Under a slate sky that mutes all that is glorious around us, I drive to the Alexander Gun Show, as I do on the first Sunday of most Octobers.
It is election season, though an off year—“off year” meaning we vote for the offices that ought to matter most (county legislature, city council, town supervisor) but, under our centralized dispensation, barely register. When 80 percent of the county budget is effectively drawn up in Albany, what does it matter?
Yard signs endorsing candidates dot the roadside, though they are vastly outnumbered by the red, white, and blue placards that have dominated rural New York for months now and that read REPEAL NY’S SAFE ACT.
The SAFE Act was the panicked response to the Connecticut school shooting by Governor Andrew Cuomo (Mario without the intellect or introspection) and an urban-suburban controlled legislature. Drafted with appalling sloppiness—its definition of “assault weapons” is almost broad enough to include your kid’s squirt gun—the SAFE Act is a suffocating welter of prohibitions, restrictions, and mandated background checks that severely constrict the historic liberties of my neighbors. (Whose violent crime rate, as is the case elsewhere in rural America, is minuscule.)
Fifty-two of the state’s 62 counties have registered their opposition to the law, but these do not include the only counties that count in statewide politics: those containing New York City and its suburbs. Several county sheriffs, unlikely embodiments of Robert Frost’s “insubordinate Americans,” are refusing to enforce the act.
In the rusti-phobic imagination, gun shows are stygian gatherings of edentulous Junior Samples lookalikes, but they are really rural swap meets. This show, like most, is held in a volunteer fire department, an institution that is the modern analogue of yesteryear’s militia. The dealers and browsers are the kind of men who serve in the wars that our liberal imperialists (Vietnam) and neoconservatives (Iraq I & II) design but never get around to shipping their own progeny off to. Absent is any glorification of the American Empire. My guess is that you’d find more vegans than Lindsey Graham fans here.
Walking the aisles, I see Winchesters, fishing lures, knives, and ammo, interrupted by “National Instant Gun Background Check” signs, an ugly intrusion of the surveillance state.
The mood is alternately defiant and resigned; there is a frustration borne of powerlessness. While huffy displays of bravado are rare, some of these men—and women—have pondered the question once posed by The Clash:
When they kick at your front door
How you gonna come?
With your hands on your head
Or on the trigger of your gun?
Hardly a week goes by without a news dispatch about the rural outliers of some state—New York, Maryland, Colorado, California—seeking to take advantage of a legal anachronism (the U.S. Constitution) that permits new states to be formed out of existing ones. (Every such article includes a stern admonition from Professor So-and-So that the deluded hicks had better shut up.)
The quickening talk of state scission—of recalibrating governance more on the human scale—is a sign of hope, of an abiding faith in small-scale democracy, of, perhaps, the rekindling (or is it the last flicker?) of the old American ideal of local self-government. I write about this at length in my history of American secession movements, Bye Bye Miss American Empire.
I can’t think of a time when rural and small-town Americans were so disprized. That we have fed America, produced most of its enduring literature, and, politically, stood for peace and place—well, that was then. But rural America is still good for one thing.
Addressing Virginia farmers (including the great Joel Salatin) and agribusiness reps, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack noted that although the rural population of the U.S. has declined to just 16 percent, it makes up 40 percent of the nation’s armed services. How can we occupy the world and destroy its traditionalist cultures, asked Vilsack, if the clodhoppers stop reproducing? (Okay, he didn’t put it in quite those terms.)
During the First World War, the Kansas Socialist Kate Richards O’Hare was thrown into prison for sedition. Her crime? Telling a North Dakota audience that their rulers regarded farm mothers as “brood sows, having sons to be put into the army and made into fertilizer.” A century later, Kansas Kate is confirmed.
From Western Maryland to the Southern Tier of New York to redwoods-and-weed Northern California, the brood sows are wondering if maybe they shouldn’t have some say in the political arrangements under which they live. No man born with a living soul would deny them that right.