At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

A Tale of Three Kongs: Race and Gender in King Kong and its Remakes

posted by Jack Kerwick

In an article for intellectualconservative.com, Lisa Fabrizio remarks on the dramatic changes in cinematic depictions of masculinity that have occurred over the decades.  While the extent to which such depictions have become “feminized” has been greatly exaggerated by right-leaning commentators—not only is the “tough guy” at least as visible a character in contemporary cinema as it has ever been in the past, this generation’s movie macho men are typically bigger, stronger, and more aggressive than their counterparts from yesteryear—it is hard to avoid the verdict that the popularity of the figure of the strong and silent man has indeed been eclipsed by that of the man who is sweet and sensitive.

Masculinity  

No where is this truth more clearly born out than in the relationship between the original King Kong (1933) and its remakes (1976, 2005).   Having been a diehard fan of this story for nearly all of my life, I recently had the opportunity to once again watch all three films consecutively. 

King Kong 1933

In the original, Bruce Cabot portrays Jack Driscoll, the first mate of the ship that sails to Kong’s Skull Island and the hero that, upon falling in love with Fay Wray’s Ann Darrow, eventually rescues this damsel in distress from the lair of the giant ape.  Although not remotely as popular an actor as his real life friend John Wayne, Cabot’s silver screen persona is cut from the same cloth as that of the latter.  Cabot’s Driscoll is abundantly possessed of honor, courage, and strength, but these virtues are severally imbued with and united by a ruggedness that is not always easily distinguishable from a lack of couth.  While a man of few words, the Jack Driscoll of the 1930’s can be counted on to say what he means and mean what he says, whether he is referring to the ritualistic practices of Skull Island’s natives as “evil,” explaining to the woman to whom he would soon thereafter confess his love that “women can’t help being a bother,” or calling his de facto boss, Kong’s captor and film maker Carl Denham, “crazy.” 

Still, in spite of his character’s lack of refinement, Cabot’s Driscoll is wise enough to know that the excursion to Kong’s Island is not one that promises to end well for the love of his life, and his resolve to risk all to protect her proves that whatever he lacks in intellect he more than makes up for in heart.

But as the attacks against John Wayne definitively established, the Baby Boom generation and its posterity have no patience with this conception of masculinity—a fact that the ’76 and ’05 remakes of Kong reflected in no uncertain terms.

King Kong 1976

In the ’76 version of King Kong, the hero is portrayed by Jeff Bridges. This time, though, his name is Jack Prescott, and far from being a simple, meat-and-potatoes first mate, he is a professor of paleontology from Princeton University and the author of a book on primates.  Unlike his counterpart from ’33, Prescott’s heroic deeds are performed for the sake of rescuing, not just Beauty (Jessica Lange’s “Dwan”), but, more importantly, the Beast.  Bridges’ character sharply reminds the villainous oilman—Charles Grodin’s “Fred Wilson”—who sets his designs upon Kong’s island that “this is no longer the nineteenth century” when whites could take the lands of indigenous peoples with impunity; charges him with being an “environmental rapist” while implicitly threatening him with the promise that in response to his action “the kids” would “burn every Petrox gas station from Maine to California”; and steadfastly refuses to be complicit in Kong’s exploitation, even when that means forgoing the woman that he loves, reneging on his contract with Wilson, and donating his advance pay to the SPCA’s fund for “sending Kong home.”  Moreover, Jack Prescott, anticipating Kong’s move toward the World Trade Center from which he will be shot down in the film’s climax, agrees to share his knowledge with the authorities only under the condition that they in turn agree to capture Kong “without injury,” and when they go back on their word, Bridges’ character cheers as Kong sends a handful of his attackers to their deaths.

King Kong 2005

But if Bridges’ Jack Prescott can be said to represent a more sensitive and intelligent conception of masculinity than Cabot’s Jack Driscoll, then this is even truer in the case of Adrien Brody’s Jack Driscoll in Peter Jackson’s 2005 reimagining of Kong.  Like Bridges’ Prescott, Brody’s Driscoll is an intellectual of a sort; but unlike the hard nosed scientist from the ’76 incarnation, the Jack Driscoll of ’05 is a playwright, an artist (can’t get much more sensitive than that!).  And while Kong doesn’t incite his affections as the ape managed to do with his ’76 counterpart, the expression to which Brody’s Driscoll gives this new male archetype is not only unambiguous, it is asserted with an intense self-consciousness. 

This Jack Driscoll bears no similarities to his predecessor from ’33, and Brody is at pains to remind audiences of this.  Interestingly, Peter Jackson, the author of Kong ’05, claims that it was the original film that initially inspired him to become a filmmaker.  However, on numerous occasions throughout his telling of this story it is difficult to elude the impression that he relishes in mocking it.  And Brody’s Driscoll is the key device through which he accomplishes this. 

The lead male role for the film for which Driscoll is writing the screenplay stars actor “Bruce Baxter,” a caricature of Bruce Cabot.  During the filming of a scene, Baxter “improvises” upon the lines that Driscoll has written for him by repeating what Cabot had said to Fay Wray in the original Kong: “women are a nuisance,” etc.  Brody’s Driscoll, clearly upset by the chauvinism that Baxter foisted upon his script, admonishes him to “resist” the “impulse” to “improvise” in the future.  Later, when the going gets really tough (and deadly) for the rescue mission for Ann Darrow, Baxter makes it painfully clear that his “tough guy” image is just that, an image.  Upon charging him with cowardice, Brody’s Driscoll continues in pursuit of Kong and Darrow, even when there is no longer anyone behind him.  Thus, if there remained any doubts as to whether the conception of masculinity to which Cabot gave expression in the ‘30’s was any longer a viable alternative to the idea of masculinity incarnate in Brody, Kong ’05 put them out to pasture once and for all. 

Race

So, from whence springs this hostility on the part of the left to the John Waynes and Bruce Cabots of the world?  From what I am able to discern, it seems that Lisa Fabrizio typifies the right-leaning cultural critic who, in spite of recognizing both the left’s revulsion of the model of masculinity emblematized by Wayne as well as its preoccupations with race and gender, refuses to make the connection between these two insights.  

The truth is that from the left’s perspective, it isn’t an idea of manhood as such that elicits its wrath toward the John Waynes and Bruce Cabots; it is a Euro-American ideal of manhood that so incenses it.  More specifically and to the point, it is an account of manhood that the left associates with “racism,” “sexism,” “colonialism,” “imperialism,” “jingoism,” and, in short, all of the evil of which it longs to rid the universe of its imaginings. 

Leftwing cultural critics have long waxed indignant over the “racism” in King Kong.  Some have even gone so far as to characterize it as a story about “racism.”  In the original Kong, after all, white men set their sights on an island inhabited by black natives.  Airs of nuance and sophistication aside, this is ultimately the spring, the only spring, from which the reasoning of these critics takes flight.  In Kong ’76, this plotline is replicated, but unlike in ’33, the black natives are treated sympathetically while the white men lack self-assuredness and self-righteousness.  White guilt, of which the original Kong had not a trace, pervades the characters of its first remake. 

The natives in ’33 placate Kong with human sacrifices; they don’t worship him.  Thus, they don’t feel deprived when Kong is taken from them.  In ’76, however, matters are otherwise.  As Bridges’ Jack Prescott explains, Kong was “the mystery” and “the magic” of the natives’ lives.  “When we took Kong,” he says, “we kidnapped their god.  A year from now that will be an island full of burned out drunks.”  Dwan (Jessica Lange) replies: “It’s scary.  It’s as if there’s a curse on all of us.”  Kong ’76 is designed to repudiate the older model of Eurocentric masculinity on display in Kong ’33 as well as to replace it with a newer, improved version.  In so doing, it also, by necessity, had to substitute new images of race and race relations as antidotes to the old. 

This “new image,” however, is by now all too familiar.  The black natives have been transformed into “noble savages,” Third World innocents who fall prey to the predatory greed of white “capitalist oppressors.”  Over night, a people that had survived and flourished under unimaginably harsh circumstances, a community and culture that had arisen within the midst of a remote but pristine island, was destroyed as their god—the apex of their scale of value, the point and purpose from which they derived their identity and meaning as a distinct people—was wrenched from them. 

Peter Jackson’s 2005 Kong goes even further than this: Jackson supposedly selected the actors who would depict the natives from a variety of racial backgrounds and then had them painted in the same shade.  The criticism, then, that his version of Kong was “racist” seems particularly overwrought, for while the natives are dark, they are not black.  In fact, they are all racially ambiguous.

There is, however, a black face in Kong ’05, and it belongs to this version’s first mate, “Hayes.”  It is doubtful that it was through inadvertence that Hayes—the only person of African ancestry aboard the fateful ship that sails to Skull Island—is made to appear as the most heroic character of the film.  Unlike Driscoll, whose love for Ann Darrow drives him to pursue her at all costs, it is from sheer goodness that Hayes risks and eventually loses all to save the latter.  He has personal emotional investments in neither Darrow nor, for that matter, anyone else, save the members of his crew.  Yet in spite of his prior awareness of the dangers that dwell on the island as well as his lack of attachment to Darrow and the film crew to which she belongs, Hayes resolves to continue the rescue operation until his bitter end. 

That Jackson had an acute consciousness of the racial dynamics of the original Kong and a steely resolve to subvert them is amply born out as well by the scene in which Kong is first revealed to audiences in a Broadway theatre.  Dejected and in chains, the gigantic ape is surrounded by black actors dressed as stereotypical natives reminiscent of those that appeared in Kong ’33.  With Bruce Baxter—Jackson’s caricature of Bruce Cabot’s Jack Driscoll—who is fitted in safari attire, they engage in dance to the jungle music against the backdrop of which Fay Wray’s Ann Darrow was offered to Kong in ’33.

Conclusion

Lisa Fabrizio’s thesis regarding the left’s hostility to America’s pre-1960’s ideal of masculinity and the toppling of this paradigm to which it lead is sound enough.  Yet it needs to be supplemented by a treatment of the racial sensibilities from which this shift in gender models is inseparable.  And for this, there is no better place to begin than with an analysis of the contrasts between the three versions of King Kong.           

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

Is “Conservatism” a Meaningful Term?

posted by Jack Kerwick

Paul Gottfried is said to have coined the term “paleoconservatism.”  A self-sworn enemy of all things neoconservative, this long-time student of the political right in both its European and American varieties has unequivocally asserted that in spite of the frequency with which it continues to find employment, the term “conservatism” lost its intelligibility quite some time ago.

Burke, for instance, though widely regarded as “the Father of ‘modern conservatism’,” argued for positions such as monarchy and an established church that are at once representative of the conservatism of yesteryear and simply anathema to the American temperament.  Furthermore, the ideas encapsulated in the Declaration of Independence owe their inspiration, not to anything that is recognizably “conservative,” but to a classical liberal vision of which John Locke was among the most notable exponents. 

With Gottfried’s conception of history, I have no quarrel.  It is his conception of philosophy, however, to which I take exception.

The declaration that “conservatism” is meaningless is nothing more or less than the declaration that it is without identity.  In the political philosophical context within which the term “conservatism” is here used, its referent is nothing other than an intellectual tradition, a tradition of ideas.  So, to determine whether Gottfried’s verdict is correct, we must first determine the character shared by all such entities, the conditions of which the identity of any intellectual tradition consist. 

Brief consideration of any number of intellectual traditions—Christianity, Utilitarianism, natural law theory, deontological ethics, liberalism, etc.—readily discloses that not unlike that of any other entity, including persons, their identity as an intellectual tradition is not to be found in a principle of exact likeness; as a matter of fact, it would appear to resolutely defy any such demand for homogeneity of thought. 

Rather, the identity of an intellectual tradition derives from the continuity of its “parts”; its unity is not to be confused with a monolith, but is located within its differences, differences engendered by both the distinctive voices of the thinkers that draw upon and develop it, as well as the (relatively) unique circumstances upon which they bring the resources of their tradition to bear.

As is abundantly clear from reflection on our own identities as persons, identity precludes neither change nor even dramatic change. It is, however, incompatible with radical change, for radical change resists assimilation and portends the destruction of the being upon which it visits.  While its name has undeniably been conscripted in the service of a movement and orientation bearing few if any similarities to the original article, can the conservative intellectual tradition of which Burke was among the progenitors be said to have been irreparably impaired, destroyed, essentially, so that the term “conservatism” can now be said to be “meaningless?”

Such a judgment is warranted only if we insist on conceiving conservatism solely in terms of the substance of the positions that its adherents have endorsed on those issues that fall within what is usually (but erroneously) called “applied ethics:” abortion, capital punishment, war, terrorism, animal rights, affirmative action, free speech, and the like.  Yet since we don’t so much as remotely think to characterize the identity of any other intellectual tradition along these lines, the decision to adopt this approach toward conservatism can’t but smack of arbitrariness and unfairness.

It is the formal ideas underlying the substantive views of its proponents that define an intellectual tradition.  Take, for example, utilitarianism.  That the reforms of England’s legal system for which Jeremy Bentham strenuously argued in the eighteenth century have long since been accepted doesn’t in the least render “utilitarianism” a “meaningless” term today, for what unites Bentham with contemporary utilitarian theorists isn’t some position on the proper aims of England’s or any country’s penal institutions; what unites them is a formal idea or set of ideas, namely, “the Principle of Utility”: always maximize pleasure and minimize pain for the greatest number of people (or sentient beings).  Utilitarian thinkers can and do differ amongst themselves on a host of issues, but it is nevertheless clear that their disagreements over “applied” matters not only don’t impair the identity of their tradition, they enrich it. 

Similarly, “conservatism” is not a program, doctrine, or platform of policy prescriptions on select ethical issues.  Their many differences in emphasis, tone, style, idiom, and concern notwithstanding, there exists a heterogeneous assortment of thinkers from various parts of Europe and America spanning centuries that can legitimately claim the conservative intellectual tradition as their own.  Pervading each of these works is a constellation of themes and suppositions that constitute the thread by which each is tied to the others.

Rejection of the cosmopolitanism, rationalism, and utopianism of their opponents, no less than affirmation of cultural particularity, tradition, and humility in politics, are in varying degrees present in all conservative thought.  And it is these themes (as well as some others) from which the conservative intellectual tradition derives its meaning.

Much more on this matter can be said, of course. But for the time being, suffice it to conclude that while “conservatism” as a tradition of ideas may have fewer adherents than its competitors and fewer than it has ever had in the past, contra Gottfried, it is a meaningful concept (even if a woefully misunderstood and abused one).   

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

What Exactly have Republicans Learned?

posted by Jack Kerwick

The next presidential race will occur in a political context very different from that in which the last transpired. 

Although it has only been slightly over two years since Barack Obama was elected president, matters have changed quite dramatically since that time.  Those of us to the right of center appear to have enjoyed a decisive reversal of misfortunes, a turn of events for which we have none other than President Obama and his Democratic colleagues to thank.

Two years ago, legions of American voters converged to complete the task of divesting Republicans of power, a mission upon which they first embarked two years prior to that.  Now, as last November’s mid-term elections amply demonstrate, comparable numbers of those same voters have set their sights upon the Democrats. 

But unless this turn of events is read as something other than a mere change in the partisan sympathies of the electorate, its significance will be lost—as will be the winds to which the GOP has now set its sails. 

The intensity of the consciousness of the threat that the federal government poses to his time-honored liberties is rivaled only by the intensity of the American voter’s resolve to resist those threats.  Although its’ formal membership consists in a minority of Americans, there can be no denying that the existence of the TEA Party movement emblematizes this sentiment.

What this means is that for the first time in a long time, there is a substantial segment of the Republicans’ constituency that is no less intolerant of their abuses than it is those of Democrats. And what this in turn suggests is that the days when GOP rhetoric of “limited government,” “individual liberty,” “fiscal responsibility” and the like didn’t need to coincide with conduct are over.  

Such days expired along with the completion of George W. Bush’s second term.  Republicans claimed to have learned this lesson.  But what voters deserve to know is, what exactly have they learned?

The Republican Party against which the American voter cast his vote in ’06 and ’08 is the party of George W. Bush, the party of “Compassionate Conservatism.”  It is incumbent upon Republicans generally, and the next Republican presidential candidate specifically, to account for why a vote for the Republican presidential challenger in 2012 will not be a vote for “another four years of Bush.”

Bush’s vision of “conservatism” is by now anything but illegible. It would serve us well to revisit it at this critical juncture when the Republican Party is rising from the ashes and eyes are beginning to turn toward 2012.

First, from very early on in his first term, Bush, let us not forget, distinguished himself as the first American president to endorse federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.  This was only weeks prior to 9/11, so no sooner than the controversy began did it end; but it is remarkable that it wasn’t a president in the mold of a Barack Obama that took this unprecedented step, but a self-avowed champion of “life.” 

Second, Bush is the author of “No Child Left Behind.”  Both the utopian aspirations of this law as well as its assignation of an ever expansive role to the federal government in the sphere of public education establish beyond a doubt that it could only be anathema to minds touched with even the faintest of conservative and/or libertarian sensibilities.

Third, if not for Bush, we wouldn’t have witnessed the largest expansion of prescription drug benefits since Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society.”

Fourth, both before and after the attacks of 9/11, Bush promoted “comprehensive immigration reform,” what many of his legions of critics—almost all of whom belonged to his own party—correctly recognized as a de facto amnesty.

Fifth, our last “conservative” president determined that the United States’ goal would be to “rid the world of evil.”  To this end, he simultaneously launched two wars (or should they be understood as “battles” in “the War on Terror?”).  While Bush’s defenders have argued that our excursions into Iraq and Afghanistan were necessary responses to 9/11, means by which the government fulfilled its commitment to “national security,” it doesn’t require much thought to discern the weakness of this counter-objection. 

“National security” is an open-ended concept. That a course of action is undertaken in the name of “national security” no more justifies it than the fact that an action is done in the name of “love” justifies it: “national security” and “love” are compatible with unjust and foolish deeds no less so than with those that are just and wise. 

I have no doubts that Bush sincerely believes that it is in the long-range interests of the United States and the planet to deliver “democracy” to the Islamic world; but it is precisely this belief that betrays his commitment to a political-philosophical orientation that is not only alien, but antithetical, to the conservative temperament.  Whether the project to “democratize” Islamic peoples in Islamic lands is just, I won’t say; that it is folly, however, I expect all enemies of Utopian politics to unabashedly affirm.

Sixth, Bush promoted what he called his “Home Ownership Society.”  This sounds wonderful, but to bring this order to fruition, he continued the tradition, beginning with Carter, of using the resources of the federal government to pressure lending institutions to waive standard mortgage loan criteria.  This, as we now know, contributed in no small measure to “the sub-prime mortgage crisis” and “the economic crisis” that helped catapult Obama to the White House. 

Seventh, when the said “crisis” became a reality, Bush threw every ounce of his support behind the unprecedented bank “bailouts,” even going so far as to make a televised appearance in which he attempted to convince Americans that unless they too provided their immediate support of this massive expenditure of their monies, their economic system would collapse within days. 

These are just some of the highlights of the Bush presidency and the era of “Compassionate Conservatism.”  TEA Partiers and others need to demand of these repentant Republicans and the presidential contenders in particular to inform the rest of us, in no uncertain terms, which of these positions they now reject. 

Only then will we know whether they have truly amended their ways.        

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.  

 

A (Brief) Case for the Legalization of Vice

posted by Jack Kerwick

In spite of what the title of this article suggests, the characteristically Libertarian position—what is typically regarded as “the Harm Principle”—that all adult human beings have the right to do whatever they want as long as it doesn’t involve them visiting harm upon others is not one that I endorse. 

The assumption that from the enterprise of invoking “rights” alleged to be “Natural” or “Human” in settling moral issues there is much fruit to be had is correct: since the idiom of “rights” is, so to speak, “the English language” of the universe that is our contemporary political-moral discourse, commerce between agents is facilitated by speaking it; furthermore, the language of rights embodies a vision that is markedly simple in its essence.  Yet these fruits are in reality poisonous: like all monopolies, the monopoly on our public morality that the idiom of “rights” has secured has resulted in a waste of resources in moral reflection, and the simplicity that it supplies has similarly succeeded in drying up the moral imagination by closing it off to other and potentially richer possibilities to explore in accounting for our experiences.

The distinctively Anglo spirit of liberty that “the Harm Principle” intended to encapsulate is all but lost by its transformation into a species of absolutism.  The largely informal mannerisms, customs, and dispositions—i.e. the cultural particularity—from which it sprung and that is the necessary precondition of its enjoyment and conservation is traded for a rootless abstraction or “proposition” that, as a timeless doctrine, runs up against logical challenges that are, in the final analysis, insuperable.

That perhaps most Americans are unaware of it does not change the fact that the only liberty that we have ever known consists in the far reaching dispersal of power that our constitutional traditions have secured for us: the division between the federal government and the governments of the states; the sovereignty of each state over and against the others; the division of each government into three branches; and, as importantly as any of our other institutional arrangements, the institution of private property, are designed to preclude the formation of large concentrations of power.  It is in the interstices of this intricate constellation of “checks and balances” that our liberty is located.

To put the point even more succinctly, our freedom derives from the rule of law, for it is the rule of law that effects this wide distribution of power within which our liberty is to be found.  The criminalization of those activities, like recreational drug use, that have traditionally been regarded as “vices” upsets this distribution and, hence, our freedom, by insuring that ever larger concentrations of power will be formed. 

Yet it isn’t just an ever more powerful government that imperils our liberty.  The criminalization of vice empowers as well the criminal; it encourages outlawry and, thus, turning the law against itself, undermines the legal association for the sake of which law exists.  

The criminalization of drugs, prostitution, and gambling has given rise to black markets.  Since these black markets are the criminal’s oxygen, by legalizing these activities we drain the blood from his veins and divest him of every vestige of power. 

At one time, the Bootlegger was the emblem of the Outlaw, the Gangster.  But there never would have been any bootleggers without Prohibition.  The Drug Dealer is the archetype of the Gangster today.  Both are creations of bad government policy, but while it took the generation of yesteryear only a decade or so to appreciate the truth of what no less a figure, and no more a “libertarian,” than the Angelic Doctor, Thomas Aquinas, long ago discerned—the impulse to outlaw all evils creates even greater evils—we persist in our folly. 

The Bootlegger is no less a relic from a bygone era than the Knight simply because enough people realized that while alcohol consumption can ruin lives, the criminalization of alcohol consumption—through the seedy underworld that it engenders and strengthens—ruins more lives.  And what is true of the criminalization of alcohol consumption is at least as true of the criminalization of drugs and other currently criminalized vices.

The common objection that the legalization of, say, drugs, will result in an increase in usage is inconsequential for at least three reasons: first, it is an assumption; second, assuming as it does that legislators can alter the conduct of citizens at will simply by passing (or repealing) laws, it is rationalistic: the illegality of an activity may be a factor in accounting for why some people abstain from it, but surely it is far from being a decisive one; third, even if true, this disadvantage of legalizing drugs must be measured against, not some ideal standard of perfection, but the aforementioned disadvantages of criminalizing them. 

The impulse to criminalize vice is a function of a view of the state and government that we needn’t pursue here.  Suffice it to say, however, the road to viciousness is paved by the urge to legislate for Virtue.

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D. 

 

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