Real True Grit

“Well, there is no beat of a good friend.”

–Deputy Marshal Rooster Cogburn, in the novel, True Grit.

“He is not my friend.”

–Young Mattie Ross, speaking of Rooster Cogburn, in True Grit.

The American myth of the rugged, self-sufficient individual is ever-present in our culture. Think of Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, a character based on the nameless “Continental Op” of Dashiell Hammett’s noir thriller, Red Harvest. The characters abandon the very concept of community. They no longer even want a name that could be known by others.

The myth, of course, is just a fictionalized reflection of a belief held by many Americans: the self-contained individual is all. The furtherance of individual liberty, with little regard for the fate of the community at large, is the only legitimate role of government. The belief comes with magical thinking (or cynical slight-of-hand) that unrestrained selfishness will produce more for all than selflessness, altruism, or compassion.

Charles Portis’s True Grit and the 2010 film version by the Coen Brothers turn the myth on its head. In the process, the works tell us something about loneliness, inequality and the pursuit of friendship in contemporary America. We can look at the “true grit” of the book and movie as a reference to the courage to befriend others selflessly despite differences and barriers.

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A Plutocratic Universe

Autocrats, plutocrats, authoritarian ideologues and elitists of all stripes speak often of the people’s inability to govern themselves in a complex world that requires expertise – namely, the self-justifying expertise of the elite themselves. With surprising frankness, federal appeals court Judge Richard A. Posner summed up the elite’s paternalistic rationale:

Few citizens have the formidable intellectual and moral capacities (let alone the time) required for the role that [popular democracy] assigns to the citizenry…

The anti-democratic sentiment is hard enough to stomach. But what really galls is the blindness to an indisputable fact of history: it’s the autocrats, plutocrats, dictators, duci, fuhrers, imperial presidents and corporate barons who have lacked the necessary “intellectual and moral capacities” to cope.

Even historically exalted leaders are usually only those who’ve succeeded in cleaning up the messes of their predecessors. And they do it by widening their circle of advisers, sometimes all the way to the people they serve. Franklin Roosevelt comes to mind. The years of his administration saw a major spike in broad government/political engagement and voter turnout.

I’ve been reading historian Miranda Carter’s entertaining new book, George, Nicholas and Wilhelm, about the cousin-emperors (Kaiser Wilhelm II, Czar Nicholas II, and King George V) who helped lead the world into the catastrophe called World War I. Yep, they were cousins. In some ways we can thank the 19th Century’s Queen Victoria for the bloody 20th . She spent most of her time intermarrying mentally infirm members of the royal families throughout Europe and Russia. Her grandson, King George V, even created the name “House of Windsor” out of whole cloth, scrapping the true, pan-European royal name – the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha – in a tip of the crown to English nationalist fervor. But blood feuds are thicker than spin.

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A Better Mouse Trap for the Age of Rats

American democracy is a better mousetrap. Unfortunately, it was born in the Age of the Rat.

It isn’t just any old rat, either. It is a magical rat that somehow convinces its victims that the fatter it gets, the better off they are. I refer, of course to the robber barons of Wall Street, the plump rats and plutocrats of the Industrial Revolution and its technology-empowered successors.

It doesn’t take a fine-grained historical account to see that our democratic mousetrap has proved inadequate to the task of catching rats, from yesterday’s railroad magnates to today’s Wall Street thieves. It took a civil war to stop the trafficking in human beings.

With some extraordinary exceptions – child labor laws, the New Deal, civil rights – we’ve done little more than occasionally wipe the coal dust from our faces.

What is the source of the rat-magic that has made many Americans believe their freedom depends upon the freedom of others to, well, destroy their freedom?

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America Regrets We’re Unable To Lunch Today

miss otis regretsSo, the nation’s weightiest campaign arms dealers waltz about the Big Easy talking like Emily Post and asking the rest of us to put our napkins in our laps. That’s the news from New Orleans, where James Carville and Mary Matilin hosted a gathering of talons and fangs called “Taking the Poison Out of Partisanship.”

“Everyone came to play,” Matilin said of the Republican and Democratic consultant mixer last week in New Orleans. Really? Sorry.

America regrets we’re unable to lunch today, Madam. Like Cole Porter’s Miss Otis, we’re sorry to be delayed. We woke up and found that our dream of love was gone.

Matilin described the soiree sponsored by the Bipartisan Policy Center this way:

“It was like an All-Star game. All the best players on the field in their sweet spots. We may never be the poster children of post-partisanship, but it was the greatest coterie of committed political professionals ever assembled.”

Looking out on the sad world, one wonders why anyone would claim membership on an elite team that has sure played its part in the havoc. But that’s just it, isn’t it? Play the music and take no responsibility for the dance?

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Lessons We Could Learn From “The Matrix” About Politics

This is my first post on Dog Canyon and I’m excited to be here.  I’d like to introduce myself by sharing one of my passions – movies that combine political philosophy and technology to critique our deepest ideas about society.  One of the greatest movie series of my generation to do this was The Matrix Trilogy.

Powerful metaphors abound in this visually astounding and ground-breaking work.  The world is an illusion.  An uninspected life is a prison.  People are batteries for machines.  Computer hackers are world-changers.  And of special note to political activists… cultural narratives are systems of control.

It’s easy to get caught up in the cool multi-angle camera shots, intense martial arts scenes (which become a bit excessive in later parts of the series), and quotable characters.  The philosophically astute viewer gets all this along with speculations about politics, social control, and human nature in this cult classic. Continue reading “Lessons We Could Learn From “The Matrix” About Politics”

A Republic Made of Words

monroe-sandburgTexas could confound the writer plumb out of a guy, but then I guess even a bona fide author like Faulkner could have said that about Mississippi, and he had to spell  “Yoknapatawpha” all the time.

The trouble is, Texas is and it isn’t what most of us claim for it. We live with a “real” Texas that’s as fictional as Faulkner’s made-up Mississippi county. That’s how a suburban dad (or essayist) can crank up an Ennio Morriconi spaghetti western CD and transform a drive to his daughter’s soccer game into the dusty drama of Once Upon a Time in the West.

Larry McMurtry found a good solution. He wrote the gritty, contemporary Last Picture Show and its four sequels. And, he wrote the western epic, Lonesome Dove, and its two prequels and a sequel. All were true in the way great fiction is always true.

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Danger Is Not Doom: The Madness of the 11th Hour

apocalypse_now_complete_dossier_d2_12652.thumbnailDemocracy is an eleventh-hour phenomenon. It is an action, not a thing, and it occurs always at the edge of civic catastrophe.

To be worthy of the name, democracy is inclusive.  That means even those who detest it – calculating authoritarians and economic opportunists – can always claim a part in the action. Worse, they have the advantage. The rules don’t apply to them. To the despot, a lie that seeks to get or keep authority is not a lie. In fact, it can appear to the villain as a moral imperative.

And so, in America, egalitarian democrats are always at risk. The U.S. Constitution was meant to empower us. But we must be ever-vigilant defenders of democracy and sometimes a stubborn Resistance.  We should remain proud and hopeful because, so far, we’ve saved America from a permanent authoritarianism.  Tough as today’s fight for universal health care is, we are in the fight. In fact, we are a handful of votes away from winning the fight. That was unthinkable not so long ago. Continue reading “Danger Is Not Doom: The Madness of the 11th Hour”