People Who Can Do Things
Sunday Night Journal — July 10, 2005

Sunday Night Journal — July 3, 2005

Independence Day and Indian Larry

I occasionally watch a couple of TV shows, American Chopper and The Great Biker Build-Off, which, in case you don’t know, involve building custom Harley-style motorcycles. I guess I have enough Anarcho-American in me to be susceptible to the romance of motorcycles, and actually owned a couple of small ones in my younger days. Also, the show appeals to my appreciation (discussed here last week) of people who can do things that require a lot of physical intelligence and skill. Building these bikes requires an impressive combination of craftsmanship and engineering, with both at the service of a very American aesthetic. For my money these guys are far better and more interesting artists than the average Turner Prize winner.

One episode featured a bike builder named Indian Larry, previously unknown to me but apparently very well known in motorcycle circles. At the end of the show there was a memorial note along the lines of “In Memory of Indian Larry, 1949-2004.” Out of curiosity I looked up Indian Larry on the web and found that he had been killed while performing a stunt—standing on the seat of a moving motorcycle—without a helmet.

In my continual effort to figure out the United States of America, I sometimes think of it as an experiment on God’s part, as if he had said, in a sort of limited recapitulation of Eden and the Fall: I’m going to allow these people to attain an unprecedented level of freedom and abundance. I’m going to take away many of the excuses—hunger, famine, brutal oppression—for sin that I’ve been hearing for lo these many millennia. They’ve been telling me they would be more virtuous if life wasn’t so hard. Let’s give them a chance to prove it. Or perhaps it’s a sort of reversal of Job’s story; perhaps Satan made a wager with God that his beloved human race could not become prosperous without also becoming corrupt.

If either of these is the case, we have clearly let God down. We’ve misunderstood the nature of freedom. As one wise man after another, most prominently the late Pope, has tried to tell us, the point is what we choose, not simply that we choose; to freely choose the good, not to freely choose, period, with all choices being considered equal and the choosing itself a godlike and unquestionable act.

We’re like Indian Larry, who would probably be alive today if he had been wearing a helmet: gifted and freely exercising our gifts, but unable to resist taking that extra step into recklessness and ruin. Admittedly, there is, at least to my fallen eyes, a bold grandeur in Larry’s gesture. But it can’t be considered wise, and it is unwise in a very defiant and American way.

Here we are at another Independence Day, and it seems that with every passing year the concept of freedom as a path toward the good is less honored, and the concept of freedom as the power to follow every least dictate of whim or sensuality is more exalted. One can say for Indian Larry that he at least took his risks knowingly, and would probably not, had he survived, whined and tried to sue somebody because of his injuries. Increasing numbers of Americans seem to see government’s role in maintaining freedom as an obligation not to interfere before, but to be ready to assist after, the crash—non-judgmentally, of course.

I hope that, if he was not in the habit of doing so, Indian Larry sought God’s mercy as he died. I hope that we as a nation will not wait until we are “between the stirrup and the ground” before changing our ways. I’m hopeful, but not optimistic.


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