Of Fox and the Cattle
APRIL 25, 2014
So, what have we learned from the Crazy Rancher Guy saga?
You have undoubtedly heard about Cliven Bundy of Nevada, who refuses to pay federal grazing fees for, um, grazing his cattle on federal land. When government agents, acting on a court order, tried to remove Bundy’s cows, they were met by armed resisters. The agents wisely withdrew rather than risk bloodshed, and the resisters declared victory.
This was Bundy’s happy time. He was a star on Fox News, where his new friend Sean Hannity asked him probing questions like:
“How far are you willing to go?”
“How far are you willing to take this?”
“What would happen if they came in the early morning hours one day to your ranch?”
Bundy’s job was to say things like: “Just come on! We’ll take you on!”
A careful listener might have deduced that this was not the sharpest hoof in the herd.
But he was the man of the moment. A Fox News correspondent announced Bundy was “a folk hero.” Senator Dean Heller of Nevada called for hearings on the behavior of the federal agents. A congressman from Arizona drove to the ranch to pay tribute.
When he wasn’t on Fox, Bundy was bloviating before admirers who gathered in front of his ranch to hear his words of wisdom on topics ranging from government overreach to abortion. Also race relations, a subject Bundy apparently had studied by driving past a housing project in North Las Vegas. Earlier this week, The Times’s Adam Nagourney quoted the rancher theorizing that African-Americans were ruined by government subsidies and might be “better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life.”
With that, the Bundy bandwagon crashed so decisively that we barely had time to contemplate the fact that this screed about subsidies was coming from a guy who had used up $1 million in public grazing time without paying a dime.
Politicians fled. Sean Hannity severed his ties (“repugnant ... deplorable”) and then moved on to a bizarre revision of his own history with the story. All of Hannity’s interviews with Bundy, it turns out, were “not about a man named Cliven Bundy” but about “a federal agency’s dangerous response to a situation that could have resulted in a catastrophe.” Also, Hannity had been interested in the ranch standoff only because of its relation to “similar issues” like the Internal Revenue Service, Benghazi and, of course, Obamacare.
To be fair, I don’t think Hannity had any idea about Bundy’s racial theories. However, it’s generally a good idea to be wary of lionizing people who go around saying: “I don’t recognize the United States government as even existing.”
Anyhow, Cliven was toast, although he did make an appearance on CNN, in which he explained that his racist remarks were all about — yes! — freedom. In this case, the “freedom to say what we want. If I call — if I say ‘negro’ or ‘black boy’ or ‘slave,’ I’m — if those people cannot take those kind of words and not be offensive, then Martin Luther King hasn’t got his job done yet.”
People, we have got to do something to protect the word “freedom.” It used to be our best word, and lately it’s turning into something you have to approach with a certain wariness, like “bargain” or “fat-free.”
But what about Bundy’s cause? You wouldn’t have important politicians like Heller and the governor of Nevada and Senator Rand Paul expressing sympathy for people who pointed semiautomatic rifles at government agents unless there was something really serious at stake, right?
Let’s consider the actual issue, which was grazing fees. I know this is not something most of you grapple with on a day-to-day basis, but give me a second.
Ranchers are supposed to pay $1.35 a month for every steer — or cow and calf — they graze on federal lands. “Which doesn’t come close to covering what it’s worth, or what it would cost if they were grazing on private land or state lands. It doesn’t even cover the administration costs,” said Debra Donahue, a professor of law at the University of Wyoming and an expert in public land use.
I had an extremely interesting telephone discussion with Donahue, who believes that there shouldn’t be any cattle on federal lands, because the cows ruin the fragile soil and foul the water. “The single most effective thing we could do to help Western lands adapt to climate change would be to take the cattle out,” said Donahue. And, she added, the animals creating all these problems produce only about 2 percent of the nation’s beef.
This sounds like an important topic for further discussion. Let’s demand congressional hearings! Also rallies! Unlike Bundy’s, they’d have to be gun-free. So they wouldn’t be quite as dramatic, but we probably could get more actual people.
And when cowboys want to know why the public wants to kick them off their subsidized grazing space, we’ll say we got the idea from Sean Hannity.