Waaaaaaaaaaaahh! The West refuses to be weaned

  • Cartoon of wailing brat in cowboy attire/Jim Day

 

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.

Not really.

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 official.

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.

Tough guys, no?

No.

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 saying:

"Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhh!'

The 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.

"Sweetheart," says mother, "do you think we could charge you something close to the market rates for grazing all your little cowsies?"

"Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhh!'

"I really do think you're old enough to pay more than $5 an acre for that mining land."

"Waaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhh!'

"Darling, since you're not using most of that water anyway, do you suppose you could leave a little for the fish?"

"Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhh!'

And 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 nipple.

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 were low.

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 profit.

Those protestations are only another part of the region's psychological disorder. That's how immature children disguise their inadequacies. They practice denial.

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 projects.

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 West:

"Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhh!'

And 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. n

Jon Margolis is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

High Country News Classifieds
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Trout Unlimited seeks an individual with successful development experience, strong interpersonal skills, and a deep commitment to coldwater conservation to serve as the organization's...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Now hiring a full-time, remote Program Director for the Society for Wilderness Stewardship! Come help us promote excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship,...
  • WYOMING COMMUNITY PARTNERSHIPS COORDINATOR
    The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership is seeking Coordinator to implement public education and advocacy campaigns in the Cowboy State to unite and amplify hunter, angler,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...