This land is our land: American democracy, at a theater near you

Finian Cunningham
Finian Cunningham (born 1963) has written extensively on international affairs, with articles published in several languages. Originally from Belfast, Ireland, he is a Master’s graduate in Agricultural Chemistry and worked as a scientific editor for the Royal Society of Chemistry, Cambridge, England, before pursuing a career in newspaper journalism. For over 20 years he worked as an editor and writer in major news media organizations, including The Mirror, Irish Times and Independent. Now a freelance journalist based in East Africa, his columns appear on RT, Sputnik, Strategic Culture Foundation and Press TV.
© Jim Young
Ever since armed white ranchers took over federal property in Oregon the unfolding drama has resembled a parody of a Hollywood Western. Trouble is, no-one is quite sure who’s wearing the white hats as opposed to the black ones.

Then, among the squabbling commotion over land rights, along comes a native American tribe to remind everyone of a much bigger perspective: If anyone deserves ownership of the disputed prairie it is surely the people who roamed it 15,000 years ago before the white man even set foot on the North American continent.

When the Paiute Indians entered the fray with their claim, it had the effect of stunning the protagonists with its truthful impact. The US media generally appeared to ignore the historical larger picture, as if the reality was too hot to handle.

The New York Times admittedly reported the natives’ grievance as a main story on one of its inside pages, with the headline: “Paiute Indians Assert Legacy on Occupied Wildlife Refuge Land”. But the way the Times presented the story was curious. Despite the headline, the Indian viewpoint was buried in the bottom half of the article, with the top half giving prominence to the views of the local white community on the stand-off between the armed ranchers and the federal authorities.

But let’s rewind “the movie” a bit. When the Bundy boys first rode into the small town of Burns, Oregon, they proceeded to forcibly take over a federal government-owned wildlife sanctuary. Ammon Bundy and brother Ryan have been holed up now for more than three weeks on the federal reserve. Dozens of other ranchers toting assault rifles have joined them in their siege.

The ranchers say that “big government” in Washington has for years confiscated too much land across the Western states of Oregon, Nevada, Colorado and Arizona, among others. They say their livelihoods are at risk because of the restricted land use. As a result, it is claimed, they are making a stand against a “tyrannical” federal government and “defending the US constitution”.

This is not the first time the ranchers’ grievances have gone up against the state. In 2014, the Bundy boys’ father, Cliven, gained national notoriety for leading an armed standoff against federal agents in the state of Nevada over a cattle grazing row. Famously, he forced the feds to back down and hence became something of a folklore hero for many Americans who feel the government in Washington has become a behemoth trampling on their “constitutional rights”.

This is where the story takes a sinister twist. The Bundys and the ranchers have become a rallying point for far-right militias who see practically every action on behalf of the government as a “communist plot”. Typically, the militias are also big advocates of gun rights and view any attempt by the Obama administration to curb firearms as a conspiracy to disarm the population in order to extend its “tyranny” against them.

Another noxious aspect is the white ranchers have espoused repugnant racist views. When Cliven Bundy made his stand against the feds back in 2014, he also ranted in media interviews about how African-Americans would be better off picking cotton on slave plantations instead of parasiting off the state government through welfare handouts. Fox News and their right-wing pundits were obliged to disown Bundy at that point for going too far.

Nevertheless, the white ranchers and their land claims have remained a mobilizing issue for right-wing politicians and media in the US. Fox News has given the latest standoff in Oregon copious coverage in support of the Bundys and the other armed occupiers. Large sections of the Republican Party have also rallied to their cause.

There is more than a sneaking suspicion that the increasingly fascistic US right-wing is using the Oregon siege as a gambit which is tantamount to a call for armed revolt against the Obama administration. Listening to the Republican Party presidential debates led by arch-reactionaries Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, it is clear that the American right has become ever more extreme to the point of embracing fascism.

The way that the Oregon ranchers are being lionized in the right-wing American media has the hallmarks of veiled treason against the elected government in Washington.

That is probably why the federal authorities have stood back from the siege at the Oregon wildlife sanctuary. Mindful of a Waco-style shootout, Washington doesn’t want a violent showdown which could inflame anti-government sentiments, giving the secessionist current even more momentum.

Double standards regarding race?

The indulgence of the federal authorities towards what is an armed trespass of government property, including destruction, has in turn prompted wider grievances. The Muslim, Latino and Black communities have rightly pointed out that if the occupiers were non-white, then the FBI and military Special Forces would have raided the compound within days, very probably with lethal consequences for the occupiers.

The egregious double standard is further underlined by the local community in Burns saying that they don’t want the militia coming to their area. Schools have been shut out of fear of impending violence and children have reportedly been living in terror as a direct result of the ranchers’ occupation. The legal definition of the occupation falls very close to that of terrorism – but because it’s carried out by a bunch of white folks, then the law enforcement agencies effectively turn a blind eye.

The story is germane to how American politics, generally, has become something of surreal parody. Riven with contradictions, double standards, sentimentalism and hypocrisy bereft of any historical perspective.

The white ranchers are oblivious to the fact that they acquired their homesteads by exterminating native Americans. The ranchers have also got rich over decades from receiving government subsidies to support their cattle farming. Cliven Bundy is reckoned to owe over $1 million in unpaid grazing fees to the Bureau of Land Management. So much for his tirade against Black welfare queens.

As for the Washington government. Yes, it is a tyranny. But not in the way that the ranchers would see it. The annual federal expenditure of $600 billion on military budget while a fraction is spent on health, education and social infrastructure is a sure sign of an oppressive bureaucracy that is indeed way out of control. But taking up arms against this monstrosity by racists, white supremacists and fascists who denounce Washington and its war criminals as “communists” is not the answer either.

The United States has lost its way, politically and intellectually. Grievances and disillusionment are mounting among disparate groups. However, few seem to understand who or what is the “enemy of the people”.

Maybe that is because from its very origins the US has been doomed to live in denial. The modern state has been built on genocide of the native people – a genocide that is still barely acknowledged. And let’s not forget the genocide by white Anglo-American corporate capitalism continues in the form of ongoing dispossession of native people by Washington-endorsed mining companies in Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico; it continues in the form of overseas wars for regime change in the Middle East, Africa and Eurasia.

American consciousness of their system’s diabolical, destructive nature has been all but obliterated. Democracy has been projected on to a fictitious screen of good guy and bad guys. The people watch as impotent spectators, no longer even aware of the real story out there.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.