Cowboys, Power, Politics, and Crime
The last question in Lonely Are the Brave is asked by the truck driver played by Carroll O' Connor: "He ain't gonna die is he?" In 1962, the question reflects our nation's uncertainty about the usefulness of the cowboy as a mythic figure for processing cultural problems. The Western is increasingly viewed with suspicion; the cowboy came to represent a profoundly disturbing and negative aspect of our past. Yes, as William Kittredge suggests in "Death of the Western," the cowboy hero cuts through the shit when he straps on his six-guns. But the "implications in a society like ours, so deeply and often frustrated, and so adept in the sciences of destruction, are literally unthinkable. Nuke the bastards." The message of the classic western? Political order could only be maintained through force. The western (logically I suspect) was so popular after W. W. II because it dramatized the belief that "might makes right" within a clearly defined moral framework where men in white hats shoot it out with unshaven and uncivilized guys in black hats. The ideology of horse operas is and was well-suited for defending the United States involvement in the Cold War and, more recently, for justifying our nation's participation in Third World incursions.
In the '60s, The Civil rights movement awakened a new consciousness about minorities--especially Native Americans--in the West; in addition many Americans openly rejected not only the archetypal images of women but the whole legacy of conquest. At the same time, the Vietnam War brought about a bleak mood of pessimism and self-criticism, especially about cowboy mythology--that is, the belief that the United States could clean up the global town was turning sour. In the fifties, the complex questions in a changing world were presented as simple morality plays with resolutions achieved through silence and violence. By the mid-sixties, these classic westerns became sodden in irony; Americans (in Vietnam) were having difficulties seeing themselves as the World's Marshall.
As a hero, Jack Burns in "Lonely Are the Brave" is a likable misfit, an anachronism, trying to survive on the cusp of a modern world. Tragically, he is crushed by the impersonal forces of progress. And even though he is a nostalgic figure, the defeat of the cowboy was a necessity for many Americans in the '60s. The Cowboy as icon represented dangerous definitions of freedom and isolation embedded in the unsavory underbelly of the Myth of Self--what Jack Burns calls the wild-eyed mountain girl: "Do what you want and the hell with everybody else." Well "everybody else" was pissed off at the U.S. oligarchy for utilizing western mythology to construct social, environmental, economic, and foreign policies of inequality and plunder.
There is more to say. Jack Burns also epitomizes the "natural man," a character living an authentic life in the natural world. In "Civil Disobedience," Henry David Thoreau asserts that the "government is best that governs not at all." This statement takes on paradoxical dimensions when we recall Aldo Leopold's definition of ethics. Yet as an archetype of freedom in America, the cowboy often stands in contention with, not only progress, but the forces of the state, whether that force is the FBI on Ruby Ridge or Buzz light-year in Disney's Toy Story. In his own way the cowboy is an outlaw, yet a man of "True Grit." This quality is inherent in the character of the American West, so the myth goes. In the confrontation between the Myth of State and the Myth of Self, Thoreau suggests that we should be "men first and subjects afterward."
In this context, one may say that contemporary men have gone Woody Allen soft for, like Ismene in Sophocles' Antigone, the mass of men serve the Myth of State thus, "not as men mainly but as machines, with their bodies." Thoreau writes, "Those who, while they disapprove of the character and measures of government, yield to it their allegiance and support are undoubtedly its most conscientious supporters, and frequently the most serious obstacles to reform." Unjust laws exist. Shall we then be inclined to obey them and wait for the majority to decide to alter them? Thoreau writes, "If the machine of government . . . is of such a nature that it requires you to be an agent of injustice . . . then I say, break the law." Within such mytholgy, the individual is the basis of the empire, the higher and independent power from which all power and authority of the state derives. However, if pushed too far this mythology can become frightening--the Oklahoma City Bombing.