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BUSH AIN'T NO "COWBOY": Why the Wrong Word Promotes Extreme Inequality

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Message Lee Patton

Even this late in George W. Bush's final term, many progressive voices keep condemning him as a "cowboy." A typical example comes in the The Nation's July 21 issue, when Naomi Klein calls Bush's disaster capitalism policies "a final stickup from the cowboy president." This persistent error-really an unintentional compliment to Bush-may arise from coastal media's innocence of the intermountain West. But it's a serious misuse of an honorable word and one likely to survive Bush's final days, muddying our thinking about his legacy. Worse, to recall Bush as a "cowboy president" mucks-up our eternal inability to think clearly about class and income inequality. Worst of all, to persist in the error helps the Bush Administration burnish its false populist image, an everlasting sucker punch to progressive dreams.

Someone's gotta break the news to the punditocracy, and it might as come from a friend in Colorado: George W. Bush is not a "cowboy" but the exact opposite. He's the cowboys' boss. His family owns the ranch.

Bush's cowboy image springs from conservative spin meant to disguise elite privilege behind populist imagery. Mastered during the Reagan years and reaching its climax in that ultimate oxymoron, the "Reagan Democrat"--Archie Bunker voting to help his boss get lower taxes--this false populism now has all the world insulting real cowboys by comparing them to George W. Bush.

So here's an attempt to unspin the metaphor: Those who rule the ranch installed G.W. Bush to serve as dynastic leader. Americans of ordinary means work their butts off to serve the owner class, the Bush family's cohort. Even as they pay for their own board without perqs or benefits, the real cowboys clean up the owners' messes.

In other words, WE are the cowboys.

Hollywood's simplifications--the wellspring, after all, of the Reagan sensibility--helped cause this metaphoric reversal. Decades ago, the cowboy got implicated in a celluloid misunderstanding. In iconic "cowboy-and-Indian" movies, white men with six-shooters dominated the West by force and violence, until, through careless usage, "cowboy" became synonymous with these aggressive men, who were not cowboys any more than Mr. Bush is. The shooters were usually rogue lawmen, vigilantes, or outlaws, gunslingers who usually committed their violence on behalf of the ranch owners.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the actual cowboys were doing then what they do now. Stuck with the ranch's real work, they fed the animals, cleaned the stalls, broke the bucking broncos, and led the cattle to distant pasture or market. Though the ranch would collapse without their efforts, and no matter how highly skilled they were at roping, riding, and animal husbandry, the cowboys lived in the margins of power, their positions subject to termination at any point. (Sound familiar?)

The cowboy metaphor-muddle grows more urgent as it blurs the truth about class distinctions and prerogatives. In fear-stricken times, some have enjoyed seeing our president in mythic guise, swaggering with a six-shooter into the Baghdad Bar n' Grill or the Kabul Corral. Here in the States, Bush once enjoyed broad appeal when, dressed to clear brush, he drawled his terse and garbled words from the ranch he owns in Crawford, Texas. Bush carefully projected a jus' folks persona which helped him win re-election, though, in almost eight years, he has never swaggered one inch on our cowboy behalf.

In truth, despite his aw-shucks-that-massacree-weren't-nothin' manner, Bush has seldom claimed to represent the peoples'-the cowboys'-broad interests and dreams. He's been remarkably straightforward about the ranch-owner privileges he reckoned to protect and expand. While the pseudo-cowboy persona charmed and distracted an addled, credulous electorate, Mr. Bush's administration weakened pollution controls, wildlands protection, labor laws, and children's health so the owners could pay even lower taxes and amass obscene, insane private wealth. (The Nation's brilliant June 30 issue, "The New Inequality," details the extremity of the damage: the security guard who protects New York hedge fund executive John Paulson "would have to work more than twenty years" to earn what Paulson makes in one hour.)

The ranch owners feed-and-seed think tanks to keep deceiving us cowboys, such as Caxton Associate's Bruce Kovar, whose $715,000,000 annual income helps fund the American Enterprise Institute to advocate "free markets" freed from social and ethical responsibilities. Dust-devils aswirl with ideological manure get blown in our faces until we can't see the bare truth of our circumstances. Beyond hyping "freedom," beyond appropriating the "cowboy" mythos to spit-polish the ranch owner's image, the conservative think tanks have manipulated "class warfare." They cry it whenever a public figure dares to point out the owners' deception about their extreme earnings and prerogatives. The financial elite avoids any mention of the war's reality: they themselves are the aggressors attacking middle and low-income Americans.

So the privileged class undermines the cowboy class, those who maintain, serve, protect, teach, and provide care. But it's not really warfare, because us cowboys don't really fight back. After all, we're not gunslingers or outlaws. Our true cowboy desires remain so basic: fresh air, wholesome, absorbing work, a place to bunk. We're easy. And we make the owners' deception even easier when we romanticize our predicament as "freedom." The lasso of this false "freedom"-- fewer and fewer constraints on power and profit for the owner class--has cinched the noose around our cowboy necks.

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Lee Patton, a Denverite, writes fiction, poetry, drama, and non-fiction.
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