Belmont Club

The Ugly Shane

Shortly after Newt Gingrich delivered his now famous reply to John King in response to a question about his past marital life, the Anchoress (Elizabeth Scalia) wrote that the crowd, which rose to its feet in applause, wasn’t cheering Gingrich’s personal life so much as taking the opportunity to express its dislike for the media.

The standing ovation for Newt’s remarks were not an endorsement of his behavior — many conservatives are troubled by Gingrich’s past and character does matter to them, while other conservatives are remembering their own sins and falling back on what they know of mercy, for the time being. No, that ovation was an endorsement of Gingrich’s disdain for the mainstream media, which they share, and a declaration to that same media that their playbook is played-out.

But Rush Limbaugh warned against hoping that “the media” might feel the slightest possibility of remorse, because he believes that they are irrevocably on the other side of an uncrossable divide. He declared that King’s partisan behavior was now the way media figures made their bones; how they showed the capo di tutti capo that they would floss their teeth with a razor blade if it would advance the purposes of the One.

Limbaugh may be taking things too far. But who is on each side of the divide that he refers to?  The audience’s resentment was probably directed toward what Charles Murray (the author of the Bell Curve) called the “new upper class” and what Angelo de Codevilla called the “ruling class”.

Both authors characterize the ‘ruling class’ in very similar ways. Charles Murray says, “we have developed a new upper class with advanced educations, often obtained at elite schools, sharing tastes and preferences that set them apart from mainstream America.” Codevilla uses much the same language.

Today’s ruling class, from Boston to San Diego, was formed by an educational system that exposed them to the same ideas and gave them remarkably uniform guidance, as well as tastes and habits. These amount to a social canon of judgments about good and evil, complete with secular sacred history, sins (against minorities and the environment), and saints. Using the right words and avoiding the wrong ones when referring to such matters — speaking the “in” language — serves as a badge of identity.

Such a class system would require an institution of gatekeepers to determine whether an aspiring politician was ‘one of us’. That role has traditionally been fulfilled by the media. People like John King, in conclave with their friends, networks and social circles would routinely decide among themselves which aspiring candidate were worthy of the imprimatur. Gingrich, it has been decided — precisely by whom and by what basis? but that is another matter — is not going to be given the nod. On the contrary, he marked out for ‘the treatment’.

In former times a candidate would simply have accepted the judgment of the press and go cringingly on his way. That Gingrich did not and that the crowd cheered him on suggests that the media is beginning to lose, if it has not already lost, its legitimacy in that function. John King gave the command and the formerly servile did not obey. On the contrary, they rained a storm of vegetables on his head.

By itself Newt’s rebellion would have been insignificant had it not been set against the background of the global financial crisis, the bursting of the higher education bubble, the declining revenues of the press and rising unemployment. Taken in that context, it is not unreasonable to surmise that not just the media’s but the ‘ruling class’s’ legitimacy is increasingly under question.

The choice between Gingrich and Romney in these circumstances was described by a friend as the problem of the “ugly Shane”.

Gingrich is unattrative; a sinner. He might destroy the Republican Party. But he will throw a wrench in the works. Romney on the other hand, is perfect, married, immaculate, like the homesteader Joe Starrett. Unlike the Man with the Past, he won’t destroy the Republican party. But will he draw on Wilson?

Does the public want an ugly Shane or a handsome Joe Starrett?

While there are problems with the Shane metaphor it strikingly captures an essential aspect of the current political crisis. Barack Obama has been brought into town as old order’s Jack Wilson (the Jack Palance character) as an enforcer who will make sure that we complete the New Deal treatment. The question for the audience is now more than ever, who will stand up to Wilson?

In the movie the screenwriter solves the problem of Shane’s fundamental lawlessness by having him ride into the darkness at the end of his mission. But here the metaphor fails, because if Gingrich is elected President, he is less likely than Shane to ride off in such a romantic fashion. Perhaps both the Republican and the Democratic parties — the whole Washington establishment for that matter — has reached the end of the trail. The appeal of Gingrich is that he might somehow put an end to the system without continuing it in himself.

Very few have been able to put aside power once having gained it. Though Shane as an individual never lived, as a symbol he may never die; but only as he exists in all of the people — in the imagination of the homesteaders — and not in any self-appointed elite.

Shane: I came to get your offer, Ryker.

Ryker:I’m not dealing with you. Where’s Starrett?

Shane: You’re dealing with me, Ryker.

Ryker: I got no quarrel with you, Shane. You can walk out now and no hard feeling.

Shane: What’s your offer, Ryker?

Ryker: To you, not a thing.

Shane: That’s too bad. Too bad. You’ve lived too long. Your kind of days are over.

Ryker: My days? And yours, gunfighter?

Shane:The difference is I know it.

Who among the candidates will draw on Wilson, knowing that his day too, is over?


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