Bundy ranch case about politics, not principle

Chances are you’ve heard, by now, of the great American frontiersman Cliven Bundy, whose decision to parade his inherited cattle on public land that belongs to the endangered desert tortoise has led to his being fined by the U.S. government. Bundy has refused to pay his fees and fines with armed resistance. As a result, there was a standoff in Nevada between the government, who attempted to remedy the debt by seizing Bundy’s cattle, and Bundy’s militiamen.

He definitely isn’t a hero, as some on the right have made him out to be; he’s merely an entitled curmudgeon who doesn’t like to pay bills. The only reason Bundy is a hero on the right is that his adversary is a federal entity, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), operating under an Obama-controlled White House. The government has been attempting to collect fees from Bundy for 20 years – killing an endangered species is OK as long as you pay for it – but the situation has been in jeopardy of exploding in recent weeks.

Protesters gather at the Bureau of Land Management's base camp near Bunkerville, Nevada

Between fracking and widespread deforestation, the way private entities pillage public land for profit is a tragic disgrace. Bundy wants his freedom to participate, too, and conservatives have rallied in his defense.

As evidence that Bundy’s life as a cause célèbre for the right is based entirely on politics and not on principle, recent racist comments of Bundy’s have caused many of his supporters to walk back their endorsement. Whether he’s a racist or not has nothing to do with whether he’s right or wrong to use federal land in the way he has been – which is, apparently, freely and recklessly.

This is why, despite his multitudinous and colossal douche baggery, I find a very, very small measure of support for Bundy’s cause. His disregard of an endangered species is by far his biggest crime, but good luck selling the idea that a tortoise is more important than a hamburger. Nonetheless, there are questions about the way the government regulates both public and private land, and the Bundy case brings them to light.

Americans who choose to live their life in nontraditional ways face serious and disastrous consequences. Stories break fairly routinely about people in America being punished for living off the land or off the grid. Circumstances vary from story to story – one recent incident saw a renaissance woman being punished for using the sewer system for free – but taken as a whole, the stories paint a compelling portrait of an America that does not tolerate its citizens opting out of the established corrupt, corporate-driven society.

Bundy’s case is very sad for this reason as much as any other. By the right’s making a martyr of such an unsympathetic “victim,” there is a darker outlook on others who might, unlike Bundy, live outside business and the government’s jurisdiction in reasonable, eco-friendly ways. Under the draconian and radical-right direction of the present U.S. government, it isn’t difficult to imagine, for instance, a day when bicyclists will be fined for not pumping gas.

Bundy supporters confront the BLM agents.

Bundy supporters confront the BLM agents.

I also think it’s not so straightforward to criticize Bundy’s militia for showing up with guns. In a recent piece for Salon, Eric Stern writes, “Many repossession and foreclosure actions often involve a sheriff or other armed officials, and confiscation of property is an ordinary means by which a government resolves a debt.” Stern seems to wave his hand at this, saying it’s par for the course and therefore Bundy has no right to resist it.

Yet many folks, including many with the support of their communities and/or the Occupy movement, have protected their homes from bank foreclosures with a collective body mass. That, I think, is a tremendously wonderful and noble thing. Bundy’s wrongness doesn’t stem from his decision to meet an asset seizure with resistance – even armed resistance – but rather his dubious motivation, i.e., his desire to continue pillaging public land without consequence. That’s an important distinction, and to fail to make it is to leave others who resist asset seizure for better reasons open to the same criticism.

Bundy has not been done an injustice by the U.S. government. His reaction to this simple act of bureaucratic enforcement is dangerous and extreme. But the way the story is being presented is just as harmful because of the presupposed universality. It isn’t always wrong to resist asset seizure, nor is it always wrong to call bullshit on certain government fees. It just so happens that Bundy is wrong.


My guess is that cooler heads will eventually prevail. Some lawyer or bureaucrat will talk Bundy down, the BLM will reduce or waive the fee with certain conditions, and the situation may be declared a victory for democracy and the Tea Party. That’s the only reason it might not work – the government-business complex is never too pleased with successful democratic coercion. But in many perverse ways, that is exactly what it will be.

If not, there’s no telling what could happen. It’s a hostile situation, and it’s made all the more combustible by the careless waving around of deadly weapons on both sides. Hopefully, the situation resolves itself peaceably. My only real wish is that this energy could be harnessed for something more productive, like preserving the endangered desert tortoise. Because despite Bundy’s philosophical wrongness, it takes serious energy and popular support of the kind he’s receiving to enact meaningful change. People have just got to choose better causes.

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