Publick Occurrences 2.0

November 28, 2011

Valences of Liberty

Filed under: Ben Carp's Posts,Democracy,Film,Foreign policy,Historians,Voting — Benjamin Carp @ 2:46 pm

In the past few weeks there have been two excellent reviews of John Lewis Gaddis’s George F. Kennan: An American Life, by Louis Menand and Frank Costigliola.  Ta-Nehisi Coates does an interesting riff on these reviews, which gives him a chance to muse about the challenges of self-mastery in a democratic society.  Kennan is most famous for his advocacy of a doctrine of containment in 1947.

By coincidence, I watched John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), for the first time this weekend, itself a product of the Cold War years (and which previous critics have linked to the Cuban Missile Crisis, etc.).  It’s a movie that asks, “how do you respond to violence that can’t be contained?” and ponders the nature of the American conquest of the West.

A fun question to ask yourself: “who is the hero of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance?”  Is it the man who believes in achieving self-mastery through education, representative democracy, modernity, and the rule of law, or is it the man who believes in achieving self-mastery by proving himself as physically dominant, but denying himself the fruits of victory?  And what does it say about America when the non-violent hero achieves worldly success, not wholly because of the values he’s espoused, but because the populace lionizes him for a violent deed?

The Library of Congress selected the movie (which stars John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, and Lee Marvin) for the National Film Registry because of its cultural, historic, or aesthetic significance, while Gaddis assesses Kennan’s “American Life.”  It’s interesting to ponder both artifacts side by side when thinking about American power and American democracy.



  1. Like that “two excellent reviews.” So much for the war criminal’s piece in the Times Book Review, the longest I have ever seen in that venue.

    Comment by Herb Sloan — November 28, 2011 @ 3:28 pm

  2. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is one of my all-time favorites, even though I have come to partly disapprove of its “print the legend” message. Jimmy Stewart is unquestionably the hero of the film, but his decency and intelligence are shown to be inadequate when faced with a dire, society-endangering physical threat like Lee Marvin. The intervention of dark, violent but (fundamentally) noble men like John Wayne is sometimes needed. I have always taken the film as an ideological vindication of Cold War espionage, secrecy, and counter-insurgency: democracy’s occasional need for undemocratic acts to protect its ability to exist. It disturbs me that the film really resonated with some Straussians of my acquaintance back in the day, and that Straussians (albeit different ones) came to be so instrumental in justifying the Iraq War, Gitmo, torture, etc. What I will say in Ford’s defense is that film takes seriously what our latter-day Warriors on Terror seem to forget, which is that something important is lost when undemocratic values like violence are openly embraced. Wayne’s sacrifice has to be remain a secret, and a man like him has to remain outside society rather than become a ideal for others to emulate. You “print the legend” to allow your country to become a community of democratic citizens, rather then remaining a mental Wild West of wannabe gunfighters.

    Or so my dissertation says in the alternate timeline where I got my Ph.D. in political philosophy from the Committee on Social Thought at University of Chicago. Luckily Allan Bloom hated me on sight, and the world was spared 700 pages of ruminations on classic westerns.

    Comment by Jeff Pasley — November 29, 2011 @ 12:20 am

  3. And since you were unable to convince me to take up the topic in your stead, the world was likewise spared 80 or so pages of the most conviction-less senior thesis ever written at Carleton College ; )

    Comment by Karen Pasley — November 29, 2011 @ 10:34 am

  4. And what about Liberty Valance himself? I wonder if looking at the United States from the outside he doesn’t appear to be the country’s personification.

    Comment by Chris Schmidt-Nowara — November 29, 2011 @ 1:16 pm

  5. Given the name the character was given, Liberty Valance was certainly meant to represent something, probably what western/American liberty becomes without the order and reason of eastern/European civilization to temper it. Lee Marvin personifies the country’s worst aspects then.

    Comment by Jeff Pasley — November 29, 2011 @ 2:51 pm

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