mad in pursuit: greed & arrogance

2004 political season

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greed & arrogance index


6.16.04 Deadwood's Al Swearengen as God

HBO just completed airing the first 12-episodes of "Deadwood," a grimy tale of what the Old West was "really like" when people were seeking their fortunes in gold claims in territories still beyond the reach of U.S. law.

At first the series seems like an adolescent excuse to say c*cks*ck*r and m*th*rf*ck*r as often as humanly possible. But even that now seems to symbolize their treasured "freedom" -- no one's mommy is going to come to wash their mouths out with soap because there are no laws whatsoever. It is the Libertarian fantasy. The ultimate "self-managed team." It is chaos.

And then there's Al. Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) is the saloon keeper, drug dealer and master manipulator. He is the mustachioed super-villain in a town of villains, opportunists, and losers. Some have referred to him as Satan.

But no, Al is God. Al is the kind of Old Testament God who emerges out of the darkness when people are lost and frightened. Like the God of Genesis, you see Al every morning on his balcony surveying the chaos in the squalid camp called Deadwood. In a place that has no official law, he is in charge. He isn't about mercy or justice (though there are glimpses of both). He is about taking care of business. He is our beloved American pragmatist. What's it going to take to keep this town going? He knows the the people need liquor, drugs, and sex. It is his "enlightened self-interest" that keeps the prostitutes healthy through regular medical exams and that correctly manages the smallpox epidemic when it threatens to wipe them all out. When word comes that the U.S. government has made a deal with the Indians to annex the territory, it is Al who quickly organizes the town government and figures out who need bribing so that Deadwood can survive.

And like Yahweh, he is always angry. It is not pleasant to have to kill someone with your bare hands, but when you are fighting back the chaos, you do what you gotta do.

As much as we Americans love our rule of law, we still admire these angry, effective gods. Legal process can be so tedious. Our President likes to think of himself as a Texas cowboy -- Texas, where the Republican party just (yes, in 2004) adopted this platform:

The values and world vision of the movement today can be found enshrined in the 24-page party platform. It's a fearful, twilight looking-glass world, beset by enemies, where the purity of the culture, under constant siege, must be protected from threats both internal and external. The platform makes short work of the federal government, calling for the abolition of everything from the U.S. Department of Education to the Internal Revenue Service, along with most taxes. Aliens without proper identification are to be summarily deported. Illegal immigrants should not be granted drivers' licenses. Voter registration is to be made more difficult. "American English" is the official language of the state, and "the Party supports the termination of bilingual education programs in Texas." A plank titled "equality for all citizens" urges the repeal of hate crimes legislation. Another one states: "We oppose any criminal or civil penalties against those who oppose homosexuality out of faith, conviction, or belief in traditional values." Since the Bible is the literal truth, teachers should have the right to instruct their public school students in "creation science." The Ten Commandments are the foundation of the legal system. And lest anyone forget, "America is a Christian nation." [Jake Bernstein, Dave Mann in Salon]

And don't forget that Dick Cheney is from Wyoming, where government is only of use to make one rich. These are the buckaroos who wanted Chalabi in charge -- Iraq's own Al Swearengen -- under the blind eye of John Negroponte.

And so, like all good stories, "Deadwood" isn't just history. It holds up history as a mirror of the present. Is this who we really are?






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