Thursday, January 28, 2010

Cowboy Culture...Again

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.
And beyond all of these critiques, I think that images and conceptualizations like this can be counterproductive if they distract us from really talking about ethics. The rugged reliable cowboy makes a pretty picture, and it does seem like an easy escape from the corruption and immorality we may often experience in a more urban business or political environment. But, in addition to being an attractive fiction, this image doesn't tell us anything about ethics, or what makes people treat others well, or how to raise your kids so that they'll behave in an ethical way in every context they find themselves. It doesn't tell us anything about what ethical people are really like, other than that they have a firm handshake and ride a horse. So, for those who find it appealing, I think this movie is a great piece of regional PR, and it has some great footage of the truly beautiful local landscape. But beyond that...


  1. Meg'n1/28/2010

    Hm. I spect you're gonna get yourself into some trouble with this one. =)

  2. Anonymous1/29/2010

    I appreciate this post and get what you're saying. The thing is, I think it's human nature to build up these fantasies around certain time periods and identities and then compare our own lives and identities to them. I think it's a way to try to understand yourself in a broader context, and sort of "locate" yourself in history. But I agree that it can be counterproductive in the ways you identify.

  3. Maybe the over-romanticization is a response or backlash to the perceived under-valuing of this region. My impression is that if you're from one of the "square states" it always seems to you like you're looked down on by people from other regions, and that everyone thinks you're a bunch of backward hicks. So maybe this is a response that's become understandably exaggerated.

  4. Hey Rachel,

    What's getting bored with all of your lapdogs telling you how spot on all of your posts are? I thought we put this to bed last year but I guess not.

    I'm thinking that maybe you have a secret Cowboy Fetish...or maybe you just miss me giving you shit.

    I'm busy right now, but I'll post something over the weekend to address this reconfirmation of your goofiness.

    By the way...your purple boyfriends would have won if they could have held on to the rock. That's what we call a choke. I could've used that twenty...


  5. Burn, I agree that the Vikings blew the game all on their own and have nobody else to blame. I mean, it's true that there were several fucked-up calls by the refs in overtime, but it was their own damn fault they were even in overtime, so you're not getting any argument out of me. However, your critique of this post is noticeably lacking. I've only gotten two hatemails over it, so you probably need to pick up the slack.

    Happy Monday!

  6. OK Rachel - I'm as masochistic as the next guy but this is my last go around on the Cowboy thing. (1 of 3)

    I get that you're a member in good standing of the Academy and in that capacity you feel it's your professional obligation to claim that cultures that have actually existed but that don't fit your progressive agenda need to be discredited. That way history can be rewritten in a way that makes smart people like you comfortable. Now that you've posted three or four times about how the Cowboy Culture never really existed it's pretty clear you have a Hard On concerning the issue.

    Maybe I missed something, but I didn't hear anyone saying that Cowboy Culture was monolithic, did you? I was personally raised in this culture and you don't believe it ever happened, so I guess we have a problem. That said since I was actually there and you grew up in Seattle I'm thinking that maybe I'm more qualified to speak to this issue. What say you? In this context if you think you are the first person that ever floated into the West and decided the culture didn't fit your particular view of reality maybe you should check with some of your Western History Prof buddies in Laramie / Bozeman / Missoula for some background. Report back. We'll grade on a curve. Just for reference, hanging around in college bars getting fucked up with locals that play the geetaar or some other stringed instrument doesn't really qualify as understanding the Cowboy Culture. It does however sound like a good time, so I do appreciate your research methodology.

    There are obviously good guys and assholes regardless of where a person decides to live or work. I would argue that their physical distribution varies widely depending upon how you define it. Unless you apply some sort of objective metric to measure this we won't find common ground. There are all kinds of stats out there concerning crime and living environments if that is how a person decides to measure it. I'd say that many of these stats relate to this issue, but that's my opinion. I would also add that the rural frontier environment in which the Cowboy Culture germinated forced interdependence due to the sparse population. So being good neighbors kind of became a habit from both a social and survival perspective. My sense is that you and your Academy buddies can always rationalize any data discrepancies due to "cultural contexts". Of all of the goofy things you've banged out on your blog your "Wyoming / New York laughable" blurb is the craziest. Do you just say shit like that to see if people are paying attention?

    I don't remember anyone taking a position that if a person wears a Stetson & boots or who rodeos as having strong character or ethics. I will say that based upon your comments you seem to believe that people like this are somehow inferior. That doesn't seem like a very progressive attitude. My sense is that Philosophy Professionals are particularly challenged in relating to the real world as it rarely impacts where their minds wander. Your recently deceased fellow feminist philosopher Mary Daly is a great example of someone that lived her entire life never having dealt with reality in a meaningful way but still somehow managed to spread her foolishness throughout the Academy and early feminism without anyone formally acknowledging her tenuous connection with reality or sanity.

  7. Rachel - 2 of 3

    Concerning your standard progressive argument about American Indian repression, I'd be happy to have a dialogue with you concerning our Native American Brothers some time. Just get up to speed on it if you decide to put up a serious post. Keep in mind that I've actually spent time on the Res, so don't come to a gunfight with a knife.

    I'm thinking that maybe you should back off on your comments concerning Wall Street a bit since it appears the only real exposure you have to business is working at Starbucks and buying stuff. Given that I've actually been working with investment bankers, asset backed securities, contract enforcement, portfolio servicing, lawsuits, etc. issues for most of my career let me share some reality with you and your friends as to how it really works. I'll preface this with the offer that if any of you people have investment banker friends or relatives that would like to rebut any the following I'd be happy to discuss it via this blog or email.

    Investment Bankers LOVE money. They make it by doing deals. They are normally paid a bonus or commission based upon a relatively small percentage of really large deals. When I say really large deals I mean normally in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Because they are paid in this way they always want to do big deals because they make more money. Make sense? Since normally around half of their annual compensation is based upon this commission structure they are motivated to make big deals happen pretty much regardless of the human or business impact and as we have seen sometimes regardless of securities laws. Frankly Ethics don't really exist with Investment Bankers or their lawyers. It's all about what they can legally put together and sell to others, regardless of what happens after they get paid their money. They package securities; market & sell them and then pass the risk on to the buyers, which explains the current state of our economy. They have proven they don't know how to insure for the risk they sell. They don't care who they fuck with as long as they make money in the process. The ONLY thing they care about concerning the performance of their sold securities is it's potential impact on their future ability to sell more securities and make more money, period. It's primarily an East Coast banking culture that is consistent with certain groups of people thinking that they are smarter than everyone else and having no problem with screwing others if they can make money from the effort. It's that "Elitist Thing", just applied to money instead of Academia. Point being, if someone really thinks they are "smarter" than everyone else it doesn't matter to them what they do because they "get it" and you don't. If you're an Elitist you feel you're actually helping the ignorant masses by using this opportunity to educate them, even if it costs them money in the process. In summary, they're greedy assholes that don't give a shit about anyone but themselves.

  8. 3 of 3

    So…now lets talk about some of the aspects of Cowboy Culture that reflect their commonly held ethical views. It's pretty straightforward. If you see someone doing the wrong thing, either personally or professionally you step up and tell them to knock the shit off just because it's the right thing to do. It doesn't matter if it puts you at personal or professional risk or costs you money. You don't ever intentionally fuck anyone or let someone else fuck someone if you know about it, period. If you screw up you tell the truth about what you did and you take the consequences. If you are in a tight spot you always look to yourself first, you don't blame others just because it's the easy way out. If someone needs help you help him or her if you can. You take responsibility for your life and your future. It's a no fucking brainer. That Darlin' is the Cowboy Culture in a nutshell. You can believe it or not. The only real downside I've personally encountered in living this way is that you trust people up front until they do something to show they don't deserve to be trusted. This approach was fine in Montana & Wyoming, but I've taken some hits on the business side in some Metros. So you do get screwed once in a while, but if you're smart it doesn't happen twice. Cowboy Culture isn't how you dress; it's how you Live.

    So from my perspective it does exist, but I'm thinking that a person actually has to be in the game to see if they have the character to do the right thing when it really matters. Or…you could sit in Academia with no first hand knowledge of what the hell you are talking about and throw stones at a culture of people that have been doing the right thing for decades… At the end of the day you're going to believe what you want to believe.

    Finally, I've lived enough not to buy into your bullshit theories, but maybe you should consider that some your less experienced readers might actually believe that what you're trying to pass off here has a basis in reality.

    Your Buddy,

  9. marcantony2/03/2010

    Jesus burn, she's neither discrediting the culture nor claiming it never existed. There's a pretty important distinction between the mythology surrounding a culture (which is obviously what this movie is about) and the reality. I think she's been pretty specific about discrediting the mythology of cowboy culture. Move on already.

  10. Anonymous2/04/2010

    I do believe Burn set a record for highest number of ad hominems in one rant ever of all times. Impressive.

    Burn, I think you need to carefully re-read the post. Most of the things you think Rachel is saying are total misunderstandings on your part. She's not saying cowboy culture never existed, or even that it sucks. You are truly tilting with windmills.

  11. Glorianna2/04/2010

    What I don't get about cowboy mythology is where do people think the villains of the old west come in? There's usually a corrupt person (rancher or lawman or rustler or whatever) in stories of the old west that everyone else has to band together to fight against. Doesn't that show that it wasn't really safe to rely on a person's handshake just because they were from the old west? (I get that it was different if they were your neighbor or well known to you.) Think about the Deadwood series. It was terribly violent, but I don't think it was that bad of a portrayal of some of the politics and social dynamics that really existed.

  12. I'll respond to you clones later. I'm busy being a capitalist right now.

  13. @ marcantony - Actually she's screwing with me as best she can. I'm sure you come by it honestly, but I know when I'm getting fucked with. Been there, done that. Montana guys aren't very smart, but they pick up on the basics.

    @ Anonymous - I don't give a fuck about your ad hominems. I'm sure I'm totally out of line and I don't give a fuck about that either. As I mentioned to your buddy Marc, I know when someone thinks they can screw with me and for some reason you folks think you can. I've crushed better than you, but that's OK. How about if you take that Windmill, bend over and use your imagination, ya know?

    @ Glorianna - There's always assholes out there. What's that old saying? "No Rain, No Rainbow." That's part of the deal. Expect to be treated fairly and tell people so. Don't put up with bullshit from Losers. Deal with it. Losers and Douchebags always back off. If all of that fails look for a Hero out there that believes what you do.

    @ Rachel - I'm done fucking around with your blog. We aren't going to agree and I've got folks I can help and lives I can make better instead of doing war with you and your goofy sisters. I guess I'd like to offer my help to any of you goofs that need it, but it seems you already think you're smarter than me so I'm not seeing where I add value to your reality.

    All of this said, when the chips are down and no one else is there for you, I've got your back. I like your Bad Attitude. I'm serious about this so let me know. Absent that we're done.


  14. Honestly, this comment thread is one of the funniest things I've read in a long time. Burn just rants over and over again and no one seems to care what he has to say, yet he keeps on preaching it anyway. If this Burn character does get around to seeing this comment I'm sure I'll receive a lovely offensive remark which will only make it better.

    I find it hilarious that people like this actually exist and go around trolling blogs. Thanks for the laugh - intentional or not.