This was something I drew a couple weeks ago, shortly before I went on a two-week visit to Toronto. Unfortunately, amid all the hustle and bustle of the trip, I never had time to write a proper essay to accompany it until now.
The image of a grotesque collection of militia-man stereotypes seeking to seduce a simple-minded elephant was my personal reaction to the overzealous willingness of some right-wingers to come to the defence of the vile Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy in his much-publicized standoff with federal agents over cattle grazing fees.
To those dogmatically convinced of the fundamental evil of Washington, DC, the deeper facts of this confrontation didn’t much matter — the enemy of my enemy was my friend. Shortly after the standoff began at Bundy’s ranch in early April, several high-profile Republican politicians and conservative media personalities rushed to defend his right to whatever it was he was defending, most notably Sean Hannity on FOX and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas.
Unfortunately, the more facts of the Bundy story became known, the harder their defensive posture became to maintain.
Bundy’s entire legal case, it was revealed, revolved not around any hard evidence of innocence, but simply that he didn’t recognize the authority of the federal government. He had, in fact, been grazing his cattle illegally on federally-owned land for over two decades; he simply didn’t care to pay the penalties because he’d arbitrarily decided his personal “claim” superseded federal jurisdiction. Predictably, these arguments failed to persuade the courts during numerous trials (in which he obviously represented himself), and after 21 straight years of losses, his outstanding fines totalled over a million dollars and left pretty much all his property fair game for forfeiture. If anything, the fact that his cattle were still happily grazing away in the year 2014 despite decades of warnings and reprimand was evidence of government weakness, not power.
You clearly have to have a couple screws loose to be so cocksure about all this “sovereign citizen gobbledygook,” and as the weeks progressed, this became another inescapable reality of the Cliven Bundy Show.
Late last month, at the peak of his fame as the leading folk hero of the subversive right, Bundy offered what the New York Times charitably described as a “long, loping discourse” on racial matters at one of his already traditionally painful daily press conferences.
The problem with “the Negro,” he said, is that they all lie around all day and don’t do anything productive. Why, it’s enough to make a man wonder, “are they better off as slaves?” At least back then they had cotton to pick.
Any hopes that Bundy had merely stated a somewhat valid sociological point through an inelegant metaphor were then dashed further when he doubled down at his next presser, declaring confidently that “I understand what slavery’s all about” and standing by his thought exercise despite it. You could practically hear the thunder of shoes hitting pavement as the man’s one-time allies stampeded away.
To be sure, Bundy’s popularity was always fairly exaggerated. Glenn Beck and Ann Coulter, for instance, were consistently Bundy-skeptic, as was the National Review, Red State, Breitbart, and indeed, the majority of mainstream conservatives who looked seriously at this strange little man and his self-righteous “plight.”
Yet this disgust was itself revealing. Many conservatives, such as Coulter, fretted over what we may call the “sex appeal” of figures like Bundy to populist right-wingers — figures who, because they mouthed a few correct slogans and told a story that jelled with preexisting suspicions, were immediately canonized with little critical thought. It’s our version of those dopey leftists who fell way too deeply in love with Occupy Wall Street way too quickly, she said.
In my mind, the lazy embrace of terrible “activists” is the direct product of an increasingly polarized, omnipresent political culture. One that demands the categorization of just about every object, person, and occurrence in society into a tidy either/or, for-or-against partisan dichotomy, with the greatest prizes awarded to those who are most dogmatically “consistent,” and the harshest punishments for those who seem pragmatic or equivocating. Even now, you have counter-counterculture pundits like Mark Steyn and Gavin McInnes who still seem afraid to denounce Bundy too hard, lest they even for one scant minute appear on the same side as the left. To the extent they want to be seen disagreeing with him, they have to make it painfully evident that their disagreement is strictly on their own terms.
Conservatism in America seems to be entering a stage of increased anxiety. With mid-term elections just around the corner, and with them the promise of recapturing both houses of Congress and snipping the wings of President Obama for the remainder of his tenure, the GOP’s need to avoid what the Canadian press, in a different context, once dubbed the “bozo eruptions” of a radical, uncensored right-wing base has never been more pressing. The challenge of American politics, however, is that a party system based on self-identification (Bundy, for what it’s worth, is apparently a registered Republican) makes guilt-by-association a distressingly easy game, particularly for a liberal-leaning press and blogosphere.
It’s not difficult for leading GOP politicians to denounce the Cliven Bundys of the world, and declare the crankish, ignorant worldview he represents as thoroughly non-indicative of mainstream conservative values.
Far more of a challenge to permanently alter the broader ideological culture that caused such denunciations to be necessary in the first place.