By Maureen Dowd, New York Times, September 17, 2011
There are two American archetypes that were sometimes played against each other in old Westerns.
The egghead Eastern lawyer who lacks the skills or stomach for a gunfight is contrasted with the tough Western rancher and ace shot who has no patience for book learnin’. ....
At the cusp of the 2012 race, we have a classic cultural collision between a skinny Eastern egghead lawyer who’s inept in Washington gunfights and a pistol-totin’, lethal-injectin’, square-shouldered cowboy who has no patience for book learnin’.
Rick Perry, from the West Texas town of Paint Creek, is no John Wayne, even though he has a ton of executions notched on his belt. But he wears a pair of cowboy boots with the legend “Liberty” stitched on one. (As in freedom, not Valance.) He plays up the effete-versus-mesquite stereotypes in his second-grade textbook of a manifesto, “Fed Up!”
Trashing Massachusetts, he writes: “They passed state-run health care, they have sanctioned gay marriage, and they elected Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, and Barney Frank repeatedly — even after actually knowing about them and what they believe! Texans, on the other hand, elect folks like me. You know the type, the kind of guy who goes jogging in the morning, packing a Ruger .380 with laser sights and loaded with hollow-point bullets, and shoots a coyote that is threatening his daughter’s dog.”
At a recent campaign event in South Carolina, Perry grinned, “I’m actually for gun control — use both hands.”
Traveling to Lynchburg, Va., to speak to students at Liberty University (as in Falwell, not Valance), Perry made light of his bad grades at Texas A&M.
Studying to be a veterinarian, he stumbled on chemistry and made a D one semester and an F in another. “Four semesters of organic chemistry made a pilot out of me,” said Perry, who went on to join the Air Force.
While eloquently illustrating the divide in American politics, Ms. Dowd seems to indicate that the divide is merely between those who value learning, education, and complexity and those who champion "dumbness". Having spent four years working on the U.S. "frontier" in the late 90's, I learned a thing or two about this divide.
It does indeed have a learning and reading and grades component, and it does indeed posit the effete "east" against the "gun-toting west"....but it goes much farther than that.
This stereotypical divide of the archetypes can be found in the religious divide that has ripped the country apart: those who believe in a literal and absolute reading of scripture, and those who take a more metaphoric and poetic reading, especially of the "laws" for human living aspect of the Holy Writ.
There is, it would appear, two different christian Gods under pinning these two archetypes. One is a compassionate, inclusive and supportive God whose chief characteristic is agape love (from the East). The other is a stern, cold, rugged individualistic God who demands harsh judgement of his disciples especially those who are "not saved" in a "born again" definition of salvation (from the west).
And of course, with (only a male) God as the model, there are two distinctly different definitions of masculinity at war in the political arena. One seeks to work "with" all voices, and all opinions to create a compromise that can be accepted to various positions. Another seeks to impose a strict reading of the limits of government, thereby (supposedly) enabling a maximum "freedom" for the citizen, submits to black and white pledges (against all tax increases, for example) and refuses anything looking or smelling like compromise. In fact, compromise is considered a "sell-out" to the enemy.
There is a deep and profound historical component to the divide also. It says, and the history of the U.S. demonstrates, that only a fight to the death will generate a win, on the battlefield, in the corporate boardroom, in the war of ideology, and in the race to world supremacy, another form of "winning" that must include the elimination of the opponent. Just listen to the sideline banter at a football game, with the players bragging about "takin'-him-out" as their contribution to the war effort.
The country, both sides, have engaged in a battle for world supermacy, and have inculcated that war into the language of their curricula from a very early age. Kids know who the enemy of the U.S. is/was/and will be. They know that the U.S. is in a war for jobs, for dominance in world affairs, for the pursuit of profit and all forms of money, for retributive justice as opposed to rehabilitative justice, for the "right religion" as opposed to the "heathens and apostates" at the other church (depending on church membership, that opponent could be any of the major Christian, and more recently Muslim churches).
This is a Manichean perspective that allows only two options: the good and the bad. And this perspective reduces every American to a binary existence at every moment of every day, in every situation. It perpetuates a childhood simplicity that is fogged over by "the veneer of polite and sincere greetings and small talk" that greases the public discourse.
It reduces all people to either parent or child, eliminating the adult in the triangle.
It reduces all people to "Americans" or "aliens" while the hypocritical shout from the Statue of Liberty asks for all the dispossed and the poor and the sick to come to America's shores.
It reduces the discussion to either hope or fear, when contemplating how to frame public debate.
It reduces the analysis of human beings, and corporations to "rich" and successful or "poor" and unsuccessful.
It reduces the categories of students from "A" to "failures" or "those winning scholarships to the best universities" versus " those granted admission by only the state universities".
It is not that Obama cannot engage in a Washington gun fight and win; it is that he choses to attempt the impossible, to make it possible for a breakthrough on this "manichean" and ultimately self-destructive political "war" mentality.
He is not fighting only for his agenda, in the short run; he is also fighting for a vision of the country that includes multiple versions of "grey", along with a masculine-feminine definition of God, and an acceptance of both straight and gay people, and a vision of leading that includes participating in the background (as in Libya), and that includes both clarity and ambiguity.
Real men can actually perceive, accept and not be defeated by ambiguity, even in political debates.
Real men can and actually do cry, as witnessed in the Jacqueline Kennedy tapes at the Cuban missile crisis.
Real men can and do embrace uncertainty, and a position of questioning, as opposed to one of the totality of knowing what is the only right path.
Real men can and do have faith, while sustaining a healthy dose of scepticism about many issues within that faith.
Real men can and do refuse to wear a gun on their hips, because they do not subscribe to the notion that arms make one safe.
Real men can and do value education, learning and complex and even informed thinking and reading, without losing sight of the need to act.
Real men can embrace the strengths of their female partners, and even champion their leadership in all fields, without sacrificing their character, or their strengths in their own areas of expertise.
Real men do not need to shout, and to make others cower, in order to make their point.
And real men embrace a society of inclusion, complexity, poetry, music, and art, without sacrificing their capacity to act in strong and disciplined initiatives when required.
It is time for the U.S. to hold a national funeral for Manicheanism, put a torch on the grave and make it a national monument....demonstrating the removal of this intellectual, psychological and philosophical trap that reduces much of the country's perceptions to much less than the reality that is available.
This impoverishment of the education system, of the media coverage, and of the political debate, and the people engaged in all pursuits is seriously damaging the potential of all Americans, and of the country generally.
And we all need a strong, complex, inclusive, sensitive and sensible United States of America to help forge the many complex resolutions to the many complex problems we all face. And we need them now.