The Wild West, along with the stories of the Bible, is a defining mythology of the United States — of America even before our founding as an independent nation. Many of the people who immigrated here came because they were forced or because of their desperate circumstances in their homelands, but for those who arrived of their own free will, the image of the land was a picture of openness in which living by one’s wits without masters was possible — as long as the current owners could be moved somewhere else without too much trouble to the conquerers’ consciences.
How wild the actual west was is a matter of historical debate, but myth rarely needs evidence to support itself. The story is what matters, and it works in that it appeals to something in our psyches, something that makes a meaningful comment about who we are. Or so those of us who write westerns hope.
What appeals to Americans in this mythology is the idea of total freedom. In the wild west, there are no bosses, no taxes, and “no one for to give you no pain,” as the song has it. This might look like a rejection of responsibility, and there is an element of that, but we also should recognize that the American psyche has been a major driver in giving to the world the understanding of privacy, a belief that I should be able to draw a circle around myself into which no one may enter without my permission. Wide open spaces make this much easier to realize, and even so, it took us a long time to work it out. But the Wild West provided us an image, a conceptual space in which one’s agency and autonomy is conceivable in its purest form.
We, of course, do not live in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries, despite our yearning for such things. As much as Americans do not like being fenced in, the amount of land owned by the federal government to the west of the Mississippi, the tradition territory of western fiction, may surprise easterners. And some eighty percent of us live in urban, rather than rural areas, according to the 2010 census. The rise of libertarianism in the twentieth century and its seizure of the Republican Party in recent years is a confirmation of Frederick Jackson Turner’s thesis about the importance of the frontier in our thinking, and as we move farther away from living in that context, the psychological need for a free space grows.
And we have just such a space, the on-line world. Or at least we would, if the would-be censors and actual censors can be made to get out of the way. I have pointed out the function of social media as the modern agora in a previous article. Here I wish to celebrate the virtual world’s opportunity created by its historical lawlessness. Its decades-long record of copyright violations and dark conversations among terrorists and smugglers is decried as an existential threat to law and order, but that is precisely the point. We need some measure of compliance with rules, but we also need challenges to those rules to keep them and their enforcers honest.
The freedom that has existed in the virtual world gives us a measure of this. Yes, the Internet is flooded with misunderstandings and outright lies, but it also has allowed users to expand the notion of democracy into public discourse. It has pushed news organizations into at least an awareness of points of view that they never considered before. It is the one place where libertarianism can work.
Yes, it can be a disaster. Yes, it can facilitate illegal activity. Rights are dangerous. They cannot be otherwise, since rights are precisely an area in which we have to let people be themselves, whoever that might be. We have the tools to prosecute actual crimes, even if they are committed on-line. But the Internet is a door to a world that can be forever open, without gods or governments. It is the categorical rejection of authoritarianism.