Monday, May 11, 2009

David Brooks gets the West all wrong
Tom Smith

I love Westerns and I really don't like David Brooks.  It is therefore a cause of high annoyance to me when Brooks starts to lecture Republicans on what is to be learned from Westerns and gets it so wrong.  He reckons:

Today, if Republicans had learned the right lessons from the Westerns, or at least John Ford Westerns, they would not be the party of untrammeled freedom and maximum individual choice. They would once again be the party of community and civic order.

They would begin every day by reminding themselves of the concrete ways people build orderly neighborhoods, and how those neighborhoods bind a nation. They would ask: What threatens Americans’ efforts to build orderly places to raise their kids? The answers would produce an agenda: the disruption caused by a boom and bust economy; the fragility of the American family; the explosion of public and private debt; the wild swings in energy costs; the fraying of the health care system; the segmentation of society and the way the ladders of social mobility seem to be dissolving.

But the Republican Party has mislearned that history. The party sometimes seems cut off from the concrete relationships of neighborhood life. Republicans are so much the party of individualism and freedom these days that they are no longer the party of community and order. This puts them out of touch with the young, who are exceptionally community-oriented. It gives them nothing to say to the lower middle class, who fear that capitalism has gone haywire. It gives them little to say to the upper middle class, who are interested in the environment and other common concerns.

As John Wayne might say, what a lot of horse pucky.  I reckon a man's entitled to his own opinions, but to foist these distinctly contemporary pablums upon the hard working men and women of the old West, as celebrated on the big screen, is gross anachromism and just wrong to boot.  The "disruption caused by a boom and bust economy"?  Is this some kind of joke?  What does Mr. Brooks imagine the West was?  It was one big boom and bust economy!  It was gold rushes, land grabs, round ups and cattle drives.  Farmers and ranchers staked their lives upon markets.  For heaven's sake, it was about as unregulated and unmitigated a market as you could hope to see.  If you were to even try to explain to any old West sorts what Brooks means by somehow mitigating the booms and the busts, they'd probably spit tobacco juice on your shoe.  To mitigate these booms and busts, if you tried to give them money they'd say they didn't need charity, and if you tried to take their money, they'd shoot you.  The reason why you had an old West to inspire the movies was that people were seeking economic opportunities at very high risk, sometimes because they had little to lose and sometimes out of sheer orneriness.  To have prissy little Miss Brooks telling us now the lesson to be learned from movies like The Searchers (! -- a delicate story involving the kidnapping, rape and murder of white women and children by the Commanche and their subsequent crushing by an avenging US Calvary -- how you get the Democrat agenda out of that tale is beyond me) is that we need to moderate the market so we can build communities, is just utterly baffling. 

The communities in these movies are at the dusty end of nowhere and are held together by the sheer grit of men and women who help themselves and God help any man who would try to separate them from the fruits of their labor.  The "fraying of the health care system"?  In a Western, the health care "system" is the method by which you drag the doc out of the saloon, get a cup of coffee into him and then hold old Jake down while the doc sets his leg;  not perfectly, but hell, Jake never walks anywhere he can ride anyhow.  I frankly don't believe Brooks has really watched these movies or if he did, that he really liked them.  Obamaconism is not to be found in them.  Let's just say, there's a reason Obama came from Chicago and not Cheyenne.

Academic sorts like to prate about the "mythos" of the Western film genre, but the fact is, there are a lot of people who still live and are quite a bit like the people portrayed in Westerns.  It's a myth based on a reality.  If you don't believe me, you should take a road trip from say Las Vegas to Missoula sometime, and stop at every little dusty town along the way.  Cow country is still out there, and it wasn't invented by Hollywood.  Westerners, if I may generalize, are an independent lot who believe in helping themselves and each other, but the idea that they want to pay high taxes so that communities can be built would strike them as absurd.  They would be skeptical and rightly so that paying high taxes would do anything to build communities, because they know a thing or two about how to build them.  They have a lot more to do with checking up to see if old Mrs. Olsen is taking her meds than it does with any new government program.  Is there a single Western in which a federal bureaucrat appears (with the exception of a US Marshall, which is different) who is not a knave, scoundrel and carpet bagger, and probably a tool of the railroads?  Politicians are uniformly depicted in Westerns as dishonest, oleaginous, yellow-bellied skunks.  As John Wayne puts it is arguably the best Western ever made, John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: "Out here a man settles his own problems." It doesn't take a village. It takes a Colt .45. But what it really takes is the man behind it. At least, that's what I get from the movies.

Here's a thought experiment for you.  In a typical Western, what character would David Brooks be?  The stoic sheriff, who's going to do his duty even if it means dying?  No.  The dandyish card shark? No.  The preacher?  No.  The black hatted villian?  No.  But I see him, stepping off the train from Denver or Chicago, taking a quick look around before he settles back into the first class car. So hot. So dusty. How do people live out here? He wouldn't know.

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Tom Smith


People with a faulty worldview always get all the conclusions wrong. It is inevitable.

Posted by: krome | May 12, 2009 6:37:30 AM


I'm a big fan of Eastwood's Westerns--and other Westerns of that era--but I can't seem to get excited about the Duke. Actually, I've never watched a John Wayne flick; he just seems too upright in comparison to Eastwood's whole "anti-hero" vibe. Am I selling Wayne short? And if I'm going to give him a shot, would you recommend "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" as the film of choice?

Posted by: spectator | May 12, 2009 7:45:04 AM

Well, if you haven't seen TMWSLV, you just have to see it. It's a great movie and a great Western. Jimmy Stewart somehow buffers the John Wayne effect, and it just works. Maybe the irony in the film cuts some of the Wayne uprightness. Lee Marvin also makes a great villain.

I know what you mean about JW. I prefer a grittier Western myself. Unforgiven or Pale Rider I will take any day over a JW flick. But this is partly just our age I think. You sort of have to make allowances for a movie like the Searchers, to understand how brutal and direct it is. Really violent stuff is going on, more violent than in any Eastwood movie, but it happens off screen. You may think Unforgiven is more violent than The Searchers, but the worst that happens in Unforgiven is that various men get gunned down. In the Searchers, at least two women are tortured, raped and murdered, and we are given to understand this is just the tip of the iceberg in Anglo-Commanche relations in Texas pioneer days (a story not often told -- there's a reason there are no Indian reservations in Texas). So with JW movies, you sort of have to see through the euphemisms and overlook some of the cornier Hollywood touches, calvary charges etc. If you start doing that, you can begin to see why he was so loved.

Posted by: Tom Smith | May 12, 2009 1:19:35 PM