[Marxism] The politics of the Western movie

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Jul 1 15:11:07 MDT 2010

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 

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

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