I help parent a teenage boy, who’s hard at work developing a portfolio of unassailable convictions. If my parents were to read this they’d smile and say: gosh, that all sounds awfully familiar.
One of the challenges of parenting, of course, is figuring out how to encourage individuality, free thought, and conviction while also providing a framework that keeps a kid honest and his mind expanding. One of our strategies involves discussing the news at the dinner table, the goal being simply to explore how complicated most issues are – to highlight the shades of gray that get colored over in a world that seems more and more sure of itself every day. We’re using a hairdryer to dry up the ocean, I know.
In any case, I was thinking about all this over coffee this morning as I was reading news coverage of the standoff between activist ranchers and law enforcement that’s going on in Oregon, and anticipating that we might talk about it at dinner tonight. How would you explain a bunch of armed men acting like teenagers to an actual teenager? There’s a lot there that must seem empathetic – ‘gov-ment telling the ranchers they can’t set fires on federal land not unlike a mother telling a son he can’t light candles in his room. And of course I’m also sensitive to the urban bias in a lot of media sources that writes these guys off as wack-jobs and doesn’t try to comprehend the underlying issues that are at play. What we have here is a struggle to find a balance between individual liberty and broader social organization – it’s basically the essence of American democracy. I’d love to be able to find a way to talk about that in a meaningful way.
At first look, what’s going on out there seems uniquely Western. The ring leaders of the whole thing – the Bundy family – are Nevada ranchers who graze their cattle on public land and refuse to pay for the right to do it. I have a real hard time wrapping my Eastern mind around the idea of grazing my animals on my neighbor’s land and not expecting to compensate them, whether that neighbor is a private individual or a public entity. But this gets to one of the huge differences between East and West. The open land in the politically conservative West – and we’re talking vast acreage that would swallow the Northeast – is mostly owned by the federal government, and I guess they’re just taking Woody Guthrie at his word. That land is their land, and they’ll use it how they want to, by gawd. In politically liberal Vermont, where I live, the open land is 80 percent privately owned, and I guess I’ve just gotten used to the conservative idea of private property rights. At first glance, the political labels seem contradictory, but I guess it makes sense that you’d resent the federal government more in a place where the federal government is essentially your landlord.
Some of the details of the standoff do hit closer to home. A nearby population center, Burns, was a lumber town that served the Hines sawmill – read about it here. The mill reigned for 50 years; at its peak in 1962 it shipped 134 million feet of lumber. Then in the eighties it lost a government contract to cut wood on national forest land and the mill shut down shortly thereafter; this gets to the heart of some of the resentment people feel towards the Fed. Pinning the closure on the lost contract is like pinning the loss of a football game on a missed field goal at the end, but regardless, it’s a piece of what happened and highlights the danger of being a private company that gets its raw material from public lands, something that’s inescapable in much of the West. If the mill had held on for another decade, it might have been federal regulations involving the spotted owl that delivered the death blow.
I’ve watched a much smaller version of all this play out in southern Vermont, where I’m from, as former timberland became national forest and harvesting was deemphasized. Loggers and local mills lost work. The nature of the place changed a bit. The local tax base went down. The same sort of thing has gone on in the Adirondacks and northern New Hampshire; it’s at the heart of the opposition to Roxanne Quimby’s plan to turn her former timberland in Maine into a national park. There are arguments to be made for public ownership and the values associated with it; and the context of the ownership is different here than it is out West, where the feds have owned the land since the country wrested it from the native people; and the context and issues keep changing – they’re different now than they were 10 years ago and will be different in 10 years than they are now. Still, I think it’s important to acknowledge the fear and resentment some rural people feel toward federal ownership and regulation of the land they live near and work on. It’s not so different than understanding how municipal planning and policing have contributed to the angst in urban black communities that’s at the heart of the Black Lives Matter movement.
If we talk about all this tonight at dinner, I want to try to make the point that the armed part of the occupation is unhinged and complete B.S. But the tensions there are fair and get to the heart of who we are as a country. Where is that balance point between the individual and the community, between the community and the state, between the state and the country, between spotted owl activists and rural loggers, between the sage grouse and the beef cow, between rural and urban values, and on and on and on. We do our best to find an equilibrium, then we pass things along to the next generation and hope they do a better job than we did.