Where have all the cowboys gone?
— Paula Cole
Scene: John Wayne walks among his troops, patting them on the shoulders, offering words of encouragement, trying to buck up their courage.
“Men, today we have an opportunity to be part of history,” Wayne says in his familiar manly voice. “Today, we’re more than just men; we are representatives of the free world, of God, of right. If we let those stinking Nazis move into this city, the tide of the war will change. I’m asking a lot from you today. I know many of you are no more than boys, just out of school. But today you become men, and today we’re making a stand for freedom.”
The camera closes in for a close-up of Wayne’s grizzled, determined face, then slowly pans across the faces of the young soldiers, fire in their eyes as Wayne’s words sink in.
Suddenly, there are loud explosions; dirt flies in the air as mortar rounds hit nearby. Dramatic music plays in the background, emphasizing the German tanks that roll in from the horizon, looking like prehistoric beasts whose sole purpose is to destroy anything in their path.
The camera cuts from the tanks to another close-up of Wayne. He holds his steely-eyed glare for a prolonged moment, then shouts, “I don’t know about you guys but I’m getting the heck out of here.”
The star breaks into a run that emphasizes his patented lumbering gait, and his men immediately follow after him, screaming as they scamper from the invading Nazi army.
And, cut. End scene.
We all know, of course, that no such scene exists. Hollywood has made zillions of dollars over the years by producing films that take men like Wayne, men who embody the spirit and courage of the everyday American, and stacking seemingly insurmountable odds against them. When they defy the accepted limits of mortal man and overcome those odds, they become symbolic of America’s rise from humble beginnings to world pre-eminence.
The roles that actors like Wayne, Denzell Washington, Bruce Willis and others of that ilk play offer a hyperbolized self-portrait of a country that’s always had no shortage of heroes. What makes these characters so appealing is that most are of the everyman variety, the common man — someone just like us — who stands up for himself, his family, his country and wins in a seemingly no-win situation.
But the day of the American hero is dwindling. The spirit that the John Waynes embodied seems to be fading like the era of the black-and-white movie.
I thought about that this week as I read emails from a number of citizens who seemed almost happy that a shooting occurred outside the downtown State Theatre only a few days after I pointed out that a recent extensive Albany Police Department report included no criminal complaints from the downtown district. Their common theme: “See, we told you downtown is dangerous. That’s why it will never be revitalized.”
But you know what. Downtown Albany may, indeed, never return to the prominence it once held, may never become more than a shell of its former self. But it won’t be because the citizenry felt threatened by the prospects of visiting a retailer on West Broad Avenue. And it won’t be because timid souls felt they were living dangerously by enjoying a cup of coffee on Front Street.
No, the biggest obstacle that stands in the way of downtown redevelopment is the lack of courage — the absence of the American spirit, if you will — necessary to face a challenge. Rather than choosing to impose our will, to stand up and say “I am going to help bring this once-flourishing city back to life come hell or high water,” we have too many people locking themselves in their comfortable homes, setting their alarm systems to Defcon 4 and cowering in their self-imposed prisons from tales of pending apocalypse.
Much more drug-, thug- and crime-infested cities than Albany, Georgia have had amazing rebirths. Take a look at Brooklyn in New York — once dubbed “Crooklyn” by Spike Lee — and portions of Chicago, Boston, Baton Rouge, Toledo, Ohio. At some point, people with the courage and wherewithal to say “enough” banded together and took their cities back. Rather than throwing up their hands and offering up legacies forged by brave men and women who came before them to the criminal element, the forward-thinking citizens and leaders of these and other cities did what had to be done to bring about monumental change.
To suggest that Albany couldn’t do the same goes against every fiber that makes up the American spirit. And it says to the world: “We’re too weak and scared to take such chances.”
That’s the kind of soul-killing defeatest attitude that’s done more to eradicate the American spirit than the damage done by all the gang-bangers and drug dealers combined.