Why the West needs Mythic Cowboys

 

The first Great Truth of contemporary life is that the West is changing. And the second Great Truth is that the Cowboy Myth is an anachronistic view that denies the first truth and assures that we will become a socioeconomic backwater. What we need to do, or so we are told by those who purport to know such things, is abandon our allegorical tales and face the real world. Inspired by constitutional contrariness, informed by 22 years of living in Wyoming (45 years in the West), and motivated by a desire to help find a viable response to the first Great Truth, I offer a succinct reply to the futurists, pundits and critics' call for the death of the West's mythology: Bullshit

No literary passage better expresses the Cowboy Myth than the description of Conagher, the title character in a classic Western story by Louis L'Amour. When the hero is deciding whether to confront the bad guys:

He simply did what had to be done ... It would be easy, he told himself, to throw everything overboard and disclaim any responsibility. All he had to do was saddle up and ride out of the country. It sounded easy, but it was not that easy, even if a man could leave behind his sense of guilt at having deserted a cause. To be a man was to be responsible. It was as simple as that. To be a man was to build something, to try to make the world about him a bit easier to live in for himself and those who followed. You could sneer at that, you could scoff, you could refuse to acknowledge it, but when it came right down to it, [Conagher] decided it was the man who planted a tree, dug a well, or graded a road who mattered.

The modernists claim that tales like Conagher lie at the core of the West's inability to address our real problems. But this contention is based on a profound misunderstanding of the nature of mythology and a great deal of confusion about the Cowboy Myth in particular. "Myth" has two very different meanings. The literary term denotes a traditional story that reveals the world-view of a people; let us call this Myth. But there is also a pejorative meaning -- an unfounded account of the world; let's call this a myth. The goal of Myth is to illuminate a moral ideal toward which a people aspire, binding together generations and communities, and helping us to understand how we are to live in the world and treat one another -- functions that can be ascribed to Conagher.

Many well-meaning efforts to make sense of the West's past and future misunderstand the meaning of Myth and risk aggravating social and environmental problems. I propose that we grasp the rich nature and complex role of these stories, rather than simply tossing out our cultural legacy and groping for whatever new perspective is most in fashion. We might find that our problems could be effectively addressed if we took seriously the Cowboy Myth. Many Western states are faced with the same challenges: How do we respond to the widening gulf between the rich and poor? What should we do about the high rates of drug abuse and suicide? How do we handle urban sprawl and uncontrolled development? Who should bear the costs and reap the benefits of mineral extraction? How do we foster viable livelihoods consistent with our cultural character and natural environment? Perhaps Conagher provides the answers we need.

Needing a foil for my diatribe, I'm going to pick on two fellow Westerners, which seems only fair -- we've railed enough about Easterners and their soft-bodied, latte-sipping, hoity-toity views. According to Samuel Western, Wyoming's economic problems -- and, we can infer, many of the difficulties of neighboring states -- are caused by the Cowboy Myth, or so he argues in Pushed off the Mountain, Sold Down the River: Wyoming's Search for Its Soul (Homestead, 2002). And the cause of environmental degradation throughout the West? That's right, the Cowboy Myth, according to Debra Donahue in Western Range Revisited: Removing Livestock from Public Lands to Conserve Native Biodiversity (University of Oklahoma, 1999).

These books are a no-holds-barred, tag-team throttling of the cowboy. It's not necessary to have read them to have heard the arguments; everyone in the West knows at least one critic who turns his nose up with disdain at the "Old West" or waves her hand in haughty dismissal of the people and trades associated with ranching. So, in keeping with the spirit of Conagher, who fought fair but pulled no punches, here comes a good, old-fashioned dustup.

What really gets the goat of these critics is the pervasiveness of mythic icons. Donahue decries the way that "the bucking bronco shows up everywhere in Wyoming."

Everywhere includes the insignia of the National Guard, the football helmets of the University of Wyoming, and even our currency. When the U.S. Mint released a Wyoming quarter with a cowboy astride a bucking bronco, a panel of progressive luminaries and enlightened dignitaries denounced it as cultural atavism. One can only suppose that their reaction would be similar to the Dallas Cowboys, the Oklahoma State Cowboys, and Oregon's Crook County High School Cowboys.

Echoing Willie Nelson's plaintive cry about not letting babies grow up to be cowboys, Western -- apparently in all seriousness -- asks, "What is a Wyoming kid supposed to think about his or her future when the only license plate available is one with a cowboy on it?" I'm guessing that not many kids are brainwashed by license plates. (Does Tennessee, the "Volunteer State," have an abundance of do-gooder adolescents, or "Show me" Missouri a plethora of dubious teens?) If Western's concern is valid, then what is an American kid supposed to think when the country's only flag has stars and stripes and all of its dollar bills bear the image of George Washington? What kids (and the rest of us) presumably think is that we are part of a community with shared stories and values that reveal an important part, but hardly the entirety, of who we are.

Western joins the other anti-traditionalists anxious to modernize the social values, political perspectives and economic models of our region by attacking the Cowboy Myth as a "century-old throwback." But if the age of a story is an inherent weakness, then tales of America's Founding Fathers ought to be discarded. Not to mention the culturally primal stories of Genesis and the Odyssey, which surely are more repugnant to the modernist than Conagher or The Virginian.

There is often great wisdom in venerable people and stories; there's usually a good reason that they've lasted. But Western and Donahue relish nothing more than debunking cowboy legends. The former declares that "the state's romantic past is largely fictive," and the latter reveals that "the cultural myth of the cowboy and economic myths of western self-reliance and independence are closely related and replete with contradictions."

Myth is not meant to be journalistic; it is not concerned with timeworn facts but with timeless truths, such as the virtues of unflinching courage and fierce independence. We all know that real cowboys were sometimes cowardly. As long as we're at it, George Washington probably lied as a child, and Santa Claus doesn't bring presents. For those who understand the function of Myth, these factual disclosures reveal nothing important. To adapt Francis P. Church's response to Christmas skeptics: Yes, Virginia, there is a Conagher, and he exists as certainly as bravery and autonomy and duty exist.

The critics of the Cowboy Myth wouldn't be so incensed if the stories weren't still a source of profound meaning to the public. Western is apoplectic, contending that "when the homesteader myth spliced with the cowboy mystique, the fusion wielded ungodly power." Donahue reiterates the complaint that as long as we believe in the Cowboy Myth, it will guide our political actions "as though" it were reality. But "as though" understates the point; incorporating Myth into social life makes it real, as actual and tangible as the Puritan value of hard work that shapes America's economy and social programs or the Jeffersonian ideal of agrarianism that molds the nation's landscape and tax laws. The pundits understand, however, that the Cowboy Myth is too robust to be crushed under the weight of facts, so they implicitly offer competing Myths -- their own jealous gods to gun down Conagher and the rest of the cowboys.

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