On today’s edition of cultural shifts in my lifetime I want to talk first about cowboys and then the Confederate flag as we ponder whether these have been progressive cultural shifts enlivening some value, e.g., historical truth, or simply a widening cultural pool more inclusive of realistic imagery. (While I would hope humans are getting ‘better’, I am afraid the data do not support that thesis at this time). And personal disclaimer: I am not a cowboy; I have ridden a horse only twice in my life. But I have been learning about them ever since I grew up in the 50s and watched TV. In those early days cowboys, at least those who had starring roles, were upstanding, polite gentlemen mostly in white hats, e.g., Hopalong Cassidy (his was the first TV brand lunchbox), Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Cisco Kid, etc. I personally always preferred their sidekick, Gabby Hayes, maybe not so conventionally upstanding but authentic and honest, a gentleman in all but speech and there he may have been a mite ‘cantankerous’, and whose hat was tolerably battered and dark. However, he was a loyal friend to our hero and he could cook. Yes, cook, and you never saw our hero stir a pot, much less wash it.
Roy Rogers was very popular. Again I liked Gabby or his sidekick, Pat; they were a bit off kilter. Roy was a force for orthodoxy; consider this code for his cowboy club:
- Be neat and clean.
- Be courteous and polite.
- Always obey your parents.
- Protect the weak and help them.
- Be brave but never take chances.
- Study hard and learn all you can.
- Be kind to animals and take care of them.
- Eat all your food and never waste any.
- Love God and go to Sunday school regularly.
- Always respect our flag and our country.
Well, let’s think about the reality of some of these. Cowboys were not neat and clean by the standards of many; they lived, after all, with cows on the trail, far from baths, etc. And they had some reputation for, shall we say, rough behavior. I remember an old show Rawhide (where Clint Eastwood first made his name as Rowdy Yates) where all the cowboys were clean shaven, wore clean clothes, etc., yet they lived out on the trail. And they were all on their best behavior.
I particularly took exception to number 3: always obey your parents. Always? Sure, I think young children should obey their parents, but cultural progress requires disobedience, as does adulthood, come to think of it. (Remember my recent post on beatniks and think about how we achieved civil rights, e.g., female suffrage and equality under the law for Afro-American, for all in this country, against the wishes of many parents). Of course newer manifestation of the cowboy way has been their stubborn moral independence—think about Robert Redford’s role in Electric Horseman, his respect for his horse, and his revolt against corporate immorality. Number 8 got me in trouble because I ate all my food and became fat kid. Number 9 ignores the truth of skepticism and number 10 asked us to be willfully ignorant of our contemporaneous immoral actions abroad in the 50s and 60s under the Dulles brothers and then our corruption in waging the Viet Nam war in addition to the reactionary forces marshaled against civil rights.
So I deemed that Roy’s cowboy way was inadequate to dealing with the complexities of reality and growing up and neglected the reality that cowboys are gritty realists. We have had many iterations over the years, thinking about TV shows, Gunsmoke and Bonanza, and movies, High Noon and 3:10 to Yuma (the original) but eventually producers and writers began to embrace a more realistic view, so that we have the spaghetti westerns leading to Clint Eastwood’s magnificent film, Unforgiven. Cowboys were dirty, both physically and morally; not bad, mind you, just messy. I recently learned from Wikipedia that many of these films are considered ‘revisionist westerns’; they portrayed cowboys as the complex creatures they were and are (and as we all are). Even Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid showed our heroes as on the other side of the law, as lovable as they were.
It seems that more recently the image of cowboys has become even more realistic, even rebellious, gritty and dark. Think about the Highwaymen with Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson. Consider the novels by Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men. Blood Meridianand All the Pretty Horses. Now real cowboys, not drugstore or suburban cowboys, have probably changed little over the years except as the culture in general has changed, e.g., mechanization, availability of information, etc. They still treasure nature and life outdoors, they still prefer the solitude of wide-open spaces, and they chafe at constraints and interference.
In terms of our cultural representations, my question is whether the changes in this expansion from the sanitized visions of my childhood to the more realistic versions of today constitute a progressive shift or merely a more inclusive variation as the pool of images expands? I tend to think the former because the naïve versions cannot be repeated, at least not without a heavy dose of irony or parody. Consider the original TV series of The Lone Ranger and the recent movie The Lone Ranger (with Johnny Depp as a mystical jester in Tonto). A show depicting a hero of yesteryear would be hopelessly naïve and laughable.
The cultural differences between a shift or a variation in cowboy imagery are not really a serious matter, more a literary interest than anything else, but now consider the imagery of the Confederate flag. In a recent conversation someone uttered the old phrase that history is written by the winners and I disagreed, saying look at our Civil War, then the racist flood that wiped out Reconstruction (watch Henry Louis Gates’ wonderful 2 part documentary on PBS if you want to cry over the possibility for an equitable and just society that America threw away with the birth of Jim Crow and the Klan), and the continuing narrative even to today that the Confederacy was an heroic society and morally correct cause. (This is currently a big deal here in southwest Virginia after the Charlottesville neo-Nazi march and the ongoing effort to keep the Rebel flag in public displays like the annual Christmas parade. Jeez.) The defeated South re-wrote that history in order to reinstate white supremacy bolstered by the image of their flag representing the noble people and their cause. And for a long time that has been orthodoxy written by amoral losers, not winners. To be clear, after watching Gates’ documentary, I understand that the winners buried their moral authority under political expediency and wrapped in their own racism. And I understand from this development that the Confederate flag was not a big deal until the period from the 1890s to 1930s when Southern leaders promoted segregation and racial injustice by erecting many monuments and flying this flag, and then the flag was again rejuvenated to combat civil rights and more recently, cultural diversity and justice.
So consider the cultural evolution (manipulation?) of the Confederate flag, progressive shift or expanding variable pool? For a brief time recently I thought that the flag and its accouterments were being relegated to historical museums. The old argument that the Civil War was over states’ rights had finally been clearly debunked through excellent historical research and the morally repulsive reality of slavery, Jim Crow, lynchings, etc. was finally being broadcast in the light of day (see my post about The Half Has Never Been Toldon 7/31/17 & 11/23/18). However, now with the resurgence of a racist nationalism here and in Europe, I have to wonder if we have only expanded the cultural pool to include more realistic narratives and the old distorted narratives continue to thrive albeit in mutated form. Racism is like the measles; it lives on and will spread dangerously unless many of us are inoculated against it.
Earlier I said that we could not go back to the days of naïve cowboy imagery; The Lone Ranger and Hopalong Cassidy can only ride again in satire. I had trouble thinking of analogous renderings of Confederacy and white racism but my wife reminded me of Spike Lee’s excellent film, BlacKkKlansmanand then I remembered the treatment of the Klan in the movie Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? Read, if you haven’t already, the surreal satire by Paul Beatty, The Sellout. A bit later I went further back in time to remember Mel Brooks’ wonderful and early satire, Blazing Saddles.
My final point here is that I will be certain we have made progress regarding the Confederate flag when fictional narratives about that facet of American life and history can only be carried forth in parody and satire, when we can no longer take seriously, only satirically, the claims embodied in the Confederate flag, and along with this, the violence by its proponents disappears under the heavy, heavy weight of moral condemnation. You say I am a dreamer? Well, I am not the only one, as my friend John used to say. Or as Captain Picard said so well, “Make it so”. Travel on.