Jon Eig: Lincoln and Django: The Way of the Gun
I started out to write about gun control. Halfway through, I realized I know little about the issue. I should probably read more on it before I write on it. So instead, this is about Westerns. Django comes from a deep American tradition. Even though it is nominally based on the Italian form of that American tradition, the Italians like Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci (who directed the original Django in 1966), were just borrowers. The classic American Western is built on classic American ideas: That the individual, and not the collective, is the most important component of a society, and that violence, especially gun violence, is the most legitimate way to settle both societal and personal grievances. Anyone wishing to have a meaningful dialogue with those who support gun ownership in this country had better understand that fundamental ethos.
I have often told my students that a great paper could be written tracing the last century of American culture by examining seminal Western films. From Stagecoach (1939) to The Searchers (1956); from The Wild Bunch (1969) to Unforgiven (1993), each says something profound about the way we see ourselves. John Ford’s Stagecoach was the first fully mature Western of the talking era, and its message is clear. The banker is evil, the bourgeois ineffectual. As the heroic couple (outlaw and prostitute) ride off at the end, they are said to be “free from the blessings of civilization,” perhaps the most succinct statement of the Western philosophy.
Our moral choices are very often not made based on reason and judgment but by habit and practice. American history has left us patterns of behavior that we habitually use. The history of the American West has left several problematic behavior patterns. First, we have a worship of outlaws. Vicious scum like Jesse James and Billy the Kid occupy volumes of complimentary literature, films and television.
I was interviewing a criminal once while I was working at a U.S. Probation office. I asked him why he committed crimes. He told me that he was an outlaw, a man who could not be limited in his behavior by society, a man outside the law. I was looking at a pathetic wrongdoer, a man who had brought misery and pain into the lives of everyone who knew him, but in his mind he was a heroic figure out of the Old West. It is not unusual in criminal justice to encounter criminals who consider themselves heroic figures, who were only doing what they “had” to do.
There isn’t much allure in doing the intelligent, rational thing when your culture prefers irrationality and violence.
Fortunately, America has counterbalancing traditions as well. Democracy, the ballot over the gun, is also a force embedded in this culture.
To act ethically and morally, reason is a critical factor, but there must also be an awareness of the cultural habits that often (always?) influence our decision making. Historically, Americans tend to lean toward gun use when confronted with problems. This may have been more appropriate in the Old West than now. It probably made more sense at the time.
Acting with reason, using logic, understanding history, will eventually undermine the culture of violence. We have advanced as humans by limiting the use of violence by ritualizing it, making it inappropriate in most circumstances. That struggle continues.
Business ethics is as much propelled by culture and habit as it is by intelligence.
We by our writing and our actions are creating a different perceived reality in ethics. It will one day take its place as cultural habit.
Let us live in the knowledge that our action and beliefs in many ways create perceived reality. That a heavy responsibility that we should take seriously.
From around the web –
From the web site, Eyewitness Blues:
I think most Americans – left, right and center – can at least agree that there is something disquieting happening at the core of American public culture these days. It’s something that often pops up as public displays of anger and vitriol that many times flirts with paranoid delusion. Maybe it’s always been there and we just never were exposed to it on a mass scale before the Twitterverse. Regardless, we live in a culture where violent rampages against strangers, though never condoned, are now simply not beyond the pale of American daily life. We call such acts unacceptable, and then by our continuing inability to address how to stop them, we quietly accept them.
Yeah so, humans are occasionally capable of unspeakable violence. News flash. Still, the nature of these incidents and their commonality suggest that this is an American thing, a revelation that puts an ugly stain on that old trope of American exceptionalism.
From the web site, Transition Times:
But I want to know why, as Americans, we tolerate and indeed seem to relish representations of violence, while at the same time we’re so fearful of actual violence that some of us are stockpiling weapons in our homes to prepare ourselves for the worst.
In the old days—not that long ago, in the scale of human history—a whole town used to turn out for a festive viewing of a hanging.
Today in places where conservative Islam reigns, women are stoned to death in public spectacles of participatory violence.
But how different is that, really, from the great American past-time of engaging in virtual violence of the most vicious sort?
America is the most violent, militarized society on Earth and Americans are the greatest exporters of violence, both physical and virtual, to the rest of the world.
Most perpetrators of violence—again, both real and virtual—are men. Men are the greatest victims of violence too, though women and children bear a disproportionate share, given that they are far less likely to be pulling the triggers.
We need to start looking much harder at the way our culture encourages violence by selling us the story that real men enjoy violence and can handle it with insouciance.
From the web site, 90.9 WBUR:
The real solution however, Gilligan says, is treating violence as a public health issue or as part of preventive medicine.
“In preventive medicine, we learned 150 years ago that cleaning up the water supply and the sewer system was much more effective in preventing epidemics of cholera and other infectious diseases than all the doctors and medicines and hospitals in the world just dealing with people one individual at a time.
“And I say here too, rather than focusing on primarily, say, trying to identify which individuals are maybe most at risk of becoming violent, the more efficient method of reducing the level of violence in our society would be to look at our environment and change it,” Gilligan said.
It’s no easy task. Gilligan said a first step for him would be to ban assault weapons and large capacity magazines. But he said the bigger picture is to tackle socioeconomic issues.
“We do have epidemics of violence when the unemployment rate increases, when economic inequality increases … And these tend to come down when we either ameliorate the effects of unemployment — for example, unemployment insurance — or find ways to protect people from utter humiliation and loss of status,” he said.
He went even further, saying that society as a whole needed to adopt a perspective “that we will not abandon or neglect or ignore anyone, that we will regard ourselves as responsible for the welfare of everybody.”
“I realize this sounds like pie in the sky … But I think it is possible to create a less aggressive and less violent society,” Gilligan said. “It’s just that it’s a matter of generations. It’s not something that happens overnight.”
And finally from the web site, Reflections – Deepak Tripathi’s Diary:
While all eyes are on Newtown for a few days, killings continue around the United States without much notice. Trigger happiness is an instinct difficult to separate from the ease with which guns can be obtained. Their availability in America is in abundance, price is cheap, the reasons to possess them many. To show off as trophies, to hunt, to “protect,” to satisfy one’s macho instinct; or because it is every American’s right to carry arms. Such mindset is absolutist. Such faith in the superiority of culture, which feeds on the idea of “American exceptionalism” that gives the United States a divine mission, is fatally flawed. For man cannot remain unaffected by what he does to fellow humans. At this time of sorrow, it would be appropriate to also think of the many young and the innocent killed in America’s foreign wars.
In a Boston Review article titled “The Power and the Glory: Myths of American Exceptionalism” in the Summer 2005 edition, Howard Zinn wrote these words: “Divine ordination is a very dangerous idea, especially when combined with military power (the United States has 10,000 nuclear weapons, with military bases in a hundred different countries and warships on every sea). With God’s approval, you need no human standard of morality.” It is this state of mind that haunts America today.