Thursday, June 15, 2006

Why We Like John Wayne

It isn't the cowboy hat. That's just required by the scenery. It isn't some mere and instant recourse to violence. That's what circumstances might demand. It isn't just a willingness to face risk. That makes for good storytelling, but we like John Wayne regardless of the story. It's the certainty.

Certainty is a masculine quality. Let's take care of business. Of course there are risks. What if I'm wrong! But dithering is just as wrong. It turns out that even wrong decisions average out to be less damaging than no decision at all. It boils down to the fact that sometimes something must be done.

Carter is the negative example. I won't rehearse his sundry failures. Enough to notice that he did nothing about Iran, and that's just too bad for us now, isn't it. So with Bush: even if invading Iraq was the wrong thing to do, it's the right thing to do. When all the doors have a tiger behind them, it hardly matters which you open. It becomes a matter of how angry and hungry the tiger will be when it finally gets loose. False analogy, you object? Iran.

Of course, even John Wayne wasn't really John Wayne. Sometimes he was Marion Morrison. There are hardly any really tough guys. And if they're tough, they may not be all that bright. And even if they're bright, there's no guarantee that they're right. But we don't demand perfection. Being tough is a virtue only when toughness is called for.

Some years ago I had the misfortune of accidentally reading one of the worst books ever written. Real Boys, by Wllm. Pollack. Godawful. I'm angry with you for even reminding me of it. I've blotted most of it from my memory, but the upshot was that boys should be more like girls. (So two pollacks go into a bar. But they don't do anything but talk about their feelings. Then they start kissing.) Is that unfair? The idea that tenderness is important is self-evident. No thoughtful person will confuse my bloody, bold and resolute encomium for a universal formula. But after the talking's done?

When my wonderful son was very little, I made sure to help him identify his feelings. "You're pretty angry right now, aren't you." "Yes, I'm very, very angry." "Well that's okay. You go ahead and be angry for a while, and then if you want to talk to me you just let me know." Because that's not always such an easy thing for us guys. But another thing I did with him was to remind him, when he could hear it, that these were, after all, only feelings. They matter the way ice cream matters (or whatever - fill in the blank). Not nutrition, but pleasurable, and necessary, frankly, not for physical but overall health. We need frivolous sweetness, now and then.

So it comes down, again, to wisdom. And that means sometimes soft, and sometimes hard. It also means that we do indeed choose between them. We decide. Certainly we may be wrong, and the consequences can be disastrous. But the equation does not include a symbol for regret - which is not a constant, but at most a fleeting term that must be nullified for the equation to balance.

I suppose that's why math is such a pleasing discipline. The certainty.


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