Rod Dreher

Via Andrew Sullivan, I learned of Jesse Walker’s remembrance of Dennis Hopper, which contains these fascinating sentences:

A central theme of the western is the tension between the sometimes lonely freedom of the road and the sometimes suffocating security of the rooted community. Easy Rider took place in a modern western landscape, not in the days of the frontier, but it grappled with the same idea. J.F.X. Gillis has argued that the film is, despite its reputation, a deeply conservative movie with parallels to Chaucer’s “The Pardoner’s Tale.” In their stops along the road, Gillis argues, the protagonists “were given choices, opportunities to find meaning in their lives beyond that gas tank filled with money, beyond the pleasure of the brothel or the bottle, beyond the aimless wandering, meaning offered through spiritual commitment. Could there be a more conservative theme? The rancher and his family, the commune: first they were given a model of a meaningful life, then they were given an invitation to build that life. Invited to stay and join a family and find God, they refused.”
“If this narrative had been Medieval, could there be any doubt at all of the theme or the moral teaching intended?” Gillis asks. “Sinners wander the countryside on a secular quest, encountering God’s message but failing to acknowledge Him. They seek worldly pleasure at the expense of spiritual fulfillment, finding treasure and discussing it under a tree, only finally to die a horrid death by the wayside.” That might not match the popular understanding of the movie’s message, but it isn’t far from at least one of the filmmakers’ views. “My heroes are not right, they’re wrong,” Hopper’s co-writer and co-star Peter Fonda said. “Liberty’s become a whore, and we’re all taking the easy ride.”

The fuller quote , taken from a passage in Bill Kauffman, is more helpful:

Dennis Hopper (an admittedly unorthodox Kansas Republican) and Peter Fonda (a gun-loving libertarian) did not make a movie glorifying tripping hippies and condemning the southern gun culture; rather, as exasperated Fonda explained, “My movie is about the lack of freedom. My heroes are not right, they’re wrong. … Liberty’s become a whore, and we’re all taking the easy ride.”

There is a profound point here. “Easy Rider,” in this reading, is a film about the misuse and abuse of liberty; if the film were called “Free Rider,” the philosophical point would be more clear. As Kauffman points out, “The only characters depicted as unqualifiably virtuous are the homesteading family, living on their own acreage, raising their own food, teaching their young.” Jesse Walker, in his essay, makes this observation about films of the countercultural era:

In the best movies of the period, the animating idea wasn’t some clichéd battle between the hipsters and the squares. It was the concept that powered those westerns of an earlier era: the tension between the home and the road, and the happiness and horrors to be found in both.

This is the quintessential American theme, isn’t it? I would take it one step further, and ask you to contemplate how all of us, including your blog host, are easy riders, in the sense that Patrick Deneen identifies in his excellent post on free riding. Deneen begins by noting how the Front Porch Republic crowd (including me, whom he mentions by name) are vulnerable to legitimate accusations that we gripe about rootlessness and lack of community as a cultural crisis, but often we benefit from the same things we criticize. But then Deneen — who mostly speaks in this context of “liberalism” not really in the strict Democratic Party sense, but rather in the historical sense that nearly everybody in the West is a free-markets-and-individual-rights liberal — says:

That said, we are also generally aware of the ways that the culture we oppose – of mobility, deracination and placelessness – is also based upon widespread free-riding. The culture of liberalism – writ large – has always free-ridden on the health and vitality of a pre-liberal, even anti-liberal culture. Most basically it assumes the existence of, but does little to support or replenish, the culture of good families. It relies upon the virtues of children raised in those settings, even as it is suspicious of – even destructive of – what are necessarily “paternalistic” (or “maternalistic”) features of those settings. It has sought to open every closed association and civil institution, ultimately emptying them of the capacity to elicit loyalty, memory and stability. It relies on the good will and sacrifice of citizens even as it assumes that we are fundamentally rational actors driven by self-interest. Tocqueville wrote of Americans that “we do more honor to our philosophy than to ourselves,” meaning that although we explain all of our actions in terms of self-interest, we actually act out of a deeper wellspring of altruism and fellowship. Over time, he observed, our actions would begin to conform to our words, however, thus eviscerating the deepest and better sources of our behavior.

The point here is a paradoxical one: that true liberty can only be realized by people who root themselves in limits and loyalties that constrain choice. People who drift wherever their whims take them, seeking out pleasure (especially the pleasure of exercising maximum autonomy and freedom of will), are not really free at all. This is a hard thing to grasp, and an even harder one to live by, especially when the broader culture is against you (it’s like trying to hear a melody through the jackhammer din of a construction site). Never was it easier to unhitch yourself from your place and your tradition, and cruise through the open road of life wherever your will takes you. But if you don’t know where you’re going, and you don’t believe there is any such thing as a map, or a destination, why, exactly, aren’t you lost? No direction home, a complete unknown, like a rolling stone.
Whoever wants to save his life must lose it. That’s the hard truth. Commitment to something greater than oneself — that’s the only true liberation. But not everything greater than oneself is worth that maximum sacrifice, is it? The 9/11 hijackers were nothing if not committed. The road has never been more open — nor as dangerous for those who travel without a good map.

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