From Cowboys to Cowed — The effect of the manufacturing culture on the American Psyche
The lone cowboy, riding through a wilderness, living out of his saddlebags and off the land is a fading image of American cultural mythology. The independence, the willingness to help, the willingness to risk one’s life for justice and to help others, and then move on, reflected the story of pioneers facing an unknown hostile environment. It portrayed also the quixotic pursuits of the immigrants adapting to the wilderness of a new land, to pursue their dreams and freedom. For much of our history it was the image of personal risk-taking, empowerment and progress.
With a quick nod to the reality checkers: Yes, the cowboy culture was male chauvinist, racist, and exploitative in pursuing “manifest destiny” into the lands of Native peoples and in abusing the natural resources. However, it is not the reality of human greed that makes the symbolism of the cowboy psychologically pertinent to men and women and to global cultures. It is in the aspiration of being a free person who is connected to the environment, independent, courageous, and self-sufficient. The opposite of being the cowboy is to be the herd — cowed, bullied, discouraged, defeated.
The nails in the coffin of the cowboy myth were pounded tightly as our last “cowboy” president used his ride across America for the gangs and thieves of the once beautiful landscapes and communities. He and his band of outlaws used the naïve goodness of the people as a population to be exploited and enslaved emotionally and financially. Hopefully, George W. Bush was the endpoint of a process that began with industrialization, and that mutated the cowboy hero into the “terminator.” As Obama took office the rest of the drama has had to play out.
Urbanization and industrialization were great schools for creating social consciousness, teamwork, obedience and tolerance, but it changed the awareness of the human connection to the life systems of nature, which are the true teachers of respect, economy, interdependence, and gratitude. The labor force was made up largely of poor people off the farms, former slaves off of the plantations, and immigrants escaping crop failures, wars and persecution abroad. Several generations later, many of their offspring have gone beyond the assembly line, and the urban tenements.
Who doesn't know what I'm talking about
Who's never left home, who's never struck out
To find a dream and a life of their own —
A place in the clouds, a foundation of stone
—Dixie Chicks “Wide Open Spaces”
Factory work changed the parameters of survival and happiness so that peoples’ self-concept became defined in terms of wealth and the power to consume. Connection to community became dependent on solving common social problems, which is not so much an act of affirmation as it is an act of desperation. Personal “empowerment” became the power to win the corporate game. The success of the manufacturing culture is based on making people dependent, in debt, wasteful, and fearful that their ability to survive would be threatened if consumer confidence falls, or if their jobs are sent abroad.
Manufacturing as a way of life is ending in America, but people are anxious because they do not know with what to replace it. Suddenly, the great protection of the company, the plant, and the union are no longer there, leaving many working people feeling like castaways left alone to survive. Whereas they were willingly cowed into being loyal workers because of the rewards of a dependable job, they are now cowed by the discouragement of not having a factory for which to work.
Fortunately, there is a new synthesis growing in the American psyche that is somewhere between the lone cowboy riding through the wilderness, and the corporate employee jogging on treadmills for fitness. America’s next step to post-industrial prosperity has to do with quality of life and innovation. The consciousness of connecting with community is fusing with the consciousness of reconnecting with nature. Community gives the security of belonging to society and nature gives the security of living a sane and healthy life. The former produces the beauty of relationships and the latter the beauty of our relationship to the natural world. Both are antidotes to fear and alienation. Both define the responsibilities of our next step of individual and social evolution as we adapt to save the planet and her civilizations.
America has always been a laboratory of sorts. The tempests and trials of our democracy have been the characteristics of a work in progress. What will be our future place in the world and the foundation of our new economy? How can the national goals of personal empowerment, independence, and community spirit be fused into a new purpose and new enterprises? Those who have struck out on their own to develop alternative ways of living have laid the groundwork. Always the alternatives have merged into the mainstream as they have proven themselves. Our new economy will be a reflection of our new society: diverse, networked, problem solving, innovative, and confident. Our solutions to our environmental problems, our development of a modern life that is sustainable, and our development of systems and associations that improve the quality of life will all be sources of new wealth, and sought after “commodities” in the world.
If we are not cowed by the big, unconscionable corporate interests that seek to control us, we will have a more democratic economy that produces healthier and happier people. We have the ability to solve problems with teams of people with unique skills and backgrounds. People like that are an expansive natural resource if intelligently developed with care and balance. If we learn to produce needed services rather than useless commodities, then our wealth will not jeopardize our survival or the survival of the planet. Our wealth will be moral, based on a desire to serve and improve life; others will then value it as a viable foundation for our economy. We cannot afford to succumb to the hopelessness of a people colonized by our industrial past. The new American psyche may look more like the image of the independent, self-sufficient, courageous cowboy with a modern social twist — rather than being a lonesome individual, it would be a network of free individuals.
© 2009 Richard
Read Related Articles in the Media:
Changing the World, by Bob Herbert New York Times, October 26, 2009
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