The Sheriffs

We may broadly distinguish between three concepts of justice in history – the inquisitorial, the adversarial, and the eirenic. The first, which we associate with Roman law, was about the state’s enquiry into truth; the second, on which Anglo-American procedures are based, was a sublimation of the trial by combat; the third is characteristic of many religious legal systems and aims at reconciliation and peace. The eirenic model is increasingly penetrating Western jurisprudence in the form of conciliation of parties and confrontations between victim and perpetrator, either in formal court or in special tribunals. In addition, quite a lot of what a medieval bishop would have seen as one of his important eirenic functions is now being performed in the calmer kind of talk-show. Other kinds of talk-show, of course, are closer kin to the Colosseum, aiming for blood on the sand to amuse the mob.

At the same time, there is a dismaying amount of life left in a fourth concept of justice that we may call Movie Frontier. It is not about discovering the truth as in the Roman tradition, or hearing both sides as in the English tradition, or reconciling adversaries as in the Byzantine tradition. Movie Frontier Justice assumes that no procedures at all are necessary, because “we2 simply know who is the Bad Guy and can execute him without further ado. This may not have much to do with how things were actually done in the Old West, about which neither I nor the great majority of Americans actually know very much, but it has a lot to do with how things were done in cowboy films. We know who is the Bad Guy because he wears a black hat. The Bad Guy is never Us. And the sheriff has powers beyond the wildest dreams of his English namesake, who in fact could not impose capital punishment. We never see the Western sheriff sitting as a judge and hearing any actual evidence; and whereas the Inquisition often found charges of heresy to be unproven, the movie sheriff never seems to discover that a Bad Guy is actually a maligned Good Guy. He makes the maddest oriental despot look like a system of checks and balances. The whole genre appears to function as homage to anti-justice, as impatience with the whole idea of the rule of law, as a collective fantasy of violent revenge.

Rather than any of the other three kinds of law, it would seem to be this “Movie Justice” that the Bush Administration conceived of itself as practicing around the world. This may explain its spectacular failures of information and understanding. For in the cowboy films we never see the sheriff taking advice, or listening to the other side, or even investigating the facts. The Sheriff has the White Hat and so magically knows who are the Bad Guys, and this is enough. String ‘em up!

Posted on November 29, 2011 at 10:31 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: RESISTANCE IS FUTILE!, The Shadow In The West

3 Responses

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  1. Written by urban
    on November 29, 2011 at 15:00
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    “We know who is the Bad Guy because he wears a black hat. The Bad Guy is never Us.

    Without undermining your point which is valid, I must take issue with the monolithic nature of the Cowboy movie. Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven”, to cite but one example, has only bad guys or only good guys, depending on how you want to frame the categories. The characters don’t see all the ambiguity and act as if righteousness were theirs, but they are clearly wrong. The actual complexity and the self-serving distortions by all sides are laid out very clearly for the viewer.

    That this scheme works is, at least in part, because it is set against a backdrop of cliches from earlier films, but that trope goes back to the 50s and beyond. Indeed Herb Jeffies’ films had fun flopping conventions in the 30s when those conventions were still fresh. The formulaic ‘horse opera’ is real, but it is not the only game in Dodge.

  2. Written by Hugo Grinebiter
    on November 29, 2011 at 15:59
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    I’m not a movie expert, though I have seen “Unforgiven”. I just don’t think ambiguous films like that are at all relevant to the use of the trope as a political metaphor. IOW, how much of the American imperial rhetoric is based on the moral universe of “Unforgiven”?

  3. Written by urban
    on November 29, 2011 at 22:18
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    None whatsoever. Like most things in American politics, the politician-as-cowboy mythos is disconnected even from fantasy. Only that much more so from reality. The only question worth asking is “Does it work?” Yes it does.

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