It never should have come to this, but the cause of freedom doesn’t rests on its laurels. On January 2, 2016, a gaggle of armed, babbling Bubbas decided to re-launch the American Revolution by taking over the remote Malheaur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service administers the refuge, which is now serving as the unofficial Alamo of the Pacific Northwest for a loose collection of Far-Right Militia goonies who have decided to take a stand against the Federal Government, ostensibly to protest the incarceration of father-son ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond at the hands of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
Led by Ammon “Son of Cliven” Bundy, the Militia members have declared their intentions to occupy the refuge for multiple years, even as they evidenced a fair amount of short-term planning when their social media call for snacks got them boxloads of dildos instead and earned them the unflattering Twitter designation as “Y’all Qaeda.” But for all of the media attention that Bundy’s antics have garnered, the real issue at hand here isn’t the Hammonds’ imprisonment, it’s the ahistorical ideology behind the modern Militia movement itself, a movement that operates under a bizarro world interpretation of the U.S. Constitution that renders any legitimate grievances the movement has with the Federal Government difficult to take seriously.
First, a little background on the whole Oregon Militia brouhaha.
The relationship between the Federal Government, which owns huge swaths of Western lands, and ranchers has always been fraught with tension. Ammon Bundy and his merry band of free-dumb fundies aren’t just protesting the incarceration of Dwight and Steven Hammond, they’re also protesting federal land ownership and stewardship. The Hammonds ran afoul of Federal law as far back as 1994, when they balked at what they considered to be the Feds’ unlawful management of public lands, and Dwight Hammond has a history of allegedly threatening federal wildlife officials.
The Hammonds’ grievances, like those of many anti-government Westerners, boils down to age-old conflict between the commonwealth vs. the individual. These ranchers believe that the Federal Government has no constitutional right to preserve land for wildlife habitat when said land could instead be used by private interests like ranchers and the extraction industry. In 2001 and 2006, the Hammonds allegedly set fire to roughly 140 acres of BLM-managed public land. They were convicted on arson charges in 2012 under the admittedly questionable Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, but a U.S. District Judge reduced their sentence from the full five years required by the act. The Federal Government, however, appealed the case in 2014 and won the full five-year sentence for the Hammonds. This appeal is what the Bundy Militia is now taking a stand against because they view it as symbolic of Federal tyranny.
If you watch how the Militia fellers preen about in front of the media, you’ll notice they pay a lot of lip service to the Constitution. They’ve dubbed themselves Citizens for Constitutional Freedom, and Ammon Bundy has stated that, “We have allowed our federal government to step outside the bounds of the Constitution. They have come down upon on the people.” The problem, however, is that Bundy, and the broader Militia movement that he represents doesn’t just hold a limited-powers view of the Constitution; rather, this movement functionally rejects the Constitution as the Federal document that it is.
Indeed, anti-government Militia ideology is fundamentally ahistorical. While they feign love for the Constitution, what they really seem to want is to bring back the Articles of Confederation. This pre-constitutional document existed from 1776-1783, and codified into law a weak central government that held little authority over the individual states. This was a problem, because it rendered the national government ill-prepared to deal with internal acts of revolt like Shay’s Rebellion, the 1786-87 uprising in Massachusetts led by Revolutionary War veteran Daniel Shays in protest against state and local tax collection policies. Shay’s Rebellion prompted George Washington to come out of retirement and call for a new Federal Constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation and establish a stronger central government, a historical fact seemingly lost on the Constitution-obsessed Militia movement.
Of course, the anti-government Militia movement isn’t in the business of nuanced — if not accurate — historical interpretation. Rather, Bundy and his ilk traffic in a mis-mash of conspiracy beliefs about the looming threat of an almighty Federal Government working in cahoots with various incarnations of the New World Order, the United Nations, and possibly even Satan to take control of America, strip freedom-loving Americans of their land, livelihoods, and guns, and bring about the rise of some kind of totalitarian state.
Although there isn’t really a unifying belief among all anti-government types, what does unite them is their hatred for the Feds. Historian Robert Churchill locates the rise of the contemporary Militia movement in two interconnected events that occurred during the 1990s: the assaults by Federal authorities on Ruby Ridge, Idaho and the Branch-Davidian Compound in Waco, Texas, and the rise of the communications revolution in American society. The use of Federal force against anti-government types provided the spark that new media ignited into a fire via the creation of an “alternative public sphere” of anti-government paranoia among America’s right-wing subcultures. “Using talk radio, fax networks, Internet discussion lists and chat rooms, and the World Wide Web, gun owners, tax protesters, white supremacists, and common-law activists all came together to discuss what they perceived as a growing threat from their own government,” Churchill writes.* The Bundy Militia’s standoff in Oregon is the fruit of these recent historical developments.
The modern Militia movement’s anti-government ideology centers around the belief that the Federal Government has no right to own western lands or to tell private individuals what they can do with those lands. This stance, however, exists under a storm cloud of irony given that the Federal Government is the reason why white ranchers even have access to lands in the American West.
For example, the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, which acquired some 530,000,000 acres of the West from France, was first and foremost a massive federal land grab, instigated at the behest of none other than modern-day libertarian hero — and the most Founding Father-est of all the Founding Fathers — Thomas Jefferson. Of course, Jefferson was well aware that the Constitution didn’t state explicitly that such a land-grab was within his powers, but in this case, lust for expansionism overruled strict constitutional adherence, and the Louisiana Purchase now stands as one of many significant historical developments that supports the Federal Government’s implied powers.
Moreover, the Manifest Destiny craze of the 19th century ensured that the western United States would eventually fall into the hands of white settlers (and out of the hands of non-white native peoples), and the Federal Government acted as both the procurer of western lands and as the enforcer of white settlement rights. For example, the Homestead Act, which President Abraham Lincoln signed into law in 1862, encouraged the western migration of white people into then-Indian territory. The government provided white settlers with 160 acres of public land provided that potential settlers pay a filing fee and live for five continuous years on the land before they could receive ownership. Those settlers who could afford it could shorten the process to a mere six months, after which they could buy the land from the Federal Government at $1.25 per acre. The Homestead Act distributed 80 million acres of public land by 1900.
Of course, western lands weren’t exactly unoccupied in the 19th century: the various Native American tribes who called the West home weren’t about to give up their lands without conflict, so in addition to acting as the dispenser of land to settlers, the Federal Government also made its agent, the United States Army, into the enforcer of white settlement. In response to settlers’ complaints about “savages” getting in the way of “civilizing” the West for whitey, the government established military forts and sanctioned raids on tribal lands, all of which fueled the violence that historians refer to as the Indian Wars. Indeed, conflict between the U.S. Army and Indians resulted in brutal massacres of native people at Sand Creek, Colorado in 1862 and in the Minnesota River Valley during the Dakota War (aka the Santee Sioux Uprising) of 1862-63.
At the center of the displacement and near-extermination of native peoples in the American West was the notion that communal — you might even say public — tribal stewardship of western lands had to be suppressed and eventually ended to make way for individual settlement by profit-seeking white landowners. Indeed, the goal of the U.S. government, as enforced by the Army, was, in the words of one white U.S. agent to the Minnesota Sioux, “to break up the community system among the Sioux; weaken and destroy their tribal relations; individualize them by giving each a separate home and having them subsist by industry – the sweat of their brows; till the soil; make labor honorable and idleness dishonorable.”
The ideology behind this statement was clear: public lands should exist to be settled by white individuals who seek to make a profit from that land. This is a position that the U.S. government would later soften, even recant, by embracing the necessity of land and wildlife conservation in the early 20th century, especially via the conservation efforts of President Theodore Roosevelt, who understood that wilderness has intrinsic value beyond what capitalist enterprises seek to extract from it. Yet while elements of the Federal Government eventually recognized that land and wildlife have an intrinsic right to exist, Ammon Bundy and the Far-Right Militia Movement reject this idea. Instead, they promulgate the right-wing libertarian notion that all land should be privatised, and that profit-seeking individuals should be allowed to exploit such land as they see fit.
Thus, while it may seem ridiculous — even comical — for a band of self-styled, tyranny-toppling hard-asses to lay siege to something as benign as a Wildlife Refuge, to them, a symbol of land conservation isn’t benign at all. It represents a Federal Government that believes in, and enforces the notion that non-human life (plants, animals) has, on some level, a distinct right to exist, and that the destructive forces of private capitalism must be limited in their attempts to despoil wild lands and wildlife. In the minds of Far-Right dingbats like Ammon Bundy and his band of firearm-fondling doofuses, the notion that private, profit-making enterprises are not the supreme authority on earth is a truly radical notion.
Make no mistake: the BLM, like any government agency, has its share of corruption, and it shouldn’t be let off the hook for its transgressions. This doesn’t mean, however, that goon-squads like the Bundy Militia should be the ones to put the Feds in their place. With their belief in the unregulated, unrestrained rights of private interests to exploit western lands to no end, and their insistence that the Federal Constitution be interpreted in a manner more appropriate to the now-defunct Articles of Confederation, the Militia Movement espouses beliefs that are not only ahistorical, but also dangerous and morally bankrupt.
Those looking to the Militia Movement as some kind of bulwark against government tyranny ought to look somewhere else, because if you really want to understand what it’s like to have your land rights violated by a tyrannical government, go talk to a member of a Native American tribe — and count your own privileges.
* See Robert H. Churchill, To Shake Their Guns in the Tyrant’s Face: Libertarian Political Violence and the Origins of the Militia Movement (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009), 187.