Confessions of a Verbivore

September 15, 2010

Black Hats vs White Hats

Filed under: Verbivore — jargontalk @ 2:15 pm
Tags: , ,

Who are the good guys and the bad guys these days?

There was a time not that many years ago in America when if you were watching cowboy shows or movies on television, you could always tell the difference between the bad guys and the good guys. Everyone knew that the bad guys always wore the black hats, and the guys wearing the white hats were good. It was like a rule, a Sacred Law of the Screen, if you want to call it that.

Roy Rogers James Arness, in Gunsmokewore a white hat, so did Gene Autry. John Wayne wouldn’t have been caught dead in a black hat, and even the puppet Howdy Doody’s hat was at least some light shade. Roy Rogers’ wife, Dale Evans wore a white hat, as did all of the Texas Rangers.  James Arness, playing Marshall Matt Dillon (of Gunsmoke) always wore a white hat.

You could add many others to this "white hat" list, actors such as: Hoot Gibson, Rex Allen, Tex Williams, Tex Ritter, Ray ‘Crash’ Corrigan, Jim Bannon (as Red Ryder), Clayton Moore (as the Lone Ranger) and others.

The guys in the white hats always kept their word, and they didn’t use bad words. As a kid, you would never get your mouth washed out with soap copying their language.

They always triumphed over evil, too.

Keeping things on a fairly liberal, broad perception, a white hat could be tan or light gray. It could be almost any light shade, and still be generally referred to as a white hat. A dark brown or blue hat wouldn’t qualify. And a black hat was just plan bad. Author Harold Rabinowitz used this concept in the title of his book Black Hats and White Hats: Heroes and Villains of the West (ISBN: 156799377X).

And yes, there were some exceptions. It’s true that Hopalong Cassidy, the cowboy hero of the early 1950s portrayed by actor William Boyd usually wore a black hat. There was also Richard Boone’s characterization of Paladin from Have Gun, Will Travel. He not was only a good guy with a black hat; his whole outfit was black.

The real point here is that the good guys and bad guys, the heroes and villains, were recognizable to all; generations were raised with that concept. Things changed with the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King in the 1960s, as perceptions became less focused. The advent of the Vietnam War changed our concepts further, but generally we still could identify good and bad.

But suddenly there is a new reality regarding good guys and bad guys that was brought forth by the tragic and criminal acts of September 11th, 2001. You know the details: supposed Muslim fundamentalists hijacked four airliners and crashed them into the World Trade Center in New York City, and into the Pentagon in Washington, DC. A fourth airliner, which seemed to be headed for the White House, crashed in Western Pennsylvania.

And our world changed, possibly to never be the same as it was before.

We became suspicious of people in our midst that looked different from us. Within that first week following the terrorist attacks, violence had been done to a number of people in this country because they wore headgear that didn’t seem "100% American," as one individual stated it. There were disturbing reports of violence and threats against Muslims and Arab Americans. Sikhs were harassed because their turbans resembled Taliban headgear; whole other religious and ethnic minorities were subjected to slurs and profane comments right here on our streets. And many of these people were born and raised in this country.

Windows were broken, bricks were thrown and bullets were fired in incidents directed towards the some of the Islamic communities in America. Luckily law enforcement personnel responded quickly and decisively to stop most of these acts, even offering special security for some local mosques soon after the terrorist attacks. President George W. Bush repeatedly urged tolerance in his television broadcasts, as did New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who publicly appealed to New Yorkers to be tolerant.

But during all of this, children across the country were becoming more confused with each news story that was being broadcast on television and on the radio. They were trying to figure out who were the good guys and who were the bad guys, and they weren’t getting any clear answers.

My own son, five years old at the time, was caught up in all the confusion as well. He quietly watched the few news reports we let him see starting the day of the terrorist attacks, and we had to explain top him that this wasn’t like a cartoon or movie where everything seems to be right in the end. He asked questions, and we tried to answer them, carefully but honestly. He asked if they were going to "fix" the WTC towers, and we had to explain that they might not.

He suffered no bad dreams or nightmares, and we watched out for any signs that he was being effected adversely by what he had seen and heard. There seemed to be none.

We were watching a news broadcast on television a few days after the attacks, one of those describing the many diplomatic meetings that were taking place around the world. I had just gotten up to go to the kitchen for a drink when my son pointed towards the television and blurted out, "Look, Daddy! There’s one of the bad guys!"

I turned and looked, my mind expecting to see yet another news clip of Osama bin Laden holding his AK-47 assault rifle, but that’s not what was on the screen. The image that was there was that of a Sikh diplomat from India, in London discussing something with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. This stopped me cold, and I wondered if I might have said something that would have made him identify a turban with a terrorist. I muted the television, then sat down with my son and tried to discuss it with him, prepared for a difficult conversation.

I found it hard to begin, to find a way to constructively help him differentiate the good guys from the bad. That’s tough enough for adults these days, so how is a child expected to know. Still we moved on, and all the time I was thinking about the guys in white hats and black hats. The old rules wouldn’t work, because in a period of ten seconds on television, we saw two pictures that invalidated them. We saw a New York Police Department patrolman with a black cap helping a dust covered woman onto an ambulance at Ground Zero. Seconds later we saw Osama bin Laden talking with an upraised finger, and his Taliban headgear was white. White hats and black hats weren’t working, and then suddenly it hit me.

Osama bin LadenI muted the television and picked up a new magazine with a picture of a stern-looking bin Laden on the cover. I held it up and asked my son if that was a good guy or a bad guy. He responded quickly that it was a bad guy. I asked how he knew that the man in the picture was a bad guy, and he pointed to the photo and said that the man pictured there "… made people crash airplanes and kill people."

I wasn’t going to argue with that, and I moved on. I pointed to the bin Laden photo and asked him if he though that everyone who wore a turban was a bad guy. He looked confused, and with him being a five-year-old, I didn’t want to lose him on this. I pointed to the hair on bin Laden’s face and asked my son if everyone who had hair on his face was a bad guy. He thought for a second, then started laughing, naming an uncle of his who has a beard and stating that his uncle wasn’t a bad guy. He then looked at me and touched my moustache. He then pointed to the bin Laden picture and said to me, "That’s the bad guy, Daddy. You’re a good guy!"

Right now he sees only one bad guy in the media, and for the time being, that’s just fine. That’s all he needs.


The above article had the title Good vs. Evil #2: Black Hats & White Hats, and was first published in a now defunct site in October, 2001. It was a personal reflection of feeling at that time. My feelings haven’t changed much since then, and I’ve seen my son grow to be an honor roll student who doesn’t judge others by the color of their skin, their ethnicity, whom or what they worship or how they speak. In those respects he’s quite color blind… and for that I’m proud of him. But in our changing times, it’s becoming hard to determine just who is the good guy, and who isn’t.



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