a little more on the intersection of race and resistance

On Tuesday I wrote in partial defense of Cliven Bundy, at least inasmuch as I agreed with him that it’s strange how much of the open land in the west is controlled by the federal government. I also wrote that we on the Left should be sure to hold police and federal agents to the same standards when they are dealing with right-wing militia members as we do when they’re dealing with OWS or environmentalists or whatever.

Wednesday, of course, it was revealed that Bundy is constitutionally incapable of not being exactly who you thought he might be:

“I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro,” he said. Mr. Bundy recalled driving past a public-housing project in North Las Vegas, “and in front of that government house the door was usually open and the older people and the kids — and there is always at least a half a dozen people sitting on the porch — they didn’t have nothing to do. They didn’t have nothing for their kids to do. They didn’t have nothing for their young girls to do.

“And because they were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do?” he asked. “They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.

And today, Republican politicians who supported him are in the (apparently awkward) position of clarifying that they support his position on federalism and states’ rights while definitely, for sure, condemning his racist bullshit:

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul released a statement Thursday saying, Bundy’s “remarks on race are offensive and I wholeheartedly disagree with him . . . .”

[Greta] Van Susteren has also distanced herself from Bundy. A headline on her Web site linking to the New York Times story reads, “Let Me Make This Plain: I Condemn What Cliven Bundy Said About African Americans.”

Nevada Sen. Dean Heller’s spokesperson said Thursday, “Senator Heller completely disagrees with Mr. Bundy’s appalling and racist statements, and condemns them in the most strenuous way.”

Conservatives feel like they’re put in a tough spot here. And liberals are helpfully tsk-tsking them, with Mother Jones‘s Kevin Drum saying that “conservatives should never have rallied around Bundy in the first place” and that Paul Ryan was smart because he “never embraced Bundy publicly.” And the Democratic Party in Nevada issued a press release stating that Republicans who backed Bundy “look downright pathetic” and “owe[] the people of Nevada an apology for their irresponsible behavior.”

But why? People’s legal rights don’t depend on their not being racist assholes (and thank goodness!). If Bundy’s land claim was valid on Tuesday, it’s valid today, his gross views notwithstanding. And if, as I argued Tuesday, there’s a real (if not easily resolved) constitutional tension surrounding the federal government’s vast land holdings in Nevada, that’s still true today, to. Conservatives can be made to look like fools because Bundy’s claim to the rangeland is almost certainly not, in fact, valid, and so they’ve backed the wrong horse to make the larger federalism point in that sense. But his racial views, in the abstract, are simply irrelevant to the question of whether or not to back his claim.


But we can’t quite take Bundy in the abstract, because he exists in a cultural context that made it likely that conservatives would overlook the weakness of his legal claim in favor of his iconography. It’s probably correct to say, as Paul Waldman does here, that Republicans backed Bundy uncritically because he fit an image that they found quite appealing:

The reason he was embraced by so many on the right is that he was their kind of people, One of Us. And it shows the perils of identity politics.

Race is a part of that, but not all of it. When conservatives looked at Bundy, they saw not just a white guy, but also a cowboy, and that particular brand of character who waves an American flag while fighting the American government . . . . And they saw lots of guns, which also told them he was their kind of people. Everything about him told them he was their kind of guy.

Cliven fit, for conservatives, a certain mythic image of the rugged agriculturalist who just wants to be left alone by the federal government so he can make a living. But Ta-Nehisi Coates obliquely points out that that image, however carefully scrubbed of race it might seem to be in the modern conservative discourse, was invented to justify, and remains inextricably tied with, racial slavery: “Prick a movement built on white supremacy and it bleeds … white supremacy.” It’s certainly possible to be skeptical about federal power without being ideologically racist, of course. (I put myself in that camp.) But if you want a nice rich wellspring of anti-federal sentiment—and people who will turn out for you and scream at BLM agents on your behalf—it helps if you can tap the white resentment of federal authority that stretches back to the Civil War and its aftermath. And so it helps if you, yourself, personally believe that federal authority is so bad it’s morally much worse than slavery—which was the Confederacy’s argument and is precisely Bundy’s argument, too.


Finally, of course, any claim to “ancestral” land title in the West is inevitably tied to questions of racial and national extermination and pillage. The best way to deal with that problem, of course, is to claim to be just like the Indians:

Some of the militia members who have traveled to southern Nevada to offer armed support to the rancher have compared Bundy’s treatment by the federal government to the plight of Native Americans.

“They are literally treating western United States citizens, ranchers, rural folks like this are the modern-day Indians,” said Justin Giles, an Oathkeeper from Alaska. “We’re being driven off of our lands. We’re being forced into reservations known as cities.

Huh. Hm.

Raw Story wryly notes in response that

The Paiute Indians of Nevada were forced into reservations by federal troops in 1875 – two years after the tribe had been promised the same land where Cliven Bundy now grows melons and grazes cattle.

FoxNews.com, perhaps in an effort to distract from Bundy’s remarks, just put up a report about another rancher, a Western Shoshone traditional chief, who, like the Dann sisters, has been battling the BLM for his ancestral grazing rights, which makes him just like Cliven Bundy.

While the Bundy case is not exactly the same as Yowell’s, the parallels are obvious in the The Silver State and beyond. Bundy’s dispute, like Yowell’s, dates back decades to when the government designated the scenic Gold Butte region, where Bundy’s cattle graze, as protected habitat for endangered desert tortoise and slashed his allotment of cows. He then quit paying grazing fees to BLM, which canceled his grazing permit and ordered him to remove his 380 cattle.

J/k, not really:

Yowell said he sees some “commonality” between his fight and Bundy’s, but stressed his claim to the land is further strengthened by the Treaty of Ruby Valley of 1863, which formally recognized Western Shoshone rights to some 60 million acres in Nevada, Idaho, Utah and California . . . .

“His feeling is that he’s acquired certain rights and now his rights are being violated by the Bureau of Land Management,” Yowell said. “But I have Indian rights, treaty rights that he doesn’t have.”

And I should also point out that Yowell, again like the Danns, is angry that the government hasn’t lived up to its obligations:

“It’s diminished my feeling, my view of the government,” Yowell told FoxNews.com. “They don’t practice what they say.”

Bundy’s complaint, on other hand, at least on some days, is that the federal government exists at all.

This difference, as I noted on Tuesday, is expressed in the rhetoric used and the presence/absence of weapons, as well as the general tenor of the protest. It’s a strange difference, given that the Shoshone have quite a lot to be angry about—probably more than Cliven Bundy.

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3 Responses to a little more on the intersection of race and resistance

  1. Eric says:

    This difference, as I noted on Tuesday, is expressed in the rhetoric used and the presence/absence of weapons, as well as the general tenor of the protest. It’s a strange difference, given that the Shoshone have quite a lot to be angry about—probably more than Cliven Bundy.

    Well, it’s kind of a weird form of white privilege that comes into play here: Bundy’s never had the entire United States Army roll up on him at dawn and massacre all his women and children, and if that ever did somehow come to happen to him, he and his white supporters would get to see it as his own government (at least on some days) betraying him–he’s always been on the inside, even when he’s on the outside. He doesn’t have the history of being a citizen of a defeated sovereign nation that has existed in a peculiar domestic/foreign grey area for more than a hundred years.

    Put another way, amongst the many things the Shoshone have to be angry about are the Bear River Massacre and the Sheepeater Indian War. I’d imagine their expectation of the worst that our government is capable of is several orders of magnitude beyond the worst Cliven Bundy can imagine, and that “It’s diminished my feeling, my view of government,” is more along the lines of well-chosen rhetoric designed to convey a message to people like me than it is an actual honest feeling–after all, if I were Raymond Yowell, I can’t imagine what would diminish my views of the United States Government after the attempted genocide of people, after diligent attempts at cultural annihilation, after forced internment, after a century-plus of violated treaties, after decades of broken promises and stonewalling and cheats.

    The worst that right-wing rightists can imagine is a law-enforcement action gone awry: Waco, or Ruby Ridge, for instance. And these are, I suspect, abstractions to them: things that can happen, but they can’t happen here, because Bundy and his supporters are white guys in front of the cameras, and even things get tense and screwy, they’re still the people the establishment was built for, that it serves, and even if it turns on them there’ll still be lawsuits and apologies. It’s sort of an extreme equivalent of the difference between being a white dude pulled over while driving and being pulled while black: I don’t give a lot of fear to where my hands are and I expect to just get my ticket and leave; I don’t think about the possibility I may be arrested or roughed up or even shot, which is something friends of mine have had to consider. (My parents never felt they had to have The Talk with me, and why would they? It makes me sad to think any parent ever has to.) I doubt I’d run my mouth to a cop, because that’s always a bad idea–but I also have no doubt that if I were brave, I could push back just a little bit harder than an African American of my age and class and get away with just a little bit more most of the time. Raymond Yowell has far more of a right to be angry than Cliven Bundy–and he has a cultural experience that tells him what can happen when a Native American talks back to the Government of the United States.

    In short, the ability of Bundy and his right-wing supporters is a special case example of white privilege. (And they’d all say I’m just one of those horrible lefties who makes everything about race, now that I’ve used the “P” word, aren’t I? Oh well.)

    Did that make sense?

    • thehandsomecamel says:

      Oh yeah. It made a lot of sense. I mean, the whole thing sort of abounds in ironies. If you make a claim that your family acquired a piece of land in Nevada through “homesteading” in 1877 (a claim which, in Bundy’s case, is likely not correct, but let’s leave that aside), you have to be aware of what that means. Why is it open to “homesteading,” exactly? Who was living there before? And what entity used a combination of treaties and force to ensure that the land was empty?

      Of course the Shoshone have much more reason to be angry and to mistrust the federal government than white ranchers like Bundy do. But, as you say, that’s the nature of privilege: it makes one expect, in the words of the Bible, that “to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken.”

      (Jesus, obvy, was talking about spiritual things. To Cliven Bundy, regarding material things, he might have said “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.” Or perhaps, if Bundy was willing to fall short of perfection, at least “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.”)

  2. Pallas_Athena says:

    Cliven Bundy has had every opportunity to present and defend his fanciful claims in the legal system and has lost. Other people are required to pay grazing rights. What makes him special? Is there any claim that he can make that the executive branch and the courts have failed to provide him due process of law or that he has been unreasonably singled out by the courts or the federal government? I haven’t heard any claims other than that his “theories” have not been accepted. Nor have I heard any jurists pontificating on why his claims should have been found to be valid. So, basically, he is a scofflaw.

    Now if the real problem is the laws themselves – the vast amount of territory that the federal government owns out west, what if anything have Bundy and the coterie of politicians backing him done to get the laws changed? I haven’t heard of any serious claims – just the usual grumbling – that it is legally or Constitutionally wrong for the federal government to seek grazing fees from Bundy. Nor have I heard of any attempts to change the rules on federal ownership of land the fees that can be charged. Have any of these politicians actually taken a stand to help Bundy with his claims – other than cheering him from the sidelines? They are part of the federal government; it isn’t just the president. If they have done nothing to change the situation, then they are just as guilty of oppression as the rest of the government. I would not say this if they had tried to change the law but failed, but the fact is they’ve done nothing other than pose for photo ops with the new cause celebre. To pretend to be standing by him for purposes of increasing their chances at election time.

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