Can Disney’s Davy Crockett Save America?


1davycrockettxp2My parents used to tell me that I could sing “Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier” before I could talk. I don’t doubt it; I loved that show. Fess Parker, a Texan, played Crocket in television’s first three-episode mini-series, produced by Walt Disney in 1955. The theme song, sung by Parker, was the nation’s number 1 hit for 13 weeks. I sang it constantly, setting a coonskin cap on top of my three-foot self and banging on a plastic ukulele I couldn’t play.

“Be sure you’re right, then go ahead,” was Crockett’s motto. Out of the mouth of a legendary American frontier hero, it’s often misunderstood as a kind of dangerous, simple-minded willfulness. One can almost hear George W. Bush saying it, though he’d put a period in place of the comma: Be sure you’re right (full stop). Then go ahead (smirk, chin bob and shoulder dip).

However, as the saying appears in John W. Barber’s 1857 Hand Book of Illustrated Proverbs, it reads more like Emerson, Thoreau, William James and John Dewey than George Armstrong Custer:

Be cautious all, abroad, mind where you tread
Be not deceived, be sure you’re right, then go ahead.

It speaks to setting incautious certainty aside in favor of open-minded experimental action, and that is the core of America’s most original philosophy, pragmatism. Some even say its roots lie in practices of the first Americans, the indigenous people the real Crockett championed. Crockett, by the way, destroyed his brief career in Congress when he opposed President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act. Disney dramatized Crockett’s fundamental humanism. In one episode, Crockett faced down three racists who were trying to take away Indian land. “Indians have rights,” Crockett said. “They’re just folks like anybody else.”

All human actions are experimental. We have to “go ahead,” but we’d best leave the cock-sure behind us when we go.

Of course, it’s sadly true that the ears of arrogant, cock-sure and ugly Americans haven’t exactly been open to the nation’s philosophers. Too many actually oppose action to philosophy, as if thinking before acting is a weakness.

It may seem nutty to turn to Walt Disney for progressive insight, but it’s often forgotten that in Disney’s world, the Indians were heroes and Custer was a villain. Heroes like Crockett weren’t lonely, anti-social individualists. They acted on behalf of community. J.G. O’Boyle wrote in the Journal of Popular Film and Television:

A close examination of Disney’s historical film output shows a consistent pattern of antiracist, anti-war, anti-authoritarian messages – messages often at odds with the prevailing popular mood of the time.

So, can Disney’s Davy Crockett save America?

The other day I wrote a piece about a new study that shows broad-mindedness leads to happiness, and happiness leads to broader, associative thinking that is more creative. The author, Harvard’s Moshe Bar, speculates that the happiness reward gives us a survival advantage.

Certainty and dogmatism lead to unhappiness – and quite often to peril. Science is confirming Crockett’s advice. Move ahead, but do so with an open mind and an understanding that absolutist illusions of certainty are dangerous.

There is a human tendency to avoid uncertainty, a tendency often exploited by the authoritarian right. They aren’t the only ones, of course. Ideologues of all stripes quit thinking creatively and insist that truth belongs exclusively to their ideology.

Ronald Reagan was a master at using melodramatic American myths of the cock-sure frontier hero. In the end, though, Reagan was open-minded enough to trust Mikhail Gorbachev. It’s just another dumb ideological fiction that Reagan “won” the Cold War. But he had sense enough to open his mind a bit, get out of the way and let the historic changes happen – a move Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and other hidebound exploiters of the mythic, unbending cowboy hero are still angry about.

We can never be sure we’re right, of course. Crockett’s motto would be more accurate, if more cumbersome, if it read, “Be sure you’re right as you can be, then go ahead. Adjust your future actions to the consequences.” Absolutists on the right will call this moral relativism. Absolutists on the left will say it lacks revolutionary zeal. They’re both wrong. It’s just smart.

Crockett gave us sound advice, and there’s another benefit. The authoritarian right has created a false image of frontier-style individualism. And that gives progressives and opportunity to win favor from voters who understand that thought is action’s hero, and that real heroes are socially minded champions of community, not Ayn Rand pathological loners. Generations were taught that by Walt Disney, for crying out loud. We ought to remember the lessons.

Author: Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith has spent the past 30 years in journalism and politics, where he’s made a name for himself as a writer, campaign manager, activist, think tank analyst and, as Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas says, a “legendary political consultant and all-around good guy.” “There’s no one like him,” says author George Lakoff. CNN commentator Paul Begala says, “He has unmatched experience, a graceful pen (or pixel nowadays) and deep insight into the best and worst of us.” Novelist Sarah Bird speaks of his “lucid and lyrical” prose. And, she says, he’s fun. Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington says Glenn writes with “grace and abundant humor” and “uses his colorful experiences in Texas to enlighten us all.”

Smith led Ann Richards’ successful 1990 campaign for Governor of Texas. He worked for former Texas Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby and U.S. Senator Lloyd Bentsen. Earlier, Smith was a political reporter for the Houston Chronicle and the Houston Post. He’s coordinated national campaigns for groups such as In 2004, he authored the highly acclaimed book, The Politics of Deceit: Saving Freedom and Democracy from Extinction. He also wrote Unfit Commander, a book that detailed George W. Bush’s mysterious disappearance from military service.

In 2004, Smith was featured in the film, Bush’s Brain, a documentary about Karl Rove. Smith provided commentary on Rove’s role as then-President Bush’s senior advisor. He has made numerous media appearances with Chris Mathews on Hardball, Joe Scarborough, Brit Hume, and many others. He writes a regularly for top national web sites, including FireDogLake and Huffington Post.

As a senior fellow at George Lakoff’s prestigious Rockridge Institute in Berkeley he studied, wrote and taught on the power of metaphor and narrative in political communications. He also lectured on religion and politics at the Starr King School for Ministry in Berkeley. As a sponsor and organizer, he has pulled together numerous national events with progressive religious leaders. He also organized a celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King at Riverside Church in New York City as well as “Freedom and Faith” bus tours, which was a nationwide campaign for social justice and progressive values.

Smith’s play, Double Play, which explored American Western myths and legends, was held over to sold-out audiences. He’s even written and performed songs in the Americana tradition, such as his best-known song, “Helping Marty Robbins,” a tribute to his hometown, Houston.

Most recently, Smith is the creator of DogCanyon, a political and cultural web site covering state, national and global issues from a Texas perspective. DogCanyon is an exhilarating and unique site that gets the connections between politics and culture and explores both the personal side of politics and the ups, down, craziness and beauty of “life its ownself,” as humorist Dan Jenkins would say. DogCanyon offers heartfelt personal essays, hard-hitting political analysis, and, most importantly, laughs.

As Paul Begala said, Smith writes in “the finest, firmest, fearless tradition of Texas essayists like Molly Ivins.”

12 thoughts on “Can Disney’s Davy Crockett Save America?”

  1. “Be cautious all, abroad, mind where you tread
    Be not deceived, be sure you’re right, then go ahead.”

    Davy Crockett, Mindfulness Zen Master.

  2. Hey, no love for the pre-Jed Clampett Buddy Ebsen as Georgie Russell?
    Also, FWIW, the Kentucky Headhunters do a great cover of the song.

  3. Great post. My seven-year-old self loved that series, too. BTW, Mr Pierce sent me here from Altercation.

  4. A bit off topic, but some scholars have noted the pro-environmental slant in Disney movies. For example, David Whitley in The Idea of Nature in Disney Animation argues that the environmental movement of the 1960s and following owes something to the ways in which the natural world was depicted in movies like Bambi.

    P.S. I also found this blog by way of Charlie Pierce and Altercation.

  5. “They’re both wrong. It’s just smart.”
    I’ve been trying to get some people to understand this very basic idea for ages, often to no avail. Too many think that it either makes you just too darn smart for your own good, or some kind of limp-wristed sissy. Sigh.
    FYI, I too was directed here by Pierce.

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