The Good, Bad, & Ugly

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly released some 50 years ago is one of the best Western movies ever made. It was the finale of a trilogy directed by Italy’s Sergio Leone, hence the appellation “Spaghetti Western.” These films, one can safely say, made Clint Eastwood’s subsequent career.

This essay is not a movie review or even a dissection of the plot, characters, or supposed “message” of the director or screen writers. For this writing, the title is intriguing.

Goodness, evil, and ugliness, have existed in all civilizations and cultures, and at all eras. The proportion of the elements of this trioka, however, have varied, sometimes within civilizations and at different places and times. Even Thomas Hobbes’s state of nature, where life was poor, solitary, nasty, brutish, and short, had beauty, and at least some savages were noble.

More to the point, the 18th Century Enlightenment that followed the pessimism of Hobbes, and whose principles the United States of America was founded upon, though overwhelmingly good, had its bad and ugly moments. It put into practice the notion that all individuals are created equal; that is, no one is born into a class or status, and that they have unalienable rights. It also produced the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror. The 18th Century was the time of the first industrial revolution, economic development, and scientific achievement. It was also a century of war, punctuated by brief period of peace. Charles Dickens summed it up: the best of times and the worst of times.

Today many from various positions on the political spectrum are lamenting the state of American society. There are certainly many problems to be concerned with, as there always have been. Most of these are not amenable to overnight solutions or actions using the coercive power of government. They are rather imbued within the culture as it has evolved.

The recent murders of seventeen high school students and teachers in Florida has brought about the usual hand wringing and pontificating. The principal issues touted by the media were mental illness and gun control (or lack thereof). Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan takes a broader view.

A way to look at the question is: What has happened the past 40 years or so to produce a society so ill at ease with itself, so prone to violence?

We know. We all say it privately, but it’s so obvious it’s hardly worth saying. We have been swept by social, technological and cultural revolution. The family blew up—divorce, unwed childbearing. Fatherless sons. Fatherless daughters, too. Poor children with no one to love them. The internet flourished. Porn proliferated. Drugs, legal and illegal. Violent videogames, in which nameless people are eliminated and spattered all over the screen. (The Columbine shooters loved and might have been addicted to “Doom.”) The abortion regime settled in, with its fierce, endless yet somehow casual talk about the right to end a life. An increasingly violent entertainment culture—low, hypersexualized, full of anomie and weirdness, allergic to meaning and depth. The old longing for integration gave way to a culture of accusation—you are a supremacist, a misogynist, you are guilty of privilege and defined by your color and class, we don’t let your sort speak here.

So much change, so much of it un-gentle. Throughout, was anyone looking to children and what they need? That wasn’t really a salient aim or feature of all the revolutions, was it? The adults were seeing to what they believed were their rights. Kids were a side thought.

There is nothing new here. Profound change is often violent. Consider that, in less that 200 years, we have come from where it was necessary for persons to be physically present to contemporaneously communicate with one another, to where we can instantly communicate with anyone anywhere. Passions abate with time. The wonder in this country in the past five decades or so, is why there hasn’t been more violence than there was and is.

Part of the reason may be because the American founders were looking out for their children. “For us and our posterity” is a continuing theme throughout the writings of the founders, even those who had no children of their own. The ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the measured and limited structure of government established by the Constitution have provided Americans with the freedom to innovate and improve life in ways not dreamed of. Though there have been false starts, hiccups, and altercations, the nation has made it through every crisis and emerged stronger. There is no reason it cannot do it again.

Today, March 24, many are participating in marches, rallies, and demonstrations calling for more firearms restrictions in the wake of the Florida school murders. That is their right and it is an example of the rights ensconced in the First Amendment to peaceably assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances, even though they have it wrong. As the title character in the classic film Shane put it: “A gun is a tool, Marian, no better or no worse than any other tool: an axe, a shovel or anything. A gun is as good or as bad as the man using it.” Last month a bad man shot and killed many high school students while a presumably good man with a gun did nothing. Last week, a good man with a gun, in a similar situation, killed the bad man before the bad could kill more than one. Between the two incidents, scores if not hundreds were killed using many different tools: from guns to knives to axes to automobiles. It’s not the tool; it’s the person.

So what do we do? Nothing? As uncomfortable as it sounds, probably so— at least at a collective level. In Shane, the character Marian’s retort was “We’d all be much better off if there wasn’t a single gun left in this valley… .” Perhaps so, if there were not predators already in the valley, or there was a way to keep them out. For the valley that is our nation, or for that matter, the globe, it’s impossible. On the other hand, individually we can teach our children, our posterity, pay attention to their curiosity and fears. Give them a moral compass, whether through faith, reason, tradition or some combination of these. Returning to where this essay began, as another of Clint Eastwood’s characters aptly observed, we have got to know our limitations.

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