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Tea Party as Western movie

Guest Blogger

Philosopher Robert Pippin takes a wide-angle view of the politics expressed in old Hollywood Westerns. The films reflect American passions about the country’s founding and political allegiances through the years, he explains in “Hollywood Westerns and American Myth: The Importance of Howard Hawks and John Ford for Political Philosophy,” recently released by Yale University Press. Here, Pippin, a professor of social thought and philosophy at the University of Chicago, explores the parallels between the old Western movie ethos and today’s Tea Party movement.

By Robert Pippin

Almost all the great American Western movies are intensely political films within a distinctly American framework. In effect they all adopt in one way or another the mythological fiction that so fascinated political philosophers in the 17th and 18th centuries: the problem of the transition from a state of lawlessness, ruthless self-interest, and terrifying uncertainty, the “state of nature,” to a political order, the rule of law and the surrender of one’s right to decide everything in one’s own case.

They represent to us our own beliefs and passions about our founding; that is, about what was founded, and why the transition from the supremacy of virtues like honor, courage, and self-reliance to the now more important virtues of civility, trustworthiness, and prudence, were, all in all, “worth it.”

Some films are also haunted by the fact that the first founding essentially failed. The great experiment didn’t work; the nation exploded into one of the most deadly civil wars in recorded history, and the constant re-appearance of these ferocious animosities in the conflicts in Westerns can suggest that there is a real and continuing question about whether the “second founding” in the West (the conquest of native American lands) made possible more a lengthy truce than the achievement of, finally, a true union.

We seem to face that question again, or yet again (did the Civil War produce a new union or an endless tension-filled truce between two irreconcilable visions of the nation) in what has been called the rise of the anti-government right. The great feudal barons with their vast estates in empire Westerns, brutally attacking the arrival of farmers and fences, railroads and banks; rule of law civilians, full of fine phrases until they have to call on the wandering gunfighter or ex-gunfighter to save them; the inevitable romantic triangle, with a woman torn between love for a lawyer, an educator (Jimmy Stewart in “Liberty Valance”) and a supremely self-sufficient hero of great martial prowess (John Wayne in the same film), a figure for the country’s own tense, divided, self-image, all resonate in the language and images of the Sarah Palin or Tea Party right wing.

But one way of saying what is misguided and dangerous about such a mythic self-image (the “real” America) is that this is all a facile, even a puerile understanding of these films (and so a facile understanding of what the United States faces as the problem of its union).

In none of the great Westerns is the required sacrifice of self-sufficiency for the sake of civil order a mistake, or in any fundamental sense portrayed as regrettable. There are tragic losses of course, but vast historical gains.

Consider the three greatest roles in Westerns by John Wayne, long the great hero of conservatives. In “Red River,” he comes to learn that he has to cede his patriarchal, autocratic rule to the much more fraternal and modern regime of Montgomery Clift. In “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” he virtually sacrifices himself for the sake of what “Hally wants,” the Vera Miles character; that is, for schools (public schools), public works (irrigation) and, yes, regulation, with cattle barons “north of the picket wire” doing duty for the terrors caused by unregulated big oil and big banks nowadays. And in “The Searchers,” he stands outside the civil community in that famous scene at the end, but knowingly and with no illusions. He knows that as an unredeemed Confederate and racist, he is not fit for the civilized world and must wander off alone.

This is a small, indirect, and somewhat academic way of making a large point. But it is an important point that, apparently, large segments of the American voting public has yet to learn or is willing to accept, as we seem to re-enact, in a way familiar to all mythic repetition, the great division at the heart of our fragile union.

By Steven E. Levingston  |  June 29, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Blogger  | Tags: tea party and hollywood westerns  
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It's a beautiful argument and well analysed.

I find it interesting that the focus is on some of the subtlest works of the masters that have stood the test of time as art.

In my perceived reality culture is shaped by the quotidien and the overlooked, by 'Ronald Macdonald' rather than by the 'Mona Lisa'. The normative Western had a very crude symbololgy regarding outsiders who were to feared and fought, be they Red Indians, rogue government or outlaws.

This dichotomy (trying to unite a US culture through fear/resistance of outsiders) is the dominant theme in American culture today and is nowhere near resolution.

Posted by: Anosognosic | July 2, 2010 8:36 AM | Report abuse

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