If you follow Twitter, you'll have seen tweets about the Bundy Ranch. Lost in the fog of war, deliberate misinformation, propaganda and conspiracy theories is the story of actually what has been going on and came to a head this week.
Cliven Bundy runs the last free-range cattle ranch in south eastern Nevada. The ranch is his but in the same way his family has done since the 1870's, he grazes his thousand head of cattle on the open range, not prairie but desert scrub - which is technically Federal land (let's forget Native American claims for the time being - further complicates the issue).
In 1993, ostensibly to protect a species of tortoise, local ranchers lost their grazing rights and had to pay the government for the privilege, and one by one they shut down and moved out, apart from Bundy who withheld the tax payments (now over $1m owed). Court orders have been ignored and this week, the Federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) decided to take action and confiscate his herd.
So far, so good. Apart from the fact that the legality of the confiscation is under question, and the BLM showed up with a bunch of cowboys to take the herd, and over a hundred heavily armed agents, helicopters and armoured vehicles. The ranch was surrounded, the cattle rounded up and taken to a compound, apparently for sale to recover the owed grazing fees. They managed to get about a third of the herd.
What we know is that when one of Bundy's sons was attacked by a K9 unit and tasered, it was captured on video and it went viral.
Suddenly Twitter was alive with all kinds of wingnuts - white supremacists, Tea Party supporters, NRA members and local militias ready to ride in and defend Bundy from the Feds. The Feds didn't help. They reinforced, set up of all things a 'First Amendment Area',
deactivated local cell towers and on Friday the FAA declared the area a no-fly zone. The state governor became involved, and the story was covered by Fox and RT (both taking the same position on the story!).
At this point it looked like the whole thing was going to be a repeat of Waco and Ruby Ridge
but in this case armed supporters of the Bundys from local states showed up - some as heavily armed as the Feds - and today the BLM stood down and released the cattle. Some amazing pictures here (click on one of the pictures to open the slide show, the source text is unsurprisingly inaccurate).
The way the whole issue was handled by the government was flawed, as if nothing had been learned from the past. But there is something else at the core of this story which is why it peaked my interest. The Federal government had no chance of winning this dispute as they had decided to take on the most evocative cultural myth at the heart of their own national identity - the cowboy.
At this point, the facts of the story are as lost and as pointless as the historical truth of the cowboys of the American West. Whilst the varied extremist groups wanted to exploit this case for their own questionable causes, when a cattle rancher takes on the government and talks about freedoms enshrined in the US Constitution, and that government has undeniably sought to curtail those freedoms (a first amendment area?), it immediately summons up the plots of a hundred B-movie westerns and TV shows. Bundy becomes an iconic representation of the very concept of freedom in the American sense without even trying.
UPDATE: In the past week, Mr. Bundy has shared his views on African Americans. These proved to be racist in the extreme, and so the myth is shattered and reality is restored. Bundy lost his support, was denounced by nearly all who supported him. The dream was nice while it lasted. But thinking about it again, is he really just a man out of time? Those views were probably not much different from those his by his ancestors who built his ranch back in the era of the cowboy. And as those days are gone and the world turns away from the views he holds, perhaps time to bury the myth too.