Every culture has narratives that illustrate their history, values, and aspirations. These stories are effective because they seem true, with recognizable characters–the merchant, the mother, or the disobedient kid, the little guy who takes on the establishment.
Then there are myths–archetypal stories of the supernatural–wizards, witches, and monsters. We’re supposed to know these creatures are fictional, their worlds imaginary, and their powers unattainable.
But in the past few years, ‘Murrca has had a problem distinguishing myth from reality.
I think that’s because no one has articulated a recognizable, unifying narrative that expresses shared values and a vision of what our nation should be.
I think that void created the hit cable shows “Yellowstone,” and its prequel, “1883.”
I find “Yellowstone” entertaining, like a “Godfather” or “Game of Thrones” played out against the gorgeous scenery of Montana’s big sky, complete with cowboys who tip their hats and say “Yes, sir” and “No, m’aam” and ride’n’rope’n’fight’with’ther’fists, jest lahk cowboys oughter.
“Yellowstone” grabs its presumed red state audience and twists their balls a bit with environmentalism, respect for Native Americans, and a multi-racial and mixed-gender bunkhouse.
But “1883” flat out panders to ‘Murrcan mythology.
Yellowstone’s patriarch, John Dutton, is presented as an embattled landowner nobly fighting to preserve his way of life, like a real ‘Murrcan. Never mind that he’s a millionaire who brands employees with the same immense red hot iron he uses on his cattle, and orders his foreman to take disruptive cowhands “to the train station,” which means driving them across state lines, stopping by the side of a mountain road, shooting them, and letting their bodies fall deep into the canyon below, presumably never to be found, nor missed.
Dutton employs ex-cons or others who have nowhere to go and no options left. We’re encouraged to think of them as disposable, so we don’t feel too bad when they go over the cliff.
I had an inkling of what I was in for when I started watching “1883.” Hint #1 was its stars, the married country music couple, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill. When the expected Civil War flashback came, I knew that McGraw’s character, John Dutton’s ancestor, would turn out to be a former Confederate officer.
I’ve only seen 3 episodes, but so far, the Dutton family joins group of German immigrants attempting the Oregon Trail out of Ft. Worth. The immigrants are portrayed as hopelessly inept, absurdly unprepared, and utterly dependent on their no-nonsense, gun-totin’ guide (“you mean to tell me you’re goin’ on the Oregon trail without a FIREARM?”), a PTSD suffering former Union army captain (that makes it even?), inevitably played by Sam Elliot. Commercial breaks offer ads from a farm supply store (featuring “morning in America” imagery, but including Black farmers and a vaguely Latino looking store manager! That counts, right?) and pickup trucks.
These programs capitalize on a craving for an American mythology of no bullshit, plain speaking, don’t tell me what to do, this land is my land, not your land (regardless of its history), good-guy cowboys who know who the bad guys are, and fight them.
Centrists and those to their left, take heed.
Ronald Reagan was very good at providing nostalgic, ‘Murrcan myths. Now, the warped, craven red monster his party has become will create any kind of myth, no matter how mendacious or evil, to gain or retain power.
The blue side seems to have lost any ability to present an alternative, unifying, compelling narrative. Identity politics coupled with a smug sense of superiority over everything west of the Mississippi (except California) and south of Chicago, and an unfortunate tendency to lecture others about words they must, or may not, use, submerges compelling policy proposals under layers of thinly disguised contempt for people whose support they need.
That’s a sure fire recipe for losing elections. It alienates well-meaning people who think of themselves as fair-minded, live and let live, “regular folks,” and turns them toward extreme ideologies on the opposite end of the spectrum.
Demonizing that opposite end is stupid, because the dark red side is doing a damn good job of demonizing itself, promoting crackpot conspiracy theories, undermining the electoral process, and standing idly by while thousands in their “base” end up in hospitals or graveyards.
The huge audience for “Yellowstone” stands in stark contrast to the indifference shown by critics outside that demographic:
The Pennsylvania Capital Star: “Yellowstone Might Be the Perfect Political Soap Opera for Our Divided Era”
Sigh. Leaves me wondering when the next season of Ted Lasso starts.
Until then, I remain,