Laughing at extremism won't make it disappear

Shortly after January’s attempted coup in Washington, D.C., Leah Sottile, a long-time reporter on anti-government extremism (including this great piece on the history and co-opting of the “Don’t Tread on Me” Gadsden flag) and host of the Bundyville podcast* about the Bundy family, the 2016 takeover of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, and related stories, published a newsletter on what she sees as the dangers inherent in the likelihood that Congress—or the D.C./Atlantic seaboard bubble in general—will brush off the insurgency as a fluke of freaks acting out a fantasy.†

The very fact that this possibility is right now more likely than true accountability and reform is indicative of the problems we face, but even more daunting is the continued failure of major media outlets to take this threat seriously. Even when covering armed and clearly serious and organized extremists, there’s a tone of “this can’t be real, can it?” that I assume has characterized insulated media types throughout history until the moment it became all too real for them. There is a lot of good journalism out there, but for the most part the biggest platforms, and voices with the widest reach, aren’t the ones practicing it, and I’m not just talking about the big newspapers that wasted four years publishing sympathetic stories about Trump voters in midwestern diners and barely mentioned murders carried out by militia-trained white supremacists.

In her essay, Sottile recounted something she’d heard from a bomber she’d interviewed for the Bundyville podcast. When she asked him what would happen if Trump were impeached and/or removed from office, his response was, “All bets are off.” Most of her essay is about the seriousness of those four words, and the failure of much of the “serious” world to take them, and the threat they pose, seriously.

“Those four words alone have kept me on the domestic terrorism beat. . . . They pushed me to understand the bombing in Nevada more, how it tied to the greater Patriot movement, to understand the movement’s capacity for violence.”

Watching the attempted coup last month, Sottile was reminded of the way that major news outlets dismissed the significance of the 2016 Malheur standoff (or whatever we want to call it):

“What I was thinking about was the way national media outlets scoffed at the presence of armed men in a remote wildlife refuge out here in Oregon. It was a novelty story. A fringe story. Did it really matter? I thought of all the conversations I had with editors in New York and DC, who couldn’t understand why this was a story everyone needed to care about. . . . As the Malheur takeover played out, people found a way to scoff, to tell journalists like me to not give them so much attention.”

Living in a place like northwest Montana, and having grown up alongside children of probable Aryan Nation members and Montana Militia sympathizers, it took me a long time to come to terms with the mountainous, crushing dismissiveness that many major media outlets treat “Western” stories and trends that, they clearly feel, have nothing to do with real people’s lives. The only national media outlet I’ve seen (and published with) that treats “the West” as a real place with real problems rather than a movie backdrop is the Los Angeles Times, which is why I subscribe to it and not the New York Times.†† (It wasn’t the truly idiotic piece about the Sip ‘n Dip bar in Great Falls, Montana, that finally stopped me reading NYT, but it didn’t help.)

Reading Sottile’s essay reminded me of a response I’d gotten from a high-end literary journal in New York a couple of years ago to an essay I’d submitted about my hometown. “Richard Spencer lives in Whitefish and there’s a growing white supremacist movement there,” wrote the editor. “Anything about Whitefish has to include that.” This essay, mind you, was about walkability and the decades of community work involved in slowly evolving a tightly connected walkable community with a healthy downtown retail core. It had zoning code overlays and an explanation of school trust lands in it. It was about urban planning. Most of the social and financial capital invested in the town’s current walking and biking trail system was built in the decades before Spencer’s parents bought a vacation home here and he decided to launch a white nationalist podcast out of one of their bedrooms.

I realize that I’m on the one hand saying that a magazine shouldn’t have insisted my small western town only be defined by the fact of white supremacy while at the same time complaining that major news outlets don’t take the threat of white supremacy and anti-government extremism seriously, but the points are two sides of the same coin: the simplification of places, people, and issues. The lack of multi-dimensionality with which so-called hinterlands are viewed. We’re either hicks, rednecks, and a joke, or we’re completely defined by the presence of racists. (Also fly-fishing because Norman McClean.) I don’t know what those editors are imbibing (or maybe I do and it’s part of the problem) but just because a place has a population of under a zillion doesn’t mean it lacks complexity. We have real problems and we also have real ways of trying to address them.

That editor’s assumptions made me angry but worse was the lack of humility. This was at a time shortly after the Charlottesville tiki-torch event, which predictably turned violent (predictable to anyone paying attention), and certain parts of the country were only just coming to terms with the realities of white nationalism in their midst. To ignore the fact that this problem is everywhere, to pretend that little Whitefish, Montana, is more tainted by the presence of this high-profile white supremacist than New York City is by its several known hate groups (37 statewide according to the Southern Poverty Law Center) is only going to perpetuate the problem. The white supremacy, the anti-government extremism, the sovereign citizen movement and constitutional sheriffs aren’t “over there” or “out there” or “anywhere but here.” They are everywhere. If the most elite of editorial teams can’t perceive the reality of our predicament after militia members in Michigan allegedly planned to kidnap the state’s governor and a local sheriff said they were just doing their duty in trying to make a citizen’s arrest, much less after an attempted coup, then those teams and editors are at a minimum not doing their jobs. Having a little humility about what we don’t know is one of the biggest steps anyone can take to start healing many of society’s ills, and it’s particularly vital to performing the service of crafting civic discourse, which is part of what media does whether it intends to or not.

After all, I don’t go around telling Queens residents who they are and what defines them just because Donald Trump is from Queens. I’ve known plenty of people from Queens but don’t know anything about the character of the place and wouldn’t presume to pretend.

Sottile’s frustration stems partly from the difficulty she faced getting editors interested in stories on the 2016 Bundy-led takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. If anyone needs a reminder that Trump was a symptom of this country’s racism, not the cause, that takeover was achieved (albeit temporarily) during the Obama administration by a group of heavily armed white people with a history of anti-government extremism and violent threats. They spent a month at the refuge toting guns around and destroying artifacts with no intrusion from law enforcement. That same year, under the same president, mostly non-white and totally unarmed water protectors encamped at Standing Rock were systematically harassed, hazed, attacked, and abused by law enforcement and a militarized private security corporation simply for trying to protect their only source of clean water—all taking place on land and water that was legally theirs by treaty right.

For Sottile’s uninterested editors, Malheur and the whole mess of the Bundy movement were an “over there” problem. But, as I also wrote in a post a few weeks ago, the recent attempted coup was the blindingly obvious evolution of an increasingly armed, trained, and angered group of people whose threat to society and potential for mass violence the U.S. government has insistently ignored since the Ruby Ridge standoff in 1992.**

It’s not that papers like the New York Times or Washington Post are required to tell these stories, but the fact is that they, and other major media outlets, do tell them, and for the most part tell them poorly, perpetuating both stereotypes and a dangerous belief that extremism is some sort of uneducated and poor rural people problem (if you go by major media characterizations, it’s amazing how many people in this country grow up poor, including me, and manage not to become extremists). Up to and including the moment when a bunch of armed self-proclaimed “patriots” come within minutes of possibly murdering members of Congress. Because some people were dressed like they were headed to a Renaissance Faire, it was assumed to be a LARP, and because almost all of the people were white it was assumed that they didn’t pose a threat.

And it’s not just major media outlets. One of the last episodes of Sam Harris’s podcast Making Sense (formerly called, like his meditation app, Waking Up) that I ever listened to was one where he interviewed an historian of white nationalism. “Finally,” I thought, “Harris is going to dismount his Islam-is-worse-than-all-other-ideologies hobbyhorse and grapple with this very real homegrown threat.” Instead, his only substantive response was to add on a bit after the interview where he critiqued the scholar’s frequent correction of the differences between white nationalism and white supremacy (because she’s a scholar and making those kinds of distinctions is part of what scholars do) as a “symptom of wokeness.”

I know I go on about the power of story a lot, but they matter. Refusing to see the importance of work like Sottile’s and instead spinning a different story about all extremists being rural rednecks on the one hand and anything that tries to take white supremacy seriously as “wokeness” on the other is part of what got us into this mess. There are plenty of people in this country, millions, maybe tens of millions, who do understand the dangers we’re facing, but the urgency of that knowledge is either being tamped down, turned into a joke, or completely erased by media that is meant to be a counterweight to both extremism and to government power, not its handmaiden.

Instead of telling me that my town of almost 8,000 people that has long been a minor liberal bubble in a deeply conservative area must be defined by one high-profile white nationalist because his wealthy parents happened to have bought a vacation home here, editors and producers could create more space for writers like Sottile who know that every place has nuance and layers, journalists who seek out the story that is, not the story they expect to see.

There’s a quote from mythologist Martin Shaw I’ve been coming back to a lot, especially now as I watch some editorial departments scrambling to understand what’s going on and how to talk about it. “The business of stories is not enchantment,” he wrote in his book Snowy Tower. “The business of stories is not escape. The business of stories is waking up.”

I doubt there is much that Sottile could say, much less anything I could say, that would change the minds of thought leaders or editorial departments. But the perspectives they dismiss as irrelevant will continue to affect this society in increasingly violent ways, and their insistence on telling only one narrative, the one that feels comfortable, is a structural part of the problem. One thing that Malheur and the attempted insurrection had in common was that they only failed, it seems, not because they weren’t serious but because, while the perpetrators were armed, trained, and present in significant numbers, they weren’t quite certain what to do once they succeeded in their first set of goals. It’s only a matter of time before someone connects those two live wires, access to power and those willing to use violence to gain it. The people who could, and would, do so are right in front of us. If we plan on stopping them, we have to start telling the right stories.

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* The entire Bundyville podcast is a story worth listening to (you can also read it on Longreads) but if you just want an overview, this live interview from 2019 is a good primer.

LARP—live-action role play—is an acronym I had to look up, seeing it referenced all over Twitter and various think pieces after the attempted coup. The question posted was often how many people thought they were engaging in a LARP. It’s not an irrelevant question, but I’m more interested in how many people knew they weren’t, including members of Congress.

††High Country News is an obvious exception and also a model for the kinds of solutions that media could look for: an exceptional regional news magazine whose stories invariably have national implications. I also subscribe to Native News Online and Indian Country Today.

**This problem is obviously far older than that, but in my lifetime Ruby Ridge and Waco formed a distinct fault line after which federal law enforcement wasn’t even going to attempt dealing with extremist white people. Those events radicalized whole new generations of extremists, and subsequent lack of follow-up either by government or media allowed the movement to grow unquestioned and unchecked.