Tuesday, February 9, 2010

I don't want to believe that John Wayne represents America

but he does, doesn't he?  I mean, I read the infamous 1971 Playboy interview, and I'm sickened by his racism, his homophobia, his paranoia of communism and liberal teachers (that would be me, right?).  This is the last person on Earth I want to associate with my country because I love my country.  My grandfather and uncles fought for this country and my cousins are actively serving at this very moment.  My father immigrated here because he saw the potential of America's ideals of a class-free democracy.  I was raised on the yet unrealized ideal that we strive to let all men be created equal as well the belief that you loved your country best by speaking out when things could be improved--that's what democracy is, right?  Being active, voting, demonstrating, speaking.

Not, perhaps, if you're John Wayne.  For him, those whose views were not his should be silenced.  Those whose skin was too dark or whose sexuality was different needed to be suppressed.  Those who believed in communism should be run out of his business and preferably run out of the country altogether.  To my mind, this sounds a lot closer to dictatorship and imperialism than it does to democracy.  And yet, looking at the historical record--genocide of Native American tribes, slavery, institutional racism and Jim Crow, Japanese internment, McCarthyism, the Patriot Act, the continued bans on gay marriage--John Wayne looks a lot closer to what America has acted like than I want to believe.

Is it his charm that lets him get away with this?  Hi bravado?  His sexuality?  Is it America's swagger that allowed it to be a world power even when it didn't act on its own ideals?  Teaching this essay yesterday, I was struck by how conflicted we were about his character.  At one moment, we want to disown him; at another, he becomes everyone's grandfather--while we don't like what he's saying we admire him for saying it.  He's honest.  He doesn't hide.  He says what we know people are thinking.  In a democracy, we need this if open debate is to be possible.  Yet it's not debate that Wayne advocates but dogmatism.  The brave don't exile those whose views are different from theirs.  John Wayne shows little courage in the convictions of democracy.

As troubled as I am by the interview, I think it is important reading because none of the views he holds have disappeared.  If we are a democracy, they must be given voice.  I only hope that saner voices bring reason and logic to combat the *fear* that ultimately drives so much of this "bravado."

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