The Worst Things at First Things

Let’s hope this doesn’t become a regular feature—the Letter to the Editor that did not get published.

First Things is a magazine that I have enjoyed since I would peruse it in the quiet and dignified reading room at my law school. Under the leadership of Richard John Neuhaus, every edition was an intellectual adventure with a wide range of the right and beyond represented. The bandwidth under current editor Rusty Reno has narrowed considerably, especially since he flipped from warning of “Trumpster diving” in National Review‘s famous “Against Trump” issue to defending the eau de orange.

Recently, I was frustrated by the journal’s lack of interest in the 1/6 riot (they had options for engagement as I can personally assure you), but defending the Bundy gang sent me over the edge upon which I had been teetering. Writer Helen Andrews, for whom Donald Trump is only bested by Marine Le Pen, describes the volume she reviews here as the “best book of the half dozen published about the Bundys.” (Who reads six books on the Bundys?!?) That’s free-rider-on-the-range Cliven and his “we claim this National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center in the name of us” sons, including aspiring governor Ammon.

There was a time when conservatives had the back of law enforcement. Now, peace officers have to watch theirs around the likes of Andrews and the Bundys. Just as the folks yelling “Hang Mike Pence” on January 6th were not heroes (incidentally, while hundreds were storming the Capitol, First Things was getting ready to publish a review by Andrews entitled “Benevolent Autocrat”), neither are those flouting the law in the Bundy gang. Yet, some have starry eyes for them, including (sadly) the leadership of the once great (and let us pray it will be great again) First Things.

Dear Editor,

Be careful who you lionize.  Sean Hannity learned that lesson in 2014 with Cliven Bundy.  With her review (“Rancher Rebels”) of Chosen Country:  A Rebellion in the West, Helen Andrews has yet to learn it in 2021.  Andrews does note Hannity’s role in “turn[ing] the Bundys into media celebrities,” but she leaves out the reasons that he turned his cameras elsewhere.  She leaves out a lot.

After being elevated by Hannity, Bundy later mused on the state of “the Negro” saying, “They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. 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?”  That was enough for the Hannity of 2014 to distance himself from Bundy the elder, calling the rancher’s words “beyond repugnant to me.”  The Fox News star would not return for a second helping in 2016 when the sons of Bundy initiated an armed takeover of a federal facility at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.  It takes more than that to turn off Andrews, though. 

We are told that the Bundys “had a point” in their original confrontation with the Bureau of Land Management, when the ranchers “ceased to acknowledge the BLM completely.”  Andrews does not explain that this means that the Bundys subscribe to a legal theory (rejected by courts since 1897) under which they refuse to acknowledge any federal management of public lands.  On this basis, the Bundy clan illegally ran cows on federal land for years without paying the already below-market grazing fees.  This led to multiple judgments against the Bundys before government attempts to round up the trespassing cattle were met with guns drawn.

The 2016 death of LaVoy Finicum at the climax of the Malheur episode is described as resulting from him being “shot by the FBI at a roadblock as he either reached for a sidearm or flailed his arms stumbling through a snowbank, depending on whom you ask.”  Andrews neglects to remind the reader that Finicum found himself in that position after first saying to law enforcement officers from a parked vehicle: “Boys, you’ve got to realize, we’ve got people on the way.  You want a bloodbath?”  Shortly thereafter, Finicum accelerates rapidly before crashing into that snowbank seconds later.  Finicum then immediately emerged from the truck and, ignoring calls to get down, walked towards officers before reaching for his waist where a firearm was located.  The scene is captured on video from multiple perspectives, including inside the truck.

Andrews then describes Ashli Babbitt as merely “an unarmed Trump supporter killed by Capitol Police on January 6th” whose “shooter goes unpunished.”  Others might have noted that Babbitt was trying to make her way through a recently bashed window in a door leading to an area where members of Congress were being evacuated.  Moments before, some of those immediately around Babbitt were yelling, “F*** the blue!”  Others in the mob that day had been chanting, “Hang Mike Pence!”

Such details would complicate the persecution and martyrdom narratives that Andrews favors.  When you are looking to start a revolution, facts (and fact-checking by revolutionary publications) are some of the first casualties.

John Murdock

Photo by Lukas on

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