Right after he hits Luke with a blackjack for wise-cracking in front of the crew of dirty inmates who have been assembled in their ditch to regard the now-chained escapee, the warden says in his nasally drawl:
What we’ve got here is . . . failure to communicate. There’s some men you just can’t reach. And that’s the way he wants it. Well, he gets it!
Cool Hand Luke Jackson represents a distinct type of anti-hero that was all over pop culture in the middle and late twentieth century: a man who stands boldly against a society whose “rules and regulations” he can’t stomach. Think of Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye, Clyde Barrow in Bonnie & Clyde, Wyatt (Captain America) in Easy Rider, John Shaft in Shaft, Ducky in Pretty in Pink, JD in Heathers, D-Fens in Falling Down.
These anti-heroes are exciting to watch, as they flaunt their willingness to defy authorities, but one major problem remains: they have questions, but no answers. Though Luke Jackson is compelling, handsome and whimsical, at once aloof and mischievous, he is snuffed out with relative ease by the Man with No Eyes, after having changed almost nothing. There truly are some men you just can’t reach.
We see from these characters how hard it can be to stand up against something— but real life shows us daily that it is far simpler than standing for something. Finding flaws and pointing them out to others doesn’t take much. Life is chock-full of inconsistencies and imperfections in the way we do things. But offering an alternative for what could work instead— that takes ingenuity, thought, work, fortitude, and patience.
In recent years, I’ve watched small social-justice movements rise and then fizzle because of this. Some group has our attention for a moment. They have their fingers on the pulse of what is wrong. But as time goes on, first one protester then another packs up the tent and goes home. Eventually, the news media moves on, too. Why? Not because the wrong became any less wrong, but because the group had no workable alternatives.
Unfortunately, many of us have turned into Luke Jackson, standing in the rain, waving our tools and shouting at the clouds to give us answers or leave us alone. Others into Holden Caulfield, wandering aimlessly from one unsatisfactory experience to the next and imaging occupations that don’t exist, but probably should. Still others have become JD or D-Fens: gun-wielding mad men whose twisted ideals lead to violence.
Me, I’m worn out with people who have complaints but no answers, who proclaim what isn’t working but wait on others to find what does, who bicker and malign because they don’t understand legitimate politics. Man-versus-The-World might be interesting in film, but it isn’t in real life. It really isn’t in politics. Our governmental system was designed to prevent one person from garnering control. Instead, the system balances and coordinates disparate perspectives from states and peoples with widely varying interests. Yet, we’ve managed to mire even that in strategic redistricting, exhaustive polling, and disingenuous campaigning. This version of “politics,” which is marked by election strategies not solutions, is a toxic mixture of either-or accusations, denials, and counter-accusations— and the politicians it produces are not leaders at all.
That’s what I see as the problem, and here’s my suggestion for a solution: Americans need to vote with a focus on obtaining true representation, instead of voting against the candidates (or parties) we’ve been convinced to despise and distrust! Our current divisions are rooted in campaign rhetoric that tells us: “My opponent is an awful person with terrible ideas. I’m your other choice.” We can beat those mind games, but only if we recognize them for what they are, and then do what Luke Jackson never did: find meaning in our own lives, and then focus on what we’re for, not what we’re against.
the #newschool is a column about ideas for improving society and the lives of all people. New posts are published on the first and third Sundays of each month.