Day April 8, 2008
It was in sometime in the ’80s when I heard someone on the radio talking about Clint Eastwood’s 1980 movie “Bronco Billy.” It is, he said, a “nice little film in which Eastwood deconstructs his ‘Dirty Harry’ image.”
That was probably not the first time the verb “deconstruct” was used casually to describe a piece of pop culture, but it was the first time I had encountered it, and I remember thinking that the age of theory was surely over now that one of its key terms had been appropriated, domesticated and commodified. It had also been used with some precision. What the radio critic meant was that the flinty masculine realism of the “Dirty Harry” movies — it’s a hard world and it takes a hard man to deal with its evils — is affectionately parodied in the story of a former New Jersey shoe salesman who dresses and talks like a tough cowboy, but is the good-hearted proprietor of a traveling Wild West show aimed at little children. It’s all an act , a confected fable, but so is Dirty Harry; so is everything. If deconstruction was something that an American male icon performed, there was no reason to fear it; truth, reason and the American way were safe.
It turned out, of course, that my conclusion was hasty and premature, for it was in the early ’90s that the culture wars went into high gear and the chief target of the neo-conservative side was this theory that I thought had run its course. It became clear that it had a second life, or a second run, as the villain of a cultural melodrama produced and starred in by Alan Bloom, Dinesh D’Souza, Roger Kimble and other denizens of the right, even as its influence was declining in the academic precincts this crew relentlessly attacked.