In countless movies about America's wild, wild west- - think about the many classic westerns you've seen -- the story follows a familiar pattern. There is a town known as, say, Tombstone where law-abiding citizens go about their daily lives. Outlaws ride into town. They steal, pillage, plunder, kill and maim. Then they ride out of town -- hard. The sheriff, furious, gathers a body of armed citizens on horseback. They are known as the posse. The posse rides out of town, determined to catch the outlaws. It is a hunt. The posse hunts down the outlaws, and there is a showdown. The bad guys are killed or unceremoniously hanged. Justice is deemed served. The sheriff and his posse ride back into town as the music picks up. Citizens welcome them joyously. They are heroes. The moral order is restored, and all is well.
Since the unceremonious dispatching of Osama bin Laden and the huge, visceral reactions to the event by the citizens of the United States - also known as 'a fist pump' moment -- I have been thinking about all my favorite wild, wild west movies. The modern posse is, of course, no longer a group of citizens, but Navy SEALS with superlative skills. And the modern outlaw is a terrorist from another tribe but one able to kill thousands. And the sheriff? Well, who would have believed who the modern sheriff turns out to be!
What the event foregrounds for me is the enduring power of what the French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard (1924-1998) calls meta-narratives or master-narratives. A master-narrative is an archetype that frames countless individual stories, sets the expectations of the audience, and is profoundly embedded in a particular culture. These mythic narratives have singular power. It seems to me that the master-narratives of the wild, wild west still have particular power in American culture. For instance, I think it explains why those who say proper legal processes should have applied to bin Laden, that he should have been taken alive, presumed innocent until convicted by a proper court of law, have often been met with incredulity...or blank incomprehension: 'Are you out of your mind? That fellow got what he deserved! Justice was served.'It is also striking how much respect the sheriff has earned. It turns out that it is felt that even today you need a sheriff who can be as mean as the outlaws, and utterly ruthless in the pursuit of (frontier?) justice.
It is all so very fascinating, and I would not want to pass judgement one way or another.
Jean-Francois Lyotard himself apparently thought that the postmodern condition distrusts master-narratives, celebrates dissension, and affirms differences in the face of these totalizing narratives. We are now supposed to privilege 'little stories". I am not at all sure the philosopher got that one right. Just think about what we have just witnessed: the outlaw, the sheriff, the posse... and Showdown at Abottabad.
I am certain the Hollywood movie is only a few months away.
Photo Credit: Flickr user puck90