The Duke and the Unbearable Smugness of the History-Eaters

When a Twitter nobody “unearthed” an easily available and well-known 48-year-old Playboy interview with long-dead actor John Wayne, the memory-erasers came out of the woodwork. They screamed “racist” and “homophobe” and the generic catch-all “bigot.” Calls to strip Wayne’s name from Orange County’s eponymously named airport reached the op-ed pages of the Los Angeles Times.

Like it or not, the statues of Christopher Columbus, Gandhi, and Supreme Court justices are memorials and commemorations of our collective past that recall both the wisdom and sins of our ancestors.

As English philosopher G. K. Chesterton observed:

Tradition means giving a vote to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead . . . Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.

But the obliterators cannot brook the past’s disagreement with their project to make the world anew. Tradition threatens their efforts to “perfect” the world and its inhabitants in the present—or as the late conservative thinker Bill Buckley would say, forgetters want us to “immanentize the eschaton.”

Wayne represents a very different America, Hollywood, and culture than the one they are building.

He stood for machismo, gentlemanliness, grit, courage, and individual agency, which are now “toxic,” selfish, and oppressive under the preferred paradigm.

Thus, the Duke must be destroyed!

While to our modern ears, Wayne’s words sound insensitive and tone-deaf on race and sexuality his views weren’t particularly controversial in 1971. He says, “I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility.” The phrase “white supremacy” is loaded and makes our skin crawl today—for good reason. But Wayne was not addressing it in the abstract, he was talking specifically about the Communist and terrorist accomplice Angela Davis and her then-prominent whining that anyone who questioned her qualifications was a racist.

Moreover, Wayne goes on to say he is a critic of the notion of racial quotas and the dumbing down of standards simply to advance tokenism, whether it be in Hollywood or in academia. It was a blunt, poorly phrased assessment then shared by tens of millions of Americans. There’s no excuse for Wayne’s phrasing but there is a context.

Similarly, his use of the word “fags” and implying they are perverts was the norm in 1971—the Stonewall Riots had occurred only three years before and many states were still enforcing anti-sodomy laws. To wit, over 70 percent of Americans in the early 1970s viewed homosexual behavior as “always wrong.”

But in a fit of delicious irony, the ultimate relativists—the progressive memory-eaters—refuse to give context or reason through any perceived historical thought-crimes that offend the present.

As Orwell’s narrator in 1984 opines, “The past was alterable. The past never had been altered. Oceania was at war with Eastasia. Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia.”

But how do those who justify, explain away, and rationalize the practice of human sacrifice and the subjugation of women by foreign cultures hold fast to their incongruous denunciation of Western values? Easily, it seems. Largely by subscribing to presentism—that we, but mainly them, are better than our forebears. We stand not on the shoulders of giants but moral pygmies. As Lynn Hunt, the former president of the American Historical Association noted in 2002,

Presentism, at its worst, encourages a kind of moral complacency and self-congratulation. Interpreting the past in terms of present concerns usually leads us to find ourselves morally superior; the Greeks had slavery, even David Hume was a racist, and European women endorsed imperial ventures. Our forebears constantly fail to measure up to our present-day standards.(Emphasis mine.)

Smugness and self-righteous fury animate these efforts to erase the past simply because it doesn’t reflect their current worldview.

Maybe the silver screen star John Wayne still has something to teach us. Oddly enough another quote that same now controversial Playboy interview is emblazoned on his tombstone’s epitaph, saying: “Tomorrow is the most important thing in life. Comes into us at midnight very clean. It’s perfect when it arrives and it puts itself in our hands. It hopes we’ve learned something from yesterday.”

We still have much to learn from yesterday—and Wayne and the values he represented in life and on screen are part of that story.

Let’s remember Wayne as a hero—for without heroes, we have only villains left.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

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