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Commentary: The strange politics of Cowboys & Aliens

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 11, 2011 - I'm a little worried about my generation. We boomers used to be on the cutting edge of cool but now we seem to be losing touch with the pulse of the culture. The other day a kid asked me to name my favorite movie star. The little fart didn't even know who Lee Marvin was. What's this country coming to?

In an attempt to burnish my street cred as a hep cat, I recently went to see "Cowboys & Aliens." Given its title, I naturally assumed that the film was about the relationship between House Republicans and the Obama administration. To the extent that extreme right-wingers still insist the president was alien-born and progressives in the White House refer to Tea Party leaders as reckless cowboys, my interpretation seemed reasonable. Alas, it was also mistaken.

The film's campy premise notwithstanding, director Jon Favreau resists the temptation to stick tongue in cheek and instead tells the straightforward, if unlikely, tale of the citizens of a corrupt hamlet in the 1870s American southwest confronting extraterrestrial invaders.

This story should provide refreshingly innovative summer cinema for people who have never seen a Western or a flying saucer movie. If you're one of the 99.9 percent of Americans who've watched plenty of both, however, you've already seen this clunker. Just graft the plot of your standard horse opera onto that of virtually any space invaders flick ever made, and you can save yourself the price of admission.

Aside from the juxtaposition of the normally unrelated film genres, the only truly novel aspect of this production is the aliens' reason for visiting: turns out they -- like their cowboy adversaries -- covet gold. Without that reassuring acknowledgement of the universality of greed and a leading lady who's quite literally out of this world, all you're left with is a cliche-ridden yawner and a sack of stale popcorn.

That said, I'm not one to waste an appealing metaphor; and cowboys versus aliens is as good a way as any to understand the present political dynamic because Republicans seem intent on returning us to the 19th century, while Democrats often appear to have arrived here from outer space. And both sides love gold.

An Alien Vision

It was once an article of faith in the Democratic Party that Al Gore was robbed in the 2000 election. The theory had it that the Republicans manipulated the Florida vote count and thus hijacked the White House.

This interpretation conveniently ignored the fact that had Gore carried his home state of Tennessee, the outcome in Florida would not have mattered. What the election actually demonstrated is that democracy gets messy when the margins are too thin. (Reference the 1960 vote for an earlier example of the same phenomenon.)

At any rate, all challenges to George Bush's legitimacy were dropped in the wake of the 9/11 attacks as a nation rallied behind its president to confront the menace of terrorism. President Bush responded to this outpouring of support by proving Lord Acton's hypothesis that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

In 2006, an electorate grown weary of endless wars and soaring deficits yielded big gains for the Dems in the off-year congressional elections. By 2008, the wheels had completely come off the wagon of state and the leftist party gained control of both the Congress and the White House.

Democratic leaders badly misinterpreted their mandate as a signal that the general public had finally recognized the wisdom of its liberal elite. In fact, they had won office by simply being the most convenient alternative to disaster.

Blinded by their conceit, they promptly set about an ambitious agenda that would, among other things, implement a play-off system to determine the college football championship and reform the nation's health care.

Republicans and their allies in the insurance industry were able to successfully demagogue the latter effort as an alien invasion that would leave grandma pleading with death panels of faceless bureaucrats for desperately needed medical treatment.

The Cowboy Way

The Tea Party arose as a reaction to the perceived take-over of government by commie aliens. When Ronald Reagan was elected, critics warned that he intended to repeal FDR's New Deal. Tea Partiers installed in the House after the 2010 elections likewise would undo Roosevelt's legacy -- but their argument is not so much with Franklin as it is with Teddy.

These people would get government out of the business of governing and return the nation to the joys of unbridled capitalism. Their rigid ideology ignores the fact that it was the wretched excesses of just such a system that gave rise to the regulatory state in the first place.

As both extremes sought to serve the mutually exclusive interests of their respective campaign contributors, the battle between cowboys and aliens drove the country to the brink of default. That near-death experience helped to spawn the present chaos in the markets and spurred Standard & Poor's to lower the nation's credit rating.

Surveying the wreckage, it occurs to me that I may have cited the wrong summer movie to explain the situation. Readers who wonder how this madness will end could be better advised to see "Rise of the Planet of the Apes."

M.W. Guzy is a retired St. Louis cop who currently works for the city Sheriff's Department. His column appears weekly in the Beacon.

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