Thursday, May 31, 2012

Hatfields & McCoys in Libertarian Paradise

Randall McCoy (Bill Paxton) and Devil Anse Hatfield
(Kevin Costner), the magnificently scruffy-looking
patriarchs of their respective clans.
This 6-hour, 3-part miniseries just finished on the History Channel. It was gol-durned good, and it done good too. According to The Hollywood Reporter,
Even during its premiere on ratings-unfriendly Memorial Day, the first outing of the three-night miniseries Hatfields & McCoys pulled in a record-breaking 13.9 million viewers during its inaugural telecast at 9 p.m. That number marks a new nonsports high for ad-supported cable networks.
For those who need a brush-up on American History, the series chronicles-- with a bit of fictionalized gloss-- a decades-long feud between two extended families in the Kentucky-West Virginia border in the late 1800s. And feuding was done the old-fashioned way back then, with Henry and Winchester rifles, summary executions and a pitched open battle or two.

The whole series was directed by Kevin Reynolds and essentially produced by Kevin Costner, so it seems that Waterworld was not a source of lingering bitterness between the two. A few notes:

• Care was taken not to choose sides in scripting the feud between the Hatfields and McCoys, but at the same time the families were shown to be very different. Randall McCoy (Bill Paxton), the patriarch of his family, is a deeply religious man of difficult means who nonetheless carries seething resentment towards Devil Anse Hatfield (Costner), an Atheist and logging entrepreneur. So, even though the fight began through a series of trivial slights, differences in religion and wealth fueled it. I think everyone who had a casual acquaintance with the history of the feud thought it was a scrap between two undifferentiated clans of inbred hillbillies: the miniseries effectively dispelled that ignorant notion.

Two McCoy girls. Just showing they weren't
all a bunch of scruffy hillbillies.
• The production was quite handsome, shot in sylvan woods seemingly untrammeled by humanity. Still, the overall art direction was seriously uneven. The costumes and weapons were quite authentic-looking-- However, the town set was frankly silly-looking, a collection of Wild West storefronts complete with saloon with swinging doors and flocked red wallpaper. The production suffered from poor typography (“Oh God, another typography discussion!”): newspapers and signage showed the too-clean look of having been printed from Adobe Illustrator, and the “engravings” on the wanted posters were so egregious I could easily figure out what filter effects were used to make 'em.

The credits provided the answer to this uneven look: the whole show was shot in Romania. Unspoiled forests, cheap labor for building log cabins, and equally cheap but inexperienced art department staff.

• There is an important, timely message in Hatfields & McCoys, an abject lesson in the proper role government should take in our lives. The hilly, rural borderlands of Appalachia in the 1870s-1890s were under no real jurisdiction, and the rule of law was unenforced. This is a situation many libertarian and far-right politicians are positively avowed to return us to: one where citizen's rights are untrammeled by any form of government, our property rights and livelihoods entirely the responsibility of the individual. It's Libertarian, Tea Party paradise.

But the lesson of Hatfields & McCoys is showing the bloody anarchy of libertarian realpolitik, a real historical example of how disputes tend to resolve in areas of weak central government where the rule of law is either unavailable or ignored. Accusations concerning a stolen pig or an offhand comment about having sex with a dog (both are shown as catalysts of the feud) quickly escalate to bloodshed. Courts are shown as biased to one side or another, and both families have no respect for them in any case. Most of the young men in both clans are seen as being constantly drunk, armed to the teeth, reflexively belligerent and, abetted by their elders, unafraid of any legal repercussions for their violence.

The tragedy of the Hatfield-McCoy feud is no doubt playing out today between unknown families in countless lawless places in the world: Somalia, rural Pakistan, Congo, probably even Romania. You don't have to be a cynic to have an idea of what awaits us in Libertarian Paradise.


  1. "Libertarian paradise"? Find me a single conservative or libertarian of note who suggests that murder is not a proper domain for government regulation. That man is straw.

  2. Sure, I'll admit I ginned up a straw man to make a compelling headline. And I agree murder is as egregious and illegal in modern theoretical libertarian societies as it is in the rule-happy Real World. Even in the Appalachians as depicted in this miniseries murder is illegal and valiant efforts are made by both sides to bring killers to state justice. But the crucial difference in the legal void the miniseries depicts is that everything, everything, EVERYTHING else is unenforced. The point of the show (and critics of libertarianism) is that these smaller crimes-- public drunkenness, verbal abuse, physical violence-- will, if people are left to their own ends, can easily escalate to murder and blood feuds. Especially if people are left to their own ends while holding guns.