How The West Was Won: The Oregon Militia Didn’t Build That

The militia- which even a cursory glance could tell you is not a well-regulated one- occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge has been called many things. Attention hungry springs to mind (I admit they are well-orchestrated). A “clear case of white privilege” is another (to point out that if they were black or Muslim they’d be dead was as immediately axiomatic as it is correct). To a very select few they are heroes, but even to the GOP candidates they are misled, though their cause- militating, literally, against overwhelming federal power- is a correct one.

It’s the proximate cause that I think is underlooked in all the coverage. There are a number of underlying causes, the most prominent of which is the victimization complex of well-armed white guys who want to “take back the country” that never actually belonged to them. The psychology here is really is of course the big deal, the sharp end of something wild and dangerous howling through the country. But we also need to really look at their stated cause, which is both dismissed and under-remarked on.

The start of this, or at least the recent start, was the standoff at the Bundy Ranch last year, where armed and goateed white guys from around the country pointed weapons at BLM agents hoping to collect back-taxes from a freeloading racist. Cliven Bundy, whose very name seems ripped from a backwater Bible, had been grazing his cattle on federal land without paying the proper fees, which work out to about $1.34 a head. Not bad, considering the average price for grazing on private land is between $15-$18 dollars. This has been pointed out in a lot of places, with the assumption that he should be happy he is getting a great deal.

Of course, from his point of view, and the point of view of the militia and their sympathizers, is that the federal government shouldn’t be in the position to give out this land anyway. It doesn’t belong to them. It should be free for people to do with what they please.

This is actually very seductive, and on the face of it, it makes a lot of sense. The American west is vast and wild and full of incredible land and resources underneath that land. Why should the government in Washington be parceling it out?

This is the psychology behind the standoff, a strain of which runs through nearly every argument of the American right. It is the idea that the federal government is not a matter of our collective will, or as Charlie Pierce calls it, the outcome of our politics, but an alien entity. While for historical reasons this is strong in the South, it is stronger in the west, especially the fictional West of the mind. It’s why the Republican revolution really started out there.

The idea, of course, is that pioneers went out to the West and built it by themselves, without any government help. It was the government that then came in, bisected the land with railroads, brought in money from the East to buy up property and fence it off, closing out the historical West of long cattle drives and open land.

That’s the official story, and there is a lot of truth in there. But what is not generally mentioned is that people like the Bundy family don’t want to bring the West back to the west: they want to be an extension of the Eastern financiers.

They are “fighting” for the right to privatize the land, to open it up to ranchers and farmers and loggers and mineral concerns. They want to be able to make as much money as possible out of what should be a collective American heritage. The government, for all its ills, isn’t hording the land. It is protecting it. Bundy and his ilk want to set up barbed wire fences, and put up a sign that says “private property”. This isn’t an attempt at freedom. It’s a grubbing assault on the public good.

That’s finally the main issue. The flip side of the West is Woody Guthrie singing that this land belongs to you and me, a truly subversive song that has been bizarrely sanitized. He walks the ribbons of highway, built by the government, to land that has been parceled off for selfish private interests, and says no. You didn’t build that. You don’t own that. This land is ours. It belongs to everyone.

It’s a message that is anathema to the Right, so much so that they spent a whole day of their last convention mocking President Obama for saying that if you have a business, you didn’t build the roads or the telecom networks or own a private police force or anything like that. They ripped the line out of context obviously, but the point was more important. They truly don’t believe there can be a public good.

This was most clear, and relevant to this essay, when Oklahoma governor Mary Fallin claimed that the feds had no role in building her state, even though of all the states, it can be argued that the federal government had the most hand in creating Oklahoma, clearing it out for all good white folks. And that’s the point. Opening up the West was a joint effort.Giant dams weren’t built by private citizens. Water wasn’t dredged over desert miles by companies looking out for the public good. Opening the West was a collective effort to make the land American. It isn’t the government that is stifling this freedom. It’s those who want to wrap wire around it, and own it for themselves. This is the motivation that drives Republican anger. A rejection of our duty to each other. A rejection of our status as a  disparate people bound to each other by our political will, by documents that set up a nation as a product of that will.

They don’t want to howl in coyote-esque solitude and be left alone. They want to take that land, rip from it profit, and leave it to someone else to clean up. This motivation comes out in weaponized anger, and while we have to deal with the armed part of it, we also have to take their arguments at face value, and reject them outright. The duty to do so belongs to you and me.



Further reading: Richard C Wade’s The Urban Frontier: The Rise of Western Cities 1790-1830 deals with the first “West”, just past the Cumberland Gap, and how cities like Pittsburgh, Louisville, Cincinnati, Lexington, and St. Louis were built.  Cities imported their culture ever further west, bringing laws and technology and society. This is what built the west. The east didn’t catch up to the frontier, contra Turner, but expanded it.

Another relevant read is Wedding of the WatersPeter Bernstein’s engaging look at how the Erie Canal was built, which connected the Great Lakes and the river system to the east, and made us an East-West nation, not one huddled to the coast. It was a state government that was largely responsible, but shows how politics, in the end, made this nation possible.


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