The joke was old even before it appeared in print.
The Lone Ranger and Tonto find themselves surrounded by hostile Indians. The Ranger asks Tonto: “What are we going to do, Tonto?” To which Tonto replies: “What do you mean we, white man (or paleface, or kemo sabe, depending on the version)?” Its racist ancestry is undeniable: the joke partly evokes the picture of a feckless subordinate who will treacherously abandon his superior at the first sign of trouble—usually with the ethnic or social group to which the subordinate belongs. But even before 1956, ancient variants of the joke were meant to deflate the condescension of individuals who used the royal “we,” and the insulting presumption of people who assumed, for their own purposes, what they had no business assuming.
Perhaps because one becomes cantankerous with advancing age, I have increasingly resorted, in the last few years, to Tonto’s wise words to defend myself against the mind-bending onslaught of U.S. political rhetoric.
Take these examples from three members of what H.L. Mencken called America’s governing “clown dynasty.”
- Arizona’s recently elected governor, Doug Ducey, said while presenting his first budget proposal: “This budget reflects our values as Arizonans…. And we are asking some folks to tighten their belt” (Arizona Republic, March 5, 2015; my emphasis).
The premise is that the budget is based on “our” values, but a different and unspecified “we” cuts the budget for “some folks” who are not part of the “we.” One can forgive the insecurity of a young governor who must insist in believing that his values are shared by everyone else. But when faced with a budget that increases state spending in Arizona’s privatized prison system and also severely cuts higher education, one cannot help but reply: “What do you mean we, white man?”
- Tonto’s reply is one that can be automatically used to rebuff almost anything said by Senator John McCain. Who can forget his illustrious words after the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008: “I know I speak for every American when I say … ‘Today we are all Georgians’.”
No one gave him license, or elected him to speak for all. There are those who would stand in shameful, respectful silence rather than offer cheap sentiments to a friend in need whom we are not prepared to help. And others, if ever a messenger was needed, would rather have the Prince of Darkness as spokesperson than John McCain. Many of us still remember “Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran.” Who is this “we” you talk about, pale face?
- Speaking on cable TV in favor of the infamous Arizona SB 1070, former governor Jan Brewer once affirmed: “We are not racist, we are not bigoted, but we know that ‘the liberal media’ … wants to shove that race card out there…. I believe that 70 percent of people in America … agree with us in Arizona. Every poll will tell you—they agree with what we’re doing.”
When the TV host asked which polls she was referring to, Brewer said “she couldn’t name anything off the top of her head.” “We know,” “with us” and “what we’re doing,” kemo sabe?
There are many reasons why the Lone Ranger and Tonto are, in the words of Bernard Shaw, “rooted in my deeper affections.” Not the least of them is the codification of this joke in mythical American trappings. The royal “we” is the hobgoblin of conceited little minds. It is often used by U.S. politicians so threatened by a changing America, so challenged by the substance of multiculturalism, so unprepared to face the ideal of diversity at the heart of a true democracy, that they fight to impose—for just awhile longer—the barbarous superstitions of their “tribe,” which they mistake for “the laws of nature.” (Shaw, Caesar and Cleopatra)