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Davis Merritt: What should we learn from Bundy’s fame?

  • Published Tuesday, April 29, 2014, at 12 a.m.

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His 2 1/2 minutes of fame at least temporarily in suspension, Cliven Bundy has quietly gone back to stealing from American taxpayers.

The Nevada rancher, who with a few armed friends stood off the United States of America in what some call the Battle of Bunkerville, can, for the nonce, rest easy.

But the rest of us should not. We should think very hard about the implications of the various – and quickly shifting – reactions in the days after April 12. That’s when Bureau of Land Management workers rounding up the 900 Bundy-owned cattle that had been grazing illegally on public land were faced by members of the Bundy family and a gang of armed, self-appointed “militiamen.”

The BLM prudently backed off rather than engage in a firefight. It will take other paths to collecting the $1.1 million in grazing fees that Bundy has been refusing to pay for 20 years, unlike some 20,000 other ranchers who pay to use public land for pasture.

It wasn’t exactly Bunker Hill or Valley Forge, but you couldn’t tell that from the gleeful and laudatory reaction by legions of federal-phobic pundits and politicians who quickly turned Bundy into an Instagram composite of John Wayne and Patrick Henry.

His defense: “I don’t recognize the United States government as even existing.” That, of course, also doesn’t recognize that the U.S. government acquired much of what became Nevada from Mexico in 1848 and has owned it since.

Perhaps hypnotized by his sudden fame, Bundy foolishly began giving interviews and holding press conferences, and the world quickly discovered that the new darling of the anti-government crowd held some other unconventional opinions, including that African-Americans were better off as slaves than in today’s society.

Most of those who had made him an instant folk hero scrambled to back away when Bundy revealed himself as just another loony with more cattle than brains.

Presidential contender Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., various Fox News opinionators, even the Republican National Committee sought, often awkwardly, to condemn his racial views while continuing to support his scofflaw sentiments. It’s that bit of intellectual jujitsu and the rationale behind it that should concern reasonable Americans.

At the most basic level, we need to ask: If expressing racist sentiments is not acceptable, how can stealing a million dollars from American taxpayers be acceptable?

At a broader level, we need to ask: If we condemn racist expression because it implies the possibility of racist action, how can we condone blatant lawbreaking, which implies the possibility of anarchy?

The poison of racial prejudice was built up over many generations and will require many more to fully dissipate. But while too many American minds still harbor deep prejudice, expressing it has become, gradually, something guarded against if not totally eradicated. And America is a better place for that.

Unfortunately, we are in the second or third generation of increasing anti-government feelings that mirror the irrationality and animosity of the deepest racial prejudice of the past. Categorizing every government action as overreach or tyrannical is as intellectually lazy as categorizing every dark-skinned person as ignorant or dangerous. Willful blindness is willful blindness.

The nation paid a great price for harboring mindless racial prejudice so deeply for so long. Our democracy cannot afford generations of growing and mindless prejudice against the very thing that makes us a nation.

Davis Merritt, a Wichita journalist and author, can be reached at dmerritt9@cox.net.

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