Urban Cowboy and the Tyranny of the Ideal

Like some doomed, mythological seafarer, humans are fated to forever ply the waters between the real and the ideal. How we do this– how we conceive the relationship between what is good and what is possible– goes to the very heart of ethics. Let’s turn to (the Sunday afternoon basic cable) canon to shine some light on this issue.

The characters in 1980’s Urban Cowboy labor under the sign of the “real cowboy.” This is the ideal which Bud (John Travolta) aspires to embody and Sissy (Debra Winger) aspires to sexually and romantically possess. What constitutes the real cowboy remains unformed; like all ideals it exists only as an opaque network of affect-laden signifiers (a real cowboy = large hat, masculine aggression, ability to two step and ride a mechanical bull, etc). Despite this vagueness though, the idea of the real cowboy exerts great sway over the characters’ lives. It in essence drives the plot of the movie.

As a pragmatist, my domain is lived reality, that which comes to us within the flux of embodied experience. The “real cowboy” doesn’t fit within this category. You can’t touch or taste him. That doesn’t mean he’s not real in a pragmatic sense though. Ideals, whether the real cowboy or freedom or justice or Jesus, provide reference points by which we determine value. Sissy, for example, judges Bud against this standard. This is of course not a rational or systematic process; again, affect is key. But by guiding our behavior, ideals do have material impact.

It’s important to keep in mind the relationship between the ideal and the real though. Every ideal contains what Slavoj Zizek would label an “irrational excess.” This emerges in the form of a colonizing impulse. In other words, every ideal is innately destructive, seeking to destroy and remake everyday existence.

In Urban Cowboy, the destructive nature of the ideal is vividly exemplified by the character of Wes. After Sissy, in pursuit of her real cowboy, marries Bud, Wes (Scott Glen) appears on the scene. He’s an ex-con, capable of riding a real bull and engaging in an exponentially greater degree of masculine violence than Bud. Wes, it appears, is the real cowboy Sissy has sought. Of course she takes up with him, making plans to run off to Mexico together.

Wes– with his intensity and scars and psychopathic behavior– perfectly embodies the ideal ideal. He is an agent of disruption, destruction. His desire knows no bounds and the extent to which he will go to fulfill that desire knows no limit. He is the caliphate or Marxist utopia or “greatness” Donald Trump wants America to achieve. He is pure excess.

So how should we deal with Wes? It seems that one way is by refusing to fetishize him. We need to recognize that the ideal is not, and cannot be, real in the sense that Bud and Sissy’s (awesomely sexy) bodies are real. He’s an affective abstraction– a bundle of desires– and those desires, we must recognize, can and should be constantly reworked in response to our everyday lives. We can’t let our psychopathic ideals push us over the cliff, in other words.

So do Sissy and Bud manage to rein in the tyrannical excess represented by Wes? Unfortunately, I would say that they do not. Toward the end of the film Bud wins Sissy back by proving himself more adept at riding the mechanical bull than Wes, in essence supplanting the latter’s position as the living embodiment of the real cowboy. The ideal itself remains unchallenged though. This, I would argue, represents an ethical failure on the part of Bud and Sissy. Though Wes as a man is defeated, the irrational excess he embodies is left free to terrorize the honky-tonk.

Is it OK to be Stupid?

I recently said to a friend that a certain person, in my opinion, was dumb to the point of being disabled. “That’s OK,” my friend said, “some people are making their way in the world like that.” This statement is (of course) wonderfully wise and accepting. I felt an urge to argue with it though. On some affective, animal-level, I disagreed: no, I wanted to say, it’s not ok to be stupid.

Like my friend, I pride myself on being open to different ways of thinking. I don’t do this just to be nice, but because I believe, in a way which I can articulate and support, that cognitive diversity (and the acceptance thereof) is good for society. My gut reaction to my friend’s statement contradicts this. Let’s explore.

To start, I do think that it’s somewhat natural for one to favor one’s way of being over that of others. So in this regard it’s not strange that I, being an “intellectual,” value intellectual stuff like literacy, abstract thought and systematic reason. Correspondingly, I view those who lack these abilities as somehow lacking as people, sub-ideal.

This explanation doesn’t completely cover the situation though. I value lots of stuff. For example, a certain competency on the tennis court. I would never think though that it’s not ok not to be good at tennis. In other words, for me, intelligence is more connected to “being ok” than other competencies. Thinking about it further, there seems to be some moral resonance here. Being intelligent, in my mind, has become connected with being a good person.

Is this legitimate? Is there a connection between intelligence and morality? I recognize that these are two value-loaded, slippery-as-soap terms. To gain some purchase, I’ll put it more specifically: is there a connection between intelligence, however that may be defined by a specific group, and engaging in practices which are deemed “right” or “good” by that group? My hyper-accepting friend would likely say no, there is no connection. I’m not so sure though.

It seems that to do what ‘s right one must be able to put his actions in context. He must know how doing X will change the world, either for better or worse. This requires an understanding of cause and effect and the computing power to run through possible outcomes in your head (what we may deem “imagination”). Both these traits seem to be associated with intelligence as conventionally conceived.

Of course, one must also care about the changes his actions will engender. It’s not enough to know that X will hurt someone. You must also be willing to take that pain into account. This trait (what we may deem “empathy”) does not seem to be connected with intelligence. A person can be dumb as a post and really, really not what to hurt anyone. Or a genius and not care at all.

Morality has both an intellectual and emotional component. And these aren’t always in sync. For example, caring too much about one element in the moral equation can blind us to probability. Or being too systematic can make us cold to the reality of suffering.

So to draw a quasi-conclusion, it seems that it’s not just intelligence and empathy, but also a certain balance that’s key to making “right” or “moral” decisions. I don’t know if I was taking this into account when I challenged my friend’s assertion that it’s OK to be cognitively different. Certainly there’s no one-to-one relationship between intelligence and morality. If I was subconsciously making this assumption, I wasn’t being very smart. At the same time though, just the fact of this analysis shows how deeply, for me, the ability to theorize our experience is connected to what it means to be human.

The Cosmopolitian Body

There’s a scene in the movie Memphis Belle which I think really sums up the rational behind the philosophical doctrine of cosmopolitanism. If you don’t know, cosmopolitanism is the idea that all people, just by virtue of being human, possess some intrinsic “something,” and this binds us (or should bind us) all together into a single community.

Memphis Belle is about the crew of an American bomber during WWII. On their last bombing run before being sent home, and after much danger, they finally drop their bombs on the enemy target. They now have to return safely to base though. The captain, to motivate his men, says something to the effect of “OK boys, we’ve done our job for Uncle Sam. Now we fly for ourselves!”

This, it seems to me, gets at the heart of cosmopolitan thought. The captain here is positing that at a certain point our social identity– those values and responsibilities and ways of being that are imposed on us by our community– fall away. After dropping their bombs, he and his men are no longer “Americans” on a mission from “Uncle Sam.” Instead, they are simply humans, existing in their most base animal form. They are now obeying a calling higher than community– that of survival.

I think that if cosmopolitanism is going to make any sense, we have to think of it in just these terms. Where, after all, does this magical “something” that ties all humans together come from? If you’re a theist, you can say that it is “God given.” If you don’t believe in an all-powerful creator though, this doesn’t work.

Alternatively, you could say that this shared bond arises from some sort of social contract. We all agree that all humans are family and that therefore makes it so. This is a nice idea, and theoretically feasible, but it just doesn’t account for facts on the ground. In the worst incidents of oppression (when we most strongly need cosmopolitan theory), the oppressors simply disregard the humanity of their victims. Hutus or Israelis or drunken frat boys agree among themselves (make a social contract, you could say) that their enemies lie outside the bonds of community. In short, if we take a contractarian approach, it seems that cosmopolitanism abandons us when we need it most.

So, to make cosmopolitanism work– I.E. to validate the idea that we are all, despite our cultural differences, members of the same community– we need some sort of external, non-negotiable justification. As a pragmatist, I’m not big on universal rules. It seems though that if there is any bond which connects all humans it is necessarily a physical one. We all have bodies. We all eat and sleep and (except for Macduff) come from women. Stripped of our socially-generated material trappings (clothes, cars, houses) and our socially-constructed values (love, honor, belief) we are all basically the same.

The captain of the Memphis Belle knows this. He locates his crew’s most basic and therefore most communal desire– bodily survival– and references it as a motivational point. The body is something they can all rally around. Could such rhetoric be scaled up though? Could one make the claim that we all have certain rights not because of God or the constitution, but simply by virtue of existing within a human body? Don’t hurt my body, this argument would go, because my body is the same as yours. Perhaps. Perhaps advocates of cosmopolitanism should watch Memphis Belle.

Against Bigness

There is great news out of Turkey today. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP party has been defeated in an attempt to win a super-majority in parliament. This would have allowed Erdogan to change the constitution and greatly extend his power. For the record, I think Erdogan is a fine (if only moderately democratic) leader. Why do I cheer his defeat then?

William James writes, “I am against bigness and greatness in all their forms, and with the invisible molecular moral forces that work from individual to individual, stealing in through the crannies of the world like so many soft rootlets….” This sums up my understanding of the attitude which must underlie any healthy society. Bigness, be it in the form of a powerful leader like Erdogan, or the fetisization of an idea (racial or religious purity, for example), is the enemy of efficient administration. In short, for a space to be optimally governed, there has to be a constant circulation of ideas and personalities. Too much power (or faith) concentrated in any one person or idea, for too long, short-circuits this process.

On the level of macro-politics, I think the above idea can be empirically justified. If you look at the most materially advanced nations– the US, western Europe, etc.– the time any one individual spends at the top of the pyramid seems universally quite short. The same is true, interestingly, of China, which while not conventionally democratic, changes leadership every 10 years. My hypothesis is that the sharing of power among different groups of elites in these nations has factored in their success.

On the micro-level, this view also has consequences. Within any society, some groups may have too much symbolic power. Cops, for example, or the military, or priests, or even professors. It doesn’t matter who they are– when any group gets too big or too great we must challenge them, “steal in through the crannies,” as James says and shatter their aura of invincibility. The internet is a great tool for doing this. One of the goals of this blog, undoubtedly, is to assist in the smashing of idols.

Finally, on a practical level, this view has one important political implication– it makes me hesitant to support Hillary Clinton. Though I generally agree with her policies, I worry that extending the power of her group of elites may have a negative effect on the long-term health of the system. In short, the Clintons and their friends have already had a chance to make their mark and fill their pockets. It may be best not to let them back in the game. We don’t want them to become idols.