When we sense that this country is challenged, or struggling, or morally adrift in an age that seems beset with disillusionment, it is only understandable that there be some kind of effort to apply cowboy sensibilities to try to better things.
Meanwhile, there is something going on in society that has been noted by others, not just of late but for at least a generation. One of the indicators appeared some 15 years ago—about the same time this magazine debuted—in a book called The Death of Common Sense, which attracted considerable attention for the way it documented a deplorable slide in society. That book, which examined real-life examples of misguided opinion, insupportable decision-making, and fallacy-prone rulings, was mostly about jurisprudence-gone-haywire (it was more specifically about law and the courtrooms) but the indictment it brought to our society in general was clear enough.
It was preceded by only a few years by another book—this one entitled The Closing of the American Mind—that was broader in its scope but still explored the same too-plentiful material. Both books charted a departure from the kind of clear, open-minded, highly reasoned, ethically driven thinking that once was characteristic of the American people—not just its leading lights but its average citizenry.
As for the alarming directions cited by authors Philip K. Howard and Allan Bloom, respectively, we’ve seen nothing in the media in the years since that points to any reversals in these trends.
Instead, we hear fresh disclosures like these: that 63 percent of Americans can’t find Iraq or Saudi Arabia on a map; that, among high school students, 75 percent don’t know when Lincoln was president, and 60 percent do not know why The Federalist was written.
Why does this sort of thing come up for inspection in a cowboy magazine? Well, it might not be so immediately
obvious, but on some level, one could argue that a decline in common sense and clear-headedness comes from a decline in character. The aim known as “character-based education” is more than just the idea that it is neat if one cultivates character and the intellect at the same time. It is rather the idea that development of character deepens the intellect and frees it to grasp and possess truth in ways that the less-qualified cannot.
But we need not bother to look to intelligence, or the lack thereof, as a signpost of declining national character. For the deficiencies that are springing up in that realm—character and morals—supply evidence enough on their own.
We see around us a society drifting off toward drug use, vice, greed, and disillusionment. So many of our children live rudderless lives. A 2008 study by Duke University revealed that 75 percent of all college-bound students cheat in their schoolwork at some time or other. This week it was announced that another study, this one by the California-based Josephson Institute, found that 30 percent of students had stolen from a store within the year and that 42 percent had lied to save money. The results, researchers said, suggested that “Americans are too apathetic about ethical standards.”
Such news is always close at hand. Here are headlines taken from the day this piece is being written (Dec. 9): (1) In the worsening economy, computer crooks are enticing people into opening their homes and bank accounts and becoming “mules” for laundering money or stolen goods. (2) More and more people are getting away with murder, the chief reason being a rise in drug- and gang-related killings, which are often impersonal and anonymous, and thus harder to solve.
It is a darker worldview that we confront than did our parents. But maybe there is a way to bring some degree of brightness to it.
Imagine, for a moment, a world in which the Cowboy Way is held in the same esteem as, say, the ideals of the Founding Fathers. Is it so far-fetched? These two schools of thought, if one might call them such, stand as twin pillars of the American mindset.
They stand at different ends of the spectrum. The Founding Fathers’ ideals were mainly political and governmental. We know so well the hold that the Founding Fathers—and by extension, the Constitution, and our political system itself—have on American society. But those values apply to society and the social contract—not so much to the individual in society. By contrast, the Cowboy Way—and for that matter all the attributes engendered by frontier life and by rugged, elemental living (whether at Plymouth Rock or at Chimney Rock or today on any ranch or farm)—are matters of morals and ethics. They are personal and individual.
Each of these guiding forces (Founding Fathers and Cowboy Way) furnished its own unique contribution to the national character. It would take some big changes, of course, for the Cowboy Way ever to be elevated, in the public’s eye, to a status equal to or approaching that of the Founding Fathers. But some causes—even causes that most would consider lost before they are started—are worth fighting for. As G.K. Chesterton observed, “The one perfectly divine thing, the one glimpse of God’s paradise given on earth, is to fight a losing battle—and not lose it.”
And I know what many are thinking: that faith is a better path to follow to moral uplift than a merely secular approach. Being a believer, I feel the same. But I have to admit that because of the resistance that so much of society has to any kind of religious appeal, there is room for an approach that operates outside spirituality. If that approach is not the Cowboy Way, we have to ask ourselves what would work better? What ethical blueprint is more intrinsically American? If you read what James Owen thinks (see p. 43), you’ll realize that there is not just a ready market for the Cowboy Way among people of all walks of life, but there is a natural affinity for it, because we are all Americans, and this is part of our makeup.
I have no disputes with anyone finding inspiration in the ideals of the Founding Fathers. But the Founding Fathers’ generation was one that already had strong moral underpinnings. That society was steeped in morality, ethics, and religion. When we look at our own, what is most lacking? It seems to me that it is the moral quotient—something that the earlier society had before it embraced the Founding Fathers’ thinking—that is most lacking today. Societies must walk before they can run.
And, again, one has to wonder if there is any code of conduct that more befits American society than the Cowboy Way, whether it is something to be advanced among all ages or simply advocated to our small children.
There is still room for that power to work in our society. Even a journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step. So let this recommendation be taken as a single step. The Cowboy Way—the Code of the West—and the heartland attitudes and attributes of past generations who were advanced beyond us in so many truly important regards—these qualities, collectively, can be an antidote for what ails America.
If this sounds so formidable, think for a moment of the effects that a cowboy such as Will Rogers had on the nation’s thinking. Rogers was just one person. Because of his message, Rogers became the most influential citizen of his time. Consider this appraisal from Wikipedia: “It may be difficult, with the passage of time, to fully comprehend the extraordinary place Rogers held in the minds and hearts of the American people at the time of his death [in 1935]. The outpouring of national grief over Rogers’ passing is generally regarded to be the greatest such show of national mourning since the death of Lincoln some 70 years earlier. He was the nation’s most widely read newspaper columnist; his half-hour radio show was the nation’s most-listened-to weekly broadcast; and he had been the nation’s #1 or 2 movie box office draw in the years 1933-1935.” And yet Rogers was merely heir to a tradition that went back to the West and also to the Founding Fathers. Our history has a string of such frontier-minded opinion-shapers. Jefferson, Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt—these also embodied so many of the traits that in Rogers’ vernacular became national rallying points.
On more than one occasion I have spoken in this magazine of the West as being “America’s Greatest National Treasure.” In saying that, I was referring, at least in part, to the natural wonders and uplifting spaciousness of the West. But in larger measure, I was making reference to its past and future effects on the American character and mindset. The way it has shaped American thinking and attitudes and even integrity.
In the same issue this article was published in, we celebrate 15 Westerners. But we also celebrate them as 15 Americans. It is a love of the West that binds these Americans. That’s what it takes to effect change. One must have something to believe in. It doesn’t matter how hard it might be to attain.
To quote, again, G.K. Chesterton: “Everyone needs a thought-through philosophy or a theology to live by. If someone does not think that he lives by a philosophy, then what he really lives by are the scraps and tail-ends of other people’s broken and discarded philosophies.”
We have in our possession those philosophies that can make a difference. It is only up to us to live them. This nation could only be bettered if the Cowboy Way were to be imbued with an aura like that of ideals of the Founding Fathers.
CODE OF THE WEST
-Live each day with courage.
-Take pride in your work.
-Always finish what you start.
-Do what has to be done.
-Be tough, but fair.
-When you make a promise, keep it.
-Ride for the brand.
-Talk less and say more.
-Remember that some things aren’t for sale.
-Know where to draw the line.