For many years, I’ve been writing about the promise and the failure of the American dream. The trail has led me into the world of people who proclaim personal rights regarding everything from drinking infractions to deadly matters such as trespassing that led to murder. Some of them carry a copy of the Constitution in their cars or pockets (I myself carry one in my purse), and they can discuss search and seizure law as well as recognized legal scholars. They quote the Second Amendment like scripture and they fly flags that say “Don’t tread on me.”
These flags are not just warnings posted in their front yards or near fences at the edge of their property. They are a statement of identity, a definition of self, one that manifests whenever it feels threatened or is called forth.
And now, that thing we all learned in third grade – “It’s a free country; I can do what I want” – has become “Why do I have to wear a mask?”
As we see day after day, citizens across the land are proclaiming their independence by refusing to wear masks in this dangerous plague-time. Often their declarations are carried out en masse on Main Street. Other times it’s an individual battle in places of enterprise where they force confrontations with workers who ask them to don mandated protective gear.
Wherever and in whatever manner these actions occur, they are generally associated with expression of personal rights. This is front and center at Trump rallies and even in the behavior of the President himself, who often appears mask-free, displaying what the media calls “defiance,” as if Donald Trump is a Revolutionary War re-enactor risking his life to take down a King. But strangely, he’s the “King,” and his “defiance” is directed at shadows on his own cave wall.
Nowhere is our current yearning not to be tread upon more apparent than in Michigan. It’s the state where Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer, the man who is notorious for “making a last stand,” lived most of his life. It’s a complicated thing, this relationship. Custer was a Civil War hero, and under his command at Gettysburg were storied infantry and cavalry regiments from Michigan. When Custer was killed at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876, the Detroit Free Press wrote: “Custer is dead. How like a death knell the words fall upon our hearts. Custer the brave soldier, the chivalrous gentleman, the kind and sympathizing friend, is no more.” Many newspapers around the country blamed Sitting Bull for killing Custer, fueling a hysteria that rendered him America’s Most Wanted Man up until the time he was ambushed in 1890 outside his cabin at Standing Rock. The assassination was front-page news in the Detroit Free Press and other newspapers all over the country.
In 1910, an equestrian statue in Custer’s honor called “Sighting the Enemy” was erected in Monroe County where he lived. In line with the conversation about shrines and statuary taking place around the country, its relevance and viability were recently debated. It will now be updated. Beyond the statue however, it’s what Custer represents that informs today’s hysteria around masks – and a lot of American behavior in general.
The place where Custer was killed by Native Americans is called Last Stand Hill. It’s a name that masks, if I may use that term, what actually happened, which was a victory for the Lakota and Cheyenne tribes, some of whose members were labelled as “hostiles” in official documents prior to this battle. Since then, the conflagration with which we are still trying to reconcile lurks everywhere, from the siege at Waco (which became an acronym in certain circles for “We Ain’t Comin’ Out”) to the invasion at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge four years ago, when Cliven Bundy and his crew charged on to public lands and staked a claim with flags – a rights-fest if ever there was one.
Several weeks ago, when Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer gave a speech about masks, she was met with cries of “Lock her up!” Armed citizens – possibly including some with ancestors who served with Custer – converged on the Capitol building, ready to make their own last stand. Masks are now “the hill to die on.”
Those who proclaim their rights at the drop of the word “mask” are not apart from those of us who don’t see masks as a stand-in for jail. They are the dark mirror of America. The idea of unfettered personal freedom is a gospel that many of us have grown up with, and it’s baked into our identity. I remember teachers telling us exactly that – “it’s a free country and I can do what I want” – in elementary school civics class. I liked the idea, and it seemed like the truth. In general, I was doing what I wanted to do, and so were all of my friends (I didn’t realize at the time that many in the country were not accorded the same rights). We were lucky to live in the USA, with this guarantee of self-expression, the beautiful promise of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Who in America does not know about our great founding mantra?
I speak of everyone from frontier outlaws to the most notorious killer in twentieth-century America – Lee Harvey Oswald. One of the last things Oswald said was, “I know my rights,” which he announced shortly after his arrest for the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. His words have been buried in the never-ending obsession with conspiracies, but it says more about his state of mind – and ours – than the Warren Report or countless other works on the subject.
I first came across Oswald’s statement while researching a book about Oswald and couldn’t stop thinking about the remark. I began reading everything I could find regarding his childhood, seeking information about what informed his development beyond the things that have been widely reported. After weeks of digging, I found some shoot-em-up comic books in an obscure archive and also a photo of him as a little boy, brandishing a toy gun. Did you know that Oswald once got into trouble for firing a BB gun at elderly women as they sat in front of a building in his neighborhood? Most people don’t.
During the course of my research, it occurred to me that like many of us, Oswald grew up on Billy the Kid, Bonnie and Clyde, Johnny Ringo, and the entire parade of outlaws and killers, especially since much of his boyhood unfolded in Fort Worth, Texas, font of the Old Chisholm Trail, tourist destination for daily re-enactments of cowboy shoot-outs. I don’t think the image of Oswald that many of us have – posing in his backyard with the rifle that killed JFK – should prevail. The image that preceded it is the DNA of this story – the little boy with the gun who never grew up.
Over the years, I’ve met people who claim to be descendants of Jesse James or whose ancestors spent time with the desperado. I’ve written about some of them in my work. This part of their story is a flashing sense of pride, but also a source of shame, and when they talk about it, it’s in the dark, with their partner, Jim Beam. They know in their heart of hearts that behind their defiant demeanor, they count for little in the scheme of things.
This became especially clear after a conversation I had with an ex-Marine while sitting in a Mojave bar called the Oasis. He had grown up in a ramshackle house in a small town in, yes, Michigan, with a single mother who eked out a living as a waitress. His father was long-gone (“jail, I think…manslaughter”). After various run-ins with school authorities, he joined the Marines and became part of a team. There wasn’t much he could point to, he said, in terms of things that might impress a stranger from another world. “Houdini lived in Detroit,” he said. “Did you know? I think my mom saw Fred and Ginger in Gary.” And then the conversation turned to a figure of a different order – Jesse James. “We’re related,” he said, shoulders square for a moment as if in a kind of formation. “Some say there’s a resemblance.” And then his eyes diverted and the pride vanished and he took a swig from his drink and then another one. “Hasta la vista,” he said after a while, and then stumbled out of the dark and into the desert. Some time later, I heard he went on a bender.
One day, after pondering this and other such stories that people had disclosed as friendships unfolded, I decided to write the attached play, “Billy the Kid and Lee Harvey Oswald Praise Citizenship in the American Dreamtime.” It’s a brief inquiry into the American condition, and how the killers who drive it are themselves shaped, tormented, and trapped by our national religion – belief in personal rights. Oswald’s statement upon his arrest was the great refuge and birthright of us all. Who among us has not thought, or even said, something along those lines when in trouble with the law?
Some time ago, I was pulled over for speeding on a freeway in Los Angeles. Other cars were driving right past me, going even faster. Instead of being grateful to the cop for possibly saving me – and others I might hit – from a car accident, I right away expressed anger and disbelief. “But officer,” I said, “how come the other guy didn’t get a ticket?” Actually, I didn’t really say that, but that’s what I meant. Unbeknownst to me, that idea was my go-to position. I surprised myself with the vehemence with which I expressed my outrage, but looking back on it, I knew I had plenty of company. It’s what a lot of people say when pulled over – and worse. Did you know that of the encounters cops fear the most, traffic stops rank in the top two? (The other one is domestic violence, but that is a conversation for another time.) Driving fast on the open road possibly best expresses more than anything else the belief that “it’s a free country and I can do what I want.” That’s the subtext of every road trip ever taken, every ode to the Mother Road, every longing to jump in a muscle car and crank up “Born To Be Wild” while flooring it.
In any case, my announcement that I was being treated unfairly did not lead to me not getting a ticket. Indeed, I got one – and then had to attend traffic school. The point is this: We are a nation of rebels, misfits, solo operators, and defiance is the coin of the realm. Perhaps nothing cuts so quick to the bone as government telling us not to leave our homes – which is frightening to say the least – and if we do, to put a mask on it.
However, when the belief in personal freedoms syncs up with personal pathology, when a person cannot differentiate between a request to consider the health of others and what constitutes an encroachment on sovereignty, there’s a problem. Yes, we have the right, and then what? On the legal front, the Supreme Court is tasked with exploring such questions, but that’s a stop-gap measure, as shown in every crime that’s committed, every protection that’s unrolled, each evisceration of policy that originates with the idea that it’s every man, woman, rock, bird for him/her/itself. Since our founding, America has been having a conversation about exactly what the Bill of Rights means and to whom those rights are accorded. It’s something that vexes us all – now more than ever. Yes, we have the right. But must we use it? For some, choosing not to would seem to diminish them in their own eyes.
Among our most revered figures are outlaws and killers; in the end they do exactly what they want because they can. What we see playing out on the streets of our country every day and night is where our reverence for rights has taken us, for better and for worse, amped up by all manner of outside and inside forces. “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer,” DH Lawrence once wrote. Can we now cast off our youth and stop charging up hills with guns? That is the question at hand – and the question my play attempts to address.
Deanne Stillman is a widely published, critically acclaimed writer. Her books include Twentynine Palms, a cult classic that Hunter Thompson called a “strange and brilliant story by an important American writer”; Desert Reckoning, based on a Rolling Stone piece, an Amazon editors’ pick, and winner of the Spur and LA Press Club Awards; Mustang, an LA Times “best book of the year,” now in audio with Frances Fisher, Anjelica Huston, John Densmore, and other all-stars; and Blood Brothers, which was excerpted in Newsweek, received a starred Kirkus review, and won the Ohioana Award for best nonfiction. Her latest play is “Reflections in a D’Back’s Eye,” about the mass shooting in Tucson in which Gabby Giffords was wounded and a little girl who just wanted to play baseball was killed. It was produced this year at Highways in Santa Monica and directed by Darrell Larson. Her essays have appeared in the LA Review of Books, Lithub, the Independent, the New York Times, Tin House, truthdig, Village Voice, and elsewhere, and in various anthologies.