The Code of the West: Alive & Well in Wyoming - Trailer from Havey Productions on Vimeo.
So, this movie is currently enjoying some popularity. Many people in my acquaintance find it appealing, and want to tie it closely to the heightened concern with business ethics of the past few years. And I can appreciate that. Clearly, Wall Street is no place to be looking for some coherent, livable code of ethics. But I have some pretty big issues with the idea that the Old West™ (or even the modern day Old West™) is a better place to find it. It seems to me like every time period and cultural framework has its own strengths and weaknesses, and it's important to not mistake the mythology that grows up around it for the day-to-day reality. So here are a few things to think about:
- There never has been and never will be any culture or social group that's monolithic. Whatever we might imagine the Old West™ to have been like, it simply wasn't a place where nobody would betray you and everyone kept their promises, lived up to their obligations, and refrained from exploiting others. There were cowboys who didn't follow the cowboy code. There were ranchers who were ruthless in achieving their objectives. There were opportunistic drifters who would give their word and a firm handshake as a way to manipulate the situation and exploit others. Of course there were also those who kept their promises and whose handshake was just as good as an airtight legal contract. But it was never the case that everyone followed the "code of the west" or that you could trust everyone you met from the West.
- In the modern day Old West™, it's still not the case that you can completely trust a person simply because of the geographical region they're from. In my experience, people are just as likely to be trustworthy and ethical in Seattle and LA and Houston and Minneapolis and Jackson Hole. Everywhere you go there are some who are really good people, down to the core. And then there are those who are just scoundrels no matter what context they find themselves in, while the rest are just as good (or bad) as the situation requires or inspires them to be. Of course, this finds different expression in different cultural contexts. But the idea that you're any less likely to be mistreated in Wyoming or Montana as opposed to New York is... questionable.
- The contrast between cowboy country and wall street is misleading. There are "cowboys" on Wall Street and there are scoundrels out on the range. The thing is, lately all we hear about from Wall Street is the scoundrels, because that's what's newsworthy. No doubt there are many good people working on Wall Street whose handshake is all you need and who keep their word and try to be kind to others. They're just not the ones making the news. Then there's the obvious fact that, if you're handling other people's money and making decisions that impact thousands (or millions) of people, you have the opportunity to betray and exploit people in a much more spectacular fashion. But betrayal and exploitation are betrayal and exploitation wherever you find them.
- Having certain skills like roping or bullriding does not make you more likely to be an ethical person.
- Wearing western style clothing and spending the bulk of your time in wide open spaces does not make you more likely to be an ethical person (although I will say that having a good work ethic goes a long, long way).
- This movie seems to omit a huge chunk of history. In cowboy country, there was one group of people with whom we often did not honor our word or feel bound by a firm handshake. If your skin was brown, all bets were off. We would make agreements with you, sealed by a handshake and a written contract, which we would frequently disregard the minute it became convenient for us. Our word was questionable if your skin was brown and your culture didn't look like ours. And once again, no culture or group is monolithic, but there was a time when betraying non-white people was pretty widely accepted. Many white people didn't, but many did. That's why we have Indian Reservations and wide achievement gaps, y'all.