I Told You So; or, Republicans Aren’t Cowboys

Rugged individualism takes you far, especially if you’re a misanthrope. For the rest of us, it’s helpful to be nice to the neighbors, to let in the ConEd man to check the meter, and to obey street signs.

What has gotten my goat since Day One of Politics with the Sore-Loser Republican Party is how unobservant they seem to be. I know about having to use one-liners that make a statement at the expense of nuance (see Exhibit A: the first line of the post) but how is it possible that so many ultra-conservatives use the power of the Cowboy myth so poorly? The daily comparisons to Americans and cowboys have diminished, but many Republicans and conservative pundits are still compelled to evoke sweeping open spaces where your spirit can blow free (I want to know: does it get as tangled as hair does? Cuz that sux).

That open space is still the West of the imagination, because it seems that ultra-conservatives can only think in terms of the past, and the frontier of the late 1800s (you know the one–in which many native Americans were bullied, cheated, and killed to get their land?) And the hero of that open space is the cowboy. Not the common cowhand but the uncommon gunfighter. And not Billy the Kid but celluloid gunslingers, who have really great lines and are lit from attractive angles.

My whole take is that what keeps getting referred to is a fictive device kind of region, not the real down-and-dirty and totally awesome and scary and fantastic Western states. And lo, I find a smooth-shaven white man who can not only talk the political talk, but has also seen his western movies and actually observed.

May 4th was my birthday (yippie-yi-ki-yay!) and the day when David Brooks, op-ed columnist for the New York Times, described what many classic westerns portray, and it isn’t the shoot-from-the-hip crap. For a full read, click here.

Republicans generally like Westerns. They generally admire John Wayne-style heroes who are rugged, individualistic and brave. They like leaders — from Goldwater to Reagan to Bush to Palin — who play up their Western heritage. Republicans like the way Westerns seem to celebrate their core themes — freedom, individualism, opportunity and moral clarity.

But the greatest of all Western directors, John Ford, actually used Westerns to tell a different story. Ford’s movies didn’t really celebrate the rugged individual. They celebrated civic order.

For example, in Ford’s 1946 movie, “My Darling Clementine,” Henry Fonda plays Wyatt Earp, the marshal who tamed Tombstone. But the movie isn’t really about the gunfight and the lone bravery of a heroic man. It’s about how decent people build a town. Much of the movie is about how the townsfolk put up a church, hire a teacher, enjoy Shakespeare, get a surgeon and work to improve their manners.

The movie, in other words, is really about religion, education, science, culture, etiquette and rule of law — the pillars of community. In Ford’s movie, as in real life, the story of Western settlement is the story of community-building. Instead of celebrating untrammeled freedom and the lone pioneer, Ford’s movies dwell affectionately on the social customs that Americans cherish — the gatherings at the local barbershop and the church social, the gossip with the cop and the bartender and the hotel clerk.

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.

God bless those who can refer to the themes of My Darling Clementine. Maybe we are a bunch of cowboys. In the best possible way.

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