Standing in the pouring rain
All alone in a world that’s changed
Running scared now forced to hide
In a land where he once stood with pride
But he’ll find his way by the morning light…
— David Hidalgo / Louis Frausto Perez (Los Lobos)
It is integral to the mission and purpose of The Running Iron Report to be a beacon fire for those who feel that they are “all alone in a world that’s changed.” Those of our tribe don’t have to do more than step out the door to realize that the whole map has become uncharted space where there be dragons.
Last week, my band played a Monday evening gig at a local wine bar. Nice, low-key deal. Having played the traditional folk rave-up Whisky In A Jar, I later introduced our Gaelic Storm pirate anthem Lovers’ Wreck thus:
“We believe in diversity, equity and inclusion, so — we’ve done a song about whisky; now we’re going to do a song about rum.”
After the gig a woman approached me to tell me that “as a person who LIVES diversity, equity and inclusion” my crack had “landed badly” with her and after that she “couldn’t hear my music,” though she was “sure it was beautiful.”
My response was, “Good for you.”
I mean, what do you do with that? Laugh, I suppose, though I’m generally a polite enough soul not to guffaw in a person’s face even when they deserve it.
As a friend pointed out, “that was straight out of Portlandia.”
Now, I’m no stranger to this kind of kookiness. My alma mater is UC Santa Cruz, an early-adopter of humorless political correctness and performative outrage. I guess I’m still surprised that it has gone mainstream enough to rear its head in Central Oregon — but the world has changed.
Samuel K. Dolan an author and independent Western historian whom I greatly respect (not least for his well-articulated political independence) recently attended a cultural event at a museum in Missoula, Montana, where he was assailed by the Dragons of Debunkery. Here’s how he describes the experience in a Facebook post:
“It was an ‘open discussion’ format between two panelists, University of Montana professor Debra Magpie Earling and Montana author Russell Rowland. I probably should have left before the discussion began. For the next hour or so Earling and Rowland pretty well trashed the entire Western genre, ‘Rodeo culture,’ Western Art (Frederic Remington was dismissed as a racist and Charley Russell did not get away unscathed), Western literature (Zane Grey written off as a ‘dentist from Ohio’… never mind his books are still in print 80 years after his death) and so on…
“The discussion went into increasingly familiar terrain of ‘toxic masculinity’ and a host of adjacent topics. It was sort of like having your entire life roasted. I wanted to leave, but I was surrounded by a sea of Patagonia vests. It wasn’t that I took exception to the criticism of Western movies (though I do love them, even some of the not so good ones). What I didn’t like was the dismissive attitude by a group of seemingly well-educated folks that don’t appear to leave their bubble much and the frequent departures from the truth. The lack of contextualization was I think dangerous. The whole episode left me feeling very dejected and dismayed.”
Well, it’s dismaying.
It’s especially frustrating for those of us who have made a serious effort to look at history with clear eyes, who appreciate myth-making and the impulse that lies beneath it, but also are unafraid to confront the harsh and often ugly realities of the human endeavor, especially in those borderland zones we call “frontiers.” We’re right there with the effort to expand the scope of both history and myth to include all of those who had a hand in making it.
I have no more patience for triumphalist history than Dolan’s Patagonia-vest-clad outfit does, but that doesn’t mean I’m up for a self-congratulatory orgy of cheap debunkery.
My work has demonstrated a startling level of continuity and persistence of certain patterns of action across hundreds of years and a variety of cultures in many different borderlands environments. Cultures meet, mingle and change each other. Borderlands cultures often become something distinct from their cultures of origin. When there is competition for dominance and access to resources, there often develops a brutal cycle of violence in which it’s impossible to simply cast people as “good guys” or “bad guys.”
I’m engaged with work now that draws a through line between the brutal borderland conflict in Texas in c. 1830–1915, the dirty guerrilla war in the Northern Transvaal in 1901 and the covert nastiness of the Global War on Terror in the present day. Honest study in this field challenges any mythic image of the guys in the white hats — but as Dolan notes, it also demands a thorough grounding in context.
As I wrote nearly a decade ago when introducing my Frontier Partisans project:
From North America to Africa, Australia to Central Asia, bold men chased riches in land, furs, minerals, timber — and the pure prestige of planting the flag in a “howling wilderness.” That used to be the stuff of triumphalist history and patriotic legend. Nowadays, we see things differently. Today, we don’t like to think much about the way the world we live in was made, about the graves our homes are built upon. Looking backwards in comfort and security, through a lens of politcally-correct piety, we condemn the men who “stole” the Americas, the lands of Africa, the continent of Australia.
It is right to acknowledge the cost of conquest, both in human terms and in terms of environmental degradation. The cost was high. Whole peoples disappeared, ravaged by war and even more by disease. And these bold men with rifles shot whole species to the brink — and past the brink — of extinction. Yet to regret this world historic burst of exploration and conquest and condemn the men who pushed it forward is the rankest kind of hypocrisy. Might as well condemn the tectonic plates for shifting.
It’s true that the “wilderness” wasn’t empty. Native peoples thrived there, with a fierce love for their homeland every bit as potent as the land lust that drove the European interlopers. It’s also true that those native peoples had displaced others.
In the words of the great Texas historian T.R. Fehernbach:
‘The Mexica admitted to Cortés that they had come into the Valley of Mexico without lands, but that they had seized the lands of others with shield and arrow. They understood when Cortés told them that he had come with shield and spear to take their lands and give them to others…
‘Had every American told the Plains Indians what many already knew, that because the white men had come the tribes’ days were numbered, and that as conquerors they demanded the Indians’ lands, the warrior societies could have understood this perfectly. Their tragedy would not have been deeper, nor their sorrow any greater. Amerindians would have fought and died, killing no more and no less…’ (Comanche: The Destruction of a People)
It would be naïve at best to underestimate the gravity of what is going on here. We are locked in a culture war. The stakes are real, and they are high. An increasingly militant cadre of the performatively woke will, when they can find the leverage, destroy careers and lives. We must be mindful of our tactics. Overreaction to those who assail our values and our very nature plays into their hands (see “Toxic Masculinity”). I can’t really abide the “other side” in the fight, either. I don’t fit in either “camp” and, anyway, engaging in cultural warfare just leaves me, as Dolan was, “dejected and dismayed.”
Better to fully commit to extolling and living our nature, ignoring the slings and arrows, to actively promote what we value, to be a countervailing voice to the lowing of the herd. We may well not prevail. This weird version of a “civilization” may roll over us as surely as Anglo-American civilization extinguished the free life of tribal peoples across the globe. Some of us will go down like Crazy Horse with a bayonet in our back. I accept that this may be my fate.
Look, I don’t want people like that Portlandia caricature in the wine bar to “hear my music.” It’s not for her kind. I can’t say whether or not it’s “beautiful” but at least it’s got balls, and I’m going to keep playing it my own damn way.
It’s the truth that they all look for
Something they must keep alive
Will the wolf survive?
Will the wolf survive?
(I love Los Lobos, but Waylon Jennings is the hub of my musical wheel. So… his version).
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