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We Need a New Myth

The Philip Morris Company knew what it was doing when it created the Marlboro Man; Americans like cowboys. They like to think of the real American as a cowpoke riding the range, going it alone, and spitting in the eye of any man who tries to make him dress up and settle down.

We romanticize the frontiersman, breaking the sod and planting his crops. We glamorize the ranchers and forty-niners of the Westward Expansion, who gave up the comforts of civilization to seek out prosperity. We adore John Wayne.

The cowboy image has had many representations in modern society, and Americans have responded positively to all of them: the astronauts who tamed the frontier of space; Ronald Reagan on his horse; and George W. Bush, who talked about going after Al Qaeda as if he were a cowboy getting ready to fight the "Injuns": "Bring 'em back dead or alive."

There are adherents to the cowboy myth among us today who oppose changing our health care system. When President Obama stood before the nation on September 9, 2009 and outlined a reform plan that any reasonable person could come to accept, all they saw was an "Injun" who had no right to be on their land, much less tell them what to do. One of them even shouted "You lie!" as if he and the president were a couple of ranch hands getting ready for a barroom brawl.

I met a "cowboy" recently who said to me, "You want to know how to get heath care reform? Everybody should stop paying their insurance. Just stop paying it. Then those companies will go down the tubes, and we can go back to the way it was in the '50s, when you paid out of pocket. You just paid out of pocket."

He went on to express his anger at President Obama, saying Obama wants everybody to get insurance or he’ll put them in jail. "A man," he said, "should be able to go in the woods and die, if he wants to."

And then the "cowboy" walked away from me. Here is what I would have said if he had stayed: "That sounds very romantic and heroic. But what if a truck hits you tomorrow and leaves you with a shattered leg, a punctured stomach, and a head wound? Do you have enough in your pocket to pay for the operations you'll need in order to survive? And if you don't, should the ambulance crew just leave you on a stretcher and let you die of your wounds?"

That's what would have happened to a frontiersman who got mauled by a bear, or a pioneer woman who had a difficult birth on a straw bed in her sod house; they would have just stayed put and died of their wounds. People during the Great Depression paid for their doctor visits with chickens or firewood, but that wouldn’t be feasible today.

The cowboy myth, with its "bring it on" swagger, is outdated. Even the pioneers didn't stay pioneers. They formed towns and cities and states and a country that must keep advancing in the way it treats people. Therefore, little boys must grow up and stop playing "cowboys and indians."

We need a new myth. The cowboy is a man of the past, and the Marlboro Man died of lung cancer.

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