One of the nice things about not having any kind of TV reception is that one misses out on the madness-of-the-moment kind of news stories that manage to eat up so much time in the twenty four hour news cycle. Thus, it wasn't until a couple days ago when a couple of the people in my news feed started going on-and-on about this Clive Bundy character and the stand-off that took place between his supporters and the Bureau of Land Management that I went and read up a bit about the whole thing.
The story itself appears to be one of these classic local versus national kind of conflicts. On the one hand we have local ranchers who have a way of life built around grazing cattle in this area. Bundy's family has apparently been grazing cattle on the land in question for the last 140 years, although they've never owned it. Twenty years ago, the Fed (who own the land in question) revoked or bought back grazing permits for the land because they wanted to keep cattle out of the habitat of a desert tortoise. Bundy and several other locals kept grazing their cattle there anyway, and things have been gradually escalating ever since.
It all frankly sounds pretty crazy to me. But then, you'd have to be just a bit crazy to be determined to make your living by grazing cattle in virtual desert. People who are sane by our modern societies standards go get office jobs and live in suburbs. We hear about tortoises on nature specials and see desert when we go hiking. And as someone who has lived in many houses and now resides more than a thousand miles from where I was born, the passion that someone might have about a way of life and area of land that one's family has been connected to for 140 years is pretty much impossible for me to imagine.
Earlier this month, the BLM decided to mount a million dollar operation to confiscate Bundy's trespassing cattle and sell them at auction. Bundy made a huge stink in the media that went national, and supporters came out of the woodwork to try to help him block the feds. The supporters were mostly of the anti-government crank type -- some of them members of "militias" and such. These aren't likable people, and Bundy himself has given some interviews that make it clear he's got some pretty loathesome views on issues such as race.
One of the things that has struck me is that the opinion pieces which originally brought the whole thing to my attention seem to fall into two camps. Sympathetic pieces described Bundy and his supporters as patriots holding off a tyrannical government which was out to crush people's occupations to help a reptile that probably didn't need helping. Those on the other side of the political spectrum have instead spilled a great deal of digital ink making it clear that Bundy and his supporters are not likable people.
It strikes me that both of these miss the point that it's not necessarily a good idea to crush people just because they're not likable. Who remembers this point is generally a matter of partisanship. Those of the left are often willing to call attention to the increasing militarization of police forces, and the left was similarly willing to be very protective of the rights of the Occupy movements -- despite the fact that by any reasonable societal yardstick the Occupy camps were pretty heavily populated by not-very-likable crazies. On the flip side, it was the political right which was willing to notice under the Clinton administration when confrontations between the federal government and crazy and unlikable people resulted in massively disproportionate violence in cases sush the Ruby Ridge and the Branch Davidians.
While the partisan trappings of these fracases tend to shed far more heat than light, and crazy and unlikable people (especially from the other side of the political spectrum) are... well, crazy and unlikable, it's important to remember that if we value liberty and decency the fact that people are kind of crazy and unlikable is not sufficient justification for society to take away their livelihood or their lives.
Thomas Aquinas on the Capital Vices
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