some graphic language and imagery in this 76-minute ramble
The pandemic has increased my TV time. I’m going to crack on TV here, a lot; but I’m not saying you or I are somehow bad people for watching TV.
I’m coming to realize that when I (or anyone else) feels compelled to publicly shame anyone except members of the ruling class that I (or we) would be better served, along with serving the common good, not by shaming, but by explaining as best we can.
The trick for watching television or movies, or reading novels, or whatever is to do so critically. That is to say, be — for a while — a cultural critic, that hoe that disturbs the ground. Anyone can be a cultural critic, because we’re all immersed in the same culture (at least on TV). In this case, I’m going to explain, as best I know how, what gives with white fellas of my generation. I want to explain to non-Boomers, but also to members of my own generation so we can try to make sense of what has happened for the last 70 years, of ourselves, and of how we got this way, for better and worse.
In this discussion of a generation, obviously there can be no generalizations, only tendencies. Boomers were also part of transformative social movements, for example, leaders in many cases. The emphasis here will be on the form and impact of cultural production on our generation. My own experience is that of those who sat out the social movements. I didn’t come into social resistance movements until I was in my forties. Prior to that, I was heavily influenced by the cultural productions discussed herein; and I hope this is read by people my age who were likewise affected.
Habits & Stories
I was born in 1951. I’m a “baby boomer,” part of that post-WWII US birth surge between 1945–55. Sixty-nine years ago. World War II had ended just six years before Jean Goff pushed me out into the world.
Jumping right in, last year, I watched Longmire, the whole thing right down to the exceedingly creepy last episode with its cringe-worthy “love” scene between the cowboy hero and his considerably younger female sidekick.
I know everything that’s wrong with the Longmire series, text and film. Where to begin, eh? Nonetheless, when I watched this series on television, and in spite of the fact that I found myself grinding my teeth at the shopworn tropes, the cultural evasions, and the often grotesque attempt to integrate liberal gender sensibilities with a traditional white masculinism, I found the show comforting in a peculiar way. And there are redeeming features to the series in spite of the especially pernicious re-inscription of tough men saviors who deal out justice with guns.
I recognize now after decades of reflection and study why I felt that comfort. It’s a fictional world that was romanticized during my childhood and early adulthood, and so it has a certain emotional resonance, like my childhood memories of pulling salt water taffy or licking the ice cream paddle. Longmire portrays a fictional world into which I was indoctrinated from birth, before experiences like Vietnam came along and exposed that world as a horrific illusion. The fictional world of Longmire still penetrates past my intellectual filters about its dangers and inadequacies, like the feel of that warm taffy in our buttered hands and the first taste of a batch of homemade ice cream sticking to the paddle. There was home and safety, love of parents, the belief in a secure and stable tomorrow . . . and these early televised narratives about what and how “men” ought to be. There was — I’ll say it again for emphasis — resonance of a sort that kicks in prior to cognition. Something warm and fuzzy, easily confused with sacred in this profane and disenchanted world.
A&E cancelled Longmire after its third season because advertisers had an issue with the viewership’s median age —60. That doesn’t mean 60 is most viewers. In a general viewing demographic split across all age cohorts, 24 percent are 18 and under, 32 percent are 19–34, 26 percent are 35–54, 13 percent are 55–64, and 14 percent are 65 and over. For the median to be 60 years old on this spectrum, the most over-represented age cohort is 65-plus. Boomers.
The series was subsequently revived by Netflix, because apart from cable advertisers’ youth fetish, Longmire had 3.5 million loyal viewers who were likely to buy subscriptions to Netflix to keep up with the unfolding saga of the fictional Absoroka County.
In Borderline, a book about gender and militarism, I devoted a fair amount of space to literary and film genres as formative of a hegemonic American masculinity. Longmire is emblematic of a version of that masculinity, and so it is a kind of window into the psyches of many white men of a certain age. But first . . .
. . . I need to digress for a moment to set things up . . . about being right-handed. Or left-handed. I myself am right-handed. Earlier today, I was working on a pizza sauce. I was stirring the sauce with a wooden spoon over low-medium heat to thicken it. With my right hand, I could easily trace a constant set of overlapping circles in the sauce, ensuring that nothing stuck to the pan and burned. Simple motions, well-practiced. Then I tried to do the same thing with my left hand. Anyone who’s tried this knows what happened. My eyes and hands felt out of sync, my non-dominant hand a clumsy oaf that had to be disciplined through constant mental effort. I did that for about ten minutes, then grew tired of not being able to think about anything else, whereupon I switched back to the dominant hand. Ahhh, what a relief! This is the power of habituation, something missing from many sociopolitical and even psychological conversations.
Thought is also habituated just like those routine, well-practiced actions that allow us to multi-task . . . to do something on autopilot while we do something else. I once changed a tire during a conference call. Try that if you haven’t been on too damn many conference calls or changed a butt-load of tires! Not only actions, but thinking itself is habituated, those neural pathways like a network of tracks along which we travel on tightly-fitted wheels. Building new tracks requires a different kind of effort, something that feels like working with that non-dominant hand.
Habituation is developed early in every practice.
Humans are not mere practitioners and thinkers. We’re also storied. We make sense of what we do and how we do it and how to be and get by in the world . . . with stories — or ‘narratives’, if ‘stories’ are too old school. I put narrative in the title because I hear lots of academic people talking about narratives (who never put it together with actual stories). Our story-ed-ness is so much more than the sterile, clubby, intentionally dense ‘discovery’ of the “linguistic turn.” Stories are our epistemic rail networks seen and understood from above, as it were.
We are formed by stories. Stories we have internalized organize our thinking process, our connection to the world. In the modern world of many stories — stories meant to entertain, to educate, to make money, and so forth— we don’t simply internalize, or render recognizable, a particular plot and set of characters. We internalize familiar tropes, little épistémès if you want to call up old Foucault’s ghost.
A trope is a recurring and recognizable story device. In Tough Gynes, a book about violent women in film as honorary men, I listed a menu of tropes about female characters we see in films: Smurfette, when one woman is added to an otherwise all male cast; Damsel in Distress, one we all know; Manic Pixie Dream Girl, Young Chick Old Dude, Hot Chick With a Gun, yada yada yada. Tropes are culturally recognizable hand holds on the symbolic mechanics of a story. Tropes and stories are also situated in time, in space . . . and in history.
So let’s think for a moment about those years immediately following World War II. It’s 1945, and the world is sick to death of war. Out of fewer than 140 million Americans total, less than half of today’s national population, there were 12 million who had been in uniform during the US participation in the war — almost one in ten. By 1947, only 1.56 million Americans remained in uniform — one in ninety.
The US had paid the lowest per capita price in lives and property for the war of all the major combatants. There was very little domestic damage in the US, even as Europe and swaths of Asia had seen Armageddon. The US had been the manufacturer and financier of the Allies (and was now the global debt-holder). The European’s colonies were in rebellion, with the US moving into the new interstices of an emergent post-war world system.
All this left the US in an unprecedented position of world dominance and economic advantage. The US was converting its formidable war industry to develop a consumer mecca at home. Labor was strong. Keynesian economics made a good deal of white America, in particular — though most black families also have collective memories of the “good union jobs” that provoked northward and westward migrations— relatively secure and prosperous. The GI Bill, along with New Deal programs, lifted a lot of boats. Unequally to be sure, but a lot.
There could have been a “peace dividend” after the war had it not been for that racist shoe salesman, President Harry Truman. He dropped two atomic bombs as a gratuitous show of force at the end of the war and initiated the arms race/Cold War with the Soviet Union — a development that not only sustained the incomes of war profiteers, but the Security-Surveillance State which festered into the McCarthy hearings and which persists even today.
When I was born in 1951, the Cold War was in full swing. That year, the US Army conducted its first infantry exercise for nuclear war while I nursed and shat and slept my way through the first two months of life. Training infantry for nuclear war! Think about that if you want to know how long the US has been led by psychos who look and act like regular people.
Or should I say regular men? Seldom mentioned in the histories of the period is the degree to which dick-measuring has been the unspoken calculus in politics. Still is.
“I have a bigger bomb than you do.”
Masculinities, Personal and National
America the Beautiful has always needed an enemy. American hegemonic masculinities, in spite of how they’ve changed, consistently have this same need of an enemy. In many respects this might be called a national masculinity, nurtured by the media in the ideological soil of American exceptionalism and the myth of the frontier. Roxane Dunbar-Ortiz called the mythic form of American masculinity “frontier masculinity.”
Longmire hearkens to American frontier masculinity, a species of masculinity attaching to our frontier myths, where “real men” subdue hostile nature and naturalized “primitive” humans, bringing the “savages” into the ambit of civilization. In Longmire, admittedly, there is acknowledgement of the injustice visited upon First Nations peoples by white settlers . . . and Walt Longmire is cast as a kind of ecological cowboy — toughness intact. But the genre itself — Longmire is both Western and police procedural — is about tough men with guns who restore order and civility with violence.
Marvin Severson points out that the “violent American male is not simply a figure in American life, a figure of entertainment, but rather the figure around which American culture is oriented.” Richard Slotkin notes that mythic-frontier masculinity exists along the boundary between the civilized and the savage, as a kind of sentinel between inner-circle ‘humanity’ and the threatening outer chaos, between ‘civilization and savagery’.
Historian Jason C. Moore, looking at the notion of frontier notes that frontiers are the edge of fresh extractions (often violent) in the accumulation of capital. The actual “conquest” of the west, or westward expansion, was a massive decades-long grab for land, minerals, timber, fur . . . riches. The mythical aspect of westward expansion — these stories we call Westerns — serves as a rationale for that violent expansion and extraction. That rationale is the myth, or ideology, of progress — perhaps the most insidious and destructive myth in history. Relying on a formulation which I refer to here, from feminist historian Maria Mies, the conquest-ideology divides Culture (read, civilization) and Nature, with (very male) Culture systematically conquering Nature (considered a good thing) . . . and with women as well as “savages” (natives, slaves) defined into nature and therefore also subject to the male domination of “nature.”
Obviously, the mythical west of American expansion can’t be comprised of ruthless thieves and exploiters, so the rationale, the frontier myth, is populated by men who were on a noble mission — the spread of civilization — and who themselves were paragons of virtue.
Yearning for Constancy
Frontier masculinity is also the theme of Deadwood and Breaking Bad, but these are different from the Cold War western genre, because character and virtue and the common good have been excised in favor of a more postmodern, even nihilistic sensibility. Longmire is not that; and this is an important distinction. Everything that attracts us to Longmire and old Westerns is not altogether wrong, and we are not evil for becoming right-handed when we were young.
Longmire emphasizes character, constancy, and virtue — the elements of both good character and the ‘common good’ that we understood as white post-war kids growing up in the fifties and sixties — notions that extend back in western (the hemisphere) history to ancient Greece.
I’m not saying that these weren’t highly problematic constructions that ignored (and concealed) a good deal of reality; I’m saying that a white male baby boomers like me were raised with (sometimes perverse) Aristotelian notions of a seamless connection between character, practice/habituation, virtue, and the common good. In a very real way, there was a baby in that Cold War Western genre’s bathwater, though the water was poisoned by the various practices of colonization that survived the war (mindless nationalism, continued Native suppression, racial Apartheid, patriarchy, gunboat diplomacy, etc.) . . . and the baby had drowned.
Nonetheless, this coherence is what many of us miss . . . and here there is the possibility of a conversation between many white baby boomers and those of us who for whatever reasons are likewise disturbed — for better reasons, I think — about late modern nihilism counted as ‘freedom’ in a world where no one is accountable except through fear or force. Even Marx was an Aristotelian. (wink)
Philosophical liberalism in practice will always devolve into nihilism in my view, because liberalism sees any form of restraint as anathema. Restraint is contrary to capital accumulation, but it’s also antithetical to our personal “freedoms” as consumers with bottomless wells of unsatisfied desire — which fuel accumulation.
There were, in the thinking of those of us indoctrinated by the Cold War Western, still limits and restraints on conquest masculinities, frontier and martial. Think of the difference between Will Kane (played by Gary Cooper) in High Noon (1952) and Walter White (played by Bryan Cranston) in Breaking Bad (2008–2013, which I consider a Western). The latter is certainly more fascist in his outlook . . . unrestrained violence, showboat masculinity, and ruthless amorality. The former was the “strong, silent type,” reluctant to employ ‘necessary violence’, a man who saw his masculinity as a kind of noblesse oblige, a quiet protector of the weak and vulnerable (among the civilized).
This ideology was contested before the war, aggressively. Prior to Pearl Harbor, there were great social movements from the left which had begun to incorporate (mostly through the Communists) anti-racism into their politics. Farmers and socialists had joined together in political formations. It’s hard to imagine any of this now. What changed? Where did this all go?
What helped restore their diminished power to the American ruling class were the economics and technics of conformity — the 30-year mortgage and the television.
Burbs, Boob Tubes, & Techno-optimism
We were the first generation raised on television. We were the first generation of whom many lived in car suburbs, which was, as we kids failed to understand, a means of preserving racial boundaries. The Cold War, the “baby boom,” and the invention of the new American car-suburb were part of the context of my birth and that of many other white male Baby Boomers.
On August 29, 1949, less than fifteen months before I was born, the Soviet Union conducted its first successful atomic bomb test. This shocked President Harry Truman, who had ordered the annihilation of two cities just four years earlier as a warning to Stalin. The warning had “worked,” but not in the way Truman had anticipated. Upon learning of this successful Soviet bomb test, Truman ordered a nuclear and conventional military buildup. The arms race and the Cold War had begun in deadly earnest.
Meanwhile, between 1947 and 1951, William Levitt & Sons built a mass-produced community of three “neighborhoods” — that is, the houses were mass produced and modular — and it was named Levittown, in Long Island, New York. By most reckoning, this was the first tract-house car-suburb. Levitt had learned mass production using interchangeable parts while he served in the Navy during the war. Levittown was designed to cash in on a postwar economic boom that was buttressed by housing loans made available to all veterans as part of the GI Bill, though measures were employed to restrict the benefits to black veterans. Levittown, for example, did not allow black residents.
From the time of my birth until I was four, I lived in an urban house; and
between the ages of twelve and seventeen, I lived in suburban tract housing.
In the interim, for eight years, I lived on the edge of a town of less than three thousand people in an old poured-concrete house on five acres, where we were allowed to hunt rabbits and squirrels across the gravel street near miles of forests, caves, rivers, and grape farms.
We had televisions throughout, so Bonanza, Rawhide, and Wagon Train were constants that bridged us from urban to rural to suburban.
In the period between the end of the Second World War and the year I went to Vietnam (1970) there were also tremendous domestic social struggles around the issues of culture, economics, race, and gender. I never became aware of them until around 1964. Other baby boomer white fellas may identify. We were imaginary adventurers, via TV and film, who lived in our newly automated house cloisters. Post-war prosperity was infantilizing us. We could cocoon in our electromagical homes and nurse at the TV-teat.
The education benefits of the GI Bill created a boom in college enrollment and led within four years to a highly educated workforce. In the 1950s, the American economy “grew” by 37 percent, and household disposable income rose by 30 percent. Female employment rose 18 percent. The number of televisions owned by Americans in 1950 increased tenfold in 1951. The bomb, which for some people had created a profound sense of foreboding, was transformed by public relations hacks into a tale of technological optimism. We were entering “the atomic age,” a recoding of the progress narrative, but now with a chirpy enthusiasm for “the future.”
In 1955 Eisenhower’s special assistant on disarmament, Harold Stassen, wrote an article for Ladies’ Home Journal titled “Atoms for Peace”:
Imagine a world in which there is no disease . . . where hunger is unknown . . . where food never rots and crops never spoil . . . Where “dirt” is an old-fashioned word, and routine household tasks are just a matter of pressing a few buttons. . . . A world where no one ever stokes a furnace or curses the smog, where the air everywhere is as fresh as on a mountaintop and the breeze from a factory as sweet as from a rose. . . . Imagine the world of the future. . . . The world that nuclear energy can create for all of us.
This weird business-booster optimism was like a cruel joke played on my generation, because we were headed for a series of destabilizations that would leave many of us anxious and unaccountably angry.
One of the most effective public relations vehicles for American futurism was the Walt Disney Company, which had prospered during the war by making propaganda and military training films for the United States. The Disney empire was quick to recognize the value of television and had already signed contracts for regular television programming by 1950.
“Disney was the ideal venue for the government’s propaganda effort,” wrote Mark Langer. “Not only did Disney have a long-standing track record of creating government propaganda, but, as Time magazine reported in 1954, almost one billion people worldwide had seen at least one Disney film. After all, Disney was a leader not only in the film industry, but in publishing, television and the amusement park business.”
In 1957, Disney produced the animated “Our Friend the Atom” in partnership with the Navy and General Dynamics (which was contracted for the first nuclear submarines — one of the “peaceful” applications of nuclear technology). The animated feature was aired during the “Tomorrowland” segment of Disney’s weekly television program, which promoted “futurism.”
Says the narrator, “The story of the atom is like [the genie in the bottle fable], come true through science. For centuries we have been casting our nets into the sea of the great unknown in search of knowledge. Finally, we found a vessel and, like the one in the fable, it contains the genie.”
The Gospel (casting the net) meets scientific knowledge meets the magic wish-granter (the genie). The bomb was going to lead us into a future of unlimited energy — which translated into an age of electrically powered slave-machines that would support us in lives of leisure, safety, and hygiene.
The safety and hygiene emphases were built into the progressive vision — that one marked by rational men, domestic women, and “better babies” prior to the war. Eugenics had been very popular in the US prior to the war, but the revelation of Hitler’s crimes had destabilized that white idea.
As early as 1921, this vision was being expounded by Christine Frederick, a home economist and women’s magazine editor who was a devotee of Frederick Taylor’s scientific management principles and an early proponent of planned obsolescence to increase industry profits.
Electrically operated equipment, such as vacuum cleaner, washer and dishwasher, will replace a large share of the work usually done by a permanent servant. Indeed, it may be said that “the one way out” of the servant problem in the future is the much wider use of power machinery in the home.
In the post-war boom, Christine Frederick’s fantasy was being actualized in the newly established suburbs as white women were re-‘housewifed’ after the war.
Davin Heckman, in A Small World: Smart Houses and the Dream of a Perfect Day, describes how the postwar boom, the television, the suburban tract house, and the radical technological optimism of the day combined to transform baby boomers and their parents into a spectator society, plugged into a Foucauldian disciplinary grid — home as a kind of technological conformity machine.
The mass-produced home, available to veterans with VHA or civilians with FHA loans, was not only inexpensive, it was offered with a 1934 New Deal financial innovation — the thirty-year mortgage — perhaps the most effective antidote to social unrest ever conceived. One who is indebted for the house where his or her family lives is dependent on the job and far less likely to be a rebellious worker. If the loan is taken out at age 25 or 30, the mortgage ensures your conformity until you are 55 or 60, past the tumultuous age when people are more likely to participate in social unrest.
The mortgaged house itself became a technic of power encapsulating the nuclear family.
One innovation of the mass-produced, suburban house was big space. Compared to city dwellings, these homes were quite spacious, and unlike farm homes, they were not built to the serial specifications of one landowning family.
The practical concerns of the mass-produced house, along with advancements in building techniques, ensured that the openspace plan would become the norm. It offered an easy way to skirt the problem of customization by transforming the interior of the home into dynamic, multifunctional, customizable space. (Heckman)
This space was designed to do two things at once: increase the space available for family intimacy and decisively separate the interior space from the surrounding community. So contact with family — now normatively understood as father, mother, children — was increased, and contact with neighbors was decreased. The increased intimacy envisioned by designers, of course, could translate into something less benign if there were “problems” within the now enclosed family, like abuse. (As many of us know, the isolated home can also be an emotional pressure cooker . . . or a prison.)
“The result,” says Davin Heckman, “was a reorientation of notions of privacy and community.”
The houses were wired for electricity, and industry was already making “labor-saving” appliances that were marketed to “housewives.” The introduction of television, however, transformed the intimate living space into something new: a place where new experiences could be created for the viewer. This not only answered the problem of boredom that might accompany greater isolation from the outside, it offered a diversion from boredom or worse within the private space of the home. The actual outside world had been further cut off, but a new conduit to a simulated “outside” was placed inside. The person living in the house could experience life in a vkrtual outside, but now (safely) as a spectator . . . as protected as an infant. The new modular home with the television created the conditions for something undreamed of in the service of social control.
“The house, filled with television,” writes Heckman, “had become a powerful site for the production of meaning.” (italics added)
Meaning and Indoctrination
For a young boy like me, television was nothing short of magic. By the time I started “getting into trouble” as a teenager, I had spent countless hours in front of this audiovisual datastream soaking up what I was, what I wanted to be, what I was supposed to be, and how to be a man. And I spent less time watching television than most of the people I knew. When I became addicted to tobacco, I would stay out of the house so I could smoke. When I discovered alcohol, I stayed out even more. When I discovered drugs, still more.
And yet . . . I was still formed by television — by productions with clever men behind them who taught me how to walk, talk, think, and desire, who told me what was sad, what was funny, what was acceptable, what was unacceptable.
Disney figured large and early— Swamp Fox, Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett . . . frontiersmen. And the ‘adventures’: Adventures of Jim Bowie, Adventures of Kit Carson, Adventures of Rin-Tin-Tin, Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok. Gender balance — Annie Oakley (so long as it still means guns, eh). Bat Masterson, Big Valley, Bonanza, Branded, Bronco, Buckskin, Buffalo Bill, Cheyenne, Cisco Kid, Colt 45, Death Valley Days (where Ronald Reagan shilled for Borax soap), Frontier, The Gene Autry Show, The Gray Ghost (a Confederate hero), Gunsmoke, Have Gun Will Travel, Johnny Ringo, Judge Roy Bean, Laramie, Lawman, Wyatt Earp, Grizzly Adams, Lone Ranger, A Man Called Shenandoah, Maverick, Northwest Passage, Outlaws, Ponderosa, Rawhide, The Rifleman, Roy Rogers, Shane, Stagecoach West, Sugarfoot, The Texan, Tombstone Territory, Wagon Train, Wanted Dead or Alive, Wrangler, Zane Gray Theater, and Zorro. Whew!
No child has an adequate defense against public relations experts. Most adults don’t either, to be honest. In all that apparent diversity of programming, with all its narratives, its tropes, its archetypes, its signifiers, the programs were the products of design. They were designed to capture my attention, to hold that attention with a story, to allow me to participate in the stories without any real skin in the game (I was just a boy sitting cross-legged on the floor with the cathode rays flickering across my face), and to sell me (via my parents) the things that were advertised during the commercial breaks.
In all that diversity of programming, there were no deviations from the norms of respectability, progress, male supremacy, or American exceptionalism, except when embodied in a “bad guy,” whereupon these deviations were punished — with guns. Delivered in thirty-minute, bite-sized chunks, these programs reached inside the living rooms of millions of people at once and conformed a generation of adults and children to those narratives, tropes, archetypes, and signifiers.
Television even explained to us how a “wholesome” family was supposed to act in the modular, superficially customized spectator home, with Ozzie and Harriet, Dennis the Menace, Father Knows Best, and Leave It to Beaver. (From these, what we really learned was that our actual families were inadequate or deviant.)
Many of us sought unsuccessfully for the rest of our lives to live into this vision of ‘domestic bliss’. This mythical universe is the one to which Trump appeals with his MAGA slogan, not that he ever shared any of the experiences of working class baby boomers.
Simulacra & the War on Boredom
Contact with the ‘outside world’ was more and more with a simulated ‘outside world’ that could not be matched by the quotidian real one — and feelings of inadequacy fuel consumption. In fact, the banal reality outside the door after the war in the lap of technological affluence was built on monotonous, alienated work in a thoroughly Taylorized society and sustained by household commodities turned into use-values by other household commodities. There were no vernacular signposts of meaning. That was all provided through the TV.
All the old markers of place and identity were shifting and disappearing. My own father, born in 1906, before the invention of the car, had grown up on a Michigan farm, was raised in the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, and ran traplines on the way to school — a school that he quit attending at an early age, living more or less outdoors with his brothers. By the time I was born in San Diego, in 1951, he was living in a house in El Cajon (Spanish for “the box”) because it was conveniently located near his place of work, an assembly line in a defense industry aircraft factory, while my mother did the housework and shopping. For a time, my maternal grandmother lived with us before she died. By the time I was walking and talking, my mother took advantage of a new device to assist her with the child care (my sister was born when I was eighteen months old, my brother when I was three): you guessed it, the television.
Life had become partitioned. Work was where you went to be a cog for eight hours a day to receive a paycheck. It had nothing to do with home, which was in a “residential” urban or suburban neighborhood. With television, the fatigued worker and the fatigued mom/housewife could settle down in a safe place, at little cost, and check out of reality for a while as they were alternately “informed,” entertained, and inveigled to buy alongside their bored kids.
There was no meaning to be found in driving the same rivets into the same part of the same fuselage day in and day out, nor was there much meaning in throwing diapers into the washing machine and pushing a carpet sweeper, then opening some cans to make dinner. These were activities that had become meaning-neutral. The real action was vicarious and neatly packaged and designed not to offend or provoke much thought. Work was balanced with fun, which was a television, a movie, or a trip to a theme park (we lived very near Disneyland).
It didn’t take long during my early childhood before the only thing I wanted to do was watch television. “Lifestyle” technologies — the TV, the theme park, and the film —became, as Michael Sobel puts it, “a solution to the existential problems of boredom, meaninglessness, and lack of control, problems created by the confluence of affluence and the destruction of the traditional centers of meaning, religion, work, family, and community.”
Heckman remarks, “Lifestyle is a technology by which subjects are able to tell a story about themselves through consumption.”
By the time we lived in a suburb, in 1963, when both my parents were working in yet another aircraft factory building fighter-bombers for the Air Force, I turned twelve years old in a state of perpetual boredom; and the TV was like my maintenance dose of heroin. I also hung on my father’s stories about when he ran away from home, when he hunted moose, when he caught lake trout through the ice, when he went to prison for transporting bootleg liquor during Prohibition. Outside my front door there were houses that looked alike, with little lawns that looked alike, where we boarded a yellow bus five days a week to listen to teachers who all sounded alike in rooms that all looked alike; and what we had to look forward to was graduating high school so we could work — doing the same things over and over to make enough money to survive, and having fun through consumption when we had time off.
Our longing for adventure was blended with horrific subterranean fear, a fear that can easily be rekindled, because whether we admit it or not, we baby boomers were chronically traumatized by the very real fear of nuclear annihilation — a fear that sent us back to palliative Westerns . . . a fear, now diffused and re-attachable, that compels us still to seek the comfort of an easy chair and Longmire.
Fragmented Consciousness & Mythology
At school, from time to time, we were required to do a drill called “Duck and Cover.” This was a drill on how to survive a nuclear attack by the Soviets. We would survive nuclear warheads by ducking — getting down low so the window glass didn’t rip through our bodies — then covering — getting under something face down to protect ourselves from falling debris. The signal to “duck and cover” was seeing a flash that was “brighter than the sun.” We never discussed the possibility that one might not be able to see well enough after looking at this flash to find cover. We were shown an animated duck-and-cover instruction film, produced by the Federal Civil Defense Administration, featuring Bert the Turtle. To really appreciate the dissonance of the period, one needs to watch an episode of Father Knows Best, with its phony reassurances of domestic normalcy, then watch Duck and Cover.
In 1957, Nevil Shute published a novel entitled On the Beach. It’s a story about World War III, in which a series of nuclear “exchanges” blanket the world in radioactive fallout that kills every human being on the planet. The story features suicide pills. Shute’s novel was published the same year in which Leave It to Beaver, The Pat Boone Chevy Showroom, and Maverick debuted, and one year after the Montgomery Bus Boycott. It was two years after the Ladies’ Home Journal had printed Director of Foreign Operations Harold Stassen’s article that told us to “imagine a world in which there is no disease . . . where hunger is unknown . . . where food never rots and crops never spoil . . . where ‘dirt’ is an old-fashioned word, and routine household tasks are just a matter of pressing a few buttons.
. . . A world where no one ever stokes a furnace or curses the smog, where the air everywhere is as fresh as on a mountaintop and the breeze from a factory as sweet as from a rose. . . . Imagine the world of the future . . . The world that nuclear energy can create for all of us.
These competing narratives — one of technocratic bliss and domesticated consumer tranquility, and the other of threat from a nuclear-armed World Communist Conspiracy (which would become commingled with “agitators” in the homeland, especially the black freedom movement)—could not be sustained indefinitely; and this contradiction would reach critical mass in the 1960s and 1970s, when some of us alienated white boomer youth (not me) joined a political resistance. The peace sign we still see today was a symbol for “ban the bomb,” a missile contained.
Most of us, however, were folded into the Cold War narrative.
Is it any wonder that Democrats can mobilize their boomer base with Russophobia and Republicans can mobilize their base against “communists” disguised as Democrats!? They know how to “press a few buttons,” too.
There were other competing narratives as well. The Eisenhower years combined a head-scratching war in Korea, New Deal Keynesianism, and corporate boosterism, a composite that one writer called “half-Republican and half-Socialist.” The economic expansion that this period produced stood down political ideology, and many Americans now understood themselves to be distinctly non-ideological about domestic politics — even as they were coming to see the world as divided between the democratic Us and the communist Them.
After World War II, American (mostly white) men themselves were keen to settle back down, get jobs, and raise families. Their collective masculinity had been proven abroad in combat, and their political masculinity was proven by the bomb. The nation required a new mythic narrative, now that “democracy had triumphed over dictatorship” and military action would become a sideline (in Korea?) while the nation’s efforts were directed toward the postwar surge in capital accumulation driven by technological innovation and consumer demand. Not only the nation, but the re-establishment of a hegemonic masculinity required a revised mythic narrative. One cultural manifestation of this shift was the renewed popularity of the Western.
Richard Slotkin writes, “In the midst of this ideological turmoil, the Western and its informing mythology offered a language and a set of conceptual structures rich in devices for defining the differences between competing races, classes, cultures, social orders, and moral codes. It incorporated these definitions in pseudo-historical narratives which suggested that human [male] heroism could shape the course of future events. Moreover, the preoccupation with violence that characterizes the Western and the Myth of the Frontier made its formulations particularly useful during a period of continual conflict between the claims of democratic procedure and Cold War policies that required the use of armed force.”
As we will see, this contradiction between “democratic” and conformist
Father Knows Best masculinity and the Western hero masculinity was being resolved by making these two forms complementary, with the former supportive of the latter, but supportive in a passive and vicarious way. The good suburban husband and father would virtuously consume and work, and his participation in the bloodletting of the warrior would be as a spectator. The cowboy-hero became the symbol for political masculinity.
In the two elections in which George W. Bush ran for president, we saw this transfer of cowboy-hero symbolism to the individual candidate/officeholder; it was politically effective even though Bush himself was born in 1946 to a wealthy Eastern patrician family and was a frat boy and cheerleader at Yale University. Simulation and symbol trumped reality.
Hollywood-ization — Reality, Art, Conformity
In 1947, Hollywood produced fourteen Westerns; the following year the number jumped to thirty-one. In 1952, it produced forty Westerns, and in 1956 a total of forty-six. After 1956, there was a dip in production caused by competition in the genre from television. From 1955 to 1970, Westerns were consistently among the highest-rated television series, pulling on average about a third of all viewers.
The Western has fallen into a state of disrepair, used now more ironically than mythically. Is it any wonder that Longmire found its niche among the 60-year-old set — the younger siblings of the boomers? It’s a sauce they can stir with their dominant hand again in a period of destabilization and generalized anxiety.
The interplay between film, fiction, television, popular norms, and power is dynamic and complex. Cultural productions don’t generate a certain politics, nor does a certain political practice play a direct causative role in the production of cultural myths and archetypes. Politics and public discourse about it create clusters of public concern — these are the things that are “important.” Yet if those public concerns have no connection with the real, material concerns of most people’s lives, they’re likely to be ignored.
Pre-existing patterns within culture interact with these concerns, and there’s a dialectical give-and-take between “art” and “reality.” Art itself, when it’s a commodity, has to take into account its salability, its likelihood of being accepted. Does it connect to popular concerns or the way people live their lives in a particular period, even if that connection is controversial?
Longmire would not be accepted by its regular audience if Walt acted like Donald Trump. There is a real concern for integrity to which power and profit still have to bow, however deceitfully and manipulatively.
Controversy can be salable! Symbols that are not recognizable, however, will not provoke a response; and there are already numerous mythic landscapes with which a particular “public” may be familiar. One of the key attractions of the Longmire series, as well as many Western films, is gorgeous, majestic scenery — the perfect mythic landscape for our heroes. Note that the Lord of the Rings film adaptation used likewise majestic landscapes — this is the traditional backdrop in hero narratives.
Our “clusters of public concern” are the offspring of our history and traditions, embodied in our stories.
Stories have a special ability to create emotional resonance that is not the case with many forms of “rational” public discourse. That’s why art is always part of any social change movement; it can mobilize emotions as well as new conversations. In combination, art, power, and mass communication have established a form of power unthinkable to the local despots and transient emperors of the past, a means for rendering the governed incapable of imagining anything except how they are governed. In a nation of hundreds of millions of people, a largely conformist population is a prerequisite to effective bureaucratic administration combined with autonomy of the state
to exercise its military and security apparatuses.
Combine this indoctrination with that 30-year mortgage, and you have the recipe for mass conformity.
Mitchell Dean writes, “An analytics of government . . . views practices of government in their complex and variable relations to the different ways in which “truth” is produced in social, cultural, and political practices. On the one hand, we govern others and ourselves according to what we take to be true about who we are, what aspects of our existence should be worked upon, how, with what means, and to what ends. We thus govern others and ourselves according to various truths about our existence and nature as human beings. On the other hand, the ways in which we govern and conduct ourselves give rise to different ways of producing truth.”
The power of mass media, when it uses the same idiom as power, can establish the existence of that power as given, as common sense. We baby boomer and post-boomer white boys have our own generational notion of common sense — and it’s portrayed in Longmire.
The postwar Western movie had several archetypical storylines, which Richard Slotkin taxonomized as the town-tamer, the cavalry and the Indians, the revised outlaw, the gunfighter, the High Noon showdown, and the good man with a gun. The Western genre gave each of these narratives a wide “mythic space” in which to tell these differing stories.
Cold War Westerns all had some defining borderline, whether it was a river, a fort’s palisade, a street, a fence, or the (fragile) boundary between civilization and wilderness, or savagery. (What is the appeal of Trump’s Mexico-wall fantasy?) A hero or protagonist had to cross those borderlines and by transgressing them “reveal the meaning of the frontier line” as he entered the dark side to protect the good side. Sometimes as the protagonist dealt with the “darkness” across the border, he also dealt with the darkness within himself. Longmire deals with his status as a new widower throughout its six seasons, and Walt has serious character flaws with which he struggles, though virtue always wins out in the end.
While the Western genre may seem a long way from Father Knows Best, it is actually its gender ideology mirror. Humorous skits were based on the modern husband and father being clueless around the home and children, and his dissociation at home was met with the amused tolerance of the “little lady,” who knows this is her domain, while the public world is his. Outside the home, the man is confident, a provider, and part of the male network of social protection. The Western in Fort Apache or High Noon is the historical myth that leads to the myth of the modern family represented in Father Knows Best or Leave It to Beaver. Together, they are a progress narrative — a before-and-after photo display. It’s this world of Western mythology and the idealized white nuclear family (there’s a pun there, I’m sure) that white baby boomers yearn for in the face of serial social destabilizations.
The past was the Western, the present Father Knows Best, and the future was The Jetsons. Most of us believed in the sixties that by 2020, we’d be vacationing on Mars and flying around in anti-gravity cars, not slogging through a pandemic and a depression in a dying world.
Westerns are not about history, but myth. The “history” of the American West, for a very long time, was, in fact, white American male mythology written as History. The reality was unimaginably different from the myth portrayed in films.
Settlers did not frequently clash with Native Americans, and settlers on the move seldom encountered “hostile Indians.” Most of the conflict was between Native Americans and the government (via its cavalry).
Gun violence was far lower than today, and firearms were strictly controlled. The actual pistols most often used were ball and cap affairs hardly accurate enough to shoot your own foot. Each shot made the gun so hot that the firer generally dropped it to nurse a blister.
Cowboys — guys who tended to cattle — were largely tutored by Mexican vaqueros (the origin of the term “buckaroo”), who were a third of all cowboys (with black men being one out of four — the Chinese, however, were imported to work as virtual slave labor).
And cowboys worked, as we noted above . . . with cattle; not seeking out gunfights.
There were 5,600 bank robberies in the U.S. in 2010. During the entire post-Civil War Westward expansion, there were eight (!) bank robberies.
Cowboys didn’t wear Stetsons, but most often bowlers, and sometimes hats that look like those of today’s Amish.
So it goes.
Just as Star Wars originated as a Japanese film about Samurai (by a Japanese filmmaker influenced by Westerns), the American Western film traces its origins to medieval mythical romances featuring the Knight Errant.
The formula, which frequently includes a Damsel in Distress trope, is overlaid onto “dime novels” of the westward moving U.S. frontier. Originally portrayed by actors in stage scripts, the Western myth was promoted first in a carnival called Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show — the production of a self-promoting carnival barker like Donald Trump, only smarter — then it jumped into moving pictures in 1894. This was followed in the twentieth century by the increasingly popular Western pulp novels of Zane Grey, Louis L’Amour, Max Brand, and others. My own father was a huge fan of these.
With film reaching even non-readers, however, the mythology would eventually colonize the white American social imaginary. The real United States had been troubled by the legacy of the Civil War, a split that was only partially healed when masses of white Southern and Northern soldiers went to the trenches together during World War I. The narrative that filled that space (the latter nineteenth century) was the idealized white narrative of westward expansion. In keeping with the knight errant theme, our heroes were almost always armed and riding a horse.
Like all genres, the Western has been adapted for each succeeding zeitgeist. In fact is has become almost a canvas-genre, where various writers can paint what they like on it. From a fictionalized American pre-WWII progress myth, it was transformed into war propaganda, then social criticism, then anti-communist allegory for the Cold War, then antihero narratives for the sixties and seventies, and most recently into a handful of liberal/post-feminist stories (Jane Got a Gun, e.g.). Those who were kids between 1950 and 1965 or so were mostly impacted by the Cold War version, prior to the antihero and the late modern ethical devolution. The culmination of the Western antihero may be the Trumper militia-boy.
Film Westerns first won their popularity during the Great Depression, when mass unemployment created a crisis of masculinity among American white men. Hollywood was mobilized as a palliative. Chirpy movies with happy endings became a major film entrée. Westerns were most popular with men and boys. The Western hearkened to American mythical frontier masculinity, portrayed by “virile” men — heroic, autonomous characters who dominated women, land, animals, and savages, a story of mastery and control as the antidote to the helplessness of the Great Depression.
When the war came, of course, Westerns were displaced by war films; but when the war ended, Westerns became the Cold War favorite in the U.S. In 1947, major American filmmakers did fourteen Western movies. In 1948, they did thirty-one. By 1956, they were up to forty-six a year. From then until the early seventies, Westerns were consistently the most popular film genre in the U.S., netting a third of all American moviegoers.
Especially for white boys and white men.
“The hero’s triumph over the wild things dramatizes the mastery of the patriarchy,” writes Margery Hourihan. “Virility breaks down the resistance of all things passive — and we see in many films, as well as in bodice-ripper literature, how the female lead nearly swoons before the masculine mojo of
the leading man. Walt Longmire is, likewise, irresistible to women because he is such an effective conqueror of nature and lesser men (while observing the old standards of courtesy and decorum with women and children).
“Significantly,” continues Hourihan, “the American adventure story has been generally addressed to men, who have used it to learn to run risks, fight, defeat and dominate others. In American culture and letters, adventure, masculinity and violence thus seem to remain three inseparable terms.” What Walt Longmire does in almost every episode.
I volunteered for Vietnam believing I was going on an adventure where I would defeat the threat of communism.
In the Western, the audience was to understand the boundary that separates their past from the viewing present, and therein they understood this to be a tale of progress. Last but certainly not least, there was a resolution, a “regeneration” accomplished by male violence. This was, by the way, exactly how I imagined Vietnam before I actually went there. Now, fifty years later, I have begun to understand why.
Women in the Cold War Western were portrayed as either markers of civilization and domesticity or threats to manhood — sometimes both at the same time. “While the essential qualities of womanhood that tie women to domesticity are nostalgically honored in Westerns,” writes Edward Buscombe,
“femininity as a social force is represented as a threat to masculine independence and as the negative against which individual masculinities are tested.”
Longmire is updated to fit more comfortably with late modern sexual mores. His colleague, Victoria “Vic” Moretti (played by Katee Sackhoff), fits my own definition of the acceptable “honorary man” female featured in Tough Gynes.
As we delve into Vic’s character, bear in mind that this series aims at that 60-year-old white men audience, and that Vic is Walt’s slowly emerging love interest . . . that is, the fantasy companion for the 60-year-old white dude watching TV. Particularly annoying and manipulative in Longmire is the totally superfluous and objectifying way the directors, twenty-one of them (two female) have Vic unbutton her two-sizes-too-small uniform shirt down to her sternum, even hanging her aviator’s glasses in the V to be sure the audience’s sight line yells “titties!” This kind of shit has always sold, and for producers it’s all about the money.
In reaction to Borderline, where I’ve dredged a good deal of what is written above, many argued that that women were achieving “equality,” as evidenced by women in the military and police, as well as women are now supporting war as public officials. I call these, as characterized in fiction, the “female decoy” and the “honorary male.”
Vic is simultaneously, if contradictorily, a liberal ‘feminist,’ a sex object (hot chick with a gun trope), and woman who has become an honorary male by doing what men do the way men do it (fighting and shooting and strong-arming and using logic [though Walt’s thinking, as her mentor and eventual lover, is always more subtle and superior]). The female character who is an honorary man (an icon for liberal ‘feminists’) is only acceptable in most cases when she is redeemed for male viewers by her ‘fuckability.’ That is, the character’s ability to make a seventeen year old punk say, “I’d do her.”
This is also, by the way, how gender as unequal division of social power (once a real feminist concern before ‘post-feminism’) has been shifted from workplaces — where men have been forced to accept women as equals (kind of) — to sex itself. Longer story . . . read the book. (wink)
In a plural society like the United States, male social power does not assign women one monolithic “script.” Zillah Eisenstein has said that modern society restlessly “renegotiates” masculinity and femininity, often using what she calls “gender decoys” — individual women in power and individual women as spokespersons for enterprises that are still dominated by males and for males. We can easily see that the corporate boardroom lacks females except to take the minutes and serve the coffee; but we typically think of the corporation and its boardroom as the product of the history of male dominance. This blind spot is maintained by normalization and gender-neutral liberal speech. We are then seduced by the argument that something called “equality” can efface history by putting more women on the board (as “gender decoys”). Shuffling the board may lead to small changes in its practices, but the function of the board is imbricated within the larger context of society and law. A few women in the boardroom does nothing that improves the lot of women generally, nor ill they force the institution to adapt standpoints shared mostly by women. On the contrary, women in power have consistently adapted to the existing masculinized culture, where they serve as honorary males. This is why we need to read between the lines of gender-neutral speech.
The woman who becomes an “honorary male” is allowed to occupy a limited number of positions in the male world provided she behaves like the men before her. In doing so, she provides that ideological gender-cover without changing either the masculinized character of the surrounding society or institution, without disrupting masculinity constructed as violence and conquest, and without changing any of the power structures that continue to exist (like racism, class power, and imperial crimes like wars and coups) in spite of minor sex-gender disruptions.
This practical masculinity comes with an obligation, that the female character who achieves some kind of professional parity with men remain sexually attractive, which leads me to a very shopworn trope in film and TV — Hot Chick With a Gun (HCWAG). Femininity is not abolished as part of an oppressive binary, but compartmentalized within the ostensibly separate and private realm of sexuality which exists somehow apart from our professional public lives.
To further offset any perceived loss of male prerogative, ever so often the HCWAG has to be rescued by the leading male, a Damsel in Distress trope. Walt rescues Vic from a loony survivalist in a scene that culminates in a quick-draw duel. How Western is that?
One of the most idiotic and manipulative scenes is in the first episode is when Vic’s character is completely and gratuitously compelled to perform a PG-14 pole dance in a strip club.
A film that comes to mind here as emblematic for me is not a Western, but a pretty good zombie apocalypse film: 28 Days Later. Originally the (“hot”) uber-warrior, female lead Serena (played by Naomie Harris) is captured in Act II as a sex slave, whereupon the male lead — originally a more-or-less passive guy — finds his courage by doing some killing, and rescues Selena and her young companion-Damsels in Distress. In the denouement, they become a conventional nuclear family.
“Tropes are culturally recognizable hand holds on the symbolic mechanics of a story.”
Vic, in the course of the series, leaves her shirt-and-tie husband, dabbles in a few sexual encounters, and finally succumbs to the irresistible cowboy, Walt.
If Longmire makes the effort to sugar-coat its sexism in liberal shibboleths, it makes an even more concerted effort (with only very partial success, in my view) to deal with race and the indigenous.
Bracketing the Cold War Western , Cold War motifs began disappearing during the seventies, Westerns kept a good deal of the machismo, but dropped the ethical artifices, as they did in the “spaghetti westerns,” or they tried to become edgier (with sex especially, Hollywood’s go-to for increasing market share) with more “modern” sensibilities (usually portrayed by revising mythical hair and clothing fashions, or thumbing their noses at “virtue”). McCabe and Mrs. Miller comes to mind.
Recent attempts at “Western realism,” like Deadwood, have constructed a detail-fiction around broad historical “facts,” and to make sure we know they are “realistic,” they have plenty of nudity, sex, and bad language, ensuring the insertion of the term “cocksucker” into every other sentence of the script for almost every character in the series, even non-English speakers! This appeals to many men, but older men feel ambiguous about it, because it simultaneously abandons any moral center and de-idealizes the West. White-boy gun-nihilists actually love this shit.
Marvin Severson says that the “violent American male is not simply a figure in American life, a figure of entertainment, but rather the figure around which American culture is oriented.” Richard Slotkin notes that mythic-frontier masculinity exists along the boundary between the civilized and the savage, as a kind of sentinel and student; this is the film convention of “men who know Indians.”
The initial exchange involves purely tactical knowledge. The frontiersmen become “men who know Indians” and learn to fight savages according to “savage” rules that echo those of the Norman knight and Viking Berserker. But the Indians teach more than tactics. Their fanatical determination to maintain their lands and tribal integrity provides a model of nationalist patriotism that Whites will have to relearn: White patriotism has been undermined by the spirit of self-interestedness and materialism. (boldface added)
James Fenimore Cooper meets Davy Crockett. These special mythical frontiersmen “mediated the categories of savage and civilized, embodying the violence of the frontier and the renewal of Eastern civilized life.”
Walt Longmire is “a man who knows Indians,” but an updated and liberally-improved version. What has to be said, contextually, is that Longmire did far better in its portrayal of First Nations people (mostly Cheyenne) than Hollywood has in the past. For starters, there are a host of good indigenous actors, and they kept indigenous advisors on the set to avoid a lot of racist pitfalls. And to its credit, even though the whole genre is rooted in a white-conquest narrative, there are frequent and accurate references to the crimes of settlers and their army.
These are important changes. My own hesitancy of endorsement has nothing to do with what the Longmire series did right (and they did some things right), but with a larger pattern of the dominant culture re-valorizing the very things it has destroyed. (Walt does engage in a lot of exoticizing, spirituality-shopping, cultural appropriation, imho. It’s appealing to white people, because one common response to disenchantment has been hopping around between spiritual fads, wherein indigenous beliefs and practices are decontextualized, packaged, and consumed.)
It’s easy for us white folk to decry the destruction of indigenous peoples in North America when we already have the land and there’s no going back. It reminds me of René Girard’s theses on mimetic violence — how societies first demonize, then kill the scapegoat, only to sanctify the victim later. It’s a common “thing” among many white people to (1) claim indigenous “blood,” (2) to praise an exoticized “Indian spirituality,” and (3) to rant self-righteously against what has already been done and can’t be undone.
Not Just a Western
Longmire is not a Western in the strictest sense, nor is it a Cold War Western, even though I’ve noted that it shares a certain quasi-Aristotelian sensibility with that sub-genre. Longmire is a crime show, a police procedural to be exact. In fact, it has all the elements of a police procedural, which is exactly what Craig Johnson, the creator of the original series of novels, writes.
I recently posted a critique of police procedurals here, for those interested.
Modern televised police procedurals are also rooted in the Cold War 1950s, though the written genre can be traced back to the 1880s. Mysteries that are solved not by PI’s or intrepid civilians or investigative reporters . . . but cops.
Prior to early fifties television, American media cooperated with Hoover’s FBI to make radio police procedurals like G-Men and Gangbusters. The first televised police procedural I remember, having been born in 1951, was Dragnet. Anyone who hasn’t seen it, check it out. This was the embryo of the hugely successful and still running Law & Order franchise. Sergeant Joe Friday was the protagonist, a detective with the LAPD.
I’ll remind readers here that when this show aired, in 1951 (until 1957), that the actual LAPD was run — like the whole city government — by a pack of local oligarchs which included ruthless Hollywood moguls, corrupt real estate developers, and organized crime. The police force had been recruited from the ranks of out-of-state racists, many from the South, and was known locally for its brutality, especially directed at blacks and chicanos. Los Angeles itself was a cesspool of money-grubbing fraud, vice, and violent “primitive accumulation.”
The police procedural television series, like the Cold War western, has been formative of the American imagination. Cop dramas, most of them, are both entertainment and pro-police propaganda.
The police procedural is written. Writers who write police procedurals research their material by forming relationships with cops. Writers are then entrained within the interpretive frameworks of the police. Looking back, the propaganda masterstroke of the horrific Bush II administration’s Iraq occupation was the “embedded reporter.” Reporters lived with the troops, sharing to an extent the same dangers originating from the same sources as the soldiers. They formed personal relationships with them, and embedded reporters predictably came to share the point of view of the military. Thus also with many “cop writers.”
Viewers of these writers’ audiovisual stories, likewise, have been indoctrinated from childhood to such an extent that the entire signification matrix which constitutes our “world view” is in jeopardy from today’s developments, especially in response to police killings of African Americans. Cop shows figure so heavily into this view, this social imaginary, that if the liberal fantasy of police is being undermined, the entire epistemological architecture is destabilized as a result.
The épistémè of the police procedural wields cultural power, especially among white, economically comfortable, and sheltered people who have been spared police abuse. They really do not know that modern police trace their lineage to slave catchers and mercenary thugs. They’ve had “reality” pumped into them from a screen . . . we call them “monitors” now, for good reason. Our media is watching us, constantly watching and recording.
Most police procedurals portray cops and prosecutors as an especially enlightened body that stands between daily civilized life and some horrific danger, or chaos — those who stand watch at the gates of civilization, allowing the rest of us sheep-like citizens to go about our days in blissful ignorance of the dark and ever present danger beyond. In this way — looking at the definitive boundary (the recurring theme in Borderline, my book, not the Madonna song) — the pre-Vietnam Western and the police procedural have this central idea in common. There is Us, or order, then the (policed) boundary, and beyond the boundary, Them, or chaos. Between the two, virtuous armed sentinels.
Police procedurals are spread across the field, as a flexible genre — not unlike the Western — a canvas upon which a writer can paint his or her own picture. Look at the different perspectives, for example, of Law & Order compared to Seven Seconds and Happy Valley.
As an aside on Happy Valley, a high quality UK production like one of my own faves, Broadchurch, one thing that sets many Brit productions apart from US productions is the American emphasis and reliance upon guns to move the plot along. Brit cops do not routinely carry firearms (something I wish US cops would emulate, but we have more guns than people in the US), nor are most Brits obsessed with guns in the same way as Americans — it’s a cultural thing. On Law & Order, conversely, the most popular American police procedural, guns are whipped out on nearly every episode. Film and television, especially in the US, have from the very inception of American film given a central place to the gun and to gun violence (committed by the right people) as redemptive.
On redemptive violence, we turn to that psychological plot again of most police procedurals, as well as most older Westerns. The world is stable and ordered until a threat appears to that order — usually some monstrous caricature of an individual. The procedural’s standard narrative arc is that the police, as guardians of civilization (patrolling in “the concrete jungle”), step in to destroy the threat; and the disorder is vanquished . . . we can all go about our lives again, with cops standing on the boundary between all that is orderly and all that is evil. When they shoot the bad guy, the world is redeemed from the threat of chaos.
(In actuality, modern urban cops and nineteenth century US Cavalry have something real in common — they use counter-insurgency doctrines and techniques. More on that here.)
I’ll make mostly broad claims here about various tropes in popular procedurals . . . including Longmire. These reflect reoccurring tropes, and because there were like a million writers submitting scripts, there are exceptions to most of these tropes, and again I don’t mean to disparage wholesale everything about these programs.
The Law & Order franchise, emblematic of American procedurals, purports specifically to represent the New York City Police Department (a forty thousand strong pack of lawless, extortionary thugs). On Law & Order, NYPD is comprised of bright, attractive, articulate, interesting, and likeable people who are driven by oversized consciences and an intense concern for the public (Longmire, too). They are perpetually distressed by the ethical quandary of Kantian duty-ethics (letter of the law) versus Benthamite utilitarianism (the end justifies the means). (Note the scenes in Longmire, where his lawyer-daughter Cadie is the Kantian rule-bound conscience in tension with Walt’s more direct and ‘manly’ consequentialist approach.)
There is an occasional “bad apple” cop who appears, but the preponderance of good police — who purportedly depict ‘the real system’ — always zero in and excise the cancer. Self-policing police. The system works, the system works, the system works . . .
In this imaginary world, there is a category of subhuman that merits neither the respect of law enforcement officers nor the sympathy of the viewer: the perp. This dehumanization extends temporarily to the suspect, who — for the good of general order and our way of life — can be bullied, lied to, and threatened . . . things that the good police can do with a clear conscience because they’re the guardians at the gate . . . what stands between “us” and the dangerous wild animals (subhumans, “scumbags,” perps) who threaten civilization. The TV cop épistémè, laced with PG-ified, teen-friendly hardboiled dialogue and manipulative, and plenty of obnoxious moralizing to show us the thoughtfulness of our favorite characters.
Longmire is not quite as guilty of these tropes, because Longmire is harkening back to a more literal, less performative era. Trash talking, for older members of the Boomer cohort, and for our fathers, is considered unseemly. (If you’re really such a badass, you wouldn’t have to run your mouth.) Adolescent triumphalism is seen as a sign of a weak character. “Speak softly . . .” “Put up or shut up . . .” “Talk is cheap . . .” . . . our older watchwords. Crowing about one’s own prowess is indicative of weakness, inconstancy, and egotism.
I actually kind of agree with that last sentence. Egotism as the norm is what’s become of capitalist modernity, and it is likely the reason so many won’t survive it.
In a society that’s relentlessly hostile to rooted cultures — modernity itself has been a protracted war on subsistence that dissolves people’s connection to the land —the integration of power and meaning could only be achieved through the manufacture of mass culture that flowed out through televisions (and now social media).
We have been uprooted by market relations, our connection with place, family, friends, and others has been weakened. Our own families (Sherry’s and mine) are spread across Arkansas, Michigan, North Carolina, Virginia, Kentucky, and Hawaii. Polanyi referred to this as “disembedding” from the familiar networks of family and place, only to be “re-embedded” (or set loose to float) in a fluid market.
People are not naturally uprooted. We cry out for some kind of ground, and these reassuring televised hallucinations with their simple, familiar story lines are late capitalism’s reply to the desperation that inheres in a culture where there is no longer any attachment to tradition or place — once the contexts of the sacred.
Before television, human beings didn’t spend eight-plus hours a day with these illusions being pumped into their heads. Television is the heavy artillery of the culture industry. Even with the rise of other social media platforms, Americans still spend seven hours and fifty minutes a day watching this shit, a drop of only a hour in the last ten years, and the number is again rising.
This isn’t some mechanical process where the media screws off the tops of our heads and pours in content. Television is constantly innovating. Like all capitalists they have to constantly refresh their product lines. It’s more subtle and dangerous than that. As Omar Wason, a media critic, notes (I’m paraphrasing here), “media can’t tell you what to think, but it can tell you what to think about.”
Dick Wolf, the creator of Law & Order, started as an ad man, and broke into cop TV with Hill Street Blues, the blues here not referring the a state of mind of the oppressed or the musical style that reflects it, but the police — the blue line of defense between civilization and all those brutes and psychos. The cop drama master trope. Craig Johnson’s Longmire novels, brought to television life, say much the same thing. Hunt Baldwin, creator of the Longmire series, was — like Dick Wolf — in advertising, the most manipulative of occupations.
What changes in these productions from time to time, keeping abreast of shifting norms, is what qualifies one to lose his or her essential humanity and be cast out of the social body. Old Westerns put “Indians” outside. Walt Longmire goes after entitled rich guys — which I kind of like —and also drug dealers, traffickers, serial killers (I am so sick of these shopworn serial killer stories), and gangsters. Standard stuff. There are also plenty of more ambiguous, even tragic, story lines because in addition to toughness what we want from our characters is some core of compassion — one decent vestige of Christianity that is being gunned down now, literally in some cases, by a bizarre nineteenth century nationalistic heresy known popularly as “evangelicalism” (no offense to actual evangelicals who didn’t fall for the prosperity-and-nation okeydoke).
Yes, these are imaginary worlds. The New York Police Department is nothing like Law & Order. Wyoming is nothing like the fictional Absoroka County. And so the ethical frameworks represented in either or both are internally consistent within that fictional universe, whereas the ethical frameworks in the real milieux are haphazard, inconsistent, and frequently corrupted. This leaves us as the audience with a heightened sense of a dilemma, wherein we prefer the lie but live in a state of cognitive dissonance with the truth. Too much time inside with the TV and the unrelenting real of the outside can give you vertigo. It’s just too real, too situated, too contingent. Better we should cocoon inside the reassuring fictions (and vote for Donald Trump who trades in them).
There is nothing wrong with employing a fictional universe for a story. Tolkein’s stories or Game of Thrones or Star Wars, for example, play out against obviously fantastic backgrounds. One prerequisite of reading or watching fiction is suspension of disbelief. But the police procedural as well as the Gary Cooper Western — even transposed into the present as Longmire — because they attempt some manner of verisimilitude, are sly . . . bordering on propaganda. They want you to conflate the internal coherence of the fiction with an increasingly incoherent and dangerous reality.
We want to believe that those thoughtful ethical cops and prosecutors in Law & Order or the Longmire rural Wyoming sheriff can and do exist, and so the writers feed and even feel that desire. In reality, rural Western sheriffs do not become Sheriff without reflecting the abiding prejudices of the populations as well as courting wealthy local donors (an actual story line about a bad sheriff who is beholden to big money is in a couple of Longmire episodes), and the NYPD culls “rats” and “do-gooders” from their ranks early in order to socialize them into thuggish and deeply corrupt army that preys on the weakest of New York’s residents. (The NYPD are now effectively a violent Trump political militia.) We might be charitable and say that these programs represent an ideal — I have no problem with that — but they also conceal all the reasons that this ideal is practically unachievable in our actual circumstance.
Judgement v. discernment
One thing that we seem to have lost as we advanced from the post-WWII era into the present is any art of discernment. One egregious example of that has been call-out culture, or — in the newer vernacular — cancel culture. Imbricated with the highly personalizing, moralizing, holier-than-thou subculture that confuses public shaming (for esoteric “crimes”) with political action. There’s that apparent inability to discern . . . to recognize the differences between similar or related things. That’s what groupthink and groupspeak gets us. It reinforces the immature tendency to morally pigeonhole people and be done with them. Kind of a postmodern species of our most ancient purity codes. The in-group is clean. The out-groups are polluted, untouchable . . . declared unclean and dismissed.
That kind of happens to Baby Boomers, a lot — hell, I even engaged in a bit of it myself. At least I have standing. (-:
So people who don’t know us or think very deeply about how and why they know us have not only sometimes failed to acknowledge our diversity and belongingness, they have just as often failed to discriminate between those aspects of that generation’s épistémè and ethos which might be salvageable from those with which we have already found fault in this essay.
Compare Walt Longmire to Donald Trump, for example. Longmire (and here we ought to think of the baby boomers who seek that odd comfort in his character) would NEVER (!!!) ever share lewd remarks about a woman with other men, sexually assault women, use even the slightest dirty trick to win an election, make fun of the disabled, insult people based on what they look like, steal money, harm a child, cheat on his spouse, et cetera. That nastiness is just seen as bad character . . . and character matters. It means people are selfless, trustworthy, and accountable. They have integrity. The Walt Longmire character (in the theatrical sense now) doesn’t work without integrity, constancy, and a sense of principled responsibility.
Walt Longmire picks up litter that Trump would leave to one of his subalterns if he noticed it at all. Integrity means doing the right thing even when no one is watching. (The ring of power in LOTR makes the wearer invisible, eh. Who could handle that power without deep habituation in the practice of the virtues?) An actual Trump-like character in Longmire would probably at some point have his ass beaten by Walt (which would satisfy many of us with a heaping helping of schadenfreude).
Unfortunately, this virtuous behavior includes a poison pill. We have looked at the technics of conformity in the television, but now we need to look at that signature technic of power, TV-justice, and masculinity, the gun.
Guns and Gunfighters
Richard Slotkin once said, “Hero myths embody a positive response to a crisis.” I think that deserves a note. Positive response . . . crisis. Heroes resolve crises. What is a crisis? “An unstable or crucial time or state of affairs in which a decisive change is impending, especially one with the distinct possibility of a highly undesirable outcome.” In other words, dangerous destabilization! The hero resolves, or redeems, the crisis by removing the danger and allowing a return to stability.
There are a number of problems with Longmire and its artistic kin; but the biggest problem, in my view, and one which is being concentrated in a moment of extreme reaction during these troubling times, is our love affair with the gun . . . as the mediating instrument of crisis management, as equalizer, as idol.
I’ve cited Richard Slotkin in this piece more than once. I relied heavily on some of his concepts when writing Borderline, as I have here. His book Gunfighter Nation is essential reading if you want to get to the bottom of many American white men’s pathological obsession with guns.
The NRA is relentlessly running ads, as this is written, against Joe Biden (who has never made guns much of an issue, except to oppose private ownership of military assault weapons, but the NRA lies all the time). The ads threaten that Joe Biden will take away your guns. How is it and why is it that this kind of thing has an effect (of firing up a reactionary base)? Why does a fraction of America believe they need guns, lots of guns, even war guns, to go pick up groceries? And why can the Swiss all have military weapons in their homes (their form of military reserve) and neither concealed carry nor murder each other with them? What the hell is is with the US and its almost sexual/religious attachment to firearms and gun violence?
Slotkin writes: “[S]ince the Western offers itself as a myth of American origins, it implies that it’s violence is an essential and necessary part of the process through which American society was established and through which its democratic values are defended and enforced.”
Before we go any further, here is an excerpt from Borderline about guns and the American mythology to lay the ground. It’s all very gendered; and what is often overlooked about Trump’s appeal is that he has positioned himself as the restorer of American masculinity.
Prior to the Civil War, personal gun ownership in the U.S. was marginal. Guns were handmade and expensive. After the mass production of guns for the Civil War, however, the leftover firearms were ubiquitous; and industrialized gun manufacture became a highly profitable postwar enterprise. During the war, Samuel Colt’s Hartford factory produced guns that were sold to both Union and Confederate forces. Southern customers were even given a 10 percent incentive discount for mass direct factory orders.
Race has always been mixed with American gun culture. Union soldiers occupied the South during Reconstruction, sometimes arming black men for self-defense; and Southern white men reacted by engaging in guerrilla-like actions against Union troops and outright terrorism against African Americans. Radical Republican masculinity, African American masculinity, and Southern white masculinity all came to identify themselves with repeating firearms.
By 1876, the nation’s centennial year, a reactionary tidal wave had swept away the remnants of Radical Reconstruction in the South. Paramilitary white supremacists in Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina justified their armed assaults on Republican-led state and local offices by invoking their revolutionary forefathers’ armed revolt against tyranny. Organizing gun and rifle clubs throughout the Deep South, these self-proclaimed “minutemen” set out to “redeem” the white race from the ignominy of defeat and emancipation. To them, black citizenship signaled the worst kind of corruption.
Listening today to the gun-culturist/conspiracy-theorist/radio talk show host Alex Jones, we can hear a direct echo of this Revolutionary War mythology:
“I’m here to tell you, 1776 will commence again if you try to take our firearms! It doesn’t matter how many lemmings you get out there in the street begging for them to have their guns taken. We will not relinquish them. Do you understand?”
References to the Revolutionary War as proof that “God, Guts, and Guns Made America Free” are fictional. In truth, during the latter eighteenth century in the thirteen colonies, not one in a hundred men had a gun, and the guns they had were muskets, barely capable of hitting another man beyond twenty feet. A dozen colonials once ambushed Major Pitcairn of the British Army at ten yards, all firing, and neither Pitcairn nor his horse received a scratch. It took up to four minutes to reload a musket. A soldier could run a third to half a mile in that time, the reason bayonet charges followed infantry volleys. The single most effective combat weapon after artillery was the bayonet. The reason the Revolutionary War dragged on as long as it did was the extreme shortage of weapons.
Successful hunters employed traps, not guns, and Americans overwhelmingly consumed livestock for meat. Only white male Protestant property owners were allowed by law to have firearms, and many of them opted against it. A decent gun cost as much as a skilled laborer made in six months. The legends promoted by stories like The Deerslayer and films like The Last of the Mohicans and The Patriot are plain nonsense. The archetype of the great marksmen of the colonies as the basis for an effective citizen soldier militia has zero basis in history.
By the late nineteenth century, the popular myth was not the Revolutionary War but the “conquest of the frontier,” meaning westward expansion, with its displacement or extermination of indigenous people. This was when the cowboy myth was created, and even promoted, through rambling circuses like Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show (1872–1910), using aging and self-aggrandizing legends of the “Old West.” In addition to promoting a particular version of masculinity, Western expansion legends were a kind of geographic cure for the divisions of the Civil War. American men could set aside the grievances of the Civil War by looking westward, renewing the basis for white male ideological unity in the discourse of “taming the West.”
William “Buffalo Bill” Cody (1846–1917) was himself a great admirer of William Sherman, who called for outright Indian extermination, and of George Custer, whom he saw as a white martyr. Cody’s show, usually billed alongside military tournaments, reenacted “battles” between white men and Indians that emphasized Indian savagery and white nobility.
Republican masculinity emphasized the somewhat Oedipal struggle for “liberty” against the aristocratic fathers; frontier masculinity was an artifact of expansion and empire building. Real men were those who, on civilization’s behalf and as civilization’s racial representatives, left the comforts of the core and ventured into the borderlands to establish new outposts against the disorder of nature and those peoples defined into nature — the savages, the natives. The gun, for frontier masculinity, had (and still has) a real, but also an imaginary and a symbolic existence. Guns were certainly used by soldiers during the Indian Wars, and at the end of the century for the war to gain Spain’s colonies. But in the fantasies constructed by military reenactments and circuses like the Cody show, the idea was implanted — and it can still be seen in Westerns — that most men went armed all the time. This was not, in fact, the case. Armed men were generally soldiers, law enforcement, criminals, and semi-official thugs. Men who hunted with guns, as they do today, would dust off the rifle or shotgun that was stored in the house. Gun control laws in the “Old West,” that is, legendary towns like Dodge City, Tombstone, and Deadwood, were actually far stricter than most gun control
laws today. Municipal law enforcement generally required that any firearm inside city limits had to be stored at the local law enforcement office.
The rise of gun culture among Roosevelt’s Progressives was closely associated with these fantasy histories of the Old West; and the gun became a phallic symbol representing the male forces of order against the feminine disorder of nature and natives. But the signature events that gave rise to twentieth-century gun culture were the Spanish-American and Philippine-American wars, where marksmanship failures were again blamed for battlefield deficiencies.
The NRA, a post-Civil War marksmanship club, which had become moribund by this time, was reconstituted in 1900, and began sponsoring rifle marksmanship competitions. In 1902, at the NRA grand competition at Sea Girt, New Jersey, Theodore Roosevelt gave an opening address in which he proclaimed, “We have prided ourselves on being an army of marksmen,” explicitly tying Progressive era men’s newfound preoccupation with guns to imperial militarism. The rifle teams in early NRA competitions were comprised exclusively of men who were members of the armed forces, cementing a relationship between the NRA and the War Department, which persists to this day.
The 1903 Sea Girt tournament Sunday opened with an open-air service. Conducted by the Rev. J. Madison Hare, chaplain of the Third Regiment of the New Jersey National Guard: “Responsive Bible readings and the singing of the hymns ‘Adoration’ and ‘America’ preceded the sermon. Chaplain Hare’s theme was ‘An Improved Score.’”
Marksmanship was understood as a manifestation of white male superiority, demonstrating technological prowess, good health, and self-control.
An article in the Los Angeles Times in 1909 declared in its headline, “Marksmen Are Born, Not Manufactured,” lest it be assumed that the traits of a great marksman could be taught to just anyone.
“The rifle type of man,” it said, “is a muscular, lean, quiet fellow of nervous temperament, but whose nerves are under the complete control of the will.”
World War I was brewing, and when it boiled over, the value of marksmanship would be trumped by machine guns and artillery. Masculinity would again be destabilized.
Sorry, but the “guns built America” thing is complete bullshit. What etched guns into the American psyche, and violence as an essential virtue for American white masculinity, has been a nearly perpetual state of war.
Our cultural production, which has formed generation after generation since mine appeared alongside the television set, exists in a fatal feedback loop. War forms the cultural production. The cultural production reproduces war. War produces violent masculinity. Violent masculinity reproduces war.
I remember using an old Savage .410/.22 over-and-under when I was a kid to hunt rabbits and quail. I remember the solid, cold, metallic weight of it, the heft and seriousness of it, and my Dad’s strict and thorough instructions about its handling. I see kids playing with toy guns now, but that wasn’t allowed in our house. We had real guns, and the rule was that we never ever ever were allowed to point even a toy gun at another person. Different times, under the tutelage of a more literal man born in 1906.
Another thing I remember is learning the M-16 in Basic Training. This wasn’t the old Savage or my Dad’s deer gun, a Winchester .32. It looked almost like a toy with its plastic stock and forearm. The first time I loaded a magazine, I felt a frisson of the real, like caterpillars in my spine, as I pushed the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth round in . . . sleek, shiny, cold bullets with long, skinny snouts and Vietnam on my immediate horizon. That realization that this gun, these rounds, were people-killers. The targets we practiced and qualified on were human-shaped, reactive silhouettes that popped up at various ranges and fell when struck. Our bodies and minds were integrated with the weapon and the act — squeeze, ride the recoil, watch the target fall. I remember the transient nature of my original reaction to the recognition these were for killing humans; and I remember my own self-satisfaction as well as the recognition of my peers and superiors when I gained mastery over the weapon, when my targets fell almost every time I fired.
Like every practice, it has its own internal payoffs. I came to teach marksmanship and eventually trained as a sniper — even becoming a sniper instructor. Anyone who has learned to use a firearm can tell you there’s a game-aspect to it. You get a little buzz when you accurately engage a target, whether it’s a tin can or a bullseye on the known distance range. The weapon is an exciting toy.
That M-16 fired a round that left the barrel at 3110 feet per second. The M-60 machinegun I carried for most of my time in Vietnam has a muzzle velocity of 2800 feet per second, rounds that are linked into belts of 100.
In the nanosecond it takes for these projectiles to pass through a human body, there are effects on that body that are summed up clinically in something called “terminal ballistics.” I won’t review these effects except to say that they are devastating, more than merely something that pierces a body, but something that causes a phenomenon called “cavitation,” and all the messy physics of projectiles that are misshapen or shattered on impact with muscles, organ tissues, bones.
My first glimpse of real gunshot wounds from real assault rifles on real people wasn’t in Vietnam, it was at McChord Air Force Base waiting to go to Vietnam, when some of the returnees would share their death photographs — pictures of dead Vietnamese with limbs blown off or skulls emptied. This wasn’t what I’d seen in the Westerns, and those who shared the pictures proudly, almost gleefully, were not the men I had idolized as a child in front of the TV. They were in some parallel moral universe, where the measure of cruelty was the measure of manhood. So much for “heroes.”
What I brought back from Vietnam was fear, suspicion, and the intimate and visceral knowledge that I could inflict this kind of devastation — that I could end a life — by properly aligning the sights of a firearm and applying pressure with one trigger finger. I was a skinny little lad with big ears and freckles; but fuck with me and I had the experience and the hardware to utterly erase you. I’d become like those young men — as young as nineteen — coming back with their trophy shots. I had been empowered, but at a cost to my soul. That thing in my hand, I knew the terrible power in that thing, that weight, that peculiar tool that can change everything in a split second.
In 1982, I was selected for membership in the Army’s counter-terrorrist unit. I was specially trained as a gunfighter. Not an infantry grunt, but a precision shooter of pistols, submachineguns, and sniper rifles. We fired thousands upon thousands of rounds in practice, and we were conversant in the variety of gun technologies. We could quick-draw, rapid-reload, discriminate “targets,” hit sequence targets, and shoot with precision from a series of positions. We learned the art of the “double-tap,” two quick rounds in succession to the thorax to double the damage. I was not merely a man with a gun, but that man who can effectively fight other men with guns at close range and survive. Here is the thing about constant practice.
Practice it long enough, and you will want to actually do it.
That’s precisely what many of today’s “gun nuts” do. They spend untold sums to practice, practice, practice. The hardware and ammo are mad expensive, but they idolize, fetishize, obsess about guns. Now they cosplay with them at demonstrations, or show up to intimidate those with whom they disagree. That’s what 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse was doing when he murdered two people recently in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
I’ll tell you a little secret about many of them who are white guys and members of the National Rifle Association (the largest white nationalist militia in history). They’ve confided in me, because I am a white man. Their predominant shooting fantasies are about shooting black people, especially black men — of whom they harbor an immense fear. But with a gun, one need not fear, because one has the power of life and death literally at one’s fingertip. Bang! Threat eliminated. And yes, they identify guns with their penises. Yes, it is a powerful phallic symbol.
When I was in 3rd Special Forces Group running an A-Detachment, one of my idiot subordinates, whose favorite movie was Tombstone, expressed the belief more than once — a belief shared by many in Special Ops — that there would eventually be a race war . . . something for which many were “preparing” by buying guns.
I recently heard a news story that revealed that in my state of Michigan, there are now more than 400,000 people with permits to carry concealed firearms. Most of them are men, and most are white, and many of them live in a fantasy where they will — like Marshall Dillon on Gunsmoke — get their chance to prove themselves (as men) by killing another human being with their guns.
[For the record, there are more and more women nowadays — mostly white women (Stand By Your Man) — who are falling into the same fantasy, and who are practicing, practicing, practicing with guns. But it’s still far more essential to the construction of masculinity.]
As someone who used to carry, I can say that — when I was armed — I would go anywhere I wanted, whenever I wanted, respond to anyone any way I wanted, be as rude as I wanted, as inconsiderate as I wanted, and meet those little non-verbal challenges that strange men throw at each other because it’s a man-thing any way I wanted, and respond to rudeness and idiocy (to which I could choose not to respond) . . . because I could. There it is! The criterion for stupid. I have a damn gun, and I know how to use it. I can put two rounds in your thorax in less than a second. I can erase you.
I used to claim it was for self-defense; but for quite a few years now, I’ve gone unarmed and miraculously survived. I do avoid certain people and places, i.e., drunk people (the most dangerous of animals) and places with a lot of drunk people. These were the people and places that most often put me at risk back in the day. I don’t do that anymore just “because I can.” I am also deferential, courteous, and friendly (when possible) with strangers; I don’t do the dominator-stare-down thing with other men. Common decency/common sense stuff, that you can abandon — stupidly — when you pack heat.
The memes for gun nuts are pretty stupid, too. Gun people already know, when they post things like this . . .
. . . that their ammunition can penetrate walls when they miss, pass from one (intended) body to the next (unintended) one when they don’t, ricochet around the house and into the kids’ bedrooms, and that in the event that someone breaks in while they are home, they are likely to lose the gun to the assailant. Moreover, and far more likely than an armed confrontation with an invader, having guns around the house increases the probability of suicide, accidental shootings, or one family member shooting the other during a drunken argument.
Few things jump as high on the stupidity-meter as openly carrying a gun. Because most of us are understandably not comfortable knowing that some total stranger — who may have the judgement of a six-year-old for all we know (open-carrying has already cast suspicion on you) — has the power of instant life and death on his hip in a grocery store where people are pushing their baby-strollers. The guys who do that are doing it “because they can.”
The portable power of life and death means there are lots of things you can do simply “because I can.” This stupidity has another name — masculinity.
The reality is, this fixation on guns is rooted in irrational fear, not of actual dangers — but of two other kinds of fear really: fantasy dangers (often racialized), and fear of being too effeminate.
Lefty boys are not immune to the siren call of guns either. American cops kill around a thousand people a year in the US, and now Trump’s acolytes are roaming the streets armed to the teeth; and one response is the development of the Redneck Revolutionaries and the Socialist Rifle Association — supposedly antifascist, even though fascism is significantly about armed men and their fragile masculinity — in which ostensibly antiracist white people remain rooted in, and celebrate, gun culture. “Racism no — Guns yes” is their mantra apparently.
And you may say, “But if the right has guns, don’t we need them?” Which validates the fascist NRA leader, Wayne LaPierre’s, claim that “The only effective response toa bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” If you agree with LaPierre, it’s time to seriously reconsider your thinking. You learned that shit from movies, television, and video games.
American culture is Baudrillard on steroids, Baudrillard on acid. The simulacra has taken over as we withdraw into our electronic life-support and hallucination dens. We come to believe that what we read and see in audiovisual media is true, in part because we have eschewed real experience as too troublesome or risky.
NRA-style gun nuts love to talk about the technics and ballistics; and they fantasize about killing home intruders, rescuing white damsels, fighting bad governments in the woods, and shooting black people, “Mexicans,” and Muslims. I’ve been to a couple of guns shows and shooting events, and they talk about this quite openly.
Now we have the Redneck Revolutionaries and the Socialist Rifle Association, who may have different fantasy targets, but they are still mostly boys who can’t relinquish the fantasy of proving their manhood by shooting “the bad men” (in the fantasies, the targets are mostly men, because killing men is more probative of masculinity than shooting women, unless you’re going for the full-on Ted Bundy masculinity).
Kill the bad men. Camera angle from below, sun on face, wind blowing that masculine caucasion hair, True Heroes. Because they are fantasists and paranoids, gun nuts are looking for a fight; and the immediate possession of a gun, carrying that is, amplifies this pugnaciousness . . . a lot.
This armed quest for masculinity is fundamentally predicated on (deep, unconscious, sexual) fear, and the possession of a firearm is not merely an antidote to fear; it generates that belligerent “courage” that can only originate from a deep, unconscious fear. So guns don’t only make people physically more dangerous; they make people psychologically far more dangerous.
An armed society is not a polite society. I’m not talking about hunters in Canada or Iceland who keep a deer rifle in the closet. I’m talking about the exploding mass of sexually-insecure white males who are carrying their Sig Sauers and Berettas into Walmarts and Krogers and middle schools to pick up their kids. At the most extreme, the Preppers — Lord, have mercy, who are armed to the teeth even as they’ve lost their collective mind.
Modern rifled firearms and, at close range, shotguns, have been refined toward a telos of ever-increasing efficacy — and by efficacy, I mean lethality at various ranges. They are designed for the instant destruction of enough living tissue to cause death in another human being. That was the specific design telos for the AR-15.
In 2011, there were around 34,000 fatalities from firearms and around 74,000 non-fatal injuries in the US. We use guns in 67 percent of homicides, 50 percent of suicides, 43 percent of robberies, and 21 percent of aggravated assaults. I myself survived eight conflict areas in the Army without sustaining a gunshot wound, and was finally shot outside a bar in 1991 in Hot Springs, Arkansas. These statistics can be deceiving, because when we compare homicides with suicides, the percentages lie.
We kill ourselves more often than we kill others here, and 60 percent of suicides use firearms. Suicides account for 65 percent of suicide deaths — in part because shooting is more effective, and in part because successful suicides, while the numbers compared to attempts are unknown, have a high correspondence to the method used. Firearms, at above 80 percent as far as we know, are the absolute most successful method. So, all other things being equal, a firearm in the house dramatically increases the odds that it will be used for some confused, sick, broken, humiliated, and-or lonely person to extinguish themselves. In 2013, 41,149 US suicides were successful — men far more than women, because men choose firearms, naturally. By comparison, just over a thousand home invasions were ostensibly repelled by the threat of a firearm, and actual burglary-homicides in the US are around 100 a year nationwide. Do the math: 1/3,200,000. You are quite a bit more likely to have a suicidal person among family or friends in the house than a lethal burglar.
Or kids. We kill more kids per capita with guns than any country in the world, and around 320 kids are snuffed out each year here in home gun accidents, more than three times the probability of repelling an actual homicidal intruder with a gun. (Not to forget, if your home is intruded upon by a killer — which is about twice as likely as being killed by lightning — the best course of action is to leave and call 911. Burglars look for guns, because they have a great resale value.)
No matter what cockamamie scenario you construct to justify carrying a gun (not talking about someone hunting) for “protection,” you cannot escape the reality of this inability to control what happens when a firearm is used, because you cannot predict the circumstances of its use.
Your penises will not fall off, boys, when you refuse to carry. And you are far less likely to have that unpredictable instant that saddles you with a lifetime of howling regret.
Apologies to Walt Longmire, but this gun thing . . . it has to stop.
White masculinity in crisis
Let’s look at another (gun) Western, and how it’s emblematic of the moral devolution that corresponds to modern gun culture since the defeated US occupation of Vietnam.
American Sniper, the stylized biopic of a SEAL sniper who killed more than 200 human beings, was Clint Eastwood’s directorial paean to the (re)inscription of a national masculinity by the (re)narration of history.
I have never seen, nor will I ever see, American Sniper. Nonetheless, I have the screenplay here at hand, which I recommend to others, because screenplays pull back the curtain on the abracadabra audiovisual hypnosis of film. One can see their constructed-ness.
EXT. STREET, FALLUJAH, IRAQ — DAY
The sun melts over squat residences on a narrow street. The MARINE COMPANY creeps toward us like a cautious Goliath. FOOT SOLDIERS walk alongside Humvees and tanks.
COMMANDING OFFICER (OS)
(radio chatter) Charlie Bravo-3, we got eyes on you from the east. Clear to proceed, over.
EXT. ROOFTOP, “OVERWATCH” — SAME
Sun glints off a slab of corrugated steel. Beneath it — CHRIS KYLE lays prone, dick in the dirt, eye to the glass of a .300 Win-Mag sniper rifle. He’s Texas stock with a boyish grin, blondish goatee and vital blue eyes. Both those eyes are open as he tracks the scene below, sweating his ass off in the shade of steel.
Fucking hot box.
GOAT (24, Arkansas Marine) lies beside him, woodsy and outspoken, watching dirt-devils swirl in the street.
Dirt over here tastes like dog shit.
I guess you’d know.
This is the opening scene in the second draft. The scriptwriter, Jason Hall, sets a tone with his own language — “dick in the dirt” — so the director and actors are cued into the appropriate macho-affective register. This is a film about tough guys, so he uses tough guy talk, male bonding talk. This is a film about Real American Men — a man-movie. Rosemary Hennessey writes,
As one of the most pervasive forms of cultural narrative in industrialized societies, commercial film serves as an extremely powerful vehicle of myth. The mythic status of Hollywood films is of course enabled and buttressed by corporate endorsement and financial backing for distribution and promotion. To some extent the scripts that do get picked up manage to be supported because they already articulate a culture’s social imaginary — the prevailing images a society needs to project about itself in order to maintain certain features of its organization.
Clint Eastwood is a veteran actor and director, so he knows what works, which film conventions are recognizable by the American public, especially the males. He understands the “social imaginary” at work here. He launched his career through Westerns. American Sniper is essentially of the Western genre, “based on a true story.”
Chris Kyle is the story, told with pathos, hitting all the resonant notes, and the utter criminality of the whole enterprise that was the U.S. invasion of Iraq is made to disappear. What is left, strengthened yet again, is our idolatry of the military, our idolatry of the nation, and our idolatry of an idealized, hegemonic, and violent armed masculinity. And yes, the idolatry of the gun.
Opposition to male supremacy, to white supremacy, has repeatedly engendered backlash; and the backlash of crisis-wracked white masculinity bore its weird political fruit in the US in 2016 with the election to the presidency of a man who celebrates the most venal form of white male stupidity, Donald Trump.
The Roman Genn cartoon of Donald Trump (above) was published with a David French article in the conservative National Review, entitled “Donald Trump’s Counterfeit Masculinity: Feminism’s Dream.” The thesis, trading on the “toxic” masculinity notion, is that Trump’s unrefined masculinity threatens to legitimate the “failed ideology” of feminism.
Aside from the failure of the article to distinguish between “feminisms,” an indication that the writer is not actually familiar with feminism, the thrust of the article is that Trump’s uncivilized construction of masculinity is dangerous to conservatism, because it reinforces David French’s caricature of what feminists have to say about men like David French. French and his National Review partisans, within the intellectual wing of conservatism, are threatened by Trump’s open display of a hypertrophied and undisciplined version of masculinity — that callous, in-your-face, entitled, frat-boy machismo.
How did this particular construction of masculinity come to be? What about masculinity was Trump channeling? How big a factor was masculinity in the election? Based on what we can discern about these questions, how does this look four years from now? How did this particular construction of masculinity come to be?
Returning to Slotkin, genres develop in a dialectic with emergent culture, with that dominant “social imaginary.” We understand more about ourselves when we study genre, what Slotkin calls “anthropological artifacts.” The Dead Sea Scrolls of our own era, telling the ever-changing, ever-unchanging story of the frontiersman as penultimate white American.
Male supremacy, in history, is challenged by the destabilization of various masculinities, but this challenge is never met with abandonment, only reframing. The response to any destabilization of one masculine archetype is to reseat male power in a newly reconstructed archetype.
It is no accident that films like Dirty Harry (1971) and Death Wish
(1974) came on the scene — nihilistic splatter-flicks featuring a lone male avenger and set inside the United States — just as the U.S. was seeing the inevitability of its defeat in Vietnam. It is no accident that Man on Fire, a film glamorizing and justifying torture that was released in 2004, with Denzel Washington as a race decoy for frontier masculinity (the bad guys were savage Mexicans in savage Mexico), corresponded to the governmental rationalization for the employment of “enhanced interrogation techniques” when the myth of American military invincibility was being dismantled again in Southwest Asia. The destabilization of masculinity has always been followed by a reactionary reassertion of it.
The “ethical” masculinity of a Gary Cooper character or of Walt Longmire was displaced by the “spaghetti Western,” where masculinity was an exercise of pure amoral savagery in a lawless world with just a whiff of transient compassion as the fragile thread of justification for masculine violence. Violence itself, as opposed to men exercising violence for some higher good, became probative of masculinity. The older trope of the Western hero, a man torn between his high principles and his penchant for violence (Slotkin called this character the “saint-and-savage,” a man at odds with himself), into a more unabashed thug. This trajectory of hegemonic American white masculinity (with its mirror in subaltern masculinities, themselves imitations of popular culture) has led us from Longmire to the Proud Boys. R. W. Connell said that fascism, described in gender terms, is “a naked reassertion of male supremacy in societies that had been moving toward equality for women. To accomplish this, fascism promoted new images of hegemonic masculinity, glorifying irrationality (the ‘triumph of the will’, thinking with ‘the blood’) and the unrestrained violence of the frontline soldier.”
Even these violent, cosplaying assholes trace their “lineage” to mythical Revolutionary War heroes and frontiersmen. Fascism is a reaction. The question always is, to what? Part of that answer is increasingly generalized insecurity about the future. Part of that answer is enculturated race hatred. Part of that answer is beleaguered masculinity. All are rooted in fear. Many of these fearful, fragile men compensate for that fear with guns. In America, where guns have been turned into icons, even idols, how could it be otherwise?
The Longmire series — that has been our lens on my generation — is a kind of desperate attempt to recover that “virtuous,” pre-fascist masculinity without losing the frontiersman with his horse and his gun, the last dinosaur in an asteroid winter.
As the ad-men pump entertainment into our houses with its virtual reality, a different reality is emerging outside right now involving men with guns. The President, who is tilting toward fascism as fast as he can to preserve his temporary immunity from prosecution, is essentially deputizing these right-wing mini-militias.
My dear fellow baby boomers . . . I know the comfort you seek in the face of a dying future. But our responsibility to those who will survive us is to know ourselves, to fearlessly discern the truth, and to selflessly tell it. For some of us, that will mean stirring the sauce with our non-dominant hand, losing our gun-love, and finding new stories.