Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Cliven Bundy Standoff May Be Harbinger of the Next Far-Right “Silly Season” (or Civil War?)

Bundy-ranch hangers-on pause to salute Old Glory
Far-right extremist political views and movements have lately come in the form of a series of what in United States politics are called “silly seasons.”  After President Barack Obama’s reelection in 2012 came, on the White House’s “We the People” petition web page, a wave of declarations of intent to secede from the Union—from all fifty states (plus the State of Jefferson) but mostly in the states of the Old Confederacy, Texas most notably.  Then, last year saw a series of movements in rural, conservative portions of “blue” (Democratic-dominated) or “swing” states, to create new states that would be mostly Republican.  The most notable were Colorado’s “North Colorado” or “New Colorado” movement, the Appalachian panhandle region of “Western Maryland,” and a “State of Jefferson” movement in northern California which is even now being prepared for voters in next month’s ballot in several rural counties.  Those have been, and are, mostly harmless and quixotic publicity stunts; they vent real grievances but have no hope of success given the U.S. Congress’s role as gatekeeper for admission to the union and the lack of any mechanism or successful precedent for full secession.

An impromptu lecture from Cliven Bundy
This year’s silly season may turn out to be a bit less silly.  And a lot of it has to do with Cliven Bundy, the rancher in southern Nevada who in March and April attracted an armed posse to help him “defend” “his” cattle from confiscation in the end game of a long-standing legal and financial dispute between his ranch and the federal Bureau of Land Management (B.L.M.).

Ground zero of the latest Tea Party uprising, the Bundy standoff
More than three-quarters of Nevada is public land administered by either the B.L.M. or the U.S. Forest Service, both of which lease out their land for private use for fees.  Bundy was of the opinion that he didn’t have to pay his. As he put it, “My forefathers have been up and down the Virgin Valley here ever since 1877.  All these rights that I claim have been created through pre-emptive rights and beneficial use of the forage and the water and the access and range improvements.”  Quite apart from the fact that this played fast and loose with the facts and that the Bundys have only been ranching there since 1954, the Bundy standoff—which the ranchers won, with the B.L.M. deciding not to come under fire by moving in and trying to confiscate Bundy’s cattle—represents a new wrinkle in the anti-government ideology that has been ramping up since the Clinton-era “state militias” of the 1990s and exploded after the election of the first Black president in 2008.

... plus lots and lots and lots of guns (and no “Negroes,” apparently)
Bundy’s opposition to the existence of public land and to the federal government in general is rather standard far-right-wing thinking.  But instead of merely wishing that public lands could all be sold off somehow, as is standard in Libertarian Party circles, Bundy takes the step of asserting that use equals ownership.  Though such an idea is rooted in the Enlightenment utilitarian philosophers whose thinking laid the groundwork for the American Revolution in the first place, it has other odd resonances as well. It uses some of the same arguments as radical socialist land-reform movements in Latin America, which argue that land should be distributed from its wealthy owners to the peasants that work it.  The Bundy standoff also seems dissonant with the standard far-right disdain for “welfare bums,” since that is a pretty good description of ranchers like Bundy throughout the West who are preferentially allowed to use public lands for scandalously low fees.

The Bureau of Land Management administers most of Nevada, and much of the West
Bundy also uses some of the precisely identical arguments as many American Indian activists and attorneys, to say nothing of indigenous peoples elsewhere in the world.  As Jacqueline Keeler (who is Dineh (Navajo) and Yankton Dakota Sioux) wrote recently in Indian Country Today and the Nation, “Bundy’s hullabaloo is particularly ironic considering that the Western Shoshone Nation’s claim to the land predates his own.  He has declared he will only recognize the original sovereignty of the state of Nevada, despite the fact that Nevada did not achieve statehood until 1864 and as such has no pre-existing claims to sovereign status.  Only the thirteen original colonies possessed sovereignty prior to the creation of the United States” (though one could argue for the formerly independent Texas, Hawaii, Vermont, and possibly California belonging to the club as well).  Quite notably, as Keeler points out, the Western Shoshone have never signed away their land, which they call Newe Sogobia, in a treaty and have refused all cash compensation for it.  Their territory includes most of Nevada, pieces of Idaho and Utah, and a generous swath of Southern California’s high deserts.  If any court anywhere were to rule dispassionately on the status of Western Shoshone lands, they would cease to be (or would cease to pretend being) part of the United States at all.  More precisely, the land Bundy ranches, which is in a rural eastern part of Clark County (county seat: Las Vegas), is the traditional territory of the Southern Paiute—who also, incidentally, were “pacified” without a proper treaty ceding territory.

Most of the U.S.’s nuclear weapons testing has been on the
unceded territory of the Western Shoshone nation.
This seems to signal a new phase in the emerging “sovereign citizen” and allied movements which declare the very illegitimacy of the federal government.  Further, the impulse is to halt the supposed distribution of wealth from white citizens, via the federal government, to nonwhites—hence the demonization of the word “entitlement.”  And, as though to prove the dictum that if you scratch a Tea Partier you find a racist, Bundy torpedoed his own popularity among the Fox News–watching public by a rambling statement before reporters in which he said, “I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro,” and described a housing project in Las Vegas, saying, “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?  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.”  Suddenly Ron Paul and other Republicans were backpedalling like crazy to distance themselves from this new folk hero who apparently hadn’t gotten the memo that you don’t say stuff like that out loud.

Michigan’s separatist Hutaree Militia is one of hundreds such
right-wing armed extremist groups in the U.S.
There is no formal Nevada independence movement, but there is a rising movement of radical individualists who peddle a cocktail of capitalist, anarchist, and back-to-the-land ideas and feel that they have the right to take up arms against the federal government for any and all real or imagined abuses.  Many openly hope for “another Ruby Ridge,” referring to a 1992 federal standoff in Montana which galvanized the “militia” movement.  The far right may have thrown Bundy under the bus for public-relations reasons, but they have not given up their fight.  Some groups, such as local militias and a nonprofit called Oath Keepers who favor defying the federal government to protect the Constitution, have set up a near permanent encampment at the Bundy ranch—a sort of “Occupy” tent city for the Duck Dynasty crowd.  And they are always, always armed.

One possible emerging folk hero is one Ernie Wayne terTelgte, as he is legally known, who also goes by the monniker “Natural Man” or “Living Natural Man.”  Dressed in breeches and a three-cornered hat and armed with a musket, this self-described Montana mountain man has been making a personal crusade out of fishing without a license and doing other things to provoke arrest so that he can deliver impassioned Ayn Rand–style soliloquies in court, channeling Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke, and Robert Nozick.  As he told one judge in a fishing case, “I was searching for something to put in my stomach as I am recognized to be allowed to do by universal law.  I am the living man and I have the right to forage for food when I am hungry.”  (Again, never mind the prior ownership by Native American tribes.)

Grizzly Adams meets John Quincy Adams:
“Living Natural Man” prepares for his perp walk.
Not only does Natural Man do things like getting jailed for contempt for not recognizing the authority of state courts, but he has also been involved in organizing “citizen grand juries” (spiffed-up vigilante mobs, really) which report only to county sheriffs, bypassing the entire judicial branch (so much for that part of the Constitution).  This takes a page from the Posse Comitatus, a white-supremacist-oriented militia movement of the 1970s and ’80s which refused to recognize any governmental authority above the county level.  Many “patriot militia” groups are hoping that terTelgte will provide the spark for the coming “civil war” in which “the people” will restore freedom and the Constitution.

... but at least his legal arguments are rock solid.
(Is there a tinfoil lining under that three-cornered hat?)
But this trend has gone beyond unhinged white mountain men quoting dead white philosophers.  In this blog I recently reported on the death last month of Verdiacee Washington-Turner Goston El-Bey, “Empress” of something called the “Washitaw Nation,” which melded the occultic Moorish Temple philosophy of the 1930s Black-nationalist movement with the tax-revolt tactics of the “sovereign citizens” movement.  Ostensibly African-American, Empress Verdiacee (her claimed “empire” was the entire Louisiana Purchase) subscribed to a strain of Afro-nationalist crackpot anthropology called the “Paleo-Negroid” hypothesis, which claims that an ancient migration of sub-Saharan Africans to the Americas makes African-Americans indigenous people as well—not subject to the Constitution or taxation.  Ever generous, she lifted the flaps of her big tent to admit any tax-hating Tea-Partier who could claim a drop or two of Cherokee blood.

An Afro-Amerind spin on the “sovereign citizen” movement:
the late Empress Verdiacee of the Washitaw Nation
Actual enrolled American Indians are catching the bug as well.  In a remote central Alaska Indian village, two law-enforcement officers who had appeared on the National Geographic reality-television show Alaska State Troopers were shot and killed in an apparent ambush May 1st as they were investigating a inter-family dispute over a couch.  The two men arrested in the killing, Nathaniel “Satch” Kangas and William Walsh, both of the Indian community of Tanana (pop.: 275), turn out to be members of a militia-style group called Athabascan Nation which does not recognize the authority of the State of Alaska and believes in taking up arms to make that point.  (The Dene, or Athabaskan, peoples are actually a broad linguistic grouping that includes most indigenous peoples of the Alaskan and western Canadian interior as well as far-flung groups such as the Navajo and Apache.)  They are on pretty good legal ground in questioning whether the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) of 1971 really did have the authority to nullify millennia-old land-tenure systems, in many cases still operational ones. “We haven’t ever been conquered,” said Gary Albert, another Tanana member of the group, “and we ain’t going to feel like we’re conquered” But the arguments Athabascan Nation uses seem straight out of the playbook of the radical fringe of the Tea Party movement: Oath Keepers (see above), “nullification” advocates and “Tenthers” (those who read the 10th amendment to the Constitution as forbidding most of the federal government’s current functions), “organic constitutionalists” (who believe that everything since the Bill of Rights is an illegitimate modification of the federal structure), etc.  Calling them “brainwashed” “troublemakers,” the Tanana Tribal Council a week later formally banished Walsh, Kangas, and Kangas’s father, a ringleader of the group, from the community.

Taking away the dead troopers from Tanana:
this is not the way to win sympathy for the cause of indigenous sovereignty.
Dead-end petitions for independence or statehood are one thing.  But this new right-wing extremist “silly season” seems like it’s just waiting for the excuse to get serious.

[You can read more about separatist and new-nation movements both famous and obscure in my new book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas just published by Litwin Books under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements and Aspirant Nations, from Abkhazia to Zanzibar.  The book, which contains 46 maps and 554 flags (or, more accurately, 554 flag images), is available for order now on Amazon.  Meanwhile, please “like” the book (even if you haven’t read it yet) on Facebook and see this interview for more information on the book.]

Thanks to Tanya Ignacio and Jason Rosenbaum for alerting me to some of the information used for this article.

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