Published: Jan. 7, 2016

Original article can be found at The Economist  
Originally published on January 7, 2016 By Anonymous 

The Western roots and meaning of an anti-government stunt 

“UNCLE SAM is rich enough to give us all a farm.” So runs the refrain of a popular song of the mid-19th century, when America’s government began dispensing homesteads in the newly opening West. Sometimes, impatiently, the settlers took the land, or its resources, without permission: their families’ sweat and guts entitled them to, and there was more than enough to go round. This outlook combined fierce individualism and egalitarianism; as Patty Limerick, of the University of Colorado, puts it, the pioneers were at once advancing civilisation and rejecting it. 

That romanticised past is the backdrop of a seemingly eccentric stand-off that began on January 2nd when armed militiamen seized the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon. The pretext was the plight of two local ranchers, Dwight and Steven Hammond. Convicted for setting fires that ignited federal land and endangered firefighters, the pair were harshly resentenced and returned to prison after the government appealed against their original punishments. But the real issue is the land itself: specifically the fact that the federal government still controls so much of it in the West, including most of Idaho, Nevada, Oregon and Utah. 

For the occupiers, this territorial stranglehold unjustly restricts grazing, mining, logging and hunting; moreover, according to their quirky jurisprudence, it is unconstitutional (courts have tended to disagree). They want to force the feds out of the refuge—run by the US Fish & Wildlife Service—the county and ultimately the rest of the government’s Western holdings. In milder form, this cause is espoused by others: some western politicians also want territory to be transferred to the control of states, costly as that might prove for them. 

Before the mission, one of the crew, Jon Ritzheimer, released an almost-touching farewell video in which he vows to “die a free man”. Only almost, because, after all, the plan was to seize a nesting habitat for migratory birds in a remote, frigid desert. The mystique is further undercut by Mr Ritzheimer’s record of Muslim-baiting in his home state of Arizona. That points to another interpretation of such activism: less agrarian and romantic than a combustible form of anti-government extremism, fuelled by conspiracy theories and sharing ideological roots, and some personnel, with white supremacism. 

Both of these spread dramatically after Barack Obama’s election in 2008, says Ryan Lenz of the Southern Poverty Law Centre, an advocacy group. Antics such as those in Oregon may seem circus-like; but, says Tom Gorey of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM)—which, as the steward of much government land, is viewed by the zealots as an instrument of tyranny—they are “not funny by any stretch of the imagination” to the officials sometimes confronted by gun-toting fanatics. 

To some, the identity of the putschists’ leader, Ammon Bundy, suggests an even less grandiose motive: the desire to make a buck using public assets. Ammon is a son of Cliven Bundy, who in 2014 rallied militiamen to his ranch in Nevada after the BLM rounded up some of his cattle; he alienated some sympathisers by speculating that black people in America had been better off as slaves. The animals were grazing on public land; Mr Bundy had long refused to pay the (heavily subsidised) fees. 

On that occasion, with rifles trained on its officials, the BLM backed down. Critics think that capitulation was mistaken, though when paranoia and conspiracy-theorists are involved, it is hard to find an approach that does not either embolden them or—as in the siege at Waco, Texas in 1993—make them martyrs. So far the police and FBI have been patient in Oregon, too. 

Any private claim to personify the “We” in the constitution’s “We the people” is ominous. In the case of the Bundys and their sort, it is also spurious, and not only because locals in Oregon want to be rid of them. Other citizens—including, in an increasingly urban region, hikers and tourists—have claims to the public domain; so, for all the ranchers’ rage against environmentalists, do other species, such as, in Nevada, an imperilled tortoise. Clumsy as they can be, federal agencies can moderate these conflicts, and, indeed, save ranchers from themselves: part of their purpose has always been to prevent overgrazing. Gung-ho individualism is only compatible with egalitarianism, that old Western brew, when resources are infinite and the individuals are few. 

How the West has won 

Professions of divine guidance are similarly alarming: Ammon Bundy, whose family are Mormons, thinks he is doing “what the Lord asked me to”. And the idea that disputed lands should be “returned” to the people, as he maintains, is absurd. As John Faragher of Yale University says, they were conquered or acquired by the federal government in the first place, often from native Americans. Yet though these agitators may be crackpots, criminals, terrorists or all three—and only a handful are holed up in Oregon—it would be wrong entirely to dismiss them as unrepresentative. 

Through pulp novels, Buffalo Bill’s spectacles and the cinema, the ideal of the dauntless, self-reliant westerner quickly trickled east to inform the whole country’s self-perception. Likewise, these days, a conviction that America’s economy is rigged, distrust of the government and faith in the redemptive power of guns are hardly fringe opinions. The frontier may have shrunk, but rhetorically it is spreading. This is how the West has won.