real life, James Dean was much like the character he played in Rebel
a psychologically troubled young man
raised in a broken family. Known mostly for his attitude, Dean's life
was marked by pain. Sullen and painfully vulnerable, he was tormented
by an offensive world and his own internal desolation. I try so hard,
Dean once wrote to a friend, to make people reject me. Why?”
The above quote came from yet another article published this time by John W. Whitehead at Rutherford Institute. Again it mischaracterizes a man 53 years dead of whom the author knew nothing except self-serving comments from Dean acquaintances collated with his own projections.
What we think we know is too often mythology. This is true about individuals and it is true about our institutions.
John W. Whitehead claims to 'know' about James B. Dean from books written by individuals who in fact knew little about him. Jimmy died young. He lived his life from the time he returned to Los Angeles struggling to establish himself as an actor against the wishes of most of his friends and family.
Those struggling to make their way in the entertainment industry do what is necessary to succeed. Such individuals range from those without a serious thought in their heads to individuals, like James Dean, who were serious thinkers. Serious thinkers are normally reluctant to express ideas that mark them out as marching to the beat of a different drummer in Hollywood.
During his life time James Dean was not famous. At the moment he died only one of his three movies had been released. That was East of Eden; Rebel Without A Cause was not yet in the theaters. Giant was yet to be finished.
When he died no one had yet considered the tiny body of work Dean left behind as a potential legacy. No one expected him to die. But today James Dean's movies represent the only tangible statement of his skill and those movies in themselves have proved to be a monumental commentary. The three films illustrate ability and mastery that plumbs depths and exhibits an intelligence unusual in an actor only 24 years of age. The roles he created in those movies expand to dominate the screen against far more experienced actors. The intelligent portion of Hollywood understood that, but as with all professions only a few could see what was so clearly before their eyes. They felt, without understanding, his power, never able to comprehend its source. Most people who are fascinated by the magnetic appeal Dean was able to project ascribe that appeal to those causes that more define themselves than they do James Dean.
These are facts. The brilliance of Jimmy's performances in these three movies were a testament to a well-honed and practiced mastery of his craft. The characters portrayed are not Jimmy.
It is easy for strangers to ooze opinion about someone when that person has been six feet under for more than half a century. His family was reticent and had never really understood him. Dying when he was 24 years old, he could never speak for himself; but those movies burn with the intelligence and hard work James Dean brought to every facet of his life. Many young actors are the product of the need in Hollywood for fresh meat. They last only a season, until the next meat comes down the sidewalk. Not so with James Dean.
John W. Whitehead never knew Jimmy. He expresses opinions based on mythology, a common failing to people who rely more on books and opinion than on actual experience. Since much of American culture comes from the same doubtful process this is, perhaps, understandable. But allowing ourselves to see only the surface of things is costing us now. Today we are living with a bizarre collage of institutions that were either converted from their original purpose or made up out of whole cloth for purposes never publicly admitted. Because we are creatures of habit who value security, a survival strategy longer than human memory, we tolerate much. As Thomas Jefferson said, “mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”
Along with too much tolerance for forms we fail to discern the wizard behind the curtain, the truth garbed in illusions.
The Federal Reserve, the banks on the corner, the courts on which we depend for justice; All of these are very different than they appear on the surface. When Whitehead looks at James Dean he sees a petulant, angst-ridden boy caught in a morass of ideas not of his making or understanding. But the real Jimmy was an intellectual who delighted in ideas and understood their function in creating our world far better than does Whitehead. Jimmy would have seen behind the curtain to the Wizard; he would have known that the Emperor had no clothes.
James Dean was a man who thought deeply, intensely, and understood the power of ideas. He tested ideas for truth using a finely honed discernment that is rare in any individual. Rutherford positions himself as a man dedicated to the ideas of freedom. But Jimmy understood the inner reality that transforms us, using freedom to grow spiritually.
I know this for a fact because Jimmy discussed those ideas with me and lived by his own rules. Jimmy was free and he understood what freedom means in every sense.
I saw Jimmy when he visited us, usually at lunch time, from the time I was three until that last week in 1955. Jimmy came, I am sure, at least partly in hopes of a sandwich at first. Then, he was a starving student and want-to-be actor. His tastes in food were eclectic but he always helped clean up. He was one of the few people in the world who could dry the dishes in a way that satisfied my mother.
Jimmy's mother and my own mother had known each other; were cousins, according to Jimmy.
Every visit Jimmy made involved talking about ideas, not just philosophy, but about how the world worked. From Jimmy I learned the whys for such things as photosynthesis, “Trees breathe. They breathe in light and breathe out life,” he told me when I was four. Jimmy was always thinking, taking ideas apart and then reassembling them, in ways that made them new.
On that last visit Jimmy said this to me about freedom, something that, presumably, Mr. Whitehead understands himself.
We were sitting in the back yard watching butterflies. My little brother had exercised his own freedom by wandering off with his new lasso after our cat, Tiger Lady. Tiger had retreated slowly, keeping an eye on him. Jimmy and I watched. At age three Stephen's aim was not very good. My new lasso was sitting on my lap. Jimmy had brought them with him and shown us how to spin.
Later, I would continue to practice spinning. Jimmy had just finished telling me about the courage and perseverance of Howard Roark, the character from the Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. At age 6 I had yet to hear of Rand. Looking me right in the eye he said this, “Your freedom is not one thing. It is everything. Freedom is your life, how you spend it. As you grow it will become all the things you dream, wish and work for. Those things,” he said, “will be the record you take to God of how you spent the life He gave you. Freedom is God's gift to you.” Freedom is different for each of us, in each case unique. Freedom knows only the limits you, yourself, accept.
James Dean was no hormone-driven Hollywood wind up doll. He was insightful, intellectually alive, and very aware of the kind of people and motives that confronted him in the reality of Hollywood, 1955. To be successful in Hollywood you had to play the games Hollywood expected. Jimmy understood people; he understood their limitations and their prejudices. He had learned to project what was expected of him.
The Hollywood perception of James Dean is colored by the timing of when he died and by the limited access he allowed to those whose approval he needed to succeed in the career he was passionately pursuing. If he had died three years later he would have had time to let Hollywood know who he really was; if he had died ten years later he would have changed Hollywood. But that is not what happened.
There was only one James Dean. How much of him you saw depended on how much it was safe for him to show.
Jimmy had no obligation to share what was private and assuming you know about others can lead you astray. Jimmy, dead, remains who he was. The projections that made him an icon are irrelevant to that truth.
But how we see people does matter.
The truth about the world around us, about the people we have placed in positions of trust, the institutions they run, their motives, and their work, is today at the source of the melt down we face. Large, centralized organizations do not work; they break down for simple, human reasons.
Humans work best in small communities where they can assess those they choose to trust. The reason America worked in the time of the colonies through the Revolution was their communities were small and operated on the idea of cooperation, not profit. The system today has removed the ability for us to know each other through personal contact. The Federalization of government, carried out in contradiction of the Constitution, removed the check on greed and deceit that has mangled our history.
Today we confront the immediate need to see people and institutions for what they are and enact change. As long as we iconize people, removing the warts, we cannot know who to trust. As long as we persist in a form of government that is diametrically opposed to that envisioned by our Founders we will be vulnerable.
Systemic deceit promote a reliance on mythology as fact that is destroying us.
Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt were very different from the myths they have become. Icons do not reflect truth but projection and spin. Both Lincoln and Roosevelt are examples of that process. Each promoted a centralized state that was useful to those who today are asking to be bailed out. The myths on which the Roosevelt and Lincoln reputations were constructed employed fictions that promoted a continuing agenda of Federal power and centralized control. They were not what we have been taught to see.
We need the simple truth and a return to what works.
At the beginning of this week a group of wealthy bankers whose predecessors set into motion the largest scam in the history of the world, came to the American people demanding their debts be underwritten by the same people they have been defrauding for generations. Instead of being jeered and stoned, as they deserve, the Bush Administration is doing all possible to accommodate them. This administration will continue to do that, buoyed up by the mythology that the Federal Reserve Bank and its partners are Constitutional entities working lawfully to ensure that the need of the American people for a means of exchange is fulfilled. The facts are nakedly contrary; the FED is private. Its business is emptying the pockets of Americans, converting their hard earned wealth into gold and other real property intended to profit only that same, small group of bankers and stock holders. That is the crème de la crème of Bush's 'core constituency.'
The mortgage meltdown was carefully orchestrated as just one means by which the theft of American wealth could take place. The price of homes rose; fractional reserve banking ensured that every hopeful home owner would pay many times what that home was worth. First, Americans paid through their mortgage payments, each adding to the mindbogglingly enormous flood of real wealth flowing into those same banking pockets. In so doing they traded earned dollars, real money, for more fiat currency guaranteed only by their own credit. No one ultimately profits but the bankers.
By real law the lack of any exchange of values makes the whole invalid, unenforceable. The credit that backs the faux funds, resting on values never issued by those same bankers, is the credit of the homeowner, who then, to add even more insult to injury, is forced to pay taxes on a home and income whose value has been inflated through that process.
The bankers whine for Congress to keep the illusion going. Congress, nervous now, hesitates. The outcome will not be as anyone expects.
That is all it is, illusion, a mythology with no more real substance than the movies that have romanticized the world of finance from one rapacious gold merchant ripping off unwary customers in Frankfort, Germany in 1770 to one of monumental myth.
Americans are close to losing nearly everything they accepted as secured to them. The fact that many of us knew they were dancing on the thinest of edges does not change the shock waves now reverberating through all of our lives. Americans believed that banks could be trusted, that there would be food on the table, that their homes belonged to them and that there was hope for tomorrow.
Losing the myth, the illusion, is the first step towards real freedom and real hope. Be glad this is happening. There is no freedom until you have the truth. When you have the truth anything is possible, even justice.
James Dean understood the need for truth. He was an individual who saw clearly and who had values that were defined and honed through years of thought. If he had lived Jimmy would have transformed the entertainment industry; injecting the vibrant ideas and values that moved him originally into acting. Because that industry supplies the memes and cultural content of so much that we, as Americans, live and breathe every day of our lives, and because the world watches us as the edge of cultural change, it is fair to say that James Dean would have changed the world. That was his intention and his aim; to impact the world through the craft of acting.
He understood how it could be used. He intended to use it.
James Dean had confronted such issues and the life of the spirit, mortality, the profound differences between people, and the ideas that drive the world when he was very young. He began life as a Mama's boy, enveloped in maternal attention. He shared with his mother a world of make-believe that helped him understand the difference between reality and fantasy. They also talked about ideas. That world was shattered when his mother died and he was relocated to Indiana to live with his aunt and uncle, two people who were decent, kind, hard-working and very different. He was a sensitive child. He did not forget his mother, he continued to remember and to grieve, creating an intense internal life of ideas. Those ideas eventually took him into acting. People who are highly intelligent and creative make their own rules.
You know how little his family understood him by where they chose to bury him. If Jimmy could have chosen he would have been next to his mother, never his father.
Jimmy knew what Hollywood wanted him to be so that is what they saw. He was much more.
James Dean loved thinking about the processes of life. He loved books and the ideas that roil in the mind when that mind weaves the possibilities of what is now with what could be. He pounced on new facts with delight.
The first time I met Jimmy it was over Beanie sandwiches in the kitchen of the family home in West Los Angeles. He was a student; I was a kid. He was the kind of person who listened and responded thoughtfully; he was able to connect and engage in a real discourse, not talking down to me but exploring the ideas that found their way into our conversation, introducing ideas as part of the text. With Jimmy if there was conversation there were ideas to discuss.
It was on that very first visit that Jimmy and I discussed mortality. It was the first time anyone had mentioned the subject to me. I had been watching a tortoise dissolve back into dust, so to speak. I had discovered the tortoise already very dead behind a bush in the back yard of the house. I was fascinated by the process of its dissolution as ants carried it away and it shrank into itself. I had not told anyone else because I knew how they would react. The tortoise would evoke shrieks and Mom would remove it.
Given a chance I hauled Jimmy back to look, too. Jimmy was delighted. He proceeded to tell me about observing the same process with a cow on a farm back home. Then, squatting down for a closer look, he told me that the essence of the tortoise, the thing that had make it move and live, was gone. The same happened to all that lived, he told me.
If you only know the character Jimmy portrayed in his three movies you don't know Jimmy, only his undoubted ability to craft a performance. It is your loss, not mine.
But if you make the mistake of believing mythology over reality, about Jimmy or about banking, your brain still needs training wheels.