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.”
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.