The Cowboy Myth

By Thornton, Bruce | The American Spectator, May/June 2002 | Go to article overview

The Cowboy Myth


Thornton, Bruce, The American Spectator


Every time the United States acts forcefully abroad to protect its interests, you can bet the farm someone 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 worldview 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 naive idealist who thinks that the protocols of civilized justice and reasoned debate will work in the Darwinian world of the frontier.

The constant theme of the true 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 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. 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 and violence disappears.

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 and appeals to morality ultimately cut no ice with the bad guy. He respects only one thing-overwhelming, devastating and (usually) lethal force. …

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