The Johnsons and the Shits

I read You Can’t Win for the first time several years ago while I got ready to write “Rough Living: Tips and Tales of a Vagabond” which I originally titled “20 Weeks a Bum” parts of it have been incorporated into “Slackville Road” (which incidentally had a great girl named Johnson on the cover until just recently). Anyway, this post brought all that up…Thanks Andy…
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Andy posted this at EinsteinShrugged….
hobos
This is a cut and paste job from this site http://www.ashejournal.com/
Burroughs first encountered the concept of the Johnson Family while still a boy reading the book You Can’t Win by Jack Black. First published in the 1920’s Black’s autobiographical account of hobo life was immensely popular in its day. Burroughs describes the Johnsons in The Place of Dead Roads: `The Johnson Family’ was a turn-of-the-century expression to designate good bums and thieves. It was elaborated into a code of conduct. A Johnson honors his obligations. His word is good and he is a good man to do business with. A Johnson minds his own business. He is not a snoopy, self-righteous, trouble-making person. A Johnson will give help when help is needed. He will not stand by while someone is drowning or trapped under a burning car. In his essay “The Johnson Family,” Burroughs elaborates on the Johnsons’ philosophical placement within his mythic system— explicitly linked them to Manichaeistic dualism: The Johnson family formulates a Manachean position where good and evil are in conflict and the outcome is at this point uncertain. It is not an eternal conflict since one or the other must win a final victory. In contrast to the honorable world of hobos and criminals, Burroughs describes a type of person known simply as a `Shit.’ Unlike the Johnsons, Shits are obsessed with minding other’s business. They are the town busy body, the preacher, the lawman. Shits are incapable of taking the honorable road of each-to-his-own. Burroughs describes the situation in his essay “My Own Business” thus: This world would be a pretty easy and pleasant place to live in if everybody could just mind his own business and let others do the same. But a wise old black faggot said to me years ago: `Some people are shits, darling.” I was never able to forget it. In Burroughs’ mythology, the world is one of conflict between the Johnsons and the Shits. A Shit is one who is obsessively sure of his own position at the cost of all other vantages. Burroughs describes Shits as incapable of minding “their own business, because they have no business of their own to mind, any more than a small pox virus has.” This is more than a offhanded analogy. For Burroughs, Shits are, in actuality, virus occupied hosts—chronically infected by what he terms the Right virus. “The mark of a basic Shit,” Burroughs reminds us, “is that he has to be right.” The war between the Johnsons and the Shits is an epic one that runs throughout Burroughs writing. Though of immense proportions, like the Gnostic battle between good and evil, the cosmic war is not figured across eternity. It has an end and, for Burroughs, that end is imaginable. It does not come without immense conflict, however. Burroughs tells his reader, “The people in power will not disappear voluntarily.” There is no turning back, once the battle is met. “Once you take up arms against a bunch of shits there is no way back. Lay down your arms and they will kill you.” “Hell hath no more vociferous fury than an endangered parasite.” And remember: “The wild boys take no prisoners.” In discussing his mythology, Burroughs describes a classic Catch- 22: “He who opposes force with counterforce alone forms that which he opposes and is formed by it… On the other hand he who does not resist force that enslaves and exterminate will be enslaved and exterminated.” Burroughs’ work begs the question, how does one resist the forces rallied against one without taking on the virally- tainted of the opposing force. To imagine a permanent solution proves an easy flirtation. In his essay “My Own Business,” Burroughs writes that “one is tempted to seek a total solution to the problem: Mass Assassination Day.” In The Place of Dead Roads Burroughs imagines a scenario where the Johnson Family organizes into armed squads who fan out to hunt the virally infected. Some Johnsons are assigned as “Shit Spotters” whose task it is to move out into cities and small towns across the country recording those who exhibit virus occupied behaviors. Acting upon the intelligence thus gathered, sharp shooters follow-up eliminating the detected Shits. Ultimately Burroughs tempers his fantasy. He observes, “Probably the most effective tactic is to alter the conditions on which the virus subsists.” In truth, indifference will prove the end of the Shit problem. “Conditions change, and the virus guise is ignored and forgotten.” Burroughs envisions the Shit position obsoleted by changes in normative culture: This trend toward sanity has brought the last-ditch dedicated shits out into the open, screaming with rage. Victimless crime, the assumption that what a citizen does in the privacy of his own dwelling is nonetheless someone else’s business and therefore subject to denunciation and punishment is the very lifeline of the right virus. Cutting off this air line would have the same action as interferon, which blocks the oxygen from certain virus strains. And slowly the Shits are ignored into a dull celluloid sunset. _________________________________________________________________