Survivalists: Paranoid Right-Wingers or Diverse Urbanites? New York Times Can't Decide

January 31st, 2013 3:04 PM

Survivalists: Paranoid right-wingers or a shrewd, far-thinking, and diverse urbanites? The New York Times can't decide. Editorial board member Lawrence Downes' Thursday morning post, "Jesus, Freedom and Guns," used a YouTube video from a left-winger to mock gun-rights supporters as Christian paranoids fearing government tyranny:

Here is a video shot at a gun-rights rally on Jan. 19 at the Arizona state Capitol in Phoenix. It’s a good window into the life of Arizona, a state where the Tea Party, birtherism and anti-immigrant radicalism regularly combine to raise the political temperature from overheated to boiling.

The dozens of people here obviously don’t speak for everybody in the national gun-rights movement. But they do speak for many, and the fear they share is real, even if it’s based on delusion, ignorance and irrational hatred -- of the government, of immigrants, of the secular world, but mostly of President Obama.

They may seem like easy targets for mockery, but after you listen a while and see how frightened they are, it gets harder to laugh. They’re deadly serious. This is not about preserving the right to shoot deer, clay pigeons, paper targets or even bandits and burglars. It’s about the apocalypse -- shooting back at law enforcement and federal troops when society collapses and the government comes to take your guns.

The closely related survivalist movement has been accused of similar paranoia, but the Times feelings depends on whether the "preppers" can be characterized as urban hipsters or ultra-conservatives. Reporter Alan Feuer's January 27 Metro story, "The Preppers Next Door," used that more benign term. Feuer found the people who showed up for a "show-and-tell session sponsored by the New York City Preppers Network" quite respectable (predictably, since he counts himself among them):

One by one, they stood in front of the room and exhibited their “bug-out bags,” meticulously packed receptacles filled with equipment meant to see them through the collapse of civilization.... To the unprepared, the very word “prepper” is likely to summon images of armed zealots hunkered down in bunkers awaiting the End of Days, but the reality, at least here in New York, is less dramatic. Local Preppers are doctors, doormen, charter school executives, subway conductors, advertising writers and happily married couples from the Bronx. They are no doubt people that you know -- your acquaintances and neighbors. People, I’ll admit, like myself.

It isn’t easy being a Prepper these days. The discipline has taken blows from TV programs like “Doomsday Preppers,” which -- despite its record ratings and recent episodes, like “Escape From New York” -- is more or less a weekly invitation to laugh at lunatics tunneling into mountainsides to escape a Russian nuclear continues to be thought of as a marginal and unseemly business, something on par with believing that the Bilderberg Group controls world events or that the government is hiding aliens at Area 51. PREPPING IS THE BIG SHORT: a bet not just against a city, or a country or a government, but against the whole idea of sustainable civilization. For that reason, it chafes against one of polite society’s last remaining taboos -- that the way we live is not simply plagued by certain problems, but is itself insolubly problematic.

That's quite a shift from how the Times felt about "preppers" last year. In his review of National Geographic's show “Doomsday Preppers," Neil Genzlinger looked at people with similar concerns, and saw a bunch of paranoid white right-wingers flirting with racism.

Watch either show for a short while and, unless you’re a prepper yourself, you might be moderately amused at the absurd excess on display and at what an easy target the prepper worldview is for ridicule. Watch a bit longer, though, and amusement may give way to annoyance at how offensively anti-life these shows are, full of contempt for humankind.....One expects the North and South Poles to swap places, one a global economic collapse, one “an electromagnetic pulse that will disable the transportation system of the United States.”....At their worst the shows don’t merely give the prepper universe a pass on difficult questions; they reinforce its ugliest undercurrents. The most recent “Doomsday Preppers” included a white family 40 miles from Atlanta that is worried about rioting caused by economic collapse. “Civil unrest will most likely ensue in the metropolitan areas and then spread out to the suburbs,” the patriarch says.