I’m late to the blog today, because I spent it giving a special program for the Smithsonian Associates called “From Stagecoach to Django Unchained: The Hollywood Western and Its Influence on American Values, Aspirations and Culture.” It consisted of me talking, a terrific Powerpoint presentation by the gifted Grace Marshall, and almost three hours of clips from classic Westerns—the whole session was five hours. My primary message is that anyone who is not literate regarding the Hollywood Western really doesn’t understand the myths and archetypes that powerfully influence U.S. culture to this day. Within that “anyone” are the majority of pundits and journalists, a large percentage of citizens under 50, and the vast majority of women and minorities. This is a problem.
For example, no one can consider the vast influence of the Western genre on American culture and be the least bit surprised that gun control has an uphill battle with the American public. No other culture has as its primary source of heroes, legends and lore figures and events so dependent on firearms as a means to right wrongs, protect the innocent, and punish evil. Frankly, if a pundit doesn’t understand why John Wayne (who died in 1979) just set a Harris poll record by being included in its annual list of top ten most popular movie actors for twenty consecutive years, from 1994 to 2014, I don’t think they can comprehend the nation sufficiently to opine on it.
Joe Biden, however, understands. I have been critical of Joe, as he is frequently an embarrassment, and there was a lot wrong with his comments today as he was honored with the “Voice of Solidarity” award by Vital Voices, a women’s rights charity, at their event celebrating “men who combat violence against women.” Still, Biden proved that whether he knows it or not, he is more atuned to U.S. culture than most of his colleagues. He deserves credit for that, if nothing else.
You see, Biden told a fascinating personal anecdote from his childhood. He related:
“I remember coming back from Mass on Sunday Always the big treat was, we’d stop at the donut shop…We’d get donuts, and my dad would wait in the car. As I was coming out, my sister tugged on me and said, ‘That’s the boy who kicked me off my bicycle.’ So I went home—we only lived about a quarter mile away—and I got on my bicycle and rode back, and he was in the donut shop.”
Biden said the the boy was in a physically vulnerable position,“leaning down on one of those slanted counters,” so he took immediate advantage:
“I walked up behind him and smashed his head next to the counter.His father grabbed me, and I looked at his son and said, ‘If you ever touch my sister again, I’ll come back here again and I’ll kill your son.’ Now, that was a euphemism. I thought I was really, really in trouble… My father never once raised his hand to any one of his children—never once—and I thought I was in trouble. He pulled me aside and said, ‘Joey, you shouldn’t do that, but I’m proud of you, son.’”
The lesson, Biden said, was that one should to “speak up and speak out” to correct wrongdoings. Like much of what come out of Biden’s mouth, this was nonsense in the context of his own story, and was not what the lesson was at all. The lesson was that force, punishment, violence and intimidation is sometimes necessary to stop bullying, discourage misconduct, protect the innocent and vulnerable, set standards, and give more than lip service to core values. Little Joey Biden didn’t “speak up”: he bashed a bully’s head and threatened to kill him. Apparently it worked, too. America, Americans, the culture and our history—as well as the Duke–have long believed that sometimes violence is necessary to stop violence, and send important messages, and can therefore be virtuous and ethical. Biden understood that when he was ten, and somewhere deep in that mess of mush he calls a mind, he understands that now.
In the midst of his story, Biden said that he didn’t recommend his conduct—but if he didn’t think there was something commendable in it, why tell the story? (The women were thrilled, we are told.) His father’s statement similarly makes no sense, and in the same Bidenesque way: “Don’t do that, I’m proud of you for doing it”…wait, what??? No wonder Joe grew up to be perpetually confused. If Dad said he was proud of the conduct, he endorsed it.
Joe’s party, on the other hand, is infested by those who, for example, found the U.S. retaliating against Afghanistan for assisting in the murder of 3000 Americans monstrous and unreasonable. Joe’s party’s base hates any deployment of force to stop international bullies and thugs, and believes resorting to violence is a characteristic of vile conservatives. (Interestingly, this segment of the base rather enjoyed a tale of violence when it was directed toward their special interests.) Joe ‘sparty is reputedly shocked that the Senate’s report on torture is not polling well: the majority of Americans are not substantially horrified when cruel things are done to terrorists, including torture. I am not surprised. Remember “Dirty Harry.” John Wayne wanted to play that part.
For the purposes of this discussion, I’m not making the case that threats of violence, and violence itself, are always right, always wrong, or somewhere in between. I am only pointing out that the sense that sometimes bad guys need to be punched in the mouth, like the classic Duke moment above, is a part of the American psyche, long nourished by our culture and traditions. That’s what Joe Biden demonstrated today.
But who knows what he’ll say tomorrow?