On Monday, Cliven Bundy had a lot of support from conservatives; they considered him both a hero and a patriot. By Thursday he was pretty isolated. The question is why? It wasn't just because the guy turned out to be a racist. Perhaps it began dawning on his former allies that Sedition Is Not a Fashion Statement.
Prior to this week, the only folks named Bundy I was familiar with were the brothers McGeorge (1919-1996) and William (1917-2000), lions of the post-war American foreign policy establishment and charter members of our version of the Alamache de Gotha; serial killer Ted (1946-1989); and the fictional Al, women's shoe salesman, husband of Peg and father of Kelly and Bud. This week I, like everyone else on the planet, have become familiarized with a fifth Bundy: the 67-year old Nevada racist rancher-cum-sovereign citizen-cum-multi decade tax-scofflaw Cliven. This Bundy has achieved his 15 minutes of fame by refusing to pay more than two decades worth of back taxes he owes the federal government for grazing his cattle on federally-owned land. (Note: In 1978, Congress set as the minimum fee for grazing cattle on Bureau of Land Management -- BLM -- lands $1.35 per "animal unit month." An animal unit is the equivalent of a 1,000-pound cow, based on an average consumption of 26 pounds of dry forage per day.) Bundy's reason for not paying more than $1 million in grazing fees at $1.35 per cow? "I believe this is a sovereign state of Nevada. And I abide by all Nevada state laws. But I don't recognize the United States government as even existing."
(BTW: Am I the only one who finds it a hoot that Mr. Bundy's spread is on the outskirts of "Bunkerville," Nevada? Wonder if its eponym was Archie?)
Two courts ruled in favor of the federal Bureau of Land Management and against Cliven Bundy; he was ordered to pay his arrearage or suffer seizure of his cattle. This is precisely what the feds did. This past April 5, agents of the BLM brought in armed federal agents and began removing Bundy's cattle. Bundy's son Dave was arrested for refusing to leave. That night, Bundy sent a message: "They have my cattle and now they have one of my boys. Range War begins tomorrow." Then the media circus began in earnest. Bundy supporters picked up their shotguns, loaded up their pickups and made their way to Bunkerville, ready to shoot it out with federal agents if necessary -- all in the name of freedom and liberty. One of Bundy's supporters, former Arizona sheriff Richard Mack told reporters, "We're actually strategizing to put all the women up at the front. If they are going to start shooting, it's going to be women that are going to be televised all across the world getting shot by these rogue federal officers."
At this point, Bundy's supporters began to include the likes of Sean Hannity (who called him " . . . a friend and frequent guest of the show"), U.S. Senator Dean Heller (who called him "a patriot"), and Texas Governor Rick Perry ("I have a problem with the federal government putting citizens in the position of having to feel like they have to use force to deal with their own government"). On April 12, the government announced that it would return the seized cattle because of its "grave concern about the safety of employees and members of the public." The right cheered the victory.
Then Cliven Bundy began getting a few other things off his chest . . . like his views on African Americans:
"I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro," he said. Mr. Bundy recalled driving past a public-housing project in North Las Vegas, "and in front of that government house the door was usually open and the older people and the kids - and there is always at least a half a dozen people sitting on the porch - they didn't have nothing to do. They didn't have nothing for their kids to do. They didn't have nothing for their young girls to do. "And because they 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. And I've often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn't get no more freedom. They got less freedom."
Following Bundy's racist rant, many of his conservative fans began abandoning ship. For it turns out, Bundy is not, as many of his allies and supporters claimed, a "true patriotic conservative." It turns out that his words and actions are those of a "sovereign citizen," a member of a group the FBI characterizes as "A growing domestic threat to law enforcement." People like Cliven Bundy believe that the only legitimate source of authority in America is the local sheriff, and as such, are not required to obey any laws or directives (or pay any taxes) emanating from any other entity. When one researches the "sovereign citizen" movement in America, one discovers, just beneath the surface, racism, anti-Semitism, Christian Identity, violence and a go-it-alone mentality reminiscent of both the Whiskey Rebellion (in which George Washington had to send armed militia to Western Pennsylvania to put down a rebellion) and the posse comitatus, whose roots go back to the late 1870s.
In short, Cliven Bundy and his ilk are part and parcel of America's domestic terrorist class. Those who lend even verbal support to them -- as many conservatives did up until recently -- brings to mind William Jennings Bryan's quip about folks who are like the Platte River: "Six miles wide at the mouth and six inches deep."
The question is, why would anyone with half a brain lend even an ounce of verbal support to people who are terrorists, anti-Semites and seditionists? Possibly because in modern western society, style often masks substance.
A couple of examples from my old neighborhood:
•Back in the mid-1930s, a group of leading Hollywood stars including Gary Cooper, Victor McLaglen and George Brent sponsored such paramilitary groups as the "Light Horse Calvary," the "Hollywood Hussars," and the "California Esquadrille," all of which professed the intent to "save America" and "uphold and protect the principles and ideals of true Americanism." (To their way of thinking, the enemy they were seeking to "save America" from were the liberals and socialists, not the Nazis.) Toward that end, they drilled in their spare time (mostly in Griffith Park), wearing fancy uniforms, riding horses and receiving instruction in military tactics from retired army officers. But when it came time to actually go to war, few if any of these paramilitary heroes enlisted. They talked the talk, but didn't have the stones to walk the walk.
•In the early- and mid-1960s, there were three easily recognized social castes at school. One was either a "greaser," a "surfer" or a "soc" (pronounced 'sosh," and short for "social"). "Greasers" had oily, greaser hair and wore oily Levis, motorcycle boots and "Sir Guy" shirts. "Surfers" had bleached-blond hair and wore light beige levis, madras shirts and huarachi sandals. "Socs" wore perfectly pressed khaki trousers, blue oxford cloth button down shirts, and maroon Sperry Topsiders without socks. In cool weather, greasers wore black leather motorcycle jackets, surfers grey hooded sweatshirts and socs blue Brooks Brothers blazers. And yet, if anyone challenged a greaser to join in a rumble behind the polo field, a surfer to shoot the curl at Rincon, or a soc to ask a Doheny or a Chandler out on a date, we would crumble, for in the end, we were all just privileged upper-middle class Jewish kids playing at being greasers, surfers or eastern preppies. For us, being a greaser, a surfer or a soc was a fashion statement devoid of substance.
•Today, lots of otherwise middle-class kids and adults have adopted the dress, the walk and the patois of the ghetto. I can't begin tell you how many times I have heard people address one another as "dude," "dog," or "homey," or referred to their "posse in the hood." If they're my students, I feel compelled to inform them that living in "the hood" -- for those who do -- is not a fashion statement; it is a grueling impoverished and often highly dangerous reality that would scare the daylights out of them.
In similar fashion, I have to believe, that those who were giving their verbal "attaboys" to Cliven Bundy and his posse; who thought they had found a patriotic political soul mate in this gun-toting, coyboy-hatted freeloader, crumbled when they began to learn what thought process was actually roiling just beneath their hero's ten-gallon Stetson. Sovereign citizenship is not a fashion statement any more than Cliven Bundy is the sort of fellow you'd want to invite to your next political fundraiser. Bundy and his ilk are dangerous seditionists for whom the government of the United States is an evil enemy that must be overthrown and whose citizens -- with the exception of certain white Christians -- are spawns of Satan.
From where I sit, there's nothing fashionable about that . . .