Thursday, Jan. 2, 2014

Tea Party in the Old West?

By David Luhrssen
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Liberalism has often floundered this century against the right. Maybe one reason is that liberals stand on political platforms while rightists ride with the foundational myth of America as a frontier land of rugged cowboys. Douglas Brode maintains in his invigorating study, Dream West: Politics and Religion in Cowboy Movies (University of Texas Press), that the right has no deed of ownership over those myths. As said by country music’s left-of-center Willy Nelson: “My heroes have always been cowboys.” Memo to the White House: a cowboy is far more compelling than an accountant reciting Obamacare’s long-term fiscal benefits. Maybe what the Democrats need are cowboys to rescue the downtrodden from the snidely Koch brothers and to run Rush Limbaugh out of town?

It matters little that most elements of America’s historical mythology—curiously focused on the shifting borders of the Western frontier rather than the Revolutionary War and the founding of the republic—never happened the way we assume it did. A myth is not a news report but a story that invests existence with meaning. Brode’s two-fold mission in Dream West is to remind us that dime novelists and Hollywood screenwriters spun our ideas about the mythic Old West, and to show that this mythic cycle is often contrary to Tea Party ideology.

Witness that hero of numerous westerns, Wyatt Earp, a real-life town marshal in Tombstone who actually fought a gun battle against a family of trolls called the Clantons. The historical Earp was enforcing a gun control ordinance (passed by a town council intent of creating a civil society) against the scofflaw Clantons. “Resistance to change associated in the early twenty-first century with the tea-party movement correlates to the Old West code of the Clantons, not the Earps,” Brode writes.

As Joel McCrea’s Earp says in the 1955 movie Witchita: “If men don’t have guns, they can’t shoot each other.” It’s not an argument appreciated by the National Rifle Association, yet ironically, former NRA president Charlton Heston was cast in an Earp film, Tombstone (1993), and the Red State crowd loved it. Most westerns were about dispelling chaos and creating (or imposing) community, a concept that must be anathema to the radical individualists on America’s far right.

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