Cliven Bundy: A Cautionary Tale

The Cliven Bundy story never took root around here, which is understandable given that it focused on an issue (large scale federal land ownership) which simply doesn’t directly effect us in the Northeast the way it does in the West. Nationally, however, it did become something of a cause célèbre in conservative circles. But there’s danger in linking your philosophical principles to individual cases, as evidenced by what’s developed over the last 48 hours in the Bundy story. As you probably know, Mr. Bundy made some comments about race that are, even when interpreted in the best possible light, insensitive and inappropriate (Helpful hint – never compare anything to slavery or the Holocaust – ever). Now those conservative figures who backed Bundy enthusiastically have egg on their face, even though Bundy’s comments about race have no bearing whatsoever on the political issue that his case raised. What’s worse is that liberals like Harry Reid can now use Bundy’s having been personally discredited to undermine popular support for the broader movement. All this flows from having let this one individual case become the public face of the issue.

I have to say I feel similar discomfort about hitching our wagons too closely to the Pelletier case. It certainly raises valid questions about how the state handles child custody cases, the fairness of the judicial system, and even the medical judgments of a hospital generally considered to be top notch. But there’s a meaningful difference between being sympathetic to the family’s plight and being thoroughly tied to the individual case. Defenders of the family express themselves in no uncertain terms by unequivocally declaring the Pelletiers to be good parents who want what’s best for their daughter. What if evidence to the contrary emerges? What if in three or six months it becomes clear that the state was right in this case? Now, that still wouldn’t mean there aren’t legitimate policy questions to ask. But it would be terribly embarrassing to those who have been declaring not just that there have been procedural problems in how the case was handled but that the state has committed a serious act of misconduct (some even suggest the state acted out of spite). And all of the policy questions would be swept under the negative media tide, just as we’re seeing in the Bundy case.

I am not as devoted to the Pelletier story as many of you are. I don’t claim to have any meaningful knowledge of whether things have been done properly or not. As a father, it is a nightmare scenario to imagine a child being taken from me. But before making blanket declarations that the parents in this particular case are the angels, I simply urge caution lest it backfire.

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