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