[Marxism] Shadowlands: Fear and Freedom at the Oregon Standoff—A Western Tale of ,America in Crisis

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Dec 1 12:52:15 MST 2019


NY Review of Books, DECEMBER 19, 2019 ISSUE
Another Great Yesterday
Adam Hochschild

Shadowlands: Fear and Freedom at the Oregon Standoff—A Western Tale of
America in Crisis
by Anthony McCann
Bloomsbury, 423 pp., $30.00

No Man’s Land
a PBS Independent Lens documentary film directed by David Byars

The late Ryszard Kapuściński coined a striking term to describe those 
susceptible to demagoguery. They were believers, he said, in the Great 
Yesterday. In the last few years we’ve seen inflammatory strongmen, from 
Viktor Orbán to Narendra Modi to Donald Trump, evoking visions of Great 
Yesterdays, from a Greater Hungary to an India without Muslims to an 
America without immigrants of color. Besides their shaky connection with 
actual history, such Great Yesterdays have several features in common. 
One, hinted if not spelled out, is that everyone who enjoyed that golden 
era in the past was of the same ethnicity or religion. Another is that 
the Great Yesterday was destroyed by malevolent outsiders. And finally, 
in traversing the arduous path toward its restoration, the faithful are 
enduring a martyrdom that will be rewarded.

All these elements were part of the Oregon standoff in early 2016, when 
a small group of militants bristling with semi-automatic rifles occupied 
the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Harney 
County, Oregon, and for forty days defied the federal government to 
evict them. The leaders included the brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy, two 
sons of a Nevada ranching family that two years earlier had staged an 
armed confrontation with the authorities over their father Cliven’s 
refusal to pay fees for grazing his cattle on federal land. They had 
other grievances as well, but the most fervent belief of the Bundys and 
their followers was that the federal government has no constitutional 
right to own vast tracts of land, as it does throughout the Far West. 
Instead, the land should be given to the states, which would surely turn 
it over to deserving, cowboy-booted folk like themselves. The Great 
Yesterday thus restored would be the homestead era, when hardy pioneers 
tamed the arid countryside and hardy prospectors staked claims, all 
without interference from far-off Washington, D.C.

Anthony McCann is a poet, and Shadowlands, his first nonfiction book, is 
the most substantial account to date of the Oregon standoff. It’s a 
curious mix of lyricism and trenchant portrayals of the occupation and 
the trials that followed, along with abundant meditation—sometimes 
intriguing, sometimes overly convoluted—on what it all means. He 
assumes, though, that readers already know the basic story. After 
gradually introducing a huge array of participants and observers, he 
gives no reminders of who they are when we meet them later, and provides 
no index, timeline, or cast-of-characters list to help us keep track of 
them. Near the end of the book, for instance, the patriarch Cliven 
Bundy, who did not take part in the standoff, is with much ado released 
from jail, but you have to go riffling back nearly two hundred pages to 
be reminded why he was there in the first place.

David Byars’s PBS film, No Man’s Land, also covers the standoff, but in 
a bare-bones style that is the opposite of McCann’s quirky commentary. 
Nonetheless, it’s an interesting visual counterpart to the book, for it 
includes a number of the scenes McCann writes about. Byars’s camera work 
gives you a sense of these determined true believers stalking about in 
pistol belts and leather vests in their snowbound citadel.

The Oregon standoff caught the public imagination because, in a country 
where tens of millions of people blame sinister bureaucrats in 
Washington for all their problems, here were bold rebels who seized an 
actual piece of federal property. No matter that it was a few low 
buildings in a place hardly anyone had heard of, whose name might be 
translated as the Bad Luck Refuge. And no matter that the Bundy brothers 
had no long-range plan, no specific demands. They were not political 
organizers but producers of political theater.

The theater was effective because it evoked other occupations, from the 
Native American takeover of the Wounded Knee battle site in 1973 to the 
seizure of Massachusetts courthouses by disgruntled Revolutionary War 
veterans in Shays’ Rebellion of 1786–1787. The Malheur occupiers 
frequently flew the rattlesnake “Don’t Tread on Me” flag of that earlier 
era. The film shows one supporter in a pickup truck flying the 
Confederate flag, and one of the occupiers told McCann he felt akin to 
the Bonus Marchers, World War I veterans who converged on Washington in 
1932 during the Depression to demand early payment of their wartime bonuses.

The Bundys and their allies were masters of media, staging daily 11 AM 
press conferences and knowing the value of doing so in cowboy hats. 
There was a high ratio of journalists to occupiers, and Byars often 
trains his eye on the over-the-shoulder TV cameras, boom microphones, 
and floodlights on hand. Whenever Ammon Bundy speaks—whether at a press 
conference or elsewhere—dozens of reporters and fellow occupiers 
brandish notebooks, cell phones, tablets, and other devices to record 
every word. You can hear spasms of shutters clicking. For the media, the 
standoff was catnip: covering such a spectacle was vastly easier than 
covering the complex social tensions behind it. “His head is held at a 
slight, sad puppy-dog tilt,” McCann writes of Ammon.

There is no Limbaugh-like apoplexy, no snide Breitbart affect here. 
Ammon is a different figure of masculinity—a right-wing version of the 
sensitive man. His public face is a pure stream of real-time 
concern…delivering his payload of sincerity each and every time. Few, 
even among his worst enemies, have ever doubted that Ammon Bundy mostly 
means what he says, but the full power of Ammon’s direct address comes 
from his ability to make it clear, again and again, just how much he 
really means it.

Bundy was also skilled at reaching across the political spectrum by 
quoting Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks about the duty to defy 
governmental power.

Among the growing number of occupiers, incidentally, were at least nine 
FBI informants, one of whom gave the Bundyites rifle training. 
Unfortunately, Byars’s film, with its cinema verité style, doesn’t tell 
us if the man we see giving live-fire instruction is that agent. Other 
characters also showed up at Malheur and appear in the book or film or 
both: a heavily bearded supporter who had grown up Amish and delivered 
most of his eleven children; a man dressed as George Washington, in full 
blue and gold with brass buttons and lace cuffs, who stayed in 
character; a pipefitter who rode up one day carrying an American flag, 
described by McCann as “a one-man float in the daily parade of the Bundy 
Revolution…a kind of color guard for the leaders, accompanying them on 
horseback”; a mother-and-kids group of gospel singers, perhaps evoking a 
Great Yesterday when women and children knew their place; and an 
ex-Mormon turned messianic mystic, blowing a long, curling shofar 
“direct from Israel—blessed by a rabbi.”

There were several ironies in the Oregon standoff. The first was that if 
anyone had a claim against the federal government’s possession of land, 
it was not the ranchers with their pickups and string ties but Native 
Americans whose ancestors lived in this region for thousands of years. 
Understandably, they had no sympathy for the occupiers, despite hazy 
appeals from the Bundyites that the federal government was their common 
enemy. The Native Americans McCann talked to saw the occupation as “a 
kind of ceremonial land grab, a historical reenactment of white settlement.”

Most other people in Harney County were also unenthusiastic. Years-long 
negotiations had led to an unusual degree of consensus among the groups 
often at loggerheads elsewhere in the West: Native Americans on a nearby 
reservation, residents of the county’s small towns, cattle ranchers, and 
the officials running the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Byars’s film 
shows locals angrily speaking out against the armed occupation at a 
community meeting. “I should not have to be scared in my own hometown,” 
says a fifteen-year-old girl in tears. On the highway leading to the 
refuge, townspeople hold up signs saying “Militia Go Home.” This was 
surely not the response the Bundys expected.

Although the occupiers displayed many “Ranchers’ Lives Matter” signs, 
few actually were ranchers. Clearly none of the dozens of militia 
members with bullet-proof vests, walkie-talkies, camouflage pants, and 
what McCann calls the “Blackwater strut” who flocked to Malheur to join 
the Bundys and live on the abundant food donated by their sympathizers 
had any worries about cattle they were leaving back home for weeks. The 
charismatic Ammon Bundy came from a ranching family, but for years had 
run a truck-fleet maintenance company—with the help, incidentally, of a 
$530,000 loan from the Small Business Administration of the federal 
government he so despised.

According to McCann, the occupation leadership included only one bona 
fide rancher, fifty-four-year-old LaVoy Finicum, who wore a revolver and 
“fringed and silver-studded leather chaps.” His face was “polished by 
wind and sun, its skin always seemed pulled a little extra taut around 
the hard insistence of his skull, as if expressive of the ideological 
intensity of this otherwise genial and welcoming devout Mormon cowboy.”

An occupier at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, January 2016
Alex Milan Tracy/AP Images
An occupier at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, January 2016
Finicum would become the standoff’s one fatality. Some three weeks into 
the occupation, needing something to revive fading media attention, he, 
the Bundy brothers, and a number of others left the refuge for a meeting 
in an adjacent county that had a sympathetic sheriff. With warrants out 
for their arrest, this rash foray was clearly inviting a confrontation. 
On a deserted stretch of highway, FBI agents and the Oregon State Police 
stopped the convoy and made arrests, but Finicum yelled, “You want to 
shoot me, you shoot me!” He then zoomed away, only to run into a 
roadblock a mile later. After veering into a snowbank and getting out of 
his pickup, he shouted again, “Go ahead and shoot me!” And that is what 
they did—either as an act of trigger-happy madness, his allies and some 
critics declare, or, as state police officers maintain, because he was 
reaching for his own loaded pistol. As with everything about the 
standoff, it’s all on video, which you can see in No Man’s Land, but the 
footage can be interpreted either way. In any case, the Bundyites now 
had the martyr that every crusade for a Great Yesterday needs, and the 
site of Finicum’s death was marked with crosses and American flags.

Finally, the greatest irony is this: If the Bundys’ dream were 
fulfilled, and the bulk of federal land were turned over to the states, 
who would end up with it? The states would almost certainly sell it to 
the highest bidders—and they would not be small ranchers and lone 
miners. They would be large corporations. This is what happens when 
western land is for sale. For example, Farris and Dan Wilks, brothers 
who made a $3.5 billion fortune in the fracking and oil-field service 
business, have bought more than 700,000 acres of land, mostly in Idaho 
and Montana, for their Texas-based real estate company.1 The even richer 
Koch family owns some 460,000 acres of western ranchland. Not 
surprisingly, the Kochs’ powerful lobbying network has long supported 
the push for western land privatization; for them, a movement whose face 
is rugged-looking small ranchers provides useful cover. The Wilks family 
donated $15 million to the PAC of Texas senator Ted Cruz, an evangelist 
for the same cause.

“In all the hours I have spent listening to Ammon Bundy,” writes McCann,

I have personally never once heard him utter the word corporation. His 
Reaganesque worldview seemed only to accommodate the existence of the 
People…on one side, and the bureaucrats of the wicked, overreaching 
federal government on the other.

There are no huge corporate ranches or mining conglomerates in the 
Bundys’ imagined Great Yesterday. “The militants,” says the journalist 
Hal Herring2 of High Country News, whose thoughtful comments thread 
through No Man’s Land, “saw a fantastical golden age of the cowboy, when 
men were men and justice was served and cows went to Abilene and were 
paid off in gold.”

McCann is an eccentric guide to the Malheur saga. A passionate lover of 
the far western landscape, he never misses a chance to describe it, 
sometimes for a page or more at a time, even if it’s the Mojave Desert 
in Southern California, which he drives through on one of his many trips 
to Oregon. He wanders to yet another state to evoke the part of Nevada 
where the Bundy ranch is, with

its roaring wind and silence, its gas-flame blue sky, and its 
otherworldly landscape of jagged, alien-looking plant life and brooding 
stone. These are…natural homelands of revelation, ready-made for the 
slow cooking of heretical doctrine.

Another detour begins, “How have I written most of an entire book about 
people taking over a bird refuge and forgotten to talk about birds?” 
There is something both distracting and endearing about such 
descriptions. He also makes long, rambling digressions about the 
Constitution, John Marshall, Thomas Jefferson, Bill Clinton’s best 
speeches, watching a solar eclipse, a conversation with a motorcyclist 
in Joshua Tree National Park, and much more, including Donald Trump (but 
we all digress about him).

If anything, McCann portrays the men and women with whom he spent so 
many hours a bit too generously, at times falling under their expertly 
stage-managed spell. “Even for someone like myself, who disagreed 
strongly with most of the ideology,” he confesses at one point, “it felt 
strangely thrilling to be around them.” Honest though he is in 
acknowledging it, this feeling leads him astray. He spends far too many 
pages elaborating the occupiers’ woolly “cowboy Ayn Randianism,” with 
its virtuous People and evil feds, its theological underpinnings (the 
Bundys are Mormons and in the film we often see the occupiers bowed in 
prayer), and its ardently trumpeted connection to the Constitution, 
which all the believers carry around in a pocket-sized edition with 
George Washington on the cover.

By contrast, McCann spends too little time exploring exactly what drew 
the Bundys and their many supporters, on the scene of the standoff and 
elsewhere, to this ideology. After all, people only become enchanted by 
a Great Yesterday when their today is not so great. One reason, surely, 
is that after a peak in 2014, cattle prices plunged over the next four 
years. Obviously that made small ranchers or would-be ranchers feel 
menaced by forces beyond their control.

In many other ways as well, tens of millions of people in rural America 
have lost ground economically. Jobs on farms, as elsewhere, are being 
lost to automation. Young people often leave for better prospects on the 
country’s coasts or in its cities: in the film, we see notably few men 
and women in their twenties or thirties either among the occupiers or 
the townspeople who oppose them. One symptom of the crisis in rural 
areas is the opioid epidemic. Another is that the mountain states of the 
Far West are the center of what public health officials call America’s 
Suicide Belt—and there is something distinctly suicidal about LaVoy 
Finicum’s cry of “Shoot me!”

In the face of all this despair, the standoff offered these middle-aged, 
often paunchy men a chance to flaunt the symbols of their 
masculinity—their AR-15 rifles, cowboy hats, and pistol belts—and the 
chance to hitch themselves to a glorious Great Yesterday. The federal 
government provides a convenient scapegoat for all ills, a point of view 
relentlessly promoted by the far right, with stunning success, ever 
since Ronald Reagan began giving speeches for General Electric in the 
1950s. The huge acreage evil Washington owns in the Far West further 
incites its opponents to portray it as pandering to migrating birds, 
tree huggers, city-slicker tourists in national parks, and endangered 
species—everybody except the hardworking farmer-rancher-logger 
descendants of pioneers that the Malheur occupiers imagined themselves 
to be.

Lost in the mythologizing is that corporate ranchers, oil drillers, and 
giant lumber and mining companies already exploit much of that federal 
land on very generous terms. And this will only increase as Trump puts 
wolves in charge of every sheep pen in sight. Of the newly appointed 
acting director of the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management, 
Koch-funded lawyer-activist William Perry Pendley, a Washington Post 
headline says it all: “Trump’s Pick for Managing Federal Lands Doesn’t 
Believe the Government Should Have Any.”

Even if someday there are no more federal lands to complain about, the 
powerful current of feeling that led to the Oregon standoff will be with 
us for decades to come. Nothing is going to easily eradicate the 
economic and social malaise that leads so many people in rural America 
to yearn for an imagined Great Yesterday.

The legal aftermath of the Oregon standoff was mixed. After the last 
occupiers surrendered to the FBI, twenty-six of them were indicted on a 
variety of charges. The charges against one were dismissed. Fourteen 
people took plea deals, and four were tried and convicted. They received 
sentences ranging from probation and a fine to thirty-seven months in 
prison. To the great rejoicing of their followers, however, the Bundy 
brothers and five others were found not guilty.

One of the last events described in Shadowlands took place when, after 
the Malheur occupation was over, Ammon Bundy was in prison, having been 
convicted on charges relating to the earlier standoff at his family’s 
Nevada ranch. He proved himself just as stubbornly defiant of federal 
authority as he had been when free. At one point, he was cruelly 
punished by being dragged into a shower stall and left there for 
thirteen hours with his hands tightly cuffed behind his back. With flags 
flying and the shofar still blowing, Bundy’s supporters carried on a 
protest at a roadside “Camp Liberty” they had set up outside the 
prison’s walls. To raise funds, and to underscore their hero’s 
martyrdom, two of them reenacted his Calvary in plywood reconstructions 
of the shower stall, painted prison gray, livestreaming to the world 
while attempting to last the thirteen hours in handcuffs that Bundy had 
suffered. It reminds you of reenactments of religious martyrdom around 
the world, whether Shia Muslims flailing themselves with chains or 
Catholic pageants about the crucifixion.

It’s possible that this same harsh punishment might have been meted out 
to Bundy in a federal prison—but this was not a federal prison. It was a 
profit-making one run by the notorious CoreCivic, which changed its name 
from the Corrections Corporation of America after its abusive prisons 
were the subject of a prize-winning 2016 exposé by Mother Jones reporter 
Shane Bauer, who worked undercover for several months in one of them as 
a guard. During the first few months of the Trump administration, the 
company’s stock price soared. Despite his many digressions, Anthony 
McCann fully recognizes the irony with which his story ends: the great 
prophet of privatization jailed in a private prison.

1
For this and much more such data, see Andy Kiersz, “The 20 Biggest 
Landowners in America,” Business Insider, April 16, 2019.  ↩

2
His “The Darkness at the Heart of Malheur,” High Country News, March 21, 
2016, is a fine overview of the occupation. ↩



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