RESERVE, N.M. - Ah, the West, where the spaces are wide open and the skies are big, where they know when to hold "em and when to fold "em, where the handclasp is a little stronger and the smile dwells a little longer and where, above all, men are men.
In fact, the
real explanation behind all these stories from the West about armed
militias, threats against federal agents and talk about secession
is that Western men don't grow up.
Oh, they talk
like tough guys, all right. "I have loaded guns and I won't
hesitate to use them," was the threat made at a public meeting in
Whitefish, Mont. "You will be faced with rioting, bloodshed,
rebellion and conflict," a rancher in these parts warned a federal
Here in Catron County, New Mexico,
local ordinance requires each household to pack a rod. Until a few
months ago, a downtown store sported a sign warning
environmentalists that they might be shot.
The politics of
the West are now best understood in terms which are not political,
but psychological. The West as an entity and (with some exceptions)
Western men as individuals are cases of arrested development. All
this talk about frontier ethics, property rights, state sovereignty
and "wise use" is merely a disguise for what the West and the
Westerners are really
West is an overgrown brat which refuses to be weaned. Every time
his federal mother has tried to remove him from the government
treasury's breast, he screams.
mother, "do you think we could charge you something close to the
market rates for grazing all your little cowsies?"
really do think you're old enough to pay more than $5 an acre for
that mining land."
since you're not using most of that water anyway, do you suppose
you could leave a little for the fish?"
who can blame the West? Its ploy works. Every time taxpaying
citizens, acting through their agent, the government, attempt to
wean this overgrown suckling, it screams until it gets what it
demands, unrestricted access to that comforting, enriching, federal
On which it became dependent long ago.
Through the 1850s, some 90 percent of the Army was deployed in the
West, according to John Unruh's classic study, The Plains Across,
protecting the hardy pioneers against Indians, thirst and
loneliness. The hardy pioneers not only accepted this help, they
demanded it, just as they demanded food from the Army when supplies
For all their protestations of
independence and individuality, Westerners always insisted on, and
got, government subsidies - dams to irrigate crops and to water
lawns where nature never meant for lawns to grow, cheap range for
grazing, roads through the public's land for access to the public's
trees so they could be cut down for private
Those protestations are only another part
of the region's psychological disorder. That's how immature
children disguise their inadequacies. They practice
Western denial takes the form of claiming
to be the fiercest individualists and the truest believers in free
enterprise. Actually, the whole region is on the dole. Its economic
system is America's only venture into state socialism, a uniquely
American brand of socialism, which protects only the strong and
wealthy. Half the cities of the West (it's a desert, folks) would
be tiny villages were it not for federal water
Last year taxpayers spent millions
fighting forest fires, which threatened new homes Westerners had
built at the edge of the woods in defiance of common sense.
Suggestions about imposing some rational control over where such
houses could be constructed had been assailed as interference with
individual rights. But when the flames came, these same fierce
individualists - in the great, childish tradition of disdaining all
responsibility but demanding all benefits - resorted to the age-old
cry of the
we put out their fires.
Now, in the face of mild,
almost apologetic requests that they grow up, Westerners threaten
violence. "I hate to say this," said a rancher in a Bozeman saloon,
"but the six-gun may still be the best friend we've got."
So it is. We are discussing here, remember, a
case of arrested development. The six-gun (metaphorically speaking,
of course) is the only cylindrical instrument which the typical
Western male can employ to any effect.
Jon Margolis is a columnist
for the Chicago