The Country/The Country

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7. 'Crimes Against Property'

He was glad that evening that he had merely left a message at the Monro Daily rather than spoken in person to the reporter. He was cautious by nature, but his loss of composure around the Dormands’ dogs resulting in a childish indulgence of temper -- disgraceful act -- made him anxious. Was something happening to him?

Watching Pig denounce “crimes against property” on the TV-nooz only made him worry more.

“Crimes against property,” he heard a bland nooz-room voice declare on the Headline Nooz, “should no longer be considered minor infractions.”

The local source for this point of view, someone the station considered worthy of interviewing, did not bother to credit this point of view to candidate Pegasso. He made it sound as if he had just arrived at the viewpoint on his own.

Waking up from a post-luncheon nap, pounding on the desk, and uttering a blast against the depravity of ‘crimes against property.’

Keel didn’t recognize the man, but he knew he was one of ‘them.’ He could tell from a glance at the man’s little pigglie eyes, which never moved, never looked directly into the eyes of whoever was looking at him or gauged a response from reporter, cameraman, anyone in the studio, but gazed persistently at the unseen, but logically deducible thousands of viewers.

Middle-aged, graying at the edges, features frozen except for the mechanical movement of the mouth offering its dull, depressingly rote-learned train of tortured syllables, whipped into shape by some planful hand behind the scenes.

After the brief interview with the Pig supporter -- Bent Snudrich (could that really be his name?), city councilor from some other district -- Headline Nooz went directly to footage of the rally in which the Pig’s own voice could be heard just beyond the range of easy intelligibility, hammering home the enormity of crimes against property in his characteristic aggressive staccato.

It was clearly Pig, though his face, of course, was never seen in close-up. It never was. Everyone was used to that by now.

“Crimes against another person’s property,” the anchor (Keel could not remember his name? Jecker?) now reported, speaking over the unintelligible ranting, “leading candidate Karol Pegasso publicly declared today at a spontaneous rally in Bellesview” -- a district that not very far away, especially as the campaign was heading north -- “are just as serious as crimes against human beings, because....”

The newsreader paused, as if he too was wondering what the rationale would prove to be. A light went on in the man’s features: Here comes the answer on the teleprompter...

“they undermined another home-person’s ability to take care of himself and his family. Personal responsibility for one’s own well being was a fundamental pillar of any healthy community.”

There. The face looked relieved.

The nooz-reader composed an expression of conscientious approval of received wisdom. But then, as Keel watched horrified, the man’s face twisted into an approximation of the leading candidate’s own denunciatory certitude and delivered Mister Pig’s concluding coda:

“A crime against one man’s property undermines the security of all! We stand for security! Property! Prosperity! The people want change!”

“A strong country,” the face on the screen wound up, morphing back into something of its former banal benignity, “requires strong laws.”

Keel found himself wondering what sort of punishment Chief Xec Pig would consider appropriate for throwing a stone at a neighbor’s window. Considered abstractly, the act struck him as more nefarious than it had felt in the moment: an act of spontaneous payback, striking back at a house-owner’s repeated acts of negligence in allowing his dogs to set themselves on a passersby.

It had felt like “rough justice.”

Yet judged by itself, the act appeared to be a sort of invasion of privacy, a kind of break-in, almost a home invasion. Not merely a destruction of private property on which you could put an appropriate price tag and make the necessary amends, but more like a violation of a sacred principle. A man’s home -- a family’s home -- was its sanctuary.

What, Keel asked himself, was so enduring about the concept of ‘home’?

It was the idea of safety. It was where you felt safe, with the drawbridge up. Where you should feel safe.

That night he had trouble falling asleep. Still bothered by what he had done, even more than the day before, he insisted in his thoughts (as if to shout down the part of him that kept objecting) that he should be able to feel safe walking down the sidewalk. For that matter as a citizen he should also feel safe supporting one candidate for office, and criticizing another, voting as he wished, speaking out when he wanted, petitioning his government, and opposing policies or plans announced as the goals by a putative (‘inevitable,’ everyone was now saying) new administration.

Did he in fact feel safe doing any or all of these?

What was keeping him awake, he realized, was not the image and voice of the leading candidate Karol Pegasso, neither of which were ever clearly or completely projected over the airwaves, but his supporters’ notions of what he stood for.

Pig was not even in office yet, but the climate of his once proud country, the Commonhope of UZ, had already changed and was continuing to change, worsening, throughout the voting year. And was getting still worse now that the nation’s chief electors, the Sacred Commission, appeared to be getting close to proclaiming a victor.

Maybe, Keel brooded, it was the candidate’s treatment of opponents during the campaign that worried him. Frightened him.

Pegasso openly impugned their character. He accused them of breaking laws, even obscure laws: Jay-walking on the way to their Assembly offices. Hiring unregistered persons to cut their lawns or paint their patio a trendy antique green.

And it was not simply the opponents themselves he attacked, but members of their family, slandering their parents, close friends, staff members, law school classmates, neighbors.

The father of a candidate from a district far to the south (one of the many Keel had never visited), so Pegasso imperiously declared, was implicated in the assassination of a national leader many decades earlier. The claim was a fiction; a long-disproved calumny. But the kind of libel that could not be addressed legally because the victim, the father, was long dead. The assassination of a popular leader had been the subject of wild theories for many years, speculations that stirred a miasma of dark possibilities in the public’s mind. Had agents of a foreign government killed him? Had members of his own government, threatened by his policies, pulled off a secret coup d’etat? Had soldiers of criminal organizations, fearing the loss of impunity purchased by secret deals in previous administrations, decided this new president was too independent? Or had a single wealthy opponent, the opposing candidate’s father, perhaps, hired an assassin?

Or none of these explanation. Just a lone nut.

This dark deed, however accomplished, still disturbed the nation’s sleep after half a century -- and here was the proof: Keel lying awake thinking about this hoary national tragedy as if it were the sort of great theatrical work he used to teach in his Classical Studies courses.

An old anxiety stimulated by new fears brought on by the claims of a candidate for the nation’s highest office who seemed to know what ordinary people, plain unhappy people in their dull unsophisticated millions, were thinking.

A candidate whose public conduct suggested that only one person’s thoughts and ideas and opinions mattered. His. Pig’s. That there was only one right way to think about things, to talk about them. Only one direction to lead the nation: his.

Opponents, and organized opposition, melted away.

Competitors for office ran off to their own safe corners, their hideaways, whining like beaten curs. He showed them up for stumble-bums. They began to look ridiculous. They dropped out of the contest and you didn’t hear from them again for months at a time, as if they were now avoiding at all costs the very nooz media they had previously courted.

Had they been threatened somehow? Keel wondered. The national mood, the hunched-shoulder atmosphere in the media and even, he sometimes felt, in the air of the familiar streets he had walked for years, scented of unexpressed worries, inchoate trepidations, nameless fears.

And the winner of this disgraceful contest of denunciations and innuendoes has not even taken power!

Unlike many of his opponents, Karol Pegasso had no governmental power base of any sort. Where had his power to cow the opposition, to kindle dark emotion in his followers come from?

It was as if Meinstern’s theory of the relat-ability of time-space had threaded its way through the psyches of millions of people. Time-space, Keel understood, bends toward the heaviest gravitational force.

The thoughts and behavior of millions of people now appeared to be warping in a single direction to accommodate the force, the presence, of a single man.

The new leader. The Pig.

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