I was recently invited to a seminar at a university whose thesis might be considered insulting.
The American West, said the invitation, "lacks an intellectual, cultural or social presence within either the country or the continent. Eastern publishers, Eastern intellectual centers and agencies, public and private, based in Washington, D.C., still provide the authoritative voices on Western matters."
In other words, if the American West were slightly more advanced, it might qualify as a backwater.
If this is true of the part of the West that includes Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle, imagine how true it is of the Interior West of Wyoming, Nevada, Arizona, Montana, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico.
These big-box states are, in many ways, worse off than other out-of-it places like Oklahoma, Arkansas and West Virginia: Half of the Western states are federal land administered by agencies based in the East.
It is usually said that the Interior West is a colony of the federal government. Unfortunately, our former colonial master has lost interest in the West, and is now chasing new colonies in Iraq, the "Stans" and the Ukraine. That we are a cast-off colony — a first-wives’ region — means the feds no longer subsidize our dams, or the logging of our matchstick-sized trees, or the building of nuclear weapons here.
Therefore, we should be in an economic depression. Instead, even after five years of drought, this once-rural region is booming. I think that’s because we have glorious national parks such as Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon and Glacier. Visitors get a taste for these landscapes and then find that they can own their own little national park, or at least a national monument. So it is our fate that millions of Americans are moving here, bringing equity and pensions to this aspiring backwater.
As a result, the pretty West is making do. But will this transfer of wealth halt when the last "unspoiled" valley is spoiled?
Of course, lots of places don’t even have this much of a future. But sometimes, no-account regions rise up. According to Joseph Ellis’s His Excellency, a biography of George Washington, the American Revolution really started when Washington realized he was keeping himself in poverty by aping the British nobility’s pricey way of life.
Washington urged his countrymen to produce their own goods to free themselves from English imports. In the end, of course, the scorned, culture-less colonies triumphed and came to dominate the English-speaking world. They succeeded because the colonists had — in addition to several million square miles of land at their backs — aggression, pride and a genius for politics.
Might the land-rich and culture-poor Interior West also be the seed of change that ripens within the current American empire?
There are signs.This spring, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson organized an international meeting on energy for Western Canada, Western Mexico and the Western United States. Richardson wants to weld together the Western portion of North America using our common stores of energy — both the fossil kind and the renewable kind.
I don’t know if the governor was asked by John Kerry to be his running mate. But if Richardson was asked and turned Kerry down, it might be because he thinks putting together the Western chunks of three nations is more important than becoming vice president of a declining imperial government.
This is not about revolution, of course. It is about the filling of a vacuum created by the federal government’s decision to ignore a large chunk of the nation in order to go off on foreign adventures. Patriotism will carry those adventures for a while. Yet in the end, the United States is a very practical, bottom-line nation.
The correction to this adventuring should have come from the "blue states," but despite the presence in their midst of Harvard, The New York Times and herds of intellectuals, they have proven more tone-deaf to America than the present administration.
So it is up to the West, whether led by Richardson, California Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger or Nevada Democratic Sen. Harry Reid, to figure out what’s more important to America — nation-building far from home, or building energy independence.
Ed Marston, former publisher of High Country News, lives and writes in Paonia, Colorado.