The Subtle Traitor

The Subtle Traitor November 21, 2014

Back-stabbingI’m about to describe a character. He doesn’t exist everywhere, nor is he a threat to everyone. But it’s important to sketch out his profile, because he’s hardly ever seen for what he is, and because his brotherly embraces can end with a knife between your ribs.

To be even halfway familiar with him, you have to be from a place, or of a group, that has a “checkered past”—a group whose forebears transgressed against the modern orthodoxies in a big time way. I’m talking “Mark of Cain” stuff that gets you centuries of bad PR. These forebears are often losers in the wars, both military and cultural, so their sins get chiseled into marble.

Being a white (rumor of a Choctaw somewhere won’t cut it), Christian, Southern, heterosexual male, in good health and with no certifiable mental deficits (damn it), I’m in pretty bad standing. My immediate family didn’t even have the decency to be poor. So I’m everybody’s worst nightmare—on the wrong side of all government quotas. Worse, if you dig around in my family magnolia tree, you’ll find the reason those quotas got instituted in the first place.

I think Germans know what I mean. Their past makes them particularly vulnerable, and they’re easily silenced by a raised eyebrow and an implied accusation: “Of course you say that/act that way/are of that opinion, considering…”

Watch how fast a German backtracks—even when arguing over where to eat lunch—when bigotry is suggested. He can’t shut up fast enough. And he can’t complain either, because then he’ll sound defensive, be accused of backlash:  “See? Look how angry he is! I told you he was crazy. And I bet he’s not one bit sorry for…”

They’ve got him at every turn.

Here’s the part where I have to make an obligatory disclaimer: “I’m not in any way condoning the actions of the past. It was all a tragedy and I don’t for one minute dismiss how horrible it was. I’m just saying…”

That Please Don’t Misunderstand Me preface is an indispensible part of all apologias uttered by the Mr. Hamstrungs of the world.

Of course, they should be able to defend themselves, to establish something based on facts without surrendering the right to facts altogether, or ceding the right to speak whatsoever. But often they surrender and cede anyhow. Though the ad hominem is a logical fallacy, it’s very effective in this case.

The traitor I speak of is so successful, it seems, because the people he betrays are so susceptible. Maybe that’s the way of treason. It’s easy to get close to outcasts; they’re pretty desperate for friends.

That being the case, here are the traitor’s subtleties: First, like all quislings, he has to be a member of the exiled group, with impeccable credentials. He’s the guy who grew up next to you, or knows your next of kin: “Why, I went to school with your Mama and Daddy…”

Second, he has to have a major forum. And the best way to get that is to tell his audience—the vast group of winners on the other side of the war—what they want to hear.

Because nobody ever went broke in the scapegoat business. Raise a good herd, and they’ll always sell high; the market never dries up or tops out. People love to load the mangy little bastards up with everything imaginable, then start flailing away: “Hey everybody. He’s the racist, sexist, classist pig—that guy over there. Look good, so you won’t ever mistake us for one.”

Third, you’ll often find he no longer lives among his kind. Preferring the company of winners, he usually finds it either in cities far away, or ones that have an inoculating hipness to them directly proportionate to the degree that 1) their pre-twentieth century architecture has survived; 2) they’re associated with some sort of roots music; and 3) they have some exotic cuisine the food idolaters go completely orgasmic about. Such cities are very self-congratulatory; their citizens absolutely adore themselves for living there.

Of course, our traitor really “couldn’t” stay down home, because he’s just so darn “different” from his kin—love them though he does. And oh how he insists that he does indeed looooove them. With all their faults.

That last part is key. Because the goats he sells—by way of essays (especially “journalistic” ones), screenplays,  etc.—must come from an “insider,” telling the same tired story about the buck-toothed, knuckle-bumping trogs—“one of them,” speaking from a “grieved heart”—pretending it takes courage to shoot fish in a barrel—because it’s important that we “never forget.” Fat chance.

He won’t speak of how things are better, or how we’ve moved on, because he’s making too much money out of it for that to be the case. The stock for sham bravery is forever on the rise.

Here’s another move: if the homefolks gain some fleeting glory—if the world starts to value something they’ve got and they get a little press from it (e.g., sports victories)—he’ll be right there to cozy up—“one of them” again; imagine that. The camera somehow always manages to find him too.

Justifiably wary at first, the home crowd often succumbs in the end: “He’s not so bad—he means well—we are pretty rotten, after all.”

Ha. When the party’s over, he’ll sell them like a pack of two-bit whores at a jungle boot camp.

Now, this is neither a call for revenge nor a refusal to grant forgiveness.

Please don’t misunderstand me.

But it’s an absolute invitation to betrayal—and certain downfall—when the sheep can’t be discerned from the goats. People simply have to be watchful, so that they can distinguish those who intend them good from those who don’t.

Even bad guys like me, if we’re to make any progress in this old world, must have the eyes of foxes over the souls of lambs.


A.G. Harmon teaches Shakespeare, Law and Literature, Jurisprudence, and Writing at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. His novel, A House All Stilled, won the 2001 Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel.

""It doesn’t matter when you start the Sinatra Christmas playlist or put up your tree. ..."

How to Win the War on ..."
"I an confused by the use of "aural" here: "In The Gutenberg Galaxy, he explained ..."

The Gutenberg Imagination
"My friend is looking for a Pepper Smith he served in the army with, was ..."

The Love Song of Pepper Smith

Browse Our Archives