Big news in the Old West recently. Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who had not paid grazing fees for twenty years, and who has lost in court regarding those fees repeatedly, resisted the Bureau of Land Management’s efforts to seize his assets, several hundred head of cattle. He was supported in that resistance by a self described armed local militia. This CBS news story strikes me as a good starting point, if you’re interested in reading more about it.
As the situation started to escalate, and as tempers grew ever more heated, the BLM backed down. The Clark County sheriff Doug Gillespie helped negotiate a settlement, but one to which the BLM was not party. 400 head of cattle, seized from Bundy, were returned to him. Negotiations are on-going, and the situation remains unresolved.
For some on the right, this whole situation is more about states’ rights than it is about one elderly scofflaw tax cheat. The National Review offered their usual overheated and preposterous analysis. Apparently, this is part and parcel with the Obama administration’s (legendary, and entirely fictitious) lawlessness and tyranny. Blarg.
Obviously, nobody wanted for shots to be fired; nobody wanted that kind of escalation. And yet, as I’ve been reading about this case, I couldn’t help but think about the ‘what would the Founding Fathers do?’ rhetorical question, much beloved on the Right. In fact, this specific situation is one in which we know exactly, precisely, unequivocally what the Founders would have done. It’s almost an exact historical parallel to the Whiskey rebellion. In 1791, farmers in western Pennsylvania forcibly resisted the collection of a tax on whiskey. President Washington not only sent troops to deal with it, he personally commanded them (in the last military adventure of his career). The Founding Fathers (or at least Washington, Adams, Hamilton–those Founders in the Washington administration), had little patience with armed insurrectionists. One option in Nevada would have been to call out the National Guard, disperse those ‘local militias,’ disarm, arrest, and try them. Probably just as well we didn’t go that route, but it remains an option.
And yet, as I read about this on the intertubes, I did feel some sense of poignancy. One commentator pointed out that Clark County once had many rancher families. Now Bundy’s the only one. Clark County is home to Mesquite, quite possibly the tackiest gambling-oriented resort town in a state inundated with them. This protest is in part over the loss of a lifestyle. Possibly it’s in part about images of the Old West, over nostalgia over a cowboy lifestyle now vanished, or vanishing. Relegated to cultural obscurity, to the cowboy poetry gathering in Elko, replaced by the most sordid examples of pop culture tackiness (read Las Vegas).
And perhaps that goes a long way towards understanding at least some of contemporary conservatism. Isn’t the Tea Party movement driven by white resentment, by specifically elderly white male resentment? Isn’t it possible to see a successful Presidential campaign, by a black candidate with a suspiciously foreign name, based on a theme of ‘Hope and Change’ as threatening? If you’re used to being in charge, being on top, seeing people who look like you running the world, wouldn’t you see a call for fundamental change as sinister, as threatening?
So it’s not surprising that this ridiculous ‘protest’ by a rancher who doesn’t recognize the existence of the federal government as a legal entity, who believes that ‘federal land’ actually properly belongs to the state of Nevada, his state, his western state, his place in the world, his home, could be so embraced by conservatives.
And let’s face it. There was a time when you could graduate from high school, get a good job at a good wage at a local factory, work there all your life, retire with reasonable benefits, and meanwhile coach Little League or work with 4H, or volunteer as a Scoutmaster, and enjoy a good life. Support your family, have a presence in the community, go fishing or hunting on the weekends. Or a time when open range ranching was an economically viable occupation. And those times are gone, probably forever. And that world has been replaced by a world of uncertainty, and what must seem like moral relativism, and what must seem as the triumph of obnoxious young furriners, dang it.
So Clive Bundy’s in trouble again over his ranch. So you pick up your rifle and show your support for a friend and neighbor, and the heck with his fruitier political views. It does all make sense.
The BLM, the Obama administration showed remarkable restraint, and good for them. But this will need to be resolved, and Cliven Bundy cannot win. Nor should he.