The Esoteric Traditionalism of Matewan

A guest post by commenter Bill:

Back when I was a neo-con doofus, the movie Matewan was a guilty pleasure. For those unfamiliar, Matewan is a fictionalized depiction of the events surrounding the Battle of Matewan. This was a violent confrontation, set off by a union organizing drive, in Matewan, WV between members of the United Mine Workers and the Stone Mountain Coal Company. One of the many intellectual benefits of moving to the real right is appreciating this film without guilt.

Seen through one lens, the movie is straight-up socialist agit-prop. The protagonist is a former Wobbly, career labor activist, Joe Kenehan. The antagonists are a couple of drunken, degenerate, dishonest pinkerton goons. The movie is well-made and visually beautiful, but its plotting is crude and predictable with the socialist Kenehan as improbably angelic as the pinkertons are demonic. The Kenehan character is boring to watch and difficult to identify with.

So, how does the movie draw our sympathies to the UMW’s side? There is only one technique on offer. We are presented, over and over, with the clash between real, organic, traditional cultures on the one side and the cold, empty, but overwhelmingly powerful forces of modernity on the other. Modernity is played by, first, the railroad, and, second, the pinkertons.

Early in the movie, the pinkertons get off the train in Matewan and find, sitting at the train station, a pretty young woman. It seems that she spends her days watching the trains come and go. This seemingly stock character is not. Normally, Hollywood portrays this woman very sympathetically as a visionary and dreamer, a woman “too big for this small town.” Here, she is portrayed as empty, stupid, and essentially autistic. Naturally, the pinkertons are very unpleasant to her, but the interaction comes off less as the pinkertons victimizing her than three people failing to interact meaningfully because there is an empty space where
that-which-interacts should be. They who come from the railroad and she who hankers after it.

Later, the pinkertons go to a Sunday service at the local Baptist assembly and drunkenly laugh through “There is Power in the Blood.” Again, what one comes away with is not so much hatred for the pinkertons but horror at the contrast between the evident fullness, community, and rootedness of the townspeople and the yawning, tinny, broken emptiness of the pinkertons.

In another scene, Kenehan recounts his time during the First World War in prison with some Mennonites. He describes with evident awe watching, day after day, as the Mennonites pried the buttons off their prison-issued clothes, sure in the knowledge that they would be punished but surer in the knowledge that their traditions require that they take the buttons off.

In a climactic scene, the strikers (now consisting of blacks & Italian immigrants brought under false pretenses by the company to break the strike, along with the indigenous Appalachians) are at
their campsite. They are about to be dispossessed of what little they have left by the pinkertons. From nowhere arrive a bunch of Hillbillies who chase off the pinkertons via a show of force (evidently, they have been harboring a longstanding grudge against the company). As the pinkertons leave, one comments on a
Hillbilly’s outdated firearm, asking if it was used in the Spanish War. No, he replies, in the War Between the States.

One could go on in this vein. The case the movie makes for the UMW could not be more clear. The union will protect your culture and way of life. The company will destroy it. Whether this is actually true in the real world is of no moment. The sales-job presupposes traditionalism. As Bonald points out in one of his posts, Hollywood sometimes makes traditionalist movies by accident. We are so off their radar screen that they sometimes stumble accidentally into our territory—because we are right about how humans are, humans respond to traditionalist themes.

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21 thoughts on “The Esoteric Traditionalism of Matewan

  1. So we can sign you up for the IWW then?

    Really, I am surprised that anyone would be surprised by this. Have you read the Communist Manifesto? Some of its most lyrical language is about how modernism (aka “the bourgeoise”) have liquidated all traditional forms of life and culture. Communism, like Fascism and whatever it is you guys are pushing, all are basically attempts to deal with the radical disjunction between modernism/capitalism and human life. No wonder you see an affinity.

    > The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

    • Quote:whatever it is you guys are pushing,

      Define, in your own words, what you think the writers here are “pushing.”
      Only then should you begin to argue.
      Your refusal to make clear your position would make someone reasonably surmise that you don’t really want to communicate meaningfully.

    • An understanding of the past and orthodoxy that sees where and just how they are serviceable is not the same as this kind of droning nostalgia. The intent is more important than the language here and you know it.

      Is it any surprise that when and wherever the new Jacobins take power, whatever ideology they carry with them, the first targets of their destructive fury are the ones that create the most social cohesion, loyalty and good will among people?

      And Marx destroyed socialism. Really. I’m surprised he has any authority at all among reasoning people.

    • The “radical disjunction” is what most folks round here would call “sin” or the state of fallen man in a fallen world. This is why we Christian traditionalists should reflect upon your comment. As traditionalists we are in danger of equating a return to tradition to a return to prelapsarian existence, but as Christians we must refuse to make this equation. If every traditionalist plan were fully realized, the world would still be fallen and men would still feel alienated. This is why we are not like the communists or nazis. We propose no political solution to this problem of alienation or “radical disjunction.”

      • Presumably sin has been around a lot longer than modernism.

        I don’t blame you for distrusting political solutions, given their record. However, there is a lot of talk here about secession so that you can form a society more to your liking. What is that if not a political solution?

      • I would say that Christian traditionalism does not offer a solution to the problem of alienation in the way that, say, Marxism does. Nature will remain “fallen” until something outside of nature elects to set things right. Traditionalists should simply claim that the political order they advocate would make a fallen world easier to bear, and Christians should say that the metaphysical order they profess interprets the fallen world correctly. So here is what it comes down to: there never was or will be a Heaven on Earth, but not all ways of coping with our fallen condition are equal

      • Not all political solutions are utopian, The idea is that a traditional restructuring of social relations would make men and women conscious of how participation in society connects them to the order of being that culminates in God. There’s mountains of evidence that people in premodern civilizations really thought like this, and Hegel describes a modern version in “Philosophy of Right.” Life always hurts, but the pain is the difference between Purgatory and Hell.

    • So we can sign you up for the IWW then?

      Yup, me and Leo XIII.

      Really, I am surprised that anyone would be surprised by this. Have you read the Communist Manifesto? Some of its most lyrical language is about how modernism (aka “the bourgeoise”) have liquidated all traditional forms of life and culture.

      Wait, you mean evil is only deformed good? What an insight! Maybe you should write a book.

  2. >Hollywood sometimes makes traditionalist movies by accident

    The Last Samurai was such a perfectly traditionalist movie for me, and I don’t watch many movies, that I was actually started to doubt why many conservatives hate Holywood. If they can make stuff like this, what’s wrong? Again maybe they made 500 ultra-liberal ones, I don’t know, my movie experience is very limited. But most of the few ones I did watch had some amount of conservative message – various Batmans, Cold Mountain, Master and Commander etc.

    All I know is that the people who made The Last Samurai “get it” so perfectly that this could be a straight out recruitment video for conservatives.

    Given that liberals all over the world tend to like hating their own country, I saw this movie as a perfect trick regarding how to sell traditionalist ideas to American liberals: by making the message significantly anti-American.

      • Since the thread mixed socialism and movies, take a look at How Green Was My Valley, from 1940. It is wins my “most conservative movie ever” award, though of course it belongs to a different historical period. Traditionalists will love it, and it also has the socialism angle…

      • The Last Samurai snuck through because the filmmakers were pushing a parallel with the American Indian. But then American Indians do have a lot of traditional aspects of their societies that we can learn from. They produce better art than us now.

      • One artifact of us being correct is that a lot of classic romantic gestures (holding the door, paying the bill, taking a bullet, etc.) are inherently complementarian/patriarchal. It’s a lot harder to dissociate oneself from the truth of traditionalism than one might think.

      • The big dumb liberal part of Last Samurai was how the Japanese accepted the gaijin white man into their midst, and even let the gaijin lead their final charge in battle.

  3. One could even give a traditionalist reading of Michael Moore’s Roger & Me. His entire hometown of Flint was obliterated by the “creative destruction” of the automobile industry. And much the same thing happens in every industry.

    I sympathize with the workers, and yet . . . joining the capitalist system is like making a deal with the devil and then complaining that he doesn’t keep his word. The workers built their partially traditionalist society around an inherently unstable economic base and were shocked, shocked when it all went to hell on them.

    • The workers, on the whole, didn’t have a whole lot of choice in the matter. “Joining” the capitalist system was not a choice — read Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation for a description of how early capitalism imposed itself on traditional ways of life.

      You guys might also like the Luddites, who were not (as the popular current usage has it) just anti-technology, they were opposed to the use of particular technologies to destroy their way of life and traditions of craftsmanship.

      • The people were not so innocent; in general, they liked the higher standard of living that capitalism delivered.

  4. Pingback: Enclosure Revisited | The Orthosphere

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