“This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” -The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
In an interview, John Ratzenberger (Cliff Clavan, from Cheers) lamented with, seemingly, effortless perspicacity, “you know why television shows were so much better then? Because, back then, the people who wrote for television grew up reading books. People who write for television today grew up watching television.” The same goes for film. Faulkner wrote scripts in Hollywood for a spell. A short story written by Dorothy M. Johnson, a now widely-unknown literary figure who wrote a story called The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, was familiar with the likes of legend and nuance setting the story for interpretive growth through minimalism, or sparse use of language. In fact, inscribed on her tombstone is the word “PAID” with no other explanation but that it was known between her and God what it meant. It is no stretch to grant that the writers who adapted her story to the screen were indeed consciously literate enough to have understood the play-on-words in the very title. For if you replace the second “a” in “Valance” with an “e” you get the word valence – which is a term used to denote the degree of attractiveness or repugnance one feels toward someone, something, or something that happens. The name Liberty Valance becomes “Liberty Valence”: a value applied to the concept of liberty. Given the plot and resulting climax of the film, to infer that it’s a commentary on what real liberty looks like around the world, and what it can entail is a deeply rich, fiercely complex critique that could encapsulate what has been and is to come of western culture.
In the west, liberty is the locus of sovereign individuality; the enabler of the idiosyncratic spirit. Liberty is the means to conjuring and manifesting a distinct material reality within reality, bearing the thumbprint of an individual’s soul, of which is beneficial to all. However, it can be an attractive tool for self-aggrandizement; a means to highlight the egocentric impulses of a person; attractive to some, yet repugnant to all; the cognitive dissonance of the western mind. It’s our unvirtuous, yet oh-so human, nature to abuse liberties. The freedom to advance oneself through stories of one-self, told to one-self and others, which grow grander as they echo out of history into the future is the Achillean tug toward immortality through glory, whether through splendid acts of courage, vain acts of grandiosity, a greatly exaggerated version of a life lived, or, even yet, a spectacular lie stemming only from the truth that one existed, and where everything else is yarn. Thus, the title itself The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a concept. To read it as the man who shot liberty valence is a mind-bending, brow-corrugating concept to unpack.Simply regarding the story, in the context of the film and circumstance, the context of the line, “shot” is the past participle of “shoots”, so the notion is ‘the action is behind us and we must deal with it’ and the result being one of pessimistic misfortune, and the other reading being cynical diffidence—the story is told in retrospect. But, the more comprehensive interpretation, as simply put as possible, could be understood as the one who adulterates the truth via the liberties bestowed to them contributes to the death of freedom’s attractiveness and effectiveness throughout the world. Freedom includes the freedom to act in bad faith. He who acts in bad faith contributes to the growing repugnant perception of the miracle of liberty. He who, given his liberties, behaves neglectfully of that miracle, defaces its visage.
One of the most famous lines, “this is the west…when legend becomes fact, print the legend” is also one of the most pessimistic (possibly, one of the most complex) utterances in cinema. It was received by audiences (and, thus, the culture at large) as a virtuous claim. A sentiment that implies a protection of the public from hard, disappointing truths for the better good; as a valid aspiration for individuality; the specious virtue that what the legend signifies is better, more useful, than the truth. Not only was this incorrect—this was not what was meant. It was a caveat. A warning, not of what is to surface, but what has already reached ebullition. It was not cynical but, again, pessimistic. Not quite defeated; not yet diffident. That’s the difference between cynicism and pessimism: cynicism allows for nothing, the present and future are not only wrought with hopelessness but there is nothing to be done but to mock it, whereas pessimism allows for some chance for change; the present certainly isn’t perfect, nor will it ever be; it also isn’t good—but it could be, as could be the future. It is said that Liberty Valance was Sergio Leone’s favorite John Ford film because “it was the only film where he [Ford] learned something about pessimism.”
There is an element of self-fulfilling prophecy innate to the cynic that the pessimist seems to be wary of:
“I heard tell once of a Jeff City lawyer who had a parrot that'd wake him each morning crying out, "Today is the day the world shall end, as scripture has foretold." And one day the lawyer shot him for the sake of peace and quiet, I presume. Thus fulfilling, for the bird at least, his prophecy.” –Tony Kushner (lines uttered wryly by Daniel Day-Lewis in his stellar portrayal of Abraham Lincoln), Lincoln
In Genesis, God uses the Logos to bring life into being and follows each parturition with “and it was good.” Almost like a refrain in God’s song of order. For the Logos (that which puts the chaotic potential of the present into habitable order) is truth uttered orderly into existence. And anything that stems from truthful speech and deed is thus good. It’s no coincidence that when things are based on lies, or bent versions of the truth, the western idiom tends to be that with any luck “some good will come of it.” The freedom to speak and act and think truthfully is the foundation to all that the west is built on and if we resort to versions of the truth, or lies pawned off as truth, we thus dispense with the entire undergirding structure of the west—and that is certainly not good.
What used to shape western culture was community bound by virtue which was imbued by religious faith distilled by reason. “Faith unpurified by reason risks being mere superstition” quoth John Paul II and Benedict XVI. This phrasing is rather effective; the term “unpurified” is particularly stimulating, as though a raw faith is toxic—wherein the river of faith, without out the distilling mechanism of reason one could contract a giardia of the soul. The result of such unreasoned dyspeptic utterance has rendered these institutions and principles no longer valid to mold the youth of our culture and their (now dwindling) posterity. The things which now contribute greatly to shaping western culture — media, academia, entertainment — places where legend is bred and fact is bent — are purveying cynicism at a rapidity that is nothing short of perplexing, particularly in the advent of 24-hour news cycles along with the 21st century digital revolution. The internet is the culmination of it, where everything merges together in what Harold Bloom called the “great grey ocean” and if one is not prepared for it, they will be consumed by that colossal pool where truth and information merge indistinguishably.
“The massive danger is, obviously, the screen… the internet, though an economic and commercial necessity, is a terrible danger to the life of the mind. It’s a terrible danger to real reading. Because it’s a kind of great grey ocean in which everything merges with everything else…making it difficult for the young person to establish standards of reading and again what could be called intellectual and aesthetic standards of judgement to what’s on it…Questions of taste and judgement now seem to rely entirely upon information and not at all upon, what I would call, learning or wisdom…”
The “learning and wisdom” that have carried humanity to the present in the west are enshrined in the western canon, a treasure trove of truth and tradition that everyone should be intimately familiar. Even still, one cannot simply plunge into the depths of the internet armed with escutcheon of truth—and most who do tend to not even have that, having been exposed to the abyss as an adolescent long before the realities of real learning and embodied wisdom have been instilled. An increasing number of those who are of an appropriate age simply lack the eye and ear for standards that are distinguished in the western canon. The discipline it takes to understand the distinctions between, and importance of, truth, learning, and wisdom is practically non-existent today. For what is a fact or piece of information without the wisdom to properly embody it, or without the learning to properly contextualize it? The west has an increasingly weak-minded populace due to the failures of the western (particularly American) education system, but more importantly the culture itself has let its youth down by depriving them of proper context to the historic struggles and subsequent breakthroughs that brought about western civilization, and namely, American civilization. To encounter the monsoon of information that is the internet without a sturdy sense of self in context to westernized culture, let alone the sense of individual self to reflected in the great works of art throughout the ages, is a something that could sincerely be considered a trauma.
“If, in fact, you have an impulse to become and maintain yourself as a deep reader, then the internet is very good for you. It gives you an endless resource. But if, in fact, you don’t have standards and you don’t know how to read, then the internet is a disaster for you because it’s a great gray ocean of text in which you will simply drown.”
In his book, Underworld, Don DeLillo expresses a similar sentiment of digital submersion…
“There is no space or time out here, or in here…there are only connections. Everything is connected. All human knowledge gathered and linked, hyperlinked, this site leading to that, this fact referenced to that, a keystroke, a mouse-click, a password — world without end, amen…Is cyberspace a thing within the world, or is it the other way around? Which contains the other, and how can you tell for sure?”
It’s hard to say where the digital world ends. Where the merging stops. Thus, an increasing number of cultures are subject to the citizens who make up their populace regressing into the subjective recesses of their own psyche, rendering them more and more susceptible to the vagaries and empty superficiality of the visual. Bloom elucidates:
“As Kafka once prophesied, our one authentic sin is impatience; that is why we are forgetting how to read. Impatience increasingly is a visual obsession; we want to see a thing instantly and then forget it. Deep reading is not like that. Reading requires patience and remembering. A visual culture cannot distinguish between fallen and unfallen angels, since we cannot see either and are forgetting how to read ourselves—which means that we can see images of others but cannot see either others or ourselves.”
The growing number of western individuals wounded by what is perceived, rather than inspired by what actually is or potentially could be, are medicated with cynicism prescribed by academia, media, and entertainment—salved by the unguent of grievance claims as they cling to the buoy of tribalism and cry-out in prayer to the altar of politics.
There is an expression used among political analysts like Arthur Brooks: “motive attribution asymmetry”, which is simply a hostile mode of perception. For example: if you consider yourself, as well as your ideas and actions, to be motivated by love and, say, you support abortion, and then someone comes along espousing a pro-life philosophy, the resulting encounter of contrast in beliefs — your love-motivated ideas and actions which spawned your support of a pro-choice mentality confronted with a diametrically opposed principle (pro-life) — naturally leads to the assumption that this other person is motivated by hate; obviously, because if you are motivated by goodness and altruism then anyone who contradicts your motives must then be motivated by badness and greed. This is the current state of politics.
In an interview with John Anderson, Peter Hitchens — the brother of the late Christopher Hitchens — gave a terrifying response to Anderson’s enquiry regarding what, in fact, western culture is facing. What kind of threat is liberty facing with the rise of sincere arguments for the activist ideologies of socialism:
“One of the things that I did when I was a revolutionary socialist was try and prevent people from exercising freedom of speech and thought. It came naturally to me. It came naturally to me because I believed that what I thought and desired was so good, that anyone who disagreed with me must, by their nature, be evil and deserving of being silenced. And this is the problem: the general belief held by the elites of most western countries now is also a belief in their own virtue. And if you believe very strongly in your own virtue — and your virtue is almost a caricature of justification by faith alone — you are a good person because you hold certain opinions and therefore if someone holds other opinions, they are a bad person. And, I think, that makes dialogue pretty much impossible. If you think your opponent is bad, not just wrong, but bad, why should you listen to a word he says? Well, they don’t…they have learned from all from history [but one thing, and] the one thing I wish they’d also learn from it is that they are wrong, but all they have learned from history is just how to be wrong better…anyway, anybody can fool himself into believing that his own position is going to lead him into paradise.”
The interview ended with that sentiment. Peter Hitchens spent most of his life in politics and has now bowed out. He has found that the truth may indeed be that there is no one left to have a conversation about important issues with; a cynical inference from the otherwise ardent pessimist. But he has uttered a hard truth: the important conversation isn’t being had by those in important positions. Granted he is speaking predominantly on Britain but also as a member of western culture. He is indeed a man who has the rather scarce Orwellian “power of facing unpleasant facts.” What Hitchens is expressing here is the decadence of the foundational civil truth-seeking behavior that birthed and augmented the west; an ideology like socialism is not an intellectual one but an impulsive, instinctual one—with oddly religious connotations. The west wasn’t built on activism, it was built on thorough investigation, civic duty, mutual transaction; yes, wars were fought, incivility was engaged, injustice inflicted, oppression in many forms took place but the limiting principle of truth-seeking, judicial investigatory process, learning, literariness, articulate speech, and individuality was the aim. Activism views conversation itself as a form of obfuscation and obstruction—it’s off the table because instinct tells the activist ideologue that the present state of things is beyond reason. Action is the only valid approach. Any action. Emotion is the truest truth. Whoever is the most passionate is the winner of the kangaroo court during the trial of public opinion. No end to what means it can justify. I’ll return to this thought momentarily, for a far more pernicious manifestation of this cynicism is occurring more and more frequently. There are those whose cynicism takes on much graver a tone, transmogrifying into malevolence.
In the prologue to Underworld, “The Triumph of Death” — alluding to Peter Bruegel’s 1562 oil panel painting, which makes an appearance near the end of the books opening — details a sweeping panoramic description of an actual baseball game which occurred October 3, 1951 between the New York Giants and the (then) Brooklyn Dodgers. The novel begins with a boy contemplating sneaking into the game, then doing so successfully as the narrative voice passes over fans conversations, the pitcher on the mound gathering his thoughts, the announcers in the press-box (before and after the mic is turned on), and a drunken Jackie Gleason puking on Frank Sinatra’s shoes while J. Edgar Hoover wonders why he is with these two motley figures, all of which builds to the climatic “Shot Heard Around the World” when Bobby Thompson of the Giants hits a grand-slam to win the game (they were losing 4-1). DeLillo uses the boy, the crowd, the players, the commentators in the press-box, the celebrities, all to unite the entirety of a liberating event as a purely American experience, which brought everyone together, uniting the “crowd animal,” where the American Dream is briefly felt for all in attendance before the US received the terrifying news that the Soviets were testing the atomic bomb. It is uncanny how DeLillo describes later on in the novel that “violence is easier now, it’s uprooted, out of control, it has no measure anymore, it has no level of values.” He prophesies, with so real it’s surreal prescience, our modern frenzied anxiety of terrorism, our growing fear of one another, and how violence has become this other thing entirely; the term “violence” doesn’t even do justice to what this other thing is anymore. (The cover of his novel dons an image of The World Trade Center superimposed by a church—the book was published in 1997.) There is only one word that does this modern other thing — brought about by secular, unreasoned cynicism — any semblance of just description: misanthropy.
Now, first of all, unfathomable violence is replete throughout history; human history is a bloody nightmare. The cruelty and senseless brutality of it is nothing new. What DeLillo is saying by “violence has no measure anymore” is an amplification of the initial line “violence is easier now”—he is articulating how accessible violence is these days. You don’t have to go out to encounter it. It’s right there on your screen in your bedroom. Every type of vileness you can fathom is a few strokes of the keyboard away. However, what is also being expressed in this sentiment is the notion that certain individuals are now implementing violence in sophisticated and retributive ways—there’s no reason for it other than an element of notoriety and a self-hatred compounded and projected over time.
It’s not difficult to decipher why the likes of such malice would begin to take such an acute and distinct form. It is fairly common to encounter very intelligent people who view human beings as a cancer plaguing Mother Earth. It is no surprise that our younger generations are cynical in world view and self-loathing in their own introspect. Kids are dying younger and younger, not from famine or incurable diseases but by their own hands, either deliberately with a noose or a bullet, or inadvertently through needles and pills, seeking relief. But from what, exactly? A crisis of identity stemming from an overload of stimuli without any context or measurable standards. Dopaminergic releases just a click away. No built-in discipline from education systems that used to instill in children and late adolescents the works of genius encapsulated in the western canon from science and mathematics to art and history—now what is taught is not only distrust in those fields but a distrust in the canon itself.
But there are a select few who are more prone to a loathing far more potent, a self-hatred and abhorrence of people in general far more intoxicating, where the slight push of cynicism is enough to fall over the edge into a sea of despair and retribution; where acting on resentment becomes a prescription for the meaninglessness of things. Eric Harris was one of them. Brenton Tarrant is the newest manifestation of such malign will—a will that can only be recognized as misanthropy. Simply read Harris’s journals and Tarrant’s manifesto — juxtapose them to one another — and you will see parallels in sentiment and aim. But the latest act by Tarrant is a more sophisticated execution of such leering intent; it’s an updated misanthropy. Misanthropy itself is nothing new. Like lymphoma, it never dies, is never cured, merely lays dormant for a while, reawakening refreshed and quick to adapt. In fact, Tarrant himself, adapting a precedent set before him by Harris, even naming the likes of Dylann Roof and a list of political figures, and war-mongers throughout history, utilized the modern anxieties propagated throughout the media. He plucked talking points and political terminology from headlines and plugged them into his screed. Tarrant had his finger on the pulse of civilization as his hatred for it transmogrified; he did with that intuition what propagandists do with art: calculate how to intimately deliver a particular message in order to get people to think a certain way. In this he was successful. It was one of the most effective acts of misanthropy we’ve seen in years, maybe ever. He made his cynicism personal to the modern west. David French aptly put it that Tarrant “may have written a new cultural script” that had been laid out by prior acts. French writes:
“Of course, the New Zealand killer is not the first person to film his own horrible crime. We’ve sadly seen “live” killings before. But he’s the first mass killer to so prominently turn his massacre into a brutal, real-life approximation of a first-person-shooter video game. He’s the first mass shooter to bring every aspect of his evil straight into the virtual world.
There will be much to think about in the coming days. For example — as if we didn’t know this already — no longer can we look at the far-right message boards and laugh off the worst speakers as “just” trolls or “edgelords.” In fact, given the New Zealand shooter’s rather obvious effort to manipulate American public opinion, here the murders and manifesto seem to be part of the troll itself, woven together in an inseparable stew of hate and spite.”
How can one be a more effective misanthrope? Target a specific group of people to inflict harm upon and do it in the name of an ideology that will further the chasm already between people: do what will turn the living against one another—that is true misanthropy. It goes beyond even the limits of an ideology. There is no limiting principle to misanthropy. It becomes the means and the ends, wielding labels as weaponry simply to leave more destruction in its wake. This is where language does indeed become like bullets—it’s the intent, the effect of the act, not necessarily the act itself; although the act itself is no less evil or devastating. How much more damage can stem from an act of hatred? This is what the misanthrope asks. What message will create the most carnage? “What tactics are at my disposal?” Tactically, a place of worship is a particularly an advantageous mark. Not only is the concentration of the congregation focused towards the front of the room, the entrance usually in the back — easy for even an inexperienced individual to come in and do severe damage — but murdering people in a place of worship in the name of a particular ideology is a multi-tiered, bafflingly complex act of hatred that demolishes notions of security in any place. Harris took that security from schools. Roof took that security from worship. Tarrant took that security from speech. He used American talking points, and anxiety towards gun violence, against a Muslim community of New Zealanders to turn the most influential nation on the face of the earth into a place of internecine uncertainty; rendering a heightened, violent passivity via active censorship. There is even more so today quiet tension building with great velocity, further straining our cultural capacity of free-talk. Tarrant has made a legend of himself. We must be sure, in the spirit of western civility to pursue the truth of the matter, the facts that demystify the monstrous story.
When Truth and tradition, faith and reason, go out the window war kicks in the door. It’s not even that there is a dismissal of the truth these days, or even a disagreement on it, particularly here in America. It is now being argued that there is no such thing as Truth. That truth is itself a legend. This idea came straight out of academia in the sixties when the universities contracted the disease of French Revolutionist Intellectualism; the poststructuralists that begot Deconstruction (a philosophy of dismantling) out of Postmodernism (a philosophy of splintering). Jacques Derrida being the pioneer of Deconstruction. Michel Foucault being the bastard Dauphin of this movement.
Derrida claimed that the West, particularly America, was what he called phallogocentric. Only a reprobate such as Derrida could come up with such a cynical term. That western civilization is a culture conjured and constructed from a male power-mongering lexicon. Derrida, rightly, proclaimed that language could be dismantled and therefore so could ideas. You could literally think about something until it no longer made sense — an attempt to make an art of pedantry — and he derived this notion from the Greek term aporia (thinking oneself into perplexity). He even considered this to me a mark of maturity, the ability to think on an idea for so long, study its constituent parts so meticulously, that one reaches the point that the idea becomes utterly nonsensical; one cogitates so greatly on each isolated piece of an idea (namely, the terms used to construct the idea itself) and the pieces relation to the other pieces that make up the idea, until you arrive at having analyzed the art and wisdom out of the whole idea; the senselessness of the piece becomes synecdoche of the whole; all that is left are a parade of contradictions. Of course, this is true—language and ideas when stripped of context and meaning are simply deflated constructs, flat and insignificant. It is the Truth enshrined in tradition and principles, derived from thousands of years of experience that contextualize language and ideas and manners and customs—imbuing them with the Truth discovered throughout the ages through trial and error and experimentation reveals the incorruptibly sustainable truth imbedded within certain ideas; for what is truth but that which is inviolably tenable? Derrida had decontextualized everything, even principles—he was, by default, not just an unprincipled man, but a principle-less man, or better, a man devoid of belief in principle. The interpretations, conclusions, behaviors of this man and his philosophy have no limiting principle because western culture and principles themselves are simply male-advantageous customs held together by a bukkake of an onanistic western masculine lexicality. In Derrida’s universe, anything is justifiable because nothing is just. Which, again, is correct, if you have no foundational beginnings, no history to look back on and see where things worked and didn’t work. If history and Truth are just a legend articulated out of ideas constructed by meaningless, arbitrary sounds and symbols then there is no such thing, indeed, as history or Truth. Foucault latched onto this idea. In fact, he lifted practically all his theories from prior theorists — Camille Paglia said it best: “The more you know, the less impressed you are with Foucault.” — simplifying them into the fascistic argot of post-structuralism—namely, knowledge is simply an assertion and abuse of power in the power-centric struggle of the west, rather than a reflection of Truth.
The likes of Derrida and Foucault came to prominence around the time Albert Camus was regarded as a traitor by the revolutionaries of French high-culture subsequent to the publication of his book The Rebel, which was a creative rumination on the horror he witnessed (from afar, of course) in the rise of Stalinist Russia and its Western Intellectual apologists. Revolution was the result of “adolescent furies” which we needed conquer, or at least subdue if we wished to advance humanity, and not just simply move forward into the future. Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, that whole coterie and, eventually, inevitably, Derrida and Foucault—who lead the way to what we see now in the modern (and increasingly American) abhorrence of western culture within western culture. Derrida was, to his credit, a serious thinker—unprincipled as he was, he wasn’t possessed by bad ideas; in fact, he wasn’t possessed by any ideas, per se. He had a playful spirit about ideas but took seriously to thinking about what it is to think about ideas. Camus was cast out because he, much like the great literary figure who rose like a phoenix out of the ashes of Stalinist Russia’s gulags Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, knew that revolution was not the answer to the ails of the times, nor was baselessness, foundationless-ness, for those were nihilistic tendencies passed off as rigorous intellectual excavation and, in the end, a bunch of inhumane, senseless, spiritless theories that argued mankind could move forward, violently but virtuously, into that no-place of Utopia; the inhumanity of revolution was wholly incompatible with reality. Those French elite revolutionaries misunderstood the role of the artist:
“As a result of rejecting everything, even the tradition of his art, the contemporary artist gets the illusion that he is creating his own rule and eventually takes himself for God. At the same time he thinks he can create his reality himself…[The artist] has only to translate the sufferings and happiness of all into the language of all and he will be universally understood. As a reward for being absolutely faithful to reality, he will achieve complete communication among men…That’s just it and yet that’s not it; the world is nothing and the world is everything — this is the contradictory and tireless cry of every true artist, the cry that keeps him on his feet with eyes ever open and that, every once in a while, awakens for all in this world asleep the fleeting and insistent image of a reality we recognize without ever having known it.” -Albert Camus, Create Dangerously
Camus rather poignantly captures in his essay, The Myth of Sisyphus the monumental achievements of mankind that have ultimately resulted in very little, but that is precisely why we move forward, grateful for what we have indeed achieved despite our myriad devastating failures—for there would be no progress if we ceased looking forward and carefully, after great consideration and experimentation, put to action the epiphanies of our intellectual endeavors, despite our faults and unavoidable failings to come, and those that reveal themselves at later times to have already come to pass. Camus states:
“I know another truism: it tells me that man is mortal. One can nevertheless count the minds that have deduced the extreme conclusions from it. It is essential to consider as a constant point of reference in this essay the regular hiatus between what we fancy we know and what we really know, practical assent and simulated ignorance which allows us to live with ideas which, if we truly put them to the test, ought to upset our whole life. Faced with this inextricable contradiction of the mind, we shall fully grasp the divorce separating us from our own creations. So long as the mind keeps silent in the motionless world of its hopes, everything is reflected and arranged in the unity of its nostalgia. But with its first move this world cracks and tumbles: an infinite number of shimmering fragments is offered to the understanding. We must despair of ever reconstructing the familiar, calm surface which would give us peace of heart. After so many centuries of inquiries, so many abdications among thinkers, we are well aware that this is true for all our knowledge. With the exception of professional rationalists, today people despair of true knowledge. If the only significant history of human thought were to be written, it would have to be the history of its successive regrets and its impotences.”
That “people today despair of true knowledge” is a painful revelation. It is the reality we are immersed in today. It is hard to accept real truth, for it shakes and strips out from under you the very foundations upon which you have constructed your reality. It is painful to learn of what you did not know before—and what damage that has already wrought. What pain that has already caused. What person you could have become—had you known.
The west is entrenched in the notion of liberty because freedom is the only means to “true knowledge.” The task of salvation in western culture is the preservation of liberty and Truth, as well as the pursuit of it. In Camus' Nobel Banquet speech he reconciles inherent tension between the task set and who the task is set for:
“Truth is mysterious, elusive, always to be conquered. Liberty is dangerous, as hard to live with as it is elating. We must march toward these two goals, painfully but resolutely, certain in advance of our failings on so long a road.”
We are seeing now in American culture a skepticism of liberty. This is the relation eastern traditions have with liberty, where entire civilizations are possessed by the belief that freedom is an evil that allows the savagery of man, animal in his nature, to run roughshod over one another, engendering the worst elements of human nature. And, to an extent, they are right. Freedom does indeed enable the brutalities of natural man. But the west has shown, over and over again, that freedom prevails—every time. Liberty has redeemed the world. The feats of its accomplishments today were unfathomable 50 years ago, let alone 243 years ago when our Declaration of Independence was signed, or 230 years ago when the Constitution of the United States was ratified. Skepticism of liberty is directly linked to the unwillingness to accept or acknowledge truth, which leaves nothing but the existence of pain—an ineluctable experience. It’s what the postmodernists cannot get around. Pain is the reality in which all things orbit. Strip yourself of all beliefs, all philosophy, all tradition, community, family, and self—and you have only pain. If you need a foundation of truth, start there and build yourself up. Work diligently and honestly to transcend the inherent suffering that is the essence of consciousness. Americans still have the upper-hand in this regard because there is such an acute understanding of pain derived from contradiction in principle: how can we have such blessings that stemmed from such blasphemy? The atrocities of this nation are a direct result of genuine ambition to create a real space for freedom—when that task is taken on, the consequences of getting it even a little wrong are not only immediate, they are catastrophic in effect. It took years to get to a place where freedom can be said to be for all in this nation. And what liberty has revealed to us in 243 years is this truth: we weren’t ready for it, and we still aren’t. This is why in the land of the free we have the highest incarceration rates—over 200 years of freedom isn’t enough time to breed out our brutal nature. But that is no reason to dispense with it. That wouldn’t just be throwing the baby out with the bathwater—that would be throwing the bathtub with the water and the baby still inside and then burning down the house. For if not then, when? If the ambitions and intellect and idealism and opportunity that matrixed those two and a half centuries ago had not been met with action where would the world be? The truth is the action was taken. Major mistakes were made, and we have been making up for them diligently ever since. It is the greatest experiement man has ever undertaken and it continues to this day. That experiment manifested a liberty that is at odds with what is natural — another truth most are unwilling to accept — that all the elements of nature itself aim to corrode that liberty. Everything natural works against civility and benevolence. The natural world outside civilization, and the nature within every human being, instinctively eats away at structure, discipline, and civil engagement; wears away at the notion of agency, individuality, and autonomy.
The Fragile condition of freedom is an all-to-American anxiety, for we know how precious it is. This is what lends to our bent towards the eschatological; the end of days is just around the corner. Even if we can’t articulate it, we feel it. It’s been there since the beginning of our nation. From the dismal Articles of Confederation to the conflict-ridden ambitions of the Constitution the sense that it could all fall away in a fit of impulse towards our nature—that Hobbesian notion that our default setting as human beings is war and poverty; outside of civilization life is “nasty, brutish, and short.” Every natural element is working against liberty. The American experiment of freedom is a delicate balance perpetually at hazard, it must be fought for, defended, cultivated, cherished, and preserved. This preciousness balances on a pen-head where angles sing the hymns of freedom, dance to the lyres of liberty. Where each individual soul takes flight, participates in the cosmic Terpsichore of experience, conjuring that which is simultaneously unique in design yet universal in application. The western tradition discovered a fundamental truth that the human spirit is distinctly individual; each person an embodiment of a divine breath of inspiration. Some benevolent spark wrapped in flesh, animated for the purpose of participating in the transcendent dance of creation—for only a short time.
The ancients had a term, “Persona”, which was Latin for the masks donned by the actors in Greek and Roman theater. The mask was a good mechanism to project one’s voice to reach the audience members back in the farthest seats and the highest tiers of the theater. The word eventually took on the meaning of the actor’s role within the context of the play, and then widened to the social role, contextualizing public function. Later, it came to define the individual under Roman law. It came to denote a citizen with rights and duties. Much later “persona” came to be regarded as an individual being, apart from their social class. Then fused the legal (economic) and theatrical meanings with “paterfamilias”: “Under the person of the father of the family were concealed all his children and servants.” Western personality originates from this idea of the mask. Society as ritual theater acted out by distinguished characters.
The general, cynical, consensus of the western persona is that we are all donning masks, lying to each other, playing a role to get what one wants in the theater of life. Western personality is far richer than that, and exceptionally nuanced. Instead of the mask being a disguise aiding us in deceit it is a distinction, a representation of inherent complexity; a synthesis of the myriad-tiered spirit that is each of us. A truthful, sincere personality is still only the surface of a deep life riddled by painful limitations and conflicting forces. The mask of personality renders a sense of imagistic order in the otherwise chaotic collage that is the individual, an aesthetic representation of the individual soul. The persona’s aim is not to deceive, frighten, or disgust—it should elicit the childlike curiosity of all around. A welcoming countenance radiant and particular, with the penchant for a peculiar hospitality and grace. The idea is that the individual being is an embodied potential which craves trajectory, a lodestar toward ideal form.
The Greek term for "sin" is "harmatia". Which literally means "to miss the mark." Hard to hit a target you don't know is there, or that you need to be aiming in the first place. Dangerous thing to have a bunch of shooters not only missing their marks but not knowing they are even shooting. The aimlessness of upcoming generations is a result of the negative valences attributed to liberty through legend of cruelty. It is no coincidence a term such as "triggered" is the expression used to denote outrage these days. They don't know what it is they should be shooting at, nor are they accruing the wisdom to know when to holster the impulse to act out. It’s incredible—only a little gratitude and a taste of the rich history of western civilization from Jerusalem to Athens to Europe to America is all that is needed to begin the reversal of such a prevalence of meandering misery.
A group of bald-eagles is known as a convocation: a word which denotes a gathering, particularly for a common spiritual message. We gather to keep the balance. We gather in the spirit of freedom. Heed its message. We Americans congregate to ensure that liberty does not perish; does not languish in the face of our posterity. To raise strong-minded, independent, thoughtful people who embody success in all its forms, even coming up with new ones, through an exposure to and reverence of western tradition is the cultural task of salvation. Successful people, the overwhelming majority of them, didn’t get to where they got through corruption – they got there by integrating man’s predisposition toward predatory, survivalist, killer instincts in a productive, assertive, benevolent manner; a competent benevolence; an aggressive benignity. Those who are proud to live, learn, work diligently, make and raise a family, prepare for old age, and, with some luck, and blessed fortune, die surrounded in the warm embrace of the family they raised, and missed by the community they helped cultivate. Those successful people who humbly serve the world by not trying to save it but simply striving to leaving it a little better than it was before, in their own little niche of existence.
The climax of Liberty Valance takes place in a courthouse (still told through recollection) convention of statehood where Jimmy Stewart (Ransom Stoddard) has left the courtroom for solace after convincing himself he cannot take office and serve as a statesman after having murdered someone, even in self-defense. This is all after Stoddard has campaigned on cleaning up the town of Shinbone, focusing on inhabitants safety, repairing infrastructure, and having established a school to teach reading and writing to the town of Shinbone’s illiterate citizens, before the legend of him shooting Valance takes place. He’s elected even after the attempts at sabotage by Valance, directed by all the cattle barons of the county. Stoddard is threatened and told to leave town but refuses because of his principles and the rule of law and order. Later that evening Valance and his cronies come to the office of Stoddard’s colleague, who they beat senseless, and Stoddard winds up having to shoot Valance. Near the end of the film, again, still in retrospect, John Wayne (Tom Doniphon) comes in and sets Stoddard straight, tells him to own up to the killing, while informing him that it wasn't him who had actually done the deed—Doniphon did from an alleyway across the street. He knew Stoddard would have been killed otherwise. Doniphon says it was “cold-blooded murder, but I can live with it. Hallie [the woman Doniphon was courting when Stoddard came to town, and Stoddard has now taken and proposed to] is happy, you’re alive.” He walks to the door of the office, opens it and says “go back in there and accept that nomination. You taught her how to read and write. Now go in there and give her something to read and write about.”
The flashback ends, and we are back in the present—25 years later, again, in Shinbone, after attending Doniphon’s funeral. Stoddard is recalling the real story to journalists who had caught on to the facts of the legend. They decide not to tell publish the truth and that’s when the now famous line is uttered. One the train back to Washington, Stoddard mentions to his wife that after a proposed irrigation bill passes he’d like to retire from politics and move back to Shinbone, much to Hallie’s delight she replies “if you knew how often I dreamed of it. My roots are here. I guess my heart is here. Yes, let's come back. Look at it. It was once a wilderness, now it’s a garden. Aren’t you proud?”
Some good—I suppose.