Not much more can be said of Guy Clark that has not already been written. I had the pleasure of seeing him in concert with Lyle Lovett, Joe Ely, and John Hyatt a few years ago as they toured the southwest. Clark embodies the best of folk and what was called “country and western” music, with emphasis on western. His songs tell stories that are genuine and organic to their surroundings, embodying the best of what pure art should embody: clarifying and transforming what is apparent into something else–an insight into the human condition, recording it with all of its imperfections and in all of its embodiments.
“El Coyote” tells a story that has been much in the news the last few years, generating outrage and suspicion: the emigration of people into the United States from south of the border. There are many reasons for the migration just as our forebears had their reasons for coming to this land. The reasons in the American southwest are a bit more complicated than many would acknowledge, the border being somewhat fluid over the last 160 years, with trade and movement flowing both ways, which I learned first hand when I resided for many years in New Mexico. Clark’s story song is told in the third person, but from the perspective of the campesinos. As such, it harkens back to the music of Woody Guthrie, telling the story from the perspective of those whose lives and destinies are being recorded in song.
A few days ago I viewed for the first time the excellent biopic of Hannah Arendt starring Barbara Sukowa. Arendt is a philosopher whose intellectual power and influence marks her as the essential source for understanding the human capacity for doing evil. Her clear-eyed observations of people in extraordinary times and circumstances disturbed many of her contemporaries, but it is this intellectual honesty that marks her as one of the giants in recording and understanding human nature. Her first-hand insights confirmed what Joseph Conrad wrote sixty-three years before in “Heart of Darkness,” that “The mind of man is capable of anything–because everything is in it, all of the past as well as all of the future.”
Arendt’s insight in her work, but most especially in Eichmann in Jerusalem, was that human evil is not only banal, but in its most common form is derived by the denial of thought, which is the most basic human activity that defines each of us as human. By refusing to think about (and therefore take responsibility for) the consequences of his actions, Adolf Eichmann, a petty bureaucrat, was able to commit a very great evil, a horrendous crime. The humanity of the people being led to their slaughter became unimportant–a commodity–and so it became easy to do what he was ordered to do because they were stripped of their humanity by the absence of thought.
We must be mindful as a people, I think, that thought leads to the acceptance of the humanity of others, which leads to empathy, sympathy, and–eventually–to basic human compassion and decency. Stereotypes, euphemisms, and slogans are evils designed to deny people their basic humanity and there is no doubt that the purveyors of such devices do so with that harmful intent. We must resist the easy path of thoughtlessness, and appeals to fear and tribal loyalty.
People can be undocumented in coming into a strange land, but people can never be “illegal.” It wasn’t too long ago when my own swarthy forebears were pejoratively called “W.O.P.s”–a term that is derived from the acronym “with out papers;” that is, those of Italian descent who were undocumented and therefore, “illegal.”
We are a nation of immigrants. My sympathy and advocacy for decency is with the campesinos and with the children seeking safety in “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” We simply need to live up to those words which, in the end, is what defines a people as exceptional, given the all too common penchant for cruelty in human history.