Thursday, April 24, 2014

Freedom is slavery.

Maybe it was inevitable that the claim that the federal government acts as the oppressor of individual and states' rights would lead to a place that claim often takes us. Cliven Bundy, a scofflaw rancher who has refused to pay grazing fees for his cattle for years, became an unlikely hero for those looking for an example to support the right wing narrative of the jack-booted federal government trampling on the rights of free Americans. Hundreds of gun-wielding sympathizers flocked to his cause, forcing a showdown with federal agents trying to collect some of the unpaid grazing fees. Here the irresistible force of the overreaching federal government met the immovable object of the Second Amendment-loving defenders of individual rights, and the federal government (at least for the time being) backed down. 

Then, just as the right begins to savor their temporary triumph, Bundy goes and spoils it all by being caught on tape telling us what he really thinks

Some of Bundy's supporters are starting to distance themselves from his remarks, but others are still sticking by him, claiming that he hasn't been properly media trained to express himself in less inflammatory ways. They are right, of course. The more polished spokesmen for the view of the lazy (black) city dweller trapped in poverty as a result of government handouts--people like Congressman Paul Ryan, for example--have learned to couch that argument in more neutral terms so that it doesn't sound quite so blatantly racist. But Bundy comes right out and argues that black people were better off in slavery. He believes that the government is oppressing people by enabling some to scrape by without working, and that they were more free when they were forced into private involuntary servitude.

In historical terms, what needs to be understood is that the argument that the federal government acts as the oppressor of individual and states' rights has always been predominantly about slavery. That's where this narrative came from. The rebels who fought the federal government in the Civil War were essentially fighting for the right to keep slaves. After the Civil War, when the losing side attempted to justify the rebellion, they adopted rhetoric about states' rights and individual freedom against an oppressive federal government. They continued to employ that same rhetoric for a hundred years to attempt to justify segregation and discrimination. Cliven Bundy is only the latest proponent of these views. How helpful of him to make clear exactly where those views come from, and where they lead.

In case I'm still not making myself clear, let me put the point another way: Cliven Bundy starts out as a somewhat dubious exemplar of American individualism standing up to the tyranny of the federal government. Now that we have discovered he is also a racist, his defenders will try to argue that those reprehensible views have nothing to do with the validity of his fight against the federal government. And some on the left might mount an ad hominem attack on him for expressing those opinions, in a way that Bundy's defenders will justifiably view as illegitimate. It's as if we had discovered that he is a pedophile, or a wife-beater, actions that would tarnish his image but would not affect his argument. To look at Bundy's expressions of his feelings about government assistance to black people from either perspective is to trivialize the issue. We should instead recognize that Cliven Bundy's feelings about race cannot be separated from his feelings about the federal government, most likely forming the very core of his hatred of the federal government. Otherwise, why did we he even bring the issue up? What is it about the federal government that gets people like Cliven Bundy so worked up in the first place? It's not just the federal government's taxing power. Every level of government taxes people, yet Bundy doesn't de-legitimize his state and local governments the way he refuses to recognize the legitimacy of the federal government. No, the only answer that squares with history rests on the federal government's threat to the property interests of white people, and by that I mean slavery, a power the federal government asserted first by freeing the slaves, then by acting legally to abolish discrimination, and finally by trying to improve the economic condition of poor people, especially poor black people. That last power is what Bundy finds worse than slavery itself.

Until we start coming to terms with the scars left by this nation's 350 year struggle with slavery and race relations, we are never going to get at the root of the problems represented by Bundy's mini-rebellion.

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