Failure in the American System: The Civil War, Slavery, and Cliven Bundy


Recently, a Nevada rancher named Cliven Bundy drew considerable attention, first on Fox News and then elsewhere. The original story, circa April 10, 2014, was that federal agents took an excessively harsh approach to Bundy, surrounding his home and seizing his cattle. The government claimed that Bundy had been grazing cattle on protected public lands for more than 20 years, owed more than $1 million in unpaid grazing fees, and had recently made threatening statements related to these matters.

Republican supporters – eventually including prominent politicians and Fox News commentators – praised Bundy. At that point, it seems, Bundy felt encouraged to call upon similarly minded individuals to bring their weapons in his defense. According to an article in The Economist,

Supporters drove hundreds of miles in pickup trucks bearing patriotic stickers, bringing with them an awesome armoury. After a brief but tense stand-off, during which the protesters trained assault rifles on their adversaries, the officials released the 400-odd cattle they had rounded up and beat a retreat.

While federal agents apparently continued their quest to hold Bundy accountable, the story took a turn on April 19, when Bundy held a press conference, reported as follows by the New York Times:

“I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro,” he said. Mr. Bundy recalled driving past a public-housing project in North Las Vegas, “and in front of that government house the door was usually open and the older people and the kids — and there is always at least a half a dozen people sitting on the porch — they didn’t have nothing to do. They didn’t have nothing for their kids to do. They didn’t have nothing for their young girls to do.

“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.”


Bundy does not appear to be a particularly educated individual. Education teaches people which ideas are too risky to express. In that sense, education in the U.S. has become, too often, a failure. To a regrettable extent, it is less a matter of learning to work with and learn from conflicting ideas, and more a matter of learning which ideas are officially approved and safe to express. Elsewhere, I have explored that point within social work education in particular and within higher education in general.

When one does find it necessary to broach controversial ideas, education teaches one how to do so in relatively agreeable terms. Here, again, Bundy was defenseless. He simply presented his views, and thus found himself made into a national pariah. This, too, is a failure of the American system. We may trumpet free speech, but in daily practice we are more likely to fault it than to celebrate it. Rather than a national conversation that seeks out the best construction of our fellow citizens’ views, and that strives to educate those who may not know things we know, we are left with a national mentality of blaming and ridiculing. In effect, Bundy was fair game for every petty journalist who wished to flaunt his own relative sophistication at the expense of the country bumpkin.

Let’s review what Bundy seems to have been saying, in the words quoted above. Here is how I might have expressed the ideas appearing in that quote:

American blacks, living in public housing in Las Vegas, are often seen hanging out with, seemingly, little to do. If that appearance is in fact their lived reality, it is no surprise, in a society that often seems more willing to marginalize and imprison them than to hire them or to absorb them into a supportive social fabric.

As numerous black leaders and researchers have pointed out, African American women are significantly more likely to obtain abortions than are women of any other race. In a Black Entertainment Television (BET) article, Kellee Terrell blames several factors, including the need for “a health care system that gives us access to affordable birth control, STD testing, counseling and treatment.”

Those black people in Las Vegas and other big cities don’t have that kind of support. They are on their own in hostile territory. And how did they get there? Well, it’s not as though they used to be rich, and have fallen from grace. They and their ancestors, going back many generations, have lived in a country that never did really accept them.

For many of them, the federal government has been their best friend. And an odd kind of friend it has been. It has given them the money needed to remain on their reservations, as it were – in their housing projects and ghettoes, safely away from white society. They have been fully positioned for their abortions and prison terms and so forth.

We talk about how long-term unemployment leads to deskilling. Employers think the loss of skills can begin within mere weeks. How about for people whose family members have not had skilled work for generations?

Of course, there have been black people who have climbed the ladder of success. Our president is an example. Oprah, Colin Powell, Clarence Thomas – there are many others. I am not talking about them. As I say, I am talking about the people I see hanging out on the curbs in North Las Vegas.

The question I am posing is this: where did we go off the rails? Where did the American train cut loose the African American caboose? At many points, obviously, starting with the institution of slavery itself, and the mentality that facilitated it, and continuing right up to the present day, with those debilitating subsidies in lieu of actual belonging – subsidies that consistently underscore the exclusion and even hopelessness of everyday black life for too many people in this country.

But there is one historical development, in particular, that I think was especially destructive. It was surely not intended to be that. Surely the intention was, rather, that when Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves, they would be free, indeed, to live lives like those of other Americans.

We now know that, if this was Lincoln’s intent, he was dreaming. His dream was a big one, and it failed. I don’t mean it is failing. I mean the failure has long been an established fact. It was already an established fact in the second half of the 19th century, when this country honored his memory by implementing and tolerating Jim Crow and other official and unspoken arrangements designed to keep the black man down. That was followed by a 20th century in which countless people, white and black alike, struggled to win small victories toward true integration. And yet here we are, in the 21st century, and we still have those people on the street, in places like Las Vegas.

So let me pose a question. What would have happened if Lincoln and the others had not sought and obtained ostensible freedom for the slaves? One can never know for sure. There are a million ways in which such an alternative scenario could play out.

But consider one possibility. Suppose that, instead of simplistically “freeing” the slaves – in essence, setting them on a path of rootlessness that has plagued many of their descendants – Lincoln had insisted upon their gradual but complete establishment right where they were.

There was not, after all, any particular place in the North or elsewhere that was clamoring to be overrun by outsiders, white or black, from Europe or the southern states or anywhere else. As we have seen in the ensuing generations, not many places in the United States were ready to establish themselves as being particularly supportive of freed slaves.

If black people belonged in this country, they were most likely to belong right where they were, where they had family, friends, occupational roles, and the means with which to build a future. They had the plantations on which they worked. Many of them had valuable skills – domestic skills, carpentry, masonry, ministry, administration, and so forth — that they could continue to use right there.

It seems to me that black Americans probably would have done a better job of building a future for themselves without federal subsidies, except maybe to help them get on their feet immediately after the Civil War, if they had simply been given title to their plantations. It was really too bad that the plantation owners who had exploited their slaves and supported the Civil War were treated as though they were in some sense respectable and entitled. That was a mistake – a politically appealing one, no doubt, but a mistake all the same.

I realize that not every freed slave was going to be a mill owner or a manager on a newly socialized plantation. No doubt the majority would have little alternative but to continue to work (albeit on a wage basis) as they had done before, picking cotton and otherwise performing poorly compensated manual labor. I realize that life for many of them would probably have been hard and short.

But it was anyway. They became hired help regardless, and the people they were working for were the whites behind Jim Crow. It could have been vastly better, for countless low-skilled, poorly educated blacks (or at least for their children and grandchildren), if they had been working within an empowered black community instead.

Yes, they would have been just picking cotton, just like before. Some of their descendants would have had to keep on picking cotton, right up to the advent of cotton-picking farm equipment. But can we honestly say that they would have been worse off there, in the place that had been their family’s home for generations, than in the harsh, jobless ghettoes of Chicago, Detroit, and Las Vegas?

On the plantation, in what would have become their ancestral home, they could have had a relatively good life, with its freedoms and pleasures. Instead, in places like North Las Vegas, they have been living in hell.

Glenda Carpio (2008, p. 11) sees “the legacy of slavery in the police brutality, lack of employment, drug addiction, and poverty that assailed African American communities in the late twentieth century.” But maybe that’s not quite right. Maybe that’s a legacy, not of slavery – which, one speculates, could have ended with a powerful and exuberant rebound into the highest reaches of American achievement – but rather of the inept and incomplete ways in which slavery was supposedly ended.

There is, finally, the fact that slavery entailed chattel ownership. People were treated as though they were just property, belonging to other people. Since the Civil War, that has been illegal. But that doesn’t mean people don’t own other people; they just do it in more subtle ways. Your employer can fire you for your beliefs, or for what you say, or for the kind of person you are, or for the expressions on your face. When that happens, you can — people do — die for lack of health care and other essentials. People can be treated like tools, as surely as if they were an object in someone’s toolbox.

Those black people in Las Vegas are not owned by a slaveowner. But they may be as much at risk of being raped – and, as compared to a valuable slave, more likely to be killed – than they were on the plantation. Overall, nearly 20% of African American women are raped at some point in their lives. In addition, there is, for many, the fact of prostitution. Depending on age, the nature of the master-slave relationship, and other factors, some black women probably would have experienced greater sexual safety in slave conditions than in their lives in America today.

It also depends on how you define ownership. Yes, nobody can legally buy and sell black Americans now. But in practical terms, do you think they aren’t owned by the police who watch them on the street, the social workers who inspect their homes, the probation officers who become part of their lives as soon as they step out of line, the white society that frowns when they leave their enclave? Some of America’s poverty pimps essentially claim legal possession of the physical body, although not exactly as slaveowners did, and they too are making money from that claim.

I don’t know whether Bundy would have endorsed every phrase in that interpretation of his remarks. My impression is that the interpretation does capture his general drift. It seems consistent with other race-related comments he has made. From the few remarks that were published, it does not seem that he would have come out, at the end, saying, “No, no, I insist: black people should still be slaves.” That does not even seem to have been his starting position.

Failure of the Media

In fairness, the Democratic-leaning media sources that trumpeted Bundy’s remarks were not seeking to present him as a buffoon to all the world. They would have, if that had suited their purposes, but Bundy himself was not the issue. They lampooned him because he had become a poster child for certain prominent Republicans. It was convenient for Democrats to embarrass them by showing that their so-called patriot was something of a loose cannon.

The Republicans in question certainly deserved that. Yet there is a larger question of why our news media were focused on Bundy in the first place. As LZ Granderson puts it, “[T]alking about the talk of the ignorant is fun. After all, few things are more entertaining than well-executed memes and a hashtag in front of stupidity.” We were treated to the spectacle of the media treating Bundy as a kind of national spokesman, not because that was important to the public, but because it served political purposes. Somehow, in our news outlets, the supposedly big topics are not the ones that inform us about significant matters. They are the ones that play upon people’s emotions.

In Bundy’s case, the media got what they were looking for. There was suddenly the contention that Bundy was a racist. The Republicans didn’t want to get into that. Having made Bundy an object of national attention, they were now prepared to throw him under the bus. Here is the reaction from Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly, after Bundy became politically inconvenient:

For those who continue to sympathize with Cliven Bundy, here is how wrong you are. The man foolishly asked whether blacks are better off being dependent on government as opposed to being victims of slavery — an insane and outrageous question. The institution of slavery allowed murder, rape, child abuse, child abandonment, whippings and other horrors beyond description. Those things were done by Americans who brutalized black human beings for decades.

Millions of other Americans were killed or wounded to end slavery during the Civil War. So the anti-American loons who disparage the entire country to this day are misguided as well.

But Cliven Bundy has no clue, none. And what he said should be condemned by every good person in the world. Bundy should also pay his rightful taxes and he should thank God that he and his family were never subjected to what millions of black families have been subjected to.

In net terms, the Republicans who initially championed Bundy wasted our time by identifying him as a hero and then admitting that he was not. But now it was the Democrats’ turn to muck around in goofy trivia. In the remarks just quoted, O’Reilly swings in the opposite direction, now overstating and misstating what was wrong with Bundy.

In that vein, O’Reilly became one with Democratic commentators like Donna Brazile and Paul Begala on CNN. Mocking Bundy, Begala refers to “the federal gubmint” and calls him a “nutcase.” Brazile says, “Republicans are distancing themselves from Bundy . . . because Bundy’s words destroy their argument that we shouldn’t talk about race.” If she is right — if he is expressing a widely held view that bears discussion — why does she preempt that discussion by declaring him to be “bizarre”? It sounds like what she wants is not discussion but rather indictment. She can’t have heard very much from Bundy — the words under debate are few, and she does not seem to have spoken with him herself — but it appears her mind is made up nonetheless. She has heard enough to advance her pet issue, and that is what we get from CNN.

O’Reilly’s excoriation of Bundy suggests that Bundy’s views are extremely ignorant. To O’Reilly, the suggestion that anyone would be better off under slavery is “insane and outrageous.”

Here, we had a possibility of learning something from our news media. Sadly, that was not their mission. Learning something would have entailed more careful and accurate statements about things like slavery and the Civil War. What O’Reilly and these others gave us was not what more thoughtful sources would have offered.

Update: I have found a few media and other sources that get this, including Vox (Klein, 2014) and InfoWars (Salazar, 2014).

Some Things That Could Have Been Said

You can’t tell people the truth if you’re bent on telling them what they want to hear. Consider, for instance, O’Reilly’s indication that it would be insane to approve of slavery, and that millions of Americans were injured and killed in the struggle to end it. Contrast that against Exodus 21:7-8, 20:

If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as male servants do. If she does not please the master who has selected her for himself, he must let her be redeemed. He has no right to sell her to foreigners, because he has broken faith with her. . . .

When a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod so hard that the slave dies under his hand, he shall be punished. If, however, the slave survives for a day or two, he is not to be punished, since the slave is his own property.

It wasn’t just an Old Testament thing, either. Paul endorsed slavery after the time of Jesus in, for instance, Ephesians 6:5:

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with deep respect and fear. Serve them sincerely as you would serve Christ.

Paul even returned Philemon, a slave, to his owner. Jesus himself approved of slavery, in Luke 12:47-48:

And that slave who knew his master’s will and did not get ready or act in accord with his will, will receive many lashes, but the one who did not know it, and committed deeds worthy of  a flogging, will receive but few.

If O’Reilly’s excoriation of Bundy is on target, then he certainly owes his Christian listeners a clear statement that Moses, Jesus, and Paul were likewise insane in their approval of slavery, and were morally inferior to the ordinary Americans who fought and died to end it. Otherwise, even if Bundy were unambiguously advocating slavery for black Americans, it is not clear that he would be entirely out of touch with what he may have learned in church.

In another post, I note that the Southern Baptist Convention did reject slavery — in 1995. Christian churches in the South tolerated and even endorsed the institution for generations. If O’Reilly were focused on telling listeners the truth, his narrative would have included efforts to place Bundy in the context of America’s dominant religion.

And how about Abraham Lincoln? In my restatement of Bundy (above), I drew upon the popular belief that he was virtually a saint on the subject of slavery. But here, again, things were not as O’Reilly claimed. Consider this quote from Lincoln:

My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.

Or this one:

I will say, then, that I am not nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way, the social and political equality of the white and black races; that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters of the free negroes, or jurors, or qualifying them to hold office, or having them to marry white people. I will say in addition, that there is a physical difference between the white and black races, which, I suppose, will forever forbid the two races living together upon terms of social and political equality, and inasmuch as they cannot so live, that while they do remain together, there must be the position of superior and inferior, that I as much as any other man am in favor of the superior position being assigned to the white man.

To claim that all those Union soldiers sacrificed themselves to end slavery is to imply that they had a clearer mission than their President himself.

Again, if O’Reilly and other journalists were doing what they claim, they would be telling the public that historians actually remain divided on what the purpose of the Civil War was. Multiple (e.g., 1 2 3 4 5 6) sources have asked whether it would have been better to avoid the war and just let the South go its own way. Plainly, the American system failed, when it got to the point of hundreds of thousands of people having to die because the leaders weren’t able to sort it out under the rule of law.

It is easy for us to pride ourselves, now, on what a wonderful thing we did in ending slavery; but the truth is that the northern states were not firmly committed to any such endeavor, and it shows: slavery ended badly, with neither a clear plan nor a reliable commitment to the freed slaves, and that appears to be implicit in Bundy’s remarks.

Combining some elements from both liberal and conservative sides, black Republican Crystal Wright wrote (again, on CNN) that Bundy is a “lunatic” who “needs a history lesson about . . . why ‘we blacks’ no longer call ourselves Negros.” But Wright is wrong, in multiple ways. First, the word is spelled “Negroes.” Second, many blacks do refer to themselves as Negroes, and with other related terms.

Wright may, without fully realizing it, be presenting her own private views, as distinct from the views of blacks in general. That could explain why, as she admits, some of her own followers disagreed with her interpretation of Bundy. It could also explain her claim that “under no stretch of the imagination could anyone argue blacks were better off during slavery.” It seems her imagination might have experienced some beneficial stretching if her education had introduced her to inconvenient realities. For example, PBS quotes Frederick Douglass:

A city slave is almost a freeman, compared with a slave on the plantation. He is much better fed and clothed, and enjoys privileges altogether unknown to the slave on the plantation.

This does not sound like a simplistic claim that slavery was everywhere equally horrible. That PBS site continues:

The practice of “hiring out” was one feature of urban slavery that gave the enslaved a route to independence in their daily lives. . . . Money earned from hiring out went into the owners’ pockets, but oftentimes the laborer got to keep some himself. In this way, a slave might save enough not only to live on his own, but also to buy his freedom.

Elsewhere, PBS says,

It would be too simplistic to say that all masters and slaves hated each other. Human beings who live and work together are bound to form relationships of some kind, and some masters and slaves genuinely cared for each other.

Another site says,

Whippings, executions, and rapes were commonplace. Exceptions, however, did exist to virtually every generalization, for instance, there were slaves who employed white workers, slave doctors who treated upper-class white patients, and slaves who rented-out their labor.

The quality and extent of medical care received by slaves is not known with certainty: some historians conclude that the quality was equal to that of whites (because whites were acting to preserve the value of their property) . . . . Others conclude that medical care was poor for slaves, and others suggest that the care provided by slaveholders was neglectful, but that slaves often provided their own adequate treatment.

To repeat the obvious, slavery was a horrific, inhumane regime. But it was not always that for everyone. Again, the CNN commentator’s oversimplification is incorrect. One can, in fact, imagine conditions in which some slaves were treated better than their “free” descendants. In his specific context of a best case on the plantation versus the worst case in Las Vegas, Bundy — for all his apparent ignorance — may actually have had a point.

These are the sorts of things that Americans should be hearing from their news outlets. It is not necessary for every broadcast to become a tedious history lesson; it would be a profound improvement simply to back away from extreme language and sweeping judgments that are grossly inconsistent with fact and logic. A news media oriented toward thoughtful discussion and genuine inquiry would not have to be told that Bundy was a nobody whose views and acts did not merit extended coverage eclipsing more significant developments; this much would have been obvious from the outset.


The Cliven Bundy affair highlights several failures in the news media in the United States. One such failure involves pandering to viewers. As just noted, you cannot tell people the truth if you think your only duty is to tell them what they are most interested in hearing. There are people who will listen to the same song, over and over again. That may be entertainment. It is not news reporting.

There is a popular impression that, in the U.S., you can say pretty much whatever you want, to whomever you want, whenever you want. That impression is mistaken. Cliven Bundy provides one example. He said the sort of thing, however accurate or nonsensical it may be, that countless people say to each other around their dinner tables. But in his case, there happened to be a New York Times reporter in his audience. Consistent with the “news” standards of our time, that reporter did not take it upon himself to verify that he understood Bundy well, that Bundy himself purported to be expressing a well-developed philosophy, or that Bundy had an informed sense of the impressions he was creating or the way he was going to be presented. The reporter got what he needed to score a political point, and that sort of thing evidently excited his newspaper’s supposedly educated readership. Free speech failed, in this instance, because someone had the motivation and the ability to convert an utterance into a political event and an occasion for widespread ridicule. From such episodes, people tend to learn that, as I say, their supposedly free speech is really a snare.

The reporter’s coup, such as it was, was to depict Bundy as a racist. Yet as suggested above, Bundy surely recognizes that the nation has a black president and numerous other blacks doing work at high levels, a million miles away from the cotton fields. It would be farfetched to interpret Bundy as saying that they all belong back on the plantation, when clearly he was focusing on certain blacks within his personal experience, there in the housing projects of Las Vegas. In short, in the remarks on which the talking heads focused, Bundy does not appear to be a racist — to be advocating, that is, the superiority of one race over another. The net effect of the reporter’s work was thus to support a speculative and potentially false depiction. One can fairly ask: is this the level of political discourse that you want your children to learn?

This case brought us entertainment masquerading as news reporting, from sources like Fox News and CNN and even the New York Times. The truth was distorted and suppressed, so that these sources could present a sort of circus. It appears that an unfortunately large number of viewers unquestioningly accepted what they were told, and were willing to do so. That is, it does not seem that viewers were highly motivated to make sure the reports were trustworthy or appropriately focused. The purpose being served by such reports, for many viewers, appears to have been something other than the acquisition of hard fact. A better interpretation seems to be that people liked to see someone fingered as a racist or otherwise targeted for collective disapproval.

Cliven Bundy seems to have given many news consumers an opportunity to experience a bit of communal bonding with likeminded peers. We may not know the facts; we may disagree on other things; but we can agree that Bundy deserves our scorn. He has the virtue of being a redneck — being, that is, a member of this nation’s largest single sociocultural category of people toward whom a supposedly enlightened American can indulge open disdain. CNN et al. may not provide factual news, but they do give us the dysfunctional therapy of helping us to feel togetherness in our rejection of people like him.

From this distance, it does appear that Bundy is a bad guy, in financial terms: he was apparently freeloading on federal land, and then resorted to threats of violence while painting himself as a virtuous citizen. Without denying the potential for legitimate dissatisfaction with the behavior of relevant federal persons and agencies, my media-informed impression is that Bundy is one more poor choice of role model by the rebellious right.

That, however, has nothing to do with the question of whether black people would be better off as slaves – or whether, indeed, many of them have ever really ceased to be slaves, as distinct from merely swapping ownership from a single white plantation owner to societal and governmental forces that wield their own control over the person. It is not clear that a black man languishing in prison, or dying because of inadequate health care, or because of drugs or a shooting, is better off than every black man who ever worked on a plantation.

It is not even clear that having to pick cotton as a slave would always be worse than the lives of the housing project residents Bundy observed. To reach a good conclusion on that, we would have to know more about the conditions of the individuals being compared, and that kind of thoughtfulness was substantially absent from the media reaction to Cliven Bundy.

Notwithstanding the apparent cultural ignorance in LZ Granderson’s disparaging reference to “rodeo clowns,” he does appear to be one CNN contributor who has a clue:

[People like Bundy may be racist, but they are] not the face of racism. Not today’s version. But we’ll place that yoke on their shoulders anyway because it’s easy. . . .

Mispronouncing Rosa Parks’ name pales in comparison to the politics of courting a racist electorate. It pales in comparison to the lack of compassion for the five children who were shot Easter Sunday at a park on the south side of Chicago . . . .

So, yeah, yuk it up at Bundy’s expense.

In the American system of 2014, people are not trusted or expected — they do not even expect themselves — to think or learn about such things. They are encouraged, instead, to grab onto simplistic and sometimes nonsensical impressions handed to them by major news outlets. They conclude, harshly and illogically, that because of general undesirability, Cliven Bundy’s remarks about a subject like slavery must entitle him to ridicule and ostracism. It is a mess, and – as in so many other instances – leading media outlets, on the right and left alike, have made it worse, at the public’s expense.

The United States fought an enormously costly Civil War for a variety of reasons. Ending slavery was one of those reasons. There was not, unfortunately, a national commitment to the principles enunciated at the nation’s founding. Instead, led by various commercial and political interests, the American system achieved a postwar outcome that has burdened the entire country, for the past fifteen decades, with what may have been the most drawn-out and convoluted resolution possible. What is remarkable about Cliven Bundy’s statement is not that someone would say such a thing. It is that, after all this time, it could still have more than a shred of truth.


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