Modupe Labode, Assistant Professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, sent out a tweet yesterday: “Where are the analyses of Cliven Bundy & race from western and/or public historians? Was looking for my students and found v. little.” This anti-racist, feminist, fake cowgirl has been looking around too and found little beyond stuff on political blogs and websites.
Now that the work week is officially over, it looks like I just might have to start mucking out this nasty little stall, as it seems to have a great deal to do with the stuff I’ve written a lot about from the other end of North American history: guys, guns, whiteness, and gender. You know what those cheese-eating surrender monkeys say, mes amis: plus ca change. . . plus c’est le meme chose. Or to quote William Faulkner, a dude who doesn’t get a lot of airplay on this blog, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Although I am loathe to direct any more attention to this failed rancher who nevertheless has figured out how to whip up the rubes to his defense, I have a few things to say about Bundy’s recent bout of whistling Dixie.
But first–there are some historians who know something about the west in general and Nevada history in particular whose thoughts deserve a wider audience. In Labode’s Twitter feed, a correspondent recommended this post by University of Northern Iowa historian Liesl Carr Childers, “Understanding Cliven Bundy.” She is a historian of Nevada who has done research there on twentieth-century environmental history themes and the notion of western space as wastelands. Five days ago, she wrote an empathetic post describing his family’s roots as Mormon pioneers in the region and small-scale ranchers, offering a great deal of context for understanding Bundy’s position. (This was fully two days before his “lost causer” soliloquy praising the virtues of slavery and having handy skills like cotton picking.) Carr Childers wrote:
[As a Sagebrush Rebel thirty years ago], Bundy supported state oversight of public lands as a way to alleviate the administration of his grazing range from the pressures of national interests. Federal retention of public lands ensured that they would be managed in the interests of the American people, but this subjected them to a wide variety of sometimes-conflicting uses and often required reductions in traditional uses. Bundy promoted state oversight because that potentially ensured he received continued priority, but the Sagebrush Rebellion legislation failed and the rancher became just one user among many.
In 1993, Bundy’s permit was subject to renewal for the fourth time since the family had settled in Nevada. The BLM lowered cattle numbers and raised grazing fees on the Bunkerville Allotment and advised Bundy of the changes. The agency also advised the rancher of potential future adjustments that would be made once Clark County, the NPS, and the BLM worked out a new desert conservation plan, which took into account, among other things, the recent listing of the desert tortoise on the Endangered Species List (United States of America v. Cliven Bundy, November 3, 1998).
To that I say boo-hoo-freakin’-hoo (to Bundy, not to Carr Childers). Things are tough all over. Clearly, Cliven Bundy has never lived in an apartment or signed any other kind of lease, for if he had, he’d realize that private property owners raise the rent all the damn time, and urban citizens east and west, north and south alike, have to suck it up and pay up instead of calling on armed yahoos to defend their right to squat rent-free in someone else’s buildings. Don’t like the terms of your public lands grazing rights? Go find some other land to graze on. See how private enterprise treats you! And dog bless.
People like Bundy give westerners a bad name, when the rest of the nation should know that some of us know that absent the brutal expansion of the American empire in the nineteenth century by military means and considerable nineteenth and twentieth-century national investment in western colonization and western infrastructure projects like dams, interstate highways, public lands, national parks, and the like, few Anglo-Americans would be living here enjoying the pleasant aridity and the seldom-heard discouraging words of the American West.
Bundy’s truculence and the response of his mostly-white armed defenders would be unimaginable if most of them weren’t white men. The racialized and gendered nature of gun ownership and gun violence–something I’ve written about in my first book as well as through most of the six years this blog has existed–is historically very deep and completely naturalized in the United States. I’m not the first person to wonder about the outcome of the standoff with BLM officials would have turned out if the Black Panthers instead of an overwhelmingtly white ad-hoc militia had come to Bundy’s rescue? Or if it were a crowd of Latina farm workers and their children positioned in front of militia guns? The respect afforded armed white men in this country is astonishing and astonishingly unexamined.
Bundy’s confusion as well as his media celebrity are due to his performance of gender and sexual as well as racial privilege. As recent feminist scholarship has demonstrated, sexual and gender insecurities are the handmaidens of racial anxieties. While most commenters have unsurprisingly focused on his nostalgia for slavery on behalf of “the Negro,” as a feminist I’m completely unsurprised about his stray comment about abortion as a sign of government dependence: “‘And because [African Americans] were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do?’ he asked. ‘They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton.'” Because liberty and freedom from government overreach are for all Americans, except the ladies. Jackbooted thuggery is perfectly justifiable when it comes to women’s bodies. The BLM should apparently evacuate all public lands and set up monitoring the contents of our uteri.
(Never mind the senselessness of his comments–the spectre of abortion-mad black women who nevertheless are producing yet more future prison inmates makes as much sense as the fantasy of the “lazy Mexicans” who nevertheless are stealing American jobs. Pick one stereotype! Either one! But you can’t have both.)
Anyhoo–as we like to say around the ranch: it’s your turn now. Fire away!