Wyo author says 'Code of the West' offers sanitized view of history
By Mead Gruver
Gov. Dave Freudenthal signed the Code of the West into law a few months ago as the official code for Wyoming. The 10 aphorisms--including "always finish what you start" and "take pride in your work"--by themselves aren't simple to disparage.
Yet the code has come under fire from author Samuel Western, who says it offers a sanitized view of history, as if all cowboys are virtuous and always have been.
"Many a cowboy was a great, wonderful, noble horseman. But there were just as many who were less-than-noble citizens," Western said Thursday. "I don't feel that it's really necessary to elevate the cowboy to any great standing, say, above a railroad engineer."
America needs positive role models these days, Owen said in a phone interview after he received a standing ovation for his speech Thursday.
"Nobody is putting the cowboy on some pedestal," he said. "The cowboy is a construct. He's a symbol. I believe he's a symbol of the best of America."
Owen said he came up with the code after a year and a half that included reading 100 Western books and watching 25 classic Western movies.
A problem with the code, Western wrote in the column, is people tend to "glom on to one-liners" and believe them literally.
"This relieves citizens of the hard work of looking at the past, acknowledging the ugliness, and, with any luck, learning how to avoid a repeat performance," he wrote.
America needs to get away from hero worship or idealization of anyone, "be they cowboy, soldier, roughneck or rector," Western wrote.
In other words, I really agree with Western. The whole idea of a cowboy code is pretty silly. If people can't obey Jesus's simple command to love thy neighbor as thyself, how are they going to follow the cowboy code? Let's see them acknowledge the Ten Commandments first--the sensible ones, anyway--before we give them another 10 items to memorize.
I especially agree with Western's point that the code is a way to avoid hard, critical thinking. "Take pride in your work," for instance, is shallower than a bumper sticker. Is that really going to stop people from cutting corners or seeking the big score? Let's ask the British Petroleum executives who have broken rules and violated laws if they took pride in their work.
Back in 2003 I criticized Gene Autry's Cowboy Code. This code sounds similar. It probably deserves the same criticism.
For more on the subject, see George W. Bush = John Wayne and Mighty Whitey to the Rescue.
Below: The perfect example of the American cowboy. He'll do whatever it takes to get his man--including a preemptive war and illegal torture.