Monday, February 07, 2005

Yep, We're Cowboys All Right

Last summer I read a masterful article about the personality of the U.S.A. entitled Go Ahead, Call Us Cowboys (registration required) written by Andrew and Judith Kleinfeld. After reading the article I was surprised to discover that they were respectively a federal judge and a university administrator. These professions don’t seem to attract many conservatives, but I strongly identified with their ideas.

The Kleinfelds used a comparison between two small towns that are just two miles apart to illustrate the differences between America and the rest of the world. Their description of Stewart, British Columbia (Canada) and Hyder, Alakska leads to an almost comical sense of juxtaposition. Stewart mainly exists today as a border checkpoint. Its main employer is the Canadian government. Hyder isn’t even an actual township, but is a privately incorporated community that is owned by its residents. Stewart is orderly and bland. Hyder lacks paved roads, but is an entrepreneurial hive of activity.

The Kleinfelds hit the nail on the head when they wrote, “The Americans saw themselves as independent and self-reliant people …. The Canadians, on the other hand, generally see themselves as dependents of government, as sometimes grateful but sometimes resentful receivers of government alms.”

The authors made checklists of desirable traits, but decided that the checklists simply failed to account for something even more important. One day their son, a Yale philosophy major, accompanied them and put it in perspective using a Greek term. He said that “America is thumos.”

What is thumos? “Thumos, an ancient Greek psychological concept, cannot be translated directly into English because it combines the qualities and emotions of passion, spirit, energy and courage. Thumos has a negative side–the anger of Achilles …. But it is also a creative force of great and positive life powers. Cowboys, venture capitalists, brilliant scientists, businesspeople like Bill Gates or Carly Fiorina, warriors like George S. Patton–have thumos.”

The Kleinfelds argue that while we pay a lot of attention to America’s economic freedoms, we sometimes fail to appreciate the emotional and spiritual values of individual freedom. Many other nations do not have a long history of this kind of freedom, so it is not a strong current in their ideologies. They don’t understand our obsession with it.

While the rest of the world derides us as cowboys, Americans accept and appreciate this term. The cowboy (or at least the cowboy stereotype that is in our national psyche) is our symbolic hero. He is spirited, courageous, and independent. This image is reflected in the ideals our nation holds dear and in the way we approach matters.

To much of the rest of the world, the cowboy character seems far too reckless. Of course, many of those that don’t understand us have lived cautiously for centuries under successive tyrants and big brother governments. While we don’t lack for government control, we’re much more likely to take a “high noon” approach when control is pushed just a little too far.

Hurrah for Americans – courageous and maybe even a little too reckless – but free!

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