For those of you who have not seen it. Jimmy Stewart is an attorney who heads out to the wild west to carve out his future. He is robbed and beaten by some thugs. It turns out that those thugs have been tormenting the town. The town sheriff, a bumbling and fearful fool, will do nothing. Stewart, filled with righteous outrage, is determined to use the law to put a stop to those thugs.
Also central to the story is John Wayne. Wayne is the town tough guy. The thugs don’t fuck with him. But he isn’t too inclined to do anything about the thugs fucking with everybody else, at least not until Jimmy Stewart drags him into it. Even though Wayne doesn’t want to get involved and acts like a hard-ass, we are supposed to know that he is really a good guy.
Stewart and Wayne play the liberal and conservative archetypes in that movie. Stewart is the liberal. He is an educated attorney from back east who hasn’t a clue how to fire a gun. He knows what is right and he is going to make sure it happens. Wayne is the conservative. He is tough. He can shoot guns and kick ass. People respect and fear him. The weak (including liberal Jimmy Stewart) need his protection.
Stewart and Wayne are the movie’s heroes. Stewart’s righteous indignation and lawyerly smarts along with Wayne’s brawn and good aim save the day.
The whole movie rests on the premise that an entire town full of people were completely incapable of dealing with a few thugs. The townspeople were, in fact, so pathetic that the best they could do was elect the most chickenshit amongst them for sheriff. You and I are supposed to believe that nothing can ever be accomplished without a hero. We are supposed to believe that we are helpless in the face of anti-social behavior.
I don’t believe that. I don’t have that low of an opinion of you or of me. And I definitely don’t think that we should design our whole society around what some disturbed people might do. Once you stop believing the myth that only a hero/politician/general can save the day, then the whole justification for the authoritarian state comes crumbling down.
At least in the movie, Stewart and Wayne actually did get the job done. In real life, Stewart and Wayne would be conspiring with the evil ranchers and thugs in order to rob us all blind. In the real world, there are no heroes. There is just us.
I will not guarantee that, if we managed to create an anarchist society tomorrow, it would not some day become authoritarian. Maybe some exceptionally bad outside actors would show up and the society would not be able to defend itself. Maybe internal divisions would weaken the community and make it an easier target. Maybe the society would, eventually, build back the kinds of hierarchies we have today. Maybe we would have to go through the whole process over again in 100 years or 50 years or even 10 years.
Should we not even try? Should we just concede to the people and systems that cause so much misery? “It won’t last forever” is a terrible reason not to pursue something. Nothing lasts forever. We should be trying for the best we can do, for as long as we can do it.
And we cannot fall for the myth that we are helpless in the face of a few bad actors.