Don’t get me wrong. I owe countless hours of entertainment, and many profound lessons learned to Clint Eastwood and his lifetime of utter brilliance. In this post, I will of course repay him by attacking his work on one of my all-time favorite films.
I guess I am feeling lucky.
…or maybe it’s just a blog post, but anyway, that’s not the film I mean to ramble about. I’m thinking about Josey Whales. There is one scene in this film that really bothers me. Maybe it’s meant to. Hell, probably, it’s meant to, but in this case the bother skips out of the bounds of the movie itself and starts to become a real-world bothertation.
I am talking about a scene in which Josey enters a trading post to find two men raping a young Navajo woman right there in the building. He grimaces a bit, and we get the impression he doesn’t really approve, and of course he does what so many of Eastwood’s characters do in this film; he goes on about his business, at least until the men become his business. This character is a reluctant hero after all, not some white-hat good-guy. When the rapists decide to try and take him prisoner, Josey, …uh, …SPOILER ALERT, …shoots them both dead, thus effectively saving the woman from sexual assault even as he saves his own life.
It’s great drama, and one of the things that makes it great is the moral ambiguity of its main character. Would he have helped the young woman if the two men hadn’t gone after him? We might hope so, but the film itself gives us no reason to suspect he would have. What we do know is that he walked right past them, and right past his first chance to help her. The whole scene ends with a disconcerting sense that Josey has put a stop to a number of bad things without ever really making a decision to do so.
It’s good storytelling. Hell, it’s great story-telling. So what’s the problem?
I think of this scene every time I hear of Clint Eastwood’s approach to libertarianism. His take on the subject is often described as “everyone leaves everyone alone” or some variant thereof. I actually rather like this expression, at least for a moment or two whenever I hear it. I can just imagine it being directed at some fussy bastard whose getting into other people’s business, in effect telling them to mind their own. I can get behind that sort of thing, sure I can. But then I find myself thinking that’s not really where this message is going, is it? Not in the grand scheme of things.
Time and again, we see libertarians in league with mainstream conservatives. On the topics of government aid to the poor and interference with the economy their messages are synchronous. On the topic of gender politics, their views clash, and near as I can tell the mainstream conservative themes win-out just about every time. This tells us a lot about the priorities at stake here, and I get damned tired of hearing a message that promises respect for individuals across the board only to see that message work consistently to the benefit of those already powerful at the expense of those struggling just to survive.
…which of course brings us right back to that scene from Josey Whales.
You could think of “everyone leave everyone alone” as a rule that might stop the rapists, albeit, it’s damned weak wording for a crime such as that. More to the point, I can’t help thinking it has more to do with Josey’s initial decision to go about his business, leaving the men free to hurt a young woman in his presence. I can’t help thinking that in that moment, Josey was minding his own business, just as the real Clint Eastwood seems to suggest we should all do.
Of course things work out in the end with Josey Whales, but they work out in the end because that’s the way the story is written. The bad guys go one step too far, thus triggering Josey’s own trigger, and it doesn’t hurt that they are foolish enough to let him get the best of them, just as all the other bad guys in that story do. Evil is vanquished in Josey Whales, but not because anyone has made a conscious choice to oppose it. Indeed, the movie seems rather set against the wisdom of such choices. No, the good that happens in this movie happens as if by accident, as Josey and his companions go about their daily lives, just trying to survive. And so the invisible hand of the writer seems to bring good things from morally ambiguous behavior, much as the invisible hand of God in free market folklore.
It’s good storytelling, yes, but it’s piss-poor politics.