In the opening chapter of Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage, an independent, Mormon-raised rancher-woman is approached by an elder and a posse of 7 men to settle what to them is a major transgression. Jane has in her employ a “Gentile” cowpoke and they want him gone from Utah territory. He’s encouraged toward this end by threats of a severe beating and is tied up in preparation. i
And then, a lone rider on a magnificent black horse approaches, drawing everyone’s attention and delaying the process of doing away with the “Gentile” cowboy. It is, of course, Lassiter, magnificent in black leather and two low-slung holsters, stopping to water his horse. He’s humble, almost obsequious in his request, but only until he’s apprised of the situation and the dilemma of the Gentile. The story follows the general motif of the Western novel; the “bad guys” slink away in fear of the righteous gunslinger, a helpless vagrant is saved and a beautiful, rich young woman is vindicated.
It’s my opinion that what made Westerns so popular (Zane Grey was probably the first writer-millionaire in America) has echoed down the corridor of American history to emerge in 2016 in the election of another Lassiter to be president. The world of the “Wild West” was once characterized by violent crime, both organized and serendipitous, and justice was of the vigilante sort. Mormons, Indians, Mexicans, cattle rustlers took turns being the bad guys; the good guys longed for a Lassiter to protect them. With the coming of settlement and official, organized law enforcement and the marginalizing and subduing of the displaced Aboriginal population, the Wild West gave way to more orderly democracy and a new social contract. But the longings for real or imagined enemies, and the adulation for Lassiters to banish them lived on, vicariously through the popular novels and movies, literally in hibernation in the culture and politics of the country.
Lassiter is a hero in the novel even before anyone knows or cares if he passed or flunked grade school. He’s not wanted for his erudition, wisdom or broad knowledge; he’s wanted for the willingness and ability to do what he does: vanquish a gang of 8 bad guys, in a shoot-out if necessary.
Shooting from the
hip has given way, of course, to shooting from the lip, but no
matter; the effect is the same. In imagination and on social media,
Mormons, Indians, Mexicans,
liberal-thinking left-wingers and the Chinese have been vanquished;
humiliated, put to flight with their tails between their legs, the
taunts of the messianic Lassiter ringing in their ears.
Supporting this return to a Wild West sentimentality, of course, are the workings of nostalgia, which often repaints the past through rose-coloured glasses. Tales like Riders of the Purple Sage are written as stories of heroism. Just as denominational Christianity can’t abide any suggestion of cracks in the armour of the Jesus Christ as they’ve each constructed him, so a Lassiter either has no faults, or more accurately, is followed by disciples unable to admit of any cracks. That’s the problem with heroes without character; with time, cracks enlarge to become gashes, gashes widen until disintegration is unavoidable. “There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in,” Leonard Cohen famously sang to us. This too shall pass, once the light gets in.
The re-emerging longing for Wild West answers isn’t the only historic signpost to the present state of the Union. Slavery was wrested away from the south and a demographic of “good guys” formed, with the released slaves and “them damned Yankees” lumped together as the enemy. It would be naive to assume the biases of that era would not be passed down to the present; we see it now in the denigration of Confederate symbols on the Yankee side and their veneration on the other. No less significant were the brutally genocidal Indian Wars which, again, left an imprint on the soul and the mind of Americans and reinforced divisions. That the burden of memory regarding these three historical realities (the Wild West, emancipation of slaves, subjugation of Aboriginal populations) should linger in the unconscious of America to this very day is surprising only to those who don’t see how one generation sets the table for the next, that next generation for its successors, etc.
Progressives often attribute to ignorance, stupidity, simple-mindedness the pro-Trump movement’s dogged determination to support their Lassiter to the bitter end, regardless of what he does. The fact that the Trump camp has a similar opinion of the progressive half of America simply means that they’ve come to look at each other over a chasm across which the throwing of rocks and insults seems the only communication left to them. As in a spaghetti western, subtleties like social contracts, legalisms, manners, ethical principles become meaningless and the focus turns to a kind of gunfight in the OK Corral. The quick draw and the accurate, most deadly shot is all that matters when we get to this impasse.
There are reasons, of course, for the fact that the progressive-leaning population is a slow-draw, easily-gunned-down, easily caricatured cohort. Progressive politics and religion carry the burden of proposing novel ideas in answer to evolving issues; it’s easy to make sport with the unfamiliar. Conservative politics and religion rest on the past and most often on an assumption that, with effort, old solutions can be dragged into the present and the nostalgically-visualized past will return. In Riders of the Purple Sage, Chapter 1, Lassiter stymied the Mormons; today’s Lassiter will clean up the mess we find ourselves in. Who are seen as the Mormons, Indians, cattle thieves and Mexicans in today’s real-life novel? Take your pick of brown immigrants, Mexicans, a swamp of civil service ne’er-do-wells and the “socialist/communist hordes”—the task for Lassiter is almost too large to be accomplished without a huge cadre of sycophants kissing his holsters. The motto is not “Make America Great,” you will have noticed. It’s “Make America Great Again.” Let’s go forward by reversing, in other words.
What it boils down to in the end, is the arrival at a plausible, livable, new social contract. As defined in Britannica, a social contract is “an actual or hypothetical compact or agreement between the ruled and their rulers, defining the rights and duties of each.” In modern democracies, we would point to a constitution as an “actual” contract, the ethical codes held in common by the majority as “hypothetical” contracts. In a nation as large and diverse as the USA, there are bound to be groups and individuals who take exception to items in the “contract,” polygamy in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints giving way to the ethic of monogamy in the national social contract, for instance. But every social contract is fluid; the monarchy in Great Britain has evolved through many bumps and reversals from a contract of absolute rule to representative democracy rule.
The USA today has hit upon a time when the social contract no longer works well, neither for citizens nor for governments. Pockets of population demand strict adherence to one item in the constitution (the gun lobby, for instance) while ignoring all countervailing items. The question of what in the office of president is lawful and what isn’t is under tense scrutiny. How the nation will reach “a renewed or hypothetical compact or agreement” is really what the current political turmoil is all about.
Oversimplified, there are at least these two ways of settling the contract renewal dilemma: 1) measured, patient negotiation in good faith or 2) the exercise of power such that the current rulers enforce a contract which matches their vision of what it ought to be. The Wild West image of making things happen looking down the barrel of a weapon has to be enticing because it’s fast, it answers the human need for conquest and it ends up with a contract—although lopsided—that favours the vision of the ones holding the guns. Compromise be damned.
Enter the Biden/Harris, Trump/Pence shootout at the OK Corral. I’m sure that by now the citizenry of the USA is gaining an awareness that no matter who wins the shootout, the social contract will remain in tatters. A nation that can’t find an agreed-to process to mend the contract will inevitably break apart and states, for instance, will promulgate a constitution with which they can live and break away from a nation and other states with whom they no longer feel at home. California comes to mind. An unlikely alternative to this is the separation referendum, of course, where the residents in the state weigh the pros and cons of separation and the result forms a component of the contract going forward. Referenda in Quebec, in Scotland and Brexit itself clarified the populations wish regarding creating a new contract or holding their noses and living with the old. That can only work if the prevailing social contract includes the sovereignty of a majority vote.
The election of the current president in 2016 signaled the emergence of a renewed Wild West mentality. The building of the wall, the getting tough with China, the tearing up of trade deals, the insulting of democratic presidents and prime ministers along with the praise for dictators were early signals that tiresome negotiation would not be America’s immediate future. Say what we want—and many a pundit has—that despite the president’s colossal ignorance on any details beyond the obvious in foreign affairs, domestic affairs and, well, pretty much everything, the fact remains that he is the most powerful force in whatever happens to the quest for a renewed social contract, and that he has so managed to dominate the news that his following numbers in the tens of millions. He is their Lassiter.
I haven’t finished reading Riders of the Purple Sage and I’m not sure I will. Grey has written some remarkable passages describing the countryside, the ambiance of sage brush country. His characterization of anything that is deeply human borders on the absurd, though, not totally unlike Trump’s characterizations of anyone who doesn’t support him, mimicking the uncontrolled movements of a citizen with cerebral palsy, for instance. The Wild West approach requires that empathy be dampened down, and if you never had any, well, bonus.
And here’s another kicker. Peace is boring. Negotiating, conversation, dialogue are boring. Patience is boring. Nothing beats either the gunfight or the tongue fight to raise one’s heart rate, to excite the mind and to offer at the end the reward of conquest. (Except, possibly, the Roughriders kicking the s**t out of the Stampeders!) If humanity is to evolve, finally, in the direction of Kingdom of peace and justice, triumphalist power and its application will always be that which seeks to undo every forward step. All the way up to and including the soldier shot through the throat and dying in the mud of a battlefield, it seems so many of us believe that old lie, Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori. It is sweet and honourable (some translate it proper) to die for one’s country.
One of the greatest “Mennonite” sermons was written as a poem during WWI when Wilfred Owen (who likely never darkened an Anabaptist church door) penned Dulce et decorum est. Owen was discharged to hospital with severe PTSD in 1917 and died at 25 in 1918, just one more victim of the great lie about which he wrote. I’d urge re-reading it at: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46560/dulce-et-decorum-est
Happy Trails to You!
i I confess that I don’t know much about relations among Mormon settlers and non-Mormons in Utah at the time in which Riders of the Purple Sage is set. Certainly their characterization in the novel is startling when we compare it to what is today The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.