Friday, July 09, 2010

"American Heroes: From Shane to Dexter."

The post below is every bit as problematic as the idea of "hero," the topic of this post itself. I know this post is problematic because I sent it to a number of people, all of whom complained about it for various reasons. Let me try to explain it to the best of my ability, worth the effort, I think, because the point is a serious one.

I write here about a movie from 1953, a Western, Shane. This movie is so famous that I assumed most readers here and elsewhere would know it almost by heart and scene by scene. I am wrong there. I haven't met anyone in the past week who has seen it. That's a serious problem, believe it or not, in that if we have a majority of fellow citizens who have no collective cultural referents, how can we share citizenship? If people don't recognise the Shakespeare quotation in the lede, if they don't know about seminal movies, if they don't share what we used to think of as basis commonalities, such as the English language, then what do we have in common as citizens that will allow us to struggle for our collective existence and survival? It comes down to, at times, things as simple as understanding references to popular movies. It's the sharing of common experiences of value that makes us important to each other even if we are strangers, bound by culture, made American by a common national experience, some of which is relatively trivial, such as the movie Shane. But I argue that Shane is not trivial. I argue that it is essential to citizenship to understand what is a grand "horse opera." One must know Americanism to be a citizen. We aren't ethnic Americans, and race has nothing to do with our belonging. If ever there were a "social contract," America would be the originator of such. One might be a born American citizen, but to be American is to be more than just a legal resident: it requires one be that and "American." I mean by that that one must have America in the mind and soul. I mean that one must know and appreciate The Western movie genre, as a prime example. Shane is the paradigmatic American movie. If one doesn't get it, or worse, doesn't love it, then one is a failed citizen. Shane represents our culture's deepest values, and it hardly matters from which time we hail, George Washington or George Bush or George Smith: if we don't love Shane, we're not real Americans. Yes, Angolans and Argentines might love Shane, as a movie, but they aren't American just because they like a great movie. They might be good citizens of their own nations if they love the movie, and are likely rotten citizens of their nations if they don't; but the point is that Americans who don't love the movie are very likely not American in any genuine sense of being part of our nation's esse.

In the brief quotation below we see what I think is a bit of hasty writing, referring to Hobbes' writing as "idiocy." Those with even casual knowledge of Hobbes know he is not idiotic ever. The social contract is meaningless in most nations other than America because many nations are traditionally ethnically comprised, and one is a member of ones geographical area by virtue of being born there. America and a handful of other nations are exactly social contracts based on accepting an unwritten agreement to be. For most, there is the "Old Country" if we prefer it to home. We have a natural right to return as ethnic members. We have no ethnic right to live in America. Our claim citizenship in the full sense is to love of our nation, and that is contractual.

Truepeers at Covenant Zone posts this from Spengler:

Eternal Jerusalem » Spengler | A First Things Blog
States are not founded on social contracts, protection of the individual, or any such idiocy handed down from Hobbes; they are founded upon congregations, as Augustine explained in the City of God. It is not common interest but common love that defines states. We do not have a “self” interest as such; our “self” belongs to our ancestors and our children, unless, of course, we are contemporary Europeans, who despise our ancestors and have no children, and hope to pass into extinction with the minimum of bother.
Most states are not founded on social contracts. One is French whether one chooses to be French or not. No one can take away another person's ethnicity. Those who are ethnically tied are familial, and they have a natural right to live among each other if they choose to, e.g. French in the area generally and traditionally France and its constituent parts. Eskimos have no natural right to live in France just because. Normans do. Eskimos may; and if so, they would have to agree to a contract, however unwritten, that they will be "Frenchish" at the least. It's a choice rather than a natural right. America demands a contract from its people: that they will decide to be American in the soul rather than in terms of accidents of birth. That is an act of love. That love is evident in loving Shane. It's individual. It's personal.

Spengler means, I assume, that those who don't love their nations traditions and don't contribute children to the nation's future don't love anything about the nation at all. They're just tourists in the land of their citizenship. It's disturbing, but it's personal, and so what if they die? Others have a legitimate right to live in the ethnic land. If they die out, as many peoples have, then others will come and become. Old World nations are ethnic; America is contractual. We have legal rights to live in our land, but we have no moral right to live in America if we don't love it. We have a moral right to go to our ethnic land, if not a legal one. But Spengler seems to see the nation in terms of German Romanticism, I shudder as I write, that man is nation and nation is not man: that man is part of the whole, so due to language, heritage, the demands of the State. I'm still under the impression that Spengler is American. An ex-pat. who misses the point here. He might like the movie, but would he feel it? It's not communal, not congressional; America is America if there is only one American left in the whole world. Our nation is the whole nation in the mind of each and every individual American. To be American is to be individuated as an American. There is nothing higher in the universe. In our multiple millions we are all together individuals the same in our transcendent Americanness. We could easily give it up and return to our ethnic whateverness. We can be genuinely American Shanes, or we can be Dexters.

Dexter, for those who don't know, and it seems that more know of Dexter than know of Shane today, is a character in a television series. Dexter is a polar opposite of Shane: Dexter is a psychopath who has little capacity for human emotion. Not quite none, but close to no ability to feel emotions. He cannot love, so he cannot, obviously, love America. At best, he will forever be an ersatz America with legal status as a citizen. As a fictional character on television he is very popular. I am disturbed by that. Below I ridicule such a character by turning Shane into a Dexter and Dexter into a Shane. In an angry parody of Leftist faddish hatred of "America as Shane" I turn the whole narrative up-side-down; and my readers missed it to a man so far. Are we so far gone that we don't know good from evil? Maybe; but as likely is that many just don't have the automatic sense of America as Good, they perhaps are so used to post-modernist parody as normative that it seems like the same, even though the casual reader here must know it's not so. Maybe it's demoralisation. Maybe it's just, "Stop. I can't stand any more of this Anti-Shane-ism." I hope so. I do not like to think that people can't tell the difference between Shane and Dexter.

So here is the piece causing so much trouble recently. Anything requiring this much explanation is likely unsuccessful no matter what; and that's the problem: that so many need this explanation. Sarah Palin would get it in a flash, but she's "an idiot." She, like most Americans, knows right away that Shane and those like him are like them: American. I wouldn't have to explain it to her and them. Today, things are different. I do have to explain.

Shane and Dexter

Shane* rides down to the settlement in the valley, a man from nowhere, going to a place he's never been before, stopping long enough to bring justice, peace, and progress to our developing nineteenth century Wyoming frontier, his coming allowing the development of families and prosperity and The Good in the valley. Then, having fulfilled his role and purpose in the narrative, he ascends to "The undiscovered country from whose bourn/ No traveler returns."

American movies from 1953 are a far cry from American television of 2010; but the nature of the killing avenger is the same across the span: "A man has to be who he is," and if he is a killer by nature, he is only as good as the good he might do for those who are good in themselves. Shane is a professional killer. So too is Dexter Morgan.** Both characters, American heroes. Heroism. It's problematic sometimes.

On our side of the proscenium arch we might admire the righteous killer-- from a far aesthetic distance; but up close we likely do not want to know such a person, one who kills other men. Stripped of the dramaturgy, witnessing in real time the autopsy, we find the hero less than attractive as a man. When we smell the results of a man who, like Shane, would beat another into unconsciousness for the sake of entering a store to shoot to death three men and leave them on the floor in their puddles of warm blood, we might stagger and wretch rather than swoon with admiration. We might be amused to see a man drugged and helpless, wrapped in cellophane, laid out naked on a table, coming to awareness to see a psychopath with a knife and an electric saw towering above him. Us side by side with Dexter? We might well fear for our lives, or at least for our sanity-- should we survive. Heroes are outsiders for good reason. They are not like us. We can only really appreciate them if they die when they've done their dirty if necessary work for us.

Shane enters the civilized world and buys "ready-made clothing," having arrived in animal skins. After his brief hiatus in the civilized world when Shane turns again to killing men he turns to the wearing skins of beasts. Love him as we do, there is no right place in the civil world for such a man as Shane, unlike Dexter who hails for a stable family background, works in a professional capacity as a high-tech scientist within a hierarchical paramilitary bureaucracy, i.e. the Miami Police Dept. where he is well-regarded as a generous and charming colleague and polished professional in crime sciences. Dexter is deeply involved surrogate parent, whereas Shane teaches his surrogate son to fire a hand gun. Dexter is deeply involved in his surrogate family to the point of joining something akin to the Boy Scouts in order to be a better father figure to his emotionally disturbed charges. Shane is seen as an icon of American heroism; Dexter oft times prompts hostile public demonstrations from those who prize Shane.

Heroism is a point of debate, one seeing in Shane, an acknowledged hero of American culture, a man who comes perilously close to having an adulterous affair with the wife of his slow-witted employer, the latter whom he involves in a melee that Shane himself started, the employer's injuries likely far more serious injuries than he would have suffered had he been less fit and less lucky in the ensuing assault. Dexter smashes an intrusive surveillance lamp in his up-scale middle class neighbourhood; but Shane is seen hitting a man from behind with a wooden chair. Both men are American heroes.

America needs its heroes, but like house-guests, they must leave when the novelty is over or when the job is done. In America, evil is seen as an aberration, one perhaps corrected and eliminated only through the barrel of a gun; and when that job is finished and normalcy returns, the hero must depart, preferably permanently. By leaving permanently, the hero can transcend this mundane reality, allowing those who remain to elevate and idealize his absent person.

Heroes make us uncomfortable when they come too close. For example, we see that Osama bin Laden is popular among Palestinians, but Obama is not nearly so popular among Americans, many of whom seem desperate to see him assassinated so he, like a hero, may be immortalized without actually being around and dotty.
Leader of Al-Qaeda global terror group Osama bin Laden['s] ... strongest supporters could be found in Nigeria (54%) and among [...] Palestinians (51%), which according to the survey, identify with his worldview. 1.
The Rasmussen Reports daily Presidential Tracking Poll for Friday shows that 24% of the nation's voters Strongly Approve of the way that Barack Obama is performing his role as president. Forty-four percent (44%) Strongly Disapprove, giving Obama a Presidential Approval Index rating of -20. 2.
Most people are, outside their imaginations, basically and rightly so, cowards. Most people really do not want to roam around in the forest dressed in buckskins, coming to civilization only to kill people, and then wander off into the wilderness to die alone. No, they'd rather live like Dexter, well-ensconced in the suburbs, esteemed by their colleagues and families, but maybe not, like Dexter, taking the occasional night off to stalk, drug, murder, dismember, and dump a body in the ocean before returning to the bosom of a happy family life. Being a psychopathic compulsive serial-killer? Maybe not so good for most of us. A comfortable cowardice is more in line with the expectations of the average American.

Too bad there aren't more cowards around. The world seems to have no shortage of would-be heroes, those who blow up themselves, those who applaud them in their doing so. Killers, seen by some as heroes, call for killers.

"Shane. Come back. I love you." Dexter, you'll do just as well in a pinch.
*For those who haven't seen the film Shane or can't recall it vividly, here's a link to a long (three page) description scene by scene:

**For those without Show Case, the first four seasons of Dexter are available through You Tube, and here is a link to a good introductory review of the first couple of seasons:

1.,7340,L-3845743,00.html [Accessed 5 July 2010.]

2. [Accessed 5 July 2010.]

For those who think a hero is a psychopath and that a psychopath is a hero, well, there's really nothing of interest for you here. For the rest, I hope you will see the movie Shane to get a sense of what America is, of what it is to be American. Even if you are not now and never will be American yourself you might, if you love this movie, find that you are a pretty fine person no matter.

A gentle reminder that my book, An Occasional Walker, is available at the link here:

And here are some reviews and comments on said book:

1 comment:

Dag said...

This simple post was originally exactly 1,000 words long. It's now over 2,600. I don't know that nearly tripling the length added anything to it. I like to think most people would have gotten it without the details appended. But in this day and age, I guess that's too much to hope for.