Magazine article The Christian Century

Rural Frustrations: Breeding Ground for the Far Right

Magazine article The Christian Century

Rural Frustrations: Breeding Ground for the Far Right

Article excerpt

WHEREAS THE FARM and rural crisis of the 1980s captured headlines, not much attention has been given lately to the chronic economic deterioration and stratification that is taking place in the countryside. Family-farm agriculture has been undermined by a public policy which for decades has been crafted not for farmers but for consumers and corporate agribusiness.

Nearly three-quarters of all farms gross below $50,000 a year and lose monev on their farming operations. Sixty percent of farm families rely on off-farm income to keep their operations going. In 1990 over 21 percent of all farm operator households fell below the poverty threshold. Tens of thousands of farms go out of business every year, and most food production now comes from fewer than 100,000 large producers.

Federal and state governments play a large role in making and enforcing farm policy. Farmers are subject to a sweeping and complex array of regulations, many of which are necessary, others of which seem unnecessarily bureaucratic. Contact with a government agency is a routine part of farm life. At the same time, farmers witness the corporate takeover of the U.S. food production system going unchallenged by the federal government and the states.

Large, highly capitalized farmers continue to wipe out their neighbors and often align themselves with corporate interests to exercise inordinate political power. Nearly half the nation's farmland is held by about 4 percent of all farmland owners; the "Central-Americanization" of American agriculture is nearing completion.

The far right has successfully tapped into rural people's frustration and anger at economic developments. Sometimes when no answers are available, any answer will do: Pay your debts with bogus "fractional reserve checks." Convict government officials in so-called common law courts. Stop paying illegal taxes to a renegade government. Join your neighbors in a militia to protect and defend your rights, your property and your guns. Blame Jews and condemn blacks. And validate the hatred with theological precepts developed over decades under the rubric of Christian Identity.

In the 1980s, organized hate-groups sprang up in the Midwest. Conspiracy theories were a dime-a-dozen, and were usually rooted in old but still enticing notions of an "international Jewish conspiracy." Then, as now, scathing anti-Semitism drove the far right, sucking desperate people in with often bizarre theories. A farmer once told me in all seriousness that the bar code on his can of Coca Cola designated the synagogue to which profits from that product were secretly routed.

In 1985 Prairie Fire Rural Action became aware of the rise of far-right groups and launched an effort to bring religious, farm, rural and labor organizations together to educate their members about the l,ar right and to develop countermeasures. Aggressive public education and organizing campaigns to expose the hate groups were mounted by a strong interfaith religious community, by grass-roots farm groups and by new coalitions. Training sessions involving some 2,000 community leaders and clergy from across the U.S. and Canada yielded effective community and state-level strategies to counter the movement. Over a period of three years this collective effort helped push the organized far right out of the farmbelt. …

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