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?


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:


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?"


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


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


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:


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.

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