A pal of mine took a cross-country road trip from New Jersey to Oregon with his father last summer and stopped in town of Sheridan, Wyoming. Ever since, he's been telling me how much I'd love it, and how we ought to plan a trip there. "People there actually ride their horses to work."
I was pleased to read a few days ago that the State of Wyoming is making a move to enshrine "Cowboy Ethics" in state law. Sure, it's only a symbolic gesture. But given the kinds of symbolic and very real gestures usually made by state governments, it's a step in the right direction. The lawmakers were inspired in part by the work of author and lecturer James P. Owen, a Wall-Street refugee who rediscovered a more wholesome American ideal and became one of its evangelists. He wrote Cowboy Ethics, and more recently, Cowboy Values-Recapturing What America Once Stood For. Being slightly more curious than the politically correct editor of the Casper Star-Tribune, who wrote a whole whinging editorial about the move being "ethnocentric," I actually ordered a copy of Cowboy Values and gave it a read.
Cowboy Values is a collection of scenic Western images that frame Owen's social commentary. Owen begins by cataloging the symptoms of America's cultural decline, arguing against greed and materialism and self-absorption. He notes with some nostalgia the passing of the America he grew up in and what he sees as a widespread loss of manners, civility and what was once common decency. Owen wants to see America return to a country of hardy, friendly neighbors that is seen around the world not only as a strong nation-but also a good nation.
"What we've been missing is a reference point: a clear expression of the values that all Americans can share no matter what our religion, origins, or politics."
Owen sees the cowboy as a symbol to help us right our paths. He identifies seven core values as "cowboy values"—Courage, Optimism, Self-Reliance, Authenticity, Honor, Duty and Heart. The values themselves are difficult to argue with; they're the kinds of values we should be teaching our young people. I could quibble with the way he defines these values, but Cowboy Values is written in simple language and isn't meant to fully explore the philosophical nuances of honor or duty.
The real problem with Owen's idea is that the editor of the Casper Star-Tribune was, in some sense, correct. While the values have been in some way or another central to the morality systems of many cultures, the cowboy as an ideal really is ethnocentric. It is for the most part a white, Christian guy thing. Americans no longer share the same values precisely because our educators (and newspaper editors) scorn ethnocentrism. "Shared values" and multiculturalism are not complimentary ideas because people with different religions and cultures have different values and ideals by definition. If you encourage people to maintain separate identities, it doesn't make much sense to mourn the loss of shared values at the same time. What Owen proposes can only work if you get everyone on the same page and maintain some sort of collective identity. Cowboys were able to share values and a common code because they shared a common culture. Cowboy Values is peppered with inspiring quotes about cowboys, but this one would add some insight:
"The Stranger within my gate,
He may be true or kind,
But he does not talk my talk-
I cannot feel his mind.
I see the face and the eyes and the mouth,
But not the soul behind."
- from "The Stranger," Rudyard Kipling.
What Owen avoids is addressing the reason why "cowboy values" are no longer as resonant with Americans today as they were with his boyhood pals. American boys are no longer encouraged to play "cowboys and injuns" with the same zeal because we now teach them that the very same men who Owen idealizes were invaders, murderers of native peoples, destroyers of other cultures, violent white oppressors. Cowboys, along with a legion of good men, great men, heroes (and Rudyard Kipling) have been defamed and de-emphasized as role models.
Cowboys were also, well...boys. Despite the photos of cowgirls throughout Owen's book, The Cowboy Code and Cowboy Values are going to have a greater appeal to males. Women don't generally identify with cowboys and Westerns in the same way that men do. The world of the cowboy was a world created predominantly by men-men with guns-and a world in which men and women adhered to more traditional gender roles. While Owen presents these as apolitical codes for everyone, he doesn't acknowledge how politically loaded and divisive sex is. Holding up the cowboy as the American ideal is a slight to feminists; it's not "gender neutral." Today, over 50 percent of the American work force is female. Feminists are a powerful influence in academia, in progressive politics, and in The Democratic Party. The cowboy code is a code that was created by men, for men.
Cowboy values are good values, and the basic message Owen is trying to get across in his book is helpful. But it can only really work in a nation that prefers sharing a common culture to enforced multiculturalism, and a nation that fosters different roles for the sexes. The cowboy is part of our collective heritage as Americans, and especially as American men. When we stop allowing left-wing academics and political figures to control our perception of our own history, we will be able to restore the noble cowboy and a host of other heroes to their rightful places as role models for American men and boys.