Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Cowboys, culture, and the (rural) American West

Speaking on the floor of the U.S. Senate during budget debates in March of this year, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid argued against proposed cuts to funding for the arts. In the midst of his speech, he made the following comment:
These programs create jobs...The National Endowment of the Humanities is the reason we have in northern Nevada every January a cowboy poetry festival. Had that program not been around, the tens of thousands of people who come there every year would not exist.
And BOOM! Cowboy poetry entered the national budget debate. Politico reported the statement with the headline "Reid: Save federal funding for the cowboy poets!" Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin tweeted her thoughts:
We're $14,000,000,000,000+ in debt, yet rodeo clowns still want to fund Cowboy Poetry Party. That must be 1 helluva high natl priority shindig.
Rush Limbaugh discussed it on his radio show. Conan O'Brien poked fun at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering and other (albeit fictional) "culturally relevant events" in a monologue on his late night show (click here to watch a clip). The New York Times ran an article on the festival, its funding, and the political brouhaha. The Times editorial board even entered the fray, stepping up to the festival's defense.

What Reid and the Times editorial board were attempting to defend is the annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, produced by the Western Folklife Center in Elko, Nevada. The festival is described as follows on their website:
Every winter for the last 27 years, cowboys, ranchers, rural and urban people have traveled en masse to this small high desert community, to join with friends, family and others who care about the rural West. Together, they listen to poetry and music, learn about cowboy culture in the U.S. and around the world, experience great art, watch western films, learn a craft, and gather to eat, drink and swap stories.
As the Times reported, at $45,000 a year, the amount of federal money going to the festival is "someplace between small and minuscule." Still, the gathering was "employed by conservatives as a symbol of fiscal waste."

What interests and disappoints me about this debate, however, is not the political posturing and bickering. It's not just that I am from Nevada, admire the Western Folklife Center, and previously worked for Senator Reid. Instead, in the ferocity of the reactions and derisive comments, I see a debate over what kinds of culture we as a society value. Few seemed surprised or outraged that Senator Reid defended arts funding; they were shocked that he defended arts funding for cowboy poetry. In my view, these reactions stemmed from a view that rural culture is unimportant, or not culturally relevant.

In his article in the Times, Adam Nagourney highlighted this view in quoting a frequent Cowboy Poetry Gathering attendee, Paul Zarzyski:
A lot of art forms at first brush might sound peculiar...After you learn a little bit about them and the people who perform them, you find out that they are as significant as any kind of art forms. Cowboy poetry comes out of a culture that most people don't understand. Most of that criticism is urban and uninformed.
We have talked in class about common misconceptions of rural America and how those views can affect public policy, the law, and economic development. One such stereotype is that rural places are cultural deserts, without significant art or literature to contribute to society. To me, the political and media reaction to Senator Reid's comment seemed to be motivated by this kind of view.

Like other cultural icons, the cowboy has a complicated relationship with its home region. As we've discussed in class, a recurring stereotype of rural people and places is that they are all connected to agriculture, i.e., "everyone in rural America must be a farmer." In parts of the rural American West, the idealized farm changes to the idealized ranch. The stereotype boils down to this one line: "everyone in the rural West must be a cowboy." This is, of course, a great generalization that ignores a variety of other cultural and social elements that make up the rural West. Still, it is clear from Mr. Zarzyski's comments and the Western Folklife Center's description of the poetry gathering that cowboy poetry is an art form and a very real part of the culture of the rural West.

As these things usually do, the cowboy poetry budget matter blew over fairly quickly. But I was, and am still, irked by the reaction. In part, I am frustrated when the rural West's culture is cast aside because I feel my region, my state, is being overlooked. I am most certainly not from a rural place. My hometown, Reno, NV, registered 225, 221 people in the 2010 Census, and a total of 425, 417 people live in the Reno-Sparks Metropolitan Area. In terms of population, Nevada as a state is not really even rural; 90 percent of the state's 2.7 million residents live in one of three metropolitan areas. An additional eight percent of the population lives in one of five micropolitan areas.

However, on a county-by-county level, Nevada is very rural. Of the state's 17 counties (or, in the case of Carson City, county-equivalents), 13 have populations below 50,000 persons. Eight of these counties have ten thousand residents or fewer. The 13 rural counties make up 85 percent of Nevada's total area. The county where the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering takes place, Elko, is fairly large, with 48, 818 residents in 2010. Still, Elko, like much of northern Nevada (including my home county of Washoe), has strong historical ties rural industries like mining, ranching, and farming.

Mostly, I am frustrated by the notion that rural folklife is a punchline in a joke. As an American Studies major in undergrad, my courses focused on the history and culture of the American West. I studied the history, art, literature, and film of the West, including two classes that required viewing several Westerns. My motivation for studying the American West was (what I perceive as) the short shrift given to western authors, stories about western places, and films about the West. I feel that this is particularly true for the rural West. And when national leaders question the value of the work of organizations like the Western Folklife Center, they play into the dangerous myth of the cultural desert.


Jason said...

I'll admit my immediate reaction to "cowboy poetry" was to laugh to myself. I guess it was the picture of Clint Eastwood or John Wayne, dressed in full western wear, strolling into a coffee shop past the hipsters and college kids to take the stage for open mic night. I think is also what the majority of people think when they hear about it.

I agree that often the mainstream overlooks the rural culture, often times even looks down on it. Often times I think it goes both ways though. Ruralites seem to have as much of a jaded and often negative view of urbanites. It really is two vastly different cultures with often contrasting norms and customs.

ScottA. said...

I've always enjoyed a bit of cowboy poetry. When working out in the open, you see a lot of strange, beautiful, ugly, and wonderful sights. And poetry at times is the only way to describe what you saw in words.

I think that the reaction people have is like Jason says, John Wayne trying to rhyme pilgrim with something. But it does prove that some folks see rural as one dimensional. Those who work with their hands can't work with their minds, right?

Another thing that I find interesting is how quickly conservatives jumped up and down on this as wasteful, but are often just as quick to jump on the imagery of the lone cowboy as a depiction of strength. Maybe the reason they were so angered by this program is because it ruined that image with the idea that a cowboy could put together his feelings of loneliness or wonderment into a "sissy" art form like poetry.

princesspeach said...

When I first read "Cowboy Poetry" the first thing I thought of was Reagan and Bush. he seems like the kind of man that would enjoy and even write cowboy poetry. Therefore I find it funny many conservatives were quick to jump on Reid's back.

Jason, I would not say that ruralites look down on urban culture. When news outlets make fun of cowboy poetry, a type of rural art, then maybe the claws come out. I had no idea about the event. Reno is only 3 hours away, so next time I'll have to check it out.

Courtney Taylor said...

I think making fun of cowboys is socially acceptable, so cowboy poetry was an easy target and critics felt comfortable attacking Senator Reid's comment. I would guess that if the Senator had used a poetry event for the disabled as the example, people would not be so quick to criticize this as "waste."

On another note, it's interesting to see politicians who typically want to be associated with rural culture are publicly speaking out against funding cowboy poetry [read: Sarah Palin].