Culleny: Racism’s newest face
The current saga of Cliven Bundy is instructive. It flips over (again) not only the flat rock of racism in our national character, but exposes it more specifically in the pseudo-patriotism of our political right.
To be fair to Bundy there’s an unedited version of his racial ramblings making Internet viral rounds that softens, slightly, the general tone of his remarks, but the underlying ignorance and festering racism of them still glares. Bundy is the latest concentrated dollop of the resentments and attitudes of a faction of white America that has lately preoccupied the media and which is playing havoc with our politics and making it impossible to function rationally as a people.
What has brought Bundy to notoriety is that Cliven doesn’t acknowledge the existence of the federal government. This thinking, in his mind, has made it legitimate to graze his cattle on “government” land without paying for those rights — a convenient argument, if nothing else. Other ranchers pay the relatively modest grazing fee ($1.35/acre as opposed to $16.80 on private land) without whining, which makes them automatically “sheeple” in the parlance of some. But his refusal to pay makes Bundy a “freeloader” in the parlance of others. One picks one parlance with care for maximum clout.
Bundy is like an doddering uncle who clings to ignorance as if it were a life preserver and is unapologetic for it because, hey, it’s keeping him alive.
“If I say ‘slave,’” Bundy says, “If those people cannot take those kinds of words and not be (offended), then Martin Luther King hasn’t got his job done yet. We need to get over this prejudice stuff.” — a statement that is triply self-serving: hiding behind a word (prejudice) while excusing it and blaming a man who died because of it. As rhetorical moves go it’s almost calisthenic.
What Bundy simply can’t see is that the offence is not in the word “slave” but in the ignorance exposed by his understanding of it:
“Cliven Bundy’s a-wondering about these people,” said Bundy, “Now I’m talking about the black community. I’m a-wondering ... Are they better off, are they happier than they was in the South in front of their homes with their chickens and their gardens and their children around them, and their man having something to do? Are they better off?”
Wikipedia puts it succinctly: “The treatment of slaves in the United States varied by time and place, but was generally brutal and degrading. Whipping, execution and sexual abuse including rape were common.”
So, the question of being better off is a question of one’s understanding — or ignorance — of “brutality and rape.” Which of these applies to Bundy is a matter for a shrink.
So forgive me if, while Cliven Bundy’s wondering about the relative better-offness of “black folk” idyllically enjoying their chickens and gardens and children while being the property of white owners who could, by law, rip apart their families, trample their gardens and slaughter their chickens (not to mention their very selves), I’m wondering how Cliven has so blithely, so ignorantly, so publicly, missed the point of slavery. Or, I’m wondering how something so obvious could bounce around in Bundy’s skull during his 67 years without being snagged once by his prefrontal cortex — his brain’s reasoning center — and wrung dry of its stupidity.
Actually there are studies showing that, “... ‘higher-order’ brain centers, such as the prefrontal cortex, don’t fully develop until young adulthood.” Considering the possibility that Bundy and his gun-waving posse may not yet have reached that level of sophistication, we could use a little hurry-up on their part.
Racism is one of the deeper polluted wells humans drink from — deep, ancient and thoroughly toxic, especially in the global system that has become our world. It’s counter-productive at best and ultimately destructive at worse. Yet so many of us return to it and suck it up without a thought of the harm it brings not just to those we hate, but to ourselves. Though there’s little truth or logic behind malign attitudes of race we go there the instant anyone pumps up fear. What better way to distract a constituency from real perpetrators than to blame “the other?”
Bob Dylan suggested we’re only a pawn in their game. Roshi Bob, guru, says, “If you want to rule the world, pit the poor against the poor,” which is advice the power elite still practice big time. But swap-out that last part with “... pit race against race”, add it to the first, and you have the complete MO of that same bunch — and they know how to use the Cliven Bundys of the world to make life most profitable for themselves and miserable for everyone else.
Culleny lives in Shelburne Falls, works in construction, is a singer/songwriter, and has done commentary for National Public Radio. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.