On the Border

Is Brokeback Mountain a Western? Nah. It’s set in the west, certainly, and its characters are part of “cowboy” life and culture—but it’s not a Western. That is, it does not reflect the cultural needs and divides that provide the dynamic behind the Western. Instead, it’s an indictment of one culture by another, the country (the periphery) by the “enlightened” city (the metropole)–which made the film, of course. Though not its intent, it is a put-down of the Western by people from a culture other than the one that originally spawned the genre.

One of many such put-downs.

Though most (but not all) of the insults to the Scot-Irish, Appalachian, or “Borderer” culture that gave birth to the Western are unintentional, they point out the great divide between the culture of what Walter Rodney calls “the metropole” in his How the West Underdeveloped Africa (a work on a different topic, but one that makes a similar point about underlying cultural differences and the dynamics of colonialism) and the cultures on the periphery.

The metropole and the periphery. In recent years, these have been broken into two American groups, “Blue States” and “Red States.” The two are drifting further and further apart, neither side trying to understand the other, each retreating to vilification and self-justification (and each accusing the other of what it does, too). Even good liberals who pride themselves on their openness and acceptance of difference now regularly disdain what they are starting to call the “Borderer” culture, finding the definition in David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed, where he identifies it as one of four cultural strains in the Americas coming directly from England in the seventeenth century. Today, the word “Borderer” itself is becoming something of an insult, a put-down. Recently, too many unthinking “liberals” have been taking the word from Jane Smiley’s “ah, ha!” piece on the Huffington Post, where the affront to “Borderer” culture actually teeters toward the level of racism.

Smiley excuses her attitude through an odd use of “nature versus nurture.” She claims that the “Borderers” today have chosen to be part of their culture, apparently making it OK to “diss” them:

It is important to remember that these cultures are no longer inheritance-based or even regionally-based. They have become affinity groups, and Americans define themselves, increasingly, by their allegiances.

As (in her view) people who make a wrong cultural choice can be insulted, insult them she does:

the Borders/Appalachian culture of hot-blooded and violent populism that is xenophobic, religiously aggressive, fundamentalist, and sectarian, that is supicious of learning, antagonistic towards “elites”, and antipathetic to women’s autonomy. It defines itself by masculinity and arms-bearing, is belligerent by nature and quick to take offense. Its natural (and historic) enemy is the outgrowth of Quaker culture, liberalism.

At least I, a child of Appalachian culture, am offended—even though I am also a Quaker (a real one, and not the metaphorical “Quaker” often associated with a sort of ‘feel-good’ liberalism). If Smiley had written similarly about almost any other culture, her liberal friends would have pilloried her. But, as she is writing about the “enemy,” she opens the door for others to be as culturally insensitive.

Enough of Smiley for a moment. She has angered me deeply with her ludicrous and mean-spirited caricature, but my intent here is not to argue with her directly. It to try to explain some of the misunderstandings between the cultures of the metropole and the periphery in America.

Err… one more thing on Smiley. She believes that the “Borderer” culture is now in the ascendency in America, with George Bush as its flag-bearer. She places him as “Borderer” through “affinity.” He is not, however, part of “Borderer” or peripheral culture at all—as I will attempt to show through a look at a Western movie, of all things.

Remember Sergio Leone’s A Fistfull of Dollars? It may have been made in Spain by an Italian director with a plot stolen from Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, but it is very much in the tradition of the American Western—as is Kurosawa’s plot. In it, a man (Clint Eastwood’s character) arrives in town to discover two radically different (culturally) groups battling to dominate. The Baxters certainly represent the metropole. Anglos with a fine house and accoutrements, they speak and dress well. Their opponents, the Rojos, however, do not here stand in as the peripheral culture (this is the mistake Smiley makes)—that role is reserved for the man and child whose wife/mother has been stolen by the Rojos. They are the real “Borderers” in this scenario. The Rojos represent the barbarians, outside of either culture but wanting equal status (or greater) with that of the metropole.

Both the Baxters and the Rojos represent feudal overlordship, each intent on taking the land from the “Borderers,” the people who had built the town. The relationship between these rival feudal chieftan families and the poor “Borderers” is quite complex. In some cases (though not in this movie) the ovelords even manage to gain loyalty from those whose lands they have taken. Rodger Cunningham, in Apples on the Flood:Minority Discourse and Appalachia, sees this as a “classic” model where:

the peasants fled for security to the very figures who had robbed them (or through whom they had been robbed) of whatever security they had once enjoyed. (48)

This is the role George Bush plays. He is not of “Borderer” culture, but is a feudal lord demanding obedience.

Eastwood plays a mythical figure as old as King Arthur, the “Borderer” warrior protector, enemy to those who abuse the border town from either side. Unlike the feudal overlords, he does not ask anything from the peasants—but takes from the chieftans, making them pay for the restoration of “Borderer” rights.

From a “Borderer” perspectives, the Baxters and the Rojos are one and the same. The Baxters may be a little more refined, but the result for the “peasants” will be identical—a loss of land and control. In either case, they have masters.

Yet, from the point-of-view of those of us in the metropole, there’s a huge difference between the Baxters and the Rojos. The Baxters are “like us” to most Americans—white, with a nice home and cultured speech. The Rojos are nasty—rapists, dark, dirty, and speaking with an “accent.” Why can’t the “peasants” see which one to side with? We can, and we’ll tell them, every chance we get. Stop cowering, we cry out, join the Baxters! Then you won’t even need The Man With No Name.

We liberals don’t see ourselves as part of the “Baxter”-type establishment (we think we act disinterestedly), but the “Borderers” see us there. Because they speak the same (and don’t come running to the Baxters), we tend to see the “Borderers” as part of the “Rojos”-type establishment—but they aren’t, and they certainly don’t see themselves there. Each of us is identifying the other with a real enemy. Neither is willing to see that the evils are the same—different masters, but masters, nontheless.

That’s what Smiley does when she lumps George Bush and the current Washington power with “Borderers.” She can’t tell the manor from the town that obeys it. Out of her blindness, she makes a mistake, further distancing the peripheral “Borderer” culture from her metropole (I won’t insult my co-religionists by calling it “Quaker”) culture.

Liberals get frustrated when people on the right talk of the “liberal media.” Progressives see quite clearly that the media isn’t liberal, that it is controlled by a conservative establishment. Why can’t the “Borderers” see that? What are they, stupid? (Yes, in the eyes of most liberals—these very people who preach ‘respect’ can’t find it in their hearts to give any to the peripheral cultures they see as opposing them).

No, what the “Borderers” see when they view the media are agents of the metropole, which they identify as “liberal,” agents who want to help impose another foreign culture upon them. In this sense, what we on the left often see as “conservative” may be nothing more than an attempt to retain a culture that has had others imposed upon it for more than a thousand years. Even the language it speaks today was the imposition of foreign culture. The replacement of Gaelic with English took centuries, but it was effective.

The liberals in the metropole, so keen on their own agenda, do not see the damage they do to a culture they see as peripheral in more ways than one (or no culture at all), anyway. Smiley disdains the “Borderers” as people whose concern is “passionate loyalty to the group, alert self-defense, and domination in every sphere.” Here, again, she conflates the Rojos family with the peripheral culture it would dominate through surface similarities, acting as “tribal” as she accuses the “Borderers” of being. She is creating enemies, quite literally:

I do think that the rise of culture #4 [the “Borderers”] puts our democracy in danger, simply because it is an uncompromising culture that has been reluctant to assimilate itself into the larger society for a thousand years, both in Britain and in America. It is a culture that is passionately intense about weapons, social hierarchy, and religion, three things that are in and of themselves threatening to the broader social compact. Perhaps culture #4 cannot be, or won’t be assimilated, but can only be reduced, subdued, or dominated.

To a “Borderer,” that statement is as frightening as it is unfortunate and poorly thought. Smiley may not want to kill the Borderers directly, but she would destroy their (“our”—it is mine, too, though I live in a Blue State area and profess Blue State political affinities) culture, which is tantamont to the same thing.

“Borderer” culture, “there” first in almost every instance, has had assimilation forced upon it, time after time (and not just through language)—by people like Smiley who uncritically accept that their own culture is better than the “Borderer” and, after using the “Borderers” to make their own culture secure, have painted a picture of it as “threatening to the broader social compact,” an excuse for forcing further assimilation upon it. And, again, Smiley is putting the entire “town” in the same picture with the Rojos, refusing to see that the Rojos actually have more in common with her than with the peripheral culture that Eastwood’s character saves. After all, like the Rojos, she wants to dominate.

A better description of “Borderer” culture than Smiley’s might be that Cunningham gives while explaining why it does manage, at a very basic level, to resist assimilation by the metropole:

Appalachia survives, not only in the sense of cultural “survivals,” but in that survival of the spirit which has produced the continuing struggle for justice, respect, and control by people over their own lives. (162)

Oh yes—and isn’t this the basic struggle of the classic Western?

There have been claims, over and over again, that the Western is dead. But it keeps rising from its grave—and it will continue to do so, as long as the “Borderer” culture that gave it birth survives.

The classic situation in a Western (or in the genres that spring from it) is this: The people on the periphery of a society, providing a buffer between the barbarians (read “Indians” in the American Western myth) and the metropole (where one can live in safety even as a “Quaker”), people just starting to get a foothold, are exploited by a new baronetcy of some sort. A hero arises, bringing control back to the people. But, though the battle is won, it’s a losing war, and all know it. The metropole, now that the periphery is safe, will be moving in, one way or another. To the “Borderers,” liberals—me, Smiley, and all the rest of the “Blue Staters”—represent the metropole, the exploiters who move in once all the hard work is done.

And we do exploit. Our lives have been made secure by “Borderers” and continue to be. Our police, National Guard, and military are made up of people from peripheral cultures, for the most part, from groups that do not usually gather the full fruits of our society. Adding insult to injury, we also tell them how to behave—who to hate and who to stop hating—forcing that on them even through laws. Is it any wonder, as Cunningham writes, that:

the perhipheral dweller suffers not only insecure boundaries but an insecure sense of fundamental individuation—at least (an imprtant qualification) insofar as he or she accepts the identity, or lack of it, imposted by the metropole. [italics in original] (43-44)

Is it any wonder that the “Borderers,” consigned to the periphery of society, first English and then American, for a thousand years, don’t see the people of the metropole (people like Smiley and, unfortunately, like me—though I would rather live in “Borderer” company than in any other, given my choice) in the same glorious light Smiley and the others liberals believe is shining down upon them?

If we are ever to cross the divide between Red States and Blue States, we on the left need to first break down the contempt we feel for the “Borderers.” We need to live up to our own ideals and learn to respect them—as much as we respect any other group.

Only once we’ve done that will we be worthy of their respect.