Tuesday, May 05, 2009

John Ford Westerns & The Republican Party

David Brooks the token conservative at the New York Times has an interesting column today arguing that the Republicans can learn a lot by watching western movies directed by John Ford. He writes in part:

Republicans generally like Westerns. They generally admire John Wayne-style heroes who are rugged, individualistic and brave. They like leaders — from Goldwater to Reagan to Bush to Palin — who play up their Western heritage. Republicans like the way Westerns seem to celebrate their core themes — freedom, individualism, opportunity and moral clarity. But the greatest of all Western directors, John Ford, actually used Westerns to tell a different story. Ford’s movies didn’t really celebrate the rugged individual. They celebrated civic order.

For example, in Ford’s 1946 movie, “My Darling Clementine,” Henry Fonda plays Wyatt Earp, the marshal who tamed Tombstone. But the movie isn’t really about the gunfight and the lone bravery of a heroic man. It’s about how decent people build a town. Much of the movie is about how the townsfolk put up a church, hire a teacher, enjoy Shakespeare, get a surgeon and work to improve their manners

He points out that people who live in densely populated cities and suburbs want protection and community protection and not rugged individualism and that the Republican Party needs to appeal to these folks. To read his entire column click on the title for a link.

Jonah Goldberg of National Review online in "The Corner" blog offers this rebuttal:

Yeah, I suppose Western cowboy movies support that point — to a point. But Brooks seems to be arguing with strawmen and leaving out all sorts of important considerations.....

What is left out here is that most Republican talk of untrammeled freedom (which, I confess to hearing less of than David does) is in relation to the federal government. One of the binding convictions of conservatism and the Republican Party generally is the idea that the federal government is too intrusive on civic order and community norms. Certainly, one can add big government and high taxation to that long list of challenges to the family and local community without becoming a radical invidualist.

My larger problem with Brooks's approach is that it is corrupted with category errors. Local communities are different than sprawling continental nations. Sure there are themes of both community and individualism in Westerns, but how anyone could anchor a column around the movie My Darling Clementine, and see it as an inspiration for a Washington-led political agenda is beyond me. I've seen a lot of Westerns. Few of them support the idea that people should look to Washington for guidance — never mind orders — on how to organize their lives. Of course, David is right that Westerns celebrate civic order and community life. But he misses the point that they also celebrate localism and actual communities. David talks about how people feel like they want to belong to a community and then ticks off stuff about environmentalism, class status, and capitalism. These are all worthy issues, but they have little to do with what most people have in mind when they talk of community, or at least most conservatives.

I suspect this stuff is in his next book, because it's a theme he keeps revisiting. I do hope he spends at least a little time differentiating between his idea of a community-driven approach to politics from Hillary Clinton's, because this sounds an awful lot like a Republican version of It Takes A Village.

I tend to agree more with Jonah; but, I think Brooks has a point that "Rugged Individualism," as mush as I love it, may not appeal to the guy in a large suburb who has to drive two hours to work each day and is afraid his kid is joining a gang.In any case they are still talking or writing about director John Ford and he has been dead for 36 years. He would love it. His movies live on!