Thursday, May 28, 2015

Harvest of Rage

Harvest of Rage: Why Oklahoma City is Only the Beginning
© 1997 Joel Dyer
307 pages

In the spring of 1996, the peace of Oklahoma City was shattered when a truck bomb ignited outside a federal office.  Nearly two hundred people were killed, and nigh a thousand injured, in one man's act of rage against the government.  But in Harvest of Rage, Joel Dyer writes that McVeigh was far from alone: he was part of a movement of thousands, spread across the country but concentrated in its withering agricultural heartland.  The farm crisis -- the growing poverty and destruction of rural life in the wake of globalization -- has created legion of homegrown terrorists, whose despair has been crafted into insurrection against the government. Dyer spent seven years interviewing and visiting anti-government types attempting to get to the bottom of rural militancy, and offers sections on the movement's ideological bases as well as his economic argument.  Although portions of this are badly dated, especially given that Dyer sees Endtimes-paranoia about the coming of the Millennium as a factor,  the central issues are alive and well twenty years later.

Dyer is not sympathetic to most of the ideas that he encounters during his seven-year investigation (he refers to the free enterprise system as one "in which the government does nothing to help people"), but he does empathize with the plight of his subjects, sharing some of their concerns if not their response. The central issue, as Dyer sees it, is economic:  as globalization allows for American firms to  manufacture goods and purchase food more cheaply overseas,  America's own primary industries are being gutted. Family farms are being eaten alive by monstrously large international entities like Cargill, and as they fail they take with them rural towns. Further , Dyer writes, a farm is different from  other small businesses; a farmer is more likely to have inherited the estate from his father, who inherited from his own. The farm is home,  and can contain within it an family's entire history. To be responsible for losing that heritage can be emotionally crippling: little wonder when this ruin looms,  some farmers clutch at whatever desperate straws they can find.

Having established the nature of the farm crisis as one not causing a shortage of food, but one obliterating the livelihoods of families and local economies of families throughout the west, Dyer then argues that their legitimate grievances are being twisted into sometimes violent conspiracy theories.   Farmers are not simply competing with multinationals;  in fact, they depend on them for storage, equipment, and some supplies.  Some chicken farmers are functional sharecroppers, doomed to contracts with  giants like Tyson which constantly demand equipment upgrades that keep them in debt.  The law is no recourse; not only are the oversight agencies tasked with keeping monopolies in check staffed by former members of the very companies they are policing, but the government bears responsibility in promoting “get big or get out” policies. Many of the families interviewed within were crippled by the farm policies of the 1970s and the monkeying-around with of interest rates.    On realizing how many of their woes came from monopolies, and their sinister connection with the government which was supposed to be fair referee,  the door was pried open for conspiracy.  Government policy was not simply inappropriate, or corrupt: it became viewed as evil. Here was a plot to destroy individual freeholders and replace them by massive conglomerates controlled by a few,  in one measure strengthening the cabal and undermining economic resistance. It was a sign of the times, the advent of a New World Order.   The architect of this scheme was not a pocket-lining bureaucrat, but Satan himself.  Obviously,  it was the duty of every true Christian to resist – little wonder the government was so interested in  taking the weapons of  Americans! From there follows militia movements, composed of individuals willing to shoulder arms in defense of their rights – against the tyranny of the state, if need be.

 All of this is tremendously interesting, although the central argument tends to wander away from its roots. Dyer’s goal is to link the farm crisis with rising antigovernment rhetoric and violence, but after some sections on farmers attempting to defraud lenders through legalese, he examines various parts of the antigovernment as a whole, not all of them with any rural dependence.   Religious obsession with the rise of the New World Order and doomsday, for instance, was common in the sect of Christianity I was raised in, but we haven’t been farmers for three generations.  The same is true of the book’s sections on strict Constitutionalism and monetary policy: one need not be a distressed farmer to hold the government in contempt for granting itself war powers in peacetime, or for entrusting the nation’s financial security to an entity that has control over the money supply, but no accountability whatsoever.   Dyer has a tendency to make sweeping statements – at one time, he urges the reader to go into any small rural town and take note of the abundance of people with Constitutions in their front pockets.  99.9999% of the time, he says, these people are involved to some degree in the antigovernment movement. Well, who isn’t involved in antigovernment activity to some degree?   He also assumes that all of the pipe bombs discovered in the United States in a given year were deployed by agents of the vast rural agenda.  Dyer is genuine, though, both in his concern about how the heartland is being devestation, and in his fear of what is to come.  No war of disaffected farmers ever broke out, however, despite the coming of  the Millennium, and I for one think Dyer’s extensive time embedded in some fairly radical groups gave him his own acute sense of  paranoia.   
Harvest’s argument is stretched too thin sometimes to be credible, but the facts and stories Dyer turns up are worth the read alone.  The issues at hand are still relevant: many of the grievances aired here drive the contemporary Tea Party movement, for instance.  Even with its tares, Harvest of Rage is a commendable look inside  American populism and how it can turn tragically violent.

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