Learning from Bundy’s racism

Cliven Bundy reflects a resentment that helped propel Ronald Reagan to office in 1980. It was called the “Sagebrush Rebellion” then and it was all about the Bureau of Land Management seeking to impose environmental protections and limiting grazing rights. This is what propels claims of federal government overreach and a wistful notion of posse comitatus, in which it is a local sheriff that has jurisdiction, not the federal government, not the Bureau of Land Management, not the federal courts.[1]

Colin Woodard explains that the settlers in the Far West, which includes Nevada, have always been dependent on big corporations, or on big government, or on both. And they resent that fact to the core of their existence, so much so that they are in denial of that fact.[2] It’s not hard to make the leap from Bundy’s denial of his own dependency to his projection of it onto others:

“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.”[3]

Ta-Nehisi Coates, one of those I strongly prefer to hear from on matters of race, replies that Bundy fails to take account of the totality of slave existence, in which human bodies were owned, exploited, and brutalized capriciously.[4] It is a very different story from the nostalgia for the old slaveholding south that David Anderson elicited from Susan Dabney Smedes’s autobiography:

The Dabney family felt very close to their slaves and had “great affection” for the household servants, a feeling that was “warmly returned by the negroes.” So “sacred” was the “bond between master and servant,” insisted Smedes, that they were as “close as the tie of blood.” Thus, before the Dabneys moved to Hinds County, Mississippi (some forty miles east of Vicksburg), Thomas called his slaves together, told them of his plans, and explained that he did not wish “to take one unwilling servant with him.’” Nor did he propose to break up any marriages. “Everything should be made to yield to the important consideration of keeping families together,” he asserted. “Without an exception,” Smedes wrote, “the negroes determined to follow their beloved master and mistress.” Echoing the works of Joel Chandler Harris and Thomas Nelson Page, Smedes left it to the redoubtable Mammy Harriet to offer comment on the move: “Master was good all de time. He do all he could to comfort he people. When he was gittin’ ready to move . . . he call “’em all up, an’ tell ‘em dat he did not want anybody to foller him who was not willin’. . . . Ebery one 0’ he own, and all who b’long to de odder members 0’ de fambly who was wid him, say dey want to foller him, . . . . Our people say, ‘. . .. Ef you got a good marster, foller him.’”[5]

Whether people actually believe such nonsense or not, and Anderson points to potent analysis in a footnote I’ve elided from the above, it sets a stage for minimizing the slave experience. In response to a controversy in which it emerges that people will work less in a post-industrial economy,[6] and acknowledging that this means higher unemployment, Ross Douthat concluded,[7]

There are libertarians who like the basic income idea, but only as a substitute for the existing welfare state, not as a new expansion. Both “rugged individualist” right-wingers and more communitarian conservatives tend to see work as essential to dignity, mobility and social equality, and see its decline as something to be fiercely resisted.

The question is whether tomorrow’s liberals will be our allies in that fight.[8]

Douthat’s equation of work with dignity is important both for what it could (but probably doesn’t) recognize, and for what it overlooks. First, in this society, we judge people largely based upon their ability to consume, whether through outlays of cash or a credit rating that allows one to borrow.[9] For most people, that means a job that pays a decent wage. But second, work has become increasingly anything but dignified. I’ve repeatedly commented that employers revel in their freedom to treat workers as infinitely replaceable—humans beings have become disposable. Even Christopher Olaf Blum, a traditionalist conservative whose thinking is regressive in many truly appalling ways notes,

As in the case of belonging to the land or to a place, so also in the case of belonging to a profession or to a community of work: few now know what this might mean. We are rootless cosmopolites, changing our occupations, on average, seven times over the course of our lifetimes; we endlessly recast our resumes and recreate ourselves in new contexts. Robert Nisbet was surely right: we breathlessly chase after a merely sentimental attachment to community because our need to serve as the subordinate part of some truly coherent common endeavor too often remains unsatisfied. We sense that we are interchangeable, standardized, disposable parts within the modern economy and bureaucratic state—which is to say that we are not parts at all, but mere particles of sand in some great heap or pile.[10]

Blum writes in service of his agenda; he seeks a return to an agrarian, indeed feudal, social organization. In the whole of his essay, he in fact repeats the error of assuming that patriarchy is beneficent, while many who have worked working class jobs have an experience of employers that is anything but.[11] Yet Bundy sees a family in public housing, draws upon a vast number of stereotypes, and assumes they would have more freedom in a shit job.

[Atlas Shrugged protagonist Dagny Taggart] smiled. “I know, this is a place where one employs nothing but aristocrats for the lousiest kinds of jobs.”

“They’re all aristocrats, that’s true,” said Wyatt, “because they know that there’s no such thing as a lousy job—only lousy men who don’t care to do it.[12]

For Bundy, any patriarch, whether it be a slave master or an employer, is better than the government; any work, whether on the cotton fields of a slave plantation or in a Wal-Mart, is better than government aid.

That’s a pretty easy position to take when you haven’t actually been in those jobs or been in those situations.

  1. [1]Travis Gettys, “Cliven Bundy threatens violence against federal agents as Sean Hannity eggs him on,” Raw Story, April 16, 2014, http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2014/04/16/cliven-bundy-threatens-violence-against-federal-agents-as-sean-hannity-eggs-him-on/
  2. [2]Colin Woodard, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (New York: Penguin, 2011).
  3. [3]Adam Nagourney, “A Defiant Rancher Savors the Audience That Rallied to His Side,” New York Times, April 23, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/24/us/politics/rancher-proudly-breaks-the-law-becoming-a-hero-in-the-west.html
  4. [4]Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Cliven Bundy Wants to Tell You All About ‘the Negro’,” Atlantic, April 24, 2014, http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/04/cliven-bundy-wants-to-tell-you-all-about-the-negro/361152/
  5. [5]David Anderson, “Down Memory Lane: Nostalgia for the Old South in Post-Civil War Plantation Reminiscences,” Journal of Southern History 71, no. 1 (2005): 120.
  6. [6]Tim Fernholz, “It’s not just Obamacare. In the future, we’ll all work less,” Quartz, February 6, 2014, http://qz.com/174561/its-not-just-obamacare-in-the-future-well-all-work-less/
  7. [7]Ross Douthat, “Leaving Work Behind,” New York Times, February 8, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/09/opinion/sunday/douthat-leaving-work-behind.html
  8. [8]Ross Douthat, “Leaving Work Behind,” New York Times, February 8, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/09/opinion/sunday/douthat-leaving-work-behind.html
  9. [9]Anup Shah, “Creating the Consumer,” Global Issues, May 14, 2003, http://www.globalissues.org/article/236/creating-the-consumer
  10. [10]Christopher Olaf Blum, “On Being Conservative: Lessons from Louis de Bonald,” Intercollegiate Review 41, no. 1 (2006): 26.
  11. [11]Harry Brill, “Government Breaks the Law: The Sabotaging of the Occupational Safety and Health Act,” Social Justice 19, no. 3 (1992): 63-81; Josh Eidelson, “Wal-Mart faces warehouse horror allegations and federal Labor Board complaint,” Salon, November 18, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/11/18/breaking_wal_mart_faces_warehouse_horror_allegations_and_federal_labor_board_complaint/; Josh Eidelson, “Freezing for Wal-Mart: Sub-zero warehouse temperatures spur Indiana work stoppage,” Salon, January 13, 2014, http://www.salon.com/2014/01/13/freezing_for_wal_mart_sub_zero_warehouse_temperatures_spur_indiana_work_stoppage/; Josh Eidelson, “Amazon Keeps Unions Out By Keeping Workers in Fear, Says Organizer,” Alternet, January 22, 2014, http://www.alternet.org/labor/amazon-keeps-unions-out-keeping-workers-fear-says-organizer; Allison Kilkenny, “Cleveland Walmart Holds Food Drive For Its Own Employees,” Nation, November 18, 2013, http://www.thenation.com/blog/177241/cleveland-wal-mart-holds-food-drive-its-own-employ%C3%A9es; Paul Krugman, “The Plight of the Employed,” New York Times, December 24, 2013, http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/12/24/the-plight-of-the-employed/; Paul Krugman, “The Fear Economy,” New York Times, December 26, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/27/opinion/krugman-the-fear-economy.html; Mac McClelland, “I Was a Warehouse Wage Slave,” Mother Jones, February 27, 2012, http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/02/mac-mcclelland-free-online-shipping-warehouses-labor; Alana Semuels, “As employers push efficiency, the daily grind wears down workers,” Los Angeles Times, April 7, 2013, http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-harsh-work-20130407,5976597,1009581,full.story; Alana Semuels, “How the relationship between employers and workers changed,” Los Angeles Times, April 7, 2013, http://www.latimes.com/business/money/la-fi-mo-harsh-work-history-20130405,0,716422.story; Yves Smith, “The Rise of Bullshit Jobs,” Naked Capitalism, August 22, 2013, http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2013/08/the-rise-of-bullshit-jobs.html; Spencer Soper, “Inside Amazon’s Warehouse,” Morning Call, September 18, 2011, http://articles.mcall.com/2011-09-18/news/mc-allentown-amazon-complaints-20110917_1_warehouse-workers-heat-stress-brutal-heat; Veruca [pseud.], “Which Ten Companies Pay Their Employees The Least?” Everlasting GOP Stoppers, November 17, 2013, http://www.theeverlastinggopstoppers.com/2013/11/ten-companies-pay-employees-least/; Jordan Weissmann, “McDonald’s Can’t Figure Out How Its Workers Survive on Minimum Wage,” Atlantic, July 16, 2013, http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/07/mcdonalds-cant-figure-out-how-its-workers-survive-on-minimum-wage/277845/; Spencer Woodman, “Labor Takes Aim at Walmart—Again,” Nation, January 4, 2012, http://www.thenation.com/article/165437/labor-takes-aim-walmart-again
  12. [12]Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged (1957; repr., New York: Plume, 1999), 721.

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