Volume II Issue 2 Editorial
Some years ago, I visited my inlaws for Christmas. A local television station decided to celebrate the holidays with a John Wayne movie marathon; as I had never seen a John Wayne movie before, and I didn't feel up to the task of braving the shopping malls, I figured it was a good time to improve my cultural literacy.
I spent the weekend watching John Wayne. John Wayne the cowboy, John Wayne the war hero, John Wayne the Great American Patriot.
It was nothing if not educational.
John Wayne, born with the unfortunate name Marion Morrison, is an American cultural icon. He is not, however, a good actor. He does not lose himself in his roles; rather, his roles lose themselves in him. He played one character over and over again...in his movies and in his life. And that character was a particularly repugnant individual.
My first impression of John Wayne was that he was a clumsier and less intelligent Captain Kirk. His foremost impulse seemed to be to punch anybody he couldn't fuck. Like the Unabomber, he believed that political and social problems can be solved with sudden violence. His moral landscape was charted entirely in black and white; complexity and ambiguity were as alien to him as the heart of Antarctica is to a butterfly.
In a sense, he died at exactly the right time. Had he outlived the end of the Cold War, in a shifting political and social landscape suddenly less polarized and more complex, I don't think he could have adapted. John Wayne belongs to a world where the certainty of the white man's ascendancy was as unquestioned as the morning sunrise; where America is always right, everyone else is always wrong, women always just a step or two below their men; where macho swaggering bluster always carries the day. His crass characterizations of Indians and Communists and women and everybody else not blessed to be a true red-blooded middle-class American sound, to modern ears, uneducated, racist, sexist, and hopelessly outmoded.
But, fortunately, he died before the world caught on to what kind of man he was. Doubtless, some people would have continued to revere him even if he hadn't made his timely exit; his brand of dogma will always appeal to the Pat Robertsons and Charlton Hestons of the world.
It isn't really that I mind his sanctimonious self-assurance or his macho posturing or even his unselfconscious racism. Really, what galls me most about John Wayne, and the people who admire him and his mode of thinking, is his unwavering belief that there is only one right way to live. For John Wayne and those like him, the whole of the human condition reduces to a very simple moral equation: People like me are right; everybody else is wrong.
This kind of knee-jerk reaction hardly makes for a great American patriot. Quite the opposite, in fact; the patriotism that expresses from John's six-shooter doesn't demonstrate how much he loved America, only how much he hated everyone else. John Wayne reduced patriotism to a reflexive twitch.
A real patriot knows that My country, right or wrong requires no courage, and less thought. A real patriot is more likely to say My country: When right to be kept right; when wrong to be put right--because a real patriot knows that anything less is mere tribalism.
Therein lies the irony--John Wayne, the great American icon, hardly more sophisticated than his own crude caricature of the Indian. There is, in his worldview, only one right way to live; if you are like him, you are good, and if not, you are bad. The whole width and breadth of the human experience, reduced to the simplest of moral equations. He was not so much pro-American as he was anti-everything else.
John Wayne's time has passed. There are no savages left to fight any more, no Commies plotting to blow up the world. Being a man in the post-Cold War era is a bit more challenging than delivering a speech or a knuckle sandwich. And I don't think John Wayne ever was up to that challenge.