With a straight face the news tells us that a Nevada rancher named Cliven Bundy (no relation to the serial killer Ted) has been grazing his herd on public lands for decades and refusing to pay the required fees. Now the government has moved to enforce a July 2013 court order requiring confiscation and sale of Bundy’s hoofers to pay the million bucks in fines he’s piled up by scoffing the law.
Then we’re told that members of several militia groups have joined the scofflaw at his ranch to “protect” him from the “tyranny” of having to pay his bill. And now two groups sponsored by the Koch brothers’ propaganda arm Americans For Prosperity have chimed in, helping “conservative” media stage a thrilling “sagebrush rebellion,” threatening another Waco or Ruby Ridge shootout.
The spectacle of tax-dodging billionaires supporting a fees-dodging rancher in order to spread top hog propaganda makes your lasso go limp. But it tells us a lot about the lawlessness and lunacy slopped into the media trough these days for Americans to eat.
Yes yes, I know, the billionaires are one of the main reasons the 99% of Americans are under financial stress. And yes, I agree, their money has caused epidemic mad cow disease in Washington and on some Nevada ranches as well. Changes in tax policy and labor law would directly fight that epidemic. While we hold our breath waiting for those changes, we should diagnose some of the really sinister brain damage.
For instance, propaganda vilifies “government.” But government is “the people,” and Cliven Bundy’s cows have been chewing up a public resource that actually belongs to you and me. And the billionaire Koch brothers want us to defend him.
Supposedly government “tyranny” is hassling Cliven Bundy. But without government, think what would happen if other freedom-loving ranchers wanted to chew on the same public resource. Would Cliven and his militia cowboys shoot them? That’s exactly what happened in the range wars of yesteryear. Listen to the rancher threaten to run amok on a recent rant radio show:
“I haven’t called no militia or anything like that, but hey it looks like that’s where we’re at.” He added, “We got a strong army here, we have to fight.” Previously Bundy told the Las Vegas Sun that “he keeps firearms at his ranch” and promised to “do whatever it takes” to defend his cattle being seized, adding, “I abide by almost zero federal laws.”
To “do whatever it takes.” That’s a do-or-die threat: berserk abandon. You’ll never take me alive, copper. It’s also the bluster of a parasite who’s been sponging off you and me, eating our lunch, as his billionaire benefactors insinuate that the freeloading lazy poor do. In today’s corrupt America you can legally pack a gun and threaten to blow away authority as long as you’re not Muslim or a black kid or a Commie.
And we’re not talking nickels and dimes here. The cattle baron Cliven Bundy owes you and me $1million in fines from 20 years of playing outlaw. You can buy a lot of medical care or school lunches or tuition for that kind of wampum.
The 19thC Gilded Age, as you know, was a period in which the west was full of sharp chisellers like Cliven Bundy and the Koch brothers. Back then they were scamming and jamming settlers when no sheriff was looking, and pushing General Custer to move stubborn Indians off tribal lands and, even better, off the face of the earth. City slicker finance was the octopus, the long arm of leverage that turned public language and laws inside out while keeping hungry farmers up to their ears in hock.
The mention of farmers is reminding me of the reality TV show called “The Amazing Dr Pol.” Each week on the NatGeo channel the camera follows around the bald-headed sixty-something veterinarian Jan Pol, who moved from Holland to rural Michigan when he was 18 and has been doctoring pets and farm animals ever since. Why should anyone notice this lightly scripted low-budget TV show?
Okay, for one thing, it feels homemade. It doesn’t have the hyperactive editing that gooses up TV documentaries to make them “interesting.” It lacks the usual smartass ironies that reassure you with a wink that none of this really matters. The upbeat doc and his husky fellow vet Dr Brenda, are unglamorous, hands-on problem-solvers. In a medium where everyone is sexy and nobody dies, these guys wrestle calves out of mum’s uterus, up to the armpit in cow. They neuter, treat hoof rot, pluck quills, cut ingested stones out of Rover, diagnose birds and a pet reptile. The camera occasionally blurs animal privates and gore to spare delicate suburban sensibilities, but otherwise there’s little euphemizing.
Whatever their TV income, as vets, the Pols seem to be square shooters. Details hint that the docs consider what a farm economy can afford, as opposed to some suburban veterinarians these days who crush your wallet without anaesthetic. The farms they visit remind you of the wholesome world of bare- handed work and the muck of bodily life. This isn’t corporate ag lobbying to make it a felony if you photograph their criminal mistreatment of the animals working for them. The everyday routine of birth and death reminds you with a shrug that of course we’re all trapped in clunky bodies struggling to stay alive—and by the way, get a load of that puppy’s charisma.
But I bet the world outside the idiot box is coloring the onscreen episodes. Every day the vets are relieving creaturely suffering in a world in which American billionaires and their hired tongues are trying to poison health care for poor bipeds who feel pain just like the horse whose eyes tell you he’ll never get up again. In the bigger picture, you’re watching individual people care for individual animals in a world in which human sprawl, government-hating poachers, and ignorant superstition about sharkfins and rhino horns are annihilating the last wild animals out there on the other side of the barbed wire fence. Didn’t I just read about Vietnamese patrols trying to intercept some of the rare wildlife shipped to restaurants in China?
In this light the stars of the Dr Pol episodes are the animals. Instead of exotic creatures in stunningly photographed nature documentaries, the animals are humdrum enough—like you and me—to be worth seeing up close and personal. It’s worth looking over the Doc’s shoulder at the mysteries of anatomy, or glimpse a neighbor’s face strained by concern for a critter in trouble, or redfaced tears at the news that Dobbin is suffering and has to be put down. Some of these moments are eerily real in a medium that constantly titillates you with pretentious death threats.
Still, even Doc Pol’s producers can’t resist playing to America’s adrenaline junkies with clips of his Jeep speeding to save a suffering heifer, and warnings that it’s an emergency, the patient could die. It’s heroic rescue of course, and much more addictive than the pot a client’s dog goofed out on in one Dr Pol episode.
Death threats are capitalism’s snake oil. If you work harder for less, the boss will save you; a pill will save you; a superhero will save you; a diet of turnips and string will save you. For $1million, Cliven Bundy will rescue his cattle from you and me; vigilante “militias” will save Cliven Bundy and his cows; the Koch brothers will save Cliven Bundy and his cows and the militias, and save you and me from Medicare, Obamacare, labor unions, and social security. Oh, and we’ll all be saved from immigrants like that Michigan Dutchman with his arm in the cow..
Good thing Dr Pol got in the door before the big money locked the barn.
Resources used in this essay:
Kirby Farrell, Berserk Style in American Culture
George Huppert, After the Black Death; A Social History of Modern Europe
Mary Midgley, Beast and Man
Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death
Oliver Willis, “Feds Turn From Landlords to Warlords: Koch Groups Back Rancher Making Violent Threats Against Federal Government,” Media Matters
(April 11, 2014)