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If you've ever watched an old Western on TV, you know what the Cowboy Imperative is. It's when Miss Kitty on Gunsmoke sees her saloon being trashed by patrons arguing over a lost poker hand, and in anguish turns to U.S. Marshall Dillon and says, "Do something, Matt." That's when Marshall Dillon, acting under the Cowboy Imperative, takes a look around and says, "OK boys, break it up."
It's interesting to think back to how that imperative arose, and consider how alive and well it is within contemporary life, even outside the U.S.
At base, a cowboy is a ranch hand. His job is to keep things "in good order", to make sure the ranch owner's cattle are properly collected, fed, watered, branded, and taken to market. His job isn't much different from a simple shepherd of Biblical times, but he has greater stature, due to being mounted on a horse, and visibly higher status, conferred upon him or her due to his or her distinguishing hat, gloves, boots, rope, and spurs. Everyone understands that out on the range, cowboys are "in charge".
So, when "good order" dissipates, even off the range, who gets the call? The cowboy. That's who. It's the Cowboy Imperative. However, TV and movies have complicated that imperative a bit by insisting there is significance to hat color. White hats have become "good guys" and black hats have become "bad guys". Good guys help maintain "good order". Bad guys mess with it. That bad guy symbolism is still alive today. Witness the recent beheading videos propagated by ISIL. And, the only thing missing from Obama, Kerry, and the U.S. Military in their intent to "set things right again" are white hats.
The curious thing about the whole ISIL, ISIS, Islamic State thing, though, is that evidence seems to imply they and their recruits don't really see themselves as disrupting agents, i.e. black hats. They see themselves as white hats coming to the rescue, setting things to "good order" again, after exploitive capitalists and corrupt dictators have devastated and dissipated societal "good order", in the Koranic sense.
And, the interesting thing about President Obama and his apparent reluctance to intervene again in the Middle East is that, unlike some of his more simple-minded critics, he isn't seeing an overall aspirational drive toward "good order", à la Arab Spring, being thwarted by one side or the other. Instead, he's seeing self-possessed, exploitive, order-dissipating forces acting from all sides. And sure, there are undoubtedly innocent victims. But those same victims, if given half a chance, seem all too willing to inflict equal or worse atrocities in return. What that leads Obama to conclude is that there is no clear "good order" to be salvaged, even though Republican critics insist clear notions of good and bad can and should be super-imposed upon the various situations. But unfortunately, those critical assessments, upon examination, often turn out to be self-serving, shallow, short-sighted, and politically exploitive in their own right, especially of men and women within our military willing to place their lives on the line.
The overwhelming problem seems to be that people across the globe just don't agree on what exactly "good order" is. The Pope has his version. Mullahs and tribal elders have their versions. Protestant preachers have their versions. Capitalists have their version. Socialists have theirs. Talk radio hosts have theirs. Drug lords and war lords have their versions. Environmentalists have theirs. And various politicians, dictators, academics, and philosophers have their versions. And it isn't that common folks don't know what to do on their own, thus needing so called "cowboys" to step in and save the day. It's more like they're confused as to what "good order" is. If they shared a common vision, there likely wouldn't be a problem. Creativity, effort, and good will from all directions would likely put things to "good order" in no time. But working as they are at cross-purposes, with competing direction from all corners has them befuddled, suspicious, and increasingly angry. The result has been dismaying global social chaos, with incalculable quantities of effort, lives, and resources being wasted. What the world clearly needs is an understandable, workable, fair, and not stifling common vision for "good order" in the world.
May that vision soon find its way front and center across the globe, be it from white hat or no hat. Most of us would be only too happy to dedicate our life's efforts toward achieving and maintaining that good order.
Tuesday, September 28th, 2010