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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Tale of Bundy and his melon highlights this sick, but silly, season in conspiracy world

UPDATED: Thu., Sept. 3, 2020

Shawn Vestal  (DAN PELLE)
Shawn Vestal (DAN PELLE)

It’s been a season of extra pungency in the pastures of the alt-reality-right.

The moronic inferno burns online with anti-mask zeal. Nutty, perverse conspiracies about pedophilia and cannibalism thrive. The stupidest virus and vaccine memes are shared as faithfully as Bible verses. Macho talk about violent insurrection, naturally, flourishes.

The pandemic is simply excellent fodder for conspiracists, and not just online. More and more, the alt-reality-right has a small but potent presence IRL – mask protests everywhere, “liberty” shindigs all around the region and growing instances of armed vigilantism.

It’s absurd, but it’s no joke. When people come out of that echo chamber into the real world, with their guns and those ideas, others can get hurt. The history of our region, and our country, is peppered with examples.

Still, what’s underlying these zealous calls for resistance and revolution is often little more than simple, entitled selfishness: Don’t wanna wear a mask. Don’t wanna pay a tax. Don’t wanna follow a law.

The absurdity is sometimes so extreme you’d think it was created by Monty Python.

Take the tale of Ammon Bundy and the Truckload of Melons, a recent “constitutional crisis” saga bouncing around the echo chamber.

In a video posted earlier this month on Facebook, Bundy – the instigator of the Malheur wildlife refuge standoff who now stays busy as an anti-mask crusader in the Boise area – walked along a street in Perry, Utah, carrying a single melon , wearing his cowboy hat and telling yet another story of his heroic resistance to oppression.

Bundy says he was driving a rented truck full of melons grown on his father’s Nevada ranch to a prospective customer in Perry. On his way there, he came upon a port of entry inspection station, where large trucks are required to be inspected for weight and safety standards, and where agricultural products might also be inspected under certain conditions.

Bundy, though, doesn’t do ports of entry. That’s police state nonsense.

So, according to his video, Bundy drove on until he was pulled over for some reason by a police officer, who discovers he didn’t have his required inspection.

“I give him the insurance and I give him my driver’s license and then he goes back and basically tells me I have to take my load all the way to the port of entry and have it weighed and inspected and all that,” Bundy said, in the tone of one who has become wearily resigned to the daily Job-like injustices he suffers.

“So I told him I wasn’t going to do that. Told him I felt like it was a violation of my rights, that I hadn’t harmed anybody, hadn’t had any ill intent, but he insisted, and so I got my personal property out of the vehicle – of course, it’s loaded with melons, which sucks – and I said I guess you can just confiscate my vehicle.”

‘An embarrassment’

More than 20,000 people watched Bundy’s video, which I’ll get back to in a minute. It was shared widely online by those in the alt-reality-right, where the fever never breaks – among the patriots and militia dudes, the anti-government and end-times crowd, the Birchers and Liberty Staters.

It’s a robust time in that world. Simply gangbusters. All around the region, anti-mask, pro-conspiracy protests – not infrequently marked by clusters of armed posers – have been held in parks and at courthouses, at state Capitols and in front of the homes of public health officials.

Several alumni of the Malheur occupation have strayed back into the news. One of the last Malheur holdouts, Sean L. Anderson, was shot in an altercation with police in Idaho that remains shrouded in mystery. This has prompted patriot demonstrations around the region demanding justice and answers.

Meanwhile, the Ephrata man who livestreamed much of the Malheur occupation, Gavin Seim, has decamped to Mexico, where he is now doing to authorities in that country what he so often did to authorities in Grant County: Pestering them with made-up constitutional grievances and filming their reactions for videos in which he plays the hero.

Seim now claims to be a political refugee in Mexico. According to a piece in The Daily Beast last week, the American ambassador to Mexico called Seim “a spoiled brat and an embarrassment to our country … a perfect example of the ‘Ugly American.’ ”

Uglier are the reaches of conspiracy-world as represented by QAnon, the insane conspiracy in which deep-state elites are claimed to be running a pedophilia and child cannibalism ring (yes, cannibalism has been added to Q’s feverish pedophilia tableaux). It’s recently been connecting mask-wearing to the conspiracy.

This wild nonsense is creeping into the mainstream, with a Q candidate winning election in Georgia and the president calling her a “WINNER.” Q references appeared on signs at a recent demonstration against trafficking in Spokane.

And the ghost of Matt Shea – long our strongest local connection to the wingnut right – still haunts our politics, with his acolytes winning in the primaries. One of his longtime fellow travelers, former Spokane Valley City Councilman Caleb Collier, has taken the helm of a resurgent regional wing of the John Birch Society and seems to be a rising Shea mini-me, appearing on the undercard at several “liberty” festivals organized this summer around the tyranny of the mask. He’s also putting up anti-mask billboards around Spokane.

The pandemic is simply great for the conspiracy biz. And all roads lead, in that biz, to one destination: the call to arms. Fantasies of armed insurrection, of the defiant heroism of the gun zealot, run through it all, no matter how silly the grievance.

On Monday, for example, the YouTube gadfly and mask protest organizer Casey Whalen – who helped bring the “masks are satanic” protest to Dr. Bob Lutz’s home – posted this on his Facebook page:

“A WARNING: The solution is simple, tried and true. Violate my rights and you will be shot. This will be my mantra from here on out. If you’re too stupid to understand rights identifiable in nature, then you get what you deserve. Time for talk is OVER.”

The time for talk is always over in the alt-reality right, and the time for guns is always now.

It’s absurd, but it’s no joke.

‘We’ve gone crazy’

Which brings us back to Bundy and his lonely melon, walking the roadside in Utah. There may be no better symbol of the current state of the alt-reality-right: a man crying tyranny over his certainty that the Constitution protects him from having his truck weighed.

I could not verify Ammon’s tale with police in Perry, who did not return messages seeking comment this week, or state or county officials. So this is his version, and his version only. (Just as his video, posted a couple days later, about how Costco was cutting off his food supply by making him wear a mask, is his version only: “We’ve gone crazy here. You can’t even go to the store without feeling like a 1933 Jew. Jewish man or woman. I really can sympathize with them, a little bit.”)

In Bundy’s telling of the melon standoff, when he told the officer that he’d allow him to confiscate the truckload of melons rather than drive to the nearby port of entry, the officer tried to force him to return to the port of entry, but Bundy refused, taking out a folding chair and sitting on the side of the road.

The officer wrote Bundy a citation, which Bundy let flutter to the ground, and then threatened to cite Bundy for littering, Bundy said.

Bundy, valiant, would not yield. He took one melon and walked away.

“I’ve got one melon left,” he said in the video. “I’m going to give it to (the potential customer) and say maybe you don’t want to do business with us. We’re kind of stubborn, but here’s a good melon you can enjoy with your family.”

Bundy, who recently shocked some folks by supporting Black Lives Matter’s call to defund the police, said in a later video that the truck was returned to the rental company from which he had engaged it, and then returned – with the melons – to him.

Still, he would not want you to think this was not a true and lasting tragedy.

“I believe we should be more free than we are,” he said. “I believe we should freely trade with each other. I believe we should not be caught under this terrible web of a police state, and I believe I should be able to sell this beautiful melon to whomever I want to as long as they want to buy it.”

The terrible, terrible web of the police state.

“I know most of you guys won’t understand this,” Bundy said. “But most of you probably wear a mask, too.”

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