America's new frontier lies somewhere in cyberspace


WASHINGTON -- I love America. One of the great things about being an American is that you can pick your myth. While I love America in general, I love the myth of the American West in particular.

One of my earliest memories comes from the time my parents loaded us up in the Chevy II Nova convertible and took us to watch "How the West Was Won" at the drive-in. That big blue screen against the dark August sky made quite an impression.

Maybe it was that or those black-and-white Roy Rogers movies on TV. To me, Roy looked cool. And who could forget Gabby Hayes?

Maybe it was all those spaghetti westerns. I remember asking my dad: "Dad, who was the good guy in 'The Good, The Bad and The Ugly?'" His answer was that they were all pretty bad.

I know I jumped at the chance to take "Literature of the American West" as an English elective in college. I also took the companion "Literature of the American Road." That led to a flirtation with the beatnik myth, but I liked Johnny Cash better than John Coltrane.

As a matter of fact, I tried on for size a bunch of American myths.

The brooding artist myth. I didn't have enough brood or art.

The Humphrey Bogart-style detective myth. I liked the fedora but didn't like the gumshoe part.

The urbane, eastern, intellectualist myth. I liked the turtlenecks but didn't have enough urbanity or intellect.

I tried the working man's hero myth. I didn't much care for the work and quickly found out I'm too big a coward.

I was thinking about the mythical West last week as I was listening to the FCC's field hearing on a thing called "network neutrality" at that center of urbane, eastern, intellectualism called Harvard University.

Through the magic of the Internet, I didn't have to unpack my turtleneck and go to Boston in the dead of winter. I didn't even have to put on my Stetson and leave my living room.

Still, as I listened to the pros and cons of the argument, I kept thinking about the old West. Actually, I was thinking about one particular year. In 1890, the U.S. Census Bureau announced the disappearance of "a contiguous frontier line." The frontier was officially closed.

Three years later during a gathering of historians at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, a University of Wisconsin professor named Frederick Jackson Turner wondered what would happen to an America without a frontier. He contended that American greatness was made by the hardy individualist that struck out across the line marked by "the meeting point between savagery and civilization." He wondered how America could continue to reinvent herself without that line.

Turner's thesis has been debated ever since. Later historians reject the "lone cowboy" notion. They point out that the cowboy, the mountain man, the sodbuster was seldom actually alone. Still, it is that idea that holds a special place in the American psyche.

My mythical West is long gone. It never really existed. It was manufactured by newspapermen, book authors and moviemakers.

As Americans, we moved on, discovering that the demarcation where savagery and civilization meet isn't some line in the sand. It can be somewhere in cyberspace. That's what we're really arguing about when we argue about network neutrality.

No matter what the government says about the merits of the argument, the fact that it is compelled to say something at all makes me feel like it's 1890 and the Census Bureau is closing that other frontier.