There’s an anarchic streak that runs through the American character. Perhaps we were self-selected for obstreperousness; many ancestries include folks who braved dire trans-Atlantic crossings to escape persecution and other impositions of religious or secular authority. This characteristic forms a theme in the nation’s unique history.
The prime example, of course, is the Civil War in which more of our fellow countrymen died than in all other organized conflicts, combined. The record is also dotted with other revolts against being told what to do, or pay, by somebody else – the more distant the worse.
The Whiskey Rebellion of 1791 is an early precedent. In it, western farmers revolted against the original ‘sin’ tax enacted to help pay-down public debt from the recently concluded revolution against the British Crown. Whiskey may have been a luxury to the Coasties, but on the frontier it was much more: a staple beverage, a high value-added commodity that could be transported much more easily than raw corn, and even a medium of exchange for goods and services. Thus, the unfairness of such a toll imposed by the eastern elites was evident to those who were to pay it.
So it was that early-day revenuers who tried to collect the levy were tarred-and-feathered, and a mob several-thousand strong laid siege to the tax collector’s headquarters. Shots were exchanged, somebody died, and federal militia were raised from other states to put down the insurrection. Indeed, ‘tis said that the troop deployment was an early passing test of federal power under the newly-drafted Constitution.
Viewed in that context, the current stand-off in eastern Oregon comes off as a kind of a weak sister. It is the latest example of a simmering disquiet that has its origins in the homesteading movement of the original westward expansion. There’s a lot of history there, but one upshot has been that the federal government owns and manages the majority of the real estate in many western states. Of course, depending on your view of things, that’s ownership by either We, the People – or by those pointy-headed DC bureaucrats at the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
The local control movement has gone by various names, including the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s and the current so-called Sovereign Citizens Brigade. There are strains of it in the Nevada-born Tea Party, and it had most recently reared its head in the 2014 Showdown at the Bundy Corral (still essentially unresolved). That dust-up can be variously characterized as either an upstanding defiance of remote BLM overlords, or the last stand of a deadbeat squatter who has embezzled over a $million in unpaid grazing fees from the rest of us.
The baseline claim is that these federal lands ought to be ceded to more immediate state authorities to be managed for the benefit of the local citizenry. Again, perspective matters: a rancher may look at a wildlife sanctuary and see an unproductive wasteland; others may see it as a vital way station for migratory birds, and a necessary refuge for other wild fauna in nature’s balance. Federal authorities, perhaps informed by previous, unrelated enforcement debacles at Waco and Ruby Ridge, have trod lightly lest they create martyrs from among the armed and aroused insurrectionists.
As sometimes happens (see Sarajevo, circa 1914), this year’s sparking incident and its newsworthy aftermath are quite distinct. A local protest against an arson conviction for fires that spread onto federal lands attracted a ragtag Army of the Unhappy from elsewhere in the west, including two of the Nevada Bundy Boys. In their righteous, if generalized rage, they determined to takeover … something. The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was handy, unarmed and mostly unoccupied. They stormed it (no word on whether any animals were harmed in the making of their conquest), and have vowed to hold it ‘til the cattle come home.
It seems more likely that these particular weekend warriors will go home to their cattle, so that we might dub this The Toothbrush Rebellion. The feds have wisely not provoked them and the locals wish they’d leave – they appear at the moment of this writing to be rebels without a constituency.
Which is not to say that they are without a cause. The issue of the immediate vs. the collective is important, and, as above, all bound up in our concept of federalism. Who among us has not railed against authority at some point, when our degrees of personal discretion are limited by a spare-the-air day, a tax, a building code, an endangered species or a speed limit?
The rural west has not done well of-late, with lumbering in decline, commodities prices low and beef transitioning from ‘what’s for dinner’ to a growing public perception of an inhumane, vein-clogging, land-destroying, global-warming scourge of an industry. Those ‘compositional amenities’ of traditional western life are under anonymous attack, and somebody must be blamed.
Personally (you knew I’d get there), I do feel for the plight of our countrymen so battered. Something ought to be done, but The Market is unlikely to provide much help in the foreseeable future (“In the long run, we’re all dead” – Keynes), and it may be hard to convince those affected that government can be some part of their answer.
Moreover, there is a Bigger Picture to be seen here – important interests that all of us have, that may be less apparent to folks immediately impacted. I want wilderness, and wildlife sanctuaries, and just open spaces ‘unimproved’ by mankind. Nature is a global phenomenon, and its fundamental linkages far transcend the concept of local control. In fact, local control is no panacea, prone as it is to both corruptive and innocent forces representing short-term greed and human self-interest.
Given the choice, and admittedly less directly affected than the sagebrush clans, I will take the status quo. The Constitutional balance that worked in 1791 still makes sense today.