A bumbling group of patriot movement and anti-federal-government torch bearers takes over a remote and empty public building with a gift shop, vowing to defend the space with their lives. Some post rambling, earnest goodbye videos to YouTube; one such message, published on Jan. 3 warns that Daddy is off defending the Constitution and may not be home for Christmas. Speaking to the press, an organizer wearing a camouflage jacket said, “There’s nobody in camouflage,” before correcting himself, adding, “well, other than my jacket.” They run low on snacks the first day.
Those right-wing extremists took over the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, near Burns, Oregon, on Saturday night. By Sunday morning, the comedy was crystallized on Twitter with a trending hashtag, #YallQaeda. #Yeehawd followed suit, then #VanillaISIS.
Redneck terrorism makes for easy comedic material. “Oregon militiamen are willing to be martyred for their cause. And if they die, they will receive 72 cousins in the afterlife,” read one popular tweet. “Next thing you know, Shania Law,” another said. Mocking the laughable is well and good. But too often, the liberal and left response to conservative extremism is confined to derision, as if it were enough to be on the right side of the joke to be on the right side of politics and history.
The presidency of George W. Bush should have been an unforgettable lesson in the limits of laughing. He needed no comedic skewering because he was a walking punchline and a reliable buffoon. A cottage industry of comedy detritus, not to mention Jon Stewart’s and Stephen Colbert’s careers, was sustained by mocking Bush. And for good reason. Liberals could come together in a vast act of identity affirmation, lacking all force or content beyond deriding that moron in the White House.
Now we have entered a year in which Donald Trump will pin the political fulcrum with his rabid racism and rampant misinformation — meme-worthy face and hair be damned. Clowns such as Bush and Trump are certainly worthy of ridicule, but laughing at them doesn’t undermine their political influence.
The idea that satire from the left can serve as a bulwark against far-right ideas is provably false. #YallQaeda tweets might be some harmless fun, but liberal laughing along deserves no great celebration on its own merits.
For one thing, occupying government property, armed or otherwise, is not a risible political act per se. The Oregon protesters’ demand that federal ownership of land be relinquished to the public wouldn’t seem too reprehensible if we didn’t know the patriot movement to be informed by racism and conspiracy-theory-drenched paranoia that believes welfare provisions to be the utmost tyranny. However, given the current state of deadly racism in this country, it’s clear that the well-worn political tactic of armed occupation is reserved for the white man. Black children get shot for holding toy guns; white men can stage an armed siege without intervention. And that’s not funny. In 1967 a group of 30 Black Panthers garnered crucial national media attention by entering the California Capitol with shotguns pointed skyward. When Native American activists occupied Alcatraz Island in 1969, they were eventually forcibly removed by the government, after a series of suspicious fires and having their electricity cut off, but they held the island for 19 months. I can’t help thinking that today that would mean certain death by police bullet for a black or brown person.
“How fucking weird is it that armed militia group in the early stages of what might become a standoff is being laughed at by the world?” tweeted renowned human rights lawyer and activist Stanley Cohen. Is it really so strange, though? The reaction is an index of profound structural racism, for which comedy is an insufficient critique. If leader Ammon Bundy and company are a joke, then the joke’s also on us: We’re in such a pitiable state of affairs that laughable loons can express themselves politically with guns waving while unarmed people of color are deemed threats and are summarily executed.
What’s even more troubling from a progressive perspective is that many of the tweets concerning the holdup in Oregon include low blows at white trash stereotypes — crackers, jerky, inbreeding, beer. In his critique of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo’s reductive Muhammad caricatures, Tim Parks wrote in The New York Review of Books that “the worst case is when satire reinforces the state of mind it purports to undercut, polarizes prejudices and provokes the very behavior it condemns.” Satire that deploys classism to skewer racists and conservatives is certainly such a worst case. Why not focus on their very real, very frightening beliefs?
Brothers Ammon Bundy and Ryan Bundy are among the leaders of the Oregon protest, following in the footsteps of their father, Cliven Bundy, who infamously staged an armed standoff with the federal Bureau of Land Management in 2014. These landowning white men believe themselves and fellow ranchers to be the targets of government oppression. At the time, Bundy père publicly expounded on his feelings about “the Negro.” “They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton,” he once said. “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?”
Not every protester in the Oregon occupation necessarily shares Cliven Bundy’s racism, but we shouldn’t pretend that contemporary militiamen are untethered from their historically racist moorings either. The problem with #YallQaeda jokes here is that they barter in redneck stereotyping when to aim at white trash ephemera and ignore the more pernicious underpinnings of the patriot movement is to fail at providing meaningful political satire.
#YallQaeda and #Yeehawd nevertheless reveal, through their playful redneck/Islamist juxtaposition, just how myopically centered on Islamic extremism the American discourse on terrorism is. This might turn out to be the label’s only real political force. Still, if the Oregon situation escalates to a shootout, we are unlikely to see white men in rural communities surveilled and profiled as possible #YallQaeda members. No such uptick in monitoring followed the 2014 Bundy standoff, let alone the fact that white supremacists have killed almost twice as many people in the U.S. as self-proclaimed jihadists since 9/11.
That’s because white supremacy is not a threat to existing power structures; it is snugly embedded in the status quo. And the authorities are making quite clear by their actions that they do not see radical right militias as nearly so great a threat as, say, unarmed black teens.
The real joke here isn’t the Bundys’ silly tactics or Trump’s hair. It’s the laughable proposition that the U.S. government is at war with conservative white people.