Eight years ago, I got a flat tire while collecting firewood way back on a dirt road in the hills of northeastern Washington. No spare. Thumping along at about five miles per hour, I came to a small house and asked to borrow a pump. The owner didn’t have one, but offered me a spare tire instead. I drove home on the spare and returned the next day with his tire and a cake. The man, clearly a logger, asked if I wanted some firewood. I said sure, and he picked up his chain saw.
Before starting up the saw, the logger asked what I did. “I’m a writer,” I said. He asked what I wrote. Relations between loggers and environmentalists being poor at best, I was tempted to lie, but nothing came to mind. So I told him the truth: that I was writing about how the big four timber companies in the Pacific Northwest had gotten their land illegally from the American public. The logger turned red in the face and started swearing. I was looking for a chance to make a break for it when I realized he was swearing not at me, but at the timber companies. An independent logger, he’d been put out of business by Plum Creek Timber Company and hated them even more than I did. Within minutes, we were swapping stories about Plum Creek’s atrocities and planning how to take on the big corporations.
Too often, however, what seems like a natural alliance between environmentalists and people who make their living off the land – whether loggers or ranchers or farmers – never comes into being. Joel Dyer’s book Harvest of Rage: Why Oklahoma City Is Only the Beginning (Westview Press) offers some compelling reasons why farmers end up allied not with environmentalists but with the far Right.
Dyer was drawn to write about the farm crisis when he learned that American farmers are killing themselves in droves: suicide has long since replaced equipment accidents as the primary cause of unnatural death on the farm. Dyer wanted to know why, and what could be done to help. So, working closely with Glen Wallace, head of the Oklahoma Rural Mental Health Department, he began to interview farmers throughout the Midwest, and to visit militia compounds to figure out their attraction.
He found people driven to desperation by a political and economic system out of control – one that does not represent them and, moreover, is destroying their way of life. And he found people with a level of anger and dedication that is inconceivable to most of us. “We will continue to see rural America turn to terrorism to protect its way of life,” Dyer says, “because it doesn’t have the numbers or the resources to fight any other way.”
Dyer points out that, though we tend to think our nation’s history is fairly smooth, we’ve always had “radical” movements: in the 1890s, the 1930s, the 1960s. Common people changed the world during these periods. The rise of the antigovernment movement is a sign that it could happen again. He has written: “There may be conspiracy afoot. But it’s not a conspiracy of Jewish bankers against Christians; it’s a conspiracy of wealth holders versus the rest of us.”
A journalist living in Longmont, Colorado, Dyer was editor of the Boulder Weekly for four years and in 1997 won the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ first-place prize for social reporting. He is now a frequent lecturer on college campuses and commentator on television and public-radio networks. His most recent book, The Perpetual Prisoner Machine: How America Profits from Crime (Westview Press), explores this country’s prison-population explosion, the largest in history. Dyer has written for Mother Jones, Utne Reader, and the New York Times Magazine. He is currently cowriting a screenplay, with actor-author Peter Coyote, based on Harvest of Rage.
This conversation took place at the Boulder Public Library in June 1999.
Jensen: Why is rural America angry?
Dyer: Because the people there look around at their way of life, their unique culture, and they see that it’s changing. It’s dying out. And the reasons for that change are beyond their control. I think all of us tend to get angry when our lives are harmed by forces outside our control.
Rural Americans are a small enough percentage of the nation’s population now that they can’t affect our democracy the way they once could. The cities carry every election. Even in an agricultural state like Kansas, if a candidate can convince the cities to vote for him, he can lose the rest of the state and still win.
This means people in the cities are now capable of dictating, through the government, how rural Americans must live. And rural Americans are upset by this, because they don’t want to change their way of life. They don’t want to live by city rules. They’re a very nostalgic population that wants to keep things the way they’ve always been. They want to give their kids a gun when they turn ten and teach them how to hunt. They want to farm. They want to be left alone. They don’t want to have to mess with eight thousand different laws.
Jensen: How do you define “rural America”?
Dyer: Once you leave the cities and get past the half-million-dollar houses on five acres – the gentlemen’s farms – you’re in rural America, the other 85 percent of the land mass of the United States. Rural America is where most people make their living through agriculture, mining, or some other occupation based directly on the land and natural resources, and where the economy depends on the money spent by these people. A town of ten thousand probably isn’t rural America because it has a sustainable economy that doesn’t rise and fall with the price of wheat or lumber, whereas a town of three thousand whose economy is tied directly to the price of soybeans would be.
Jensen: Would you say that the farm crisis in rural America is a crisis of democracy?
Dyer: There are two components to this. The first is that we haven’t always had a national democracy. The U.S. was founded as a republic, with mostly local government – it had to be, because of the lack of communications and transportation technology. If you were in, say, rural Missouri 150 years ago, you had to be self-sufficient, because traveling to the nearest store or court of law was prohibitive. Because it took so long to travel between locales, it made sense for each place to establish its own laws, courts, and way of life based on local customs and economics. Laws in Missouri were different from laws in New York City. For all practical purposes, the two might as well have been in different countries.
As transportation and communications technology improved, a simple democracy and federalism became practicable. It became possible for Washington, D.C., to dictate to people in rural Nevada how they were supposed to live – and to check up on them and make sure they were obeying the rules. Now we’re hearing about the possibility of national elections being conducted over the telephone. You won’t even have to leave your home; you’ll just dial up, punch in your vote, and you’re done. Simple.
But what does that kind of simplicity do to minority cultures? By “minority” I mean not just people of color or the poor, both of whom certainly suffer from laws passed by the middle-class white majority, but any group that doesn’t have the numbers to compete in a large-scale democratic government. A perfect example is here in Colorado. Think how many “I send ten dollars to the Nature Conservancy” pseudoenvironmentalists live in Boulder and Denver. These voters easily have the numbers to override all the farmers in the western half of the state. They want to do a good thing for the environment without ever leaving their easy chairs. But how many thousands of rural people have they put out of work with impractical environmental legislation dreamed up by urban activists who lack practical knowledge of rural life? Suburban-chic environmentalism is a big source of rage in the hinterland, because it has imposed a certain standard of behavior to which many rural people don’t want to be held.
By the way, most small family farmers are not resistant to environmentalism: they pollute because, economically, they have to in order to stay on their land. They’re angry because, quite often, environmental regulations are the last nail in the coffin of their way of life. Contrast this to large corporate farms, which pollute because it allows them to make more money.
Jensen: Most of the farmers, ranchers, and loggers I know hate environmental regulations for the same reason I do, which is that they don’t work: small operators have to abide by the rules, while huge corporations get pet senators and representatives to pass waivers, or else simply ignore the regulations and pay a fine.
Dyer: There’s a fellow out in California who is something of a martyr in the antigovernment movement. He operated a small mining claim on public land. Government regulations allowed him to cut enough trees to work his mine, but, according to the government, he cut about thirty too many. He was sentenced to ten years in prison – primarily because he’d written a number of racist, antigovernment books. He was stabbed to death behind bars a couple of years ago. Weyerhaeuser, on the other hand, can “accidentally” cut down a whole damn forest and get a fine – maybe not even that.
But back to the point. If both urban and rural cultures in this country are to survive, then we have to begin allowing for some diversity in the laws. If not, relative population densities will guarantee that the rural culture dies out. And the more that happens, the more rural Americans will turn militant.
This leads to the second part of the problem. To put farmers under the thumb of urban America is bad enough. But what’s even worse is that our national democracy is, for the most part, an illusion. There are a number of reasons for this, but the problem really begins with the media, especially television.
Behavioral scientists now increasingly believe that, for the first time in our history, we’re formulating our worldview based more on images that come to us through our televisions than on what we see with our own eyes. This has huge implications, especially when you look at who controls those images. In 1983, fifty companies controlled half of all media – not just television. By the early 1990s, it was down to twenty-six. Now nine corporations control more than half the media in the entire world. The biggest is Disney; the second, Time Warner.
It’s important to look at how content is selected. What is the motivation of those who control these images? The images are controlled by corporations, and corporations’ sole purpose is to make money. And what makes money? More specifically, what makes money in a global market? Violent and sexually explicit content, since these lose the least in translation. So that’s what gets produced.
As a result, we’re inundated with violence: 61 percent of all television programming now contains it. This applies to the news, as well; because violence sells, the news media exploit incidents of violent crime. Just since 1990, sensationalized reporting of violent crime has tripled. That means the NBC Nightly News reports three times as many sensational, violent crimes as it used to. Think about the stories that have been covered to the point of saturation: Bobbit, Buttafuoco, Littleton, JonBenet Ramsey, O.J. What do any of these really have to do with us? Nothing. But they generate money because they’re sordid and unusual. It’s insane that, five years after John Wayne Bobbit got his penis whacked off, more people know about his story than know about the biodiversity crisis, soft-money loopholes, or the collapse of the family farm.
Now, if you are constantly bombarded with the details of sensational murders, the world begins to seem an overwhelmingly violent place, much more violent than it actually is. The media critic George Gerbner calls this the “mean-world syndrome.”
Jensen: I interviewed him for The Sun [“Telling Stories,” August 1998].
Dyer: He’s a very perceptive analyst.
Unfortunately, the consolidation of the media coincided with the rise of the political consultant, whose stock in trade is constant polling. In the last five years, the amount of money spent on polling by political candidates has quadrupled. Bill Clinton polls to see what tie to wear, to decide where to vacation, to determine which words to use when he speaks.
Jensen: Are these examples actually true?
Dyer: Unfortunately. During the Lewinsky scandal, Clinton used pollsters to try to figure out what to tell the country. His political consultants discovered that whenever Clinton used the word truthful, everyone got angry. But every time he described what had happened as “part of [his] private life,” people felt empathetic.
The result was that Clinton went on television the next day and, in a four-minute speech, used the term “private life” seven times and never once said anything about being truthful. Afterward, another poll found that 70 percent of Americans approved of Clinton. But did we really approve of Clinton, or simply of words and images to which pollsters had already determined we’d react favorably? In other words, were we simply being manipulated?
Political consultants have been around forever, but they really began their rise to prominence in the 1970s, when politicians stopped calling them in six months before the election and just put them on staff full time. So politicians follow consultants, who feed them the results of polls taken of people who’ve been manipulated by images designed by other people who’ve taken polls to see what images will resonate – and these images are largely delivered by nine gigantic corporations. So we end up with a Congress that jumps through hoops held up by nine corporations motivated solely by profit. That’s the America we live in.
A new poll just came out that said crime is the single most important concern for most Americans – this at a time when, for seven years, crime has been falling. That’s a powerful divergence: our fear and anger and frustration regarding crime are going up while crime itself is going down. It makes no sense, unless you look at the role of the media. Because political consultants constantly poll people infected with Gerbner’s mean-world syndrome, everyone in Congress is told, “Crime is the hot-button issue. Be harder on crime.” Anyone who said, “You know, we can’t continue to spend this kind of money on prisons,” would get thrown out of office in a heartbeat.
Here’s why: Because the cost of a national-level electoral campaign has gone from $300,000 to $10 million (much of that money going, by the way, to the nine gigantic media corporations), politicians are more beholden to big money than at any other time in our history. Any politician who wants access to that money is told, “Here are the ten hottest issues. If you’re in line with the targeted electorate on those issues, you get the money. If not, you don’t, because these corporations don’t want to spend money to purchase access to someone who’s not going to be elected.” So because we’ve been brainwashed by the media to believe the world is a much more violent place than it actually is, even corporations with no vested interest in prisons will, as a rule, give their money only to someone who’s hard on crime.
As a result of this setup, the U.S. went from having two hundred thousand to 2 million inmates in less than three decades: the largest prison expansion in the history of the world. And it’s all come about as the result of the media trust’s decision to boost ratings by exploiting sensationalized crime as a form of twisted entertainment.
Now, at last, we return to your original question about the sources of anger in rural America. Not only is rural America subject to the will of urban America, but it’s not even the true will of urban America: it’s a brainwashed will based on an illusion.
Jensen: I would say there’s another level to this that has nothing to do with politics, but rather with corporate control of rural economies. A family farmer once said to me, “Cargill gives me two choices: either I cut my own throat, or they’ll do it for me.”
Dyer: You’ve got to love farmers. They go straight to the heart of the problem. And the heart of the problem is that a few corporations have monopolistic economic control of rural America. Without that control – if, for example, we had anything resembling a free market – the political control wouldn’t matter. To gain political control, you have to have economic control.
Jensen: What are the numbers on corporate control of agriculture?
Dyer: In the beef-packing industry, Cargill, ConAgra, and Iowa Beef Packers control 80 percent of the total market. At the beginning of the farm crisis, the seven largest grain companies controlled 96 percent of all U.S. wheat exports, 95 percent of corn exports, 90 percent of oat exports, and 80 percent of sorghum exports. The numbers have only gotten worse since then. Some of these companies have been around for hundreds of years, and because they’re family owned, they’re not required to give out any information on how much they make or how much they’re worth.
Every farming industry is dangerously concentrated. In Oklahoma, if you’re a chicken farmer, Tyson Foods provides your propane, your building, and your baby chicks. You basically work for Tyson. At the end of the season, they come and truck the chickens to their plant and tell you how much they’re going to pay you. Hog farming is quickly becoming like that. One farmer in Missouri told me that, just a decade ago, there were a dozen people to whom he could sell his pigs on any given day. Now there’s one, fifty miles away, who tells him on what day he can come and dictates the price.
What does this consolidation mean for producers? Two years ago, farmers were getting thirty-five dollars per hundred pounds of pork – and they were already losing money then. Earlier this year, it was fifteen dollars per hundred. Does this mean that the price in the supermarket has gone down by more than half? Of course not. You saw maybe a 2ÿpercent drop in pork prices at the store. A giant processor – the only one in, say, a four-state area that buys that particular product – can dictate a price that’s less than what it costs for the animal or crop to be raised. And the farmer still has to sell, because there’s nowhere else to go.
In Idaho, ConAgra, the last time I checked, was paying less per hundred pounds of potatoes than it cost to raise them. The farmers’ response has been not to sell, but ConAgra doesn’t care; it just uses NAFTA to bring potatoes over from Canada, where the farmers can get a lousy price and still stay in business because they’re subsidized. So ConAgra cheerily goes on making potato chips, all the while holding American farmers over a barrel.
Jensen: One might say, “So what? Buggy-whip makers went out of business when cars came in. Why can’t farmers just get jobs in the city?”
Dyer: Because it’s not just the loss of a job – it’s the loss of an entire way of life. Rural America is a different culture. Farmers don’t just say, “Damn, these corporations sure are making it hard for me to get by. I guess I’ll take that factory job in the city.” They don’t want to go to the city; they want to hold on to the life they have. Consequently, they continue to lose money every year while they can’t afford to feed their children. Twenty-seven percent of all kids in rural America go to bed hungry every night – more than in the inner city. These farmers can’t buy food; they can’t make loan payments. Their stress level goes up and they start having heart attacks. And some of them – more than you’d imagine – kill themselves.
Five times as many farmers now die of suicide as die from equipment accidents – which, historically, have been the single biggest cause of unnatural death on the farm. And that’s not even counting suicides made to look like accidents: if you’re about to lose your farm and have life insurance, you can crawl into your combine, and your family might be able to keep the farm. Personally, I suspect there are more fraudulent accidents than straightforward gunshots to the head. So it could be that ten or fifteen times as many farmers die from suicide as die from accidents.
Jensen: You’re talking about an extreme level of despair.
Dyer: As much time as I’ve spent with farmers going through foreclosures over the last decade, I don’t even pretend to understand the anxiety they suffer. That’s part of the problem of urban-rural relationships: we urbanites can see the despair, but we can’t feel it. We can’t fully grasp the feeling of “My great-granddad homesteaded this piece of land and fought to keep it. My granddad took it over from him and made it bigger and better. My dad took it over from him and did the same. And now he’s given it to me, and I’m going to lose it.”
Jensen: And not because you’re a bad farmer.
Dyer: No, because of economics, consolidation, and the activities of the federal government. The farm crisis of the 1980s was a direct result of Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker’s fighting inflation so that rich people could save money. He consciously decided to tighten credit drastically. When other governors of the reserve board warned him that this path would precipitate a disastrous farm crisis, he responded, “That’s the price you pay for letting inflation get out of hand.”
It isn’t the farmers’ fault – they did everything they were told to do. When the secretary of agriculture told them, “Get big or get out,” they got big. When he said, “Plant fence row to fence row; there’s a global economy out there, and we need all the wheat we can get,” they did. Farmers obeyed when they were told – by their bankers, by the government, and by their extension agents – “Go into as much debt as you can; buy more land.” Then Volcker pulled the plug, and suddenly the farmer who’d borrowed $4 million to buy more farmland so he could plant more wheat was sitting on land worth only $700,000.
That would have been bad enough, but next the banks – in one of the most extraordinarily stupid actions in banking history – started calling in their loans, giving farmers ultimatums: “Pay back the $4 million immediately, or lose your farm.” Obviously, no one had that sort of money, so the bank foreclosed on the farm and then, astonishingly enough, turned around and sold off that land for $700,000 to another farmer – or, more likely, to a giant corporation.
But the reason doesn’t always matter; the important thing is that the farm went belly up. And when you lose the farm that belonged to your great-granddad and your granddad and your dad, and that was supposed to go to your kids, it’s worse even than a death in the family, because on top of the emotional distress is a thick layer of guilt. You feel as though you murdered that farm; as though you murdered your children’s future, your heritage, your connection to God, and your connection to history.
Imagine you go into a house in western Oklahoma and see a forty-year-old farmer with a shotgun sitting in his lap, empty bottles of Jack Daniels lying all around. He hasn’t slept in days, hasn’t bathed or shaved in weeks. There’s food stuck in every nook and cranny. The wife and kids split a while ago. You can’t look into those eyes and say, “Why didn’t you just get another job?” It’s not like that. Of course he would have gotten another job if that were all there was to it, but it’s bigger than that, deeper than that.
I recently received a videotape made by rural psychologist Glen Wallace. It was an interview with a farmer named Jerry, who looked to be in his midthirties. He had red around his eyes, as if he hadn’t slept. He’d lost his farm four years before, and he’d been going through counseling, doing everything he could to hang in there. He’d lost his wife; she couldn’t take the stress, took the kids and left. The counselors followed Jerry around to his new job pumping propane, still in the same community. He said, “It was hard, but I realized I had to go on with my life.” He had kind of a stammer. You could still hear the anxiety in his voice after four years. The tape was made to show an example of someone who was recovering, someone who was going to make it. After I watched the tape, I read the note Glen had put in the box with it. It said: “Unfortunately, we lost Jerry this week.” After four years, he’d killed himself.
So what do you do? You can’t just say, “You lost your farm; get over it.” You have to look at retraining. You have to look at medicating some people. But obviously the best answer is to figure out a way to keep the five hundred family farms a week from going under in the first place.
Jensen: The farmers’ unwillingness to get a factory job reminds me of a quote from Big Soldier, a nineteenth-century Indian: “I see and admire your manner of living. . . . You can do almost what you choose. You whites possess the power of subduing almost every animal to your use. You are surrounded by slaves. Everything about you is in chains, and you are slaves yourselves. I fear that if I should exchange my pursuits for yours, I, too, should become a slave.”
Dyer: It’s a terrible thing to be a slave to another person. But it’s potentially a wonderful thing to belong to a piece of ground. Indigenous cultures understand that connection. And as an agrarian society, we once understood it. But within the last few generations, we’ve lost that connection. I’m forty-one. I didn’t grow up on a farm, but my grandparents did. And my uncle had a ranch, where I went as a child. Even though I didn’t see my time there as important, it did help me establish the connection: I knew where pigs came from, and milk and potatoes. Future generations won’t have anywhere like that to visit. They’ll be totally disconnected from the land. I once talked to a woman about the farm crisis, and she actually said to me, “I really would like to be concerned, but I don’t get my food from the farmer anyway. I get it at the store.”
Now we have generations of people who don’t even drive from one big city to the next. Their understanding of rural America is that big flat area their plane flies over. And should they wonder what life is like down there, they figure it must be pretty good, because they’ve seen those TV commercials in which Archer Daniels Midland says it’s “feeding the world.”
Jensen: How does the conversion take place from despair to militant action?
Dyer: When I was researching Harvest of Rage, I was shocked to find out how universal the patterns are. Whether I was hanging out with the Freemen, or the Republic of Texas people, or some other group, there was a uniformity to their stories that I haven’t seen anyone in the mainstream media address.
Jensen: Why is that?
Dyer: Probably because we’re in the middle of an economic boom that’s gone on for seven years, and to acknowledge the universal causes of rural despair would be to acknowledge the hollowness of the boom. Even though a good-sized portion of U.S. children are going hungry, these are still boom times for the audience the media are trying to reach.
But you were asking how despair turns to action. Filmmaker-activist Michael Moore has a great quote about this: “If you want to know where the Michigan Militia came from, they’re the unemployed arm of the United Auto Workers.” And that’s true. If you begin to listen to militia members, you’ll find that what moves them to action is depression from losing their farm, their house, their job, their wife and children. The problems are never just economic. The question is: How do you respond to not just the loss of your home and family, but the loss of your whole way of life, and of control over your life?
The answer depends a lot on your culture. If you’re a farmer, the next step may be to put a gun to your head. Ranchers are a slightly different breed. They’re more likely to turn their violent feelings outward. But the point here isn’t the difference between ranchers and farmers; it’s that once long-term, chronic depression has set in, only three things can happen: One, you can get help through counseling or the like. But because most people caught in an economic crisis don’t have insurance, and because the government has been slashing budgets for rural counseling at the same time that it’s been driving farmers off the land, that option doesn’t exist for the vast majority. The next option is that you turn the anger inward, which means maybe you kill yourself or drive your family away (recognizing that violence against one’s family is in some way internally directed). Or maybe you drink yourself to death, or do drugs, or otherwise escape. The last option is that you turn your anger outward, into some form of action. That can mean driving through the front window of a bank and shooting the guy who wouldn’t give you a loan extension. But for most, it has meant turning to militant action. Quite often, I’ve found rural people’s racism and hatred for the government to be symptoms of economic stress rather than a simple ideological difference.
Let’s say I’ve lost everything, and I’m chronically depressed. My entire world has fallen apart. Then somebody knocks on my door and says, “I can help you. It’s not your fault. Let me give you my support.” Whoever extends that helping hand to me, I’m likely to be converted to their cause: If the Mormons knock, I might become a Mormon. If the Jehovah’s Witnesses knock, I might become a Jehovah’s Witness. And if it’s the militia, I’ll probably become a militia member.
If you go to a farm auction, time after time you’ll see someone crying and putting his arm around the man who’s losing his farm. Chances are, that will be a local John Bircher or a local militia member. He’s there because he lost his farm, too, and he understands what that farmer is going through. He’s saying, “It’s not your fault, man. It’s the government’s fault. It’s the evil Jewish conspiracy’s fault. I love you, and you can come with me now and fight this battle. Here’s another reason to live.” What a message!
If someone were there for that farmer with another message – and that person would have to know and care about what the farmer was going through; it couldn’t be just another urban type trying to manipulate the farmer – then the farmer might go in another direction. If a rural psychologist like Glen Wallace were there with his arm around him, then maybe the guy would make it out of his despair without joining the antigovernment ranks.
You also have to realize that it’s the rare militia person who takes it all the way to a truck bomb. Most guys just put out a bunch of literature and get a little angry and eventually calm back down.
Jensen: So where is the Left through all this? Why is it a John Bircher with his arm around the farmer, and not an anticorporate activist?
Dyer: The Left is in the city, worried about urban blight or the environment. We on the Left have put on blinders, to the point where we aren’t willing to reach out to middle-aged white men. Middle-aged white men are supposed to be the root of all evil. And I don’t disagree with that notion in many ways: it’s absolutely true that middle-aged white men are the root of most evil, because they occupy the positions of power. But there are 15 million poor middle-aged white men who have more in common with urban blacks and Hispanics than they do with the average CEO.
So there’s no help from the Left because these rural men are villified as “rednecks” and “Bubbas.” Besides, there are too many problems for people on the Left to worry about as it is – the last thing they need to take on is underprivileged white men. Can you imagine how hard it would be to raise money from wealthy liberals to help poor white males?
This attitude allows those of us on the Left to sidestep examination of our own bigotry, which is, I think, just as serious as that of the Right. The Left determines who is downtrodden, and often that determination is based on just as shallow a measure as those the Right uses to determine who is worthy. Another problem with the Left’s attitude is that it ignores the potential for violence among white males, which is high. Finally, the Left is alienating a massive group of potential political allies. Twenty-four million whites are currently living in poverty. The Left needs to realize that low-income whites, including farmers and others in rural America, are not and have never been the enemy.
When I first started cruising around talking to suicidal farmers, my friends would say, “My God, you’re not going to Watonga looking like that, are you? They won’t even serve you in restaurants there.” In a sense, they were right to be concerned, because I had hair almost down to my butt and wore an earring. And there would be a sudden silence when I walked through the door of the local diner. But then I’d say, “I’m here to talk to so-and-so about how the banks are screwing him out of his farm,” and instantly they’d say, “Hey, you want to come to my house for dinner?” and, “If you need a truck while you’re here . . .” Once we had a common cause, our other differences didn’t matter.
During my book tour, I went on TV shows like Good Morning America and Today. On one show, they introduced me as “Joel Dyer, who went undercover into the antigovernment movement.” As soon as I came on, I said, “I never went undercover anywhere. I walked up and knocked on doors and said, ‘I want to know what you think, and why you’re angry,’ and they told me.” The TV people couldn’t believe that somebody in an armed compound had let me in just like that. I said, “They’re angry, and they want to tell someone why, but the only time a reporter ever shows up is to cover a shootout or ask stupid questions about how many guns they have. No one ever shows up to really talk to them, which involves listening.”
I wasn’t there because I agreed with them, but because I thought I understood why they were mad and wanted to know how they had reached their conclusions. I’d have arguments with men in the Christian Identity Movement, for instance, about the Bible. And they were much scarier than the more straightforward, political militia members. The Identity people believe that blacks and Jews don’t have souls and aren’t human. I told them I thought they were wrong. We talked about it. Nobody hit me. (They might have wanted to.) Of course their rhetoric is very offensive, but change will never come until we establish open lines of communication with them. You don’t have to pretend to agree with them to talk to these people. They are perfectly open to dialogue, and the Left would find it shares many things in common with the nonracist militia groups. I’ve seen more than one militia leader reading Noam Chomsky.
One reason for the popularity of antigovernment groups – and also racist groups like the Christian Identity Movement – is that they provide scapegoats. When we’re depressed and in trouble, scapegoating can sometimes save our lives. If we can somehow get the blame off ourselves, we’re less likely to do ourselves harm – either through the slow suicide of drinking, or the fast suicide of a pistol.
Now, whom we’re going to scapegoat depends a lot on who delivers that saving message to us when we’re vulnerable. To me, the most obvious scapegoat – and one that doesn’t require twisted interpretations of the Constitution or the Bible – is large corporations. Corporations technically aren’t even scapegoats, since it’s true that they are driving rural farmers out of business. Does this have anything to do with government? It has to do with decisions being made by government – trade agreements like NAFTA and GATT, for example – decisions made to benefit the big corporations that fund political campaigns. I look forward to the day when antigovernment groups become realistic and stop blaming this mess on some arcane Jewish conspiracy.
One of the healthiest developments I’ve seen in the last decade was when farmers blockaded rail lines in North Dakota and Montana last year. This protest was pulled off by guys who four years earlier were wearing fatigues and shooting at targets. Now they were putting their tractors across rail lines to stop trains from bringing in wheat that was undercutting theirs.
Jensen: Leaving aside the racists for the moment, what is it that most militant farmers want?
Dyer: I don’t think they’re greedy. They want to feed their families, keep their farms, work their land, and make a decent living – not a six-figure income, but enough to provide food and health care for their kids. If you give rural Americans that, they will be happy, because everything else stems from those basics. If the farmers and loggers and miners have that, then the guy who runs the corner store will have it, too. In my first book, I described a comparison done by Walter Goldschmidt of two towns in California: Dinuba and Arvin. Dinuba was surrounded by family farms, whereas Arvin was surrounded by a few very large, industrialized farms. In Dinuba, there were more businesses, better schools, less crime, more parks, less welfare, less violence, a better system of government, and a much smaller gap between rich and poor than in Arvin.
Jensen: What about those who resort to terrorism? What do you think they want?
Dyer: Some have gone mad and want revenge against those they think are to blame for their problems. Others want to be heard and believe violence is the only way to get their message out.
The Oklahoma City bombing was one of the most horrible things I’ve seen in my life, senseless and brutal. Yet some of the most militant of the antigovernment folks will tell you that it was “a success” because it accomplished its goal of bringing attention to Waco and Ruby Ridge, and of swaying public opinion. Polls show that the vast majority of Americans now believe the federal government was extremely out of line at Waco and Ruby Ridge.
Contrast that with Leonard Peltier. Everybody who’s paid any attention to the Peltier case knows he was wrongfully convicted and that the government fabricated evidence. But most people in the U.S. don’t even know who Peltier is, because the mainstream media haven’t focused on him.
It’s a fact that the Oklahoma City bombing made the media look more skeptically at the government’s actions at Ruby Ridge and Waco. But then to claim, as some in the antigovernment movement have done, that the bombing was the only way to accomplish this – well, that’s insane.
Jensen: What, in your opinion, is the potential for mass violence by militia groups?
Dyer: I don’t think there will be mass violence. Most people in militias have never blown anything up and never will. But there is an element that is willing to put a gun to its head, that is willing to drive through a bank’s front window and shoot the banker, that is willing to blow up a building in Oklahoma City or shoot an abortion doctor or blow up spectators at the Olympics.
There’s a story pertaining to this that I used to end Harvest of Rage: In February 1998, Daniel Rudolph, the brother of Eric Rudolph (a fugitive wanted in connection with the bombings of an abortion clinic in Birmingham, gay bars in Atlanta, and the Olympic games), sent a videotaped message to the FBI. Rudolph turned on a video camera and focused it on a power saw. He then walked over to the whirling blade, laid his arm on the table, and proceeded to saw off his left hand at the wrist. Then he turned off the camera, mailed the videotape to the FBI, and drove himself to the hospital.
To me, Daniel Rudolph explained through his videotape something that I could never explain, and something that not even his brother could explain by blowing things up and killing people. The question he seemed to answer is: How dedicated am I? How committed am I? Zing. More committed than any of you people can ever be.
And he’s right. Just as I can’t imagine the anguish weighing on that farmer who’s about to commit suicide, I can’t imagine the anger going through the mind of someone who is willing to cut off his own hand. It’s a level of commitment that you see in Afghanistan, Palestine, and elsewhere around the world. We’re not used to seeing it here, but we’re going to see more and more of it.
The people we should be frightened of aren’t those guys who “secede” from the U.S., make up flags, and fly them in front of their houses, or who go on TV to say, “We’re tired of the government.” The ones we need to worry about are the ones we’ve never heard of, and the government’s never heard of. We won’t hear about them until something bad happens.
And the sad truth is, I don’t think anyone will bother to take a hard look at the demise of rural America until more bad things happen.
Jensen: Are you saying it’s like an addict who has to hit rock bottom before he or she can change?
Dyer: I’m saying that I don’t think the forces that have the power to fix things will pay attention until they’re compelled to do so. And we need ways other than violence to make them pay attention. As long as corporations determine who will be elected – and, subsequently, what legislation will be enacted – rural America will continue to race toward Third World status, our inner cities will continue to implode, and the gap between the rich and the poor will continue to widen.
This is nothing new. Serious social change generally does not come out of good intentions or concern. It comes out of fear on the part of the haves, and desperation, frustration, anger, and depression on the part of the have-nots. And it comes only when there are enough people who fit into the second category.
Until someone comes up with a plan for change that makes sense to rural Americans, they will continue to turn to strange conspiracy theories and weird schemes to get the government off their backs. The whole purpose of some of these – like the “common-law courts” and their strict, line-by-line interpretations of the Constitution – is to get people out from under the control of the federal government, and especially its taxes, which often represent the difference between feeding the family or not. These schemes can seem pretty bizarre and crazy, but the message to rural Americans (and, increasingly, to underemployed urbanites as well) is very attractive: You can live your life the way you always have, without some outsider – the government, the farm bureau, suburban environmentalists, the IRS – controlling you. Who could disagree with the attempt to reassert control over one’s own destiny?
Jensen: If things are likely to get a lot worse before they get better, what can we do to try to help in the meantime?
Dyer: I think one of the most important things urban people can do is educate themselves about rural America. So many activists have never held a farm or factory job in a working-class community, so they don’t really know what they’re talking about when they talk of unions or agricultural issues. They don’t know anything about these people’s lives. And if you don’t know anything about them, it’s much harder for you to help them.
Jensen: It strikes me that one way we could help, on an individual level, would be simply to buy directly from farmers. For instance, I buy half a cow at a time from local ranchers. In doing so, I don’t support factory farms, I get chemical-free beef from a cow raised on open pastures, it’s much cheaper, and the local rancher makes more money.
Dyer: That raises some possibilities. There are certainly no laws against buying directly from growers – yet. It would be even better if we could get grocery stores to buy direct. But that isn’t really possible, because if grocery chains started buying from local ranchers, Iowa Beef Packers or Cargill would either temporarily drop prices to drive the local ranchers back out of the stores, or threaten to pull other product lines if the grocers refused to play along. So, unfortunately, grocery stores don’t have the option of investing heavily in local producers.
Jensen: How can we get them that option?
Dyer: By enforcing the existing antitrust laws.
Jensen: How do we make that happen?
Dyer: Considering that the media won’t cover a story these days unless it’s somewhat sensational, you could truck a hundred thousand pigs to Washington, D.C., and turn them loose on the streets while encircling the city with a tractor blockade. If you did something like that, the media would show up and stick a microphone in someone’s face, and you might be able to get a message across that would resonate with people in the city.
Jensen: When do you see more open rebellion occurring?
Dyer: When the economy goes bust. And I’m afraid much of the energy will be focused against scapegoats. You go down to Alabama right now and ask people why they’re in a militia or the KKK, and you’ll find out it’s because they’ve been told black people have taken all the good jobs, or that Mexicans are willing to work cheap.
Jensen: Which is crazy for many reasons, not the least of which is the pretty-much-open warfare that has been waged against blacks by the government. A convincing case can be made that prisons are simply concentration camps for black males.
Dyer: There’s a chapter in my new book, The Perpetual Prison Machine, called “Pulling the Plug,” in which I get to say what’s wrong with the prison system, the media, and rural America. It was a hard chapter to write because my inclination is to point the finger at easy targets like politicians and corporations. But they’re only the manifestations of the real problem: they are simply operating on a misguided reward system that you and I have established for them. Management theorist Stephen Kerr talks about “hoping for A while rewarding B.” This is exactly what we do.
All organisms will do what they’re rewarded for doing. And we’ve established systems that reward the very behavior we say we’re trying to discourage, and don’t reward the behavior we say we prefer. Perfect example: politicians. We say we want them to speak substantively about the issues. We want people in office who will “tell us the hard facts.” Yet every time someone speaking the truth runs against someone who just spouts the usual rhetoric – “I stand for a proud America, and I’ll punish bad people more harshly than the other guy” – we turn around and vote for the guy with the rhetoric. It’s the same with corporations. We say we want them to act responsibly, but every time a company lays off U.S. workers in favor of Third World labor, we rush to buy its stock.
Until we’re willing to change the reward systems, we’ll get what we deserve. And I suspect that we won’t bother to change those systems until things turn violent. If we were smart, we’d change them right now. It’s within our power. But it’s inconvenient.
For example, I’m tired of the fact that every product I pick up is made in China. I have a problem with that – not just because of slave labor, but because so many people in the U.S. don’t have decent-paying manufacturing jobs. But you know what? I don’t search for the product that’s not made in China. I’m not willing to pay more for the item not made in China. And until I’m willing to do that, every single time, nothing’s going to change. Until there are thousands, and tens of thousands, and millions of people doing it, things won’t change.
Again, I hate Wal-Mart. But how can I tell people to boycott Wal-Mart because it puts local stores out of business? The people shopping there are only trying to find cheap diapers, and they may have just gotten laid off themselves, or maybe they’re working two part-time, minimum-wage jobs and haven’t had health care since 1982.
Jensen: In some ways, you’re a fool if you pay two bucks for something you can buy for a buck elsewhere.
Dyer: But by saving yourself a buck, you hurt another community somewhere else. The factory is now in Guatemala, where the workers are paid slave wages, and some of the workers in the U.S. who lost their factory jobs so you could save a dollar are now sitting around making lists of people to shoot.
To return to your question of when I think things will start to change: I believe that when the entire country starts to go to hell in a handbasket, you’ll see some reforms. But not until then. That’s what happened in the Great Depression: Roosevelt wasn’t enlightened – he was terrified.
Jensen: He was trying to stop a revolution.
Dyer: Historian Howard Zinn is exactly right when he says that the Depression could have brought down the government if the New Deal hadn’t been put into place. Well, another New Deal won’t happen right now because there are still too many people doing too well from the stock-market boom. But when the market collapses and takes with it the money of the schoolteachers and social workers and garbage collectors who’ve jumped in, tempted by the ungodly profits of the last few years, many more people will be feeling the harsh realities now felt by the poor, minorities, and farmers.
Originally published in the December 1999 issue of The SunFiled in Interviews by Derrick Jensen