My wife and I have recently been binge-watching the FX show Justified. Adapted from an Elmore Leonard story, the show takes place mostly in eastern Kentucky, an apparent hotbed of criminal activity, rampant drug use, ruthless mafia types, and off-beat characters. The show is entertaining but bloody. Being aware of its use of violence for entertainment value, we can understand how disconnected this story is from reality.
As has been mentioned here before, we are often given portrayals of history which are far removed from reality. We’ve been told, and largely come to believe, that the settlement of the American west was “wild” with violence and lawlessness. The remedy, we’re lead to believe, was wise government oversight and policing. However, much like the landscape of modern fiction, the body count and criminal activity portrayed in popular history would have made settlement unlikely at best.
People seek opportunities to improve their lives. Those who chose the arduous journey westward would have been far less likely to go had they believed the destination held violence and death. They certainly would not have ventured without the expectation of self-defense. There is little reason to expect otherwise.
The purpose of popular fiction is entertainment. The popular fiction which evolved into a history of the old west, on the other hand, developed a new purpose: reinforcing the supposed necessity of the state. Without government to create and enforce law, the narrative insists, we would violently extract from one another the means of survival. This was not true then and is not likely to ever be true. There is a cost of violence which makes cooperation and mutual support far more appealing and, therefore, likely.
One telltale sign of encroaching tyranny is the manipulation of language. When the powerful of the early twentieth century learned how difficult it was to market a central bank in the United States, they renamed their efforts a federal reserve and began printing money all the same. When the actions of that central bank resulted in depression after depression, those same people changed the meaning of the word, reclassifying depressions out of existence. When progressivism was discovered as the stepping stone to socialism that it is, progressives in the United States renamed themselves liberals. Finally, when people grew tired of sending their children off to die in war, the U.S. government simply erased the term from their vocabulary.
The U.S. Constitution designates the power to officially declare war to the legislative branch. Since its ratification, Congress has declared a total of five wars, the last being World War II. Shortly thereafter, in 1949, what remained of the Department of War was renamed the Department of Defense, thereby erasing war from the official lexicon.
The U.S. government is currently engaged in the longest war of its history, declared or otherwise. In fact, since erasing war from official discourse, the U.S. government has engaged in its most controversial wars, Vietnam and Iraq, as well as its most extensive efforts of interventionism. With excursions in Korea, Lebanon, Libya, Kuwait, and The Balkans as well as the more recent drone bombing campaigns in Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, and Syria, the U.S. has been at war nearly every year since renaming its efforts from war to defense. We can only hope that the surviving members of families killed by U.S. adventurism can find some solace in the fact that their loved ones didn’t actually die in war.
There was a time, not so long ago, when desperadoes roamed the countryside, stealing from the innocent. Townsfolk would scatter as these armed gunmen rode down the main street, kicking up mud, dust, and fear in their wake. Banks shuddered their windows and saloons cleared out when they approached, wielding violence and disregard for human life.
That’s the picture of the wild west we all know: lawlessness reigned before government came to bring peace. Hollywood still paints such images on the big screen. Truth be told, the settling of the western portion of North America bears little resemblance to the stories recounted in western novels or films. Yes, life was difficult for those who ventured westward, but that difficulty was borne by everyone. Because of the dangers, nearly everyone was armed. Banks were rarely robbed and wanton violence was curtailed because everyone knew how to protect themselves.
This week, we’ve been regaled with warnings about the most recent wild west. Just a few years ago, the story goes, the Internet was run by ISP gunslingers robbing and pillaging the innocent. Robber barons charged whatever they wanted for the services people used. This was until Sheriff Obama came in and set things straight with his unilateral imposition of “neutrality.” Since that time, the peaceful people of the world have enjoyed faster, cheaper, and more reliable Internet service.
As with the original old west, the story bears little resemblance to reality. Service providers certainly try to charge whatever they can for their products but they are always limited by what people are willing to spend. That was true before net neutrality and it will be true now that it has been ended. If prices rise too high, people will seek other forms of entertainment or access to information. There never was, nor will there be, a wild west of the world wide web.