A Swim in Denial

What we can't think about and how it shapes us.

The Scapegoat Cure

The Free Man strikes a blow for self-esteem

We should be grateful for Cliven Bundy—Hold it! don’t press that delete key yet.

 

Bundy, you recall, is the Montana rancher who’s become a celebrity for defying the US Government.  For years he grazed his cows on public property and refused to pay the usual fees.  Two courts have ordered him to stop munching public property and pay up.  Instead he rounded up some “militia” gunslingers who threaten to kill anyone who tries to enforce the law. It's the plot of "The Magnificent Seven." Or if you prefer sushi, Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai."

 

Here’s what’s interesting. After a week of Fox lionizing Cliven (rhymes with "enliven") as a champion of “conservative” freedom, he got carried away wondering about “the Negroes.” 

 

<<And because they were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do?" he asked. "They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I've often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn't get no more freedom. They got less freedom.>>

 

This faked out some TV hosts and big political donors. Not many people have a kind word for slavery anymore. Politicians denounced him, talkshow cowboys swore they’d never heard of him. Etc. Nobody praised him for having the courage to say out loud what anti-tax folks and others have been thinking: Don’t let Gubmint give no money of mine to them “Negroes.” 

 

After all, that’s what the hysterical attacks on Obamacare and food stamps have been about, not to mention the 8-hour lines to vote in minority Florida, the voter ID fraud, and the recent Supreme Court doublespeak. It was a gust of fresh air. This gun says a free man can't be forced to share. 

 

Okay, sure. Gubmint has its flaws, and so do the poor. Even Enron and Wall Street have a blemish or two. And yes, Bundy conservatives understand the evils of slavery, since they’re forced to pay fees for using other people's public property. And slavery, as Orlando Patterson reminds us, is social death since slaves have no legal identity—you can own them, beat them, and work them like mules. Slaves are stripped of their rights, just like the Koch brothers and Tom Perkins.

 

But here’s the crucial insight.  I'm betting Cliven is ambivalent. He loves the spotlight and fawning hero-worship.  He loves cheating the Government like any ordinary rich tax evader, and enjoys having armed strangers hanging out in his bunkhouse to defend him. But in the back of his mind he knows he’s been cheating, breaking the law, and that many Americans regard him as a petty chiseler and a scofflaw blowhard potentially in big trouble. The man is demonstrating what people do when they can’t live with their injured self-esteem. They point a finger at worse offenders. Perhaps he genuinely believes that he's only freeloading because those freeloading lowlife "Negroes" made him do it. Either way, it soothes injured self-esteem.

 

Like the genuinely selfish rich, with their offshore tax dodges, Cliven needs to scapegoat someone below—someone at the bottom—to justify himself.  And of course he's not the only one. You threaten to kill law officers and you feel like a million dollars—ten feet tall, a conservative hero. But if you have doubts in the middle of the night, you need lazy scum to prove that they and the law are worse than you are. Now that he's disgraced, Cliven's like the Supreme Court, protesting that he's just "wondering" about racism and slavery, not actually lynching anybody. As a rancher, naturally, he has a website. And his website, naturally, assures us he's really a nice guy. Self-esteem—don't leave home without it.

Cliven's a wronged man, out in the cold, shivering with the hot TV lights turned off.

 

 

Kirby Farrell, Ph.D.'s most recent book is Berserk Style in American Culture.

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