In the sixth part of Men At Arms, Vimes comes to a conclusion. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read Discworld.
Trigger Warning: For discussion of racism and xenophobia
Holy shit, THIS BOOK IS JUST BARRELING FORWARD. Lots to talk about, so let’s get right down to it.
The Dinner Party
So, this book was published over twenty years ago. It’s the year of our Lord, 2015, and the words spoken by Sybil’s rich friends are not even remotely different from what we still hear today. I’m writing this after spending the morning having to read all the garbage that Donald Trump is spewing, and how it continues to bolster and enable the horrible racism imprinted into the fabric of my country. We haven’t changed at all; the face of it did. The victims are still largely the same, though the focus often changes to whomever is the closest to achieving some sort of social or political power.
That part is important when discussing this section of the book because there’s this mistaken nostalgia that grips the rich citizens of Ankh-Morpork. It’s the kind of nostalgia that imagines a world that only existed for them.
“I admit that the old kings were not necessarily our kind of people, toward the end,” said the Duke of Eorle, “but at least they stood for something, in my humble opinion. We had a decent city in those days. People were more respectful and knew their place. People put in a decent day’s work, they didn’t laze around all the time. And we certainly didn’t open the gates to whatever riff-raff was capable of walking through.”
Is that really the world that existed? Or is that the world Eorle constructed to justify his opinion? Look, even if we accept that the influx of trolls and dwarfs is a recent thing, this still doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. What denotes a decent city? Who is being lazy in this scenario? How can someone be both lazy and steal someone else’s job? Which one is it?
Look, it’s honestly a losing game to argue with these sort of people. (Trust me, I know; I was raised by one.) But I’m examining what happens here because I think it’s a significant part of the novel. Men At Arms feels like it is deliberately about the anxieties that occur when a ruling class must accept that the people they’re ruling have changed. So what does Sam Vimes do as he listens to the horrible garbage that these people spew at him?
He fucks with them.
I think it’s telling that they all expect Vimes to agree with him, first of all. Have you ever had that experience, y’all? I remember once, I somehow magically passed as straight back when I was in college (!!!!! HOW, IT ALMOST NEVER HAPPENS !!!!!), and I sat a table in the dining hall while a bunch of straight men complained about how the gays were taking over anything, and they expected me to support them! It’s such a strange phenomenon, so I love that Vimes initially does what’s expected of him. He repeats their bigotry and takes it a step further, all so he can goad them into contradicting themselves:
“You know,” Vimes shook his head, “you know, that’s what’s so damn annoying, isn’t it? The way they can be so incapable of any rational thought and so bloody shrewd at the same time.”
WELL. WELL. But here’s the thing: Vimes may be doing a beautiful and hilarious thing here, but I don’t think he should be exempt from this same criticism. When Sybil confronts him about his behavior at the dinner, she says:
“But I’ve often heard you being… rude about dwarfs and trolls.”
“That’s different. I’ve got a right.”
I think I know what’s being said here: Vimes dislikes everyone, so his dislike of the trolls and dwarfs is not racist because it’s not special. I call foul on that because you can’t suddenly claim yourself exempt from this just because you dislike other groups. Misanthropy doesn’t excuse bigotry.
I love that Men At Arms is also an unabashed mystery. It’s a real case that the Watch are pursuing, and it’s got all the cool tropes and little details that come with this kind of story. While the reader is a bit ahead of Vimes and Carrot, Pratchett cleverly doesn’t put us so far ahead that we’re bored by the discovery process. All we know is that Edward was behind both murders, that he stole something vital form the Assassins’ museum, and that this will all lead to Carrot… becoming king? Sort of?
Regardless, I think one of the other neat things about the scene in Hammerhock’s workshop was that it was a chance for Vimes to learn more about dwarf culture. There’s a lot here he didn’t know beforehand, like the fact that dwarfs melt down tools after a dwarf dies. Re-using them is considered obscene! On top of that, a dwarf’s workshop is a sacred thing. Actually, I don’t even know that “sacred” is the right word. Maybe “intimate” works better, because it’s an intensely personal space. Even the fact that dwarfs refuse to believe that a human can actually help solve this murder is a new cultural fact he learns!
So what does he do with all this information? Vimes has experienced the xenophobic bigotry of the rich folks; he’s seen how the dwarfs are trying to build a life in Ankh-Morpork; and he knows that ultimately, no one but dwarfs are going to care about Hammerhock’s murder. Thus:
The point was… well, he didn’t like dwarfs and trolls. But he didn’t like anyone very much. The point was that he moved in their company every day, and he had a right to dislike them. The point was that no fat idiot had the right to say things like that.
Like… I get it? To some extent? No one is obligated to like anyone ever, but he’s still assigning this value to an entire group. He’s close, but he’s not there. At the very least, though, he recognizes that something deeply wrong is going on here in his city, and it’s up to him to ignore Lord Vetinari in order to stop it. That is admirable.
The original text contains use of the word “idiot.”
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