Thursday, January 14, 2016


In a remote snowy valley in Eastern Oregon, a figurative battle line has been drawn by a handful of American citizens who believe that America's government is eradicating the rights of America's people.

As happens whenever battle lines are drawn, people are lining up on either side for any number of reasons. The divide can be summarized in many ways (country boys vs. city slickers, individualists vs. collectivists, the rednecks vs. the refined, etc.) but at the end of the day, even though there is a major political component to this conflict, there is no denying that the divide is primarily a cultural one -- and there is no denying that the cultural divide on display in Oregon is a precise reflection of the one that is threatening to tear our country apart.

Plenty of people have done their version of commenting about what is happening in Oregon, by posting one-sentence opinions on Twitter and photo mock-ups on Facebook. Unfortunately, most of them have no knowledge -- I repeat, no knowledge -- about the background to what is happening.

Yes, a group of citizens has taken over a small building at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, a sprawling wilderness of 293 square miles. And yes, they have guns with them. But to flippantly say they have "occupied" or "seized" the building and incessantly refer to them as "armed" is to obscure the real issue.

The building was vacant and they knew it would be. They chose it so as to avoid creating a situation in which people could be harmed; and as they have repeatedly said, they brought their perfectly legal guns not because they were itching for a shootout, but to defend themselves in the event the government attacks them for being in the building. (Which doesn't sound wise, but given the government's track record [Elian Gonzalez, Ruby Ridge, etc.] it is quite reasonable for them to consider the possibility of being attacked.)

But the most important question is: Why did the protesters drive across state lines in the dead of winter to sit in a vacant building in the middle of nowhere? On this count, ignorance reigns supreme among the public because: 1) most of the media has declined to deal with the question; 2) few people have bothered to ask it; and 3) fewer still have bothered to listen to the protesters' explanation, despite the fact that the protesters have not been shy about volunteering it.

The long answer to the question follows, but the short answer is that the protesters came here to raise public awareness about the federal government abusing and ruining the lives of innocent people. In other words, they came to engage in civil disobedience, which has a time-honored tradition in this country (John Brown did it in a bad way, Rosa Parks in a good way, but they both intentionally broke the law "to arouse the conscience of the community," and they both succeeded).

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When it comes to abusing individuals who own property in our western states, the U.S. government's track record is so long and goes back so far that there isn't enough room for it in a hundred blogposts. So let's just say that it is repugnant, harrowing, and adversarial to human rights.

To begin with, it's important to be aware that the feds own 47 percent (and counting) of the land in our 11 westernmost states not called Hawaii or Alaska -- a percentage that has been achieved by hook and by crook -- and meanwhile, they own one-fifth of Hawaii and a whopping 69 percent of Alaska. In staggering contrast, they own only 4 perfect of the land in the other 37 states.

Though the events which precipitated the "occupation" of the vacant building in Malheur National Wildlife Refuge peaked during this decade, they began in the 1980's, when the federal government sought to buy people's ranches in the Silvies Plain. The feds coveted the Silvies because it was adjacent to what was then the border of Malheur. The feds had long wanted to increase Malheur's size, and the only way to do that was by acquiring private land.

Many property owners in the Silvies refused to sell their ranches to the feds because they were, after all, their ranches, their homes, and their livelihoods. In light of the property owners' refusals, the feds could have attempted to acquire the properties by eminent domain, which might have looked bad but at least would have required them to pay each owner what his or her property was worth. However, eminent domain was not attempted.

What did happen was that curiously timed decisions were made to divert water into the already voluminous Malheur Lakes, which proceeded to overflow and flood the Silvies. Entire homes and barns were washed away and grazing land was tossed up and destroyed. Just like that, ranchers lost the roofs over their heads, were rendered unable to ply their trade, and saw the value of their land sink like an anvil in the ocean. Desperate and without recourse, they were compelled to come to the (ahem) "bargaining table" and practically beg Master Government to take their land off of their hands at basement prices.

It would be good, for lack of a better word, if their experience was some kind of bizarre exception to the way our government treats property owners, but it was not; and in the three decades since that chicanery on the Silvies Plain, the government has actually gotten worse. The protesters holed up in Oregon, unlike their critics, are aware of this, and they give a damn.

Which brings us to the more recent injustice that has occurred with regard to Malheur. The injustice which, more than any other, prodded the protesters to try to get the public's attention.

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The Hammond family is one of the few that still owns land in the Silvies. Dwight Hammond is 74 years old and his son Steven is 46.

As anyone familiar with land management and rural life knows, if you own acreage, sometimes you need to start fires on it. It is necessary to clear undergrowth, in order to lower the risk of wildfires burning out of control. It is necessary to clear invasive species and prevent their spread. Landowners do this regularly on private property, and both the federal and state governments do it regularly on public property (though, by using the phrase "controlled burns" to describe the blazes they start, governments successfully gloss over the fact that it's not uncommon for said burns to spread onto private property).

Being ranchers, the Hammonds have obviously set fires on their land. It is two particular fires, one in 2001 and one in 2006, that are now the epicenter of an absurd drama... The first one crossed an indistinguishable line between private and public property and wound up burning an estimated 140 acres of the latter. For the record, that equals less than one-thousandth of one percent of Malheur... The second blaze also crossed the indistinguishable line, and burned, in the words of the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, "about an acre of public land" -- which, if you're keeping score, equals less than one-billionth of one percent of Malheur. At trial, the value of the Malheur land that caught fire was found to be less than $1,000.

For that, the feds chose to tar the Hammonds not only as criminals, but as felons; and not only as felons, but as terrorists -- and as if that wasn't bad enough, they came after them years after those relatively piddling fires took place.

They charged the Hammonds with a total of 19 counts, including charges under the Federal Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which mandates a minimum five-year prison sentence for anyone who "maliciously damages or destroys...any...personal or real property in whole or in part owned or possessed by, or leased to, the United States." If you believe that the existence of the adverb "maliciously" in front of the words "damages or destroys" would be enough to protect the Hammonds, all I can say is that you've never seen a federal prosecutor in action.

The charges were brought by Master Government in 2010; i.e., nine years after the "less than one-thousandth of one percent fire" and four years after the "less than one-billionth of one percent fire." As surely as night follows day (federal prosecutors are suspiciously famously good at getting their way), the Hammonds were found guilty and faced with the prospect of spending at least five years behind bars -- five years during which there was a not-small chance that Dwight Hammond would die.

At sentencing, Judge Michael Hogan did something that should have earned him praise, and which goes to show that judges actually can, you know, make judgments. Rather than follow the minimum-sentencing mandate and send the Hammonds away for five or more years, he ruled that doing so would violate the U.S. Constitution's Eighth Amendment, which forbids "cruel and unusual punishment."

In support of his decision, Hogan noted that the fires "could not have been conduct intended (to be targeted) under" anti-terrorism laws, and that five years in the federal pen would be "grossly disproportionate to the severity of the offenses...would not meet any idea of justice...would shock the conscience to me."

Because he had to sentence them to something, seeing as how they were found guilty, Hogan gave Dwight Hammond three months and Steven Hammond twelve months plus one day. They went to prison and did their time without incident. When their sentences were over, they were released and then they returned home to resume their lives. You might think that that would be that, but you would be wrong.

Remember, Master Government gets what Master Government wants. And Master Government was unhappy that Judge Hogan, one of its own employees, had left the reservation by roguishly refusing to impose a Soviet-style punishment for the Hammonds' trifling and victimless "crimes"... So Master Government appealed not the jury's verdict, but the judge's sentencing, up to another one of its courts; and to the Hammonds' great misfortune, said court happened to be the Frisco-based loony bin officially known as the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals... Three months ago, that court, in keeping with its reputation (Rush Limbaugh has long referred to it not as the Ninth Circuit but as the Ninth Circus), overrode Judge Hogan and ordered the Hammonds back to prison until they have each been there for five years.

This means that Dwight Hammond -- despite having already served his sentence, and despite being in the midst of trying to pay a $400,000(!) civil settlement to Master Government -- has now been sent back to prison by Master Government with no new evidence submitted and no new charges filed... and will not be free again until after he turns 79 years old, assuming he is still alive when the date rolls around.

This is why American citizens who have never met the Hammonds (and only three of whom are related to Cliven Bundy) decided to raise awareness about their plight. The protesters' decision was made in the hope of igniting one of those "public conversations" about "social justice" that metropolitan liberals are always claiming they want to have.

Predictably, however, the metropolitan liberals -- as well as the social justice warriors they cavort with, plus an alarmingly high percentage of conservatives -- have responded by ignoring the issues and basically telling them to go fuck themselves.

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Metropolitan liberals and social justice warriors (i.e., Democrats who are likely to vote) would have you believe they care about the little guy, and that they "have his back"... They would have you believe that they abhor the idea of the powerful railroading the powerless... They would have you believe that they abhor the idea of judging people based on roots, cultural background, ethnicity, etc... But in this case (and others) it is demonstrable that what they say they think does not always line up with what they actually think.

They are either fooling themselves about their beliefs or lying to everyone else about their beliefs. I suspect the former is true in most cases, for I do believe that most metropolitan liberals (and a sizeable number of social justice warriors) honestly see themselves as caring for the little guy. I know enough of them to say, with certainty, that most of them are good people. Nevertheless, their cultural instincts are driving them to prop up a political structure which, in the end, forces human beings to surrender their personal autonomy and hand it over to the state. Having decent intentions does not make that okay.

By "cultural instincts," I am referring to the ways that people's knees jerk, the subconscious ways that people presume things about those they perceive as the "Other." Big city liberals are not the only ones susceptible to this phenomenon, for it is part of human nature and rural conservatives are guilty of it as well. But by and large, rural conservatives lack the powerful connections that metropolitan liberals enjoy, and contrary to what the mainstream media would have you believe, they are much less likely to want to use government to "impose their values on others."

Where the situation in Oregon is concerned, most liberals are not even hearing the message for the simple reason that they instinctively dislike the messengers. In the fronts of their minds, they see rural folk with guns and think "rednecks." And in the backs of their minds, when they think "rednecks" they at best think "idiots" and at worst think "racists." Actually, they don't even really think these things, they feel them -- which is even worse, because feelings are resistant to thought and thus are resistant to being changed.

The shame of it all is that this results in the rights of the individual getting burned to death and sacrificed to the tribal tendencies of the mob -- with consequences that could deprive all of our children of freedom.

The Oregon protesters have attempted to bring to the public's attention the exact kind of injustice that metropolitan liberals and social justice warriors say they want to prevent, and they have made this attempt at personal risk -- only to find that metropolitan liberals and social justice warriors are unwilling to even listen.

Because metropolitan liberals are dominant in professional media  -- and are, along with social justice warriors, very good at saturating social media -- it turns out that liberals at large and society at large: 1) have not heard what it is that brought protesters to Oregon, but 2) have heard loud and clear the implication that the protesters are backwards gun-toting hooligans.

One need not like the protesters in order to listen to their complaints. Throughout history, there have been plenty of instances in which individuals found that they agreed with somebody about an important topic, even if they considered the somebody himself to be beyond the pale. However, it seems to happen less and less in today's dumbed-down, short-attention-span world. I think that trend is unhealthy for civil society, and no, I will not hesitate to allege that liberals are much worse than conservatives when it comes to listening to opponents. In my experience, most conservatives are fully capable of explaining liberal viewpoints and explaining the rational and emotional reasons for those views (even though they proceed to explain why they think those views are in error). On the other hand, a majority of liberals have little grasp of what conservatives think, and a supermajority of liberals are positively clueless about why conservatives think what they think.

The combined inability and unwillingness to listen to other people -- simply because of the way knees jerk when other people appear on Facebook or on TV screens -- is a very real poison in the bloodstream of our society. It closes minds and jeopardizes civility. In so doing, it puts human potential at risk and threatens to abet not social justice, but social injustice.

Know this about the situation in Oregon: It justifies civil disobedience, even if you don't care for the specific means of civil disobedience that the protesters have chosen. The things that outrage the protesters should outrage every American, liberal and conservative alike, even if the protesters themselves aren't the kind of people you would have over for dinner.

In a society based on self-government, it's a dangerous thing for mass numbers of citizens to plug their ears to a message simply because their eyes don't care for the messenger.

Much thanks to David French for writing at length about this case.

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