Rural Radicals: Righteous Rage in the American Grain. – book reviews
Kenneth E. Koons
By Catherine McNicol Stock (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1996. xi plus 219pp.).
Incongruous elements of what is known of the story of the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, and a desire to understand better the motives of those alleged to have committed the act, inspired Catherine McNicol Stock to write Rural Radicals, an extended interpretive essay which seeks to illuminate the nature of contemporary rural radicalism in the United States by exploring its origins and historical evolution. Stock begins by observing that rural radicalism is rife with contradictions and paradoxical qualities. Rural radicals frequently align themselves with causes and ideologies associated with the far right wing of American politics, yet some of their values and behavior suggest orientation toward the opposite end of the political spectrum. Thus, for example, survivalists of the extreme right who choose to live in compounds located in sparsely populated rural districts, who reject the authority of the federal government, and who embrace self-sufficiency as an ideal, share a number of traits with left-wing countercultural back-to-the-landers of the 1960s. Similarly, the progressive, egalitarian, and democratic impulses behind the left-leaning rural protest movements described by Stock, stand in sharp contrast to the intolerance of many rural radicals and their ready willingness “to take the law into their own hands.” (p. 9)
Rural radicalism, then, resists categorization by the standard labels that serve as markers of political stance and sentiment in American politics. Puzzling though these kinds of contradictions may be to many observers, however, they are not new, according to Stock. Indeed, the central argument of Rural Radicals is that the kind of violence seen lately in America’s heartland is as old as the history of America’s settlement by Europeans. Americans should not have been so surprised by the Oklahoma bombing, says Stock, because violently expressed rural radicalism is a thoroughgoing and deeply ingrained feature of the American past.
In Chapter 1, entitled “The Politics of Producerism,” Stock surveys the historical evolution of “the ideology of rural producer radicalism,” which she defines as “the desire to own small property, to produce crops and foodstuffs, to control local affairs, to be served but never coerced by a representative government, and to have traditional ways of life and labor respected.” (p. 16) Stock analyzes a host of episodes of producer radicalism in American history, e.g., Bacon’s Rebellion, the Whiskey Rebellion, the Populists, and the Farmers’ Alliance, to name only a few of them. In each period covered by Stock’s interpretive sweep – from the colonial to the post-World War II – the details of what motivated rural dwellers to engage in protest movements change but the story line remains essentially the same: producer radicalism arose from the combination of an inability of rural Americans to achieve producerist goals, and their perception that big government, big corporations, or rapacious middlemen obstructed their efforts to do so. Thus, for example, rural radicals of the colonial period took collective action against what they perceived as restrictive land policies, unfair taxes, and inadequate defense against hostile Native Americans. Stock argues that the early national period was pivotal in the history of producer radicalism; although Jeffersonian leaders embraced the ethos of producerism, they also established a political culture that promoted values and behavior antithetical to producerism, e.g., unregulated competition and unrestrained individualism. (p. 52) In later periods, producers believed that “government seemed to labor primarily for the interest of merchants and speculators” (pp. 47-48), and that the problems they faced as rural producers were caused by “the deliberate acts of greedy men, aided by an unresponsive and undemocratic government.” (p. 62)
In Chapter 2, Stock analyzes what she calls the “sourer side” of rural radicalism, by which she means the “hatred, intolerance, and vigilante violence” (p. 149) often manifested in rural discontent and civil disturbances. Frontier conditions encouraged defensive vigilante violence. Far removed from centers of power and left to provide for the defense of their own communities, frontier inhabitants often attacked or threatened with violence the visibly poor and those who breached community standards of morality. In later periods, acting in part to protect the women of their communities from what they regarded as intolerable influences, and to reinforce patriarchal gender relationships, rural radicals attacked African Americans, Native Americans, and members of other groups whose religion, ethnicity, or politics they deemed to be un-American, e.g., Jews, Mormons, Catholics, Chinese Americans, German Americans, communists, socialists, and labor radicals. Stock shows that any group “that threatened the hegemony of white Christian American manhood” (p. 148) was vulnerable to violent attack by rural vigilantes.
In the final chapter, Stock observes that producerism and vigilantism are thoroughly interwoven elements of rural American culture: they are “not two sets of beliefs but two expressions of the same beliefs.” (p. 148) Stock devotes the remainder of the chapter to an explanation of why vigilantism has overshadowed producer radicalism in recent times. She argues that the “compensatory liberalism” of the mid-twentieth century alienated farmers because, counter to the ideals of producers, it promoted subsidy programs and the development of larger (but fewer) farm units. Policy makers concerned themselves principally with protecting farmers’ spending power, thereby undermining producerist ideals of small-scale farming. Federal incentives encouraged higher levels of farm production, but consequent overproduction and falling prices drove farm income down. Simultaneously, the cost of consumer goods, upon which farmers were increasingly dependent, rose. Anger and despair, the fruits of these policies, swelled the ranks, and the militancy, of rural radical groups of the extreme right.
Throughout, Stock relies nearly exclusively on secondary literature; in some passages the narrative takes on the characteristics of a serial book review. But Stock’s synthesis is an engaging and, on the whole, satisfying historical analysis of an important facet of contemporary American life. Rural Radicals is appropriate for use in undergraduate courses, but this work will also encourage members of the reading public to think about the rural heritage of the United States in new ways more deeply rooted in historical scholarship. In a profession increasingly concerned that historians should be doing what they can to communicate their findings to educated non-experts, as well as to each other, Stock’s volume makes an important contribution.
Kenneth E. Koons Virginia Military Institute
COPYRIGHT 1998 Carnegie Mellon University Press
COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group