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Blau Misunderstands Real Cowboy Life

Column by Anders Hove

In her column last Friday ["Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?" May 9], Stacey E. Blau '98 tells us that the faculty and staff of the Laboratory for Computer Science are the cowboys of our time. Not only do some of them look like cowboys, she writes, but they exhibit a cowboyish "attitude." And what attitudes, pray tell, does this Long Island suburbanite Blau attribute to cowboys? Daring, independence, competence, adventurousness, and a native sense of right and wrong.

Wrong-headed views about cowboys and their disappearing way of life aren't limited to East Coast intellectuals. As a Montanan, I should know. The purpose of this column, however, is not merely to shatter a stereotype that hits close to home. I mean to demonstrate that cowboys epitomized a positive American value that was disappearing even in their own heyday: duty and dedication to others. The new, macho image of the solitary, self-absorbed cowboy is a more a projection of all that is bad in modern American society.

Cowboys reigned supreme during the era of the open range, between 1865 and 1890. Some cowboys during this period were associated with the great cattle drives. These cowboys were the antithesis of the current cowboy stereotypes: They worked close together in great roving communities of cattle, cowhands, and trail-bosses. Under the close supervision of their superiors, most of these men were simple hirelings - workers doing the daily bidding of profiteering ranchers and big city cattle barons. While the great cattle trails of the Old West extended into Montana, the biggest drives connected Texas to Kansas.

The cowboys of the North were a bit different than the young toughs who rode the southern trails. While many cowboys did work for large ranching interests, there were many smaller concerns as well. Big drives were less important than tending the herd on a long-term basis. In some ways these cowboys lived the sad, solitary existence epitomized by Hollywood. What were their values? Not daringness or adventurousness; the cowboy was paid to keep the herd safe, and death was so near at hand there could have been no thrill in seeking additional risk. To protect the herd, cowboys needed good judgment, prudence, skill, and experience. To this day, the highest compliment that can be paid by an old-timer is, "You used good judgment."

Why prudence and judgment? Unlike their cattleman bosses, cowboys were not happy-go-lucky profiteers - the pay was too low. I'm sure cowboys were variously motivated, but I do know two prevalent motivations for many cowboys were a love of the way of life and a sense of duty. An old story I heard illustrates this.

Once a novice cattleman complained to some friends that the cowboys in his employment paid no heed to his orders or instructions. "Appeal to their sense of duty and honor," replied a fellow rancher. "Explain how you are depending on them - that your fortune, good faith, and credit are on the line. Put your request to them as a favor you must ask as a last resort. Lay the facts before them and ask them to decide for themselves." Abiding by this code, the cattleman obtained the full support and cooperation of his men.

The point is that these cowboys were not motivated by money or the terms of their employment. Appeals to duty and honor struck home because, in spite of their solitude, they valued their dignity. Perhaps solitude helped cowboys maintain those values in the face of the societal transformation going on around them. The 18th century saw the demise of the patrician value of noblesse oblige. In its place rose the selfish, rugged individualism associated with the Gilded Age.

These values I have attributed to cowboys - duty and service - are in short supply these days, particularly at MIT. By her own comparison of several MIT faculty members to cowboys, Blau reminds us that rugged individualism is alive and well here. But where is the balancing sense of duty and pride of service?

Perhaps our high-density lifestyle promotes egotism and rampant individualism by making solitude a scarce commodity. Out among the bluffs and sagebrush stands of the Far West, alone against the vagaries of nature, there's not a whole lot else to hang onto besides one's fellowship with the human race, however rough or distant. Here in Cambridge, the press of humanity can be so excessive that we fortify ourselves against it, blocking out the overwhelming demands of others. Maybe we could all use a few years out on the open range.