Comment February 2002

The Heartland of Darkness

Anthrax and hermits and gun shows, oh my!

Some Americans have an abiding need, it seems, for a cultural and political heart of darkness that can easily be circled on a map. Since the days of Sinclair Lewis and H. L. Mencken, who defined sophistication for would-be cosmopolitan readers negatively, by drawing a satirical perimeter around the Midwest, the coastal smart set has relied on the idea of a landlocked dumb set to emphasize its own alleged refinement. Mencken's boob-oisie and Lewis's Babbitts lived out there somewhere, in the weedy prairies far beyond the city gates. These homegrown barbarians fit a profile that is recognizable to this day: pious, suspicious, eminently dupable, and given to joining lodges, clubs, and klaverns. For progressive urbanites, nothing raised morale like the notion of being surrounded by ill-bred dolts. Thus it was that Manhattan invented Main Street.

In the 1960s Main Street was moved to the Deep South, but when segregation disappeared, a hole opened up in the political atlas. Once the rednecks were reforming themselves and the suburban heartland had been made safe for Montessoris, the mainstream looked for a new backwater. By the 1990s—just in time to serve the purposes of the Clinton presidency—such a place had been discovered: the Mountain West.

From the archives:

"Harvard and the Making of the Unabomber" (June 2000)
Was the Unabomber born at Harvard? A look inside the files. By Alston Chase

From Atlantic Unbound:

Sage, Ink: "The Perfect Getaway" (July 29, 1998)
A cartoon by Sage Stossel.

Montana and Idaho—suddenly targeted as putative dens of countless armed zealots and neo-Nazis—had the advantage of being so thinly populated (and so far away from the major media centers) that whatever was said about them was easy to credit, if one was so inclined. From stories about the Unabomber, Randy Weaver, and Montana's tax-resisting Freemen a new template was fashioned by the eastern press. The parts that didn't quite fit were made to fit. Theodore Kaczynski, the leftist product of Harvard and Berkeley's tofu intelligentsia, was cast as an heir to Jeremiah Johnson. The hapless Weaver, a footloose Iowan whose wife and son had been slain during a standoff with government agents for a reason that few can now recall, served as a new archetype: the loony cabin dweller, reading racist pamphlets by lantern light while cocking an ear for the whir of UN helicopters. And in what to a westerner like me was the oddest exaggeration of all, a ragtag band of bumper-sticker patriots that called itself the Militia of Montana was trumped up into a shadowy rebel army. Perceived as always about to strike but never quite doing so, the Militia became an all-purpose bogeyman for everyone from gun-control crusaders to Janet Reno's shoot first, ask questions later Justice Department.

The new geography of fear persists. The anthrax panic was only a few days old when some in the national press advanced the theory that the culprit was an anti-government hermit holed up in a shack among the pines. The speculative stories about this shared a somewhat wishful tone; linking a novel terror to old villains made the threat familiar, comprehensible. When a New York Times reporter visited a Utah gun show and found a man selling handbooks on homemade bio-weapons (information that is available on the Internet), this was major news. Why? Because it fit a story line dear and comforting to urbanite hearts. When a Times reader sees the words "gun show" in a story, he knows he's in for another dispatch from the vast moral wasteland that is America beyond the Hudson, and he settles right in.

Never mind the interior's progressive history as a stronghold of organized labor, women's rights, and environmentalism—the notion that flyover country is harsh and backward lives on because folks who aren't from there want it to. In this model not just a few but all Idaho cabin dwellers—perhaps because they're relatively poor—are reflexively suspected of being racial "separatists," whereas those who dwell in Caucasian coastal enclaves such as, say, Newport, Rhode Island, and Kennebunkport, Maine, suffer no such taint. There may be a certain romance to the thought. The deskbound have always loved their cowboys, whether those cowboys' hats are white or black. We cherish the notion that somewhere in Wyoming, beyond the reach of telephones and faxes, uncompromised individualism still thrives. Now that the real West has its own glass office towers, drive-time radio shows, and Olive Gardens, the desire to believe in nonconformist savages, noble or not, may be even stronger. The impulse has, however, taken a curious turn: the new Lone Rangers are seen not as exotic heroes but as epic enemies of the state.

From the archives:

"The New Counterculture" (November 2001)
The rapid growth of the home-schooling movement owes much to the energy and organizational skills of its Christian advocates. By Margaret Talbot

Because, as ever, the state needs enemies—and the farther from Wall Street, Harvard Square, and Pennsylvania Avenue, the better. Like the welfare queens of the Reagan 1980s, Montana's legendary right-wing hermits have a political significance out of proportion to their actual numbers. It's not the prospect of violence they represent that breeds anxiety in the larger culture, it's the challenge their taste for isolation poses to America's newfound communitarian ethic. Living off the grid, home schooling, and ignoring the popular media might once have exemplified rugged individualism or a principled rejection of modern capitalism, but today such choices can seem hostile, sociopathic. Networked, interdependent, and tolerant, the new global village would seem to welcome everyone, but apparently it's no place for loners.

Presented by

Walter Kirn is the author of Up in the Air.

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