Rally cries 

Red State weaves engaging, ideological tales

If Antigone had married Creon’s son and entered Thebes’ government as a reformer against the royal family’s despotism, it likely wouldn’t make much of a play. But she might have had lasting political effect on Thebes. Instead, Antigone decided to bury her brother Polynices against Creon’s will and suffer live entombment as punishment.

But, then again, the play isn’t a manual on how to bring about political change—it’s a tale of the different forces that comprise, and sometimes rip asunder, polities: religion, tradition, family and power. It’s also the tale of Antigone’s pure but ultimately self-destructive idealism. In a sense, so is Red State Rebels, a collection of essays, reports and interviews on grassroots activism in “red state” regions of the country, assembled and in large part written by Montana native Joshua Frank and Jeffrey St. Clair.

The two set the tone right in the introduction. “We are not supposed to exist,” they write, “we come from no man’s land, fly-over country, the unredeemable middle, where political progressives are as rare as a Hooters in Provo, Utah.” They also present a list of grievances against everyday citizens—toxic dumping in small towns, forcible eviction of working people from their homes, the federal jackboots kicking down doors—all accompanied by the claim that a “Red States rebellion is breaking out” and by tales of grassroots resisters, or people who take on impossible causes in impossible places.

And tales there are aplenty, all of idealists battling monolithic, faceless authority, and, more often than not, fruitlessly. To wit: tales of people arrested at a Dick Cheney stump speech, arrested for protesting the war, arrested for dressing in clown costumes and banging on North Dakota missile silos with hammers. Tales of forests clearcut, of FBI agents shooting mothers, of protesters blocking timber trucks with their bodies, of communes in the desert and smoking dope at the Rainbow Farm. In short, a shotgun blast of essays—organized by region—aimed at dozens of unpleasant, unkind and unjust happenings from deep-red rural areas of the country.

Perhaps the best, and certainly my favorite, is “Something About Butte,” an angry workingman’s account of Butte’s storied history. “Gallows frames prick up through the town like quills on a porcupine,” writes St. Clair in the opening description of the town. “Once, these steel derricks cranked the miners down into the depths in hoist cages, now they resemble the frightful gibbets that haunt the backgrounds of Bruegel’s paintings from the years of the Black Death.” You can almost hear Billy Bragg tuning his guitar as you read about John D. Rockefeller, Marcus Daly and Dennis Washington, the birth of unions and the lynching of Frank Little. Sure, it’s somewhat overblown, but it’s a thrill of a ride, and successfully ignites that little ember of righteous, stubborn anger that every persistent activist needs.

That’s the book at its best: inspiring and engaging. Old-fashioned protest literature.

At its worst, Red State Rebels is pedantic, too self-involved. In St. Clair’s “The Origin of the Western Greens,” environmental activists are the Democratic Party’s “most effective organizers,” its “most faithful (and forgiving) voters,” its “most aggressive fund raisers.” But the myriad and innumerable betrayals and “backsliding” of the Clinton administration, many of whose “flip flops” were “engineered at the behest of Western Democrats” forced the hands of these tireless crusaders to support a third-party, green candidate in 1994 against Pat Williams, then Montana’s Democratic incumbent House representative. And what’s the harm? Williams was just as bad as any pro-corporate, environmental-hatin’ Republican, right?

Indeed, most of the book's essays focus on the Democratic Party and the evils of the Clinton administration. The idea is that the Democrats are just as anti-populist, pro-corporation as the Republicans. Continuing to support the Democrats was just enabling bad policy; they didn’t deserve progressive support. You know the rest of the story. The 2000 election came and went; the Bush administration and a Republican-led Congress introduced the country to preemptive war, torture, Jack Abramoff, the unitary executive and economic ruin. If anything’s underscored that there is a difference between the two political parties, it’s George W. Bush.

Here’s the thing about Red State Rebels: All this single-issue advocacy, the idea that a cabal of die hard activists embarking on flashy acts of protest (direct action!) comes across somewhat antiquated in 2008. Grassroots organizers now choose mainstream political avenues to promote change. The Obama campaign, for example, is probably the biggest grassroots movement in the history of the country. And the driving force behind today’s progressive reformers isn’t braggadocio and ideological purity, but centrist, unifying ideas that bind broad and disparate interests like health care reform, sensible tax policy and jobs.

The message of today’s progressive movement, I think, was ably summed up recently by the Chicago Tribune’s Steve Chapman in his endorsement of Barack Obama: “It is a message of fundamental unity and good will, at a time when politics often resembles Henry Adams’ mordant description: ‘The systematic organization of hatreds.’” While no one doubts the commitment or beliefs of our red state rebels, you have to wonder why their protest movements were never accompanied by persuasive, inclusive rhetoric aimed at voters instead of at politicians. But then Antigone’s act of civil disobedience was never about burying her brother. It was simply the right thing to do.
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