We’re missing the point.
When the not-guilty verdict came down against the Bundy Brigade for their takeover of a federal wildlife sanctuary in Oregon, I was outraged. What gave these self-righteous yahoos the right to appropriate my land … and get away with it?
Yes, it is my land. As a taxpayer, I own that place, and so do you. It felt as if Ammon and Ryan Bundy and their cohorts had come into my living room, plopped themselves down on my sofa, grabbed a beer out of my refrigerator (well, I don’t actually have any beer in my ’fridge, but if I did …) and spent the next 41 days violating what’s supposed to be my space. Freedom of assembly, my ass.
But, as it turns out, a lot of people were upset at the decision for a different reason. The jury had just condoned what prosecutors described as an armed seizure of property that didn’t belong to them. They’d disrupted a wildlife refuge, which is supposed to be there to protect wildlife from guys like these – goons with guns who don’t have the decency to respect other people’s (or animals’) rights.
Much of the hue and cry on social media, however, wasn’t over any of this. It was over how the Bundy Bunch had gotten off because of perceived white privilege.
There’s no doubt that deep racial inequities exist in this country, that those inequities have been reflected in court decisions, and that people have been guilty of grave – sometimes fatal – in justices as a result.
But I’ll reiterate: that’s not the point here. This case wasn’t about race. It wasn’t about someone being pulled over for “driving while black” and being beaten senseless without provocation. It wasn’t about a young man being shot for wearing a hoodie and having the audacity to purchase a bag of Skittles at a convenience store.
Those cases do have something in common with the Bundy Bunch’s outrageous acquittal, but that something isn’t race.
And that’s the point.
Glorifying the inglorious
To focus on the Bundy case as an example of white privilege is to miss the fundamental issue at play here – an issue that is ultimately more dangerous to our society than any racial divide: the tolerance for, and perversely romanticized celebration of bullying.
Like racism, this isn’t anything new.
Our culture has long been fascinated with outlaws, from the Dalton Gang to Jesse James. Los Angeles Times reporters Courtney Sherwood and Kirk Johnson wrote of the Bundy occupation: “It had a Wild West quality, with armed men in cowboy hats taking on federal agents …”
Romantic? Tell that to the people those Wild West outlaws gunned down, whose property they stole, whose rights they trampled on. There is a law west of the Pecos these days, and there’s a reason for that: The alternative is chaos.
We love it when people “stick it to the man,” even if those people lack the most basic sense of morality or decency; even if they would turn against us at the drop of a cowboy hat if it suited their own self-interest. If we think Jesse James robbed trains and stagecoaches to “stick it to the man,” we’re deluding ourselves. He did it to take something that belonged to someone else by force. That’s what bullies always do.
One of our presidential candidates is a vainglorious bully who has bragged about his ability to sexually assault women and threatened to throw his opponent in jail. Kissing women without permission. Grabbing their genitalia. All because he was a star and could do whatever the hell he wanted.
The other candidate, meanwhile, has dismissed and demeaned women who accused her own husband of sexual abuse, calling their charges a “bimbo eruption.” She said that, if given the chance, she’d “crucify” one of those accusers in front of a jury and that, regarding another, “We have to destroy her story.” Too bad for her that a stained blue dress told the kind of story that didn’t come out in the wash.
Two bullies, nominated by we the people. This is the problem, America, and it goes far deeper than racism, as entrenched and ugly as that most certainly is. It goes to the core of who we are: a people who, on the one hand, celebrate our heritage as a “nation of laws” built on a Constitution and who, on the other, cheer on and glorify those who flout those laws and that Constitution when we happen to be pissed off.
Forcing our issues
Again, this is not a matter of race. It’s a matter of using force, rather than dialogue, to resolve our differences. To take what we believe “belongs to us” without regard to anyone else’s rights.
In November 2015, Black Lives Matter protesters entered the Dartmouth College library, and started shouting things like “Fuck you, you filthy white fucks” and “Fuck you, you racists” to the students trying to study there. According to the Dartmouth Review, protesters shoved people around and even pinned one woman against a wall, calling her a “filthy white bitch.”
Is racism a legitimate grievance? Of course it is. But the Bundy Brigade thought they had a legitimate grievance, too – the point being that, no matter how righteous you think your cause might be, it doesn’t justify you taking something that belongs to someone else, whether that something be property, self-respect, equal opportunity or merely the right to live in peace. If you do that, you’re not an activist, you’re a bully, regardless of your gender, the color of your skin, your sexual orientation or your country of birth.
We don't choose things like race, gender, orientation or birthplace. They are what they are, and no one should be condemned because of them. But we do have a say over our own actions – and whom we glorify as our heroes/role models. Jesse James? The Bundy Brigade? People who push others around in college libraries? Politicians who think they can just “take what they want” or intimidate/shame their victims into shutting the hell up?
Is our country truly a nation of laws that respects civil rights and champions human dignity? Or are we just a nation of pissed-off crybabies who want what we want when we want it, and to hell with everyone else? A collection of bad neighbors who shout across the fence at one another and plot home invasions if we think that fence was placed a few inches on the wrong side of the property line? A motley crew of landlocked petty pirates – of bullies and their enablers?
These are the questions we must ask ourselves, and our futures depend on how we choose to answer them. Starting now.