Crawl Across the Ocean

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

39. Clint Eastwood and the Guardian Syndrome

Note: This post is the thirty-ninth in a series. Click here for the full listing of the series.

The next few posts in the series are going to focus on the Guardian Syndrome, as outlined in Jane Jacobs' 'Systems of Survival'.

As a reminder, here is the list of ethics in the Guardian syndrome:

Guardian Moral Syndrome:

Shun trading
Exert Prowess
Be Obedient and Disciplined
Adhere to Tradition
Respect Hierarchy
Be Loyal
Take Vengeance
Deceive for the sake of the task
Make rich use of leisure
Be Ostentatious
Dispense Largesse
Be exclusive
Show Fortitude
Be Fatalistic
Treasure Honour

The Guardian syndrome is based on taking (as opposed to trading) as a way of life, and is used in organizations that are territorial in nature (governments, militaries, religions).

A few points to note while I'm on the topic:

1) While maximization is a logical goal of the trading based commercial syndrome, maximizing taking (whether from nature or from other people) is not a sustainable approach.

2) While the commercial syndrome treats everyone equally as people/orgnaizations who have something to trade, the guardian syndrome makes a distinction between us and them (be exclusive, deceive (them) for the sake of the task) and also between superior and subordinate (respect hierarchy, be obedient, dispense largesse).

3) While the commercial syndrome never calls for somebody to make themselves worse off (only to refrain from bettering their condition at somebody else's expense) the guardian syndrome (treasure honour, be loyal, show fortitude, etc.) is all about sacrifice in the name of duty or some greater good.


Unlike the boring, rational, commercial syndrome, the guardian syndrome is full of excitement and lends itself well to television and movies. The best example of the Guardian Syndrome in action that I can recall recently was the Clint Eastwood movie 'Gran Turino'. So I thought that showing the connection between the movie and the syndrome might help to give a flavour of the guardian syndrome. (Warning: lots and lots of spoilers for the movie in what follows)...

Walt Kowalski (played by Eastwood) is a military veteran (the archetypal guardian career) who is now retired and still living in and carefully maintaining his old house in Detroit (complete with American flag out front), even though the neighbourhood has been abandoned by almost all white people and has become a slum.

The plot follows three main threads.

The first main thread follows Walt adjusting the boundaries of his us vs. them group. At the start of the movie it is Walt against the world, defending the territory of his small patch of lawn in the slums of Detroit against all comers. By the end, he has overcome his racism to include the local Hmong community as part of his 'us' group that he is loyal to, choosing them over his own family who he sees as materialistic, shallow, commercial, self-interested and lacking in respect, discipline and honour. As Walt enters the Hmong community we even see the Hmong helping Walt make rich use of his retired leisure instead of just sitting on his porch all day. Walt's final act of largesse is to will his beloved Gran Turino to his neighbour Thao instead of to his family members who were coveting it.

The second thread is the escalating cycle of violence and vengeance with Walt and his Hmong neighbours on one side and local gangs, in particular the local Hmong gang, on the other. The movie ends with Walt making the ultimate sacrifice, restoring his own honour, employing deceit for the sake of task, exerting prowess, showing his loyalty, and taking vengeance all in one final action.

The third thread is Walt taking on a guardian type role with respect to his adolescent neighbour Thao, doing his best to help Thao 'become a man' while maintaining a hierarchical (paternal) relationship in which Thao is expected to obey what Walt tells him, and Walt feels justified in deceiving Thao as necessary to protect him.

Looking at it again, every scene in the movie seems to reinforce the guardian characteristics of Walt's character. The movie opens with the funeral for his wife. At the funeral, we get a sense of Walt's character as he stands erect in formal suit and snorts in disgust at the lack of respect (for tradition, for their elders, for the church) shown by his grandchildren at the funeral. Where a commercially minded person might embrace the 'openness to novelty' of wearing a midriff and bellybutton ring exposing shirt to your grandmother's funeral, obviously Walt isn't buying it.

Next we see Walt's disdain for the self-interested materialism of his granddaughter who tries to convince him he should give her his car (the Gran Turino).

Next we see Walt's exclusiveness, as opposed to his willingness to collaborate with strangers, as he is extremely rude to the teenage boy next door (who is of Hmong descent) referring to him as 'zipperhead'.

Then he corrects the local priest who calls him Walt, saying his name is Mr. Kowalski, again demanding the respect for tradition, and hierarchy.

That's just the first few minutes, I could go on like this describing every scene, but hopefully you get the point - point being that Clint Eastwood's character in this movie is one of the purer depictions of the Guardian syndrome you're likely to see - both the good side and the bad side.

More discussion of the guardian syndrome next week...

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