The motorcycle club world persists because it is a manifestation of what William James, the foremost American Pragmatist, called “The Moral Equivalent of War.”
“History is a bath of blood,” James, who considered himself to be a pacifist, wrote in 1910, approximately a century before the notion arose that men should evolve into women and women could evolve into men.
As We Were
“…inordinate ambitions are the soul of any patriotism, and the possibility of violent death the soul of all romance,” James thought, although no respectable intellectual would dare say today what James said then.
“The earlier men were hunting men, and to hunt a neighboring tribe, kill the males, loot the village and possess the females, was the most profitable, as well as the most exciting, way of living….. Modern war is so expensive that we feel trade to be a better avenue to plunder; but modern man inherits all the innate pugnacity and all the love of glory of his ancestors. Showing war’s irrationality and horror is of no effect on him. The horrors make the fascination. War is the strong life; it is life in extremis….”
“…weaklings and mollycoddles may not end by making everything else disappear from the face of nature…. Martial virtues must be the enduring cement; intrepidity, contempt of softness, surrender of private interest, obedience to command, must still remain the rock upon which states are built.”
Archaic notions of what men should be and how they should conduct themselves, what James called “the strong life,” persist on the motorcycle outlaw frontier. That may explain both the continuance of this counterculture and the public’s ongoing fascination with Sons of Anarchy, and the press coverage of Waco, and the sprouting of parodies and homages to the strong life like the Iron Order and the Iron Pigs, and the celebrity of George Christie, Jay Dobyns and Charles Falco. Men are not lambs but increasingly modern society insists that is what they should be. So the motorcycle outlaw world is endlessly fictionalized.
From within, outlaw bikers love each other like brothers in arms. From without, the public sees uninhibited violence.
That uninhibited violence claimed another life on Saturday. Jeff Duke, whom police eventually described as an associate of the Vagos Motorcycle Club from Georgetown, California was beset by three motorcyclists “wearing black leather,” as police put it, on Interstate 80, near Truckee, California which is not far from Reno where a motorcycle rally called “Street Vibrations” was being held. Duke was shot “multiple times” before he crashed. He was airlifted to a hospital but died enroute.
As is always the case with these incidents, the police are being cute. They initially declined to identify Duke as a member or affiliate of the Vagos. They refused to speculate about who might have killed him. “What we do know early in our investigation,” California Highway Patrol Officer Pete Mann said, “is that a group of motorcycles rode up along side this gentleman and opened fire.”
The last six weeks have been more violent than usual in the Southwest. The establishment press, caught between its conflicting roles as sensationalizer of gore and scourge of social nonconformity, hasn’t had much to say about it. Nevertheless, from time to time somebody who somebody loved dies anyway. It is the tragic side of the strong life. There is nothing fictional about it.