I’m sure that Cliven Bundy probably could have cut a deal with the Bureau of Land Management and should have. Of course, it’s never wise to let a federal court order hang over your head. And certainly we cannot have a world of Cliven Bundys if a legal system is to function.
In a practical sense, I also know that if I were to burn brush on a no-burn day, or toss an empty pesticide container in the garbage bin, or shoot a coyote too near the road, I would incur the wrath of the government in a way someone does not who dumps a stripped stolen auto (two weeks ago) in my vineyard, or solvents, oil, and glass (a few months ago), or rips out copper wire from the pump for the third time (last year). Living in a Winnebago with a porta-potty and exposed Romex in violation of zoning statutes for many is not quite breaking the law where I live; having a mailbox five inches too high for some others certainly is.
So Mr. Bundy must realize that in about 1990 we decided to focus on the misdemeanor of the law-abiding citizen and to ignore the felony of the lawbreaker. The former gave law enforcement respect; the latter ignored their authority. The first made or at least did not cost enforcers money; arresting the second began a money-losing odyssey of incarceration, trials, lawyers, appeals, and all the rest.
Mr. Bundy knows that the bullies of the BLM would much rather send a SWAT team after him than after 50 illegal aliens being smuggled by a gun-toting cartel across the southwestern desert. How strange, then, at this late postmodern date, for someone like Bundy on his horse still to be playing the law-breaking maverick Jack Burns (Kirk Douglas) in (the David Miller, Dalton Trumbo, Edward Abbey effort) Lonely Are the Brave.
But the interest in Mr. Bundy’s case is not about legal strategies in revolving fiscal disagreements with the federal government.
Instead, we all have followed Mr. Bundy for three reasons.
One, he called attention to the frightening fact that the federal government owns 83% of the land in Nevada. Note that “federal” and “government” are the key words and yet are abstractions. Rather, a few thousands unelected employees — in the BLM, EPA, Defense Department, and other alphabet soup agencies — can pretty much do what they want on the land they control. And note, this is not quite the case in Silicon Valley or Manhattan or Laguna Beach. The danger can be summed up by a scene I see about once a month on a Fresno freeway: a decrepit truck stopped by the California Highway Patrol for having inadequate tarps on a trailer of green clippings, just as a new city garbage truck speeds by, with wet garbage flying over the median. Who will police the police?
Two, this administration has a long record of not following the law — picking and choosing when and how to enforce immigration statutes, depending on the particular dynamics of the next election; picking and choosing which elements of Obamacare to enforce, again depending on perceived political advantage; and picking and choosing when to go after coal companies, or when not to enforce the Defense of Marriage Act, or when to reverse the order of the Chrysler creditors, or when to allow Lois Lerner to destroy the credibility of the IRS for partisan advantage.
In other words, the Obama administration regularly breaks the law as it sees fit. So we wonder why a federal agency sends out swarms of armed security agents to the empty desert on behalf of a tortoise, when it could just as easily storm Jay Carney’s press conference and demand that the president promise to enforce the Affordable Care Act. Or start apprehending those who are not just violating immigration law, but also serially signing false federal affidavits or providing employers with fraudulent identities.
Finally, Bundy, for all his contradictions, is a throwback to a different age. As the photo atop this article suggests, I had a Bundy-like Swedish grandfather — gassed in the Meuse-Argonne and left with charred lungs — who became a sort of recluse. He broke horses for a living and in his long widowhood survived on his chickens, goats, rabbits, cows, and sheep, in subsistence fashion from 40 acres. He taught me how to dress out a pig, skin goats, and shoot. He also gave me lessons about the world of riding bareback on matched mules. He slept with a bottle of port on his nightstand and a loaded .30-40 Krag leaning against the headboard.
When we acted up, he “locked up” his grandchildren for ten minutes in his six-foot high birdcage with the quail and pheasants. I can remember his Swedish accented “eye yeye yi” each time one of us got bucked off his horse (one was called “Paint,” of course). He raised Fox Terriers for sale with names like “Rex” and “Skipper.” Frank looked like a Cliven Bundy, or a Slim Pickens (whom he knew well as a fellow Kingsburgian cowboy), and sounded exactly like Douglas Spencer (“Swede”) in Shane or John Qualen (“Lars”) in The Searchers.
My other grandfather was a refined Welsh version of the rural way, but no less independent as a small farmer who worked all his land himself until he quit one day at 86 and died that night in the hospital. He was as wiry as my other Swedish grandfather was a hulk. The one was a master horse rider, the other an expert at plowing with horses. Growing up with them, I never much learned about the secrets of “business” or “how to make it” (sometimes I wish I had). Making it, as I at sixty look back at them now, was probably defined as talking bluntly, gaining a reputation for “straight shooting,” paying all your bills on time, never making excuses for failure, and in general being loyal to friends and of some worry to enemies. To understand Bundy’s fatalism is to appreciate the rural way and its polite contempt for the softer world of the city and the mush that now passes for making it. Losing nobly was preferable to winning badly — Old Ajax to the core.
So we are not threatened by the likes of Cliven Bundy. Instead, the scary lawlessness extends to the bureaucracy itself, given that under Obama the government is becoming tainted and an ideological tool of social transformation. After just six years, we shrug that, of course, the IRS is biased. The Justice Department is politicized; ask Dinesh D’Souza or the AP reporters. No need to mention the NSA. The EPA makes laws up as ideologically required. No one believes the State Department that in the weeks before the election a video-caused “riot” led to expert jihadists zeroing in with their GPS-guided mortars on a CIA annex in Benghazi. And so on.
Bundy is just different from what is now America — he looks different, talks differently, and dresses differently. These are the superficial veneers to someone who lives mostly through different premises from those of Pajama Boy nation, the world of Jay Carney and his cute Stalinist posters, the cosmos of Anita Dunn and her Mao gushes, or the metrosexual networking that is the gospel of Silicon Valley or the DC beltway. Few of us rely on human muscle anymore to survive one more day. Fewer of those who do combine that with horse-power, and its world of leather and wood and rope. Bundy is self-employed, without an SEIU union, a PERS pension, or a GS-15 health plan.
Given all that, I suggest Cliven Bundy is far more endangered than is the desert tortoise, and that his kind will be gone shortly in a way the federally protected tarantula and Gila monster or delta smelt will not. He, not they, is in the federal crosshairs. So, yes, I can make some allowances for the nihilism of Cliven Bundy. We could not live in a modern, high-tech world only of Cliven Bundys, but perhaps we cannot live in a world without a few of them now and then to remind us of what we have become.
Almost everything, natural and human, has conspired against these sorts: a hail storm that wrecked the plum crop two days before harvest, or a swaggering psychopathic neighbor who stole the irrigation canal water until stopped, or a no-good who filed a phony workers’ compensation claim for a stubbed toe, or an ancient wobbly grinder that sliced off a finger, or the thieving Packing Company that always sent back slips each year saying “45% cull rate,” whether the fruit was small or big, scarred or smooth, ripe, overripe, or green.
To be a cattleman in the Nevada desert in America of 2014 is to live on Mars, or rather to live among 24/7 enemies, human and animal alike. How a man survives from cattle ranching on leased land in the Nevada badlands I cannot imagine, but I wonder nonetheless and in that amazement wish to see him continue.
My cowboy grandfather, Frank Hanson, died at 80, while Reese Davis, my maternal one, died at 86, in a world where the former never, until his last day, went to the doctor after his year in a Belgium hospital (he was a Lewis machine gunner before the gassing), and the latter went just twice. Theirs was a pre-cholesterol-testing, no-colonoscopy world, in which you just chugged on eating the wrong food, getting up to hard physical work each morning until you “got a cancer” or “the ticker quit” and at your funeral the neighbors said “ya, he worked hard” and went home. I remember the oncologist saying to my father about his dead father, “Are you sure he didn’t smoke? Take a look at those burned lungs on the X-ray.” And my dad curtly answered the specialist, “That’s what mustard gas does.”
The point is Mr. Bundy is no Rahm Emanuel, Al Gore, or Jay Carney. He is no Jay-Z or Sean Penn. He is a world away from the Kardashians and the BMW meets Mercedes crowd of the California coastal corridor or the psychodramas of brats at Dartmouth. Bundy does not have the white privilege that those who have it — mostly liberal, wealthy, and seeking an apartheid existence — damn in others.
Money is not Bundy’s point. Pleasing Harry Reid or the federal bureaucracy is not either. Making a living from the scrub of a desert by providing people good food probably is.
Grant him that. He’s our past, Harry Reid and the bunch in Washington our future. To paraphrase the ancients, sometimes we’d rather be wrong with Cliven Bundy than right with Harry Reid — and the SWAT teams that will revisit Mr. Bundy and his clan very, very soon to enforce a dispute over grazing fees and insensitivity to a tortoise.