Once again it's “Deja vu all over again.” Never ending white entitlement, delusional history and the usual threats of violence are now playing out at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Eastern Oregon, one of the more important bird and wildlife sanctuaries in the country and located in an isolated corner of Oregon.
Malheur is being occupied by a handful of white (Christian?) terrorists with the apparent and enthusiastic support of ISIS no less. The Refuge, however, happens to belong to all the people of the United States.
But like a shopworn morality play our wild-wild-West has a familiar ring to it, going back to when the Europeans claimed ownership of those “empty” spaces following the American Civil War. The through-line or theme, nevertheless, has remained the same right up to the present time.
As early as 1805 two different creation stories appeared in an attempt to explain the founding of the United States. One was, later to be called the “Jeffersonian interpretation,” and the other known as the “natural” outcome of the Revolution of 1776. These versions of America's creation have been swirling around, re-imagined, and debated and argued about for more than 200 years.
It's all ours
At the end of the Civil War European-American turned their gaze toward our western frontier. It was now time for our pent up ambitions to be fulfilled—our (white) Manifest Destiny.
Coincidentally, the philosophy of Social Darwinism first appeared in Great Britain in the 1870s, which had little to do with evolution or Darwin, but did provide a justification and underpinning for white supremacy across the globe. It was adopted enthusiastically by America's elite, but for the average white American it merely confirmed what had been felt, culturally and socially, from the very start of the Republic.
The final piece in the “occupation” of the West was the railroad, the cutting edge technology of the 19th century. By the end of the century the railroad had helped make America a global trading partner, and by the end of World War I in 1918 the United States had become the premier economic power in the world. The start, however, was quite different from the fairy tales found in the average history book or the backs of cereal boxes.
“....the triumph of the unfit...”
For a fascinating and detailed history of the transcontinental railroad it's worth reading Richard White's book Railroaded. You'd recognize the Bernie Madoffs of the 19th century, the assorted speculators and those that created the 19th century equivalent of sub-prime loans and credit default swaps.
But the making of the West had little to do with the fanciful rugged individual or some 19th century libertarian John Gault wearing chaps and armed to the teeth. It had much more to do with large corporation colluding with the government, for private gains at public expense. It is a remarkable story of greed, incompetence and welfare capitalism at its supreme worst. Abraham Lincoln in 1864 said that, “Corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow.” He was most certainly right.
Unfortunately, along with the laughable business “tycoon” and corrupt government official and politician, there was a very dark side. It is a dismal story of genocide, racism, environmental destruction and overall depravity, which even by 19th century standards was simply barbaric.
Last but certainly not least is the iconic oil painting of cattle and cowboys adorning the boardroom walls of cattlemen associations, offices of western politicians—and the pages of comic strips.
Like the railroads, large cattle corporations were created, frequently by people that knew absolutely nothing about cows, cowboys and ranching. It was a kind of learning by doing, the ends of course justifying any means. Cattle corporations just like the railroads were often accused of violating anti-monopoly laws. There were numerous examples of unlawful enclosure of public lands, fraudulent attempts at controlling water resources, overgrazing and the cruelty of mass starvation of cattle.
Very much like the railroad corporations the cattle industry lived by financial illusion, where the numbers had virtually nothing to do with reality. As Richard White has said, in reference to the cattle business, “These land grabs were attempts by a classic nineteenth-century monopoly to claim a public resource for a privileged few.”
The cowboy himself was largely a myth even after the short-lived cattle drives ended. More often than not the average cowboy was underpaid, exploited, illiterate and old or dead by the time he was thirty-five.
Land belongs to (some of) us because we're the people
The short version is that the land around the current Malheur National Wildlife Refuge had originally belonged to the Northern Paiute Indian tribe, who had probably lived in the area for hundreds of years. They of course were eventually “removed” from the land by European-Americans in the 1870s.
President Theodore Roosevelt ( himself part of white American mythology) in 1908 created the Malheur refuge, one of the first sanctuaries in the United States, which was at that time unclaimed government lands, which consists today of more than 187,700 acres, including 120,000 acres of wetlands. The reason Roosevelt created this national wildlife refuge is because photographers in the 1880s discovered that plume hunters had decimated many North American birds. Feathers for ladies hats were popular at the time. Just your average American entrepreneur meeting a demand.
Not to worry, plenty of everything
B.J. Soper, a resident of the county where the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is located, while not a supporter of the illegal occupation of the refuge, nevertheless probably expressed the view of many westerners when he said to a journalist that, “What people in Western States are dealing with is the destruction of their way of life.” Fair enough, but whose way of life? Should we go back to the 1950s, the 1890s or possibly before any white person had set foot on what is now called the United States?
It must have seemed bountiful beyond belief when the first white people started moving west, All this “free” stuff as far as the eye could see and all for the taking. Capitalism globally since the beginning of the industrial revolution, the past 220 years or so, never really took into account what actual costs were. Such things as grass, water, the degradation of grasslands, pollution of the air, the overuse of toxic chemicals, the slaughter of wildlife never entered any balance sheet. It's still resisted today, even though the rhetoric has been updated.
The Bundy crowd and their camp followers are nothing new. Some 30 years ago a conservative land-use doctrine called Wise Use emerged, a successor if you will to the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s, which goes back even farther to to the anti-national park movement, which goes back ultimately to Plymouth Rock and the European understanding of what was “developed land” in the early 17th century.
The Wise Use doctrine claims that moral primacy in the West belongs to ranching families, logging and all natural resource companies. The goal is to eliminate such things as most of our environmental regulations, get rid of the Endangered Species Act, promise unrestricted use of off-road vehicles and privatize virtually everything. What a grand vision!
Above all else the true believers will tell anyone that listens that they are far better stewards of the land than any government entity. Needless to say the timber industry, the mining and oil industry, among others, while not necessarily in support of armed bandits with automatic weapons, tell us that these poor souls are victims of government overreach. Of course they are.
Death eaters, dead-enders and the profitable business of victimhood
In a perfect world Cliven Bundy, the family patriarch, would willingly pay the extremely modest grazing fee ( now up to some $1 million ) as a functioning citizen of the United States, in order to keep his cattle on my property—or--he would be living out his days in a federal prison and his cows sold on the open market.
Ammon Bundy, the oldest son of Cliven and the self-proclaimed leader of the white terrorist militia at Malheur, is a recipient of a small business government loan, courtesy of my tax dollars. He is not even a rancher but an owner of a trucking business in Arizona.
It is not that we can not find any ranchers in the West today who understand modern land ecology, different ways of raising cattle, the importance of large natural sanctuaries, the value of predators in a healthy ecosystem, climate change, as well as ultimately preserving a future legacy for all Americans; it's that we still have, hovering over everything, a thuggish history of human plundering, a disrespect for nature and above all the decaying ideology of white entitlement and self-serving victimhood.
Most likely the majority of people that are sympathetic to these various white militia groups do not want to go to prison or get shot, but it's pretty clear there is a core group of deadenders that long for a cowbilly Valhalla. We as a society must get on with the 21st century if we want to preserve anything worthwhile.
We took away their country and their means of support, broke up their mode of living, their habits of life, introduced disease and decay among them, and it was for this and against this they made war. Could any one expec t less. Then, why wonder at Indian difficulties.
(General Philip Henry Sheridan, Commanding Army General in Army Report of 1878)