Unmasking Leviathan: The Radical Right’s Attempt to Reshape American Politics

The world can be a scary place. This is a view exacerbated by popular media, which tends to focus attention on sources of violence and despair in disproportion to their prevalence. No surprise there – these things translate into ad revenue more readily than a cold assessment of reality. So it is that polls have the public rating ISIS and North Korea as greater threats than climate change. An exceedingly large portion of Americans also see their own government as a top threat.

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There are some good reasons for this. Foremost among them is the loss of legitimacy brought about as private interests seize more and more of the public domain, bending government action toward narrow aims and away from the public interest. The U.S. government has grown exceedingly expensive and unwieldy over the years, even as it has grown less and less capable of acting in the interests of the majority. A desire to rein it in is not misplaced.

However, disguised beyond all this concern over ISIS and North Korea and the U.S. government is a more fundamental threat to the American way of life. That it is so poorly recognized, despite being so well evidenced, is both depressing and disturbing. Because the fact of the matter is that there are forces working to reshape American democracy in a manner most citizens would likely find objectionable. And to significant extent, they are succeeding.

Currently, a cadre of wealthy Americans and right wing intellectuals is working to transform the United States into something rather twisted. Their core motivating principle is that the accumulation of capital takes precedence over all other values. Indeed, it is in their view the ultimate arbiter of value. To them, human worth scales with earnings.

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The Bundys Strike Back: Right-Wing Militants Seize Federal Building in Oregon

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Protesters demonstrating against the treatment of the Hammonds. They may be ignorant rubes, but at least here they are being peaceful.

It is with considerable chagrin that I must report that Bundy is making my earlier concerns over the self-radicalization of the Far Right in response to largely imaginary slights appear prophetic:

A group of armed militants have taken over the managerial offices of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon. Led by Ammon Bundy, the jackass son of notorious jackass Cliven Bundy, the militants seized the offices – unoccupied over the holidays – following a protest over the treatment of two local ranchers, Dwight and Steven Hammond.

Dwight and Steven Hammond were sentenced to five years in prison for arson charges stemming from incidents in 2001 and 2006. In the first, the Hammonds set fire to 139 acres of public land. According to eye-witness testimony, the Hammonds were using the burn destroy the remains of several deer they had poached. Later, in 2006, the Hammonds violated a controlled burn ban, setting several backfires that spread onto public property. The Hammonds were convicted by a jury of their peers, and, following a ruling by the 9th Circuit Court, sentenced to serve the mandatory minimum sentence of five years.

This marked the impetus for a peaceful protest that Ammon Bundy and company have decided to link to imaginary grievances perpetrated by the federal government against local ranchers, loggers, and miners. Bundy, who might be properly described (borrowing the oh-so accurate description Sam Harris applied to Ben Carson) as a “dangerously deluded imbecile”, sees the establishment of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge – and presumably, by logical extension, all such refuges – as an unconscionable usurpation of individual liberties. Bundy has issued demands that the lands of the wildlife refuge be turned over to local ranchers, loggers, and miners for private exploitation.

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Militant ring-leader Ammon Bundy – lover of flannel work-coats and well-trimmed bears, hater of public land access and responsible stewardship, terrified of elementary civics textbooks.

Bundy’s thinking here is foggy at best, and – by any measure – incredibly myopic. He does not seem to understand the concept of public property, clearly stating that he believes the federal government has established the refuge for its own personal benefit. In fact, the refuge is a public resource. Literally anyone with the means and incentive can travel there and enjoy the natural beauty that government stewards work diligently to preserve. For Bundy, a better use would be to make this land the private property of a small number of ranchers, loggers, and miners who will exploit the land for short-term profit. In doing so, they will inevitably cause irrevocable harm to both the land and the species that inhabit it. No longer open to nature lovers – photographers, birder, water-foul hunters – the land would be stripped of its natural value so a handful of people can make some money. A resource that could, through sustainable management, be enjoyed for centuries by everyone, would be destroyed so a couple generations of a handful of families or private companies can turn a profit.

Clearly, Bundy and his supporters are men and women who consider it a personal affront and untenable assault on their personal freedoms to be told they can’t do whatever they want with property held in trust for the enjoyment of everyone. Petulant, entitled children, they treat civics like a zero-sum game. Either they get to do whatever the hell they want, or pout and wail over the crushing boot of government tyranny.

Truly, conservatives of the Bundy stripe have the most refined knack for plumbing the farthest depths of hypocrisy. They bemoan the existence of entitlement for the poor, decrying efforts to establish basic rights to food and shelter. And yet, is there a shriller, less justifiable cry for personal entitlement than an insistence on a right to unfettered use and exploitation of property held in trust for everyone? My nephews, all four and under, have a better understanding of the concept of sharing and issue fewer and less pathetic claims over their access to what they perceive as theirs.

Make no mistake: this behavior does not have a place in civil society, and neither to the people who perpetrate it. These people have not been the victims of an injustice grave enough to justify armed rebellion. They are swine without the intellectual and emotional fortitude to resolve their grievances through proper channels. This is not a patriotic protest, it is a childish temper tantrum. It is no exaggeration to a call it domestic terrorism*, with the use of arms and threat of violence used to intimidate opponents into acquiescence.

Bundy and company’s unbelievably retrograde beliefs belong to a time when people burned offerings to Baal and killed animals with rocks. With no place in modern society, they’ve abandoned all recourse to discourse and due process, resorting instead to primal bellowing and brutish chest-beating. They want to eat everyone else’s lunch and shit on the plate, and they call it a dream of freedom. If somebody dares suggest this might be a bad idea and whisper a word in favor of the public good they call him a despot and take up arms in favor of their right to spoil the world.

Thinking of this sort might be described as a speed-bump on the road to progress. However, a more appropriate metaphor might be that of a millstone about the neck of civil society. People who think and act like the armed militants occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters are a constant handicap, tugging society in the direction of some ill-conceived and irrevocably fanciful antediluvian paradise wherein everyone can do whatever they want with no discernible consequences for anyone else. Put more simply, they are men and women who are too stupid and immature to participate in a complex society rooted in the responsible and informed participatory governance of citizens.

Bundy and his ilk are selfish, entitled, puerile adults, devoid of even a rudimentary understanding of basic civics. The tragedy of the commons is clearly a concept well beyond their comprehension, illustrated by their inability to conceive of the ways in which getting what they want might have negative downstream consequences for others. Their simplistic understanding of the processes of self-governance is pitiable, but their behavior stemming from that simple-mindedness is revolting. If Bundy and company think they have suffered a real injustice, they should put their complaint into words and pursue redress through proper channels – including peaceful, unarmed protest. People who need guns to enact change are typically not considered freedom-fighters. They are usually labelled terrorists, and in the case of Bundy and the rest of the militants and right wing nuts who support him, the term almost certainly applies. Without caveat.

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* Here is the FBI’s definition of domestic terrorism:

“Domestic terrorism” means activities with the following three characteristics:

  • Involve acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law;
  • Appear intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination. or kidnapping; and
  • Occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S.

Bundy and company are using firearms and the threat of violence to intimidate the federal government into accepting their demands. That is, they are attempting to “influence the policy of a government by intimidation”.


Update: Ammon Bundy was recently on Fox News, where he withered in under questions from Megyn Kelly. This is hardly surprising – the man has always fumbled and sputtered when attempting to fully articulate his motives and reasoning. However, I did find it interesting that he cited Article 1, Section 8, Clause 17 of the U.S. Constitution as justification for his actions. Article 1, Section 8, Clause 17 reads:

To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of Particular States, and the Acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of the Government of the United States, and to exercise like Authority over all Places purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be, for the Erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards, and other needful Buildings;–

Aside from being borderline incomprehensible, thanks in no small part to the influence of antiquated syntax and vernacular, coupled with the torturous language typical of all legal documents, this section of the U.S. Constitution makes no clear argument that would justify Bundy’s sense of injury. It does specify that the Federal government cannot own or exercise authority over state lands unless they have been purchased by an act of congress with permission of the state legislature. I suspect  this is a situation in which a man heard from a ne’er-do-well cousin or in-law, who in turn heard it from a lawyer they go to church with, that this article spells out the Constitutionality (or lack thereof) of Federal land ownership.

However, according to Supreme Court rulings, justification for Federal land ownership has rested primarily on Article 4, Section 3, Clause 2, which reads:

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; and nothing in this Constitution shall be so construed as to Prejudice any Claims of the United States, or of any particular State.

This passage reads a lot clearer than Article 1, Section 8, Clause 17. It grants clear power to the Federal Government to regulate and manage the use of land within the United States.

 

Cliven Bundy, the Nevada ‘Ranch War’, and a victory for militant jackasses everywhere

Last week, long standing tensions between a Nevada rancher and the Bureau of Land Management began to escalate toward a good old fashioned ‘Merican dust-up. Like Gary Cooper facing down the gang of outlaws in High Noon, rancher Cliven Bundy stood alone to defend life and liberty and against the forces of evil and exploitation.

First, a little history.

Cliven Bundy is the rancher at the epicentre of the fracas. According to Cliven Bundy, in the latter half of the 19th century a group of Latter Day Saints (Bundy’s progenitors included) settled parts of the inter-mountain west. It would seem this was done under the divine instruction and direct supervision of God, the infinite and almighty Creator of the Universe and ghost writer of the United States Constitution. Thanks to divine dispensation, Bundy’s ancestors have been grazing cattle on a sizable swath of the Nevada desert since the 1870s, peaceably and industriously carving an honest way of life out of the unforgiving high desert landscape.

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Cliven Bundy – Jim Urquhart/Reuters

Things changed when the Bureau of Land Management, a generally beneficial government agency that Bundy and his supporters apparently believe to be a tyrannical cabal of radical communists, decided to collect the land use fees Bundy had courageously neglected to pay for two decades. A quick internet search reveals that the mission of this shadowy government agency is to:

“manage and conserve the public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations under our mandate of multiple-use and sustained yield.”

Nefarious. I quake in fear for the future of American liberty. Under the blasphemous pretense that natural resources are somehow perishable and ecosystems fragile, the BLM works to erode the freedoms of hard-working Americans by forcing “sustainable” management strategies down the public’s throat. These corrupt liberal parasites believe that some lands represent a type of public good. Implicit in this is the suggestion that wanton, short-sighted exploitation of landscapes, ecosystems, and the resources they encompass is somehow unethical.

Since 1993, Bundy has refused to pay the BLM for the right to graze his 900 cattle on 600,000 acres of public property. That is, he has refused to pay for access to lands held in the public trust and managed by the federal government. Here, it is worth taking a moment to consider the purpose of land management with respect to grazing rights. In the 19th century, the U.S. government actively encouraged Euro-American settlement of the Western Frontier. According to the Homestead Act of 1862, individuals who filed an application, noticeably “improved” a portion of land over a five year period of occupation, and filed for a deed could become the proud owners of a given allotment of acreage. Implicit in the act itself is the notion that the federal government owns the land. Things were dandy until it became apparent that unregulated land use (such as grazing) damages the landscape, harming plants, soils, streams, springs, and animals. This provided the impetus for the enactment of the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, which led to subsequent improvements in range land productivity and watershed quality. With the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, the Endangered Species Act of 1973, and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, the BLM’s mission expanded to include the protection of resources additional to the common interests of cattle ranchers. Since then, the BLM has worked to preserve things like riparian ecosystems and protect sensitive species of plants and animals. 

Presumably, Bundy and his family had been paying lease fees to the BLM since 1934. He inexplicably (in terms that conform to any known criteria of logic, reason, or historical precedent, anyway) ceased payments in 1993. Since then, he has been grazing his cattle on public lands for free. The ecosystem in which Bundy’s cattle graze is not well adapted to their generalist grazing strategy. Consequently, cattle grazing results in some amount of passive (but non-negligible) damage to the environment. Ranchers like Bundy pay the BLM for access to public lands as a way to offset the environmental cost of grazing. So for over twenty years, Bundy has been engaged in the destruction of public property – a resource held in trust for the enjoyment and use of all Americans and the creatures with which we share the land, present and future – without paying into the trust that supports sustainable management. Put more simply, Bundy hasn’t paid his rent in 20 years. Last week, his overly lenient landlords began eviction proceedings.

Depending on who you ask, Bundy owes between $300,000 (if you ask economist Cliven Bundy, PhD) and $1,100,000 (if you ask the BLM) in back rent. In order to recoup a little of their costs, the BLM hired wranglers to round up some of Bundy’s cattle. Here, Bundy drew a line in the sand. For years, Bundy and his family have struggled under the yoke of tyranny, asked to pay $1.35 per cow per month to graze on public lands. That’s right. Bundy was asked to pay that fee. Being the civil rights hero that he his, Cliven Bundy said no. Yet the government continued to ask. Bastards.

Having seen the kernel of truth at the heart of the ancient proverb, “shit in your left hand and hope into your right and see what fills up faster”, the BLM, apparently comprised entirely of timid apologists, decided to take action. This lead to some serious public outrage, inspiring a bunch of militant, right-wing nut jobs to grab their AR-15s and their fourth grade understandings of U.S. history and head for Bunkerville, Nevada.
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John Locher/Las Vegas Review-Journal/AP

Under mounting public pressure (read: mounting pressure from ring-wing militants) and the growing threat of needless violence, the BLM backed down, capitulating to a man who says his personal interests take precedent over the interests of anyone and everything that might have some stake in the condition of that land, now or in the future. Contrary to standard U.S. policy, they also gave in to the demands of terrorists. That’s right. I said terrorists. Men and women who used the threat of violence and the fear it evokes to get their way. Terrorists. Ignorant yokels whose inscrutable sense of resentment and persecution has turned them into an active menace to the smooth and peaceful operation of a government agency whose work can – at the very worst – be considered innocuous.

In the final analysis, this will probably turn out to be a very small story. A footnote to a footnote in United States history. But it is a microcosm of the ignorance, paranoia, and selfishness festering in the minds of many Americans. As such, it should serve as a forceful lesson. A mob estimated to number somewhere around a thousand forced the U.S. government to allow a man to continue to break the law. That’s not to say the government should have continued to press the matter. Surely that would have lead to some backwoods jackass with an itchy trigger finger sparking a violent, bloody confrontation. I don’t think this affair would have been worth losing lives over. However, the fact that people are hailing Bundy as a hero is remarkable in all the worst ways. It is a position rooted in abject ignorance and the sort of livid, animal paranoia bred by a total blindness to differing opinions and the various methods by which information can be critically evaluated. It is the product of swaggering confidence, unmoored of sensibility, circumspection, incredulity, and civility.

By and large, dissenting opinions are good for democracy. I can live in a country where people disagree on how much influence government should have on the market, or whether or not a certain interpretation of the law is in line with the strictures of the U.S. constitutions. Civil, intelligent people can and do disagree. But the process of constructive debate and bipartisan compromise breaks down when a significant chunk of the population holds opinions justified only by their imaginations. The militants who gathered over the past few days in Nevada were there to defend a nation and a constitution they’d conjured out of thin air. And they were willing to hurt people to do so.

Additional reading and sources:

  1. http://abcnews.go.com/US/nevada-cattle-rancher-wins-range-war-federal-government/story?id=23302610
  2. http://www.newsweek.com/us-officials-end-stand-nevada-rancher-cliven-bundy-246038?piano_t=1
  3. http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_slatest/2014/04/12/cliven_bundy_feds_halt_nevada_cattle_seizure.html
  4. http://www.theblaze.com/stories/2014/04/08/armed-fed-agents-and-snipers-the-decades-long-battle-between-the-govt-and-a-nevada-rancher-that-has-finally-reached-breaking-point/
  5. http://www.blm.gov/wo/st/en/prog/grazing.html
  6. http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Latest-News-Wires/2014/0410/Nevada-cattle-wars-Nevada-senator-sides-with-rancher-against-feds