Dante's Peak

Wallace continues to thrive because of the ingenuity of its residents and a healthy sense of humor. Among the attractions you'll find here are an honest-to-goodness bordello museum -- prostitution existed in the open, in this town of lonely mining men, until the 1980s -- and a manhole cover proclaiming the spot of the Center of the Universe, mocking the EPA's declaration, upon setting up a Superfund site here, that it couldn't prove whether local pollution was due to mining or natural occurrences. Wallace's response? We're the center of the universe. Prove that we're not. 

That's the funny part. Here's the ingenious part: As Wallace faced the threat of destruction when the feds wanted to run the interstate through town, the locals fought back by placing the entire town on the National Register of Historic Places, forever putting major developments, for good or bad, off limits. The result is a charming, picturesque downtown frozen in time, and a viaduct that carries I-90 around, rather than through, town. 

Under that viaduct runs a paved bike trail where the railway used to be. Wallace also hosts a huge flea market under there in late summer.

Recently, though, some local kids who lack any of the evident smarts that characterize this quirky little town decided that the wall at the west end of the viaduct, along with the surrounding posts and pavement, was their mural to deface as they pleased. 

My family moved here from Seattle, and we don't miss its urban blight, among many other of the unpleasant things that come with living in a big city. Well, if anyone else missed the delights of vulgar inner-city graffiti, fear not: It's now made its way to rural North Idaho.

I find it telling that one of the mental giants who vandalized the viaduct signed his work with his name. Nearby is a painting of the letters WHS, short for Wallace High School, which sits right across the street from the scene of the crime.

In a town of 791 people (as of the 2020 census), there can't be that many teenage boys named Brian. I'm just saying that it couldn't possibly be that hard to track down the culprit, especially with Brian giving us a helping hand. And oh, did I mention that the county cops are headquartered here in Wallace, too?

In fact, the local presence of the police was perhaps the inspiration for this fine piece of BLM-aligned tagging in our 97%-white town:

If you're unfamiliar, ACAB means "All Cops Are Bastards."

Let me pause for a minute here and explain something to you vandalizing cretins: I don't like cops, either. I think most of them are decent guys just trying to keep their communities safe, and so far I've had nothing but positive experiences with the cops around here. However, the inherent problem with policing, as I see it, is that power too easily goes to people's heads, and I think way too many guys on power trips long to put on the badge just so they can legally exert authority -- often violent authority -- over the people. But whatever side you come down on, do you understand why the police exist? They exist because of people like you, who deface and destroy things that don't belong to you. You are apparently too young and/or naive to make the connection.

And that brings me to your adorable little "anarchy" tag.

Thanks for perpetuating the stereotype of anarchists as shiftless, violent vandals and thugs with no respect for other people's property. The reality is that anarchism could never flourish without the exercise of self-control. If you don't want people in power exerting authority over you, then you have to give them no reason to do so, by living according to a personal code of self-restraint, responsibility, and respect for boundaries. What's someone else's is not yours to do with as you wish, which means you have no claim over public property or anyone else's private property. Mark up your own property all you want. Leave everyone else's alone. 

I'm taking the time to explain this to you because I'm an anarchist in principle. I believe that J.R.R. Tolkien was right when, in telling his son why his political views were leaning more toward anarchism -- "philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control, not whiskered men with bombs" -- he proclaimed that "the most improper job of any man [...] is bossing other men," adding, "Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity." (Can't you just hear Bilbo Baggins rattling that last sentence off as he addresses the well-wishers at his eleventy-first birthday party?) 

Likewise, Ursula LeGuin described her vision of anarchism as "not the bomb-in-the-pocket stuff, which is terrorism, whatever name it tries to dignify itself with," but rather a political ideal rooted in "solidarity [and] mutual aid," as laid out in "early Taoist thought" and "expounded on by Shelley and Kropotkin, Goldman and Goodman." You edgy vandals should stay in school, head to the library, and read a little bit about all of them, throwing a little Chomsky in for good measure, before you decide to spray-paint another circle-A when you clearly have no idea what it is you're supporting. 

The point is, if you oppose authoritarian systems that use violence to control populations, then how are you any better if you think it's OK to violate something that isn't yours? 

Ammon Hennacy, perhaps my favorite anarchist, drove the point home when he said: "An anarchist is someone who doesn't need a cop to make him behave." Once you understand the gravity of that sentence, you'll understand why vandalism in the name of anarchism will never get you anywhere. If you want freedom from authoritarian systems of power, then you have to be the one who sets the example and takes the high road.

One more of your lovely pieces of "art" before I wrap it up:

"Fuck the system. Obey yourself."

OK, but what if yourself tells you to go out and murder someone? "The system" is broken and ultimately illegitimate, but you can't just replace it with pure selfish anything-goes egotism. If anything, you need to obey your conscience, so you can weigh the good and bad of each situation, pondering the consequences of your actions, before you act. There's an old saying that applies well to this situation: "Liberty is not license to do whatever you want to do. It is the freedom to do what you ought to do." If you managed to throw off all external systems of authority, would you have the clarity of mind, the maturity, the responsibility, to ensure that your choices minimized harm to others? If not, then don't be surprised when someone in your anything-goes anarchist paradise organizes an armed militia to make you think twice. Then you're right back to having a police force exerting control over you. Doesn't sound so great, does it? 

The reason I say that I'm an anarchist in principle is that I don't think humans are capable of self-governance. I wish they were, but your defacing antics are a painful reminder that we're always going to need authority figures to intervene when people lack the self-discipline to respect other people and their property. 

Maybe Brian will do right by his community and step forward to take responsibility for the act of vandalism he and his friends committed. Man up, Brian. Show us what a real anarchist is made of -- one who takes personal responsibility for his actions and doesn't need a cop to make him behave. I'll personally meet you under the viaduct -- as I hand you a toothbrush to scrub off every last bit of graffiti. 

See you there.

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