Against last stands

When I was younger I was attracted to the self-sacrificial hero character in books and movies. You know, Gunga Din, or Steve McQueen in “The Sand Pebbles”. He wasn’t so much a tough guy who beat people up and won. He was sort of a bastard mix of Christ and a tough guy. You guys go on and escape. I’m of no use to use now; leave me on the pass with this machine gun and I’ll hold ’em off for a while. And then everyone pauses to notice how noble the guy is, and then they go off to their happy ending and he gets whacked. This guy shows up a lot in Westerns, obviously. I think there’s one per Western. As a heart-tugging moment in an action movie it’s fine.

The Hemingway “moment of truth” is a version of this. There’s danger, and a man puts himself in that danger and in some transcendent moment of life versus death he redeems himself. Probably this usually happens by dying, but it’s not a Christ-like sacrifice; he kicks ass *and* dies. It’s pretty questionable in a good novel, although Hemingway’s tough guys are a lot less cardboard that the ones in Westerns.

In America we have a big problem with the popularity of this character. All too often you see some guy who’s run out of winning options. He’s a laid-off industrial worker, maybe, or a petty criminal who’s facing a third strike, or even just a sad and dangerous domestic violence offender. His obvious fate is slow and humiliating doom, emasculation, poverty, incarceration, and admitting defeat in some battle that he’s convinced himself is important. What does he do? He walls himself up in his house, sometimes with a spouse or relative as hostage, and picks a gunfight with the police. They can’t take him alive! He’s not going to jail! He’ll go down shooting, and he’ll be remembered as the guy who faced his moment of truth and faced overwhelming force.

Nowadays they’re better at dealing with these guys; they have a lot of smart ways of dealing with “suicide by police”. Put previously they just killed him. As he banged away with ol’ Brown Bess a lot of professional tough guys with military rifles took him down. It was on the news and everyone remembered it. Our hero got his blaze of glory. A lot of the time, other people who wanted to go home that day got a blaze of glory too, despite their lack of interest in the idea.

From our protagonist’s point of view he was a Hemingway hero, Shane, and every other slow-talking granite-faced B actor who took a bullet for the romantic leads. It’s a lie, though. The guy who gets centerpunched by the SWAT team in his two bedroom house is usually a weaselly coward wifebeater, a beer-soaked unemployable waste of space, a serial car thief. His big Last Stand terrifies and endangers innocent people around him and causes expense and risk for the police. The moment of truth for him is a big fat traumatic nuisance for us. It’s like suicide with extra selfishness.

My ideal of maturity is different. An adult is someone who takes on responsibility for the welfare of others. Whether it’s manhood or womanhood, to me being a grownup implies giving up the self-centered drama of youth for the real rewards of community and family. My heroes are the people who can take a botched career or a prison sentence or a terrible divorce and go all the way through the damned thing, painful and lasting as it is. And that’s whether they “win” or not.

The theologian and anti-Nazi rebel Dietrich Bonhoefffer warned against what he called “cheap grace”, which loosely explained is redemption from sin without any change in behavior or belief. A good example is the televangelist who gets caught with a whore, yells SORRY KIND OF! in public, and goes right back to his plush existence.

That fake moment of truth, the dude ranch Western last stand, is a selfish refusal to face the long hard life sentence of being human. Real men, like real women, are worthy of honor when they have the courage to go the whole terrible distance and not justify themselves with a moment of false cheap bravery. Real grace is for grownups; it comes day by day and year by year, and not easily.

12 thoughts on “Against last stands

  1. Or, as Borges wrote, to die for an ideal is easier than to live it absolutely.
    The Islamist mass-casualty suicide bombers are much the same sort of case; often they’re petty thugs who find cheap grace not by changing their ways but by defining the society which has accused them as corrupt, and themselves into instruments of divine retribution.

  2. Whether it’s manhood or womanhood, to me being a grownup implies giving up the self-centered drama of youth for the real rewards of community and family.
    I love this post, except for this one sentence, so I’ll respectfully disagree.
    1> Part of the problem with adulthood in our society is that people have to choose between “manhood” and “womanhood”, and anyone who wants other adult options is left to suffer. Hell, even if you’re happy being a (man|woman), significant stigma attaches to the ones who don’t measure up in a gendered way. I refer you to every epithet guys get called that compares them to women (because, you know, being a woman is horrible or something).
    2> For some people, “community” and “family” are real rewards, but the idealization of those 2— particularly some Stepford version of the latter— keeps a lot of people shooting for something that’s in practice not possible. (I’d shoot for it myself, with a .22, but I aspire to nonviolence.) “Family” as an ideal in practice leads to the social marginalization of anyone who doesn’t have the same goals, and I want to live in a different society than that. When Americans are joining legal “family” units just so they can get decent healthcare, the notion of family is cheapened and fucked up.

    1. 1. The issue I addressed in this essay is a weakness in the culture of American masculinity. The reason I said “manhood or womanhood” instead of “manhood” is that I felt that a narrow focus on gender-specific adulthood is one of the problems that makes guys retreat into symbolic violence. The good to which I aspire is adulthood. “Being a man” is not just loaded, it’s loaded with differently disastrous mistakes each time. As I’ve said before, my personal ideal is Atticus Finch and not Dirty Harry, but I can’t expect anyone to share it. Adulthood is something closer to a civilized standard.
      2. I don’t think that I’m supporting the Stepford version of “family” at all here. I don’t define “family”, and I certainly don’t want the Dobsons of this world to define it. When I say “community and family” I mean “shared sacrifice and shared love”, and people are free to define that however they want as long as they don’t insist on defining it for me.
      I think we’re likely to bump heads like this often. When I write an essay I work hard to write simply and exclude anything that blunts my point. It’s very hard to do justice to the depth and complexity of gender politics in a 500-word newspaper-style piece about one particular problem of masculinity. And since my experience and expertise in the issues you raise is nothing more than that of a sympathetic outsider, I’d probably look patronizing and make an ass out of myself if I tried.

      1. 1. Sure. I think I’m “just” taking issue with the reduction of adulthood to “manhood or womanhood”, when many people could benefit materially from a society that didn’t imagine these 2 as the only options. Imagine who we’d be, individually, if no one ever told us that boys are supposed to be tough and girls are supposed to be polite, then made fun of us when we deviated.
        2. Okay, sure. I just hate it that the Dobsonesque language of “family and community” is the easiest shorthand for us to talk about a range of options for ordering our relational lives. I worry that using their language supports their message, even unintentionally.
        Being a sympathetic outsider doesn’t mean you have to concede speaking on other people’s issues; it means that you’ve got a bully pulpit if you want it, because people don’t assume that you’re speaking from your own experience.

      2. I worry that using their language supports their message, even unintentionally.
        I do get that point. I refuse, however, to let those bastards take my family and my community from me. They don’t get those words, any more than they get to hijack “Americanism” or “morality”.

      3. I’m with you — “family” has never meant wife and two kids to me and never will. It means the people to whom I have a duty borne of love.

      4. Fambly
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        >mishpukha values!!

  3. This entry made me think of a lot of different things. I had never really compared the Francis Macomber of the Hemmingway/Western set to the “life sucks and I am going out with a bang” type of guy. But I do see how they are cut from the same cloth.
    I wonder if Mr. Wife Beater just saw too many self-sacraficing “heroes” in movies and thinks that by making a last stand of his own it will redeem him….and with such faulty logic, not too difficult to figure out how he got to where he is.
    (btw…The Short and Happy Life of Francis Macomber is one of my favorite short stories, even though I am not a big fan of Hemmingway.)

  4. I’m currently sick to death of my platter full graceful and courageous maturity. I’m thinking of moving and changing my name.
    Don’t take that to mean that I disagree with your thesis, though.
    I would add that the real rewards of community involve working to create and support community, as well as learning to accept what community has to offer.

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