Monday, March 28, 2011

Popular Culture and Cormac McCarthy

Below are comments I will be using at the Midwest Political Science Meetings this year summarizing my paper on McCarthy's No Country for Old Men. Enjoy.

Comments on No Country for Old Men
Peter Schultz
March 2011
MPSA Meetings, Chicago IL

What might be the meaning of Cormac McCarthy’s title, No Country for Old Men? My suggestion is that it means that conventional politics, which rests on conventional wisdom, is quite useless, even blinding.

The novel opens with a massacre in the desert in the Southwest, a massacre that has occurred over a drug deal gone bad. Several people and even a couple of dogs have been killed, the drug money is missing, and an innocent party, Llewellyn Moss, comes upon the scene, finds “the last man standing” and takes the money, a million dollars or so. Eventually, of course, Moss is tracked down by Anton Chigurh, who is after the drug money and killed, along with several others who have become involved in the aftermath of this massacre. Chigurh disappears at the end of the novel, apparently making his getaway after killing Moss’ wife “on principle.”

Now, it may be asked, in a situation like this, that is, in a situation where clearly there is a drug war going on, how much sense does it make to declare “a war on drugs?” Such a declaration, such a policy, is presented as something “new,” as a policy that illustrates that the government is willing to pull out all the stops when it comes to dealing with the abuse of illegal substances. Hence, by declaring “a war on drugs,” we like to think that we will be able to reassert control. But as there already is a drug war being waged, how much sense can this make?

In fact, as there already is a “drug war” going on, the evidence of which is in the desert and all around us, for the government or for us to think that declaring “a war on drugs” is something useful is quite illogical, even nonsensical or delusional. By declaring a war on drugs, while there is a drug war already going on, the government and we are merely participating in the existing situation and, thus, such a policy holds out little promise for changing that situation. As George Carlin noticed a long time ago, it makes little sense to threaten drug dealers with the death penalty when they are already killing each other over their drug trade! Obviously, the threat of death will not deter these drug dealers from engaging in their particular form of commerce as they already face that threat and still continue their commercial activities. Just as obviously, declaring a war on drugs when people are already engaged in a drug war will have little or no impact on the behavior of those people.

Let me put my suggestion above as to the meaning of the title of McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men a bit differently. We employ what might be called “deadly paradigms” to understand and to make our way in the world we live in. One of these paradigms tells us that our situation should be understood as series of “problems,” such as the drug problem, the abortion problem, or the terrorism problem. And beyond this, we also think about these problems in ways that are, for want of a better term, comfortable. For example, in one exchange in the novel, Sheriff Bell, whose ruminations comprise a good portion of the book, is talking with another sheriff. The other sheriff says that our situation is quite bad because there are people that “sell that shit to schoolkids.” Sheriff Bell responds that our situation is “worse than that.” The other sheriff asks, “How’s that?” And Bell responds, “Schoolkids buy it.”

Conventional thinking and conventional politics focuses on those selling drugs because we think we understand drug dealers – they are engaged in this business because they want to make money. [It is amazing how powerful we take the desire to make money to be, even using it and the lack of the opportunity to make money to explain those we call “suicide bombers.”] And so we then think we know what to do – up the “cost of doing business” by threatening them with severe punishments, perhaps even death.

But children buying and using drugs, or otherwise law-abiding, even successful people, doing drugs is a different matter and a much more difficult phenomenon for us to explain. We don’t really know what this means or why this happens. And this leads to other “explanations” that are no more useful than the “business model” explanation for the drug crisis, viz., analyses that there is something is called “the drug culture” which can be used to explain such drug use. It is comforting for us to think that the existence of such a “culture” explains drug use – even though much of the evidence suggests there is no such phenomenon as “a drug culture” – if for no other reason than we don’t have to think about what the phenomenon of children buying and using drugs means for what might be called “American” or “Modern/Western” culture. “Ah yes,” we like to think. “It is this foreign culture, this drug culture that has infected our culture and spread the virus of drug use far and wide.” Comforting thoughts and arguments these.

McCarthy makes this point again in an exchange between Sheriff Bell and a reporter who, in interviewing Bell, asks him why he has let the drug problem get out of control. Sheriff Bell, probably a bit miffed by this accusation disguised as a “question,” responds that it is impossible to have dope without “dopers.” And then he suggests to the reporter that even she might know some “dopers.” Conventional thinking has it that controlling drug use is a matter of law enforcement, that if the lawful authorities do their job, then drug use can be and will be controlled. Or, to use another example, if only we, that is, those who have not been seduced by “the drug culture,” can counteract that “culture” through education or simply by talking with our children about drugs, the “anti-drug” as current advertisements have it, then we can control drug use and abuse. It would seem, however, that Sheriff Bell has a different understanding of our situation.

In another one of his ruminations, Sheriff Bell says that once when he and his wife were attending a conference, he was seated next to a woman who “kept talkin about the right wing this and the right wing that. I ain’t even sure what she meant by it. The people I know are mostly just common people. Common as dirt, as the sayin goes. I told her that and she looked at me funny. She thought I was sayin something bad about em….She kept on and on. Finally told me, said: I don’t like the way the country is headed. I want my granddaughter to be able to have an abortion. And I said well mam…the way I see the country is headed…I don’t have much doubt but what she’ll be able to have an abortion. I’m goin to say that not only will she be able to have an abortion, she’ll be able to have you put to sleep. Which pretty much ended the conversation.”

Now, notice should be taken that for Sheriff Bell, the “right wing” is not the issue. For Sheriff Bell, the “right wing” is irrelevant to whatever is happening, which is to say that whatever is happening in the country has little to do with conventional politics or the battles between the “right wing” and the “left wing.” Nor, it would follow, will the right wing or the left wing be able to change whatever is happening in the country should either prevail in these battles. Whatever is happening in the country transcends conventional politics and renders such politics, e.g., our “war on drugs,” irrelevant. It is not accidental that the conversation ended. Rather, it reflects the irrelevancy of our political discourse as it is constructed by the right wing and the left wing.

But if our conventional discourse is irrelevant than it is only sensible to turn to alternatives for enlightenment, which brings us to what is called “popular culture.” Of course, the label “popular culture” is meant to characterize this phenomenon in a way that sets most people to thinking “lightweight culture” or that popular culture is to culture what “near beer” is to beer. That is, it is not the “real thing.” But insofar as our conventional discourse, e.g., the discourse conducted by the right wing and the left wing, does not and cannot illuminate our situation, then it makes sense not only to consult “popular culture” but even to wonder whether we might find in that phenomenon guideposts that are lacking elsewhere.

For the past few years, I have been teaching Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American to my classes. And it has struck me more than once that while this novel was published in 1954, long before we Americans took over what we now call the Vietnam War from the French, Greene “saw” how the United States would become involved in Vietnam and “saw” the outcome as well. Of course, there might have been conventional analyses that drew the same conclusions, but it is more than a little interesting that Greene’s novel was so prescient. Surely, this has something to do with the phenomenon we call “popular culture” and how it approaches the world we live in, in contrast to more conventional, more “professional,” more expert analyses. For reasons I cannot yet elaborate, works of popular culture allow us to see things that our expertise or our partisanship blinds us to. It would be worthwhile to consider this phenomenon further.

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