Uncivil Disobedience and the Opposite of Patriotism

Back when George W. Bush was president, liberals were regularly accused of being disloyal or anti-American if they disagreed with the policies the administration was undertaking. As Bush himself said, you were either with us or with the terrorists, and as far as many of his supporters were concerned, "us" meant the Bush administration and everything they wanted to do, including invading Iraq. You may have noticed that now that there's a Democrat in the White House, conservatives no longer find disagreeing with the government's policies to be anti-American; in fact, the truest patriotism is now supposedly found among those whose hatred of the president, and the government more generally, burns white-hot in the core of their souls.

We've gotten used to that over the last five years, but I've still been surprised at the conservative embrace of Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who has been in an argument with the Bureau of Land Management over grazing fees. Briefly: for 20 years Bundy has been taking his cattle to graze on federal land, but he refuses to pay grazing fees as the law demands and as other ranchers do, despite numerous court orders. So the BLM seized some of his cattle, and in the ensuing standoff, hundreds of armed right-wing nuts came to Bundy's defense, trooping out to aim their weapons at federal employees.

I'm sure there are some conservatives who view this conflict in the clear, simple terms it deserves. This guy wants to use resources that don't belong to him without paying for them, which is what we generally refer to as "stealing." The reason he thinks he can do it is, as he put it in a radio interview, "I don't recognize the United States government as even existing." In other words, he isn't standing up for principle, he's a nut case.

And yet, prominent conservatives are not only rushing to his defense, they're casting him as a patriotic American. Here's part of an absolutely incredible column from The National Review's Kevin Williamson:

Of course the law is against Cliven Bundy. How could it be otherwise? The law was against Mohandas Gandhi, too, when he was tried for sedition; Mr. Gandhi himself habitually was among the first to acknowledge that fact, refusing to offer a defense in his sedition case and arguing that the judge had no choice but to resign, in protest of the perfectly legal injustice unfolding in his courtroom, or to sentence him to the harshest sentence possible, there being no extenuating circumstances for Mr. Gandhi's intentional violation of the law. Henry David Thoreau was happy to spend his time in jail, knowing that the law was against him, whatever side justice was on.

Yes, you read that right: he compares Cliven Bundy to Gandhi. And he ends with this stirring call:

Prudential measures do not solve questions of principle. So where does that leave us with our judgment of the Nevada insurrection? Perhaps with an understanding that while Mr. Bundy's stand should not be construed as a general template for civic action, it is nonetheless the case that, in measured doses, a little sedition is an excellent thing.

Williamson's boss, NR editor Rich Lowry, also said that Bundy's actions are "within the finest American tradition of civil disobedience going back to Henry David Thoreau." Which just shows how little these people understand about civil disobedience, and about American traditions.

Civil disobedience means breaking a law, publicly and calmly, and then accepting the punishment the law provides, in order to draw attention to a law that is unjust and should be changed. The law Cliven Bundy is breaking says that if you graze your cattle on land owned by the federal government, you have to pay grazing fees. I haven't heard anyone articulate why that law is unjust. People are saying that the government owns too much land in Nevada, and maybe it does, but until the government sells it to you and you own it, you have to pay to use it. There isn't any fundamental question of human rights or even the reach of government in question here at all. Mr. Bundy also doesn't have the right to walk into the local BLM office and stuff all their staplers and pens into his knapsack and walk out.

Secondly, and just as important, there's nothing "civil" about Bundy's disobedience. If it was civil disobedience, he'd pay what he owes and then try, through the courts and public opinion, to change what he sees as these unjust grazing fees. But he hasn't done that. He just refused to pay, and then led a heavily-armed standoff with the government.

I'm sorry, but if you're defending Bundy, no matter how many times you toss the phrase "We the people" into what you say, you just have no clue about how democracy works. When you become a United States citizen, or when you take public office in America, you don't pledge to honor whatever particular notion you have of what this country ought to be. You pledge to uphold the Constitution. The whole point of democracy is, as John Adams put it, "a government of laws, not of men." The system embodies the will of the people and allows for change. When there's something about that system you don't like, you can't just shout "Tyranny!" and refuse to obey the laws. You work to change them through democratic means.

What Cliven Bundy and his supporters are doing is the opposite of patriotism. It isn't principled opposition to Barack Obama, or to the policies of the federal government; it's opposition to the American system of democracy itself. And the people who are defending him ought to be ashamed of themselves.

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