January 07, 2005

Robert Kaplan: An Empire Wilderness - the American Southwest

In the chapter titled "Individualists", Robert Kaplan travels through the American SouthWest, talking to people, learning, asking questions. In this excerpt, he meets a guy named Jeff Smith, who lives only 15 miles from the border with Mexico, in between the towns of Sonoita and Patagonia, in Arizona.

Kaplan writes:

Smith's closest neighbor was almost a mile away, and Smith himself, paralyzed from the waist down by a motorcycle accident, was feuding with him. Smith led me into his two-story adobe house, fitted with a specially designed elevator for his wheelchair, which he had built with the help of a few Mexican illegals. Smith was around 50, in jeans, and with grey hair: "a screaming liberal," his friend in Tucson, Emil Franzy, had told me.

"Unfortunately," Smith said, "while my fellow liberals on the East and West Coasts are very good on the First and Fourth Amendments -- free speech and worship and protection against 'unreasonable searches and seizures' -- liberals look down on those rights and amendments that they don't use, like the Second Amendment, the right to bear arms." Smith put deliberate stress on the numbers "First", "Fourth", and "Second". The Constitution and Bill of Rights were clearly living, religious documents to him, as the Old Testament is to Orthodox Jews and evangelical Christians. Rather than a liberal, Smith, who owns thirty guns, was like many others I met in the Southwest: a spirited libertarian who felt the government had no right to ban abortions, semiautomatic assault rifles, or perhaps even marijuana. It was in the southwest desert, among such libertarians, that I felt that the traditional liberal-conservative dichotomy that still governs Washington's politics had been completely irrelevant. [Sheila's note: Damn. Think I need to move THERE.]

... Smith's view was that "the Mexican border is a semipermeable membrane. Sure, the war on drugs is a joke. Eventually, the American Southwest will be more influenced by Mexican values than by New England ones."

I changed the subject to guns: "Do we really need semiautomatics?"

Smith responded, "Chechnya proves that you need semis to prevent tyranny, because with an armed populace a tyrannical, central government will be forced to fight door to door."

"But the United States government is not like the Russian one."

"One day, it could become just as tyrannical. It would happen gradually, by stealth. Don't say it can't happen. Would you rather be free or merely safe? That's the question Americans have to answer. [President] Bill Clinton and [Attorney General] Janet Reno need to understand the natural state of human freedom."

"But you will always need a strong federal government," I said. "Just look at the land dispute between the Hopis and Navajos in northern Arizona. It is the federal government that to this day keeps the peace between many Indian tribes."

"If the federal government collapsed," Smith responded, "the Navajos might just kill the Hopis. Then, after an unstable period, the Navajos would assimilate into the general society. The world wouldn't come to an end. We think we need a federal government, but do we really?"

... I liked Smith. His views seemed appropriate to the surroundings. Smith and I were sitting amid the mathematical purity of his whitewalled adobe home. From his living room window I could see brilliant sunlight and a panoramic hillside of gama grass and mesquite trees (a North African species whose seedlings had come to the Southwest in the cow manure aboard the conquistadors' ships). Smith lived alone amid this meditative prismatic beauty. His house was in a valley where radio transmissions were problematic. Like many people in rural America who live far from a big town, he had his own water well'; return true;" onmouseout="window.status=''; return true;">water well. He went only twice a week to his mailbox, more than a mile away on the nearest paved road.

It occurred to me that Smith's political absolutes and abstractions regarding issues such as semiautomatic rifles and the power of the federal government were driven, to no small degree, by sheer physical isolation. The continent's very emptiness, along with its overpowering natural forces -- twisters, hurricanes, extremes of heat and cold, for which Europe offers no equivalent -- confers a pioneer spirit that, in an age of advanced technology, fast loses relevance; so that the last frontiersmen like Smith are, perforce, somewhat absurd.

I remember what Sheriff Pintek in Cochise County had said about militiamen: "These are people who can barely speak without profanities, like, 'Why the fuck should I vote?' Besides being uneducated, they often have records of petty crime which prevent them from getting decent jobs. If they are not on welfare or unemployment insurance, they work as night clerks at convenience stores and, as they will tell you, 'defend the USA on weekends.' With social change so dramatic, there are just more and more losers out there." (What Pintek said reminded me of the officers at Fort Leavenworth who had sunk their heads in shame at the sight of grossly overweight men marching in camouflage suits on television one night, in a program about militias.)

Jeff Smith, of course, is no militiaman. He was far too educated and cosmopolitan for that. He made a living as a writer for a weekly alternative newspaper. But just imagine, if you will, someone full of resentment and without social graces -- "a fat lard-ass with pimples" as Sheriff Pintek had put it to me -- living in Smith's kind of isolation.

As Smith's friend Franzi had told me in Tucson, "Look, I'm a First Amendment guy, and a gun nut. I'm a member of the NRA, I go to gun shows on weekends, and I don't know any of these militia people. Where are they? These guys must live in the middle of nowhere. They don't vote, they're completely beyond the 'process'. They think the NRA is too left wing. In the days of the military draft, when there was no mystique attached to carrying a gun and wearing a uniform, these guys didn't exist."

Posted by sheila