Cigars and the American Bison

Image: The Gentleman’s Journal

The archetype of American exceptionalism, I surmise. A movie star, larger than ordinary, lauded with oak status on stages groaning under powerful men—kickin’ ass and takin’ names, “I’m going to kill you last.” Drawing down on a cigar, comfortable on a throne, an outsized man wearing a watch with an outsized face. A legend enjoying la dolce vita, American style, perhaps reflecting on the life he built off a foundation of endless, exhausting workouts. Pretty cool, right?

Except Arnold is an Austrian immigrant sitting on a chair that belongs in a Wermacht anteroom, while smoking a cigar rolled in Central America, with perhaps, a Connecticut wrapper. Is the timepiece Swiss, the suit, handmade on Savile Row?

What seems a dichotomy is precisely the point. It’s a point sadly lost on the bogey-mongering voices of the radio right. For what surrounds Arnold and what he presents are exactly what we want America to be; a cultural parquet, each odd piece finding it’s place in the mosaic, incorporating the skills of others, celebrating access and yes, swaggering just enough to make the other countries wonder why we’re all so damn cocky. It’s been a good ride until recently.

So what happened? When did a county of mutts become so precious? When did we forget that what makes us strong is our uncanny knack for bringing out the best in our immigrants, learning from them, eating their food and leaving them be, to show us yet another way our cowboy culture grows wiser and deeper because we are all, each of us, uniquely American, transcendently American, willingly, boldly being this paradox of success—the hairy, bald, blonde and mustachioed American dreamers.

The cigar does it for me. It’s a sign I’ve got a little extra jingle in my jeans. I can kick it on a Friday night, pour a Kentucky whiskey over ice, light a ten-dollar stick and know I’ve done my dad proud in the week gone by. I’ve helped my son with his homework, showed off my knowledge of revolutionary history, patted my imaginary girlfriend on the ass and pulled that orange flame just under the toasty end of my Padrón, Serie 1926. I’m alive and healthy. I’m an American. Who’s got it better than me?

What are we complaining about? Really.

Some have a valid point; those future Americans enduring the process to come here properly, growing old and impatient, unsure of their future; they should be given a stronger hand to pull them in. Senator Rubio said he cares about immigrants, but also cares about the people who call his office every day, the people who have been waiting for too many years. He’s right of course, and gosh if doesn’t have a tenor in his voice, the classic orator. He can bring me to tears. I want to believe him. I want to believe there are statesmen among us. He sure sounds like one. If he’s a fraud it’ll be a let-down.

We’re all immigrants.

I watched an episode of Shark Tank during which Robert Herjavec broke down talking about how his dad was so proud to sweep floors in a factory. Proud because he was here in the US and he knew he had given his family a shot at a better life. That got me. Tissue time. “We’re all immigrants,” he said.

There’s a danger in writing posts like this to become maudlin. I don’t want to write as though America the Beautiful is swelling in the background. It isn’t. Actually what’s playing is Rachmaninoff’s symphony No. 2, by the Radio Filharmonisch Orkest.

But I must tread on thee, my misguided patriots, or on least on your strident ideas. America is, quite literally, a better place, a better idea of what a country ought to be. But in order to stay that way we have to remember our history. Cue the pounding hooves.

Here’s a few facts about the American bison, the one we nearly obliterated for two reasons: fear and greed. Bison meat was (seemingly) endless; the hides and bones in great demand for clothing, tools, china and soap. The emerging technology of the 19th century brought tanning methods from Germany and Pennsylvania to exuberant heights. Millions upon millions upon millions of bison were slaughtered to within a few hundred head of extinction in order to cash in on the dwindling herds. But more important, and shameful, was the deliberate promotion of the extinction of the species in order to destroy the Native American culture, to own them and force them to live a life devoid of their ‘primitive’ ideas, without recognizing that destroying a people is itself a primitive notion. The thinking was, if we eliminate the bison, we eliminate the Indian. Savages. We’ll force them to till soil and sell crops, to be like us, to be just like us, or else not be part of us. Sound familiar?

The near-destruction of the bison was as much about control as it was about cash. Laws enacted to save the animals were largely ignored or enacted by state legislators after the animals had already been wiped out in there jurisdictions. Advocates of European preeminence, including Army generals, encouraged the wanton slaughter of the plains beasts to defeat the spirit of the plains peoples. The timeline of this near extinction can be viewed here on the Fish and Wildlife Service website.

We can learn. We always do.

So let’s turn this herd of young Americans around, before we’ve lost them yet again. Let’s light a Cuban stogie, eat a Portuguese sausage and wash it down with a California cab, and remember who picked the grapes. Let’s be the best America can be because, what-the-hell, it’s fun to be number one. I like being proud of a heritage that recognizes its errors (slavery, Sioux massacres, discrimination, My Lai) and moves forward all the wiser, more humble, wounded but recovering, standing a little taller on our aching feet, ready to get our strut back. We need to lighten up and toughen up. We know how. We’re Americans.


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