I've been following the tense situation at the Bundy Ranch in Nevada with some interest over the past week or so. I've found it interesting the degree to which it seems to conform to what has become the standard right-wing story with regard to both the problems of and the solutions to the problems of the United States today: In short, abolish the federal government.
Needless to say, I don't find this proposal particularly persuasive, and on the contrary I'm far more interested in cultivating a robust and effective system of cooperation between state and federal governments than I am in imagining a world where the Federal government has little or no power. I can envision all too easily the kinds of social divisions that would emerge among the various states if there were no federal oversight to ensure minimum rules of justice for all citizens, regardless of race or ethnicity, throughout the United States.
But the Bundy situation carries with it a number of additional ironies. First of all, there is the fact that Bundy is refusing to acknowledge the existence (not even just the authority, but the very existence!) of the Federal government while grazing his cattle on Federal land. Then there is the fact that Bundy and his allies rallied scores of armed right wing extremists to their cause by publicizing the use of non-lethal tasers by the Bureau of Land Management agents seeking to enforce a court order requiring Bundy to pay the $1 million he owes the government in fees (it's worth noting, by the way, that he refuses to acknowledge the existence of the very government whose money he refuses to pay them; it's not the legal tender of Nevada that he refuses to part with, but American dollars, backed by the full faith and credit of, not Nevada, but the United States of America).
But the greatest irony of all has been the way in which Bundy and his allies, armed to the teeth as they are, have invoked the legacy of the Indian independence movement and the American Civil Rights movement in their confrontation. They have repeatedly made appeals to the traditions of civil disobedience pioneered by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, despite the fact that these movements were always, self-consciously and explicitly, nonviolent. Yet the rhetoric of Bundy and his followers have made quite clear that they have no interest in remaining nonviolent in the face of the possibility of arrest, or other attempts by the BLM to enforce their court order.
Civil disobedience is an honorable and often effective method of achieving social change. For Bundy and his hangers-on to lay claim to that tradition makes a mockery of its central tenets. As Paul Waldman summarizes quite well:
Civil disobedience means breaking a law, publicly and calmly, and then accepting the punishment the law provides, in order to draw attention to a law that is unjust and should be changed. The law Cliven Bundy is breaking says that if you graze your cattle on land owned by the federal government, you have to pay grazing fees. I haven't heard anyone articulate why that law is unjust. People are saying that the government owns too much land in Nevada, and maybe it does, but until the government sells it to you and you own it, you have to pay to use it. There isn't any fundamental question of human rights or even the reach of government in question here at all. Mr. Bundy also doesn't have the right to walk into the local BLM office and stuff all their staplers and pens into his knapsack and walk out.
Secondly, and just as important, there's nothing "civil" about Bundy's disobedience. If it was civil disobedience, he'd pay what he owes and then try, through the courts and public opinion, to change what he sees as these unjust grazing fees. But he hasn't done that. He just refused to pay, and then led a heavily-armed standoff with the government.
I have to say, I have some first hand experience of what it means to watch the Federal government seize someone's property, and attempt to stand up with them in solidarity. Back when I was in college, I became involved with the case of Randy Kehler and Betsy Corner, two members of a Land Trust in western Massachusetts who, as war tax resisters, had refused to pay their taxes for a number of years. Eventually, the IRS seized their house, resold it to an unwitting young couople, and set the conditions for what amounted to a multi-year non-violent sit-in in front of the house.
A few things to note: First, the house was on a Land Trust, and it's not at all clear that, per the conditions of the trust, the IRS had any authority to seize the house; second, the IRS apparently never informed the couple who bought the house of the various complications associated with the trust before they signed the deed; third, Randy and Betsy tried on many occasions to reach a mutually amicable settlement with the couple, to no avail. But the most important thing to bear in mind in all of this is that Randy and Betsy were taking a principled stand on the basis of their pacifist and anti-war beliefs, and so at all times were very explicitly and self-consciously non-violent.
During my visits to the house, this was repeatedly mentioned and strictly enforced. Even when police threatened arrest, as happened frequently, we were admonished not to resist violently. Even when I saw protestors physically assaulted by counter-demonstrators, the refrain was always the same: We don't use violence. Ever. At one point, I watched a guy run up behind one of protesters and clip him, throwing him into the air, only to watch some of the other protesters intervene to prevent violence from escalating. Later, the guy who got clipped, whose name was Bob, told me that he wished he'd had the presence of mind to call a ten-yard penalty on the guy who hit him.
The situations bear some surface similarities. On paper, Randy and Betsy broke the law, and so were certainly liable for the punishment meted out to them by the federal government. And, when they were penalized, they attracted a whole slew of supporters, including me. Those supporters set up camp in solidarity with them, and refused to leave despite the fact that they were continuing to break the law by staying. Nevertheless ...
Nevertheless Randy and Betsy, unlike Cliven Bundy, actually believe in civil disobedience. They were deeply committed to nonviolent action, and that was in fact the prime motive for their refusal to pay their income taxes. What's more, they were not insisting on the right to take advantage of a federal resource while refusing to pay for it. They even had specific criteria which would allow them to pay those taxes in good conscience. That's not what's going on with Cliven Bundy. He wants the right to graze his cattle on Federal land without paying the fee. Essentially, he wants to exploit a common resource, something that exists for the benefit of all U.S. ranchers, without paying for the upkeep and maintenance of that resource, which is what a grazing fee is for. This is not a principled stand, and in almost any other context, the right would be excoriating him for it.
What's more, all of this is being done under the aegis of the idea of "patriotism," but there is nothing the slightest bit patriotic about it. It is in fact anti-patriotism. It evinces, not a love of the United States, but a deep-seated hatred of the United States. There is a mythological place, also called the United States, that bears no resemblance to the actual United States, that Cliven Bundy is loyal to, but that mythic land has no basis in U.S. law or history, and Bundy's undisputed right to vote for his Congressional representatives in order to seek to bring U.S. law more in line with that mythic idea he has, has thus far failed to achieve anything even remotely resembling critical mass. In other words, thus far he's lost the debate. That doesn't mean he has to comply with the law. He could choose civil disobedience. He could allow his cattle to be seized and then claim the moral high ground in order to get the law changed. He could lobby his representatives. He could opt to go to jail, or stage a sit-in on the land. All of these are legitimate moves that I would fully support, as I supported Randy and Betsy in their act of civil disobedience.
But Cliven Bundy is neither a patriot nor engaged in an act of civil disobedience, He's a petulant thug, who insists on using public resources without paying for them. The real pity then is that, as long as he's allowed to tarnish the tradition of civil disobedience by laying claim to it, he taints a noble history. What's more, the likelihood that this will all end in violence is not zero. But were he and his supporters to put aside their weapons, and choose the nonviolent path, they would both have greater moral legitimacy, and I believe, be more effective in the long term.