from the pages of July/August 1995


 Playing Rambo

By Barbara Ehrenreich


It's dizzying. Only a couple of decades ago, which is no time at all on the historical scale, it was we on the left who feared and sometimes hated the government, who urged people to militant resistance, and who entertained, in our more desperate moments, the bracing fantasy of “armed struggle.” In those days, the Black Panthers, who did a lot more rapping -- and organizing -- than shooting, epitomized macho defiance, and when people talked about “picking up the gun,” they were usually trying to impress the other folks in the food coop or free breakfast program.

Welcome to the 1990s. The mystics who believe in 30-year cycles promised that this decade would bring a rebirth of activism, and they were right. Only this time around, the defiant heroes are “angry white men.” The program is militant survivalism, and the theory is drawn from The Turner Diaries and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Of course the pundits still like to posit an invisible “extreme left” to balance the bomb-throwing extreme right, but we on the “extreme left” are now, for the most, part mild-mannered social democrats, advocates of “kinder and gentler,” defenders of babies and owls. The only “revolutionaries” on the scene are the dittoheads, not to mention all those who judge Newt and Rush to be hopelessly compromised sell-outs.

What's happening here? How do we account for the rise of the paramilitary right? Do we on the left have anything, anything at all, in common with these new revolutionaries? Anything to learn from them? Anything to tell them?

To start with, there is one thing we can probably agree with them about. The government has become, in its armed manifestations, increasingly rude, overbearing, and out of control. The assault on white supremacist Randy Weaver's compound, resulting in the killing, by ATF agents, of his wife and child, was inexcusable. Waco was an atrocity -- as I and others on the left said at the time. Janet Reno should have stepped down immediately and devoted herself to acts of penance. The Branch Davidian survivors who were sentenced to such inexplicably long prison terms should have been recompensed for the loss of their loved ones and rewarded with a nice new fortified church to meet in.

But if government brutality was the real issue, you'd expect to find a lot fewer white supremacists in the paramilitary fringe and a lot more brothers from the “hood.” The constituency that routinely experiences the police as “jack-booted thugs” is not, of course, good ol' white boys with guns, but people of color. And it's the war on drugs, far more than any war on illegal weapons, that has served as an excuse for terrorizing the citizenry. One of the most shocking cases, which should rank right up there with the attack on the Weavers, was the 1993 raid on the home of Reverend Acelynne Williams, a 75-year old bible scholar living in Boston. Rev. Williams, who was black, died of a heart attack after the police broke in and chased him around his apartment. It was a drug bust, and they had the wrong address.

Or, for a police assault that approaches the scale of Waco, recall the Philadelphia police bombing of the MOVE headquarters, which resulted in 11 dead (including children) and 300 neighborhood people left homeless. MOVE was a thoroughly nonviolent, in fact vegetarian, cult, whose “crimes” included messiness and an occasional shouted obscenity. But the MOVE membership was African American, and their deaths-by-bomb inspired no Waco-style memorials or establishment soul-searching about freedom of religion.

It is racism, of course, that prevents the right from making common cause with the everyday victims of police brutality. I tried nudging a right-wing radio talk show host (if you'll forgive the redundancy) in this direction. Yes, I said, the government is out of control, look at the routine thuggery of so many inner-city police precincts, etc. etc. At this my host scowled, shuffled his notecards, and replied (in more or less these words) that some people's behavior is so appalling that the police have no choice but to brutalize.

But to say that the right is racist is like complaining that the Pope isn't Protestant. If there's an inconsistency in the right's anti-government stance, it's that the right has never been “anti-government.” Who, after all, has been barking about “law and order” for at least the last 25 years? Who has insisted on more cops, more prisons, more executions? If government has developed certain thug-like qualities, it's because ordinary Republican citizens have voted over and over for politicians who promised to restrict the functions of government to thuggery in its various legal forms. The choice has been for “law and order” over social spending, cops over “midnight basketball,” prisons and the Pentagon over schools and childcare. The result is that we don't have a soft, cuddly government, the kind that offers its people health insurance and help with higher education and livable assistance for the unemployed. We have a huge and heavily armed cop.

These choices, made by the right, have contributed mightily to the nihilism and bitterness that leads suburban sales reps and forklift operators to join weekend militias. You can't see the government doing anything for you -- though you're told it's doing something for them. All it's doing is being a pest and a busybody -- making you pay your taxes, register your guns, wait in long lines to renew your drivers' license. A government that extends a helping hand now and then might inspire a little loyalty, if not some sense of the common good. But a government that only impinges on most people's lives as a bureaucrat and a bully tends to inspire withering hate.

The decline of the welfare state -- by which I mean of course, not just “welfare” but job programs, housing subsidies, educational aid, and other government services -- might not have been so politically disastrous if it were not accompanied by the decline of just about everything else. There's a reason for angry white men: their wages have fallen by 20 percent in the last 20 years. A generation ago, a working class white guy could graduate from high school and walk into a good union job that would sustain him as well as a homemaker wife. Today, the non-college-educated (and some of the educated) face a life at $5-6 an hour, which is not enough to pay rent on a one-bedroom apartment. Look at the army of drifters uncovered in a search for the Oklahoma City conspirators: white guys (and sometimes women and children) who live in truck stop motels, buy food at convenience stores, work intermittently at minimum wage, and will probably never own a stick of furniture.

They should be protesting corporate policy, you say. They should be protesting the CEOs who make 150 times as much as their assembly line employees, the multinationals who scour the world for cheap labor, the executives who pad their own paychecks even as they downsize their employees into destitution. If government can be blamed for anything, it is for letting the corporate suits have their way with us.

Well, of course. But for whatever reasons -- impersonal market forces, inept and corrupt union leadership, fierce corporate resistance -- the working class has seen almost nothing but defeat in its battles with the owning class over the last 20 years. If you can't do anything about the size of your paycheck -- and the message from the union hall is that you probably can't -- you may still be able to do something about the chunk that's withheld. You can make war against the government. And since the corporate elite will go along with you on this one (at least until the resulting anarchy gets in the way of profits), you might even win.

Not that a more nurturing government would necessarily soothe the fevered brows of our paramilitary neighbors -- plenty of whom are already uncomplaining beneficiaries of farm subsidies, veterans' health care, or Social Security. There's something else going on that has little economic self-interest. It's our well-known “culture of violence” or, to be more specific, the romance of the gun. The core issue motivating the paramilitarists -- when you peel away the gripes about taxes, welfare, etc. -- is the right to own guns, and their real fear of government is that it might try to take their guns away. Paramilitary groups gained thousands of recruits after the Brady Bill, and their most successful recruiting line now is to warn of a coming “gun grab” which will leave the citizenry meekly disarmed. And what was Waco about, or the assault on Randy Weaver's family, if not the threat posed by private arsenals?

Media violence no doubt has something to do with the romance of the gun, though one hesitates to say exactly what. According to the right, movies make people violent, although the murderous exhortations of right-wing talk show hosts do not; among movies, Natural Born Killers, which clearly satirizes media violence, is held to be incendiary, while True Lies (which boasts an equal or higher body count but features a Republican star) is not. Politically opportunist blustering aside, Hollywood certainly has something to do with the fact that our image of a “hero” is a bare-chested fellow with an AK-47 and a tendency to endanger the screenwriters' profession by substituting bullets for words.

But there's a much more concrete source of American gun fetishism, and that's the U.S. military. If the factory doesn't need you and the civilian government has nothing to offer you, there's always the armed forces. Every year, thousands of ill-educated, disadvantaged young people sign up for the military, where they are painstakingly drilled in the art of killing efficiently and without remorse. Then, having mastered this lesson, they are discharged back to the factory that doesn't need them and the civilian government that has nothing to offer them. Some go on to patch together a life; some drift into drink and drugs; and a few never quite let go of their moment of warrior glory.

It's easy to mock the paramilitarists for “playing Rambo,” for wanting to star in their own action movie. But the mystique of the warrior runs deep in our culture and, for that matter, most others. It isn't just about aggression and hate, but about courage, commitment, and the transcendent human desire to be “part of something larger than oneself.” Timothy McVeigh briefly found all this in the military. When he failed psychological tests for the Special Forces (interesting, isn't it, that there are psychological tests for the Special Forces) he went on to find it again in the subculture of the paramilitary right. He was certainly never going to find such glory in his job as a security guard, or in anything else that our depleted mainstream economy has to offer men like him.

I am saying that the paramilitary right grows out of the inexorable logic of the right in general -- a category that now includes much of the Democratic Party. First you chip away at the welfare state, guaranteeing that the McVeighs of the world will not be offered job training, financial aid for higher education, a small business loan, or anything else that might help a person stay afloat in a merciless market economy. At the same time, you don't cut, in fact you beef up, those aspects of government that involve the use of armed force. The military, which is still funded at Cold War levels, substitutes for college, teaching young recruits that there is at least one thing they can do well and be valued for. Meanwhile, the armed police functions of government, thanks to the political right, have expanded and grown more brutal and quick on the draw. The growth of the police state guarantees that our government-issued warriors will have at least one clear “enemy” when they re-enter civilian life, and this is, paradoxically, the government itself.

As one further twist on this vicious cycle, the more heavily armed private citizens are, the more frightened are the law enforcement officers who come up against them. A frightened constabulary is often a trigger-happy one, and each shoot-out, like the one at the Weaver compound, further inflames the fears of the citizenry, who come to feel they need even deadlier supplies of firepower. The result is an arms race between the government and its own paramilitarized citizens.

Where will this end? The scenarios that history holds out are not very pleasant. One is fascism of the classic European variety, though this will depend on the emergence of more right-wing leaders who are both “mainstream” enough to run for office and wild enough to earn the trust of the paramilitarists. Hitler was one such leader, and a paramilitary group -- the Freikorps that grew out of World War I -- played a major role in his rise to power. The other obvious alternative, advocated by Clinton, is a still larger and more intrusive police state to control its unruly citizens. Some would call this “fascism” too.

There are other alternatives, such as the one that the left has long dreamed of: the emergence of a nonviolent mass movement to create a society in which no one is left out and everyone can find glory enough in their contributions to the larger community. At the moment this alternative seems a lot less likely than the nasty ones. But the outcome depends, in no small part, on whether this nation's tattered left can make itself heard and felt. It depends on us.

For further reading, see James William Gibson's Warrior Dreams: Paramilitary culture in Post-Vietnam America (Hill and Wang, 1994).