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The Battle of the Rich White Guys

By       Message John F. Miglio     Permalink
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The Battle of the Rich White Guys

Ben Cartwright of Bonanza v. Gordon Gekko of Wall Street

By John F. Miglio

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From the late 1950s to the early 1970s, a time when America had a flourishing middle class, strong labor unions, and a highly progressive tax code, one of the most popular shows on TV was Bonanza.   It was about Ben Cartwright, a wealthy rancher who owned over 500,000 acres of majestic land north of Lake Tahoe called the Ponderosa.

Old Ben had three sons:   Adam, the smart one; Hoss the big lug with the heart of gold; and Little Joe, the quick-tempered youngin'.

Now what made the series notable--aside from its beautiful locale and six-gun action--was the fact that almost every episode was a melodramatic parable of some sort, a morality tale of good versus evil.

And although Ben Cartwright was very wealthy, he was a self-made man and never used his money or power to exploit his neighbors or his ranch hands. In fact, every week, he used his influence to help those in need or in financial distress, or to stand up to greedy businessmen or disreputable bounty hunters, or to help people with emotional or psychological problems.   He was also willing to give outcastes or lawbreakers a second chance.

Moreover, he was brave, straight-talking, and a firm believer in telling the truth at all costs, and he instilled these values in all three of his sons, who also were knights in shining armor cowboy-style.

Over the many years the show was on TV, the scripts dealt with a variety of standard Western topics, like cattle rustling, quick-draw shootouts, kidnapping, armed robbery, etc., but it also dealt with more controversial subjects such as religious intolerance, racism, and sexism.

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In one episode, for example, Ben and his boys protect a black opera singer who is discriminated against by the town folk of Virginia City and falsely accused of being an escaped slave.

But the thing that stood out to me as a kid as I watched these shows was the fact that the Cartwrights were good guys, they cared about their community, and they were compassionate human beings.   The fact that they were filthy rich was irrelevant.   They worked right alongside their hired ranch hands and did physical labor. What's more, they gave all their employees a fair shake and treated them like family.   It would not even occur to them to cheat their help or exploit them, although they could have easily done so.

Now let's face forward to the 1980s, the Reagan years, the era of supply side, trickle down," greed is good" economics, a time that extolled the virtues of Gordon Gekko, the ruthless corporate raider in Oliver Stone's brilliant film, Wall Street..  

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John F. Miglio is the editor of the Online Review of Books & Current Affairs and author of Sunshine Assassins, a futuristic political thriller.

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