[Marxism] Can the American West Be Saved

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Aug 25 11:35:20 MDT 2019

(I have my doubts about the first book under review but the second was 
written by a frequent CounterPunch contributor.)

NY Times Sunday Book Review, Aug. 25, 2019
Can the American West Be Saved
By Walter Kirn

Fear and Freedom at the Oregon Standoff
By Anthony McCann

How Cowboys, Capitalism, and Corruption Are Ruining the American West
By Christopher Ketcham

The January 2016 armed occupation of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife 
Refuge was, to many who followed it on the news, a certain kind of 
anarchic spectacle that occurs periodically in the American West and all 
too often resolves itself in violence. Facing off across boundaries both 
physical and cultural were two familiar types of adversaries: 
self-styled patriots or constitutionalists obsessed with property 
rights, the Second Amendment and various other right-wing causes, and 
cadres of frustrated law enforcement officers from local, state and 
federal agencies.

The leader of the occupying force was Ammon Bundy, a Nevada rancher, who 
was by then a celebrated figure in Western militia circles thanks to 
what was perceived as his success during another standoff with the 
government at his family ranch near Las Vegas in 2014. Along with his 
father, Cliven, and a volunteer force of like-minded supporters, Bundy 
resisted a federal effort to take possession of his family’s livestock 
in return for over $1 million in unpaid grazing fees owed to the United 
States Bureau of Land Management. When the standoff ended — peacefully — 
the Bundys retained their cattle, the debt remained unpaid and Ammon was 
a hero to his ilk, as well as a social-media celebrity practiced at 
producing amateur videos arguing his cause. The Malheur occupation was 
his next act as a noble son of liberty, and when he put out a call for 
backup, a ragtag brigade of ticked-off freedom fighters braved the 
January cold and joined him at his lonely sagebrush outpost.

The Malheur occupation, which did climax in violence (LaVoy Finicum, an 
Arizona rancher, was killed at a roadblock by the Oregon State Police 
while reaching, they thought, for a firearm in his pocket), is the event 
at the center of “Shadowlands,” a strikingly empathetic nonfiction 
narrative by the poet Anthony McCann. The book is that rare beast these 
days — a chronicle of and a meditation on an intensely politicized 
affair that delves beneath merely partisan concerns to touch its 
subject’s absurd and tragic heart. As such, it’s a work of almost 
foolish courage, given the overwhelming rancor of our current social 
moment — not because it refuses to takes sides, but because the book 
sides with the people as a whole, with us, the puny, errant, bedeviled 
playthings of the all-American colossus.

McCann is not on a peace mission — far from it — or intent on defending 
cowboy libertarianism to contemporary progressive readers. His project 
is more ambitious. Scene by scene and act by act, in a range of literary 
registers that moves from the lyrical to the satirical, from 
theory-laced deconstruction to meat-and-potatoes reportage, he tells the 
tale of doomed, homemade rebellion against a force much larger than 
bureaucracy: the meaning-destroying, resource-gulping juggernaut of 
capitalist economics.

Ammon Bundy, McCann’s crackpot protagonist, is presented with a care 
that might offend some because he is not a conventionally sane thinker. 
He’s what some might call a gun nut, perhaps a racist and a 
postdoc-level conspiracy theorist whose apocalyptic cosmology is rooted, 
tortuously, in his lifelong Mormon faith and in a quite eccentric 
interpretation of constitutional law. His version of Mormonism, a 
religion notoriously susceptible to modification by freelance 
visionaries, tells him that nature belongs to people perhaps even more 
than it belongs to God. To graze cattle or horses on the land is, for 
Bundy, to possess its very essence, because the world was created for 
our use. To live in the story of Joseph Smith, the Mormon founder, was 
“to live in a certain theologized version of the American dream.” As for 
the Constitution, Bundy discerns in it something that he calls “the 
Beautiful Pattern,” a license for settlement and legal ownership that 
doesn’t merely tame the wilderness, it exalts and transfigures it, 
rendering it holy — conveniently forgetting the Native peoples for whom 
it was holy to begin with.

McCann is unsparing in his critique, in his mockery even, of Bundy’s 
rhetoric, but he also regards him as a figure of considerable charisma — 
a sort of leathery Bill Clinton or militant Will Rogers. His supple, 
expressive, emotive presence also happens to come across on YouTube, an 
instrument he plays like the Pied Piper. McCann makes a lot of this 
paradox, and should, for the strange suitability of primal charm to 
information-age technology is a fact we shall have to contend with for 
years to come, as Marshall McLuhan correctly prophesied. The other chief 
component of Bundy’s appeal lies not in himself, however, but in his 
audience, made up of many former soldiers, armed instruments of the 
national will. “It’s something forgotten by those of us who haven’t 
served in the military,” McCann writes of Bundy’s followers, “that this 
country is now full of men and women with long-term personal experience 
of contemporary guerrilla insurrections.”

The ingredients of tragedy — here you have them. A hero with powers he 
doesn’t wholly control, a citizenry with wounds not easily healed and a 
time that is fundamentally out of balance, both with nature and with its 
tools, the material products of its own intelligence. McCann is too 
literate and too farseeing to lay the blame for this predicament on any 
one party or ideology, but toward the end of his agonized narrative, 
after blood has been spilled in a temporary catharsis, he offers a 
bitter elegy for Ammon and Cliven’s desert uprising, as ridiculous, 
shameful and selfish as it was. Their nemesis, in McCann’s final 
analysis, was not the federal government at all, but the financial 
forces that have leveled small-scale American agriculture in general. 
The Bundys were “offering something kind of beautiful, a rural, 
community-oriented life, lived on and from and with the land,” but 
because this “something” could only be articulated in the language of 
private property, it was offered, McCann observes, “in the very terms 
that were its death.”

As it happens, there is another book this season that handles the 
subject of Western land use in a very different mode while dealing in 
part with the same events. Christopher Ketcham’s “This Land” is raw 
polemic, as blunt as “Shadowlands” is nuanced. Ketcham, an environmental 
reporter who’s spent a good deal of his adulthood roaming the mountains 
and deserts of the West, has little patience for the neo-frontiersmen 
that McCann so intimately describes. To him, their exploitative ranching 
practices, puffed-up patriotism and Christian-soldiering are 
irredeemable and ruinous — a greedy assault on our common natural 
heritage that deserves neither pity nor understanding, only fierce 
opposition and contempt. He’s a muckraking activist, Ketcham, not a 
poet, or at least not this time, in this book. The hour is too late, 
he’d have us know, and his brutally clear reporting supports his view.

“This Land” is a catalog of depredations wrought by grazers, drillers, 
miners, loggers and the holders of public office who abet them, 
betraying their duty to the public trust in favor of money and political 
power. The results of their cold and domineering policies are on display 
in every chapter and will likely fill most readers with disgust. 
Particularly grotesque are his accounts of government-sponsored 
extermination campaigns against the wolf, the coyote and other predators 
abhorred by Western cattlemen. We see them shot from airplanes, killed 
by traps and laid waste by poison. It’s an ugly spectacle, and Ketcham’s 
seething language doesn’t soften it. The evildoers, as he presents them, 
are monsters and idiots — sadists, practically — and his book is 
ultimately a call to arms against the Ammon Bundys of the world as well 
as the corporate and political forces that dwarf the Bundys in terms of 
wealth and influence.

If there is a problem with “This Land,” it’s that Ketcham is a true 
believer addressing other true believers in terms so strident, zealous 
and withering that not only does he seem unlikely to win converts for 
his ferociously anti-Mormon, anticapitalist, anti-ranching, anticarbon 
platform, he also risks driving off a number of his allies. “You’re the 
loathsome collaborationist of sweet intentions, elite pedigree, high 
education and general niceness,” he writes of those mainstream 
environmentalists who fail one or more of his many litmus tests for 
ideological acceptability. In this way, he resembles the Bundys, burning 
so hot with apocalyptic fire that onlookers may feel inclined to keep 
their distance rather than combust from mere proximity.

But while Ketcham’s screed and McCann’s poetic tragedy seem like 
superficial opposites, they communicate in their spiritual depths and 
there’s a benefit in reading them together, for the passions they 
channel have a common source: the American West and what has become of 
it. A story that’s ours to tell, and ours to change.

Walter Kirn is the author of many books, including “Blood Will Out: The 
True Story of a Murder, a Mystery and a Masquerade.”

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