The militia news stories come more and more frequently now. The latest one, out of Michigan, introduces a new extremist revolutionary buzzword to the lexicon, Hutaree, but otherwise serves up the usual sad characters and settings.
Underemployed men wearing US Army surplus camouflage, target-shooting and practicing “military maneuvers” in the woods. Single-wide trailers jury-rigged together with plywood and sheet metal. Yards full of cast-off furniture, car parts, and underfed pets. Kids pulled out of school for the purposes of “home schooling.” Men and women with too much time on their hands, too much misdirected rage.
I often wonder how these people can afford to stock up so liberally (if I might use the term) on munitions. I mean, I don’t know about you, but after I pay the month’s bills—the cable, the phone, the mortgage, the credit cards, the electricity—there’s hardly any money left for grenades or extra clips of ammunition for the M16 assault rifle. Some people can stretch a paycheck, I guess.
I wonder, too, about what the future holds for these people opting out of the culture in ever-increasing numbers. Some day the revolution will end, as it always does. The American people will elect a Republican president (Mitt Romney or some other centrist politician whose philosophies differ scarcely at all from those of Barack Obama). Rush Limbaugh will sell less mattresses and Levitra® on his radio show; Glenn Beck will attend prayer breakfasts at the White House; Sarah Palin will get a daytime TV talk show of her own, some second-tier gig on the CW or TruTV.
But what about the true believers? Some people compare today’s right-wing extremists to the left-wing extremists of the ’60s. The Hutaree and the Black Panthers. Tea Partiers and hippie radicals. Michael Savage and Abbie Hoffman. But I don’t think the comparison is apt.
The anti-war, anti-capitalist counterculture movement of the 1960s was populated mostly by young people, kids with their futures still firmly in front of them. They lived in a nation of plenty, in the midst of an ever-growing—and very forgiving—marketplace. When the revolution ran aground, there was still plenty of time left to pick one’s self up, pluck the flowers from one’s hair, and go back to school for a while. Or, hell, put in an application at the Ford Motor plant. I was twelve years old in 1974 and I can distinctly remember at least a few teachers who made no secret at all of being recovering hippies. (Hello, Mr. Thomas and Miss Conway!)
There were older ’60s radicals, of course, but they were dilettantes, cocktail-partying with Bobby Seale, dabbling in the hippie scene for a few months before returning, safe and sound, to lives sheltered by money. Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson made a living, for a while, writing satirical essays about these people. They were never in any danger of being left out in the cold.
The new extremists aren’t young (unless they’re the children of revolutionaries) and they don’t have nearly the room for error enjoyed by their ancestors on the left. They’re opting out of a world in which the competition for a living wage has never been fiercer, the social safety net less substantial. (It doesn’t help that one of their core beliefs involves severing one of the few lifelines available to them, universal access to subsidized healthcare.)
The justice system they’re running afoul of isn’t the easygoing, permissive ’70s establishment, but rather the hyper-vigilant, increasingly merciless system of today. Jail sentences are longer, financial penalties are harsher. In terms of getting a job, it’s strictly one strike and you’re out. Try getting a second interview after checking the YES box next to Have you ever been convicted of a criminal offense?
And by the way, the police these days are no picnic either, are they? I was surprised to discover during the Hutaree roundup that the Michigan police have tanks, actual battle tanks, at their disposal. They rolled into the town of Clayton like the Soviet army into Prague in 1968. The entire Michigan economy may be in the shitter, but the cops there are livin’ large.
At any rate, whenever I see a bunch of Tea Partiers and militia members and Oath Keepers protesting the availability of healthcare for all US citizens or demanding the abolition of the Federal Reserve or insisting that President Obama produce a real US birth certificate, I feel a little sad. It would be one thing, I suppose, if all these “patriots” really were saving the Constitution from left-wing Bolsheviks or sparing us all from death panels and global warming research. But they’re really not. Instead, like Abbie Hoffman forty years ago, they’re insisting that we can cause the Pentagon to levitate in the air and turn orange if we think really hard.
I was reading a big feature about the Tea Party movement in the New York Times a few weeks ago, and I came across the story of Leah Southwell. Until recently, she had been in the top one percent of all Mary Kay Cosmetics sales representatives, but she had set all that aside. Inspired by speeches of Ron Paul that she found on YouTube, she quit her job to become an officer of the John Birch Society and now devotes her time to recruiting followers on the Tea Party circuit. Asked about her new philosophy, she quotes the Tea Party manifesto: “We mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”
This is nothing more nor less than a polished-up, re-tooled version of Timothy Leary’s “Turn on, tune in, drop out” for a harder, harsher 21st century. I watch our modern new revolutionaries on TV, stocking up on ammunition and gold, and I see a bunch of middleaged people getting into the slow lane on the highway of life, putting their directional signals on, and taking a detour to nowhere.