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BY John Prizer
Violent Land: Single Men and Social Disorder from the Frontier to the Inner City by David Courtwright
(Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996, 357 pp., $29.95)
-DON't THESE DESCRIPTIONS sound familiar? Gangs of adolescent and post-adolescent young men roam the streets, armed with handguns and rifles, touchy about their honor and reputation, terrifying respectable citizens. The result: an out-of-control homicide rate 40 times that of most settled, middle-class communities; rampant substance abuse and sexual promiscuity; and ineffective law enforcement in the areas where the young men congregate.
All of the above could be taken from newspaper or TV news coverage of certain poverty-stricken areas of our inner cities today. But, in fact, they are part of a general description of Fort Griffin, Texas, a frontier town frequented by cowboys, buffalo hunters and soldiers in the 1870s as reported in Violent Land: Single Men and Social Disorder from the Frontier to the Inner City by David Courtwright, a history professor at University of North Florida.
Using both biological and socio-cultural explanations, Violent Land argues that demography is destiny, beginning with a simple syllogism: “Young men are prone to violence and disorder. Whenever and wherever young men have appeared in disproportionate numbers, there has been a disproportionate likelihood of trouble. This is especially true of young American men, who are statistically the most dangerous people on earth.
Throughout our history, the cure to this problem has proven to be two-fold: religion and marriage, which often go together and require a strong female presence. According to Courtwright, the key statistic to watch is gender ratio. For where there are roughly equal numbers of both sexes in a given area, violence and disorder usually disappear.
“The frontier was the principal area of male brutality in American history,” Courtwright observes. “Most women, single or married, wanted nothing to do with the frontier and tried to stay away from it altogether.” They gravitated to the cities.
As a result, the gender ratio in cattle towns like Dodge City during its heyday in the 1870s was seven times as many men as women. Children and old people were also in short supply.
But very few of these young men could be fairly characterized as outlaws. Most were hard-working cowboys or miners. But without the influence of women or religion, they usually wasted their earnings in spending sprees, much of it disappearing in commercialized vices like alcohol, gambling and prostitution. Statistics discovered in Leadville, Colo., a mining town with a population of 20,000—very few of them women—revealed that in 1880 there was a saloon for every 80 persons; a gambling hall for every 170; a brothel for every 200; and a church for every 5,000.
However, the few respectable women in frontier communities were treated with exaggerated deference. The mining town, Yellowstone City, specified death by hanging for serious insults to virtuous women. In certain Wyoming cattle towns, Courtwright reports that ranch hands would yell “Church time!” when a married woman approached and then stop their swearing or fighting until she passed.
This humorous anecdote reflects a certain cultural truth. “Historians of American religion have consistently found that married women were the most faithful churchgoers, young single men the least faithful,” Courtwright points out. However, once the frontier was settled, its gender ratio came into balance, and its high rate of violence and disorder declined.
By contrast, similar problems in our present-day inner cities seem intractable. The homicide rate for black males aged 15 to 24 in New York City is now 247 per 100,000, higher than that of Fort Griffin during its frontier days. Accompanying this breakdown in law and order is a high illegitimacy rate and a huge increase in female-headed households. Currently, more than three out five blacks are born out of wedlock, most of whom grow up in fatherless homes. Recent statistics show that illegitimate children are five times more likely to die by homicide than the general population.
Liberals tend to emphasize economic factors and chronic unemployment as an explanation for this situation, and conservatives talk about welfare dependency. But Courtwright keeps his focus on the gender ratio, which is out of balance in a way directly opposite from frontier conditions.
Global surveys reveal that cultures with too many women relative to the number of men can be just as dangerous as those with too few females. Sociologists find that women in societies with low gender ratios have lower rates of marriage and fertility and higher rates of divorce and illegitimacy. An unnaturally high incidence of violence and disorder inevitably follows.
Violent Land ends on a pessimistic note regarding our inner cities' future. Courtwright doesn't see how its problems can be fixed. But practicing Christians can take another view. The implications of his research are that only a religious revival will be able to change the violent behavior of unmarried, inner city males and restore a sense of basic familial arrangements. One of the most important evangelical challenges of our time is to find ways to preach the Gospel to these men. Neither political nor law enforcement solutions seem to be making much of a difference.
John Prizer is based in Los Angeles.