Rights Are for People Like Us
Those high-flown principles put forward by the militiamen defending Cliven Bundy’s rights … do they apply to anybody else?
The best summaries I’ve seen of the conflict between Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and the federal Bureau of Land Management are from the local St. George News and the Washington Post. Cutting it down somewhat: the BLM charges that Bundy has been grazing his cattle on public land without paying grazing and tresspass fees for 20 years. (They got their first court order telling him to stop in 1998; he ignored it.) The claimed fees now amount to over $1 million, and so April 5 the BLM started seizing some of Bundy’s illegally grazing cattle.
Armed militiamen who support Bundy started gathering at a camp on April 10, and on April 12 the BLM backed down after what the Las Vegas Review-Journal described as “a 20-minute standoff … [w]ith rifles pointing toward each side”. The BLM released a statement:
Based on information about conditions on the ground, and in consultation with law enforcement, we have made a decision to conclude the cattle gather because of our serious concern about the safety of employees and members of the public.
The Bundy Ranch blog described the scene like this:
The result was a group of Bundy’s family members and supporters making a slow advance on a line of armed agents who kept ordering them to halt. At one point, the protesters were even told “one more step and you’re dead,” but the group kept coming, eventually walking easily through the line of federal agents and SWAT members who obviously didn’t have the courage of their convictions. According to InfoWars, the BLM had already announced it was leaving, but the county sheriff refused Bundy’s demand to disarm the federal agents and return his cattle. Within about a half hour, the cattle were released from the federal pen.
In other words, federal agents tried to enforce the law, were met with armed resistance from a mob, and decided to temporize rather than start killing people. On the extreme Right, this was celebrated as a victory for Freedom. Bundy’s son said, “The people have the power when they unite. The war has just begun.”
And the mainstream Right went along. The Powerline blog wrote “Why You Should Be Sympathetic Toward Cliven Bundy” while admitting “legally, Bundy doesn’t have a leg to stand on.” National Review‘s Kevin Williamson made “The Case for a Little Sedition“, saying
Of course the law is against Cliven Bundy. How could it be otherwise? The law was against Mohandas Gandhi, too
Fox News commentator Andrew Napolitano described the BLM (and not the miltiamen) as “a group of thugs dressed in military uniform with loaded M16s pointed at a rancher and his family.” Fox News produced this sympathetic segment, in which National Review editor Rich Lowry described the resistance as “in the finest American tradition of civil disobedience going back to Henry David Thoreau.”
To me, the Bundy incident has captured much of the basic sickness of conservatism in America: The rhetoric is full of high principle, but it’s hard to find any actual principle that would apply to anyone other than People Like Us — people like the people who belong to the conservative fringe.
It’s tempting to characterize this kind of thing as racism. Certainly that’s what the NYT’s Timothy Egan is suggesting with:
If you changed that picture to Black Panthers surrounding a lawful eviction in the inner city, do you think right-wing media would be there cheering the outlaws?
But it’s more subtle than that. Probably a black man who behaved like a far-fringe-rightist in all other ways could become People Like Us and come to have similar “rights” recognized. But the Black Panthers are clearly not People Like Us, so it would be an absolute horror if they were to arm themselves and resist the law. Likewise, it would be a horror if a Hispanic militia decided to liberate one of Sheriff Arpaio’s detention camps for immigrants. If some miltiamen got killed in such an attempt, I doubt Fox News would lament about “government overreach”. The Occupy protesters weren’t People Like Us, so they could be thrown off public land with impunity. Imagine the outrage if Occupy had militarized Zuccotti Park!
One of the reasons Bundy is supposed to deserve sympathy is that “his family has been ranching on the acres at issue since the late 19th century”. You can imagine how far similar sympathy would extend if armed Native Americans were threatening to kill whites over land their people had been hunting and fishing on for thousands of years. Hispanics have been wandering back and forth across the Rio Grande for centuries, but if they do it today, we have to enforce the Rule of Law. If people get killed, well, so be it.
But not People Like Us. When we feel wronged and take up arms, everyone should sympathize, the government should show restraint, and the media should re-litigate our case to the general public.
A number of Bundy’s sympathizers are rehashing the bizarre claims he has made in court: that the federal government can’t own land inside a state, or that the federal government is itself illegitimate. Bundy repeatedly refers to the federal government’s ownership as “unconstitutional”, probably because his reading of the Constitution never got as far as Article IV:
The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States
This is why we have courts, to adjudicate disputes like this. Bundy made his argument in court and lost. Most people don’t then get to appeal their case to the Court of Nuts With Guns. But People Like Us do.
Whenever Bundy supporters are given media time, I would like to see them challenged to state their position in such a way that they would support similar rights for people not at all like them and not already part of the conservative movement. And I’d like to see mainstream conservative pundits confronted with a different challenge: Are there any limits to what you will support if the people doing it are on your side?