Early into my long run a month ago, my fellow athletes were discussing the United States of America. One had just returned from nearly a month in Miami, and the other was headed to San Francisco for a ten-day stint. They were both well-balanced young professionals in fields more lucrative than mine, and quite happy from what I could discern. Yet the way that they were talking about America made them sound like hopeful Central American immigrants.
“So-and-so has a green card? How’d he get it? His father won it in the lottery a decade ago? Wow, can I marry him? He’s so lucky”.
It’s amazing that the USA is still the USA despite everything that’s happened of late: the neocolonialism of the aughts and tens, the multiple financial crises, the old white men in office following Obama. I’ve heard them at differing times disgusted by the poverty in Florida and California, the mentality in South Beach and the Valley, and the state of infrastructure on both coasts. Yet, they still talked about the USA as a promised land, somewhere to move to. My friends in New York complain about the smell, the expense, and the lack of culture. Yet, they still haven’t moved back home. Why does America still hold so much sway? Why is America?
The soul of America has never changed through the ages, despite improving technology, waves of immigration, and the dystopia it is sometimes portrayed as. The soul of America is embodied within the cowboy. Of course, the term isn’t uniquely American; ranch hands and rodeos exist wherever they have equine and bovine. But the cowboy as a gunslinging bounty hunter is singularly American. The cowboy who lives on the thin line of the law, catching criminals for profit, and saving damsels in distress only if they’re maidens. The cowboy who is a caravan unto themselves, often called upon to help those who aren’t self-sufficient. The cowboy who has no allegiance to anything, and tames the frontier, sure that tomorrow is another day. The analogy isn’t hurt by his eternal enemy, the Indian who he has taken everything from, but feels righteous in killing, and is rewarded for doing so.
The cowboy represents unadulterated freedom. In the American founding myth, the travelers in the Mayflower were seeking refugee from religions persecution, seeking a country where they were free to do as they wished. The cowboy represents blind optimism. In the American Dream, everyone can rise above and become anyone; tomorrow is always another day. The cowboy represents insurrection and protest, both violent and nonviolent. In the American history class, students are taught about the Boston Tea Party and the American revolution, Martin Luther King Jr as well as Malcolm X. The cowboy represents everyone who’s successful in America. In the American consciousness, all heroes come from humble beginnings to achieve greatness; no one is simply a family standard bearer.
The myth of the cowboy continues to prevail in contemporary America, shaping the beliefs of individuals and the nation as a whole. America is a free country, overly concerned with freedom of speech. Americans have a strong mistrust of government and the boast of their rugged individualism. To quote Steinbeck’s worn aphorism: everyone [in America] was a temporarily embarrassed capitalist. Americans believe in their ability to become the next Carnegie, Walton, Gates, or Bezos. The American Dream is very much a gaucho dream: Go West young man, land and opportunity is plentiful there.
Despite the racism and sexism in America, anyone can aspire to be a cowboy, just like anyone can become a successful American citizen, not just white males. Each ethnic group that immigrates to America arrives because of opportunity, and ends up assimilating into the American boiling pot, making it richer in the process, bringing Taco Bell, Panda Express, and Olive Garden into its fold. And this has made America great. The world sends their brightest and most ambitious, who then toil for those born into citizenship. The richest people in America aren’t the Indigenous, they’re immigrants from a handful of generations ago. But they’re only white because Europeans were the first to arrive; in a few generations, there will be a rainbow of billionaires exploiting worker labour. It’s not a pyramid scheme; everyone does have the opportunity to make money beyond their wildest dreams in the Wild West.
And that’s what attracts my friends to America. Like it or not, America is still the center of the world. The concentration of every sort of talent in America’s top cities is astounding, but understandable. Why live in a socialist paradise when you can cut the red tape and tax rate by moving to capitalist utopia? “America the great” is a self fulfilling prophecy: those ambitious few attracted by wealth will immigrate where they can become cowboys and thrive. Those who are left behind naturally have less inclination towards empire building. But that is how Americans measure success, and luckily for them, the only way nations know how to compete amongst one another.
Political pundits love to discuss how America has changed in the last few decades, that Reganism and neo-liberalism have ushered in drastic wealth inequality. Ironic that a country founded on inequalities and injustices: genocide, slavery, colonialism, has successfully rebranded itself as a fair society, just recently becoming slightly inequitable. I don’t doubt that wealth inequality has gotten worse, as it tends to do in these sort of economic systems. But believing that America has suddenly become unequal is delusional. Yes, a young Boomer could feed themselves, buy a property, and go to college while flipping burgers or making cars, but men like Ray Kroc and Henry Ford have always existed. So long as the going was good, that there were enough resources from developing nations to exploit, no one complained.
The key ingredient wasn’t a mere improvement of the quality of life on aggregate, but an increase in the rate of improvement for everyone. When the pie is growing, everyone can be content that their slice, no matter how small, is growing, and growing faster. When the growth slows, stops, or reverses, is when those at the bottom of the ladder look around, and wonder if things are as they should be. But by that time, much wealth has been consolidated at the top and everyone in the first few rungs have missed out on much of the wealth growth. Even then, most cowboys can’t see the reality of the situation, still insisting that everyone pulling themselves up by the boot spurs. Yes, the blue-collar workers of past generations have had it easier, but the simultaneous inequity of opportunity and the belief in it is endemic to the cowboy who stands alone.
Such is America, the snake eating its own tail, the horse afraid of its own shadow, the lone ranger. Gross inequality normalized through the belief that material wealth is the product of hard work alone. Yet, it is the Marlboro Man who has made America great. It is he who cries give me your hungry, your thirsty, your destitute masses aching to profit tax-free. When the water cooler conversation turns to “livin’ the dream”, whether sincerely or sarcastically, consciously or unconsciously, they are referring to the Dream, capital D. The cowboy sees it as an entitlement of his citizenship, there for him to grasp. Increasingly, there are those who feel deprived of their birthright and unable to progress without effort beyond their means, leading to righteous anger. Such is America, the beautiful lotus flower and the muddy lotus root, the land of the ambitious, and the home of the rich.