John Wayne

My late, unlamented John Wayne lunchbox (though I may move it to recycling if that’s an option). Photo by Terry Smith

Should I hum “Taps” as I stuff my cherished John Wayne lunchbox into the kitchen trash can? After all, this is a momentous occasion.

For the past several years, I’ve been lugging my lunch to work in a “John Wayne, an American Legend” lunchbox. The lunchbox is emblazoned with a classic 1960 photo of “Duke” Wayne wearing a beige cowboy hat and a blue, vaguely military shirt.

But this past week a Fox News story (!!) popped up in my Apple News feed, recounting how pressure is being exerted in Orange County, California, to rename the John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana. The calls came after offensive quotes from a 1971 Playboy interview with Wayne were unearthed and circulated on social media. Unease over the late John Wayne’s resurrected remarks was amplified in a Michael Hiltzik column that appeared Feb. 21 in the Los Angeles Times, calling for the airport to be renamed (it formerly was just the Orange County Airport).

Hiltzik wrote, “Orange County today is such an economically and ethnically diverse community that it’s hard to justify asking any member of that community to board planes at an airport named after an outspoken racist and homophobe, with his strutting statue occupying a central niche in front of the concourse.”

During the 1971 Playboy interview, the pre-eminent western movie star of four decades of American film history made a number of racist and homophobic remarks. (Wayne was 63 at the time and died eight years later.) Some of those remarks follow:

• Asked by Playboy what kind of films Wayne feels are perverted, he replied, “Oh, ‘Easy Rider,’ ‘Midnight Cowboy’ – that kind of thing. Wouldn't you say that the wonderful love of those two men in ‘Midnight Cowboy,’ a story about two f**s, qualifies?”

• Then among other anti-communist riffing in the interview, Wayne asked, "What kind of a nation is it that fails to understand that freedom of speech and assembly are one thing, and anarchy and treason are quite another, that allows known Communists to serve as teachers to pervert the natural loyalties and ideals of our kids, filling them with fear and doubt and hate and downgrading patriotism and all our heroes of the past?" (The “communists as teachers” line referred to the major controversy over black activist Angela Davis, a Communist Party member at the time, teaching at UCLA in 1969.)

• Still speaking about the Davis controversy, Wayne continued: “With a lot of blacks, there's quite a bit of resentment along with their dissent, and possibly rightfully so. But we can't all of a sudden get down on our knees and turn everything over to the leadership of the blacks. I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility. I don't believe in giving authority and positions of leadership and judgment to irresponsible people.”

• More on race: “I don't feel guilty about the fact that five or 10 generations ago these people (black Americans) were slaves. Now, I'm not condoning slavery. It's just a fact of life, like the kid who gets infantile paralysis and has to wear braces so he can't play football with the rest of us. I will say this, though: I think any black who can compete with a white today can get a better break than a white man.”

• And finally, about Native Americans: “I don't feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from them, if that's what you're asking. Our so-called stealing of this country from them was just a matter of survival. There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.”

Now, far be it for me to insert myself into a controversy over renaming a major Southern California airport. That’s for folks in Orange County to decide. Once a bastion of hard-line white conservatism, over the decades since John Wayne’s heyday in the 1950s and ’60s, Orange County has become much more multi-racial and multicultural, a point that Hiltzik made in his L.A. Times column. Added to the sizable Hispanic population (33 percent of the three-million-plus population as of the 2010 Census) already living there, very large populations of people originally from various Asian countries, or descended from them, live in Orange County (18 percent in 2010). Garden Grove was a Vietnamese enclave as early as the 1970s.

BUT WHILE ORANGE COUNTIANS are battling over their airport’s name, there’s something symbolic that I can do right here in Athens County to protest Wayne’s blazing bigotry: Throw away my stupid lunchbox.

Of course, many are probably puzzling why a grown man is carrying around what looks like a fourth-grader’s lunchbox, the sort that could just as easily sport Star Wars or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle imagery.

That’s not an easy question, especially since I’ve never been a John Wayne fan boy. As kids in the ’60s, my brothers and I used to argue over who was “cooler,” John Wayne or Robert Mitchum. A determined contrarian in my youth, I was always solidly in the less popular Mitchum camp. Then as I grew older and more liberal, Wayne’s virulent right-wing political outlook became no secret either.

The decision to order a John Wayne lunchbox from a lunchbox website had little to do with politics or even Wayne’s acting chops (which were always suspect). Rather, I bought the lunchbox as an affirmative nod toward camp or kitsch. “Camp” in this context is defined in a “camp vs. kitsch” blog I just found as “(being) notoriously hard to define, but in most conceptions it involves both a sense of doubleness – things are not merely what they seem to the naive viewer – and a preference for reversal.” 

“Kitsch,” in the same blog, is defined as “crap that people unaccountably like. The dictionary defines kitsch as tawdry, vulgarized or pretentious art usually with popular or sentimental appeal.”

Whatever the case, camp or kitsch, I no longer want to carry the thing in public. Walking around carrying an image of clearly racist and homophobe John Wayne not only has the potential to offend many people I see on the street (while making me look like an a**hole), but runs contrary to my own sense of right and wrong.

So lesson learned, if I ever decide to order a campy lunchbox again, I need to do some research beyond a vague notion about the icon of choice. In the meantime, a paper bag will suffice.

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