Fox’s frontier freeloader


Alden Graves

Oh, give me a home where my cattle can roam

Over land for which I do not pay.

Where seldom is heard an intelligible word

And Sean Hannity says is okay.

Remember Al Bundy on the Fox sitcom "MarriedÅ With Children"? Al came home every night to his wife, Peggy, and their two kids after a hard day at the local mall selling shoes. Peg, red hair lacquered like an antique table, spent most of her time watching television ("You can’t sit on a couch 20 hours a day and not learn something.") and giving daughter Kelly advise about marriage ("It’s still better than working.").

Like most teen siblings in sitcoms, Kelly and Bud don’t get along that well. Bud is constantly exasperated with his sister’s astonishing dimness, although he secretly envies her spectacularly successful love life ("Remember, attraction is a three way street. Or is it a one-way tunnel? At any rate, I know it’s a four-lane highway.").

It was some indication of Al’s dissatisfaction with the hand that fate dealt him when he mused that, although he was paid less than minimum wage as a shoe clerk and most of his customers were obnoxious women of a certain weight ("Blacksmith’s right around the corner."), he was still happier at the store than he was at home.

The series might best be described as the flip side of the American Dream and it was probably much closer to reality than Rick Santorum would ever admit.

"MarriedÅ With Children" ended in 1997, so Fox has been without a Bundy for quite a while. They now have a replacement. Despite the fact that this new Bundy makes Kelly look like a promising candidate for a Rhodes scholarship, the Fox network did its darndest to make him a legend in his own time. The transformation from epic freeloader to rugged individualist isn’t an easy makeover, even for a news organization so skilled at presenting platitudinous distortions as timeless truths.

This one’s name is Cliven Bundy. He has been grazing his cattle on federal land in Nevada for 20 years, running up a fee -- mandated by a bill signed into law by President Ronald Reagan -- that amounts to nearly $1 million. He doesn’t recognize the United States government, assumedly because it’s a lot cheaper not to recognize the government than it is to pay a debt you legitimately owe to it. Other Nevada ranchers pay the monthly grazing fee, $1.35 per head of cattle, for use of public land for private gain, but Mr. Bundy fancies himself exempt.

Like all self-styled, phony baloney martyrs, he vowed to sacrifice his life so that chronic deadbeats might continue to breathe the exhilarating air of freedom. Mr. Bundy’s imminent peril predictably brought out a small army of heavily armed sympathizers, whose major achievement thus far had been an ability to delude themselves into believing that their own miserable failure to constructively assimilate themselves into American society is all the government’s fault. The personality that this mindset incubates is usually comprised of equal parts misguided patriotism and thinly-veiled thugism.

You could sense the air of glee that permeated the Fox newsroom. It was like the aroma of a steak on a grill to a starving man. Sean Hannity told Mr. Bundy that he would be right there beside him, ah, symbolically speaking, of course. Members of Bundy’s nut brigade were actually crouched down behind cement barriers on a bridge, aiming high-powered rifles at federal officials whose job it was to execute a legally issued court order seizing the cattle. Tourists were snapping photographs. Granted, a bridge is hardly as picturesque as an old Spanish mission, but there was clearly a direct parallel here to the siege of the Alamo in 1836.

Then it all fell apart. The federal agents declined to turn a legally constituted seizure into a bloodbath to stoke the egos of crazy people. (One of them actually bragged about using women as shields, so the carnage would be even more appalling to the public.)

All of the sudden, the Fox talking heads looked like a reunion of also-rans on "American Idol." When Hannity asked Bundy how it felt to prevail over the United States government, their would-be folk hero mumbled something about there being a "blood moon" the night before. Okay. One could sense the trickles of flop sweat running down Mr. Hannity’s back. Fox had hitched its golden chariot to a horse that clearly had spent too much time munching on locoweed.

Whether Mr. Bundy’s serial mooching on taxpayer owed property prevails in the long run is doubtful at best. As far as the issue of "freedom" is concerned, bear in mind that the same people who were so vociferously defending Bundy’s right to cheat taxpayers out of nearly $1 million are the same ones who carp when the government spends a thousand dollars to subsidize a homeless shelter. So much for he vagaries of freedom.

The entire inglorious saga, and Fox’s failed effort to ramp it up into a shooting war, vividly illustrates the network’s never-ending, extremely dangerous campaign to undermine the already tenuous stability in this country for the sake of ratings (read money). Certainly there are aspects of the federal government that could be improved, but it is the height of irresponsibility for an entity that presents itself as a serious news organization to use inflammatory rhetoric in a blatant effort to promote a situation where people would almost certainly die.

Alden Graves is a Banner columnist.


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