"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Who are the white supremacists? There has been no formal survey, for obvious reasons, but there are several noticeable patterns. Geographically, they come from America’s heartland—small towns, rural cities, swelling suburban sprawl outside larger Sunbelt cities. These aren’t the prosperous towns, but the single-story working-class exurbs that stretch for what feels like forever in the corridor between Long Beach and San Diego (not the San Fernando Valley), or along the southern tier of Pennsylvania, or spread all through the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, across the vast high plains of eastern Washington and Oregon, through Idaho and Montana. There are plenty in the declining cities of the Rust Belt, in Dearborn and Flint, Buffalo and Milwaukee, in the bars that remain in the shadows of the hulking deserted factories that once were America’s manufacturing centers. And that doesn’t even touch the former states of the Confederacy, where flying the Confederate flag is a culturally approved symbol of “southern pride”—in the same way that wearing a swastika would be a symbol of German “heritage” (except it’s illegal in Germany to wear a swastika).
There’s a large rural component. Although “the spread of far-right groups over the last decade has not been limited to rural areas alone,” writes Osha Gray Davidson, “the social and economic unraveling of rural communities—especially in the midwest—has provided far-right groups with new audiences for their messages of hate. Some of these groups have enjoyed considerable success in their rural campaign.” For many farmers facing foreclosures, the Far Right promises to help them save their land have been appealing, offering farmers various schemes and legal maneuvers to help prevent foreclosures, blaming the farmers’ troubles on Jewish bankers and the one-world government. “As rural communities started to collapse,” Davidson writes, the Far Right “could be seen at farm auctions comforting families . . . confirming what rural people knew to be true: that their livelihoods, their families, their communities—their very lives—were falling apart.” In stark contrast to the government indifference encountered by rural Americans, a range of Far Right groups, most recently the militias, have seemingly provided support, community, and answers.
In that sense, the contemporary militias and other white supremacist groups are following in the footsteps of the Ku Klux Klan, the Posse Comitatus, and other Far Right patriot groups who recruited members in rural America throughout the 1980s. They tap into a long history of racial and ethnic paranoia in rural America, as well as an equally long tradition of collective local action and vigilante justice. There remains a widespread notion that “Jews, African-Americans, and other minority-group members ‘do not entirely belong,’” which may, in part, “be responsible for rural people’s easy acceptance of the far right’s agenda of hate,” writes Matthew Snipp. “The far right didn’t create bigotry in the Midwest; it didn’t need to,” Davidson concludes. “It merely had to tap into the existing undercurrent of prejudice once this had been inflamed by widespread economic failure and social discontent.”
And many have moved from their deindustrializing cities, foreclosed suburban tracts, and wasted farmlands to smaller rural areas because they seek the companionship of like-minded fellows, in relatively remote areas far from large numbers of nonwhites and Jews and where they can organize, train, and build protective fortresses. Many groups have established refuge in rural communities, where they can practice military tactics, stockpile food and weapons, hone their survivalist skills, and become self-sufficient in preparation for Armageddon, the final race war, or whatever cataclysm they envision. Think of it as the twenty-first-century version of postwar suburban “white flight”—but on steroids.
They’re certainly Christian, but not just any Christian—they’re evangelical Protestant, Pentacostalist, and members of radical sects that preach racial purity as the Word of Jesus. (Catholicism is certainly stocked with conservatives on social issues, but white supremacists tap into such a long and ignoble tradition of anti-Catholicism that they tend to have their own right-wing organizations, mostly fighting against women’s rights and gay rights.) Some belong to churches like the Christian Identity Church, which gained a foothold on the Far Right in the early 1980s. Christian Identity’s focus on racism and anti-Semitism provides the theological underpinnings to the shift from a more “traditional agrarian protest” to paramilitarism. It is from the Christian Identity movement that the Far Right gets its theological claims that Adam is the ancestor of the Caucasian race, whereas non-whites are pre-Adamic “mud people,” without souls, and Jews are the children of Satan. According to this doctrine, Jesus was not Jewish and not from the Middle East; actually, he was northern European, his Second Coming is close at hand, and followers can hasten the apocalypse. It is the birthright of Anglo-Saxons to establish God’s kingdom on earth; America’s and Britain’s “birthright is to be the wealthiest, most powerful nations on earth . . . able, by divine right, to dominate and colonize the world.”
A large proportion of the extreme right wing are military veterans. Several leaders served in Vietnam and were shocked at the national disgust that greeted them as they returned home after that debacle. “America’s failure to win that war was a truly profound blow,” writes William J. Gibson. “If Americans were no longer winners, then who were they?” Some veterans believed they were sold out by the government, caving in to effeminate cowardly protesters; they can no longer trust the government to fight for what is right. Bo Gritz, a former Green Beret in Vietnam, returned to Southeast Asia several times in clandestine missions to search for prisoners of war and was the real-life basis for the film Rambo. He uses his military heroism to increase his credibility among potential recruits; one brochure describes him as “this country’s most decorated Vietnam veteran” who “killed some 400 Communists in his illustrious military career.” In 1993 Gritz began a traveling SPIKE (Specially Prepared Individuals for Key Events) training program, a rigorous survival course in paramilitary techniques.
Many of the younger guys are veterans of the first Gulf War, a war that they came to believe was fought for no moral principles at all, but simply to make America’s oil supply safer and to protect Israel from possible Arab attack. They feel they’ve been used, pawns in a larger political game, serving their country honorably only to be spit out and stepped on when they returned home to slashed veteran benefits, bureaucratic indifference to post-traumatic stress disorder, and general social contempt for having fought in the war in the first place. They believed they were entitled to be hailed as heroes, as had earlier generations of American veterans, not to be scorned as outcasts. Now a guy like Bo Gritz symbolizes “true” warrior-style masculinity, and reclaiming their manhood is the reward for signing up with the Far Right.
THE CLASS ORIGINS OF RACIAL POLITICS
Perhaps what binds them all together, though, is class. Rural or small town, urban or suburban, the extreme Right is populated by downwardly mobile, lower-middle-class white men. All of the men I interviewed—all—fitted this class profile. When I compared with other ethnographies and other surveys, they all had the same profile as well.
In the United States, class is often a proxy for race. When politicians speak of the “urban poor,” we know it’s a code for black people. When they talk about “welfare queens,” we know the race of that woman driving the late-model Cadillac. In polite society, racism remains hidden behind a screen spelled CLASS.
On the extreme Right, by contrast, race is a proxy for class. Among the white supremacists, when they speak of race consciousness, defending white people, protesting for equal rights for white people, they actually don’t mean all white people. They don’t mean Wall Street bankers and lawyers, though they are pretty much entirely white and male. They don’t mean white male doctors, or lawyers, or architects, or even engineers. They don’t mean the legions of young white hipster guys, or computer geeks flocking to the Silicon Valley, or the legions of white preppies in their boat shoes and seersucker jackets “interning” at white-shoe law firms in major cities. Not at all. They mean middle-and working-class white people. Race consciousness is actually class consciousness without actually having to “see” class. “Race blindness” leads working-class people to turn right; if they did see class, they’d turn left and make common cause with different races in the same economic class.
That’s certainly what I found among them. Most are in their mid-thirties to early forties, educated at least through high school and often beyond. (The average age of the guys I talked with was thirty-six.) They are the sons of skilled workers in industries like textiles and tobacco, the sons of the owners of small farms, shops, and grocery stores. Buffeted by global political and economic forces, the sons have inherited little of their fathers’ legacies. The family farms have been lost to foreclosure, the small shops squeezed out by Walmarts and malls. These young men face a spiral of downward mobility and economic uncertainty. They complain that they are squeezed between the omnivorous jaws of global capital concentration and a federal bureaucracy that is at best indifferent to their plight and at worst complicit in their demise.
And they’re right. It is the lower middle class—that strata of independent farmers, small shopkeepers, craft and highly skilled workers, and small-scale entrepreneurs—that has been hit hardest by globalization. “Western industry has displaced traditional crafts—female as well as male—and large-scale multinational-controlled agriculture has downgraded the independent farmer to the status of hired hand,” writes journalist Barbara Ehrenreich. This has resulted in massive male displacement—migration, downward mobility. It has been felt the most not by the adult men who were the tradesmen, shopkeepers, and skilled workers, but by their sons, by the young men whose inheritance has been seemingly stolen from them. They feel entitled and deprived—and furious. These angry young men are the foot soldiers of the armies of rage that have sprung up around the world.
What’s important to note is that they are literally the sons. It was their fathers who closed the family store, who lost the family farm. Some are men who have worked all their adult lives, hoping to pass on the family farm to their sons and retire comfortably. They believed that if they worked hard, their legacy would be ensured, but they leave their sons little but a legacy of foreclosures, economic insecurity, and debt.
It was their status next to their father’s and grandfather’s names on the cabinetmaking storefront that said “Jones and Sons.” These were businesses that came not only with the ability to make a living, but came with dignity, with a sense of craft pride, a sense that you owned your own store or farm, owned and controlled your own labor—even employed some other people—and that this economic autonomy had been a source of great pride in the family for generations. In a near-throwaway footnote in his classic study of identity development, “Childhood and Society” (1950), Erik Erikson locates the origins of young men’s anger in a multigenerational story:
In psychoanalytic patients the overwhelming importance of the grandfather is often apparent. He may have been a blacksmith of the old world or a railroad builder of the new, and as yet proud Jew or an unreconstructed Southerner. What these grandfathers have in common is that fact that they were the last representatives of a more homogeneous world, masterly and cruel with good conscience, disciplined and pious without loss of self-esteem. Their world invented bigger and better machinery like gigantic playthings which were not expected to challenge the social values of the men who made them. Their mastery persists in their grandsons as a stubborn, an angry sense of superiority. Overtly inhibited, they yet can accept others only on terms of prearranged privilege.
“It wasn’t my daddy’s farm,” said Andy, “it was my granddaddy’s, and his daddy’s, and his daddy’s. Five generations of Hoosier farmers.” Generations of Hoosier men, who worked the farm, supported a family, made a living with dignity. They proved their masculinity in that most time-honored way in America: as family providers. And it was their fathers who lost it all, squandered their birthright. Instead of getting angry at their fathers, Andy and his comrades claim the mantle of the grandfathers, displace their rage outward, onto an impermeable and unfeeling government bureaucracy that didn’t offer help, onto soulless corporations that squeezed them mercilessly. By displacing their anger onto those enormous faceless entities, the sons justify their political rage and rescue their own fathers from their anger.
Some can’t do it. Some of the sons—and the fathers—turn their rage inward. We have already discussed the wave of suicides that rippled across the American heartland in the 1980s and 1990s—spawning widespread concern and a series of Farm Aid concerts to raise awareness. The number of suicides in America’s Midwest was higher in the 1990s than during the Great Depression; suicide was the leading cause of agricultural fatalities for two decades—by far. Men were five times more likely to kill themselves than die by accident. “To fail several generations of relatives (both backwards and forwards into those unborn descendants who will now not be able to farm), to see yourself as the one weak link in a strong chain that spans more than a century, is a terrible, and for some, an unbearable burden,” writes Osha Gray Davidson. “When a fellow in a steel mill loses his job, he has basically lost his paycheck,” a physician at the University of Iowa explained. “When an Iowa farmer loses his farm, he’s lost the guts of his life.”
One woman, speaking at a town meeting in Tonkawa, Oklahoma, in 1991, provided an eloquent narrative of this process:
I am a 46-year-old mother of three children. We have lost two farms since 1980, my mother in law’s farm as well as our own. We were forced to sell 160 acres of land that was very special to us. It was homesteaded by my husband’s great grandfather and for years had served as home to our cow and calf operation which we were forced to sell just a few months before we sold the land.
My husband became completely consumed by our circumstances caused by the farm crisis. He left me. Our family continued to deteriorate and our marriage ended in divorce. We had been through natural crises before—drought, flood, crop failure—these we accepted and went on.
But when the threat of losing everything comes to your doorstep because of the bad economy, low commodity prices and high interest on your base notes has left you hopelessly in debt, your faith is sometimes shaken. No one likes to consider that their life has been pointless.
Others direct this seething rage outward. “Many debt ridden farm families will become more suspicious of government, as their self-worth, their sense of belonging, their hope for the future deteriorates,” predicted Oklahoma psychologist Glen Wallace presciently in 1989. “The farms are gone,” writes Dyer, “yet the farmers remain. They’ve been transformed into a wildfire of rage, fueled by the grief of their loss and blown by the winds of conspiracy and hate-filled rhetoric.” “It is hardly surprising, then, that American men—lacking confidence in the government and the economy, troubled by the changing relations between the sexes, uncertain of their identity or their future—began to dream, to fantasize about the powers and features of another kind of man who could retake and reorder the world. And the hero of all these dreams was the paramilitary warrior.” The contemporary white supremacist movement is the embodiment of these warrior dreams.
Their plan is to get even. Unlike Joe Wesbecker, some guys don’t just get even by rampaging through their factory floor or their corporate offices, shooting at their former colleagues and coworkers. They get mad, and they get organized. They cobble together a theory that explains their plight—grafting together fringe elements of evangelical Christianity, traditional anti-Semitism and racism, and general right-wing paranoia into an amalgam that is loosely held together by a nostalgic vision of hardy, independent frontier manhood. Like the guys who go postal, they externalize their rage—their anguish is clearly the fault of someone else—but they don’t externalize it to their immediate surroundings, their boss, supervisor, or coworkers. Instead, it’s larger, more powerful, and pernicious social forces—Jews, Muslims, minorities generally, women.
These are the sons of small-town America, the Jeffersonian yeoman of the nineteenth century, disfigured by global restructuring and economic downturns. They come from the “large and growing number of US citizens disaffected from and alienated by a government that seems indifferent, if not hostile, to their interests. This predominantly white, male, and middle-and working-class sector has been buffeted by global economic restructuring with its attendant job losses, declining real wages, and social dislocations. While under economic stress, this sector has also seen its traditional privileges and status challenged by 1960s-style social movements, such as feminism, minority rights, and environmentalism.”
The sons of these farmers and shopkeepers expected to—and felt entitled to—inherit their fathers’ legacy. And when it became evident it was not going to happen, they became murderously angry—at a system that emasculated their fathers and threatens their manhood. They live in what they call a “Walmart economy” and are governed by a “nanny state” that doles out their birthright to ungrateful and undeserving immigrants. What they want, says one guy, is to “take back what is rightfully ours.”
So, who are they really, these hundred thousand white supremacists? They’re every white guy who believed that this land was his land, was made for you and me. They’re every down-on-his-luck guy who just wanted to live a decent life but got stepped on, every character in a Bruce Springsteen or Merle Haggard song, every cop, soldier, auto mechanic, steelworker, and construction worker in America’s small towns who can’t make ends meet and wonders why everyone else is getting a break except him. But instead of becoming Tom Joad, a left-leaning populist, they take a hard right turn, ultimately supporting the very people who have dispossessed them.
They’re America’s Everymen, whose pain at downward mobility and whose anger at what they see as an indifferent government have become twisted by a hate that tells them they are better than others, disfigured by a resentment so deep that there are no more bridges to be built, no more ladders of upward mobility to be climbed, a howl of pain mangled into the scream of a warrior. Their rage is as sad as it is frightening, as impotent as it is shrill.
WALKING THE PATRIOTIC CAPITALIST TIGHTROPE
You might think that the political ideology of the white supremacist movement is as simple as their list of enemies: put down minorities, expel immigrants, push the women out of the workplace, and round up and execute the gays and the Jews. But it’s not nearly so simple. Actually, they have to navigate some treacherous ideological waters and reconcile seemingly contradictory ideological visions with their emotions.
There are three parts to their ideological vision. For one thing, they are ferociously procapitalist. They are firm believers in the free market and free enterprise. They just don’t like what it’s brought. They like capitalism; they just hate corporations. They identify, often, as the vast middle class of office workers and white-collar employees, even though that is hardly their class background. (They’ve a fungible understanding of class warfare.) “For generations, white middle class men defined themselves by their careers, believing that loyalty to employers would be rewarded by job security and, therefore, the ability to provide for their families” is the way one issue of Racial Loyalty (a racist skinhead magazine) puts it. “But the past decade—marked by an epidemic of takeovers, mergers, downsizings and consolidations—has shattered that illusion.”
Aryans support capitalist enterprise and entrepreneurship, even those who make it rich, but especially the virtues of the small proprietor, but are vehemently antiurban, anticosmopolitan, and anticorporate. In their eyes, Wall Street is ruled by Jewish-influenced corporate plutocrats who hate “real” Americans. Theirs is the Jeffersonian vision of a nation of producers—not financiers, not bankers, and not those other “masters of the universe” whose entire careers consist of cutting the cake ever more finely and living on the crumbs. It’s Andrew Jackson’s producerist attack on the “parasitic” bankers. It is “the desire to own small property, to produce crops and foodstuffs, to control local affairs, to be served but never coerced by a representative government, and to have traditional ways of life and labor respected,” writes historian Catherine Stock.
White supremacists see themselves as squeezed between global capital and an emasculated state that supports voracious global profiteering. In the song “No Crime Being White,” Day of the Sword, a popular racist skinhead band, confronts the greedy class:
The birthplace is the death of our race.
Our brothers being laid off is a truth we have to face.
Take my job, it’s equal opportunity
The least I can do, you were so oppressed by me
I’ve only put in twenty years now.
Suddenly my country favors gooks and spicks and queers.
Fuck you, then, boy I hope you’re happy when your new employees are the reason why your business ends.
Second, the extreme Right is extremely patriotic. They love their country, their flag, and everything it stands for. These are the guys who get teary at the playing of the national anthem, who choke up when they hear the word America. They have bumper stickers on their pick ups that show the flag with the slogan “These colors don’t run.”
The problem is that the America they love doesn’t happen to be the America in which they live. They love America—but they hate its government. They believe that the government has become so un-American that it has joined in global institutions that undermine and threaten the American way of life. Many fuse critiques of international organizations such as the United Nations with protectionism and neoisolationism, arguing that all internationalisms are part of a larger Zionist conspiracy. Some embrace a grand imperial vision of American (and other Aryan) domination and the final subjugation of “inferior races.”
As he traveled through the rural West, journalist Joel Dyer constantly heard these refrains: “Environmentalists wouldn’t let me run my cows cause some damn little sparrow they said was endangered lived on my place,” “They took my farm,” “The IRS took everything I owned.” “These people believe the government is responsible for where they are, because they are finding themselves ignored, basically, by the economic system. People are losing their homes, their farms, their jobs, their sources of income. Corporations have been allowed to move wherever they want, and to take away jobs by the truckload. People are becoming economically dispossessed.”
NAFTA took away American jobs; what they see as the “Burger King” economy leaves no room at the top, so “many youngsters see themselves as being forced to compete with nonwhites for the available minimum wage, service economy jobs that have replaced their parents’ unionized industry opportunities.”
That such ardent patriots are so passionately antigovernment might strike the observer as contradictory. After all, are these not the same men who served their country in Vietnam or in the Gulf War? Are these not the same men who believe so passionately in the American Dream? Are they not the backbone of the Reagan Revolution? Indeed, they are. The extreme Right faces the difficult cognitive task of maintaining their faith in America and in capitalism and simultaneously providing an analysis of an indifferent state, at best, or an actively interventionist one, at worst, and a way to embrace capitalism, despite a cynical corporate logic that leaves them, often literally, out in the cold—homeless, jobless, hopeless.
Finally, they believe themselves to be the true heirs of the real America. They are the ones who are entitled to inherit the bounty of the American system. It’s their birthright—as native-born, white American men. As sociologist Lillian Rubin puts it, “It’s this confluence of forces—the racial and cultural diversity of our new immigrant population; the claims on the resources of the nation now being made by those minorities who, for generations, have called America their home; the failure of some of our basic institutions to serve the needs of our people; the contracting economy, which threatens the mobility aspirations of working class families—all these have come together to leave white workers feeling as if everyone else is getting a piece of the action while they get nothing.”
This persistent reversal—white men as victim, the “other” as undeservedly privileged—resounds through the rhetoric of the extreme Right. Take, for example, Pat Buchanan’s “A Brief for Whitey,” a response to candidate Barack Obama’s call for a national conversation about race in America: “It is the same old con, the same old shakedown. America has been the best country on earth for black folks. It was here that 600,000 black people, brought from Africa in slave ships, grew into a community of 40 million, were introduced to Christian salvation, and reached the greatest levels of freedom and prosperity blacks have ever known.”
And now, I suppose, Buchanan would say, we’re supposed to apologize to them? Pay them reparations? They should be kissing our feet with gratitude! But no. We live in a fun-house version of America, Buchanan argues, where minorities rule and white folks are the new oppressed minority. It was ours, but it’s not anymore. It has been taken—because we let it! And the fact that it has been stolen from us leaves white American men feeling emasculated—and furious.
It is through a decidedly gendered and sexualized rhetoric of masculinity that this contradiction between loving America and hating its government, loving capitalism and hating its corporate iterations, is resolved. Racism, nativism, anti-Semitism, antifeminism—these discourses of hate provide an explanation for the feelings of entitlement thwarted, fixing the blame squarely on “others” whom the state must now serve at the expense of white men. The unifying theme is gender.
These men feel emasculated by big money and big government. In their eyes, most white American men collude in their emasculation. They’ve grown soft, feminized, weak. White supremacist websites abound with complaints about the “whimpering collapse of the blond male,” the “legions of sissies and weaklings, of flabby, limp-wristed, non-aggressive, non-physical, indecisive, slack-jawed, fearful males who, while still heterosexual in theory and practice, have not even a vestige of the old macho spirit.”
Excerpted from “Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era” by Michael Kimmel. Published by Nation Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2013 by Michael Kimmel. All rights reserved.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)