The best is enemy of the good.
The profoundest truths are paradoxical.
Saturday, April 26, 2014
Cliven Bundy's Slavery Delusion And Conservatism's Passion For Simple Solutions
Alan: Conservatives are essentially irresponsible, unthinking people who want simple principles (like "The Invisible Hand of the Marketplace") to take care of "everything." The surpassing beauty of these simple principles is that 1.) they need not do anything, 2.) the solution will not cost them anything, and 3.) they will keep more money in their own pocket.
“I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro,” Cliven Bundy, the rancher who has spent the past few weeks telling us the many things he claims to know about American freedom, said the other day, at a press conference in Bunkerville, Nevada. The event “drew one reporter and one photographer,” Adam Nagourney, of the Times, reported, “so Mr. Bundy used the time to officiate at what was in effect a town meeting with supporters, discussing, in a long, loping discourse, the prevalence of abortion, the abuses of welfare and his views on race.” The supporters were there because they liked the way that Bundy drove agents from the Bureau of Land Management, who had tried to enforce a court order to seize his cattle, off public property. And here are some of those views on race, inspired, he said, by the sight of a public-housing project in Nevada, where “there is always at least a half a dozen people sitting on the porch—they didn’t have nothing to do”:
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.
One of the most delusional parts of Bundy’s musing was the phrase “having a family life.” A great moral crime of slavery was depriving people of family. There was family love, because that can’t be defeated, but it was often violated. Slaves were denied the sovereignty of family ties. Your children might be sold, and you’d never see them again. You might be raped, and not choose who the father of your children would be. Sexual violence had a broad brutality. The pattern of your life was set by the rhythm of someone else’s family—a death that broke up an estate or a marriage that turned your daughter into someone else’s wedding gift. And the great moral delusion of slave owners was that these transactions and acts of brutality built one big family household, simply by calling an old slave Auntie or Uncle.
It is bizarre that a man who has ranted about his own freedom for weeks can speak so contemptuously about the freedom of others. Given his grand claims regarding what American freedom means, it is inadequate to call him historically illiterate or misinformed about the conditions of slavery—the constant, brutal violence that reinforced it and the way it robbed people of the ability to make the most basic choices about their lives. At the very least, he must know that slaves could not move where they wanted to, and could not vote. For him to muse about black Americans having less freedom now is to find their voices and their volition valueless—to not equate their participation in the democratic process as contributing to everyone’s freedom. The other alternative is that he has such a degraded view of the souls of black people that he doesn’t think these freedoms express anything in them. It suggests that his idea of “more freedom” for black people is similar to his notion of freedom for his cattle: productive, but under private control and private guns, with the absent acquiescence of the federal government.
This relates to one of the absurdities of the Bundy story. He talks about freedom and “ancestral” rights, but grazes his cattle on public land—our land, not his homestead—without paying his share. (It reminds one of the Confederates who went on about how slavery was a matter of states’ rights while insisting on a Fugitive Slave Act, which would put federal resources at the disposal of slave catchers, even in the streets of New York or Philadelphia.) And yet, Bundy is not just a fringe character: he has had the support of Greg Abbott, the Republican nominee for governor in Texas, and Senator Rand Paul, of Kentucky. Too many conservatives have been charmed by the notion of a cowboy singing the anthem on horseback and threatening to turn guns on bureaucrats. They can’t just proclaim themselves stunned here. (Paul, in the wake of Nagourney’s report, said that Bundy’s “remarks on race are offensive and I wholeheartedly disagree with him,” according to the Post.)
The other delusion in Bundy’s comments is that Africans who became slaves were lucky to be brought into the shelter of this country’s wealth, as if they had arrived in a mansion already built. They made the South rich. Lincoln, in his Second Inaugural, rightly argued that what the Confederates lost on the battlefield was “all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil.” They weren’t here to play music on porches until someone was kind enough to show them “how to pick cotton.” The astounding conflation that Bundy makes is black people working with black people enslaved. Does no other alternative, such as a decently paid job, occur to him? Could someone who claims that the federal government can’t constrain his unbridled spirit have so limited an imagination?
This is where Bundy exposes more broadly held, and corrosive, assumptions: that poverty is a matter of laziness, or, as it is put in polite society, “a certain culture.” This, again, is where one cannot reassure oneself that Bundy is simply on the fringe. Just get off that porch, stretch out your arms and legs, inquire politely about cotton, and all will be well. It doesn’t work that way. In America, it never has.