Being Cliven Bundy

cowgirlhaybarnModupe 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.

Other writers with useful and interesting things to say are Chauncy de Vega at We Are Respectable Negroes, and the good folks at High Country News.

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.

cowgirlgunsign1(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!

25 thoughts on “Being Cliven Bundy

  1. “Pick one stereotype! Either one! But you can’t have both.”

    That’s my win-the-Internet point for the day. Thanks for the laughter.

    For the rest, … sick. Just sick.

    I seem to remember seeing one comment from these loonies that he just wants it to be the way it was when he grew up in the 1950s. Oh yes? When there was a 90% top tax rate and anybody who tried to do a Bundy would have been in jail within hours. (Come to think of it, maybe I agree about that part.)


  2. I would never un-encourage the complex analysis of anything, but I think Sen. Reid got most of the phenomenon right with the laconic phrase “domestic terrorists.” The bet on the range must have been that if the government did what *I* would have done if I was in the White House, picked up a phone, federalized the Nevada Guard, and rounded them up the first day (along with the smorgasboarding little doggies), it would have fueled the paranoid fantasies of all of the survivalists and militiaists in the country, and made the wildfire spread like wildfire. And indeed that may have been the cautious bureaucratic analysis at BLM headquarters.

    So round one goes to the insurgents. All of the points above, that this particular act-out is grounded in cultural and sociological particulars centered on guns and menz, is well taken. The only thing I would miss about the disappearance of the Second Amendment would be the word(s) that must drive libertarians everywhere crazy: “well-regulated.” Maybe that phrase could be transferred to the Commerce Clause just to keep it visible as an irritant to the Koch Bros. Or we could retro-patch it into “Marbury v. Madison,” to remind the Fab Five that they could be stripped of one of their powers.


  3. But you can’t have both.

    I saw Mr. Bundy riding round on a horse, waving a big ass U.S. flag for the tee vee news. Makes no sense. Nevada flag? Maybe. It has never seemed to me that logical clarity was a particular human value. It’s a quaint activity for academics and sometimes a good party trick.

    Indyanna is right, this guy is a domestic terrorist–of the right colour and political persuasion to be successful at it.

    the cautious bureaucratic analysis at BLM headquarters

    I’m sure historians think about this: it would be interesting to know something about the comparative “lessons learned” by government agencies after the assaults on MOVE in Philadelphia and on the Branch Davidians in Texas.


  4. There’s this odd strain of patriotic conservatism which seems to celebrate not paying taxes or fees. As Stephen Colbert noted, it’s an odd form of patriotism. Back in the days of the Vietnam war I remember asking a friend whose step-father was a republican tax lawyer how he squared helping people not pay taxes with his support for the war. It still doesn’t make sense to me.

    I thought it was particularly interesting on the gender front was that instead of protecting women, they said they would put women in front so that the BLM wouldn’t fire. Now *that’s* turning things upside down. And classy, really classy.


  5. A major reason people like Bundy maintain public sympathy is that the media and and their supposed opposition let them frame themselves in language of freedom. I’d love to see more people frame them in their own favorite pejoratives.

    Refer to them as the entitlement class. Describe them as just another group wanting to suck on the government teat. And, as Historiann indicated, categorize them as cowards afraid to face the free market. Best of all, call their armed band a union trying to protect an irresponsible deadbeat.

    Of course, being the irreverent person I am, I’d work in a few references to Al Bundy, though that might be an insult to the TV show.


  6. Forgot to add, I love Historiann pointing out the conflicting stereotypes, as I feel exactly the same. I’d also point out how hackneyed Bundy’s stereotypes are. As in, “Picking cotton? Really? That’s what you came up with? Couldn’t you find some semi-original insults?”

    It’s amazing, too, that people like Bundy express such melodramatic concern for “unborn babies,” yet seem to totally despise those who are actually born if they’re in the “wrong” groups. Or cost them money in any way, via public education or health care.


  7. If his name was Cliven Africa, he and his family would be dead right now, and their homestead burned to the ground. Not all extremists are treated equally by the American legal and political system.


  8. That’s exactly right. White Mormons *have* historically been oppressed by their Gentile neighbors and the U.S. government, but relative to other dissident religious or political groups, their existence has been solitary, charmed, and even enabled by state and local governments, and sometimes even by the Feds as well. AIM? Move? Occupy Wall St.? Not so much.

    Bundy’s 15 minutes are over. If he’s banked, the Feds should just seize his assets that way. Geld him electronically, and let him come begging for his supper.


  9. Good point on the Move parallel, which hadn’t occurred. Although his homestead, on-the-range, wouldn’t have taken sixty-five neighboring homesteads with it.


  10. I would be curious to know your reactions; if you should spend 40yrs working a ranch that was once your father’s (or mother’s) in some of the most difficult and arid terrain in the Northern hemisphere (where many people eat red meat) and have someone drop by and tell you that your industry must be reduced 80% because (for reasons that may not be completely transparent) it is infringing on the a habitat newly designated for the recently classified endanger dessert tortoise. Would you just go away – as every other rancher in Southern Nevada did and take what they would give you ? I’m fairly confident you would. This is what this episode is about; it is and incredibly multi-dimensional ordeal for sure, but it’s about a cowboy and his ranch and family and their existence. He is doomed for sure, and its our tragedy. Spin it anyway you like. It is my choice to be compassionate.


  11. MOVE

    I attempted to point this out over the weekend but my comment was swallowed up. We’ll see if this one takes. I think what is interesting here is the comparative context it might provide in understanding Indyanna’s cautious bureaucratic analysis at BLM headquarters. I would suppose that modern US historians have thought about this but I have no idea: how do “lessons” learned by government agencies after the assaults on MOVE in Philadelphia and the Branch Davidians in Texas compare?

    some of the most difficult and arid terrain in the Northern hemisphere

    Which is I suppose why these jokers need government subsidies to grow cattle on it. Great scam if you can work it. Mr. Bundy is a taker, not a maker.


  12. Truffula–I rescued your earlier comment (plus one on another post) that was spammed unjustly. Sorry about that!

    Rustonite: my poor grammar is my own fault, not my French teachers’ fault! Excusez-moi, s’il vous plait. Je suis desole.

    And Steve: you’re right that Nevada is a crummy place to ranch cattle. What was stopping him from finding a more sustainable landscape for grazing? Somehow, ranchers do this in Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Missouri, Iowa, etc., and even California, which snags more than its fair share of water from the Colorado River, for example? Where is his American can-do spirit, the spirit that motivated his Mormon pioneer ancestors, the Exodusters, the Okie refugees from the Dust Bowl, and the Great Migration from the Jim Crow South between the world wars and so on? Who said that ranching one parcel of land was his right and his descendents’ rights in perpetuity?

    No one, that’s who, just like no one guaranteed that high school graduates in the Great Lakes region were guaranteed a spot on the line in a GM or Ford factory for the rest of their lives and their children’s and grandchildren’s lives. No one guaranteed Shoshone domination of the Great Basin down to the seventh generation. No one guaranteed that any of us can sit still and make our livings in exactly the same way in perpetuity.

    Besides: appealing to our American nostalgia about cowboys (or cowgirls) is for bloggers and Hollywood showmen. It’s not in fact a great business plan for real ranchers.


  13. Well . . . it seems that “that spirit” is still present with him in Nevada. Though I’m sure he knows what’s comin’. He’s endured 20yrs of it so far. I suspect that now, for him, survival is a visceral momentum – gut, not mind, takeing over.

    He’s a cattle man, and knows how to be with them and move about them, and speak to them, not so much with people perhaps.


  14. P.S. Though I’m responding to you from Paris, where I now live, I have met this man.

    I am not racist – though we all have inherent predjudments that anyone beliving themselves “not racist” must confront daily – Paris being a good place to practice this – that being said, I don’t believe Cliven to ba a racist at all. This unfortunate episode has derailed other aspects of this ordeal which also merit attention.


  15. . . . and yes, for too many, “romance” has become a Hollywood illusion, memories and fragments fossilized in museums and literature, rather than the movement of our living dreams and aspirations.

    I guess that’s about enough from me. I’m out.

    Best to ya


  16. I don’t believe Cliven to ba a racist at all

    Well I don’t know the man but that sure doesn’t square with his on-the-record statements. When I was living in Montana, in the latter half of the 80s, you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting an apparent-Bundy-style “I’m only saying it because it’s true” racist, none of whom thought of themselves as such. Those folks associated virtue with the western landscape and life, moral decay with the urban scene. In that those are race coded constructs, I’m not sure how discussing Mr. Bundy’s racist comments are derailing anything at all.


  17. ” . . . you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting an apparent-Bundy-style”

    To some, this too could be considered a racist remark.

    One item – You think that such a powerful man, with the political tenure in “Nevada” such as Harry Reid has, is not corrupt ?


    Global Capitalism

    Corporate Oligarchy

    Shady Land Deals

    Influence by means of govt agencies to effect such: land grab, personal wealth etc.

    Not that assert accusations are true, but there’s a lot to be looked at perhaps.


  18. How on earth could truffula’s comment about hearing Bundy-style comments from Montanans be racist? Is Montanan a race of people? No.

    No one in the U.S. outside of people even crazier and more racist than Bundy are defending Bundy, not even his bromance partner Sean Hannity.


  19. Pingback: Cliven Bundy–Republican Id Reprise | From Pine View Farm

  20. We all are ignorant and we all have prejudice, to some degree or another. For me anyway, what defines “racism” – to a large part, is malicious slight or intention towards class which has devloped from such prejudice. Certainly Mr. Bundy has shown his ignorance, but in my personal view, not his malice.


  21. It is difficult to really know what people, in or outside the US, might think of the entire situation. Three of the four articles I’ve seen in the alternative French press have mentioned that there is AP supression on this one. They were all supportive of him (at least prior to his unbelievable remarks about the “negro”. Haven’t seen anything here since, but I haven’t looked too hard either. But it seems that they’ve (US press) let up a little now since the racist angle. The rest of the story isn’t there much, but at least the right wing sewer has dropped him. Bonus.


  22. Mr. Bundy is one of the most inarticulate people I’ve ever heard. I think though, if you would listen to the interview with sensitivity; to try to discern what he was trying to say, it might go like this:

    Are not many of the descendants of Slaves in the US still enthralled ?

    Does our current system of support offer “them” a way out, or does it continue to oppress them.

    Were these descendants given opportunities to thrive: trade skills, artisan craft, education ?

    Does this system encourage family unity, social morality, etc, or is it inertia ?

    That’s my take on it anyway.

    Here’s a clip of a note to a friend of mine. I suggest that other things are happening here too, a critical mass – not that the discussion of racism isn’t vitally important. Then, from this, if you wish me to terminate my input to your discussion, I will oblige. Perhaps I’ve spoken too much, and out of turn.

    My very best to you,

    St. Yves

    “I played a concert last night and I’m bushed, so I’ll tell you more about Saint Roch in another email. Incidentally, Saint Roch was one of the sites where the 2nd French revolution began, and the beginning of the popular government we now enjoy here. It was accomplished through violent insurrection of course. It is the extremes that break the inertia. The pendulum swings, this time from the right I’m afraid, and like a pendulum, timing is everything – Harper’s Ferry revisited and inverted. So enough of all that for me and you . . .”


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