A Hesitant Defense of Cliven Bundy

I’ve stayed away from the Bundy story until now. It seemed like the latest bit of 24-hour news sensationalism, and I still think it is. Even as I type these words I’m not exactly interested in the whole story. I don’t plan to do my homework and could care less what I’ve missed or what will show up later.

I only became interested in the story after the racial remarks Bundy made that were decried by every ideological color on my spectrum of social media. That was what caught my attention.

I read this piece by the New York Times, that distilled his remarks about, in his words, “the Negro.” In these remarks it is hard to understand what he is talking about, but he does wonder aloud about whether slavery was a more free condition when compared to the than the plight of Black America today, which, prima facie, may seem ridiculous to some people.

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Let me say two things about this:

1. Bundy’s subject position, as a white man, gives him very little to no credibility, but that does not change the fact that he is pursuing a line of reasoning that does have some precedent. It was Frederick Douglass who, with infinitely more credibility than Bundy, said “I denounce the so-called emancipation as a stupendous fraud” in 1888. It was Carter G. Woodson, founder of Negro History Week and Black History, who wrote, in The Miseducation of the Negro, what Robert Nesta Marley and Lauryn Hill would go on to echo as “mental slavery,” a psychological, spiritual, and structural form of lynching.

That Bundy should not to be leading the public conversation about race in America goes without saying, but taking his words as being intentionally racist would be, on my reading, a serious and grave mistake. I don’t think Bundy has much to say about Black America that we haven’t heard before, but the salient point is that, for those of us concerned about the mass incarceration of Black men and other forms of inequality that persist for people of color, this is nothing particularly new or even controversial. One might call it a rather odd blend of Leftist social critique, mixed with Right wing political theatre. The controversy is that he dared to speak in words that are not presently sanctioned in public discourse, and mostly for good reason.

2. There is the other racial group that Bundy spoke about. The Mexicans. You wouldn’t know that if you didn’t listen to the actual clip of his ramblings. (And, no, I don’t think it’s a big liberal media conspiracy; after all, both sides are ignoring it, and both sides just need the TV ratings.)

Watch it, here. It’s less than four minutes:

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If you don’t want to watch it, fine, at least read these remarks Bundy makes about Mexicans (and whites):

Don’t tell me they don’t work and don’t tell me they don’t pay taxes. And don’t tell me they don’t have better family structures than most of us white people. When you see those Mexican families, they’re together, they’re picnicking together, they’re spending their time together, and I’ll tell you, in my way of thinking, they’re awfully nice people.

Of course there is something patronizing about Bundy’s phrasing and his words are hardly polite or politic. Plus, he goes on, I think, to say that this is why Mexicans should be brought into the Republican Party, which might suggest racial favor toward “good minorities” (Mexicans) and bad ones, which reminds us of the “model minority” issues with Asian populations. But, all things considered, speaking as a Mexican, I can say that I smiled when I heard that part.

I’ve heard racism before, I’ve even heard it when it wasn’t spoken, but, to these brown ears, this just isn’t it. In fact, the affect I experienced from it was exactly the reverse.

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I don’t know what to think about Bundy’s politics. I haven’t read enough to begin to understand what the hell is going on over there. I find the wisps of anarchism, and of the USA being rooted in an anarchic ethos, very interesting. I find his GOP Republican Party FOXNEWS constitution-defending patriotism nauseating and cheapening. The media’s political field day and handwringing is predictable and we’ll surely forget about all of this very soon, but I must admit publicly that I cannot find fault with Bundy on the issue of race, in his own words I’ve shared, although I wouldn’t say that he is modeling an effective way to promote racial reconciliation and healing. At worst he sounds cavalier about slavery and uses antiquated terminology (had he used the N-word, this would be a totally different story!), but I think the full context and delivery show more nuance when seen in full.

That our groupthink society has bullied us into taking strong and stupid positions on issues we don’t really know anything about is, to me, a far more grave and sobering matter than the exploits of some crazy rancher in Nevada and his nut-job friends and opportunists. Guns are scary, and angry white folks brandishing them is particularly scary, but I am at least equally as scared of the unthinking assumptions and forced positions that are taken because of the fear that this sort of ideological mess engenders.

No, I don’t “stand with Cliven Bundy” or some nonsensical posturing like that, but I am willing to given everyone a fair chance to speak and be understood in terms of what they mean to say. Insofar as that’s the case, I will defend him as I would any other. Anything less than that seems nothing short of idiotic.

 


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