Stories, Learning & Place

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Life in the Enchanted West
   Cowboy manners: smile when you call me that

Though I owned a horse when I was a kid, I didn’t have a saddle and we didn’t have any cows. My dad was a logger. Nonetheless, he taught me the Code of the West, in his intermittent and distracted way. He loved cowboys and he hated jerks and bad manners.

Though Montana now has its share of folks who look to Europe for their sense of how people ought to live—the ones who call the President a cowboy and feel they are being very mean when they do—some of us just can’t feel that it’s much of an insult to call someone a cowboy.

I’m talking about mythic cowboys, of course. The ones who can’t be destroyed by the debunkers, who live two or three paradigms south. Mythic cowboys live in in the narrative space of stories that should be true. They emerged when their creators felt that the ideals they embodied were threatened by all the usual things: urbanization, industrialization, corruption and modernity. Some way was needed to jazz up the ideals of civilization when the forces of barbarity seemed ascendant.

In other words, mythic cowboys were created to meet actual problems. It worked well enough, barely. All those GIs in World War II thought they knew a thing or two about how they were supposed to act when faced with the likes of Hitler. The details—50 caliber heavy machine gun in the waist of a B-17 instead of Colt .45 from the back of a gelding—mattered little.

Cowboys inhabit a timeless narrative space, along with the troubles and villains they face. Who hasn’t from time to time found himself in Hadleyville, that hapless town located in High Noon where the ordinary, fearful folks feel things might just be good enough if Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) will just ride away. That Miller gang is pretty scary. Think how unpleasant a fight would be.

But of course, the good cowboy doesn’t ride away if that means injustice triumphs. That would be against type. So Kane stays and things get unpleasant but then, after a hard trial, the good order is restored. Historian Victor Davis Hanson believes that when Europeans call George Bush a cowboy, their typological thinking is mainly correct:

The truth is that we live in a global Hadleyville suffering from the delusion that international communications, cell-phones, and the Internet--like the railroad and telegraph before them--equate to civilization. In fact, they are only a thin and flashy veneer atop a wild and savage world where outlaw regimes like North Korea, Saddam’s Iraq, and Iran push until pushed back. The United Nations can keep the peace and dispense justice about as well as the territorial marshal who is a three-day ride away or the bought sheriff of a cattle baron’s town. And a Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Mullah Omar, or Saddam Hussein listens to international warnings about as much as Liberty Valance pays heed to the bumbling coward of a sheriff Link Appleyard.

That is why so many people privately appreciate an American Tom Doniphon, Shane, or Will Kane who from time to time appears out of nowhere to stand up to a Saddam, Taliban, or Kim Jong Il--or to the recent crop of bullies in Lebanon, Syria, and Iran.

How now, cowboy? The uses and abuses of a national icon.

A crucial part of the charm of the cowboy type is the requirement for being a reluctant warrior. The good warrior doesn’t want war. Cowboys are primarily gentlemen—practitioners of the code of chivalry. They have manners, which also bespeak the timeless.

Manners, they know, are the little ways we practice the big virtues:

* “Always tip your hat to a lady and they’re all ladies.”

* “Actin’ like you’re big is probably going to have the opposite effect.”

* “A man taking a stand on high moral ground just might be standing on a bluff.”

* “One sign of good manners is being able to put up with bad ones.”

* “Sooner or later we all wind up sitting next to someone at dinner who is about as strange as a duck in Death Valley. Good etiquette requires that you waddle across the desert with ‘em until dessert is over.”

* “If a woman spills her drink, hand her a napkin and let her do the patting.”

* “Don’t answer the doorbell in your undershorts.”

* “If the guests outnumber the chairs, it’s called a buffet.”

* “If you’ve got nothing much to say, don’t take an hour to prove it.”

* “Don’t interrupt unless somebody’s hair is on fire.”

* “Never go anywhere without your head in your hat.”

* “Aftershave is not a marinade.”

* “Never interfere with another man’s dog unless the dog is about to attach himself to your leg.”

* “When served escargot, pour a little salt on it and forget it. It will melt while you wait for the next course.”

from Texas Bix Bender’s Cowboy Etiquette, with art by Larry Bute

I’ve spent a bit of time over the weekend reading some far left websites. Not many cowboys there.


Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 12/27 at 09:54 PM
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©2007 Michael L. Umphrey
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