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Can the American West Be Saved?


The Malheur occupation, which did climax in violence (LaVoy Finicum, an Arizona rancher, was killed at a roadblock by the Oregon State Police while reaching, they thought, for a firearm in his pocket), is the event at the center of “Shadowlands,” a strikingly empathetic nonfiction narrative by the poet Anthony McCann. The book is that rare beast these days — a chronicle of and a meditation on an intensely politicized affair that delves beneath merely partisan concerns to touch its subject’s absurd and tragic heart. As such, it’s a work of almost foolish courage, given the overwhelming rancor of our current social moment — not because it refuses to takes sides, but because the book sides with the people as a whole, with us, the puny, errant, bedeviled playthings of the all-American colossus.

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McCann is not on a peace mission — far from it — or intent on defending cowboy libertarianism to contemporary progressive readers. His project is more ambitious. Scene by scene and act by act, in a range of literary registers that moves from the lyrical to the satirical, from theory-laced deconstruction to meat-and-potatoes reportage, he tells the tale of doomed, homemade rebellion against a force much larger than bureaucracy: the meaning-destroying, resource-gulping juggernaut of capitalist economics.

Ammon Bundy, McCann’s crackpot protagonist, is presented with a care that might offend some because he is not a conventionally sane thinker. He’s what some might call a gun nut, perhaps a racist and a postdoc-level conspiracy theorist whose apocalyptic cosmology is rooted, tortuously, in his lifelong Mormon faith and in a quite eccentric interpretation of constitutional law. His version of Mormonism, a religion notoriously susceptible to modification by freelance visionaries, tells him that nature belongs to people perhaps even more than it belongs to God. To graze cattle or horses on the land is, for Bundy, to possess its very essence, because the world was created for our use. To live in the story of Joseph Smith, the Mormon founder, was “to live in a certain theologized version of the American dream.” As for the Constitution, Bundy discerns in it something that he calls “the Beautiful Pattern,” a license for settlement and legal ownership that doesn’t merely tame the wilderness, it exalts and transfigures it, rendering it holy — conveniently forgetting the Native peoples for whom it was holy to begin with.

McCann is unsparing in his critique, in his mockery even, of Bundy’s rhetoric, but he also regards him as a figure of considerable charisma — a sort of leathery Bill Clinton or militant Will Rogers. His supple, expressive, emotive presence also happens to come across on YouTube, an instrument he plays like the Pied Piper. McCann makes a lot of this paradox, and should, for the strange suitability of primal charm to information-age technology is a fact we shall have to contend with for years to come, as Marshall McLuhan correctly prophesied. The other chief component of Bundy’s appeal lies not in himself, however, but in his audience, made up of many former soldiers, armed instruments of the national will. “It’s something forgotten by those of us who haven’t served in the military,” McCann writes of Bundy’s followers, “that this country is now full of men and women with long-term personal experience of contemporary guerrilla insurrections.”

The ingredients of tragedy — here you have them. A hero with powers he doesn’t wholly control, a citizenry with wounds not easily healed and a time that is fundamentally out of balance, both with nature and with its tools, the material products of its own intelligence. McCann is too literate and too farseeing to lay the blame for this predicament on any one party or ideology, but toward the end of his agonized narrative, after blood has been spilled in a temporary catharsis, he offers a bitter elegy for Ammon and Cliven’s desert uprising, as ridiculous, shameful and selfish as it was. Their nemesis, in McCann’s final analysis, was not the federal government at all, but the financial forces that have leveled small-scale American agriculture in general. The Bundys were “offering something kind of beautiful, a rural, community-oriented life, lived on and from and with the land,” but because this “something” could only be articulated in the language of private property, it was offered, McCann observes, “in the very terms that were its death.”


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