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The Rationality of the Malheur Gunmen: Fighting for the White Future of This Country


The Malheur gunmen are not crazy. They act logically out of a long-standing rationality in the United States. And the future of the country hangs in the balance.

The right wing has made increasing noise about the federal government owning lands, particularly in western states like Nevada and Oregon where the feds own 85% and 53% respectively. The complainers argue that government ownership infringes on American free enterprise based on private property. But federal ownership is radically different than private ownership. The feds own this land mostly because its private ownership would be tremendously unprofitable. In other words, federal ownership is a huge subsidy to private interests making profits from these lands. Federal ownership makes private profit possible. The ranchers at the heart of the Malheur conflict, for instance, lease federal grazing lands for pennies on the dollar.

A major aspect of the violent seizing of Malheur, then, centers on the distribution model of these federal subsidies. Should they prioritize the interests of the large resource extraction multinationals? Or should they primarily serve the needs of the manifest destiny frontiersmen? Seen in this way, this is an old conflict at the racist heart of the United States. Poor white men could enjoy their God given right to property through dragging their families into the backwoods and pushing the frontier of the country, therein conditioning the land for eventual corporate exploitation. Communism for white men eventually led to socialism for corporations.

This conflict therein seems to lie between two right wing factions. Why doesn’t the right wing splinter under the pressure? The answer is that the less powerful faction is a well-paid – if not always well-heeled – creature of its much more powerful counterpart. Since the seventeenth century, resource allocation has occurred through white supremacist patriarchal structures, rewarding and reinforcing these cultural practices as the most rational way to succeed. The colonial planter class avoided insurrection while insuring a labor supply through granting small, though historically new, privileges to poor former indentured servants of European origin. The Southern aristocracy upped the ante in a bid to preserve their status during the Civil War. The federal granting of homestead rights to the white trash of the day mobilized this dynamic westward, diffusing post-war tensions by allowing rapacious speculators the lion’s share of spoils. These practices became canonized in law, with some of the more vile rulings eventually repealed – though without compensation for damage done – such as the notorious Dred Scot finding that “Neither Dred Scott nor any other person of African descent had any citizenship rights which were binding on white American society.” Yet some rulings still stand as the law of the land such as John Marshall’s so called Indian Opinions that found, among other things, that white possession of land by whatever means confers ownership.

In all these instances, white male citizenship depended upon the subordination of all other sectors of society. And the upper classes acquired a dedicated, culturally based police force to fight for an elitist structured society. The paradigm holds that white men must boldly fight for their unique entitlements not just as a personal battle for proprietary privileges, but as a patriotic struggle for the benefit of society, preserving the core form of organization that has brought us this far. They therein counter other claims based on distinct rationalities such as equality before the law, equality of opportunity, or scientific inquiry. White women must directly serve this cause, while darker hued folk enjoy the options of bondage, incarceration, or genocide.

This brings us to the armed taking of Malheur. As many others have pointed out, the upsurge in right wing militarism is associated with the relative decline in the fortunes of white men from their more entitled past – lower income, poorer job prospects, even deteriorating health. Rather than a petulant lashing out, however, these actions, while extreme, emerge from well-established and well-structured practices in this country. In other words, these militants are not irrational crazies. Their actions are highly rational. But they are based on a rationality of white male privilege driving the fortunes of the country.

The wellbeing of all but a tiny sector of society has deteriorated over the past forty years, generating diverse forms of discontent. Appeasing armed white men would prove a timeworn solution: empowering shock troops to make all other groups inured to their plight – or at least more afraid of trying to bring change. Indeed, these extremists may have a better chance at success than other groups operating out of different rationalities, such as fairness, equality, or even preserving capitalism. But any appeasement will strengthen the white supremacist rationalities of society. The solution to the Malheur gunmen and their various copycats rests in disempowering them by employing non-white supremacist rationalities to undo the past forty years of inequality and corporate impunity. This is actually not such a huge challenge, with signs of it all around us. Widespread cynicism about change, however, helps empower the status quo. The Malheur gunmen are doing something, are you?

Arthur Scarritt is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at Boise State University. He is the author of Racial Spoils From Native Soils: How Neoliberalism Steals Indigenous Lands in Highland Peru.

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