Liberalism in Flight: Cowboys, Fugitives, and Political Philosophy

This negative and lonely freedom allows the stranger to move through social groups while remaining free from their constraints.

October 4, 2011

    IN 1954, THE FILM CRITIC Robert Warshow wrote that "[the] two most successful creations of American movies are the gangster and the Westerner," noting, succinctly, that they are both genres based on "men with guns." The gangster — especially in his later and introspective modes — can be hard to tell from the detectives who chase him, just as he's somewhat hard to tell from the "good guy" gunslingers that populate the average Western. All three belong to the distinctively modern character type that the sociologist Georg Simmel analyzed in his 1908 essay "The Stranger." According to Simmel, the stranger differs from the older figure of the nomadic wanderer, who "comes today and goes tomorrow"; the stranger, in Simmel's formulation,

    comes today and stays tomorrow. He is, so to speak, the potential wanderer: although he has not moved on, he has not quite overcome the freedom of coming and going. He is fixed within a particular spatial group, or within a group whose boundaries are similar to spatial boundaries. But his position in this group is determined, essentially, by the fact that he has not belonged to it from the beginning, that he imports qualities into it, which do not and cannot stem from the group itself.

    This negative and lonely freedom allows the stranger to move through social groups while remaining free from their constraints. In Westerns, the stranger seems to be played most of the time by John Wayne.

    The philosopher and literary critic Robert B. Pippin has written extensively on Hegel, Kant, and Henry James; his new book, Hollywood Westerns and American Myth, treats four Westerns, all starring Wayne — three directed by John Ford (Stagecoach, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and The Searchers) and one by Howard Hawks (Red River) — at some length. All four of the Westerns he examines are about the relation of Wayne's character to the towns and civilizations that he helps define through his ultimate and irremediable status as an outsider.

    Pippin is deeply interested in the question of human subjectivity, including its relation to political life; and, in the Western, political life turns out to be a subjectively precarious proposition. Wayne's characters in these films — who are all intentionally disturbing challenges to what Pippin calls "the John Wayne Type," the generous and self-sacrificing good guy — cannot assimilate themselves either to the civilized life they help to destroy (that of the native Americans who tend to be Wayne's antagonists) or to the civilized life they make possible (the westward moving European culture).

    Like Humphrey Bogart, Wayne has the outsider's self-reliant charisma. His absolute self-reliance means that he is someone whose experience we cannot fully imagine — and that's the point. Of Wayne's charisma, Pippin notes: "Hawks said that he always worried about Wayne as a leading man, that he had such screen presence that he could 'blow away' the other actors." Red River (1948) was the first movie Hawks made after The Big Sleep (1946), and Hawks's line sounds like Chandler's description of Bogart in that movie: "all he has to do to dominate a scene is to enter it." That kind of dominating charisma makes of its bearer an exception to ordinary political life, even if in the Western he (almost always "he," though Pippin does do a nice reading of Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar, which features Joan Crawford in this role) also helps to found it.

    The charismatic character is an exception to the rules of political life because, as Pippin insists, these films are about the subjective psychological experience of politics, and charismatic authority is not something we can imagine having. We do not know what it is to be authoritative in that way; none of us know the charismatic hero's self-possession. Unlike John Wayne's characters, the citizens of democratic, twentieth-century American modernity tend to think about and care about politics in relation to "the kind of psychological state that citizens ... have in private domestic life." Pippin — much more than Warshow, whom he cites admiringly and often — sees Wayne in these movies as embodying not the citizen but something more ambiguous and troubling: The origin and catalyst of the liberal democratic society that eschews the violence that gets it going. It's Tom Doniphon (Wayne) and not Ransom Stoddart (James Stewart) who turns out to have shot Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), and the result is a society that achieves civilized transcendence only by becoming universally sterile and joyless.

    Part of the brilliance of Pippin's book lies in how it brings out the darkness of Wayne's characters and shows how Wayne, far from ennobling the societies he somewhat unwillingly founds, instead tinges those societies with his own darkness. Pippin shows how assiduously careful Hawks and Ford are to demonstrate the political self-deception that enables the more or less happy endings. The John Wayne character remains a stranger, and as a representative of the violence necessary to the institution of civic society, he needs to remain one; it is the fundamental nature of a liberal democratic society, Pippin argues, not to be able to acknowledge its own violent foundation.

    Pippin cites the political philosopher John Rawls on the liberal ideal of voluntary social union organizing all our political commitments from the small to the large: "a social union of social unions." In all such cases, Rawls says, what is required is that "everyone accepts and knows that the others accept the same principles of justice." Pippin suggests that such a social union wouldn't quite have room for Simmel's stranger. Who is permitted to volunteer? he asks. How can you interpret the meaning of a voluntary action? What is the psychology of voluntary action? As Rawls himself understands, "Conceptions of justice must be justified by the conditions of our life as we know it or not at all" (Pippin's emphasis). Life as we know it is the life to which neither the Westerner nor the noir antihero can belong. In a letter to a fan, Chandler wrote of his creation Philip Marlowe: "The private detective of fiction is a fantastic creation who acts and speaks like a real man. He can be completely realistic in every sense but one, that one sense being that in life as we know it, such a man would not be a private detective." And Warshow similarly says of "the gangster as tragic hero" that

    for the gangster there is only the city; he must inhabit it in order to personify it: not the real city, but the dangerous and sad city of the imagination which is so much more important, which is the modern world. And the gangster —though there are real gangsters — is also, and primarily, a creature of the imagination which is so much more important. The real city, one might say, produces only criminals; the imaginary city produces the gangster.

    Pippin mentions a couple of noir films in passing in his book and promises the imminent publication of a book on noir (a couple of essays have already appeared in journals), which will no doubt consider some of the same issues as Hollywood Westerns and American Myth from a more urban perspective. In the meantime, we can turn to Stanley Fish's The Fugitive in Flight, which covers and retells 35 episodes from the four seasons of the sixties TV series. Though Fish barely says so, the show is very much in the mode of film noir, a genre often seen as a transposition of the classic Western into the twentieth century city.

    In The Fugitive in Flight, Stanley Fish quotes liberally and effectively (it's one of the joys of his book) from the treatment that Roy Huggins, the creator of The Fugitive, wrote years before he pitched the show to ABC. According to Fish, Huggins finds one of his sources "in the character and mode of life of the Western hero ... a man without roots, without obligations ... compelled to change his dwelling place, his occupation, his human attachments." He thus manifests the "absolute freedom" depicted by "the traditional Western" (Huggins), a freedom Fish glosses as "the freedom not to be defined by values and allegiances one does not freely choose."

    Like Pippin, Fish goes to Rawls for this definition of what he calls "liberalism." He emphasizes Rawls's dictum that "the self is prior to the ends which are affirmed by it," and finds in it the freedom of the spirit he associates with John Milton: "The mind is its own place." (Milton, of course, is of perennial interest to Fish, author of a standard work on the poet and many later articles, and the book is full of sly, elegant allusions to Miltonic phrases.)

    Fish doesn't quote what follows the Rawls dictum, which is more in Pippin's line: that the self therefore has a right to decide on its own principles, its own sense of what's good, and a right to expect an acknowledgement of this right from others. For Fish it's the self's absolute priority that defines liberal individualism and its negative liberty (as Isaiah Berlin calls it), the freedom to owe nothing to anyone or anything: "it is a freedom from that involves holding yourself aloof from anything that would own and possess you."

    Doctor Richard Kimble — the titular fugitive — can afford tangling alliances with none. This is the heart of the show. Wrongly convicted in his wife's murder and chasing, throughout the show's four seasons, the MacGuffin of the one-armed man he saw at the murder scene, he's on the run from his own pursuer, the relentlessly, obsessively moralistic police detective Lieutenant Philip Gerard, who has been escorting him to Death Row when the train they are on crashes and Kimble escapes. Lieutenant Gerard isn't concerned with justice per se, but only with fulfilling the demands of the law: Kimble has been convicted, Kimble must be recaptured in order for the capital sentence to be carried out. Kimble has not overcome the freedom of coming and going; far from it. That freedom is the only one he has, for the moment. But this, for Fish, is the central freedom offered by liberalism, and it is this conception of freedom that Kimble attempts to infuse into others: "Kimble is the chief enforcer of the values of the establishment that has condemned him. Indeed, he takes its values more seriously than do the law officers who pursue him."

    Kimble's vexed relation to the society whose ideals he enforces puts him as much on the outside as Pippin's John Wayne, but without Pippin's focus on the structural necessity for society to expel and forget such a figure and what he does. Perhaps this is the difference between the noir tone of The Fugitive, with its studied indifference to the real history going on during the years it was broadcast (1963-67), and the geographic, economic, social, and military history that all of Pippin's Westerns take as their explicit background. What this means is that the fugitive represents an imaginary political life, not a real one, whereas Pippin's Westerns are meditations on the reality of our political experiences and commitments.

    The difference matters: Both Pippin and Fish address political psychology, but no real person evinces the political psychology that Fish describes. As a result, The Fugitive won't help you think through philosophical justifications or come to any real political commitments; Pippin makes a plausible case that Ford's and Hawks's Westerns will. I don't say this as a way of comparing the quality of the two books: Fish (who writes like an angel) gives you the better literary experience, and displays what Warshow called the "sad city of the imagination which is so much more important" than the real city. Pippin, on the other hand, is writing about the real city, the real civic polity. In Pippin's cinematic world, the stranger is either assimilated or expelled (there are negative consequences to each alternative); by contrast, the stranger remains at the center of Fish's fictional world as the emblem of its negative freedom. Warshow says that what characterizes the noir tragic hero is the way means and ends become one: He doesn't act in view of anything else but to stay what he is. Success means being able to stay a noir antihero, not to escape from that life.

    It's this quality that the chaste austerity of Fish's title captures: What would we want the fugitive to be but in flight? Being in flight is Kimble's existential status; he is always departing. Fish communicates the aesthetic power of this vision as well as Pippin communicates the political power of the Westerns he discusses.

    But a question remains that neither book answers: What political use is it to write about these movies and shows? Both Fish and Pippin seem to take it for granted that teasing out the politics — imaginary or cultural or both — of the popular culture they love will contribute to our political culture. But how?


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