However talented he may be, no writer will ever be safe from his audience, for it is they who will eventually pronounce upon his meaning. Ray Bradbury once stormed indignantly out of a class at UCLA after his audience took to arguing vehemently with him as to what his novel Fahrenheit 451 was “really” about. Philip Roth was rejected by Wikipedia as a “credible source” about his own book The Human Stain, an editor at the site informing him mulishly that a “secondary source” was required. And, in perhaps the most conspicuous turnaround of them all, the television producer Norman Lear was horrified when his character Archie Bunker was met not with the rolling of eyes but with widespread approval. Lear, who had hoped to establish Bunker as a totem of all that is ghastly about clodhopping working-class whites, was forced to watch in consternation as his creation not only became popular but was transmogrified into the beloved champion of a besieged weltanschauung utterly at odds with his own. Authorial intent, it seems, is a tricky business.
Of late, a similar phenomenon has struck the hit NBC comedy Parks and Recreation. Ron Swanson, an initially second-string character whose idiosyncratic mien and tough-but-kind libertarianism was almost certainly intended as pasquinade, has, slowly but surely, become the focus of a micro-cult. At first blush, Swanson represents little more than the cartoonized rendition of a lost American man — part 19th-century homesteader, part strong and silent midwestern dad, part curmudgeonly autarch. Asked to help a local girl with a book report on “why government matters,” Swanson delivers a quick lecture on John Locke, eats 40 percent of her lunch in order to demonstrate “how taxes work,” supplies her with a claymore mine so that she might better protect her property, encourages her to drink and smoke when she reaches 18, and, eventually, justifies his behavior to her exasperated mother by explaining that he is a “libertarian” and that he is right. Swanson regards the government for which he works as “a greedy piglet that suckles on a taxpayer’s teat until they have sore, chapped nipples,” sees capitalism as “God’s way of determining who is smart and who is poor,” and contends that luck is just a “concept created by the weak to explain their failures.” Defend “property rights,” he warns; “do not let them be taken from you.” At one point, Swanson is named “Government Employee of the Month,” an indignity so great that he is forced to try to destroy the trophy in a series of increasingly amusing ways and finally to bury it at night in a neighboring state. He is, let’s say, an unlikely hero in the age of Obama.
Swanson is primarily intended to serve as a welcome foil for the suffocating enthusiasm and over-the-top ambition of the show’s central character, deputy parks director Leslie Knope. Where Knope is a workaholic who is unable to conceive of an area into which City Hall should not intrude, Swanson believes that the department he heads should not exist at all and that government is at its very best when it is dysfunctional and restrained. The conflict that this mismatch produces directs the show away from partisan politics — which, given the proclivities of our entertainment class, is a blessing. Because Swanson checks Knope’s zeal and Knope checks Swanson’s obstinacy, the moralizing is reserved to trumpeting the virtues of compromise. Unlike, say, The West Wing, the show is largely devoid of a bent.
And yet, as the show has progressed, Swanson has transcended his complementary role and broken out on his own. In comedy, Entertainment Weekly noted, there “tends to be a clear line between the especially over-the-top minor characters and the more stable leads.” By all accounts, Swanson should have stayed firmly in the former camp. “For most of the show’s history,” however, he has been “moving from the first category into the second.” And, perhaps, farther.
The character’s ascendancy speaks to something more than just a need for dramatic balance and political ecumenism. “I’ve been sucked into the cult of Ron Swanson,” the British television critic Sarah Morgan lamented with mild alarm in 2013, before expressing genuine surprise that her hero “has a massive following in the States, where the sitcom is made.” She should not, perhaps, be so startled, for Swanson represents an instinct that remains deeply embedded within the American psyche. All of the characters on Parks and Recreation are archetypal in some way: April is a surreal misanthrope; Chris is crushingly earnest; Ben is an unreconstructed geek; Andy is dumb but unfailingly amiable; and, for all that he grows personally, Ron Swanson is a walking philosophical pole. But that pole is an extremely popular one.
To the writers, Swanson is almost certainly an inherently comical character — a man so bound by ideological fervor that he cannot quite grasp the incongruity of his opposing the existence of the hand that feeds him. (He was, producers confirmed with obvious amusement, based in part on a politician from Burbank, Calif., who confessed that she didn’t believe in her own job description, and in part on the various Bush-era bureaucrats who headed up departments they wished to abolish.) To his admirers, however, he is a great deal more complex than that. Most Americans fall somewhere between the rugged individualism and unapologetic independence of a Ron Swanson and the soft intrusiveness and unfettered daydreaming of a Leslie Knope. Nevertheless, I suspect that the prevailing public apprehension of what it ideally means to be “an American” is closer to Swanson’s than to that of anybody else on the show. Rolling Stone’s sneering 2011 insistence that Swanson is “the perfect depiction of aggrieved American manhood at the twilight of the empire” may have pleased the magazine’s Pecksniffian audience. But it misses the mark. So, too, does the accompanying description of Swanson’s creed as mere “crackpot rants about the government.” Swanson might be a throwback of sorts. But he is a throwback to much that is beloved: tough love, personal accountability, self-sufficiency, dependability, private compassion. It should come as no surprise, perhaps, that the most popular Parks and Recreation–themed T-shirts on the bespoke e-commerce website Etsy feature a posterized rendering of the character’s face above a simple, unobtrusive caption: “American.”
#page#Far from appealing only to the political fringe, Swanson hits repeatedly on timeless and deep-rooted civic ideals that have not disappeared from the public square. When he insists earnestly that “the less I know about other people’s affairs, the happier I am,” he is reflecting a general anxiety about the rise of celebrity and the omnipresence of gossip. When he panics at the casual way in which others can track his every movement — resolving in consequence to go “off the grid” — he is attempting to claw back some of his privacy, a genuine concern in our hyper-connected world. When he proposes that the highest virtue is “honor” and that “if you need it defined, you don’t have it,” he is speaking to the aspirations of a generation that is searching for a moral and philosophical rudder. And by unabashedly expressing his support for assiduous “self-reliance” and “welfare avoidance,” and encouraging all those around him to learn to “live off the land,” he is taking his destiny in his own hands: the ultimate American ideal.
On July 4 of this year, Huffington Post proposed “18 Ways to Be a True American Like Ron Swanson,” reciting for its audience some of his most patriotic maxims. A quick search for “Ron Swanson” and “America” yields a veritable treasure trove. “Crying,” Swanson holds, “is acceptable at funerals and the Grand Canyon.” “History,” he argues, “began July 4th, 1776 — anything before that was a mistake.” And, “if you want to experience other ‘cultures,’ use an atlas or a ham radio.”
These blunt expressions may carry with them a severe and parodic jingoism. But, ultimately, they connect. Perhaps the most pronounced difference between those who vote for the broader Left and those who run the broader Left is that the latter group increasingly seeks to replace heartfelt patriotism with arid cosmopolitanism and to extinguish the nation’s diverse civil society, while the former, largely, does not. American exceptionalism, whatever the universities might prefer, is still a popular notion.
So, too, autonomy. Pointing to a plate full of meat, Swanson deadpans:
I call this turf ’n’ turf. It’s a 16-ounce T-bone and a 24-ounce porterhouse. Also, whiskey and a cigar. I am going to consume all of this at the same time because I am a free American.
The platform has a constituency. A mock-vintage poster featuring a scowling photograph of the man urges Americans to “vote Ron Swanson — or don’t. Together we can elect a man who doesn’t even want the job.” Meanwhile, the “Ron Swanson Pyramid of Greatness,” which lists and ranks his most important values, is a staple on T-shirts, on coasters, and in conversations at bars up and down the land. Mixed in with the Pyramid’s philosophical offerings is some advice for daily living: For leisure, Swanson recommends “wood working,” “fishing,” and “masonry”; for food, “cow protein,” “pig protein,” “chicken protein,” and “deer protein” (fish are strictly for “sport only”); for one’s body, “facial hair,” a “manly musk,” a “thick and impenetrable torso,” one of three haircuts (“High and Tight, Crew Cut, Buzz Cut”), and an aversion to short trousers. Far from serving as a little red book to the aggrieved, this manifesto of manhood invariably elicits peals of laughter from those who read it. This isn’t partisan politics; it’s cultural comedy, and it is inadvertently posing a genuine question: Have we all gone soft?
The actor who plays Swanson — who, at least to some extent, is portraying himself — appears to think that we have. In his autobiography, Paddle Your Own Canoe, Nick Offerman argues that eating meat builds “strength, stamina, stick-to-it-iveness, constitution, not to mention a healthful, glowing pelt,” that woodwork is the pinnacle of manliness, and that it is a crime against nature that modern men feel pressured to shave their bodies and present to the world “a nubile, naked set of pecs, like some prepubescent teenager.” Offerman, who “grew up literally in the middle of a cornfield,” recently advised readers of Men’s Health’s “Fix Anything” section to put down their cell phones and “just use your hands.” “Women,” he added, “have a visceral reaction to a man who works with his hands.” Other recommendations include learning to read a map and growing a mustache; his own whiskers represent “manhood” as well as “heroes, cowboys, and my uncles Don and Dan, who were already my idols and had moustaches that were flinty, bristly, completely virile, and tough as nails.”
Offerman is in no way a fire-breathing right-winger, nor does he seem to be an aggrieved male. Indeed, if he is anything political at all, he is an old-school Rooseveltian Bull Moose. But, really, that is all by the by. Like Ron Swanson, Offerman is a walking example of that most prized lineament, authenticity, and his low-voltage enthusiasm explodes through the screen in every scene he steals. “I’m not interested in caring about people,” Swanson says in an early episode. “I once worked with a guy for three years and never learned his name.” Much to his disappointment, I imagine, the viewers haven’t returned the favor.