If you didn't yet know that I'm running a poll on favourite Westerns, I trust you will now, and that if Westerns are an interest of yours, you'll submit an entry by the end of this month. Deciding to run the poll put me in mind of a post I wrote a long time ago - in September 2003 - on the subject of whether a list of Westerns that is missing one putatively crucial item could be a good list. I'm re-posting it below, with very minor amendments, in the hope of discouraging fundamentalist attitudes towards lists. Even if you aren't interested in Westerns, the argument has more general application in any sphere in which there is a reasonable quantity of good quality about. You could extend it to philosophers, or jazz musicians, or varieties of soap.
The life and soul of the Western
Today I am in carefree mode. This is what I wish to sound off about. Over at Brad DeLong's comment box some days ago, JDC had the following to say about my list of ten great westerns:
Any Western list that omits "The Searchers" isn't worth the electrons it's displayed with.
Now, I felt entirely relaxed about JDC's perfunctory dismissal. After all, I hadn't presented my list as being the ten greatest Westerns, nor even as being my ten favourite Westerns; no, I expressly insisted that it was just 'ten great Westerns'. Not only that. I love The Searchers. It just didn't get on my list that day, and to be honest it probably wouldn't get on it today either, though the list would be different today because I forgot The Long Riders, as my friend Morris in Leeds reminded me.
Therefore, it is not because I'm wounded by JDC's words, but out of a disinterested (which doesn't here mean 'uninterested') concern for the pursuit of truth that I wish to set out reasons showing why those words cannot be taken as persuasive. First off, I'm assuming that, when JDC says 'not worth the electrons it's displayed with', he's saying - whatever else - that it's not a good list. If he isn't saying that, you can put everything that follows down to a misunderstanding. And I'm assuming that, in saying my list isn't a good list, JDC is committed to the view that there could be some good lists of Westerns, or at least one good list of them, because the 'not worth etc' statement loses its critical edge if he thinks there are no such good lists. My list would then be entirely normal. On these assumptions (and the further assumption that JDC is male, which I just somehow feel to be so - and if I'm wrong about it, great breast-beating and rending of garments in apology, guilt and shame) I endeavour to show that, whether or not my list of ten Westerns is a good list, the fact that it omits The Searchers isn't a sound reason for claiming that it isn't a good list.
Suppose I get JDC to compile his own best list of ten Westerns, ranked 1 to 10, and we assume that it includes The Searchers and that it is a good list. Then I ask JDC to nominate his eleventh best Western. Then I ask him to substitute his eleventh best Western, which wasn't initially on the list, for his tenth best Western, which was. We now have JDC's second list. Either this too is a good list or it isn't. If it isn't there's only one good list of 10 Westerns according to JDC – a possibility I note and hold to one side. If the second list is also a good list, then I get JDC to go back to his first list and now substitute his eleventh best Western for The Searchers. So we have a third list, and this now, in turn, either is a good list or it isn't. If it is, then there can be a good list of ten Westerns which doesn't include The Searchers and my defence against JDC's hasty dismissal of my own list is concluded.
But if the third list – the one with JDC's eleventh best Western substituted for The Searchers – isn't a good list, we are left having to explore two logical avenues. These two avenues are: that there is, according to JDC, only one good list of ten great Westerns, because if his eleventh best Western is substituted for anything on that list, the new list thereby generated is busted; and that, if JDC's eleventh best Western is substituted for The Searchers, the new list thereby generated is busted.
Now, think about how bad this means the eleventh best Western has to be. It can't just be that it's a bit less good than JDC's tenth best Western, and a lot less good than The Searchers; and more generally is an average sort of a movie. Because in either case its presence alongside nine other movies none of which, we know for certain, disqualifies the list from being a good list, its sole presence wrecks the whole list. Think about it: you have a list of ten Westerns, nine of which are, ex hypothesi, good to great, and then you have one which is less good, maybe just average. Would you want to say that the whole list was no good? No, you wouldn't. You'd say, surely, that this was an excellent list, but with one weakness. Unless you were a fanatic or something. Not that I'm suggesting JDC is a fanatic, but he may just have missed one or two steps here. No, JDC's eleventh best movie would have to be an absolute stinker, as bad as, or worse than, Life Is Beautiful, for its presence alongside nine good-to-great Westerns to render the composite list no good.
Here's an analogy. You're going to hold a gathering of ten people and you want Tracey to be there with nine other great and fascinating friends of yours, because Tracey is a wonderful person: charming, generous, funny, interesting, you name it. She is, as they say, the life and soul of the party. But Tracey's going to be in Baldock that day, which isn't where you're having the party. So you invite Derek instead. Now, if Derek is merely quiet and even a bit dull, this may make the gathering less good than it would have been with Tracey. But with nine other great and fascinating friends you should still be able to have an enjoyable event. Derek would have to be a real bastard, rude, disruptive, more of that sort of thing, for your party to be spoiled altogether.
For JDC's claim to be viable, there have to be, in the history of the cinema, just his ten best Westerns that are good enough to go on a list of ten great Westerns, with no eleventh one available which is anywhere near being in the right ballpark. All potential eleventh bests have to be really rotten. And I submit that this is an unreasonable picture of the actual cinematic state of affairs, and would be agreed to by no panel of authoritative judges on the movies or even just regular Western-lovers. So my list may have been no good, but if so, it wasn't just because it did not include The Searchers. (Source.)