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Getting Better All The Time

August 25, 2011

Although you wouldn’t know it by watching the local news, humankind is becoming more civilized

This review of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker (Penguin Books, 2012. ISBN 9780143122012) appeared in The American Scholar in August 2011.

In John Ford’s classic 1962 film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a clash of moral codes unfolds in the Wild West frontier town of Shinbone. Under the Cowboy Code, disputes are settled and justice is served between individuals who have taken the law into their own hands, and under the Law Code, disputes are settled and justice is served by institutions because most members of society have agreed to obey the rules. The Cowboy Code is represented by John Wayne’s character, Tom Doniphon, a gunslinger who enforces justice on his own terms through the power of his presence backed by the gun on his hip. The Law Code is embodied by Jimmy Stewart’s Ransom Stoddard, an attorney hell-bent on seeing his beloved Shinbone embrace the rule of law. Lee Marvin’s Liberty Valance is a coarse highwayman who respects only one man, Tom Doniphon, because they share the Cowboy Code. Despite Valance’s constant flouting of the law, Stoddard holds to his belief that until Valance is caught doing something illegal there can be no justice. When Doniphon tells Stoddard, “You better start packin’ a handgun,” Stoddard rejoins, “I don’t want to kill him. I just want to put him in jail.” At long last, however, Stoddard takes Doniphon’s advice that “out here a man settles his own problems” and turns to him for gunfighting lessons. When Valance challenges Stoddard to a duel, the overconfident naïf accepts and a late-night showdown ensues. In a darkened street, the two men square off. Stoddard trembles while Valance mocks and scorns him, shooting first too high and then too low. When Valance takes aim to kill, Stoddard shakily draws his weapon and discharges it. Valance collapses in a heap. Having felled one of the toughest guns in the West, Stoddard goes on to become a local hero, building that image into political capital and working his way up from local politics to a distinguished career as a U. S. senator.

So it would appear that the Law Code prevailed over the Cowboy Code, but not so fast. In a flashback replay of the duel from another perspective, we see Doniphon, who knows that Stoddard is no match for Valance, lurking in the shadows and fingering a rifle. At the crucial moment, he shoots Valance. Holding to the Cowboy Code of loyalty, Doniphon takes the secret to his grave. […]

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