Whiting: Can Cowboy Code Save Us?
By David Whiting, The Orange County Register
Published April 29, 2010
Old school: "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all."
New school: "If you don't have anything nice to say, sit by me."
Enough of the New School gossip motto. The pendulum against civil discourse has swung too far.
We listen to comments like the one I heard recently implying that our county is a center for Holocaust deniers (a guy with a website does not a "center" make). We watch polarizing battles such as the teachers versus the Capistrano school board. And we see controversial commentators like Glenn Beck on national television.
It's time we return to true traditional values.
Call it compassionate cowboyism.
"Even if the world were a chocolate cake, Mary, there'd still be a few crumbs around."
One of the people who shaped Orange County offered those immortal words more than a half-century ago. His name? Gene Autry, founding father of Angel Stadium and our beloved baseball team.
Autry, who died in 1998, still has much to offer. Like his Cowboy Code.
Autry's Cowboy Code offers 10 rules of conduct, sort of like David Letterman's Top Ten list – except Autry's points are earnest and kind, not snarky and funny. (You want funny advice with a cowboy hat, try philosopher Will Rogers.)
"Good judgment comes from experience," Rogers once said. "And a lot of that comes from bad judgment."
Well, my kids say I'm full of, um, bad judgment. So stay with me.
Autry's Cowboy Code works like this:
- The Cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man, or take unfair advantage.
- Never go back on his word, or a trust confided in him.
- Always tell the truth.
- Be gentle with children, the elderly and animals.
- (Don't) advocate or possess racially or religiously intolerant ideas.
- Help people in distress.
- Be a good worker.
- Keep himself clean in thought, speech, action and personal habits.
- Respect women, parents and his nation's laws.
- The Cowboy is a patriot.
Still with me?
Thank you kindly.
Sure, we could update a little of Autry's code. For starters, we could include women. But its core meaning is as relevant today as when real cowboys drove cattle over the land now known as Rancho Santa Margarita and Foothill Ranch.
During the teachers' strike in South County – which I wrote about – passions ran hotter than a blacksmith's forge. So after it was settled earlier this week, I decided to try and break-in the Cowboy Code by talking – gently – with people who sent me the most critical e-mails.
Ladera Ranch resident Kirsten Pekarek had written that I had "no idea how much work goes into being an educator" and called one of my columns embarrassing ... absurd and negligent."
Would Pekarek return my call?
Not only did she call, Pakarek was happy to talk – and she was polite. I'll admit, though, I noticed she didn't back down. But there was the Cowboy Code so, gulp, I corralled my defensive instinct. And we had a terrific discussion about civil discourse.
Understand, the Cowboy Code allows us to disagree, debate, argue. It just asks to turn down the volume on our analog dial. And listen.
"We live in a society where people can quickly post information and a lot of opinions are made from that," Pekarek told me. "We can blame technology. But it's here to stay."
Pekarek, 37, who juggles four children, ages 1, 3, 5 and 7, suggested people are less informed than when she grew up. She recalled her parents having dinner parties with deep discussions about serious issues.
Now, she suggests, things are different.
"Only two houses in our neighborhood get newspapers," Pekarek added. "And reading news online is a different kind of reading. People are skimming for facts or to be entertained."
She has a point. How many times do we hear someone repeating what they "heard" on the street – not something they learned from an authoritative source?
There's recent precedent for embracing cowboy ways.
In March, the governor of Wyoming signed legislation adopting something called "Cowboy Ethics" as the state's official code. Among other things, the code calls for courage, pride in work and fairness.
I'll mention Wyoming took theirs from author James P. Owens, a Texan. We can call Autry, who has a star on Anaheim's Walk of Stars, one of our own.
I should also let you know after Wyoming approved its code, some folks called the legislature "hicks." And if we were to adopt the Cowboy Code some might call us the same.
But we've survived being called plenty of things. In the 1970s it was "Birthplace of the John Birch Society." (For the record, that technically was my sister-in-law's home, Indianapolis.) And if it weren't for being upstaged by "The Real Housewives of New Jersey," we'd be saddled with the "Real Housewives" label forever.
So, call us hicks. And don't worry. We'll be gentle. It's the Cowboy Code.
David Whiting's column appears on News One on Fridays, Sundays and Wednesdays and in Sports/Outdoors on Tuesdays. Have a suggestion? firstname.lastname@example.org.