Fantasy is underrated as a force in politics.
Take a look at Oregon, for example. Right now a group of self-styled militiamen (i.e. heavily armed anti-government wackos) have taken over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
They have a couple of ostensible goals in mind. First, they wanted to protest the treatment of two local ranchers who set fires that scorched public land and endangered firefighters. But the ranchers, facing a stiff five-year jail term, turned themselves in and started serving their time earlier this week.
Their secondary goal is to force the U.S. federal government to turn over federal land to “locals,” or in other words, ranchers, loggers and miners, and damn any talk of balancing priorities or the environment or even the difficulty of determining who would control the lands in the future.
These goals may be the ones put forward, but they’re secondary to a deeper goal.
These guys are attempting to live out a fantasy of agency.
Very few people have a lot of power in their day to day lives. Even people who do have a lot of power – the wealthy, elected officials, senior military commanders, high ranking cops – can’t actually do anything they want.
One of the hallmarks of living in a civilized society is that the powerful are not all-powerful. They too must follow the rules and be accountable for their actions.
This is both positive and negative. Democracies are structured so that change can happen, but only within certain channels. So even though our system means that tyrants can’t easily round us up and put chips in our heads, it is also difficult to fight for social change or to combat corruption that is deeply embedded in the existing social order. You can’t just show up with a six gun and call out the bad guy, whoever you think the bad guy is.
Well, you can’t. I can’t. We know and understand that the world doesn’t work like that, and that it never really did.
Not so the militia goons who are now holed up in a government building near a migratory bird sanctuary.
They think they’re cowboys. They think they’re revolutionaries, like the Continental Army of the 1770s. They think that you can use violence, or at least the barely veiled threat of violence, to change things.
These guys aren’t interested in petitioning, organizing, running for election, supporting candidates, or even going to jail for civil disobedience. They want to be heroes straight out of a John Wayne movie.
They are attempting to live out a fantasy. They’re not crazy – all of pop culture and the hothouse environment of the anti-government militia movement have been propping up this fantasy for years. They’ve been told that the world is on the brink of tyranny thanks to socialized medicine and background checks for assault rifles. They think paying to use federal land is theft, and that terrorists and illegal immigrants are going to sneak up and kill them and their families any day now.
We all live, to a certain extent, in personal fantasy worlds. But we acknowledge them, and they mostly have enough overlap with the real world that we can navigate the day-to-day grind of job and school and doing the dishes and all of that other stuff.
Some people can’t quite do it. They cut loose from reality, and head off on their own. The problem is if they do it with a truckload of guns and a few fellow fantasists.