Layers upon layers here today, as my random readings of blog archives brings up a post from EoTAW brought up a 2007 article by Chuck Klosterman, “Things We Think We Know,” which basically argues that Europeans vastly overestimate how much the average American actually cares about cowboy culture:

And it slowly dawned on me that the creators of “I Like America” had made one critical error: While they had not necessarily misunderstood the historical relationship between Americans and cowboy iconography, they totally misinterpreted its magnitude. With the possible exception of Jon Bon Jovi, I can’t think of any modern American who gives a shit about cowboys, even metaphorically. Dramatic op-ed writers are wont to criticize warhawk politicians by comparing them to John Wayne, but no one really believes thatHondoaffects policy; it’s just a shorthand way to describe something we already understand. But European intellectuals use cowboy culture to understand American sociology, and that’s a specious relationship (even during moments when it almost makes sense). As it turns out, Germans care about cowboys way more than we do.

EoTAW was highly critical of this argument, and the post reminded me that I, too, had taken issue with this article back in the day. I made some stupid comment on the blog, but then at home I managed to find where I had actually written down my thoughts on the piece, which are much smarter. I present them here for your enjoyment (updated, of course, because it is no longer 2007 and a lot has changed):

Europeans don’t overestimate the magnitude of cowboy mythology in American culture. If anything, I think Klosterman underestimated it. The frontier experience, the American West, and the image of the cowboy are all deeply ingrained in American culture; they’re a huge part of the national myths we root our culture in. Naturally, we don’t all make John Wayne references or think that western films have some deep, important impact on contemporary culture; to be perfectly honest, I’m not sure if most people of my generation or those behind me could even tell you who, precisely, John Wayne was. But I think you could stop anybody on the street and get a fairly standard description of what a cowboy is, and these descriptions wouldn’t just be “a guy who rides a horse and works on a ranch.” I believe that the average person would give a response that revealed the ways in which Americans associate the idealized cowboy with the idealized United States. Over the years, various public figures have used this image to their own advantage. In particular, savvy politicians (and/or their handlers and speech writers) play on this association to craft their own images.

It has been successfully argued for the past century that, to some extent, Americans root their sense of identity in the frontier experience. It’s the great battle against the wilderness that turns Europeans into Americans. Europe may be old and decadent, but America is fresh, new, tough, and democratic. This identity has various representations, but the small yeoman farmer and the cowboy are two of the most enduring. The cowboy is manly and self-sufficient. Basically, he’s the guy from “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys”: a natural loner, but kind to children and dogs and a defender of the little guy. If you carry these ideas out to political theory, the cowboy is your typical libertarian. He’s definitely a believer in small government.[1]

Up until 2008, Kennedy was the last elected president from a state outside the South or West (Ford was from Michigan, but he wasn’t elected).[2] The post-war economic rise of the Sunbelt states has influenced the way politics play out in this country. Both Reagan and George W. Bush played on the image of the cowboy to convey a certain image to the public. And they both succeeded. When Reagan and Bush were filmed on their ranches, in western shirts and hats, the image was that of the common man, a guy just like you or me. They’re consciously counteracting the fact that they’re rich. These might be massive, expensive ranches that are primarily for show, but the imagery still conveys essential American qualities and ideals. By playing at being cowboys, these politicians were setting themselves up as trustworthy guys, the kinds of public officials that would stand for the common man, never back down from a fight, and hold to their own deeply held sense of honor.

The image of the cowboy holds a special place in American culture; it somehow even manages to overcome the boundaries of class. Bush could play on the fact that he comes from oil money and studied at Yale, but he’d lose a connection to the “common people.” And yet, when he selected an image that would connect to the average American, he didn’t play at being a construction worker or a cop. There’s something peculiar about the nature of cowboy mythology that allows it to maintain its appeal whether the person manipulating it portrays himself as a rancher or a cowhand. The spirit of independence and liberty remains.

As for Europeans, well, they have their own connection to American mythology themselves, primarily based on the works of Karl May. One of the best things I’ve seen on this topic is a Canadian documentary called If Only I Were an Indian. The filmmakers take some Cree people to the Czech Republic and Germany to meet people who intensely study native culture (including language) in order to spend their weekends dressing up as natives and camping in tipis. During the Soviet era, this kind of playacting functioned as a form of resistance to the state culture. It’s weird and kind of hilarious to watch this as an American, but utterly fascinating. It’s sadly only available in Canada (and only on VHS), so I can’t really tell you to go out and Netflix it or something. But should you ever come across it, I highly recommend watching it.

[1] There’s a whole weird paradox about the relationship between people and the federal government in the West: the federal government is the largest landholder west of the Mississippi, and Westerners resent this. At the same time, life in the arid West is made possible through huge government subsidies and work projects. Also, I just want to clarify here that when I say “the cowboy,” I mean “the idealized cowboy,” not necessarily actual guys out working on ranches.

[2] We can debate whether Illinois is “West” or not (Bill Cronon would say yes), but for the sake of argument let’s say it’s not. My point still stands: 1960 to 2008 is a long damn time, and the Northeast has been pretty much excluded from offering up presidential candidates (one of the many reasons I found the 2008 Democratic race utterly fascinating; a frontrunner from Chicago and another from New York).

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