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Can Disney’s Davy Crockett Save America?

1davycrockettxp2My parents used to tell me that I could sing “Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier” before I could talk. I don’t doubt it; I loved that show. Fess Parker, a Texan, played Crocket in television’s first three-episode mini-series, produced by Walt Disney in 1955. The theme song, sung by Parker, was the nation’s number 1 hit for 13 weeks. I sang it constantly, setting a coonskin cap on top of my three-foot self and banging on a plastic ukulele I couldn’t play.

“Be sure you’re right, then go ahead,” was Crockett’s motto. Out of the mouth of a legendary American frontier hero, it’s often misunderstood as a kind of dangerous, simple-minded willfulness. One can almost hear George W. Bush saying it, though he’d put a period in place of the comma: Be sure you’re right (full stop). Then go ahead (smirk, chin bob and shoulder dip).

However, as the saying appears in John W. Barber’s 1857 Hand Book of Illustrated Proverbs, it reads more like Emerson, Thoreau, William James and John Dewey than George Armstrong Custer:

Be cautious all, abroad, mind where you tread
Be not deceived, be sure you’re right, then go ahead.

It speaks to setting incautious certainty aside in favor of open-minded experimental action, and that is the core of America’s most original philosophy, pragmatism. Some even say its roots lie in practices of the first Americans, the indigenous people the real Crockett championed. Crockett, by the way, destroyed his brief career in Congress when he opposed President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act. Disney dramatized Crockett’s fundamental humanism. In one episode, Crockett faced down three racists who were trying to take away Indian land. “Indians have rights,” Crockett said. “They’re just folks like anybody else.”

All human actions are experimental. We have to “go ahead,” but we’d best leave the cock-sure behind us when we go.

Of course, it’s sadly true that the ears of arrogant, cock-sure and ugly Americans haven’t exactly been open to the nation’s philosophers. Too many actually oppose action to philosophy, as if thinking before acting is a weakness.

It may seem nutty to turn to Walt Disney for progressive insight, but it’s often forgotten that in Disney’s world, the Indians were heroes and Custer was a villain. Heroes like Crockett weren’t lonely, anti-social individualists. They acted on behalf of community. J.G. O’Boyle wrote in the Journal of Popular Film and Television:

A close examination of Disney’s historical film output shows a consistent pattern of antiracist, anti-war, anti-authoritarian messages – messages often at odds with the prevailing popular mood of the time.

So, can Disney’s Davy Crockett save America?

The other day I wrote a piece about a new study that shows broad-mindedness leads to happiness, and happiness leads to broader, associative thinking that is more creative. The author, Harvard’s Moshe Bar, speculates that the happiness reward gives us a survival advantage.

Certainty and dogmatism lead to unhappiness – and quite often to peril. Science is confirming Crockett’s advice. Move ahead, but do so with an open mind and an understanding that absolutist illusions of certainty are dangerous.

There is a human tendency to avoid uncertainty, a tendency often exploited by the authoritarian right. They aren’t the only ones, of course. Ideologues of all stripes quit thinking creatively and insist that truth belongs exclusively to their ideology.

Ronald Reagan was a master at using melodramatic American myths of the cock-sure frontier hero. In the end, though, Reagan was open-minded enough to trust Mikhail Gorbachev. It’s just another dumb ideological fiction that Reagan “won” the Cold War. But he had sense enough to open his mind a bit, get out of the way and let the historic changes happen – a move Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and other hidebound exploiters of the mythic, unbending cowboy hero are still angry about.

We can never be sure we’re right, of course. Crockett’s motto would be more accurate, if more cumbersome, if it read, “Be sure you’re right as you can be, then go ahead. Adjust your future actions to the consequences.” Absolutists on the right will call this moral relativism. Absolutists on the left will say it lacks revolutionary zeal. They’re both wrong. It’s just smart.

Crockett gave us sound advice, and there’s another benefit. The authoritarian right has created a false image of frontier-style individualism. And that gives progressives and opportunity to win favor from voters who understand that thought is action’s hero, and that real heroes are socially minded champions of community, not Ayn Rand pathological loners. Generations were taught that by Walt Disney, for crying out loud. We ought to remember the lessons.

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Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith