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White man, he tell no show

You can almost feel the scriptwriter’s smugness: “I’ve finally got a chance to tell those libs—those woke morons—how it really was; not their stupid sentimental ‘balance-and-harmony-with-nature-Indians’ but all about how the Sioux would eat babies and rape white women.” At last, after all these years, we’re going have a Western that tells the truth—the ugly truth the libs can’t take—about the Indian Wars.

It makes me roll my eyes. It makes me roll my eyes because it’s a didactic lecture and it’s unrealistic. Nobody speaks like that—not in the Old West, not today. Nobody gives perorations at people—and this is not a dialogue, it’s very much delivered “at” the Red Indian; and, really, “at” the audience. This is the scriptwriter’s chance, you see, after years listening to the libs lecture him about the Old West, to tell it how it is.

The audience is like a man in a bar pinned up against a wall by a belligerent drunk who wants to tell him how it was when ’ee were a young lad—complete with occasional pokes to the chest with a finger to convey the gravity of the point.

It’s bad art. It’s unrealistic. People don’t talk like that. People don’t deliver long political monologues at each other in real life. People don’t offer exposition in this way to a person—some Red Indian chief—who knows the situation well enough himself, having lived through it (I presume). What we see are two finger-puppets for contemporary political grievances, not real characters.

It’s also unrealistic because the characters have an anachronistic historical consciousness. They talk about their own times like people in the early 21st-century talk about the Old West—as if through layers upon layers of historical interpretation.

I don’t know about the Old West, but I bet people at the time didn’t talk about themselves in this way—as if situated in an academic discussion about “The Frontier in the American imagination: 1877-1889”. That was how these characters would have talked about the American Revolution—a distant event subject to layers of interpretation. They would have talked about their own time…as we talk about our own time, without historical consciousness.

So it’s dull to watch, it’s a lecture—it’s like those GI Joe cartoons from the ’80s where there’s a tacked on Public Service Announcement about how conscientious junior citizens should pick up litter or give up a seat to the disabled on the bus (“Knowing is half the battle”). Yeah, yeah—internal cringe.

But it’s a right-wing message, we need right-wing art.” I define the right as responsible engagement with reality; if it isn’t real, it isn’t the right—whatever it says it is. In fact, this idea that “it is what it says” versus “it is what it is” cleaves the left and the right apart. The left thinks if they can get their interpretation imposed on reality they have reality under control, the right says there’s just reality—your interpretation is subordinate to it, everything is. It’s most obvious with the USSR: the USSR was splendid at propaganda and little else—it certainly looked good, like a painted tart (feminine), but the reality was rotten.

There is art and art reflects reality. If it doesn’t reflect reality—e.g. in this case, how people actually speak—then it isn’t art. If it mainly exists to get you to like transgender people, to pick up trash, to take the white man’s side in the Old West then it is not art—it’s propaganda, it’s didactic finger-wagging from mama. So in my view there is art and there is a deviation from art—that is what the left is, deviation from the image by the word (“the left can’t meme”, “the left can’t image”). The right exists in this sense to defend art from the left—so if you start to use your Netflix series as a chance to “own the libs” rather than to represent actual human drama then you are on the left de facto.

Shakespeare is a “right-wing” writer; he was on the right because his plays are mostly realistic. The basic political message we can infer from them is that there is a natural hierarchical order—kingship and aristocracy—and people who disrupt the natural order (Macbeth, Lear) come to horrific ends. This just reflects reality—it happens to be what the right says because the right is realistic.

The only Shakespeare play that is “leftist” is also his worst play: Henry VIII. Why is it crap? Because it was written “under the cosh”; it was written under Elizabeth I—so Shakespeare could hardly write a realistic play about Henry VIII and his multiple wives and executed ministers and major religious upheavals. You don’t insult the monarch’s dad like that—especially when she has a temperament just like papa. So Shakespeare produced a “GI Joe play”—you know, all jolly hockey-sticks and wasn’t Henry VIII a fine fellow who wanted children to learn how to pick up litter and help the blind across the road. In other words, didactic moralised crap.

I have problems with Oscar Wilde, but he was basically right when he said art should be amoral; if it has a moral lesson, like Macbeth, it should emerge from the drama itself and not be imposed—certainly not be imposed with an extensive monologue (from the “good guys”, of course—in our own minds we are always “the good guys”, the righteous).

It conforms to the basic drama rule, “show, don’t tell”. The clip above is all “tell” and no “show”. I mean, if the scriptwriter wanted to let us know the Redskins weren’t angels, he could have written in a scene where they roast a baby alive and the US Cavalry rides in and kills them. That would be both realistic—probably historically accurate to some degree—and contain dramatic truth. Instead, we get a lecture—an unusual lecture, sure; but a lecture nonetheless.


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