by David A. Neiwert
Washington State University Press, Pullman, WA, 1999
$19.95 paperback, 357 pages
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At first glance, David A. Neiwert's definitive work on western militias does not seem like the kind of book that would interest readers of a magazine with a “Positive Futures,” sustainability mindset.
But Neiwert makes a strong and eloquent case for why Americans across the political and cultural spectrum should not simply write off militias as the isolated bunkerings of secessionist racist loonies. If we're not careful, Neiwert fears, such a dismissive attitude could allow what he terms “a uniquely American kind of fascism” to fill the vacuum in disenfranchised rural America.
“American culture is so thoroughly geared to a white-collar urban perspective that the goings-on in the blue-collar, working-class rural world seem hardly to be worth our time,” Neiwert writes.
When a group of self-proclaimed Freemen cloistered themselves and their guns at a ranch in Jordan, Montana, in a standoff with the FBI, the national media's reporting left Neiwert, a fourth-generation Idahoan, feeling that his urban colleagues had failed to examine how the Freemen philosophy could gain such traction.
“The reality is that while the Patriot movement is relatively small yet in numbers, it is significantly widespread, manifesting itself in virtually every rural county in the country.” Neiwert writes.
The book rang especially true to me. I have lived in a rural timber town in the north Cascades Mountains of Washington state for eight years. We have our local secessionist movement—a property-rights group that claims to have sectioned off the northern half of Snohomish County into “Freedom County.” The group elected commissioners during a bus ride to the state capital. They filed numerous bogus liens against county and state officials, including the Snohomish County sheriff. They even appointed their own sheriff, a man who calls himself Fnu Lnu (police code for “First Name Unknown, Last Name Unknown”). Their claims have been repeatedly rejected in state courts.
Our own Freedom County is not mentioned in the book, but “Justus Township,” a similar movement near Seattle, is, as are other similar lien-filing, sheriff-harassing “patriot” groups. The ominous undertones of violence and racism of these groups are not funny—many of these groups insinuate that sheriffs who do not support their causes should be tried for treason and hanged if found guilty.
Neiwert does a thorough job documenting a disturbing panoply of self-described “Patriots”—militias, Freemen, Phineas Priests, Posse Comitatus, Christian Identity, and Aryan Nations. Rather than simply pointing a hysterical finger, Neiwert takes the time to evaluate the claims of these groups and to understand how they see themselves.
Take, for instance, this statement by Montana rancher Gilles Stockman, who stood up to the Freemen in his community: “My neighbors and I may not understand how the Freemen got where they are, but I think we do understand their anger,” Stockman said. “NAFTA and the globalization of the US economy affirm that rural America is just a colony. We natives happen to speak English and the toilets flush, but like all colonies, rural America supplies raw materials at a net loss to its inhabitants and to the land. ... The corporations steal my labor, my produce and my land. Society at large insults me as being obsolete and ignorant. ... I make no apology for the ‘Freemen.' We don't need more racism, threats of violence, and extremist rhetoric. But there is a sickness when the people who work the land are abandoned and abused.”
Neiwert's book gives a sort of unstated roadmap to communities facing these conflicts. Often, the quiet heroes of Neiwert's stories are those who faced up to the painful task of denouncing relatives and friends who were flouting the law. Sheriffs, judges, and prosecutors who were being terrorized were able to enforce the law, not so much because the FBI helped, but because enough people in the community supported them. The most successful, bloodless resolutions to the several standoffs Neiwert details occurred when the Patriots in their bunkers realized that their communities were not rallying to their side against the authorities.
In God's Country is a good reminder of the importance of paying attention to the economic plight of rural America. Many of the people we rely on to work the land lack more viable financial alternatives and feel ignored and powerless. Paranoia and even, as the author suggests, a unique brand of fascism are able to creep in from the fringes in that kind of vacuum. We cannot afford to abandon those few who have stayed on the farm to claw and scratch our food and raw materials out of the Earth for a pittance.