Archive for June 8th, 2008

June 8, 2008

Cowboy Hero, Take 2

by cowboylands

Like a tumbling tumbleweed, a question or thought on one blog is is found on another. From High Country News (For Those Who Care About the West) comes the feature story “Why the West Needs Mythic Cowboys.”

Untitled (Woody Strode), copyright 2007

The author Jeffrey Lockwood argues, like Batboy42, that Myths (in stark contrast to myths) have power, and for the communities of the US West to work effectively, they need this power. Environmental issues, the rich/poor divide, disappearing jobs, and more can be dealt with well by the Cowboy who is independent yet compassionate, who recognizes that “quantity of possessions is no substitute for quality of life,” who recognizes integrity, so would “vote for a gutsy woman over a pandering male, ride with a capable minority instead of a competent white.” His words gain power by using the Cowboy avatar Conagher, one of Louis L’Amour’s heroes. Lockwood compares the insidiousness of the Myths of Capitalism and Scientism, and anyone who has been halted in his or her acquiring of a Decent Life by education, gender, or race or who has had to combat the disconnect that comes from the “pure” objective view, knows that these Myths can be just as insidious, left to fester uninvestigated. 

While I have my concerns that the impulse for social deeds is based on a fallible author’s interpretation of Myth (much as Louis L’Amour is compared to a deity), I do respect the idea that Story can bring meaning. 

Here’s the first paragraph of the article. Check out the rest here. Go ahead and sign up for a free e-newsletter–they’ll stop if you don’t want them. Also, I like the comments before mine. A huge range of opinion, in just two comments! From “Why the West Needs Mythic Cowboys,” by Jeffrey Lockwood:

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.

Here’s my reply: 

Mr. Lockwood uses Louis L’Amour’s Conagher to unfurl a cowboy’s heroic virtues. Good choice of an author, but I would argue that L’Amour’s relatively nuanced characters are rarely understood in all of their dimensionality. It’s crucial to investigate shadowy Myths, whether of Cowboy, Capitalism or Scientism. Left to lurk half-understood and partially digested, their tropes can lead to hypocrisy and appalling acts of uncaring and even violence. The details of all of these Myths are fuzzy for most people—a little out of focus—because they are gleaned from cursory perusal and little, if any, reflection or questioning. It’s frightening as hell to think people are getting their understanding of capitalism, science, and cowboys from reading only headlines, hearing political spin on talk radio, or reading badly written novels sold at half-price in grocery stores (next to the Cheese Doodles).

Which cowboy is the real Cowboy? The one of storytellers (scriptwriters) or the one of the common mortals who were neither as saintly nor as hellish as these stories describe? The stories have a truth to them, although they also hold the mortal limitations of the writers. Ultimately I agree with Mr. Lockwood: he worries that “without a story to guide the culture of the West,” the community (whether a local one or in  a broader national sense) will not be able to act effectively. Writers use “story” to bring together the elements of characters and actions and setting and the reader’s sensations to an end that satisfies. And something is satisfied, deeply so. Perceptions are honed by the rhythm and rhyme of “story,” so that an ordinary day, a death, or a moment can become imbued with comedy or tragedy. So I agree, Myth does direct actions, making the person the hero of his or her own story—the entrepreneur who cares for the environment, the rancher taking time to find one lost calf, the teacher who tries one more time, the community organizer who speaks for many…

To either excise a region’s and people’s myths or to substitute others seems a throwback to the conquistadors (or the early pioneers). Yet the Cowboy Mythos, in the hands of common mortals, is easily made jingoistic, sexist, narrow-minded, and violent. Not very relevant in today’s society, if that is where it stays. Only be seeing mythic functions or characteristics anew is it possible to move beyond the tired stereotypes to the vigorous thoughts behind them. By exploring them, and exploring how one might adhere to their principles, it is possible not only to perceive the hypocrisy mentioned above by SocraticGadfly, but also to make sure that the community or leader doesn’t just talk the Cowboy talk.