"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, July 8, 2013

Cowboys And Indians

The new version of The Lone Ranger has been a flop, but how could I not go see it?  I grew up on the radio with Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels, and still remember the special effects – the crunching of boot heels on high chaparral ,the whinnying of horses, the creak of leather, the commands of The Lone Ranger (“Circle back by the cottonwoods, and we’ll take them by surprise”), and the clipped, Indian English of Tonto (“OK, Kemosabe”).

Who ever thought of racism and ethnic difference in those days? Tonto (which I later learned is Spanish for ‘stupid’) was The Lone Ranger’s sidekick, his deuxième, his indentured servant, untimely ripped from his mother’s heritage to serve The White Man. Dressed in rustic buckskins to The Lone Ranger’s felt and silver, Tonto was faithful, courageous, and always willing to take a bullet for his master.

The first Tonto was as it should be – craggy-faced, headband to hold his tribal locks, tall in the saddle, and ready to do the bidding of his betters.

The Johnny Depp Tonto is a Western queen, made up like he is in The Pirates of the Caribbean, heavy eye-liner, fey and ironic; but far from the ‘reality’ of the 50s. Perhaps this modern Tonto, all war paint and savage is what Indians really looked like way back then.

I doubt it.  This is Depp at his most gay and tricked out. The real Tonto looked like this:

No frills.  An Indian you can trust. Knows his place and his métier. A metaphor for expansionism, Christianity, and Western dominance.

Ah, those were the days. Indians were Indians (not Native Americans) and cowboys killed the bad guys or strung them up from a strong limb of a cottonwood tree.  The Lone Ranger and his deputized posse thundered across the plains shooting their six-shooters at cattle rustlers, sod-buster murderers, and hard-drinking, whore-mongers.

Now the great westward expansion, Manifest Destiny, and outward-bound adventurism has come under the PC microscope. The European settlers of America were nothing but than environmental despoilers who ravaged landscape and peaceful native settlements for their own greedy ends.

This revisionist history rankles. White Europeans in America were dominant, aggressive, acquisitive, and expansionist – just like their forebears in the Old Country.  According to their 19th Century worldview native Americans were of a lower order of humanity to be used, exploited, and exposed. Not much different from Ancient Greece and Rome, Persepolis, and the impressively expansionist Muslims in the 7th century.

My sister and I were glued to the television in the Fifties, and loved Cowboys-and-Indians. Hopalong Cassidy was too fey…

…but we loved Roy Rogers and Dale Evans:


OK, this was waaaayy before Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood and his anti-Western takes on the Frontier:

However, the Westerns of the 50s were definitely on to something. Before retro, irony, and post-modernism, the old-fashioned Westerns captured American essence.  We are, after all still and expansionist, righteous conquerors.

My younger sister and I used to play Cowboys-and-Indians. I had her get up in war paint and feathers and run around the backyard until I plugged her with my Remington. “Why do I always have to be shot?”, she asked, and I conceded a few afternoons and let her whoop and holler, flailing the ragged piece of hairy fox from our mother’s chi-chi fox stole like a scalp.

That’s the way it was. We conned and cheated the ingenuous Indians at Plymouth and Albemarle Sound.  We slaughtered red men and buffalo alike on the great plains.  We shoved our allies the Choctaws and Chickasaws (War of 1812) west across the Mississippi.  We Guantanamo-ed them in reservations.  We slaughtered as many as we could, but showed cultural restraint. We didn’t pole-axe them and display their severed heads as highway totems as Genghis Khan had.

My sister and I loved the slaughter of the buffalo by our cowboy heroes and their Indian counterparts. Both were taming the West, eliminating  wild animals, pacifying the land and creating a new Eden.  They were our heroes:

The old Westerns of the 50s were iconic representations of all that America was, promised to be,and still is.  We are no different from the iconic cowboy heroes of yesteryear. We believe in American exceptionalism, American moral supremacy, and American destiny.  These ragheads, Muslim ignoramuses, anti-progressive European socialists, and retrograde American ‘progressives’ don’t get it. We are the unstoppable forces of good. We are arrayed in the Pyrenees at Roncesvalles, the last fortress against the heathen hordes.  We are still the world’s cowboys.

The Lone Ranger like Cowboys and Aliens was a flop because it strayed too far into ironic post-modernism.  Despite the current focus on inclusion, ethnicity, and victim studies, Americans do not want to let loose of romantic notions of founding. The Indians stood in our way. We had no need of government because the Law of the Frontier was God’s Law, an Old Testament version of good and evil, retribution, punishment, and justice.

I am still a child of the 50s - proud, deliberate, and unapologetic.  Historical revisionism does not scan.  We are doomed to repeat history in endless cycles.  There will always be Lone Rangers in the predictable, violent course of history.

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