Villains Can Be Right, You Know (Even If Cliven Bundy Isn't)

Protecting the Constitution often requires narrow alliances with unsavory people.

For good reason, Cliven Bundy is now a minor villain. Before his racist remarks, I gathered that his protest against the federal government was legally, morally, and intellectually bankrupt. Now that he's also mused that blacks might've been better off under slavery, I can add that his ignorant racism ought to be antithetical to anyone who claims to oppose tyranny or to value freedom and liberty. 

Boo Cliven Bundy. 

None of those are fresh insights. But having established that I think he's on the wrong side of his legal dispute; that I am agnostic about whether the federal government should sell off western lands, but find the current arrangement legitimate; and that I abhor his ignorant, ahistorical racism, I'd like to seize the opportunity of a villain I disagree with completely to say something about villains generally: 

There are sometimes good reasons to defend them.

All civil libertarians are frequently put in the position of defending some villain or another. The First Amendment depends on the ACLU defending Nazi marches. The Fourth Amendment protections we all enjoy wouldn't exist if not for judges deciding that guilty men must be set free because the cops didn't get a warrant. To preserve the Fifth Amendment, I am willing to defend the right of Anwar al-Awlaki, who was probably a terrorist, to the same due process we all enjoy, because the alternative is empowering the government to kill anyone it likes. And I'll defend even the worst terrorist we arrest against torture, because I believe it is unlawful and morally corrosive and undermines an invaluable taboo. 

This is not a case for defending Cliven Bundy, whose substantive claims are wrongheaded. But if the Bureau of Land Management struck me as a tyrannical part of the federal government, as opposed to an agency low on my list of civil-liberty offenders, or if I thought Bundy really was being wronged by an unjust system, I'd defend him on the legal issue, even as I vocally condemned his racism. Inevitably, some on the left would accuse me of making common cause with a bigot, in the same way that some on the right say Guantanamo attorneys make common cause with terrorists or that the ACLU makes common cause with criminals. These cheap, guilt-by-association tactics should never deter from a principled position. About the only thing I can say for Bundy is that he's permitted me to finally make this point in an instance where I'm speaking against interests, since I'm more likely to protest if this guy gets to graze his cattle gratis.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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