Another Great Yesterday

No Man’s Land

a PBS Independent Lens documentary film directed by David Byars
LaVoy Finicum at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, January 2016
Rebecca Boone/AP Images
LaVoy Finicum, the only fatality during the Oregon standoff, at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, January 2016

The late Ryszard Kapuściński coined a striking term to describe those susceptible to demagoguery. They were believers, he said, in the Great Yesterday. In the last few years we’ve seen inflammatory strongmen, from Viktor Orbán to Narendra Modi to Donald Trump, evoking visions of Great Yesterdays, from a Greater Hungary to an India without Muslims to an America without immigrants of color. Besides their shaky connection with actual history, such Great Yesterdays have several features in common. One, hinted if not spelled out, is that everyone who enjoyed that golden era in the past was of the same ethnicity or religion. Another is that the Great Yesterday was destroyed by malevolent outsiders. And finally, in traversing the arduous path toward its restoration, the faithful are enduring a martyrdom that will be rewarded.

All these elements were part of the Oregon standoff in early 2016, when a small group of militants bristling with semi-automatic rifles occupied the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Harney County, Oregon, and for forty days defied the federal government to evict them. The leaders included the brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy, two sons of a Nevada ranching family that two years earlier had staged an armed confrontation with the authorities over their father Cliven’s refusal to pay fees for grazing his cattle on federal land. They had other grievances as well, but the most fervent belief of the Bundys and their followers was that the federal government has no constitutional right to own vast tracts of land, as it does throughout the Far West. Instead, the land should be given to the states, which would surely turn it over to deserving, cowboy-booted folk like themselves. The Great Yesterday thus restored would be the homestead era, when hardy pioneers tamed the arid countryside and hardy prospectors staked claims, all without interference from far-off Washington, D.C.

Anthony McCann is a poet, and Shadowlands, his first nonfiction book, is the most substantial account to date of the Oregon standoff. It’s a curious mix of lyricism and trenchant portrayals of the occupation and the trials that followed, along with abundant meditation—sometimes intriguing, sometimes overly convoluted—on what it all means. He assumes, though, that readers already know the basic story. After gradually introducing a huge array of participants and observers, he gives no reminders of who they are when we meet them later, and provides no index, timeline, or cast-of-characters list to help us keep track of them. Near the end of the book, for instance, the patriarch Cliven Bundy, who did not take part in the standoff, is with much ado released from jail, but you have to go riffling back nearly two hundred pages to…

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