Vail Daily column: Protesting ‘cowboys’ are patriots, too | VailDaily.com
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Vail Daily column: Protesting ‘cowboys’ are patriots, too

Jack Van Ens

The Jefferson County school board’s GOP majority skewers U.S. history. These well-off Denver suburbanites interpret the national experience as a record of mostly white guys blessed with entrepreneurial skills. Wall Street investors mixed pluck with calculated risk for rewards.

In contrast, cowboys out West, whose misfortunes mirror those of immigrants, women, laborers and African-Americans, don’t warrant equal print. Using civil disobedience to gain higher status, cowboys protested against white guys who controlled Washington and Wall Street.

Jeffco Board member Julie Williams, in her original proposal to revise the Advanced Placement U.S. history curricula, wrote: “Materials should promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights. Materials should not encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law. Instructional materials should present positive aspects of the United States and its heritage.”



Such high-sounding rhetoric applauding our national heritage is based on rags-to-riches stories of pioneers, political representatives and principled leaders. Such history, however, is slanted toward white guys who made it in the American system. Its focus is too narrow. Material values gauge success. Gain without much pain is short-sighted and reduces history to a selfish exercise in getting ahead.

Julie Williams’ freedom trail is a birthright for her, often taken for granted by white folk who can pay their bills. What’s missing in this thin history is recognition that the “cowboy” protestors regarded this freedom not as a gift but an achievement not fully realized.



The tea party Williams represents is older, whiter, more conservative and more male than the national population. Williams likes U.S. history that overlooks white guys’ weaknesses.

Philosopher Samuel Davis Cook, a friend of Martin Luther King, Jr., corrects Williams’ rosy picture of patriotic Americans who achieve the American Dream. “Historically and morally speaking,” Cook declared, “freedom is the fruit of struggles, tragic failures, tears, sacrifices and sorrow,” many which ignited protest.

Cowboys, a metaphor for people pushed to the periphery of American life, don’t appear as lead characters in William’s history. Cowboys identify with common folk Thomas Jefferson attracted to his Democratic-Republican Party in 1800. These pioneers fended off the upper-crust Eastern elite who gobbled up land and controlled wealth.



During the 19th century and into the early 20th century, these cowboys and farmers resented snooty white guys. Populist politicking blamed scheming Wall Street bankers for economic hardships. White guys hiked railroad rates for farmers who shipped cattle. Robber barons denied Westerners cheap credit, which bankrupted many eking out a living on the Great Plains. They loudly protested their plight.

Williams’ white guy history glides over this thorny underside of American history.

Moreover, Wall Street’s white guys often had such a high opinion of themselves that they advanced a popular theory of racial purity which ranked them No. 1. Such a slanted view of American history used a scientific-sounding name — eugenics — to justify white preeminence. Before losing favor in the 1930s because of its identification with Nazi Germany, eugenics enjoyed a sizeable following. Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, plus authors H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw, favored this flawed history in which God favored white guys with exceptional free market skills.

Starting with radio addresses in 1939, Charles Lindbergh favored the white race ruling the world. He admired Nazis for using modern technology and scientific advances to build a first-class air force. Nazis excelled, said Lindbergh, because of market-driven energy restoring German pride.

He based this conviction on the pseudo-science of eugenics, which claimed that top heredity traits came from whites who practiced selective breeding. Lindbergh regarded Caucasians of Northern and Western European descent — “the exemplar of the highest type of civilization yet evolved” — as inherently superior, mentally and morally, to “the black, brown and yellow races.” He dismissed Russians as lower stock because Mongols tainted their blood. Such poisoning rendered the Reds toxic because they were more “Asiatic than European.” Lindbergh disdained the biblical teaching that God made humankind in his image (Genesis 1:26), not just white folk.

Classic free market arguments thrive when history selectively records white guy achievements and shuns the lower classes. Lindbergh sided with well-to-do Americans and Wall Street business titans who excoriated President Franklin Delano Roosevelt for helping the little guys — the cowboys. These financiers hated heavy government spending, despised federal regulation of business and banking and dismissed labor unions as hangouts for protesters. They saw FDR as a subversive who was destroying “the American way of life” with his socialistic sympathies.

Today, we hear similar GOP trash talk against contemporary cowboys. Conservatives reject raising the minimum wage, equate immigration reform with amnesty, want market forces to sort out equal pay for equal work and endorse the tea party budget to privatize Medicare and gut Social Security. Who are losers in this contorted history? Protesting cowboys.

Cowboys play as much a part in cherished national history as Wall Street’s white guys do. Protesters are patriots, too.

Don’t purge AP history curricula of this vital dynamic that corrects our nation when she fails. Protesting cowboys” deserve a home on U.S. history’s range, too.

The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.


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