Purchase Lives Less Valuable
Read more

Excerpt from Lives Less Valuable

Democracy As We Know It (p. 11)

From chapter "Part One"

Or perhaps the story begins with someone else, with a young man named Dujuan sitting with his mother in a doctor’s office, listening to the doctor—the white doctor—talk about Dujuan’s little sister. “Sometimes,” the doctor is saying, “in advanced cases of leukemia, parts of the blood necessary for clotting are lost. Bleeding occurs more easily.” The doctor tells them that his little sister, his mother’s youngest child, had bled into her brain. Dujuan’s mother grasps Dujuan’s hand so tight her fingertips turn from brown to burgundy as the doctor describes Shameka’s skull filling with blood, her brain being forced through the only open space, near the spinal column. “She suffered no pain,” the doctor says, “because she was fully unconscious.” And then he says, “All things considered, not a bad way to go.”

In this moment, sitting across from the doctor in the doctor’s office, Dujuan wants to kill him. Dujuan sees himself stand, sees himself pull out his knife, sees himself lean across the doctor’s desk, sees himself cut the doctor’s throat. Perhaps first, he thinks, he should knock the man unconscious, so he will feel no pain. Then he could say to the doctor’s family—the white doctor’s family—“All things considered, not a bad way to go.”

But he doesn’t move. He sits there and looks at his mother’s face, brown, beautiful, tired. He continues to hold her hand. He holds onto the outrage as well, directed not so much, after that initial rush, at the doctor, who is the messenger, as at the death, and especially at how it happened.

He’d been there when she died, actually seen the life go out of her body, out of her. He hated that image of her body taut, every muscle straining as if to tear her apart, her eyes rolled back in her head, and then the convulsions, the rhythmic flailing of her arms and the arching of her back. A primitive groaning had emerged from her throat.

Dujuan had yelled when her body went rigid. That was when the doctors and nurses came. They’d pulled him from the room so they could work on her. But before they took him out, he saw her one last time, her body seizing. This was not his sister. Not any longer. She was gone.

The worst part for Dujuan, except, of course, for the death itself, was that she knew. All along Shameka had known she was going to die. Soon.

She had only cried about it once. Dujuan remembers a night about two months before she died. He’d gotten up about one in the morning, and walking by the room Shameka had shared with their sister, he’d heard her crying. He had stopped, stood, listened. He had wanted to go in and hold her, but hadn’t known what to say, what to do. So he hadn’t gone inside.

Since that night Dujuan has known that if he could do one thing differently it would be that night, and if he could change one thing about her death it would have been to make it so she didn’t know, and didn’t have to be afraid. He would have made it so she went out suddenly, like a light switch. Nobody deserves to die afraid, he thinks. Nobody.


Or perhaps it starts with a planning commission meeting, with five commissioners—five white commissioners—sitting on a stage, four feet of vertical space and a long desk—and of course power—separating them from the people—a few white, most black, some Mexican, some Vietnamese, a few Hmong and Filipino—who step up to a microphone and use their timed ninety seconds to beg the commissioners not to do what everyone here knows the commissioners are going to do. Malia gets her ninety seconds. So does her co-worker Dennis. So do others. So do the people who live—and die—near the river. After each ninety seconds a timer sounds, and if the person continues to speak, the microphone is cut off after another ten. Only four people are allowed to speak longer, and no one is surprised at who they are: a Vexcorp attorney who uses big words to state that a denial by the planning commission of this chemical refinery’s expansion would be illegal and would certainly lead to lawsuits; a Vexcorp economist who uses big words to detail how the multiplier effect will raise the standard of living for everyone in the area; a Vexcorp scientist who uses big words to make clear the stupidity and even arrogance of those who attempt to link Vexcorp’s effluents, minimal as they may be, to local cancers, which his own studies have shown time and again to be no higher than normal anyway; and Vexcorp’s owner and CEO, Larry Gordon, who uses simple language so that simple people can understand how much he cares for the community.

The next day the newspaper will run an article emphasizing the sharp split in public opinion about the expansion of the Vexcorp chemical refinery. To illustrate this split the reporter will quote each of the men associated with the corporation—the only four people who testified in favor of the expansion—and then balance these four quotes by choosing two from among the sixty locals who spoke in opposition.

Only those who have never before attended any meetings like this—and especially only those who have absolutely no experience with the entire political system—are surprised when the commissioners vote five to zero in favor of the expansion. The others know that fifty thousand could have testified against, and so long as those four testified in favor, the expansion would take place.

This is democracy as we know it.


Of course the story doesn’t really begin at that meeting, which was merely about the refinery’s expansion. It didn’t even start fifty years before, with a similar planning commission meeting where people similarly opposed the refinery’s construction, and were similarly ignored.

The truth is that there are as many starting points as there are atrocities committed by this culture. In other words, there are a lot of starting points, both distant and proximate. If we really want to go to the starting point, we need to go to the start of this culture.

But what if we use this as a starting point for the story? The Gordon family fortune began in paradox, in the blood-red days of early American history. By all accounts Miles Gordon, the progenitor of the fortune, was a good man. He was a Christian. He did not beat his wife. He did not beat his children. He did not beat his horses or cattle, and once intervened to stop a neighbor from beating to death an exhausted mule. He did not drink strong spirits. He rarely smoked. He did not read novels. He did not dance. He spoke out, to whomever would listen, against slavery. He attempted, when possible, to Christianize the savages who crossed his path. When this was not possible, when Indians attacked or did not keep their bargains by staying off his land, he was swift in retribution and swifter afterward in forgiveness, allowing the vanquished to live so long as they removed themselves from this new land he had, as he recorded each time in his diary, “justly won by the sword in defensive warfare.” By 1790, his fortieth year, he had thus justly won some quarter million acres of forest, much of it so dense with cedar, chestnut, elm, and heart pine he doubted the soil had seen the sun since God created the world. Thus he became one of America’s richest settlers, which meant one of its most respected.

Miles Gordon passed on his virtues and his land to his children, who multiplied them both, until by 1830 the family controlled an abolitionist newspaper, a bank, an insurance company, a mining company, a chemical company, and a good portion of both the state and federal legislatures. That was the year the family bought controlling interest in Northeast Transport, a company that shipped cotton—planted, raised, harvested, and processed by slaves—to all parts of the globe.

The paradoxicality of the Gordons’ position—that without businessmen like them, slavery would never have been possible— never occurred to them, just as Miles’s paradoxicality regarding his own amassing of wealth had never occurred to him. Why should it? They did nothing wrong.

But their ignorance went beyond mere willfulness. It was a gift. For as well as having been given a gift for acquiring money, the Gordons had been given an even greater gift: a lack of imagination. It was no more possible for them to see the connections between their wealth and the poverty, enslavement, murder, or dispossession of others on which it was based than it was for them to see the backs of their own heads. The Gordons balanced their ledger sheets, watched their stocks rise and fall and rise again, increased their inventory, and paid their bills. Life was simple, and guided by two tenets: use your gifts, and take care of your family.

During the Civil War the Gordons speculated in US bonds, which rose and fell when the Union won or lost battles. Lawrence Gordon installed a telegraph wire in his office over which he personally received up-to-the-minute accounts from General Grant’s private telegrapher. He often knew results of battles before President Lincoln did. The Battle of the Wilderness, with about 50,000 casualties, netted him a cool million. He made a quarter million off Cold Harbor, where those who died had pinned their names and addresses to their shirts before the battle. His son, Joseph Gordon III, never had to pin his name to his shirt. Early in the war his father had written to him, in a letter that crystallized both of the family’s gifts, “In time you will understand and believe that a man may be a patriot without risking his own life or sacrificing his health. There are plenty of other lives less valuable.” Soon after, young Joseph developed fainting spells.

The family gifts did not end with the Civil War. Strikebreaking, land fraud, child labor: through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, if there was money to be made, the Gordons were there. This was not to say the Gordons had no conscience, nor even that their collective conscience had been erased by money, power, or any other strong anesthetic, because to do so would be to suggest that on some level the Gordons perceived their actions as wrong. They did not. Just as increased prosperity for slaveowners meant better living conditions for slaves, and just as a certain amount of control over slaveholder profits provided the Gordons with leverage to ameliorate the worst of slaveholder excesses—both of which were, after all, the real reasons the Gordons entered the lucrative business of transporting cotton—so too all of the Gordon family’s economic activities were ultimately beneficial to all concerned, if only one had the right perspective. And the Gordons, generation after generation, always had the right perspective. Take child labor. In the late 1870s Joseph Gordon III, who, with the war safely over, no longer suffered fainting spells, commented, “The most beautiful sight that we see is the child at labor. As early as he may be set at labor the more beautiful, the more useful does his life get to be.” Thus did the Gordons share their gifts.

The family continued to share these gifts by investing in armaments during the First World War, German ball-bearing plants in World War II, and oil exploration in South America and Nigeria in the 1980s and 1990s. And, of course, by investing in chemical refineries in American inner cities.

Larry Gordon IV, CEO and primary owner of Vexcorp, is by all accounts a good man. He is a Christian. He loves his wife and dotes on his children. He has never struck anyone in anger. He does not drink. He does not smoke. He is an outspoken advocate of affirmative action, and his companies were among the first to offer full benefits to the partners of homosexual employees. He contributes heavily to both the Sierra Club and Audubon. He is liked by nearly all who know him, and lionized by many who don’t. Larry Gordon is a good man.