Cowboys Without Cows: the USA in an Era of Mass Killings


He’s the iconic American: strong, individual, physically pristine, self-sufficient and armed. The future lies open before him (but never her): a vast, endless expanse of land there for the taking. His life is simple. He is unencumbered by petty bureaucracy and restrictive social codes. He is laissez-faire. But, when trouble presents itself, he is within his God-given rights to take the law into his own hands, using violence and deadly force if needed.

He is a pioneer. A settler. A cowboy. He’s an American mash-up.

For those of us who grew up in the US, this character was everywhere: from ads to films to history books. It didn’t matter that the history didn’t match the myth, what matted was that this man symbolized an America that was both our past and future. Of course, non-whites, non-Christians and women were excluded from this symbolism, but they were (and are) more than welcome to watch and admire from the sidelines.

In the real world, of course, it had ended long ago. The cowboy lost his cows. The settlers had no more land to settle. Native Americans were killed and put on reservations. The buffaloes that roamed were wiped out. Golf courses and malls replaced open prairies and lakes. Starbucks and Taco Bell replaced bison and antelope.

But we still had our guns, our pioneer spirit, and our politicians and media telling us that there was land out there to be settled and tamed. Not actual land, of, course — McDonald’s had long ago bought that land for intensive farming — but symbolic land: house, home, family, possessions and wealth, all within the warm embrace of the free market.

Having bought into this updated pioneer vision, we began to wonder why our million dollars, guaranteed by American Exceptionalism, wasn’t in the bank. The only explanation was that someone, or something, was standing between us and our rightful inheritance. For decades, the natural explanation was a Communism that had infected our politics, popular culture and morality. Feminists, anti-war protesters, civil rights activists? All spawns of Stalin, hell-bent on crushing the American Dream. Hollywood? A cultural zoo with Socialists on display. Pinkos were everywhere. When their empire died, we were assured, the good times would roll.

The Pinko empire did die. In the afterglow of the fall of the Berlin Wall, we were regaled with stories of a new era of borderless Capitalism. This was the Age of Globalization. Free from the Red Menace, it was only a matter of time before our rewards would come.

But they never came. Instead, factories in Detroit were closed and moved to Mexico. Wealth inequality rose. The things we were supposed to take for granted — house, car, nuclear family — were shown to be mirages. Generations emerged who had less than their parents. They felt like failures. They were treated like failures. But, the guns and pioneer spirit were still there, and politicians still insisted that the treasure was out there for the taking, if only you made the effort.

The failure of the American Dream to materialize made us angry, and that anger quickly merged with fear. Lacking a monolithic enemy based in Moscow, our fears became fragmented. Terrorism. Ebola. #BlackLivesMatter. Islam. Gun control. Physical imperfection. Gay marriage. Politics. Taxes. The state. Even things meant to help us — like universal healthcare — were framed as horrific symbols of oppression.

Connections between these objects of fear and the failure of the American Dream were impossible to make concrete. And, since blaming Capitalism was out of the question, the confusion only deepened. The US became like a group of heavily-armed soldiers, whipped into a hate-filled frenzy before being sent into battle, only to be told at the last second that, actually, there is no war and to just go home. And, oh, you can take your weapons with you.

What do they do with those weapons once they get home? Well, that’s nothing to do with you, me or the government. The US is a free country.

These are the things that strike me when I hear of another US mass shooting accompanied by a rage-filled note or Facebook post. The US has thousands of bullet-riddled corpses that need to be discussed. We have all seen the statistics on the relationship between access to weapons and gun deaths. We all know that there is something terribly wrong. Of course, most Americans aren’t murderers, and never will be…but that’s not the point. It’s about a society that defines those in poverty as “losers” unworthy of help. It’s about news programs screaming about terrorists entering the US over the Mexican border carrying Ebola-infected vomit weapons. It’s about using the violent language of fear and warfare to frame social and political disagreement.

It’s about corporate and political snake-oil merchants selling a dream to people desperate for hope. And then laughing at them when they fail.

This essay originally appeared in Medium.

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Christian Christensen, an American living in Sweden, is a Professor of Journalism, Media & Communication at Stockholm University.

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