Skip to comments.The Cowboy Myth
Posted on 04/12/2002 6:13:23 AM PDT by Mr. Thorne
ANTI-AMERICANISM EMPLOYS A SET OF CLICHÉS as predictable and stale as the conventions of supermarket romance. Every time, for example, the United States acts forcefully abroad to protect its interests, you can bet the farm some pencil-neck in America or Europe will whip out the charge that America once more is acting like a "cowboy."
This charge is usually tossed off with the smug assurance that acting like a cowboy is about the most horrible thing one could do. The ignorant masses might think that the cowboy myth is about qualities such as the courage to risk one's life for one's convictions or to protect others, but what do those oafs know, brainwashed as they are by movies and ads? The right-thinking elites know the real score--the cowboy is the racist enforcer of manifest destiny, a sadistic, genocidal thug, probably a repressed homosexual, and the mythic peddler of cigarettes and pickup trucks and other proletarian accessories.
This misreading of the cowboy myth of course reflects the world-view of what the cowboy himself would call a "tinhorn" or a "tenderfoot," those usually Eastern city-boys who are unable for whatever reason to use violence when violence is necessary to stop evil. Sometimes the tenderfoot is merely a coward who camouflages timidity with principle. Other times he's a naïve idealist who thinks that the protocols of civilized justice and reasoned debate will work in the Darwinian world of the frontier, even though there the rudimentary social structures are themselves either ineffective or corrupt.
The constant theme of the cowboy myth is that such idealism is dangerous, for force is always the tragic choice necessary for destroying evil and protecting civilization. Nor is this choice simple: in the best movie westerns, the cowboy understands that his willingness to use force to protect civilized innocence is itself uncivilized and creates a moral burden, which he must accept and bear. As Alan Ladd says in Shane, "There's no living with a killing."
As such, the cowboy myth is one of the last great expressions of the tragic view of life increasingly absent in our therapeutic world, but necessary now more than ever. We have instead adopted a weird hybrid of Enlightenment and Romantic myths that tells us people are basically good and rational, and only behave destructively because an unjust and oppressive society robs them of self-esteem and causes them to "act out." Reform society, offer therapeutic, esteem-building solace through psychological technique and sensitivity, and then we can create the utopia in which everybody is happy, evil is banished, violence disappears, and all problems are solved through reasoned discourse.
The cowboy knows better. He knows that some people are evil, and their evil afflicts the innocent. Maybe they have an excuse for their evil, maybe they don't, or maybe they're just no damn good, but ultimately what matters is keeping that evil from destroying the good. Reason, law, appeals to morality ultimately cut no ice with the bad guy. He respects only one thing-- overwhelming, devastating and, usually, lethal force. Since the legal and social structures for applying force and judging evil are usually ineffective or corrupt, that force has to be applied by the man (or the woman, like Grace Kelly at the end of High Noon) who is willing to kill for the right.
Our modern tinhorns and tenderfeet, those intellectual deconstructors of every mythology save their own, scorn the cowboy as simplistic. His "good" and "evil" are old-fashioned concepts modern psychological science has shown to be no more real than fairy tales. His dependence on force is crude and primitive, and ultimately more noxious than the evil against which he fights. Better, like the intellectual in his universe of words and ideas, to rely on talk, negotiation, persuasion, and all those other confabs in which the verbal adept shines.
This belief in talking evil out of its evil ways strikes me as peculiar, and one certainly not supported by the evidence of 20th century history. The two great totalitarian threats to human freedom, fascism and communism--whose collective tally of dead is at least 150 million people-- were stopped by force or the threat of force. It was Hitler after all who scorned the GI's landing at Normandy as "cowboys" his panzers would quickly teach a lesson. The next time some Eurocrat sneers about American "cowboys," he should remember that if not for those "cowboys" Europe wouldn't even exist today.
Talk can work with those who respect talk, who share a common tradition of democratic values and rational discourse. It can work with those who don't respect talk if talk is backed up by a believable threat of force. But talk fails utterly with those who scorn negotiation and give-and-take as evidence of weakness. With such people talk merely provides the cover for their aggression and emboldens them into thinking their use of force will succeed. As Jimmy Stewart--the idealistic Easterner who wants to counter evil with reasoned law in John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence-- finally learns, "When force threatens, talk is no good."
Again, talk can work when validated by sufficiently deterrent force. But ever since Vietnam, our talk has not been so validated, with the exception of Reagan's build up of potential force that brought the Soviet Union to its knees. Elsewhere we threatened and blustered, we negotiated and bribed, we dickered and haggled, but the message was clear: America will blink and stay its hand. It took the most devastating attack on American soil finally to rouse us from our therapeutic slumber and wake us up to a hard world filled with evil people who need not to be talked to, but killed before they kill others.
All the talk of law and peaceful discourse will not stop an armed barbarian. He wants, for whatever reason, what you have, and will take it by force.
Europeans don't understand that to real Americans that is a compliment. They should hear what we say about them ---but then maybe they take that to be a compliment.
Hate to say that I used to believe this. Maybe it was that guy in the Village People.
Why is the left is always talking about "Eurocentrism" when it is the Europeans who are always launching the left-wing schemes they only dream they can launch at home?
How about those "evil" guns - what self-respecting cowboy doesn't have at least 2 (one on the belt, one in an ankle holster), and probably a third (rifle in the saddle or pickup gun rack)? To me, this is the essence of the cowboy - the willingness to use force against evil, which the moral relativists decry.
The political equivalent of a cowboy (as well as the real thing earlier in life) was Teddy Roosevelt. During his presidency, nobody challenged us, as they knew that he'd respond as a cowboy. Compare with a contemporary and rival of his, Woodrow Wilson, probably the archtypical "tenderfoot." He so studiously tried to avoid war by being passive and peaceful (i.e. anti-cowboy), that we got ourselves into WW1 at a cost of some 300,000 dead.
The world despises the American cowboy because he represents American strength and resolve. They wish us to be like Wilson, weak and indeceisive, so that they can commit their aggressions with impunity. Bush is, so far, about 3/4 cowboy. The other quarter has begun to leak away in the last couple of weeks.
Now that's just good old fashioned common sense. I can picture John Wayne saying it.
One has to wonder if European intellectuals fear the cowboy because they instinctively understand that they're likely to end up on the wrong end of his gun for the evil they do, or at least the evil they desire to do in the name of "noble" ends.
Closest I ever got was an old neighbor of ours. He raised cattle, so I guess he qualified. Taught me how to use a bullwhip. Well, crack one, anyway. But AJ was good; he could do the 'cigarette out of the mouth' bit (if he could find a volunteer). Me, I'm lucky if I hit what I'm aiming at...
How about shame as a motivating factor? What's the idealized 'gunfighter' movie? Lot's of good guys with no guns and/or guts, one man with a lotta both.
So how does that make the 'good guys' feel? Grateful? Sure, at first, but then they think that maybe old so-and-so wouldn't have gotten shot if the hero hadn't intervened. After all, life wasn't all that bad before...
I think it's a big 'ol case of 'we realize we're weak and innefectual, but we've spent decades telling ourselves this is the way to be'.
Then here we come and start kicking butt. Why couldn't anyone else have done it? Because they're better at appeasement than confrontation, and they know it. But they don't like being reminded of it!
IMHO, of course.
As the daughter of a real cowboy, I definitely agree. Cowboys understand right & wrong. They believe in disipline & hard work, standing up for friends, respecting the land, being self-sufficient, helping those in need, & acknowledging a loving God who is greater than all of us.
Yep, I can see how that would be an insult.
There. Just a minor correction to an otherwise excellent and insightful commentary.
I don't fear my neighbor: I'm a better shot than he is.
Well, you gonna draw those guns or whistle Dixie?
Hitler was one, but he was the only one mentioned.
If it weren't for European (and other foreign) tourists, we'd have a lot less money and a lot fewer tourists in Arizona.
Monument Valley, rafting the Canyon, jeeping Chelly, Hopi Mesa, Europeans outnumber Americans two to one or better. And usually, Europeans get higher marks for NOT leaving trash, NOT throwing rocks at just anything, NOT bringing boomboxes, and FOR asking intelligent questions. Some of those Europeans tell me they've planned to see the Canyon, or other sites for two, three years. And we've got locals in Phoenix and Tucson living here for a lifetime that have never seen the Canyon. Probably just as well, as the most common aerovac out of the Canyon are American yuppies.
Just one opinion, just my opinion, but I'd much rather deal with German, or Kiwi, or Irish tourists than Californians or New Yorkers.
And, sir, there are still old timers in Arizona who aren't too fond of Roosevelt. Either of 'em. Now mention Barry Goldwater, and now you're talking about a real man.
Bred, born, life, and I sure hope I'll die in, Arizona
Me too. And I LOVED the statement he made to the press while wearing a Carhart jacket covered with horse manure, which he had been shoveling. And...OH, how about the time he went to pick Putin and his wife up...WITH his own 4WD truck, WHICH he was driving with his OWN two hands...he mentioned to reporters that he and the Russian president were gonna go out and do some four-wheelin' on the ranch. Then they were gonna barbeque. Every time I hear a EUroweenie or EUroweenie wannabe cal him a "cowboy", I think of those incidents with pride and admiration.
I LOVE THIS GUY. Like I said before: if we both weren't already married, I'd propose to him. GO PRESIDENT GEORGE "COWBOY" BUSH!!
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