How to be White

All of my regular readers, assuming I have any, should know that I am a fan of what gets called Old Time Radio. I’ve written about Gunsmoke before, and I think old mass media provides an interesting window into how the world was once viewed — a kind excavation of popular culture and where it intersects, assuming it does, with elite opinion.

By far my favorite show is Ft. Laramie, the story of a group of U.S. cavalry soldiers stationed in Wyoming in the 1870s starring Raymond Burr as Capt. Lee Quince. Forty-one episodes were produced and aired between January and October of 1956, and it’s just about as good as episodic radio ever got. The acting is solid (many of the radio voices who appeared in Gunsmoke and Have Gun, Will Travel also make appearances in Ft. Laramie), the writing is good, and most importantly, the characters are complex and the endings are frequently morally ambiguous (for 1950s radio).

You can download the entire series here. Do so. It’s worth the effort.

As with Gunsmoke, Ft. Laramie shares a particular sensibility — it’s liberal, in that it understands the struggles of the Arapaho and Cheyenne, and even empathizes with them. And it believes in benevolent authority.

In one articular episode, “Hattie Pelfrey,” the character of Quince has been wounded while some portion of company is on patrol. He has sent his badly outnumbered soldiers back to the fort, while he and one other solider find a safe place to hide so the captain, who has been shot at least once in the leg, can recover from his wounds.

Quince and Private Harrison are riding their horses looking for shelter — an abandoned cabin, a clump of tress, anything — where Quince can get of his horse and rest.

Harrison: You can’t go on just water, captain.
Quince: It’ll help. We can water the horses too.
Harrison: Not much sunlight left. I hope we find a settler where we could bed down for the night.
Quince: This is Arapaho country, Harrison, they routed out most of the settlers.
Harrison: They sure got a way of acting like they own the place, don’t they? Running off white men.
Quince: They were here first, I guess they’ve got a funny idea that makes this their land.
Harrison: If we’d of had the whole company back there we’d of run through ‘em for sure. Showed ‘em whose land it is!
Quince: It would take an awful good company. Those were dog soldiers leading that raid.
Harrison: Dog soldiers?
Quince: Toughest fighters in the tribes. Handpicked for their daring. Ho-te-min-taneo.
Harrison: How’s that, sir?
Quince: That’s the Cheyenne name for dog soldiers. But most Plains Indians have a select band like ‘em, Sioux and Arapaho.
Harrison: Oh. Guess we were smart to take cover in that canyon, captain.
Quince: I guess we were.

And later that episode they take refuge with Hattie Pelfrey, a woman in her 60s who has lived in this cabin since the 1830s, and she’s stripped Quince and Harrison of just about everything they own in order to let them stay in her cabin. Quince and Harrison heard some Arapaho coming, and snuck outside to see what had become of their horses.

Pelfrey: You just about as foolish as can be, ain’t ya, crawling around in the brush out there. What’s the idee?
Quince: Fresh air, Hattie.
Pelfrey: Got no guns, no food, there’s Arapaho all around. You don’t think too good of your hides, do you?
Quince: Where’s the horses, Hattie?
Pelfrey: Your color’s coming back some.
Harrison: You heard the captain! What about the horses?
Pelfrey: They come pretty high in these parts, young’un. I could get me a passel of things, trading horses.
Quince: You’re real friendly with the Arapaho, Hattie.
Pelfrey: They treat me good. Course, they know Mr. Pelfrey and me come peaceable to their country, not to run ‘em off what rightfully is their land.
Harrison: You never seen ‘em at the killing? White women, babies, no matter to them!
Pelfrey: You ever ask yourself who started it all? I seen it happen, the whites and their guns moving in. It wasn’t pretty work they did. Women, children too.
Quince: They, they let you live here? Hmph. There’s got to be a reason.
Pelfrey: He come like you, full of shot, ailing. White men’s doing. Mr. Pelfrey and me, we took ‘em in, tended him. He was a young chief then, but Standing Bear never forgot, not in all these years. He’s as near to a relation as I got.
Quince: You’re from another age, Hattie, you and Standing Bear.

At one point, as Pelfrey is busy looting Quince and Harrison of their weapons, money, and anything else of value they may have (including Harrison’s ring, which Pelfrey calls “a bit of pretty”), extending a hospitality conditioned entirely on the two soldiers’ ability to pay, Harrison yells at her:

“What kind of white woman are you?”

In these three characters — the Arapaho themselves are merely bit players whose language we hear mumbled, or in incoherent war cries and gun fire — we have three fascinating examples of what it means to be white in America.

Harrison is by far the clearest example. He is the Jacksonian white man. Everyone who is not white is a foreigner to him, not a member of the tribe. In Harrison’s whiteness there is an automatic solidarity, and he cannot understand Pelfrey and the fact she lives at peace amidst a foreign people, an enemy people. Because the land has been claimed by white men and they have exercised white sovereignty — title deeds and annexation backed by law — the Arapaho become interlopers and foreigners on their own land.

Their crime, to Harrison, is acting like white men — like this land is theirs, and they have a right to live on it and an obligation to fight for it. The Arapaho can only be met with violence because they are in the way, because they live and breathe and resist.

Pelfrey’s crime is a failure to act like a white woman, to show solidarity.

Pelfrey shows us another way to be white. Pelfrey basically defected, and sees little of value in being white. Quince is right, she’s the product of another age, when this land — Wyoming — wasn’t occupied by an army, when the United States and the Cheyenne or the Kiowa or the Arapaho were at war. She knows the Arapaho as kin, and is known as kin. She has surrendered her whiteness, at least as much as she can, and did so under conditions in which she could.

She was a minority, she knew that, and adapted as needed.

Ft. Laramie and Gunsmoke are full of characters like Harrison, and they usually cause trouble. If they are underlings, they usually need to be taught. If they are a little higher up the chain of command, their orders or actions always need to be creatively and subtly disobeyed or circumvented in order to keep the peace or do what is right.

And both shows are full of the likes of Pelfrey as well. Scouts, hunters, trappers, traders, men (and the occasional woman) who arrived out west long before anything resembling civilization and its order came. They adapted themselves to the order they found, and ended up being peripherally useful by the time the 1870s rolled around by being able negotiate the space between the defeated and dying order of the natives and the inrushing order of white men.

But the most interesting form of whiteness on display here is Quince’s. He is an example of a midcentury liberal. He is basically a New Deal program manager in the guise of post-Civil War cavalry officer. (U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon is essentially the same character.)

Quince understands exactly why the Arapaho and the Cheyenne fight. He respects them. He sympathizes with them. If the tables were turned, and his civilization was in the throws of utter defeat, conquest, subjugation, and dispossession, he would likely fight back as desperately as he could. He is a keen observer, he’s learned something of their language, their movements, their societies ands cultures, and he’s built relationships of trust of with leaders among the Arapaho and Cheyenne.

The captain wants what is best for the natives, a fair deal for them, and there are episodes in which he fights hard for rations or hunting privileges or decent treatment for those who remain on their treaty lands. He argues stridently with racist officers that the Arapaho are human beings worthy of dignity and resect. But Quince also clearly believes that if the Native Americans are to have a future, it will only be within and as part of the order Quince represents. Quince is deeply committed to the order he has come to enforce. Whose uniform he wears. He never challenges that order. He may challenge particularly awful colonels, with their bigoted and brutal approach to dealing with the Native Americans, but he never challenges the fact the Army is there in the first place.

Quince follows orders, he fights, and in the end, he knows which side he is on. He may sympathize with the Arapaho and Cheyenne, but Quince also knows that as long as they fight, they are also an enemy. He is not afraid to use what he learned against the Native Americans. He is a U.S. Army soldier, a white man, and he will fight, defeat, and subjugate his enemy. Quince, as a character, appreciates the tragic in this situation — perhaps it should be another way, brave men and innocent women and children die needlessly and pointlessly on both sides, but he understands that it is what it is, and there is no transcending the situation.

This appreciation of the tragic uses of power, of one’s place in a struggle one didn’t start and won’t finish, is very midcentury. Quince is, in some ways, as much a victim of the impersonal forces of history as the Arapaho. He exercises the power he has effectively, efficiently, with restraint, with reason, and with as much mercy as he can.

He reminds me a lot of my Grandpa Featherstone. Charles T. Featherstone ran education programs for the Bureau of Indian Affairs for roughly 20 years, from 1948 to 1970, when he retired. He understood and appreciated the miserable situation of Native Americans — “With the exception of the Alaskans, they were at war with the United States, and we conquered them, and it’s that simple,” he said once — and even sympathized with it. At the tail end of his career, he got to know of a number of the leaders of the American Indian Movement, and had a great deal of respect for them and even sympathy for their cause and demands.

But Grandpa couldn’t extricate himself from the very order he had come of age in. From its inevitability. There was no alternative to the American order he represented. His anger at the young men and women of AIM was at their desire to fight against the system, rather than within it. In grandpa’s mind, there was no point to that. You might as well fight the wind or struggle against the rain. Grandpa told me that the Indian tribes were sovereign, but when I pressed him, he couldn’t tell me what that sovereignty actually meant.

It was, of course, easy to be liberal in the 1950s when the “threat” of the Arapaho and the Cheyenne had receded to distant memory, when they were a fully dispossessed and subjugated people whose lives were, at best, a matter of guilty curiosity or administrative responsibility. It takes a confident people to produce a class of Quinces. And we are not so confident anymore.

When I became Muslim, I opted for something more like the Pelfrey approach to whiteness. I surrendered what I could in order to belong to and learn from a people among whom I was a clear minority. And for this, I earned a condemnation from my grandfather — I had betrayed my heritage, my race. We never spoke after that, so wounded and angered was I by his words.

But it’s hard to create a nation of Pelfreys. In fact, I suspect it is impossible. And the era of Quince is passing, if it hasn’t already. Ours is world with little appreciation for the tragic, or moral ambiguity, and uncertain exactly what kind of order it wants.

Harrison, however, will always be in fashion.

Moral Injury and Moral Superiority

I’m a fan of old radio shows, and a temporary job I’ve had recently has given me the opportunity to listen to a number of them.

There’s a lot to be learned, I think, about our culture and our ideals from mass media, especially in an era as homogenous as the 1950s. This episode of the Gunsmoke radio show from 1956, “Bloody Hands,” (the television version is here, though let’s be honest, radio is better) says some important things about the nature of social order and the men — because it was men back then — who keep that order.

It is an ordinary day in Dodge City, Kansas. U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon rides into town on a buckboard, his gun in the back of a sullen man driving. Dillon has been after a gang of five thieves, robbers, and murderers, and he ambushed them somewhere outside of town, killing four of them in the process. “It was like butchering hogs,” the sullen man says as Chester locks him in jail.

All the time, the sullen man — Brand, I think — is complaining and criticizing Matt Dillon. “Do you like killing? Because you certainly are good at it!” Brand is relentless, and he makes Dillon angry. It’s not lost on the audience that this a killer talking.

But the criticism clearly hits and hurts Dillion. He has a nightmare in which we hear him say, as he sleeps, “Please, no, don’t make me kill again.” Chester has to wake him up, and groggily, Dillion resolves to quit. He writes out a telegram of resignation, and has Chester go to the train depot and send it to the War Department. Dillon then goes to breakfast.

Matt Dillon stops wearing a gun. He stops wearing his badge. When this scene takes place, we learn that several of Brand’s fellow outlaws are in town wrecking havoc while Dillon, and his “friend” (and Long Branch co-owner) Kitty Russell are sitting underneath the shade of a tree, fishing. Chester Proudfoot, Dillion’s rather hapless assistant, comes riding up.

Chester: Mr. Dillon, Joe Stanger’s in town.

Matt: Oh? Well, that doesn’t matter to me, Chester.

Chester: But you don’t understand.

Matt: I don’t understand what?

Chester: What I’ve come to tell you. Stanger’s at The Long Branch, and a while ago he had word with one of the girls there and she slapped him and he, he pulled out his gun, and he, he killed her.

Matt: He what?

Kitty: Who was the girl, Chester?

Chester: Kate Hawkins.

Kitty: Oh no…

Chester: That’s who it was, Miss Kitty. And the bartender tried to stop him and Stanger shot him too and I hear he’s gonna die. I grabbed a horse off the hitch rail and come right to tell you. You’ve gotta stop him, Mr. Dillon.

Matt: Look, Chester, I’m not the marshal here anymore. I quit, remember?

Chester: You mean you’re going to let Joe Stanger walk around Dodge and shoot everybody that gets in his way? Including women?

Matt: I’m through killing. I told you that.

Chester: Well, who’s gonna stop him, then? You’re the only man around here that will go up agin’ him and you know it.

Matt: That may be true, but I’m still not going to do it.

Chester: Wait, Mr. Dillon, wait, wait a minute. I been thinking a lot about all this lately and there’s something you’ve been overlooking.

Matt: Oh?

Chester: Men like Stanger and Brand, they gotta be stopped. I’d do it if I could, but I can’t. I just ain’t good enough. Most men ain’t. But you are. It’s kinda too bad for you that you are, but that’s the way it is, Mr. Dillon, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Not now. It’s too late. It’s way too late.

[With that, Dillon sighs. We hear the clink of spurs and the grinding of boots in the dirt.]

Matt: Hand me your gun, Chester.

It’s this very last speech that interests me.

Matt Dillon is a “good man.” He’s more than competent gunman, fast on the draw, faster than nearly everyone he comes up against (there was one young gunman who was faster than Dillon, and did manage to shoot the marshal). He’s a solid fighter with his fists, too, and he’s pummeled and beaten men much bigger than he is. So, Dillion is “good enough” in that he possess the technical skill to defeat anyone who challenges him.

But there’s another meaning here, I think, to “good enough.” Dillion is a “good man” in a world where “bad men” are constantly doing violence. Here, we have an insight into what Dillon’s being “good enough “ means: he is bothered by the violence he does. It hangs heavy on his conscience. He has nightmares about it (though, only in this episode), even when the bad guys — people who themselves kill without mercy, pity, and conscience — hound him for it.

Matt Dillon is a sheepdog, protecting the sheep of Dodge City from the wolves of the world. He does the violence needed to maintain peace and order. And he does an awful lot of violence over the course of the Gunsmoke radio series. Sometimes it is capricious violence — “Why are you throwing me in jail?” once received a response akin to “I’ll think of a reason later!” Dillon as a character is unafraid to run men out of town, beat them to a pulp, threaten to shoot them, muse about hanging them himself, and tell them their ultimate fate — after a fair trial, of course — will be at the end of a rope. He frequently interferes in family life to protect children and women, something very enlightened for a character living in the frontier wilderness of the 1870s. He never takes the side of the wealthy in disputes with the poor, and several times refuses to follow the law in order to secure “greater justice” for smallholders threatened by the rich and powerful. More than once, he tells those who complain of his methods, “I AM the law!”

But what’s clear from all of this is that Dillon almost never makes a mistake. His violence, as capricious and lawless as it frequently is, is always aimed at people who deserve it — who have it coming. Bad people. Wolves.

This, I think, is the myth of authority and violence in America. Violence is always well aimed, always hits the right target. He may be violent and sometimes even lawless in his approach, but Matt Dillon is never unjust. The ends of justice are always served in Gunsmoke. The poor and weak are always protected, the innocent are always avenged, the disorderly are always brought to heel, the guilty are always punished, and the wicked are always dealt with.

Of course, it does not work that way in the real world. Power and authority frequently visit their violence on the weak and the powerless. Power and authority are rather good at constantly victimizing the innocent. It’s just easier that way. It’s fine to pretend to be sheepdogs, protecting the weak, but honestly, most sheepdogs are just wolves with badges. It’s simpler to prey on sheep.

There is one other thing about this narrative that interests me. Dillon is a “good man” who does the violence necessary for a peaceful, ordered existence. But because he is a good man who does “bad things” to secure peace and order — who does “bad things” for “good reasons” or “the greater good” — Dillon bears a special moral injury, a moral wound. He is wounded by what he does, he sacrifices himself to the violence he must commit, and the fact that he does it makes him a better person than the rest of us. “I’d do it,” Chester tells him, “but I just ain’t good enough.” He’s not fast enough on the draw, and he can’t handle a six-shooter well enough, but Chester also doesn’t possess the soul needed to be the kind of man who can do “bad things” for “good reasons” day after day.

It’s a calling, Chester says — an unfortunate calling — when he tells Dillon “that’s the way it is.”

This makes Dillon a kind-of distorted Christ figure, one I suspect frequents popular culture and myth across Christendom. He bears the sin of the world, he defeats evil (as opposed to sin and death, a common confusion among Christians of all flavors and persuasions) by doing the works of death better than wicked and bad men do. That it bothers him is proof of his goodness — the evil sleep soundly and well at night. The good and decent toss and turn, troubled by conscience, wondering about the fate of their souls, bothered by the sheer amount of death they must deal in securing the good order of the world.

And even that troubling is vicarious. Almost no one else seems to be bothered by the violence Dillon does to maintain peace and order. He also gets hounded by the very sheep whose lives he protects.

Again, this is myth. It doesn’t work this way in the real world, not really. Just as there are no sheepdogs, there are no Christ-like bearers of sin who do righteous violence so that we can sleep well. It is, as I said, too easy to brutalize the weak and powerless and call it just and righteous. THAT is how the world works.

There’s only violence. And sin. And human beings, struggling. There’s order, barely constrained and contained by sinful men (and women), whose sin itself is only partly restrained. That we impose this narrative of virtuous violence on the real world is one thing that causes so much undue pain and so much undeserved suffering. Because we believe those on the receiving end of that violence have it coming. Deserve it. Merit it. Earned it. After all, they are bad people. Wolves. And we are good people who do difficult things so that the world can work right. Sheepdogs.

We believe deeply in one thing scripture never teaches — that good people must confront and defeat evil. There are no good people in scripture. Just Israel — sinful, miserable, wayward Israel. The is no innocence in scripture save for Christ, who goes willingly to the cross. There is no virtue in scripture, save for a God who confronts our violence by surrendering utterly and completely to it.

Because … we are not good people. There’s no such thing. And few very bad people really twirl their mustaches and confess their wickedness. So much of what we do, and who we are, has no meaning. No purpose. No telos. No virtue. No evil. It just is.

It just is.

The Problem of Modernity

I’ve dealt with the subject of the American civil faith beforeespecially from that glorious time of strong and steady church attendance in the decade and a half following the Second World War, but it is a subject I will return again and again. In part, because I listen to a lot of old radio shows — many bundled with commercials and public service announcements — and in part because I think the rot in the American church is a very specific product of American Christendom.

So, I present yet another public service announcement — this from an episode of Gunsmoke broadcast on December 02, 1956 — encouraging Americans to worship:

The world is in a chaotic state these days. Maintaining world peace requires much more than military strength. It takes moral strength too. That moral strength can come from our spiritual advisors, our ministers, priests, and rabbis. Educating our children in the right way, teaching them to love and fear God, can to build morally and spiritual strong young men and women out of them.

Many of us have personal troubles, some of which seem insoluble. Contact with God will provide the necessary comfort and strength to carry on under even the most trying circumstances. Get into the habit of attending your church or synagogue regularly, and don’t go alone. Take a friend with you, or better still, take your whole family. Families who worship together, stay together.

There come times in all our lives when we feel the need of advice or comfort from a spiritual advisor. Howe much more helpful he can be if we are in regular communication with him through weekly worship.

Make America spiritually strong. Attend your church or synagogue each week.

Remember, this is from the high-water mark of American Christendom. Churches were full and well-funded. They bustled with children. Clergy were respected, and listened to, as intellectuals and figures in the community. The country was a lot more Christian in any number of senses — culturally, ethically, even perhaps on some level confessionally. And yet someone convince me that the faith presented here is not Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

Because that’s what it looks like to me.

The focus here is on the individual and the nation. But not on the Church, or God, or even Christ. (Jesus couldn’t be central save as a teacher of good works, since at this point, Jews had become full participants in the American civic faith.) There is no mystery here, no communion, just faith as a public utility with a personal and public end — a strong nation peopled by individuals capable of dealing with problems. There is no suffering here, just “times of our lives when we feel the need of advice or comfort.” There is no sin and no redemption here, just a chaotic world in need of morally and spiritually strong women and men.

Again, tell me why this isn’t Moral Therapeutic Deism.

I feel like I’m belaboring a point. (Because I am.) This is the problem with liberal Christianity — and by that, I mean the (primarily) protestant surrender to the truth claims of modernity in the 18th and 19th centuries. (Rome would surrender later.) The protestant churches accepted the modern order — the state, society (the community of citizens bounded by the state and defined by their relationship to the state, progress, and the belief that the purpose of human history — the purpose of humanity — was embodied in the state, rather than the church. The church became an adjunct to the state, supporting its efforts, its purposes, and guiding people toward their “proper” places in this order. The whole point of the church was to provide a moral and ethical buttress to the state-centered order, and provide ethical guidance to individuals during “trying circumstances.” The church is useful to the maintenance of the liberal order, and perhaps justifies it morally (especially in cosmic struggles with officially atheist ideologies), but it is nothing more.

So, of course the church cannot meaningfully teach its story — the story of Israel’s encounter with God, the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and how that changed the people Jesus called to follow — and cannot meaningfully disciple people because it has, for at least 150 years, been too busy making good citizens out of them. The church has been too busy telling, and elevating, and celebrating the story of liberal modernity — democracy and progress and science and history and freedom — to tell its own story. If we have failed to shape people as followers of Christ, it’s because we stopped trying. A long time ago.

It is a partisan political conceit of the worst kind to think that somehow the rot set in only recently, with a few Supreme Court decisions, or in the Sixties, when 1950s American Christendom fell apart. It is much older than that. It goes back at least to an uncritical and unquestioning acceptance of modernity, and the story enlightenment moderns tell about human beings and the meaning and purpose of our existence. (And it may go back farther than modernity, and may be deeply rooted in Christendom itself, which means failure and collapse is an inescapable product of success and prosperity. Which is, if you consider it, very much in line with the biblical story of the rise and fall of the Kingdom of Israel.)

Which means, like Jeremiah, all we can do is watch as the Babylonians gather and being their siege. Nothing is going to save this city. There are no miracles coming. Only defeat. And exile.