Headline Envy

by J.D. Tuccille

I'd be hard-pressed to blame the Freemen in Montana were they to feel a wee bit put-off today. After all, there they were holed-up on a ranch in Montana, under siege by the FBI, and under the scrutiny of the national press with their ideas before the public eye -- everything the ambitious militant could want. Then along comes Theodore Kaczynski, alias "the Unabomber," with an even nuttier agenda, and not only does he drive the Freemen from page one, but his press coverage is actually respectful!

It is fascinating to watch. The Freemen passed bad checks and threatened to invite a few local pols to a neck-tie party that never materialized. They don't like blacks and Jews, and they figure that the federal government's issue of unbacked currency is such a bad idea that they ought to do the same. Their agenda is a fairly traditional prairie populist menu of bigotry, lunk-head economics, and blame-shifting that has as much to do with William Jennings Bryan as with the modern antigovernment movement. Unfortunately for the Freemen, few journalists come from the prairie states.

Teddy K., on the other hand, killed three innocent people and injured twenty-seven over an eighteen-year mail-bombing campaign. His goal is to corral the U.S. population into a village-based society on a technological level predating penicillin and central heating -- a world in which a lot of us would have bought the farm during that nasty childhood bout with chicken pox. But Teddy K. went to Harvard, taught at Berkeley, and writes turgid '60s-speak diatribes that are essentially indistinguishable from $25-a-pop paperbacks in any university bookstore. With such impressive academic credentials, he's no "fugitive militant" (the Boston Globe's term for the Freemen), but a "brilliant misfit" (a front-page headline from the same newspaper). To judge from many of the stories, Teddy K. is a mildly misguided crusader who just needs a hug.

So you know the Freemen are are staring at CNN and asking themselves: "What was that body count again?" and (just as important) "Do ya think this Una-whatsit guy has ever gotten laid?"

Some days it just doesn't pay to be a populist loony.

It was even worse, of course, at Waco and Ruby Ridge. Neither the Branch Davidians or Randy Weaver had engaged in the financial shenanigans that raised legitimate concerns about the Freemen's activity. For all intents and purposes they just wanted to be left alone, and there was no violence until the feds came in with guns blazing. But they also came from off-center, separatist backgrounds with roots in America's rich religious and populist histories -- a culture far-removed from the secular urban and suburban roots of most modern journalists. The average New York Times reporter is probably more comfortable with European socialism, cafe-derived pastoralism, and circle-jerk deconstructionism than with any idea that might have a history in this country.

And when reporters are more comfortable with homicidal burst of Luddism than they are with a religous group's desire to be left alone or a rancher's wacky-but-century-old populism, you have to ask yourself whether any but a rare few members of the press have anything of value to offer outside the environment of a Manhattan watering hole. My guess is yes, but it's all based on American Express payments to rural motels and diners.

So remember, if you're going to establish the Republic of Elm Street or start writing checks on the Bank of Bob, read up on your Derrida and Foucault first -- the FBI will still come crashing through the windows feet-first, but you'll get better headlines.

Ah well, and so much for the power of argument. So back you go to Full Automatic or to my home page.

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