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Anything Goes—Unless It Picks My Pocket or Breaks My Leg

AFTER EMERGING IN THE 1970S as the haunted, well-armed cousins of Whole Earth Catalog readers, survivalists steadily multiplied. They’re betting on a complete breakdown of the U.S. economy and government that they can and will survive by living as they imagine Americans lived centuries ago, in rural isolation and off the grid. Theirs is a dystopia-ready lifestyle, a fantasy given vivid form and encouraged by the three Mad Max movies that came out between 1979 and 1985. A great selling point was the Y2K panic, the fear in the 1990s that our new digital systems would all go haywire as 1999 turned to 2000, and the newly digital-dependent world would collapse. That didn’t happen, of course, but then the 9/11 attacks and new viral epidemics (SARS, avian flu) helped give survivalism its momentum. Once you really believe, you can always find new evidence to support your beliefs.

There are now millions of Americans counting on a nonsupernatural apocalypse. They got a bigger tent when the term preppers became common in the 1980s, a rubric encompassing everybody from hardcore survivalists to wannabes and lookie-loos, from that Ted Kaczynski–ish guy who carries his AR-15 into the diner to the nice couple down the block with a basement room full of whey powder and antibiotics. Preppers are to survivalists as evangelicals are to fundamentalists.

Of course, the premise of prepping and survivalism isn’t necessarily delusional. It’s possible some sudden catastrophic breakdown of systems could occur and last for months or years. But any of us could also win Mega Millions, too, and we don’t rearrange our lives assuming it’s going to happen. It’s in this curiously wishful certainty of doomsday that prudence slides into fantasy.

Survivalists are an interesting case study because they combine so many Fantasyland strands into a single package. They’ve taken a couple of the role-playing hobbies that people acknowledge are fantasies—pretend war, simulated olden-times life—and make them real, a full-time fantasy game, a never-ending LARP.

The movement has a strong religious aspect. One of its most celebrated leaders, a former Army Intelligence captain named James Wesley, Rawles (he insists on that odd comma), has invited survivalists to the intermountain Northwest, what he calls the American Redoubt—an exodus “analogous to the Puritan exodus from Europe. They couldn’t fit in and said, ‘We’re going to move to completely virgin territory and start afresh.’ Christians of all races are welcome to be my neighbors.”

Like American fantasists since the Puritans, preppers are highly invested in the rationality of their scenarios. They obsess over every riot and war and epidemic and uh-oh data point as confirmation that the sky really is falling this time, each news event a glimpse of our unavoidable every-man-for-himself near future. Their politics tend to be right-wing antigovernment, so government collapse and anarchy are dreams as much as fears.

Americans are practical people, and survivalists revel in the operational details. What were previously just lifestyle choices with fantastical aspects become life-or-death necessities—you’ll depend on all those guns and ammunition, and alternative medicine will be the only alternative. Indeed, survivalist fantasy imbues ordinary hobbies—gardening, baking, canning, crafting, woodworking, camping—with existential purpose. It’s American pioneer nostalgia pushed to the max, Frontierland meets The Walking Dead. Like the new patent medicine business, the survivalist freeze-dried food sector is a Utah-based Mormon oligopoly—Latter-day Saints have been end-time stockpilers for a century. (“While your neighbors are struggling to find food,” one of the companies promised, “you will be dining on lasagna, beef stroganoff, and a variety of other delicious entrees.”)

I’m reminded of myself at age twelve—with my beloved BB gun and the Big Ear surveillance device I bought at Radio Shack, camping out alone with packets of freeze-dried food and my secret notecard file of information about acquaintances, as I was earning Boy Scout merit badges. Preppers and survivalists love their jargon and acronyms that give their hobby/lifestyle a serious military feel. After the final SHTF (shit hits the fan) events, survivalists not yet in their fortresses will bug out and then cope with TEOTWAWKI (the end of the world as we know it), in which life is WROL (without rule of law). Each MAG (mutual assistance group) is urged to draft and ratify a constitution in advance.

And it’s definitely another American phenomenon. In the whole of the United Kingdom, according to the Guardian, there is only a single shop, in a little nowhere land east of Milton Keynes, that specializes in gas masks and crossbows and machetes and tactical thumbcuffs for survivalists and preppers. The United States has scores of dedicated brick-and-mortar stores, as well as service businesses like American Redoubt Realty, which sells houses to survivalists “in the American Redoubt, or in one of the many Micro-Redoubt Safe Havens around the United States.” The firm is actually not in the Redoubt but in a northern California ski town called Norden. As it happens, it’s just a short walk from a perfect historic site, the spot where the single best-known group of freedom-seeking, risk-taking, self-reliant wagon-train pioneers spent a winter in a snowbound mountain pass—the Donner Party, four dozen of whom survived, some by eating the corpses of their three dozen fellow pioneers.

SURVIVALISTS AND PREPPERS are wacky and sad. But: I do my thing and they do their thing, and if by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful. The fantasies they sincerely believe and elaborately enact don’t really affect my life or yours.

And those fantasies are among the last I’ll discuss at length that don’t in some important sense, as our founding libertarian Thomas Jefferson put it, “pick my pocket or break my leg.”

During the American Revolution, uniformed jackbooted tyrannical British thugs arrived at Jefferson’s self-reliant (and slave-dependent) mountaintop Virginia fortress, Monticello. But he had run away in the nick of time, retreating to his second redoubt eighty miles away. There in hiding he completed his one great book, Notes on the State of Virginia.

In the chapter about religion, Jefferson reminded his readers that some of colonial America’s official, government-sanctioned churches had persecuted and even executed heretics. Therefore, he declared, the new government must neither ban nor embrace any particular religion. Let people believe whatever they want, because “it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

I agree. I tend to agree too with Jefferson’s assertion in the same passage that “reason and free enquiry are the only effectual agents against error,” as well as his conclusion elsewhere that much of “our particular superstition,” Christianity, is “made up of the deliria of crazy imaginations.”

By my reckoning, way too many Americans now bother with reason hardly at all, give themselves over too much to the deliria of crazy imaginations, believe too many untrue and impossible things, and are losing the ability and the will to distinguish between real and unreal. Not that they don’t have the right.

So: live in your bunker with a decade’s worth of twenty-serving cans of teriyaki rice and beef. Pretend you live in a little house on the prairie and shop once a week on the make-believe Via Condotti nearby. When you’re not managing your imaginary NFL all-star team, imagine you’re serving as an officer in the Second Connecticut Heavy Artillery Regiment at the Battle of Cold Harbor. Get ready for Jesus’s return. Impersonate mad Dr. Mundo’s summoner in League of Legends, an aristocratic aesthete on Instagram, a truth-telling troll on Twitter. Fantasize that you were born with those perfect artificial breasts. Speak in tongues. Read and believe the books by people who say they died and went to Heaven. Dress like a wizard or a feudal baron. Believe that believing you’ll get rich will make you rich, that burning sage cleared your house of evil spirits, that humans were supernaturally created in a flash the day before yesterday, that alien beings taught us to build computer chips. Go crazy.

You have every right. And snug and smug in my own Urban American Redoubt, I have every right to disapprove of my fellow Americans who’ve decided that reason and empiricism are just some of many ways of understanding the world, no better than any other, that everyone is entitled to her truth and his truth. I am free to practice what the liberal New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof scolds writers for doing, to take a “sneering tone about conservative Christianity itself” even though “mockery of religious faith is inexcusable”—and then I can raise him one, sneering at his mockery of Christians who believe their faith requires them to oppose marriage equality. And he or they or whoever may all disapprove of me. We’re Americans! Hurrah.

The great compromise between the American religious impulse and the American Enlightenment in the 1700s permitted any and every conceivable sect to bud and blossom. Fine. But that principle isn’t working so well anymore. The fanciful and religious and cryptoreligious parts have gotten overripe, bursting and spilling their juices over the Enlightenment-reason parts, spoiling our whole barrel. Holders of any belief about anything, especially and incontrovertibly if those beliefs are ascribed to faith, are now expected to be immune from challenge.

Most of the individual fantasies, Christian and New Age and those served up by the fantasy-industrial complex, don’t pick my pocket or break my leg, as Jefferson put it—or yours, unless you choose to buy in. Who doesn’t love the Amish? Their peculiar beliefs and lifestyles are odd but charming, picturesque, and bother nobody else. The new ubiquity of pornography and reality television has spawned the hybrid subspecies of amateur porn—sex between nonactors, or between actors pretending not to be actors.* Gross, depressing…but I don’t have to watch. Porn addiction has apparently rendered millions of (male) pornhounds more disinterested, disappointed, and disappointing sexual partners, but that’s not my problem. So what if there are lots of Americans with various screws loose? So what if they dream and stew in their own mad, mad, mad, mad dreamworlds? Ignore them, let them alone, let them be. Right? Aye, there’s the rub.

There are real consequences in the real world.

Delusional ideas and magical thinking flood from the private sphere into the public, become so pervasive and deeply rooted, so normal, that they affect everyone. Some American fantasies have become weaponized, literally. In other words, our pockets are being picked and our legs are being broken.

Take the soft fantasies that underlay our monomaniacal suburbanization of the last seventy years. Aesthetics and the illusions of pastoral life aside, they wound up creating a highly problematic national dependence on cars and oil, made commutes too long and too many good jobs too far away from where workers live, and encouraged people to become unnecessarily overweight and therefore unnecessarily expensive for society to keep alive. As the more fantastical ideas of alternative medicine are mainstreamed, millions of people are being cheated, which doesn’t break your or my leg; but when their illnesses deposit them in the actual-doctor-and-hospital healthcare system late in the treatment game, paid for by insurance and the government, that does pick our pockets. The belief that childhood vaccines cause autism was a fantasy that directly produced disease and death among people who happened to be in the proximity of unvaccinated and infected children (see Chapter 41). As disbelief in science grows, our whole society may become less prosperous and more vulnerable. As religious belief drives government to make legal contraception and abortions more difficult to get, the rest of us will have our pockets picked in all kinds of ways for years to come.

That so many of our neighbors are saying so many loony things now is doing us real injury. More and more in lots of ways, Fantasyland has started to pick our pockets and break our legs.

* And the sub-subspecies of sex between an actor and an amateur—the video that Gawker posted of WWE star Hulk Hogan (Terry Bollea) with a friend’s wife. His testimony at the trial of his suit against Gawker is a milestone of Fantasyland jurisprudence as it tries to draw fiction-reality boundaries. Asked about media appearances where he’d cheerfully discussed the video and his penis, he replied: “We were discussing the length of Hulk Hogan’s,” because “Terry Bollea’s penis is not ten inches.” But, he testified, “even…Hulk Hogan was embarrassed” by the video.

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