Every nation has its mythology.
I wrote recently about British and American mythology. I said some myths are harmless, but others do harm. Here are some more American myths that we need to correct, from the Wild West.
The mythology of the gun
There is a myth that the Wild West was dangerous and you survived only if you were quick on the draw. FACT: more people – far more – died of starvation in the Old West than died in gunfights. Life was hard and people had to battle the elements more than other people.
The mythology of the Indian Attacks
The westerns give the impression that Native Americans were always attacking white settlers, especially those on wagon-trains. FACT: A few violent acts by Native Americans got a disproportionate amount of publicity. Many tribes have disappeared, probably because white Americans perpetrated a lot of violence against them rather than vice versa. FACT: Native Americans seldom attacked wagon-trains. That is probably because a wagon-train comprised a lot of white people in one place (the trains were usually much bigger than we imagine) and they often had cavalry escorts. When Native Americans did resort to violence, they usually targeted isolated farms or ranches.
The mythology of the individual
When we think of the Wild West, we tend to think of brave individuals who solved all their own problems, and somehow all their individual achievements added up to the arrival of civilisation. FACT: the railway, which was a major corporate government-sponsored endeavour, was the biggest factor in the spread of civilisation.
Does the mythology matter?
It does. It misinforms the gun-control debate, encourages a belief in individualism, makes white Americans feel justified about their treatment of Native Americans in the past, and probably affects the way they look upon Native Americans today. As starvation was the big killer in the past, perhaps everyone should be more concerned about poverty and inequality today.