Thursday, May 17, 2012

No Country for Old White Men

When the faith dies, the culture dies, the civilization dies, the people die. That is the progression.
– Patrick J. Buchanan, Suicide of a Superpower

But I think once you quit hearing "sir" and "ma'am," the rest is soon to foller.
– Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, No Country for Old Men

The archetype of the ornery old man bemoaning the follies of a new age is stitched into the tapestry of American mythology.  An old man has merely to utter a variant of “back in my day” and his audience will smile, picturing him wagging a gnarled old finger at youthful passersby from his porch-bound rocking chair.   Two old men I have recently encountered might have prompted similar condescension (a sort of reverse-paternalism) if not for the disturbing resonance of melancholy in their otherwise familiar “old manologues.”  Such affecting angst moved this relatively youthful passerby to stop for a moment, turn down Pandora and stifle a yawn long enough to figure out what they were saying.  In case you hadn’t guessed from the introductory quotes, these two men are Patrick J. Buchanan, as encountered in his 2011 polemic Suicide of a Superpower, and Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, the fictional protagonist of the Coen brothers’ Oscar-winning crime drama No Country for Old Men.

In Suicide, Buchanan addresses modern America like an Old Testament prophet urging the Jews to return to the God of their fathers.  He points to the decline of Catholicism and fundamentalist Christianity – in terms of influence, moral standards and pervasiveness – along with immigration from Third World countries and the demographic decline of white Americans as the primary catalysts of a decomposing social order and the coming collapse of the country.    Such ideas are hardly new, having been bandied about for decades in the political arena (though rarely have they been articulated so clearly), but the depth of feeling Buchanan has for the “country he grew up in” lends an emotional gravitas often missing from political polemics.  In some sections, he delivers his money points with such feeling as to rival the impact of a roundhouse kick to the face from Old Glory herself.  

I found the closing section of his preface, when he shifts abruptly from coolly recounting statistics and historical anecdotes to invoke a Biblical parable, particularly moving: “We [Americans] are the Prodigal Sons who squandered their inheritance; but, unlike the Prodigal Son, we can’t go home again.”

It is in such soul-aching eulogies for his country that Buchanan most resembles the fictional Bell.  In a long monologue that accompanies contemplative shots of the uninhabited Texas countryside, Bell recalls the “old time sheriffs” fondly, including his own father, noting that many didn’t even have to carry guns.  He contrasts this with the modern era, now so dark as to be incomprehensible to the old timers.  The world has changed so much for the sheriff that he’s almost scared to venture away from his nostalgic musings, saying, “I don't want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don't understand. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He'd have to say, ‘O.K., I'll be part of this world.’"

Though Bell never spells out the existential threats to his America as clearly as Buchanan, the film harbors many parallels to Buchanan’s view of a broken and disordered society.  Buchanan’s diagnosis of a dying faith is a represented in Bell himself.  As suggested in his “soul at hazard” comment, Bell has little surety in his faith.  His shaken faith is almost paralytic in his effects; it is only instinctive stoicism that pushes him on when he lacks the courage of his convictions.  

The dwindling power of Christian beliefs and ethics is even more pronounced in the next generation, as represented by the character of Llewellyn, a pessimistic interpretation of the Great White Hunter.  From the onset, Llewellyn is easily led astray from the righteous path, first stealing a satchel of Mexican drug money, then jeopardizing his wife’s safety in a display of machismo and finally giving up on redemption and even survival for a fatal night of alcohol and adultery.

The most explicit parallel to Buchanan in No Country is in its depiction of immigration and destructive culture clashes.  Bell’s peaceful Texas countryside is the subject of repeated violent invasions.  Mexican dope-runners spill over the border to spill blood and leave behind illicit loot on the virgin soil.  They hound the aforementioned Great White Hunter before finding and murdering him.

The character that best epitomizes the perceived existential threat of Third World emigration is the villain Anton Chigurh, played by Spanish actor Javier Bardem.  He is evil, of course: a serial murder with no regard for human life.  Yet it is his incomprehensibility that makes him the most dangerous to Bell’s community (and, by extension, Buchanan’s America).  His motivations, his methods, his mindset are unknown: as such, the host culture as no way to contain him or ensure the protection of its citizens.  He blazes through the American West decimating the unsuspecting citizenry like an Old World disease through indigenous populations (it is telling that the only suitable reference an American in the film can apply to Chigurh is the bubonic plague).

Beyond tone and message, there are a number of similarities between the two that merit mention.  Both Buchanan and Bell are white.  Both are old: Buchanan turns 74 this year, while Bell is portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones, whose popular role in the Men in Black series has made his craggy face almost synonymous with old age in pop culture.  Both hearken from what many would consider the “South”: Bell from Texas and Buchanan from D.C.  Both have strong ties to an older order: Buchanan having earned his stripes as a young staffer to the Nixon, Ford and Reagan administrations and Bell a third-generation lawman. 

From such familiar starting points, the narrative line to their ultimate lamentations practically draws itself, especially to those who have been schooled in the orthodox cultural history of America from the 1950’s to today.  Here is a pair of good old boys from the South stewing over the loss of illicit privilege with the overthrow of the white-supremacist, patriarchal, fundamentalist old order.  When they mourn the “loss of America,” they are actually mourning the loss of what legal scholar Kenneth Karst termed “an all-white preserve,” a notion at odds with the true American values of tolerance and equal citizenship.
This is certainly the reading that MSNBC gave to Buchanan’s book, erasing him from their line-up of political commentators shortly after the release of the book.  (Obviously, as an Oscar-winner, No Country was spared the righteous indignation – Bell’s paralyzing crisis of faith prevents him from making any moral judgments as offensive as Buchanan’s.)  In doing so, however, MSNBC echoes the court historians of the conquistadors, who, as modern history professors dutifully point out, may have exaggerated the atrocities of the indigenous peoples to discourage sympathy for their plight as captives.

I would advocate a far more sympathetic reading.  For whatever the faults of the earlier American society eulogized by Buchanan, and in many ways echoed by Bell, his sadness at its passing is sincere and worthy of consideration.  It is a sadness that is similar in tenor, if not context, to the cries raised by oppressed minorities in works such as Mine Okubo’s Citizen 13660 or the pleas for sovereignty from American Indian tribes in court cases such as Cherokee Nation v. Georgia.  If you have a moment, I’d ask you to stop with me for a moment, and lend an ear to the old man on his porch, mourning the loss of his country.