History and the Bundy uprisings

It’s good to learn from history. But just as it is important to represent viewpoints accurately, it is important to represent history fairly.

Unfortunately, Adrian Covert relies on a partial account of Shays’ Rebellion in condemning the occupiers of a wildlife refuge in Oregon. He notes the horror expressed George Washington, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson when farmers rebelled against state tax laws.[1] Covert needn’t have gone far to find the other side of the story. Howard Zinn explains that the support for a strong central government had been greatest among the wealthy who, in Massachusetts where Shays’ Rebellion occurred, were the only people who could hold state office. Farmers were losing their cattle and their land because of debt at least partially accrued when the federal government had not paid Revolutionary War veterans in cash but rather in “certificates for future redemption”[2] and when the state legislature had refused to issue paper money to facilitate the settling of debts.  “By 1787 there was not only a positive need for strong central government to protect the large economic interests, but also immediate fear of rebellion by discontented farmers.”[3] Which is all to say that any parallel between the occupation in Oregon and Shays’ Rebellion is weak at best: The federal government does not owe these ranchers money, but rather subsidizes them and their industry at every step of the way.[4] And even if you accept the capitalist libertarian claim that the U.S. currency is debased, inflation benefits debtors at the expense of creditors (and savers).

What does seem common between Shays’ Rebellion and the Oregon occupation is a sense of economic grievance in rural areas. This is probably the one glimmer of truth in authoritarian populism; it shows up in job losses and deserted towns in the Midwest and South.[5] But it has always been a problem in the sociocultural region Colin Woodard calls the “Far West,” which includes Nevada, where Cliven Bundy staged his uprising in 2014, and that part of Oregon where his sons lead an occupation today. People in these regions have always been extremely dependent either on private corporations or on the federal government or on both.[6] A fairer lesson is the one Zinn draws, that rather than ameliorating economic hardship, the Constitution has protected wealthy interests (that the Articles of Confederation were seen as too weak to defend) at the expense of the poor. Zinn’s history is largely about social inequality, and about elite (functionalist conservative) attempts to give no more than enough to no more than enough people to avoid a full-scale revolution.[7] This is perhaps nowhere more explicit than in the hiring especially of poorly-educated whites to defend the social order as police and prison guards against those who remain poor.[8]

So it shouldn’t be the least bit surprising that uprisings continue to occur, especially around the fringes, whenever social inequality worsens. And whatever we may think of the protagonists, a widening gap between rich and poor is at the heart of the problem.

  1. [1]Adrian Covert, “Oregon militants ignore U.S. history,” San Francisco Chronicle, January 5, 2016, http://www.sfchronicle.com/opinion/openforum/article/Oregon-militants-ignore-U-S-history-6738896.php
  2. [2]Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present (New York: HarperPerennial, 2005), p. 92.
  3. [3]Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present (New York: HarperPerennial, 2005), p. 91.
  4. [4]Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (New York: Penguin, 2007).
  5. [5]Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? (New York: Henry Holt, 2005); Tracy Thompson, The New Mind of the South (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2013).
  6. [6]Colin Woodard, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (New York: Penguin, 2011).
  7. [7]Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present (New York: HarperPerennial, 2005).
  8. [8]Herbert J. Gans, The War Against The Poor: The Underclass And Antipoverty Policy (New York: Basic, 1995).

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.