On Tuesday, The Oklahoman editorial page took what it called a “sentimental journey” lauding the Old West, specifically arguing that the time period’s lack of government regulations created a “self reliance” and “economic freedom” we unfortunately just don’t have anymore.
The context of the editorial, “Old West event recalls a time when self-reliance carried the day,” (Aug. 12, 2014), isn’t really important. It’s about Dodge City, Kansas. Read it here if you must. Just remember it’s a historical distortion used to advance an ultra-conservative view of the world in which large corporations can act with impunity.
Here’s a major challenge to the newspaper’s rosy depiction of the freewheeling Old West, which can be roughly dated from the period after 1775 to, say, the beginning of World War I in 1914: Gun control.
Old West towns actually had more government-enforced gun control laws than we do now. In fact, the famous 1881 OK Corral shootout in Tombstone, Arizona, was precipitated by a gun-control measure. Read about that here in a Washington Post article that quotes one professor arguing that during the Old West period, “Laws barring people from carrying weapons were commonplace, from Dodge City to Tombstone.”
You can read about other myths surrounding the Old West here. No, the cowboy wasn't an American invention, nor is the Hollywood depiction of the Old West usually accurate in historical terms. Of course, I’ve made the point about gun control laws and the Old West on this blog before.
It’s difficult to argue against the specific editorial on a point-to-point basis because it’s mostly based on inane conjecture. Here’s one about cattle drives: “Chuck wagons and cooks? They’d be subject to inspections and calorie, salt and fat restrictions.” This is nonsense.
I could point out the many advancements that have been made because of government initiatives, such as sewer and water systems, which might have been helpful to cowboys on cattle drives in the 1800s, but that’s too easy. Also, most people today probably want their “chuck wagons,” i.e., food trucks and restaurants, inspected for food safety. You can put all the salt you want on your food today. The government won’t stop you. Again, such asinine drivel barely deserves comment, but when it appears in the state’s largest newspaper it should be noted for its lack of intellectual integrity.
What does deserve noting even more on a consistent basis is how The Oklahoman editorial writers and the rest of the right-wing media distort historical fact to argue for conservative positions and ideology. The right-wing media, for example, has long tried to appropriate the legendary and Hollywood-inspired American cowboy and the Old West as the embodiment of conservatism.
But the truth is very few people want to go back to a time period without sewage systems, without electricity, without telephones, without modern medicine and without modern transportation, among many, many other accouterments of modernization. The United States, along with state and local governments, were always among the driving forces and mediators behind modernity. Government initiatives and government regulatory systems created and fostered "economic freedom," or what we might call economic exploitation, before, during and after the Old West period. It’s not the other way around.
This, of course, is not to dismiss the horrific acts of cruelty committed by federal and local governments in the cause of modernization or settlement, such as killing native people and forcing them from their land, or allowing slavery and blatant torture of people. But that, too, is a huge reason why we don't want to get back to some type of collective mindset of the Old West if there ever was such a thing.
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