Monday, May 23, 2005

For you're no cowboy; you're soft, and how, boy

Matt Welch has expanded for Salon his theory of "Deadwood Democrats" as a countervailing meme to "South Park Conservatives." (Warning: NSFW dialogue transcripts ahead.) "Deadwood's" realism, wrapped in Milch's signature brooding on human complexity (he created the character Andy Sipowitz on "NYPD Blue"), are used to probe a fascinating question: What happens when there are no laws? Rampant murder is one obvious by-product, but so is the fascinating development of spontaneous and beneficial order, where traditions (such as sharing peaches at town meetings) are created by accident and clung to out of touching necessity, and where the federal and state governments are understood to be land-grabbing enemies to be opposed or at least swindled. "I am a sinner who does not expect forgiveness," Hearst Corp. representative (and big-time sinner) Francis Wolcott confesses in a recent episode. "But I am not a government official." At a time when Washington is passing laws to intervene in individual medical cases, and self-described federalists want to amend the Constitution itself to prevent individual states from experimenting with marriage laws, "Deadwood's" skepticism of government and celebration of individuality couldn't be timelier. And its viciously profane yet pragmatic demonstrations of tolerance feel more stiff-spined and American than an anti-defamation industry that has been enthusiastically adopted by the same conservatives who once mocked it. I think that's the problem with this entire concept, right there: Live-and-let-live pragmatic libertarianism of the frontier mould is predicated on a willingness to trust in the individual. True, Republicans may no longer credibly claim to be the party of small government (to my disappointment), but Democrats are even more addicted to the bureaucratic apparatus of the nanny state; viz, in only the most recent example, attempting to reform Social Security. You've got to have faith in individuals to make personal choices you disagree with. Deadwood develops the scenario of civil society building itself from the ground up. It's an appealing time and place for libertarians to fantasize about as a utopian past, but the setting (and thereby the theoretical inspiration for Democratic strategy) is thoroughly grounded about twenty years before the rise of the intrusive administrative state, and thus not exactly something that can be replicated easily today. There is a lesson to take from the story, though: that individuals are capable of rationally making their own choices, and for the most part don't necessarily need holier-than-thou elites (religious or secular) instructing them in 'correct' behaviour and thought. That leads, not coincidentally, into the second problem: Offensiveness. Welch quotes the show aptly: Episode 22, for example, has this delightful live-and-let-live exchange: Silas: You talk like you take it up the ass. Hugo: I do not, my friend Adams, take it up the ass. Silas: Don't call me your fuckin' friend! Hugo: But I suspect those that do consider that they advance their own interests. Like them, shall we not pursue that which gratifies us mutually? In Episode 2, after Bullock objects to Swearengen's anti-Semitic insults of Bullock's partner Sol, Sol refuses to let words get in the way of business: "I been called worse by better." A party of victimhood will never be able to see past what they deem offensive. In the case of liberal Democrats, that's refusal to wholeheartedly buy into certain articles of faith on race, sexuality, language, et al; affirmative action, hate speech laws, and the like. I find it magnificently improbable that a majority of Democrats could be persuaded to abstain from loudly taking offense at that which with they disagree. Sure, they're largely going to be fine 'working blue,' as it were - language being the most obvious possible source of offense in Deadwood - but that's not the issue. Can they control the urge to uniformly paint those more credibly attached to their church and faith than Howard Dean - who left the Episcopalian Church over the matter of the local parish's opposition to a bike path, of all things - as reactionary fundamentalists? Can they resist assuming that reluctance to uniformly enact same-sex marriage Right Now might be due to anything but virulent homophobia? Can they conceive of a world where opposition to racially-based school admission or hiring quotas isn't a symptom of underlying racism? Can they realize that normal people may have perfectly sound reasons for shopping at Wal-Mart, driving SUVs, and watching Fox News? In short, are they willing to be offended by the behaviour of others, and instead of raging in victimhood, shrug it off and continue arguing civilly for the sake of mutual benefit? Shaking the habit of fragile whininess would go a long way towards being seen as a rational alternative to the GOP with the crucial middle. There is an excellent pragmatic political reason to embrace "Deadwood's" frontier ethos as well -- the West, and especially the Mountain West, may be the key to the Democrats' electoral future. The "Western strategy," chewed on daily at Web sites like New West and WesternDemocrat, aims to extrapolate from the interesting trend of popular Democratic governors like Brian Schweitzer, Bill Richardson and Janet Napolitano running pro-Bush states such as Montana, New Mexico and Arizona, as the region as a whole grows sharply in electoral votes. This new Western breed of Democrat tends to be pro-gun, anti-tax and shruggingly tolerant of their constituents' various political beliefs and religious affiliations. "When you've got more cattle than people and you've got blue sky that goes on almost forever," Montana Gov. Schweitzer told Salon recently, "people have got room to roam without bothering each other. Live and let live." As "Deadwood" and the success of these politicians illustrates, that gruff tolerance and natural skepticism toward authority is written into the very DNA of the West. It's no accident that Barry Goldwater's libertarian take on Republicanism originated from Arizona, and it becomes clearer with each day that the modern GOP has little in common with the man whose idea of limited government meant real separation of church and state, and the "constitutional right to be gay," among other heresies. Under Bush, and too often with the Democrats' acquiescence or even support, the federal government has butted into our bedrooms, our locker rooms, and our living rooms. Right now there is wide open space on the political spectrum for someone to treat government as a grudging necessity to meet specific and limited goals, whether those are policing Deadwood's murderous streets, or guaranteeing healthcare for children while balancing a budget. There's electoral gold in them thar hills! How about policing the murderous sinkhole of the Middle East, rather than guaranteeing healthcare for anyone? Could Deadwood Democrats get behind that? The government which governs least isn't that which enacts even faintly socialist domestic policies with its limited means. I think Welch has missed the point, somewhat. Such a strategy shouldn't be a mere ploy to get wish-list domestic legislation in place; at least, not if the philosophy of rugged individualism is embraced honestly. And there's fun, too. Above all else, "Deadwood" is a pleasure to the senses. Prospectors and frontiersmen were "counterculture" a century before anyone had invented the term, inspiring the very people whose 1960s transgressions created the movement that "South Park" conservatives have been itching to roll back -- Bob Dylan, San Francisco heads who decamped to Virginia City, Ramparts editor Warren Hinckle. There is a natural connection between the Wild West and anti-authoritarianism, and real cowboys never go out of style. If the Democrats embrace this and adjust their outlook accordingly, there might finally be a major party worth voting for. Now, that, that's kind of a stretch. I doubt many American frontiersmen of the 1870s, given the counterfactual opportunity, would see much of themselves in the smug, self-indulgent burnouts of the 1960s. Modern Democratic voters in Montana, though? Probably a bit moreso. I appreciate the expansion of the "South Park Conservative" metaphor in search of parallels, but I don't think Deadwood offers realistic options for modern behaviour, notwithstanding some pretty massive philosophical changes on the part of the American left.


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