Governments don’t live together, people live together. With governments you don’t always get a fair word or a fair fight. Well I’ve come here to give you either one, or get either one from you.
— Josey Wales to Chief Ten Bears, The Outlaw Josey Wales
Raising hell with the hippies and the cowboys
They don’t care about no trends
— Cody Jinks
Times is hard for a poor boy born to a natural syncretic bent. There’s nuthin’ that won’t send folks running for their ideological corners these days, even a virus, which, let’s face it, doesn’t give a shit who you voted for.
Cliff Young, president of the social and market research firm Ipsos U.S. Public Affairs says:
“How people are actually processing information and assigning credibility to it is 100% partisan.”
I don’t mind telling you — that freaks me out more than a little bit. I don’t like it. At all.
I’ve always been one to seek out common ground — not in the Rodney King can’t‑we-all-just-get-along sense so much as the Willie Nelson-bringing-the-shitkickers-and-the-hippies-together-at-the-Armadillo-World-Headquarters‑c. 1974 kinda way. When I was in Austin in February, I stopped by the former site of that hallowed ground and doffed my hat for a moment in honor of a place I never saw, but know to be a kind of spiritual home.
That sort of thing — raising hell with the hippies and the cowboys — always seemed perfectly natural to me. All the music I love is made by maverick personalities too wayward and ornery to allow themselves to be stuffed into a box. Outlaws.
When I headed of to college to gain a little knowledge, I thought that UC Santa Cruz would be the ideal habitat for that outlook. Turns out that there is nothing more conformist and intolerant than a bunch of humorless, bitchy, disaffected lefties. I didn’t like them and they sure didn’t like me.
The sought-after hippie-shitkicker fusion was not to be found on the campus — but there was still plenty of it back in the Santa Cruz Mountains amongst the redwoods. When I moved to Oregon, it had the reputation as a place “where the cowboys smoke weed and the hippies pack guns.” There’s still a vestige of that, but not near enough, as far as I’m concerned.
I’m a natural-born romantic, one of those people who thinks he can live in the world as he imagines it and is constantly confronted with living in the world as it is. Dammit, though — I like mine better.
Frontier history has always been map and compass for me, and the sign does not bode well for those who carry multiple cultures in their soul and try to navigate a path that weaves between and among them. There are brief moments of possibility, like that laid out in iron words of Josey Wales to the Comanche Ten Bears:
“Governments don’t live together, people live together. With governments you don’t always get a fair word or a fair fight. Well I’ve come here to give you either one, or get either one from you.”
But state and economic power tends to roll over and grind up individuals who simply try to live together. It happened over and over again in the borderlands we think of as “the frontier” of North America. Take the sad saga of Andrew Montour — the classic Man of the Middle Ground.
The 18th Century interpreter, trader and Frontier Partisan was a mixed blood of French/Oneida (Iroquois) descent. He spoke both French and English and a number of native languages and dialects and was thus in demand as an intermediary in trade and statecraft between the British government, colonial governments and companies and the First Nations peoples of the Ohio Valley. He was culturally a mix of European and Indian, which was reflected in his dress. He wore a band of paint around his face and bangles in his ears, and a European coat and waistcoat and stockings and buckle shoes.
Montour served as an intermediary with the tribes of the Ohio Country and served the British during the French & Indian War and Pontiac’s Rebellion, leading raiding parties against the French-allied tribes. Before the war, he tried to establish himself as the proprietor of a community in western Pennsylvania for misfits like himself. The scheme alarmed both the Pennsylvania authorities and the Iroquois, who were worried that “lower orders” of whites and Indians mutually supporting each other would prove intractable and interfere with the schemes of the shot callers.
Montour’s sometime friend and employer, frontier diplomat Conrad Weiser, helped scotch the plan and Montour’s land was sold out from under him. Such troubles navigating the social and political shoals of the Middle Ground embittered many a man like Montour, who were never quite white enough for the English and never quite Indian enough for the Indians.
Montour was generally well-regarded by men of influence on the frontier — to include George Washington — but only when sober. Like so many Frontier Partisans, Montour had a major problem with alcohol. He would get roaring drunk and belligerent, cursing his employers roundly, then sober up and be contrite.
In his magisterial book The First Frontier, Scott Weidensaul offers a sympathetic portrait of Montour:
“In ways that would haunt him all his life, Andrew Montour was the living embodiment of the patchwork human frontier, a shadow of the physical borderlands. And when he tried to create a place where he could find peace — a place for all the other in-betweens and castoffs, half-bloods and immigrants, refugees and wanderers — both of Montour’s worlds, the Indian and the European, conspired to crush his dream. No wonder he drank a lot.”
No wonder indeed. In 1772, one of his Seneca drinking buddies murdered him during a binge. It was a sad — but not untypical — end for a Man of the Middle Ground.
My next project will focus on such men: misfits and mavericks; cultural mediators; bastards of all nations; wanderers in the shadow of the borderlands. Because they are my kind of people and always will be.
Like Montour, those of us who wander along the cultural borderlands risk both camps conspiring to crush us — especially when culture is hijacked by politics.
I have little intrinsic interest in politics, though I am not so naive as to believe one can afford to ignore decisions and actions that make profound impact impact on the way we live our lives. I resent having to pay attention to the words and works of people whom I generally don’t respect and often actively despise, and who have no incentive at all to hear my voice.
There is nothing resembling a political home for the likes of me and mine. That wasn’t always the case; I would have operated comfortably enough in the Republican tradition of Oregon giants such as Tom McCall and Mark Hatfield. But today they would be derided by far lesser men as RINOs (Republicans In Name Only). I have policy preferences on, say, health care and the environment, that could readily be hammered into something practical and worthwhile if it was possible to work in good faith with those of a liberal bent. But that end of the political spectrum has come to be dominated by authoritarians who, for example, exploit the human problem of people using firearms for evil ends by attempting to make felons of me and my kin. What kind of fair word is that?
Whatever political common ground I might have ever been able to walk has been cut away. So I declaim a pox on both houses and continue to assert independence that increasingly feels lonesome, ornery and mean. It earns enmity.
Those who have succumbed to the brainless binary equation — peddled by blackguards who have no interest other than their own aggrandizement — cannot abide independence. They demand purity; they impose loyalty tests. Disagreement is blasphemy or apostasy, nuance is for pussies, and you cannot agree in part and with qualification — it’s a zero sum game.
I hope someday this fever breaks, but I’m not optimistic. There’s too much money in the business of division, too much power to be accrued through pandering to identity politics and the inflamed passions of culture warriors. There’s little room for syncretism and small tolerance for those who, faced with the demand for binary choices, insist on none of the above.
Regardless, I will walk the path that I chose — or the one that chose me. A fair word I will gladly give — or a fair fight if I must.
*Hat tip to Paul McNamee for the inspiration.