Saturday, April 20, 2013

Matt Dillon for President

No, not the actor; the US Marshal in Gunsmoke.  

James Arness Amanda Blake Bette Davis Gunsmoke 1966

Although Marshal Dillon did occasionally make mistakes, he was the exemplar of American masculine virtue.  So, for example, in the episode "Kangaroo Court", he had to deal with a religious extremist who had taken it upon himself to pass and execute judgment, including floggings and amputations, on those who did not live by his moral code.  If Gunsmoke had been produced today, that would have been the whole of the story:  a cynical, agnostic marshal triumphing over a stereotypically crazy believer.  Instead, the episode ends with Marshal Dillon quoting Micah 6:8, showing that the marshal knew Scripture, had a pious attitude toward it, and knew how to apply it.  

Above all, Marshal Dillon embodied the cardinal virtues of justice, prudence, moderation, and courage.  These are perhaps best on display in the fairly typical scenes in which he protects someone he has arrested from a lynch mob.  Marshal Dillon may be confident that the prisoner will be convicted by a jury and hanged, but he will not be hanged until he has had his trial.  The law is the law, even when it is inconvenient.

A complete contrast, both in character and in genre, can be found in the character of Ming the Merciless; the particular scene I have in mind comes from the (pretty awful) 1980 movie.  Ming, of course, is an over-the-top tyrant for whom there is no law except his own convenience.  Thus his attempted wedding to Dale Arden proceeds like this:
Zogi, the High Priest: Do you, Ming the Merciless, Ruler of the Universe, take this Earthling Dale Arden, to be your Empress of the Hour?
The Emperor Ming: Of the hour, yes.
Zogi, the High Priest: Do you promise to use her as you will?
The Emperor Ming: Certainly!
Zogi, the High Priest: Not to blast her into space?
[Ming glares at Zogi]
Zogi, the High Priest: Uh, until such time as you grow weary of her.
The Emperor Ming: I do.

So Marshal Dillon,  American hero, was willing to risk his life to see to it that a man he was confident was guilty would still receive a fair trial, but for the villainous tyrant Ming, the most basic aspects of law could be disposed of when they became wearisome.  

Which of these two is most like these Republican senators, who want to be seen as "tough as nails" and "no nonsense"?  Is the Constitution only binding when we feel sympathy for the accused, or are doubtful of his guilt, so that a trial would not be wearisome?

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