The Frontier Spirit and the Cowboy Mentality

The history of the U.S. has been presented as The Move West, Westward Ho! Western Expansion, Go West, Young Man! The Frontier Thesis……. all to explain the unique American character. We certainly cannot deny that the civilization that now dominates the United States began on the east coast and gradually pushed west, eventually covering the whole continent. Nor can we deny that such a push played and continues to play a large part in the formation of the American character.
The themes of individualism, independence, ruggedness and toughness, surging ambition, and an antipathy toward conformity and crowdedness. Along with that went a determination to bring law and order to society, to influence events in the country through political action, to integrate the territory into the rest of the nation, to create and maintain communication with the rest of the nation, and to hold the whole thing together. Those who believed the bonds could be dissolved just by saying they are dissolved found themselves in a fight and were shown in no uncertain terms that the bonds were not to be dissolved. The scabs not scars but scabs of that war remain markers of the fault lines that delineate the political, social, and economic topography of the nation. Whether it is Garreau’s nine nations of North America or Red States, Blue States, the distinction between North and South has not gone away despite all the talk the last 50 years of the New South. Everything from religion and politics to pornography and health statistics fall along the lines we read about when we study the Civil War.
One thing that struck me when I was a kid watching cowboy movies was that so many of the robbers and gun fighters had fought in the Civil War. As I learned more about Kansas and Missouri and how citizens on both sides of the argument funded themselves through robbery and claimed territory through butchery, it dawned on me that most of the figures of the Old West, as seen in Hollywood movies, came out of the partisan raiders of the lead-up to the war. Once these men had got a taste of violence and its rewards, they did not give it up just because the war ended. They just no longer had the cover of the war and sectarian violence to excuse their actions. Now they were just outlaws.
But wait! Those Hollywood movies needed dashing and romantic characters, so the men who were practically born in violence became the template for every movie made. Most of the movies take place in the 20 years or so between the end of the war and the end of the West. The number of such men was relatively small, that is, the number of men who walked around with a six-gun on their hip. It’s quite possible that major U.S. cities have more armed men walking around now that there were gunmen in the Old West. But Hollywood gave us this image, what I call the Marlboro Man. He is not the Man on Horseback of Europe and Latin America; he is a loner with no goals, no social structure to operate within, no ties and no bonds. He is the Cowboy.
And the Cowboy Mentality is, paradoxically, the antithesis of the Frontier Spirit, which was to establish order and regularity, security and predictability. The Cowboy solves problems through violence, with his fists and his gun. The Cowboy need not follow laws because in the movies the law is used as a subterfuge for crooked dealings and must be overridden. Real estate deals are not depicted as establishing ordered communities where people can raise their children but as encroachments upon freedom. In other words, the freedom of the Cowboy is the freedom of the psychopath. Take what you need, keep moving, ignore responsibility, shuck off duties and ties, don’t look back or even around.
It is this Cowboy Mentality rather than the Frontier Spirit that guides the modern conservative. The rip-off artists in financial dealings justify their actions, if they bother, by referring to their right to pillage and exploit. Notice how this is seldom spelled out in the movies: few Cowboys own slaves, nor are slaves even shown; Cowboys participate in Indian extermination only as part of noble, mano a mano running battles in which the Native Americans are equally armed and trained; Mexicans are depicted as humble victims protected by the Cowboy……. as long as they stay humble. The pillaging and exploitation occurs in the background, often with the Cowboy as simply an agent, not as a benefactor. He just moves on once his job is done, not benefitting from the pillage and exploitation but not held down by it either.
If we think about how long those movies have been in existence, we see that few living Americans escaped their influence. Some of these movies are excellent from a film studies pov; some have fascinating themes; some portray often marginalized figures in a good way; and most are entertaining, their primary purpose. Those who would deny the possibility that something so ephemeral and frivolous as movies could actually shape a world view forget how powerful film can be. Once a politician invokes the Frontier Spirit and recites a litany of traits more typical of the Cowboy, his listeners’ minds go to the umpteen Westerns they have seen; they can’t help it. Thus, the politician is able to invoke a phony past and count on people “remembering” it; they’ve seen it hundreds of times, but in the movies. The Nazis recognized the value of these images.
And what has been the result in our society? Large numbers of people who place current events on a Cowboy template. So their thinking goes: I did everything on my own, no one helped me. Laws that I like can be obeyed but laws I don’t like can be resisted in the name of personal freedom. If I can’t get my way, I can always resort to violence in some form, even if it’s only hiring a police force entitled to use violence to maintain society the way I want it. I can use resources like land and water in a profligate way and others will have to pay. Should I shit in the drinking water, I can just move on. I have no obligation to anyone else, although when I need help I should be able to get it. Taxes that don’t come directly back to me are a waste of my personal wealth and should be resisted, even as I use the infrastructure those taxes pay for. Non-White foreigners have a special role, if they appear at all, and they are expected to stay in that role, one subordinate to the Cowboy, the star of the movie we call America.

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