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Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Mountain Men and Pioneers

In what we now generally refer to as "the days of the Old West", a peculiar breed of man was born. He was called "the Mountain Man", and he was only one of a series of larger-than-life heroes in the American mythos. They were tough men, dependent on nothing more than their wits, knowledge of the land, and a good rifle. They hunted, they scouted, and they opened up the West.

But they didn't win it.

He was replaced in short order by another semi-wild man - the American cowboy. The cowboy has been romanticized beyond any real resemblance of his job. Thanks to John Wayne and John Ford, we know the West not as it really was - but as it should have been.

But cowboys didn't win the West either.

The West was won by hardy souls we refer to generally as "pioneers". The loaded up their Conestogas and headed west with nothing more than a dream and a handful of tales of a better life. They set out for California and Oregon, but large numbers settled between Kansas and Santa Fe or the Tetons and Cascades. For the most part, they led hard and mostly short lives - rarely living into what we'd call "old age" today. They fought, the plowed, they sowed, they reaped, and they prayed.

Pioneers are what you used to see on "Little House on the Prairie" - a whole community devoted to making sure everyone survived and prospered. They accepted hard work as both an opportunity and as a necessity. They pulled together when times were hard and sometimes they even fought amongst themselves.

You don't hear about pioneers anymore.

Instead, you hear Mountain Man talk - Cowboy talk - about "individual rights" and "individual responsibility". Why, to listen, you'd think there never was a city built on the Great Plains of North America. All it took was a few good shots with a six-gun to scare out all the natives and make the world safe for civilized folk.

But it was the civilized folk that bestowed upon us our real heritage. It's a heritage of community involvement and community justice and community, community, community. It's very telling to think for just a moment that every place these people settled, they set up a government - and they gave that government power to work in the name of the community to achieve community goals.

Law. Order. Security. Justice.

Those are the inheritance of the sons and daughters of pioneers.

And, yes, they were fiercely independent, too.

But they understood first and foremost that independence is truly interdependence. A man has a right to build as big a fire as he wants, but he has the responsibility to prevent it from destroying his neighbor's property. Rights are always counter-balanced by responsibilities. Rights are granted to the individual by the community, and they are revoked if they are not used responsibly. You can own a gun - but use it irresponsibly and it will be taken from you. You can speak your mind - but slander someone and you'll have to pay a fine. You can own your own life - but you cannot own anyone else's.

Many years ago, John Donne put it this way: "No man is an island'. This is the fatal flaw in the political thinking from the right - they want to pretend that we are an island - that we can really pull ourselves up by the bootstraps. All the while they neglect to realize that our boots are given to us by our community.

But the left is also too quick to condemn the idea of personal responsibility. Despite challenges to the contrary, every person who succeeds ultimately does so because they take the responsibility for doing so. No amount of social spending will cure that equation.

The trick is to find the correct balance between individual responsibility and community responsibility - between Mountain Man and Pioneer. Between Democrat and Republican. Between Liberal and Conservative.

The "spirit of the West" turned a "wild, unsettled land" into a heartland that feeds the world. Such great things are possible when both individual and community are honored.

I believe that such great things are still possible.

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