Of Cattle and Conservatives

Another week, another overblown media sensation. The centerpiece of this episode is a man who goes by Cliven Bundy. On the surface, Mr. Bundy would appear to be a model American hero. A plain-spoken cattle rancher living in Nevada, his cowboy hat and stubborn resolve are the stuff of dime-store novels.

But just as book covers are not the final arbiters of the quality of their contents, our first impressions of Mr. Bundy are equally deceiving. For the last twenty odd years, Mr. Bundy has waged an unrelenting battle against the Bureau of Land Management, which is a federal agency tasked with, as the name suggests, managing public lands held by the federal government. You see, Mr. Bundy’s cattle don’t actually live on Mr. Bundy’s land. He holds no deed to the disputed territory and never has. His herd grazes on public lands, and drinks from public water sources. “Public” btw, is another way of saying you and I own it.

Because Mr. Bundy is therefore exploiting and profiting from the public by fattening up his cattle on publicly owned grazing land and water (a point that shouldn’t be overlooked in the water-scarce desert southwest) the BLM has asked him and every other rancher in the same position to get permits and pay a fee to compensate the public for the resources they are extracting. This is a perfectly normal, well-established function of government that will be familiar to anyone who has ever hunted public lands, fished in public waters, harvested wood from public forests, or dozens of other examples.

In the case of Mr. Bundy and other area ranchers, these fees amount to roughly $5 per head of cattle per month. Growing up in rural Wisconsin as I did, surrounded by family-run dairy farms like the Hell’s, I have a pretty good idea of what it costs to feed and water cattle, and $5 a month isn’t unreasonable, at all. My parents kept horses in my youth, and their hay and grain came to much more than that. I can’t feed the six-pound cat I live with for $5 a month, for god’s sake.

Here’s where Mr. Bundy goes from stalwart defender of the American frontier to something much more selfish. Since 1993, Mr. Bundy has flatly refused to pay his fees for exploiting public land and water. For more than twenty years, he has been freeloading off of resources collectively owned by all of us to fatten up his herds before selling them back to us to eat. His excuses for his theft from public coffers include, but are by no means limited to, the defense that his ancestors have been grazing the same land for over a century and a refusal to recognize federal authority. But neither of these excuse the fact that he holds no rights over the land in question, nor does it excuse him from his responsibility to compensate the public for the resources his cattle are extracting.

As of today, Mr. Bundy owes you and I in excess of $1.1 million. While at first glance this sum may seem excessive, even unduly oppressive, let’s take a moment to look at the math. For twenty years, Mr. Bundy has scoffed at paying his meager $5 monthly fee on a herd of approximately nine-hundred cattle. That works out to $54,000 per year, over twenty years puts you right around the $1.1 million mark. Remember, even though this  story has only just now come into the public consciousness, it has been bubbling along below the surface for a generation already.

Mr. Bundy has had his day in court against the BLM, several times, and has lost every time. Not only that, but the BLM has tried to negotiate with this intransigent thief, offering to reduce the amount that he owes to as low as $1.35 per head per month at one point. But not only has Mr. Bundy declined that offer and scoffed at several court orders dating back to 1998 ordering him to remove his cattle, but he’s actually exacerbated the problem by expanding the range on which his cattle are illegally grazing twice, now to include parts of the Lake Mead Recreational Area, a popular tourist attraction.

In short, Mr. Bundy is a deadbeat, and proud of his freeloading. This doesn’t particularly interest me. There are many millions of selfish people in the world who gladly exploit others for their own gain. This is not surprising.

But what is surprising and upsetting, at least to me, is how the “Conservative” movement has galvanized around this man, completely abandoning their own core principles and arguments in the process.

The reason this story finally broke into the public awareness is because a couple of weeks back after dickering around for twenty years trying to get a deadbeat tenant to pay his rent, the BLM finally had enough and took measures to recoup a portion of what Mr. Bundy owes the U.S. Taxpayers. To that end, they began confiscating a portion of Mr. Bundy’s cattle herd, cattle that had been grown to maturity on public grass and water. Again, this is a completely normal function of government.

Here’s where it gets weird, almost surreal. Instead of supporting the taxpayers against someone that has been doing more than his fair share to contribute to the U.S. debt, conservative media rallied around Mr. Bundy, casting him as the victim of big-government oppression and as an example of government regulation stamping on the rights of a poor, defenseless business owner.

For reasons almost too numerous to count, this characterization of the situation is utterly ridiculous. Yet it struck a familiar chord with the usual chorus of anti-government fetishists and vigilante militia thugs. In short order, over a thousand “protesters” swarmed the area, many of them carrying long guns (no, they’re not assault weapons, which is a fucking stupid and redundant term) and sidearms with the hope of being at the flashpoint for a new American Revolution.

Make no mistake about it, these people came with the intention of starting a war, the very “Second Amendment Solution” that has captured the hearts and imaginations of a certain shrinking demographic since they looked around and saw all these colored folks in positions of authority and queers destroying the traditional family, or whatever. They went so far in their standoff with the BLM as to suggest putting women and children out front to use them as human shields in case the lead started flying, because of the psychological impact such a graphic scene would have on the American people. That’s right, people claiming the banner of “Patriots” have adopted tactics straight out of Saddam Hussein’s playbook, apparently completely blind to the irony of standing up to a “tyrannical” government using the methods of an actual tyrant.

Whatever else they may be, the last thing you should think of these vandals and provocateurs as is Conservative, even if that’s the label they falsely wrap themselves in.  Real Conservatives respect the rule of law, or at least they used to. Real Conservatives believe in both individual freedom and personal responsibility. And real Conservatives concern themselves with matters of fiscal responsibility.

Mr. Bundy and the droves of militia members who flocked to shield him do not meet any of these criteria. For all the talk we hear from the right-wing media lambasting the “takers” sucking off the public teet, I can think of very few welfare recipients who have managed to fatten themselves up to the tune of $1.1 million. In a party that pretends to concern itself over public debt, why has not one of them pointed out the fact that Mr. Bundy has contributed more to that ongoing crisis than most people ever could?

As a conservative, I am ashamed at the way the rightwing has embraced this deadbeat, and as a gun owner, I am appalled at the lengths they have gone to support his continued fight to avoid compensating the American taxpayer for what he’s stolen. Responsible gun owners, like myself, use their weapons for sport, sustenance, and self-defense. They do NOT go looking for fights with law enforcement officers, and they most certainly do not use their weapons to defend a proven law-breaker and deadbeat from the consequences of his own misdeeds. At best, these people are all guilty of obstruction of justice and should be arrested and charged accordingly. At worst, they are domestic terrorists bent on using fear and violence to achieve their political aspirations of dismantling the federal government created by the very Constitution they paradoxically claim to be upholding.

They keep using those words, conservative and patriot. I don’t think they mean what they think they mean. My only hope is that when this is all over, my local AJ Bombers will have a special on “Conflict Burgers.” I’d gladly pay double for that beef.

Come to think of it, I already have.

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