Sam Western proposes -- covertly but clearly -- the Myth of Capitalism, with the hero being an entrepreneurial figure (like John Galt in Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged) who, in a world of free enterprise, accrues staggering riches through his own sweat and cleverness. Through the Myth of Capitalism, the economist imagines a world of constant, unlimited growth in which affluence brings an ever-increasing amount of happiness to those who have the requisite qualities -- intelligence, shrewdness, fortitude and fearlessness. However, the heroic Capitalist is disconnected from the land, except to the extent that nature provides a source of raw materials for manufacturing wealth. As an economist, Western is frustrated that "collectively Wyoming struggles with the idea that people and their ideas, not natural resources, bring wealth." He seems to be saying that we need a Myth that is disassociated from a sense of place. But if the Grand Canyon, Death Valley and the Tetons are no longer necessary to the West's Myth, then how can the story be ours?
Donahue's alternative is more surreptitious than Western's. Her stated purpose is to demythologize the West, but what she is really proposing is a new Myth: Scientism. She contends that "the public and policymakers must look to ecologists, not myth marketers, for guidance in charting a course for the West's future." From the first-hand perspective of a scientist -- an insect ecologist, in particular -- I can assure you that science cannot provide the answers to the deep questions concerning what we ought to do with Western people and lands. Science is necessary, but it is not sufficient. And here's why.
In the Myth of Scientism, the hero is an absolutely objective, rational discoverer of unchanging physical truths (like Isaac Newton and the apple incident, which of course never happened -- but we know that Myths don't collapse under the weight of facts). The Scientist reveals how the world really is, not some fanciful tale replete with human desires. The problem, of course, is that according to this Myth, science is value-free. So the hero can offer no moral lessons regarding our treatment of one another or the land. Donahue believes that "although it may not be possible ever to 'demystify' the West totally, there are good economic and ecological reasons for trying." What she fails to see is that there are horrific cultural, and probably ecological, consequences if we succeed.
And so, with the West's economy suffering from chronic anemia (the current transfusion of mineral royalties in parts of Colorado and Wyoming notwithstanding) and its environment battered and bruised, the critics' proposed course of treatment is to bleed the patient, blaming the region's lifeblood for its problems. However, rather than draining the West of the Cowboy Myth, perhaps we could revitalize this worldview -- and in so doing ground our future in the virtues of our past.
L'Amour's Conagher exemplifies the Cowboy Myth, being a wonderfully typical and altogether unextraordinary tale. The title character is remarkable only in his being so characteristic of the Western's Mythic hero. What if the conflicting, even paradoxical, qualities of Conagher were taken seriously as a model for the people and politicians of the West (or, for that matter, our national leaders)?
Jehovah, the god of the Old Testament, was slow to anger, but extremely dangerous when crossed. He would have made a fine Cowboy. Consider Conagher: "He wanted trouble with no man, but he wasn't going to take any pushing around, either." When an opponent finally provokes Conagher to the breaking point, we are told that "he proceeded to beat him unmercifully with the swinging coil of rope." The Cowboy could have shot his enemy, but the man was unarmed. Proportional, not gratuitous, violence is how one responds to a "hard country," the dangerous world of the unsettled West. Make no mistake, Conagher is willing to kill. But only for a just cause. As he tells a widow's young son: "Some men take a sight of killing, boy. Just be sure that when killing time comes around that you're standing on the right side." And a just cause basically means protecting the innocent.
Conagher evinces compassion -- even tenderness -- for those who are vulnerable, including the son of a widow trying to make a life on the prairie. "Hell of a thing, he said to himself, leavin' a woman and two kids out there alone. But even as he said it he knew that many a man had no choice. You took your chances in this country; some of them paid off and some did not." Conagher treats the courageous but struggling woman with deep respect and the boy with paternal gentleness. Even a cowboy's enemies warrant a degree of compassion, as when in the midst of a shoot-out with cattle rustlers, our hero takes a gut-shot enemy into his cabin, saying, "I'll see no man suffer."
So, how would a man like Conagher respond to modern threats? In the face of a widening gap between rich and poor, in light of extractive industries' domination of local communities, in recognition of the declining physical and mental health of women and children, a Cowboy would aggressively protect the vulnerable. Conagher would abide no excuses from the methamphetamine addict, the delinquent youth, or the teenage mother -- but he'd not abandon them, either.