Friday, October 28, 2011

Outlaws ain't what they used to be

What does it takes to be an outlaw in the modern West?

That's been the topic today at the John R. Milton Writers' Conference at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion.

In the West, outlaws have been the quintessential badmen (one word). They rob trains and banks. Terrrorize law-abiding citizens. Kill for no discernible reasons.

Lawmen (one word) were the antithesis of badmen. At least in old movies and old books. Later, that changed. It was the 1960s and '70s. Time of the anti-hero, or maybe the unveiling of charlatans, or the humanizing of the mythic. Custer and Wyatt Earp and Buffalo Bill and Bat Masterson and the entire litany of white Western heroes were being colored in shades of gray. We began to look at history from many angles and not just one. It got complicated. Outlaws were lawbreakers and the good guys were out to set things right. Now the good guys were breaking moral and ethical laws in the Jim Crow South and in Vietnam and on Wall Street. The powerless --Southern blacks, the V.C., advocates of Brown Power and women's rights and Native American traditions -- they were out on streets and occupying buildings and generally raising a ruckus.

Today at the conference, speakers have looked at the legacies of a variety of Western characters: Buffalo Bill Cody, pioneers, 19th-century western melodramas, the fictional creations of Louis L'Amour, Walter White in "Breaking Bad," the sheriff and townspeople in "High Noon," Hollywood horse operas, Hollywood space operas, and even the hard-boiled creations of western-based mystery writers such as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.

Fascinating discussions. But we are left with the questions: who are the outlaws of 2011? Can a blogger be an outlaw, or just a slacktivist with time on his/her hands? If you take to the streets in a nonviolent protest against the powers-that-be and are beaten senseless by the kindly neighborhood cop in riot gear, are you the bad guy or is he? Are you the outlaw for defying conventions? Or is he the outlaw for resorting to violence? Are you both beyond the pale?

Stay tuned...

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