Temporarily Harney CountyBy
“The Oklahoma Land Rush, April 22, 1889”, by John Steuart Curry (National Archives)
If there is an American myth more toxic than the the prosperity gospel, that bizarre amalgam of Horatio Alger, Ayn Rand, and Jesus Christ that in some quarters passes for Christianity, it is the myth of the American frontier. Ammon Bundy and militia-occupiers and some “sovereign citizens” are playing out their version of that myth in Harney County, Oregon.
Bill McKibben wrote a decade ago about the depth and breadth of America’s self-reverential myths (pun intended):
Only 40 percent of Americans can name more than four of the Ten Commandments, and a scant half can cite any of the four authors of the Gospels. Twelve percent believe Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife. This failure to recall the specifics of our Christian heritage may be further evidence of our nation’s educational decline, but it probably doesn’t matter all that much in spiritual or political terms. Here is a statistic that does matter: Three quarters of Americans believe the Bible teaches that “God helps those who help themselves.” That is, three out of four Americans believe that this uber-American idea, a notion at the core of our current individualist politics and culture, which was in fact uttered by Ben Franklin, actually appears in Holy Scripture. The thing is, not only is Franklin’s wisdom not biblical; it’s counter-biblical. Few ideas could be further from the gospel message, with its radical summons to love of neighbor. On this essential matter, most Americans—most American Christians—are simply wrong, as if 75 percent of American scientists believed that Newton proved gravity causes apples to fly up.
Now, like uneducated preachers designated by themselves (and God) as authorities on the Bible, some of those who confuse the first century and Franklin have appointed themselves authorities on the constitution. In Oregon, Ammon Bundy and his occupying militia are setting up a “citizens grand jury” to hear evidence and hold the federal government accountable for something to somebody:
A self-proclaimed “U.S. Superior Court judge” who has been involved in past property rights protests in other states arrived Tuesday in Burns with plans to convene an extra-legal “citizens grand jury” that he said will review evidence that public officials may have committed crimes.
Bruce Doucette, a 54-year-old owner of a computer design and repair shop in suburban Denver, told The Oregonian/OregonLive, that he made the trip at the request of Harney County residents. He said he met with the armed occupiers of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge to hear their evidence, which he called “significant,” that government officials have committed crimes.
Ryan Cooper looks at the creation myth of the American West in light of the Bundy standoff:
For an example of someone who clearly subscribes to the cowboy legend, look no further than the insurgent Ammon Bundy, leader of the ragtag militia that has occupied the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon for the past few weeks, with his beard, felt cowboy hat, and flannel shirts. His demands, though kooky, are straight out of the individualist tradition as well: an end to federal interference with the West, particularly government ownership of land.
Bundy’s ideas are nonsense — but they’re no more wrong than the entire creation myth of the American West. Though there have been Americans who could survive completely unaided in the West — men like Kit Carson and Jim Bridger — there were only a handful of them, and most were at least half-crazed. No society on Earth has ever functioned wholly on self-interested individualism — and that holds doubly true for the West. From the very start to the present day, Big Government has been the very bedrock of the settlement of the American frontier.
Once America appropriated the land from the First People (and Mexico), “free stuff from the government” — accompanied by the pork-barrel politics and mismanagement — provided the support that enabled mythic rugged individuals to survive and thrive there, from land settlement grants to railroad rights-of-way to massive water and power projects. Just reorganizing the laws governing the “hideous water system along saner lines” in the wake of the decades-long droughts will take time and effort, especially with the “patina of John Wayne nonsense” to overcome. Socialized water especially is what Bundy’s militia fish swim in but can no longer see. Cooper concludes:
It’s hard going, and one reason is the cowboy political tradition represented by Ammon Bundy and his pack of revolutionary wannabes, who want to pay zero in federal grazing fees and end the federal ownership of land. Even reformist Western politicians still have to tiptoe around the fact that the federal government is simply an inextricable part of how the West functions and has been since the beginning. That Bundy has confused one of the primary spigots of rancher welfare with a rancher-smashing tyranny is only a wild exaggeration of a typical view, rooted in Western myth and broader American conservatism.
Civilization, ho-oooooooooooo! Domini Domini Domini, you’re all Catholics now!
(Cross-posted from Hullabaloo.)