Jun 22, 2008

May 17, 2008: Generation of Swine: Tale of Two Narratives, Tombstone Meets Rock Ridge.

As befitting a man who does not know, in his heart, who he really is, ‘Ol Two-Cows is always playing the part. He is constantly in costume, constantly assuming an identity. He has been seen variously as a firefighter in New York, a fighter pilot landing on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, the Rancher of Crawford, and the race-car driver at Daytona. He is a frustrated thespian playing, it seems, nearly every role, occasionally even President of the United States.

Ever since the Gipper crossed that line between acting and politics to becoming, in Bob Schieffer’s (1) words, “The Acting President,”(2) it has become increasingly possible to ‘suspend disbelief’ and by so doing, confuse fact from fiction; real from surreal. It isn’t simply that we have witnessed, in our lifetime, the likes of George Murphy, Ronald Reagan and Sonny Bono move from the stage to the political arena but, more recently, in the personages of Fred Thompson and, most notably, ‘Ol Two-Cows, the easy movement back and forth between acting and politics; between the stage and the political arena. In Thompson’s case moving from politics (minority counsel to the Senate Watergate committee) to acting, back into politics (Senator from Kentucky), then back again to acting, then again into politics (2008 Presidential campaign), then back again to acting. In the case of ‘Ol Two-Cows, we have a complete blurring of the line in which the present incumbent has become the penultimate “acting president”; the political arena has become a stage with the president ‘stage managed’. He appears only at carefully planned events before friendly audiences gathered by invitation only, a veritable house of mirrors and a perfect echo-chamber. Everything is reduced to a ‘photo-op’, and political life has become a serial presentation in which random events are eliminated, and issues are reduced to a set of ‘canned’ images orchestrated around the talking points of the day. Reality, political reality at least, is thereby reduced to a series of stage-props reflecting no greater depth than the movie sets on the back lots of Paramount, MGM or Warner Brothers. All of this befits the first generation of Americans raised on television, those self-same, “Boomers,” whose tender young minds were molded by the old ‘morality plays’ that were the “Westerns” of 1950s network television.

The circle has now been closed, wherein the republic stands transfixed as its own narcissistic images reflect back on themselves as in a house of mirrors; two dimensional forms endlessly replicating themselves, creating an illusion of infinity when, in fact, there is no depth at all. The real becomes surreal; so unreal as to be real. Fact and fiction become hopelessly confused, the political landscape becoming a kaleidoscope in which each twist produces wholly novel but seemingly symmetrical configurations.

Enter the Swine. In its endless quest to, “lead us now into the nineteenth century and deliver us from liberalism,” the swine have reduced our political discourse to a mere ‘morality play’ in which everything is reduced to black and white -- two-dimensional characters -- wherein eternal good battles eternal evil for the soul of the nation. To this end, every issue is subject to a reducio ad absurdum in which figures are drawn in high contrast; everything reduced to mere black and white with no chromatic spectrum, no whiter shades of pale. Only in a reality so transmogrified can it now be possible to hopelessly confuse Saddam Hussein with Hitler, or more incredibly, ‘Ol Two-Cows with Winston Churchill. In this context, our political discourse is to the real issues of the day what the modern cowboy movie is to the real history of the ‘wild’ west; mere form and no substance; all hat and no cows. The ‘Generation of Swine’ has been presented — at least, since that grand ‘ol cowboy John Wayne went to war in the movies — with the complete confusion of modern foreign and military policy with the western morality play.

To this end we now have, in its most recent manifestations, the tale of two narratives: The first is the Republican or Conservative narrative of Dodge City or, more appropriately for our present purposes, Tombstone. The latest Marshall of Tombstone, John McCain, is about to take over from ‘Ol Two-Cows after the townsmen have grown suspicious of rumors of collusion with the forces of evil and occasional cowardice in the face of danger. To combat the threat to ‘law and order’ posed by the liberals, and the ‘open-banditry’ of the Clantons (make that the Clintons), the Tombstone Chamber of Commerce has pressured the city council to replace the ‘acting’ sheriff with the genuine article. Here is a narrative cast in stark black and white. The forces of good (Republican, here represented by the good Marshall McCain) confront the devious forces of lawlessness and banditry who, if they take over, will Quayle before our enemies and, by ‘appeasing’ them, invite future acts of terrorism against the good people of the city.

The second is the Democratic or Liberal narrative in which the play parodies the Republican proposition. Here, Tombstone becomes Rock Ridge and the “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” (3) becomes an updated version of “Blazing Saddles” (4). In this narrative, Barack Obama emerges as a modern sheriff Bart who, through cool aloofness and a demonstrable wit and courage, wins the hearts and minds of a town heretofore awash in bigotry. It is difficult not to see some amusing parallels, as in William J. Clinton parroting the fictional Governor William J. Lepetomane (played by Mel Brooks). Confronted with the man he is about to make sheriff of Rock Ridge, the governor in that famous scene takes his Attorney General Hedy Lamarr (played by Harvey Korman) aside and says to him — as Clinton figuratively spoke to the Super Delegates — “Are you crazy? Can’t you see this man’s a n….”? But in the end, as in all morality plays Good triumphs over evil, and all is well with the world.

The differences in the narratives and how they reflect the mindset of each political party are telling. The Republican narrative, parroting the stark contrasts of western lore, presents us with a simple, albeit oversimplified, morality play. What is interesting here is that be it the “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” or “High Noon” (5), one is confronted with tales that reflect conflicts that could, and should, have readily been avoided. What has been lost to our collective understanding by these oversimplifications is that the Earps, while wearing the badge, were always dancing on both sides of the law, often seeing law enforcement as a means of waging personal vendettas. The Clantons, too, emerge as two dimensional villains but were actually seen by their contemporaries much more favorably. Likewise in “High Noon” Gary Cooper, here playing Marshal Will Kane had retired and was leaving town when he learns that Frank Miller (played by Ian MacDonald) is returning to town. Miller had been sent up to the big house by the Marshal and was on his way back to Hadleyville seeking revenge. This too was a fight, like modern Iraq, that could and should have been avoided. Kane could have simply kept going, got a court order restraining the criminal from contacting him but instead, significantly, decided to put his badge back on and fight, without the support of the townsmen, in the open streets.

The Democratic narrative is much more nuanced. Being a parody, the Democratic morality play gives us a chance to see conflict — especially conflict as it has come to be understood by a generation raised on ‘western’ morality plays — for what it is: mere two-dimensional cardboard cut-out figures battling over exaggerated claims. When I was a young man managing drive-in theatres, I asked the booking agent to send me “Blazing Saddles,” the subtitle of which was, “Or Never Give a Saga and Even Break.” Since that time, back in 1974, I have watched the film many times, and through the years many of my peers have asked the simple question: “What was the point of that movie”?

The point that Mel Brooks made in his classic comedy is the point that I am making here. That is our understanding of our collective history — in this case, the settlement of the Western frontier — is no deeper than the card-board cut-out figures that the townspeople made of themselves to create their fake “Rock Ridge”, in order to bamboozle the villains. Our understanding of the settlement of the west is no deeper than a back-lot set on the Warner Brothers studio lot. And, as in the old “Roy Rogers” television western, wherein Pat Brady would appear at the end of each episode with his Jeep, thereby transporting us back into the twentieth century, the fight that erupts in the fake “Rock Ridge” quickly pours out into other sets and through the Warner Brothers studios, out into the open streets, ending up at a theatre showing “Blazing Saddles” a perfect parody in which a parody becomes a parody of itself, as in those famous house of mirrors which have so much mesmerized the Generation of Swine.

The contrast in these two narratives is instructive in that it explains a great deal concerning the disconnect between the two political parties and why the respective political discourse passes by, like the ‘Flying Dutchman,’ unnoticed in the night. As Bill Maher once said, the Republicans accuse the Democrats of not loving their country. It’s not true. The difference is that the Republicans love their country like a four year old loves its mother. The Democrats love their country like an adult loves another adult, understanding and sometimes overlooking its faults, correcting it when it is wrong, but nevertheless loving its beauty and its character. Democratic love, Liberal love if you will, is much more nuance and much more mature, trying its best to become multi-dimensional in a two-dimensional world.

In the meantime, Barack Obama, by playing his best sheriff Bart, is slowly winning over the hearts and minds of main street America leading us, perhaps in time, to a more mature understanding of ourselves.


1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bob_Schieffer
2. Schieffer, Bob and Gates, Gary Paul The Acting President, 1989 E.P. Dutton, New York. 397 pages
3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gunfight_at_the_O.K._Corral
4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blazing_Saddles
5. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High_Noon

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