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Republicans Love Westerns

So says David Brooks. It really is true that professors love to say profound and subtle things about the films of John Ford, which often appear in PERSPECTIVES ON POLITICAL SCIENCE. These films, according to David, are all about taming the impulses of rugged individualism with order, community, religion, family, and civic bonds. Today's Republicans should learn from them to be less libertarian and more civilized. That makes some sense, as long as we don't, as the Democrats and Europeans often do, confuse civilization with a herd of apathetic dependents absorbed in trivial pursuits and shepherded by meddlesome schoolmarms. (Thanks to Ivan the K.)
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Discussions - 19 Comments

Peter, one of the most succinct and dead-on posts you've done.

Tony and Peter: Chris Burkett and John Marini are teaching a class on Westerns in the MAHG program this summer. Syllabus to be up soon.

Hunt down Mary Nichols' stuff on My Darling Clementine and High Noon for some of the best of this genre of profs saying profound things about cowboy movies.

Poor David Brooks. He seems to be drifting further and further around the bend.

What about Sergio Leone and the italian genre. Clint Eastwood in the man with no name trilogy is probably one of the westerns that most people favor and his character is pure anti hero. I think the western he is talking about was an unrealistic type of morality play that only serves to embitter the youth when they find out the world is not like a John Wayne movie at all. There has to be a balance where one learns morality and decency without being lied to by the creation of white knights who never loose a fight.

Perhaps Republicans like westerns, but I've heard that westerns are a distinctly American genre, and aren't Democrats Americans too? Do Democrats like detective noir stories instead? (unfortunately I think they have no time for movies period).

It is true that Repubclicans like westerns and John Wayne. But at Lawler states sometimes Republicans forget what is required to live together--let alone what is necessary to be civilized. Westerns are adept at showing this, but as Brutus claims "spaghetti westerns" point to nihilsm--as does Peckinpah's Wild Bunch (if that is considered a western).

So I guess one must define the western as Ford or Hawkes which must exclude revisionists like the excellent Peckinpah. I suppose Democrats like Peckinpah (although they misinterpret him) because he shows the sheer rapacity and oppresion of in Patricia Limericks words "the legacy of conquest."

Regardless of this quarrel in the school, one can learn much from westerns by viewing them on their own terms. Lawler's Perspectives on Political Science truly has some excellent articles regarding westerns.

Although (in the popular view) John Wayne is synonymous with taciturn American toughness and righteousness, I think that many of his roles (esp. in his John Ford westerns) can't be seen simply as white knights or unalloyed examples of American virtue (or any other kind). As heroes or tough guys, Ethan Edwards and Tom Doniphan are complex like Achilles and Othello. In their relationship to the fragile civilization around them, these manly men can as easily abandon or destroy it as fight for it. One's admiration for them may be intense, but it can't be complete, it seems.

JQA has a great point. Westerns are harldly all about civilizing man. Many mourn the pending civilization and glorify the state of nature where power equals rights. I'd say that Westerns on the whole are more about lawlessness than lawfulness. The fact that they discuss these problems makes them interesting, but I doubt that on the whole the verdict is that they are lawful.

The John Ford/Wayne ones portray society as a mixed blessing, generally only necessary b/c not all men are John Wayne. The Clint Eastwood versions are even more individualistic. The Eastwood versions really don't even touch on political society much, except to point out its injustice. Eastwood is a hero, or anti-hero, who vindicates himself, politics/civilization be damned. (See High Plains Drifter--in which Eastwood plays a role similar to the Joker in Dark Knight, only with no equal force for the "good" existing).

Actually while continuing to think about Eastwood and the Joker, allow me to elaborate.

In High Plains Drifter Eastwood plays a Sheriff who tried to govern an unruly and corrupt town. Because he followed the law, whipped to death in the stree, while the townspeople watched. So he comes back to life and retakes the town. Having already seen that the town was ungovernable with the end being justice, Eastwood governs the town solely by his whims, passions, and vengance. His only goal is to destroy society. He pretends that only by his protection will they survive when some bad guys arrive. He forces them to paint the town red, and changes the name of the town to Hell. Then when the bad guys come, he just leaves and lets the town get shot up. The movie is all about one man exposing the injustices of political sosciety and exacting vengance.

Fast forward to the Dark Knight. The Joker's whole point is to show that political society is bad and just covers up all our corruption. Rather than fixing man, political society adds to our badness the dishonesty of trying to hide it. The Joker wants to peel back the dishonesty by destroying Gotham. Eastwood did the same exact thing in his little western town-- destroyed it so that people could see how bad society had made them.

In both movies, society makes evil appear good, and the anti-hero disorders society so that people can recognize evil again.

Interesting stuff, considering some of the things that have come down recently is America in need of an anti hero? Do we need to see reality clearly once more before we get rescued? Can the anti-hero ever be a political creature?

Don't the noble lies just deny the dual nature of man and leave people confused about why they have the urge and capacity to do evil one minute and good the next? Love the idea of a western tearing down an unjust order (The man with no name against the federal reserve system, i would pay to see that). Now, to put my other question in a different way: Who could tear down an unjust order, Eastwood or Wayne? My thinking is that it takes the anti hero to tear down the unjust order becuase the white knight is so tethered to the system. Mabye then all orders are by nature unjust because the anti hero like the joker is an anarchist who has no system to sell.

Extremely interesting although I think our anti-hero is not where this post was meant to take us, haha.

The task of a civilized community is not only to drive out the big, hard, bad outlaws, but also to find a place, a status, a form of recognition for the big, hard, good warriors (so instrumental in driving out the bad guys). The town may have to become like the hero, since he, laying his life on the life, sets the bar for worthiness.

I'm not sure that civilization is capable of honoring its heroes. You point out the failures of the town to do so in High Noon. Liberty Valance was the same--John Wayne died a forgotten man in the town he created. Heroes do justice by going beyond the law and can never fit comfortably within society. In Dark Knight, Batman had to take the blame too, a scapegoat for the civilization that he saved. I agree with you that a proper civilization would become like the hero, but I'm not sure that is possible. (This may indicate that to at least some extent all orders are indeed unjust.)

The hero focuses on political justice, the anti-hero focuses on individual justice. This contrast is the main difference between Liberty Valance and High Plains Drifter. In the John Wayne movies, the hero generally concedes that man needs society to be good. Therefore, he applies his heroics and sometimes even sacrifices his greatness to form society. He compromises for the collective good. In Liberty Valance, Wayne kills the bad guy but gives the glory to the lawful Stoddard, thus sacrificing his own position to the lawyer b/c he believed men needed political society.

The anti-hero comes from the opposite perspective: Men don't need political society; political society needs men. If the political society can't handle a man-in all his justness and power-then that society can go to hell because it isn't founded on just principles. The anti-hero doesn't compromise, and if being himself destroys the town, that merely reveals society's injustice. High Noon leaves the viewer hanging because Kane never really decides whether to destroy the town. Kane fights for the town and then leaves it.

Question: should we value individual greatness/justice more than the lesser but surer justice of society? Is the low but stable plain of the founding a good thing?

Eastwood is a drifter, he chooses the individual, and tears down society as Brutus says. I don't know if a hero/white knight could ever tear down a society or if he is too constrained to the system. It seems that even if the white knight did tear down an unjust order, he would immediately try to rebuild as JQA points out. The white knight believes in society.

The anti-hero does not believe in society. He thinks that all society is founded on a lie and that this lie enables society to come together to do great harm--greater than individuals can do. The Joker's best discussion was when he said that society made evil ok by "planning" it. As long as it's planned, no one is shocked no matter how evil. The anti-hero destroys this order and unmasks evil.

Does society only mask evil, or can society actually reduce evil? I don't know, but it seems the hero and anti-hero have different conclusions.

If westerns are about founding and/or preserving a just society under primitive, violent conditions, then an outstanding recent example -- a "western" in all but name -- is the film Defiance.

The director of the film, Edward Zwick (who also directed Glory, The Last Samurai, and Blood Diamond), is a devotee of John Ford, Kurosawa, and Shakespeare, and it shows. He and Clint Eastwood are, in my opinion, the best classic, politically serious storytellers working in film today.

Thanks for the compliment, Clint. I'd say that Westerns (or morality tales in other forms, like successful superhero stories like The Dark Knight) have only qualified praise for law and order, especially if it becomes over rule-ridden and nit-pickingly procedural. In this scenario, everyone seems to be restrained (like a herd), but whether evil and tyranny are restrained (or rather find a home there) is a question. It's a question whether a regime of submission to rules and regulations -- a regime of smallness, one might say -- allows the development and exercise of virtue. It seems that virtue requires a certain large scale, and freedom of action. It may be that vice, by contrast, may operate on large or minute, mundane scales.

Anyway, Western and other morality plays are great in showing virtue writ large (and vice writ large too), and the precondition seems to be a low level of civilization -- where (Zues's) law and order are seen as good goals, but where, Titans and demigods walk the earth, doing large (i.e., big magnitude) harm and good.

The task of a civilized community is not only to drive out the big, hard, bad outlaws, but also to find a place, a status, a form of recognition for the big, hard, good warriors (so instrumental in driving out the bad guys). The town may have to become like the hero, since he, laying his life on the life, sets the bar for worthiness.

It seems that the town in High Noon, in its cowardice over Frank Miller, showed that it was not worthy of its own freedom and laws, and that it could not properly honor its savior, Will Kane. So at the end, he rejected their sheriff's badge as a sign of contempt for the town, and leaves. High Plains Drifter (note the allusion in the title) might be seen as a hallucinatory sequel, in which Will Kane expresses his anger at the town not by leaving it, but by staying and ruling it. In his anger-contempt, he decides that the town, which lacks the core civic virtues of justice and courage, deserves despotism and arbitrary rule. Now, the fact that he administers this rule certainly lets his virtue atrophy while his vice and cruelty grow. But this situation benefits (increases the virtue of) no one -- not the townspeople, not the Man with No Name. It's a nihilistic or negative-lesson movie.

One of the fundamental political tasks, since Homer and Plato to Shakespeare to the present, is to give political honor to great courage and justice.

For us today, this may not appeal to be so fundamental a problem (and Westerns - though not superhero movies -- are on the wane) because life seems so small, so technologically and bureaucratically regulated; great efforts might have been necessary to establish this way of life, but none are needed to maintain it. As for ever-present spiritedness and competitiveness, and ambition for fame, they're directed into the arenas of organized sports and business and entertainment, which I suppose express some kind of excellence. But consider how much pro sports has tolerated and even promoted both hypermanliness (aggression, or a courage divorced from moderation) and injustice (the doping scandals). And of course, think about the recklessness, imprudence, and fraud in the business sector lately. Are any of these arenas a place where you'd find virtue or vice writ large, as in a Western or morality tale?

Then again, maybe there can be such a Western about tearing down an unjust order, which would be a great deed. But then the hero (or the townspeople) couldn't just leave things in chaos, a la High Plains Drifter. They'd have to build. They'd have to tell their foundational stories and noble lies to themselves and their posterity (Ransom Stoddard, a man of peace and law, killed the outlaw Liberty Valence; the lawless vigilante Batman killed lawman Harvey Dent, who never gave up faith in public justice; etc.)

Ok, I have been thinking about this all day and our white knight in The Dark Knight is Harvery Dent and the anti hero is the joker. What I can't settle on is where is Batman. By our definitions he is not a hero. Batman does not really believe in the society because he is willing to break its laws in order to achieve a higher end. He works outside of society, he could easily become harvey dent with all the resources of bruce wayne, but he does not. However, he can't be an anti hero because he believes in the principle or at least utility of society. He see's the lying and the hypocracy and wants no part of it, but he still sees value in the system for those below him?

I think that JQA and Clint are on to something when it comes to HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER, especially as a kind of sequel to HIGH NOON, but their is a major shift in DRIFTER's critique of society and one that is influenced by the New Left. The town of Lagos stands in not for society in general, but for American middle-class society in particular. The people are racist. The town's wealth is based on theft and exploitation. Their marriages are seething with jealousy, hate and frustration. Their religion is self-interested and self-justifying hypocrisy. There are multiple levels ot the movie (a ghost story, a revenge story), but one of them is of the Drifter as a kind of Weatherman nemesis to Lago/America. Also like the New Left, the energy is expended to destroy the loathsome existing society rather than in building a just one.

But there are huge moral differences between the Drifter and the Joker. The Drifter is (we learn) enacting a certain kind of moral vision. He is visting a horrible vengeance on the guilty. He is also quite kind, if gruff, to put upon minorities. The Joker is a pure nihilist. He is no seeking to replace a hypocritical fake morality with a better system of ethics but is seeking to explain to the world that all virtue is simply a cover for interest.

The Nolans are smart and brave to let the Joker have extended sermons to explain his worldview. I also like that, when the Joker's view is put to the test, it is revealed to be simplistic and immmune to empirical evidence.

THE DARK KNIGHT affirms the existence of a moral law that transcends mere interest and chance but does so with alot of irony and tragedy in regards to the relationship between morality and political society. Wayne and Dent agree that a decent society based on the rule of law is preferable to one based on the rule of a just man. But how to get there? Dent becomes the symbol of political society but be breaks. Batman has to be demonized so that the public can be rallied to a decent political society. While the movie affirms the existence of a transcendent good, the political society has to be based on a simplified noble lie because the truer, and sadder version of good (that the man of the law was inferior to the man of personal justice, but that the rule of law is still preferable to the rule of the just man)might prove unendurable.

The last thought I have on this is: If you are a decent man then you don't really need laws or society. It is for the evil that we need laws to at least make there be consequences to injustice. It is, in some ways, the weak who need the rule of law. At least in the western anti hero sense, and at the same time the weak who get ahead through exploiting the framework of society. Batman, Eastwood: they would not call the police if they had something stolen or were threatened. The Joker, for all his nihlism, at least would never try to use the framework of society to get over on someone. In this way society serves as our leviathan? But, some don't stop at protecting they use the leviathan for their own intrest. Mabye we need something to protect the strong from the leviathan of the weak.

I think Pete's right about High Plains Drifter and The Dark Knight. In its view of damnable civic sins, HPD does have a radical 1960s tinge. In TDK, right, the movie ends with Gotham being refounded or restored as (arguably) a better community, but with a noble lie or simplification as its public teaching. And it seems to go something like:

Harvey Dent, the man wholly dedicated to law, is our citizen ideal (like the handsome portrait of him in his memorial at the film's end). His righteousness and zeal for this-world justice never caused him to crack, just as the city's law-and-order is sufficient to redress all wrongs. The city need not (and indeed should not) look outside of its law-and-order to maintain a safe and just Gotham. Batman is not to be considered as a necessary "lawless-executive" supplement to the city's law-and-order. On the contrary, he is a vigilante and a criminal, and the city must have a zero-tolerance policy toward him, not only for his killing of Dent, but also for his active contempt for the law, and for providing a powerfully bad example for crackpot vigilantes (psuedo-Batmen) and the Joker himself. Harvey Dent as Public Citizen, Batman as Public Enemy.

Now, these are all, of course, half-truths and oversimplifications. But the full, complex truth -- that Gotham cannot do justice or be just, or can do so only very limitedly, or that it's official hero had an ugly murderous side while its official villain was scrupulously just -- can this really be expressed publicly, regularly, in schools and newspapers, without making the city look bad, without causing the citizens to have contempt for it and its laws -- and maybe laws in general -- leading to unfortunate, Jokeresque unpredictability and violence?

Or, to shift back to John Ford for a moment, could Shinbone really have honored Tom Doniphan in the city's "legend"? Can Shinbone really endorse Tom's actions (like Batman, Tom does his most important work in the shadows) as a legitimate, regular form of justice?

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