A Not So Distant Mirror

(c) 1996 by Paul de Armond

I never expected to find parallels between the militant heretics of the Middle Ages and the current convulsions on the far right. The realization thrust itself upon me while I was trying to understand what I was witnessing as I attended meetings of the “property rights” groups which began promoting militia organizing in early 1994.

Everyone seemed instinctively to know what part they played; the endless rants by a variety of characters full of not only themselves, but also full of a sense of a divine mission in struggling against unholy forces. The typical far right meeting is very similar to a service in a lay Christian fellowship of the more militant fundamentalist evangelicals.

The first time that this realization impressed itself upon me was at a militia organizing meeting convened by a local “property rights” group in October, 1994.

The militia organizers were calling themselves “The Committee for Environmental Justice” and the topic of the meeting was the proposed United Nations takeover of the public lands in the North Cascades region of Washington State. Wild rumors had been floating around the property rights groups since Chuck Cushman — one of the founders of the anti-environmentalist “Wise Use” movement — had toured the northern half of the state in early 1994. Cushman was touting a slightly different conspiracy theory, one which dwelled on creating fears about a proposal involving an administrative reorganization of the public’s lands in the region.

The Committee for Environmental Justice was a collection of Christian Patriots, Wise Users and conspiracy theorists from Snohomish County who had conflated Cushman’s conspiracy theories about the North Cascades with white supremacist propaganda about an imminent U.N. invasion of the United States. The group was short-lived and almost immediately changed its name after drawing attention from the press during its tour of the regions where Cushman had served as their advance man six months previously. By the next winter, they were hosting John Trochmann, leader of the Militia of Montana, in his first appearance in this region.

At the October meeting, Don Kehoe of Monroe, Washington treated the audience of over 100 people to his particular variation of the “UN invasion” conspiracy theory. Like many of the “Patriots,” Kehoe is not a very skilled speaker. He droned on for nearly an hour, reading verbatim from a written speech.Don Kehoe used a map showing much of northern Washington and part of British Columbia marked as

Kehoe’s droning monotone delivery, his frequent fumbling with his reading glasses, his obvious nervousness and discomfort, all combined to make his presentation either intensely painful or the object of sympathy for his audience.

At the conclusion of his speech, Kehoe set aside his prepared statement and sheaf of supporting documents. He put his reading glasses in his pocket. He faced the audience of mostly older citizens — many of whom had been drawn to the meeting by Cushman’s hysterical and violent rumors of impending government expropriation of their nest egg acreage — and spoke from the heart. His sincerity, like that of most of the self-styled “Patriots,” was both evident and touching.

After drawing a deep breath, Don Kehoe intoned, “We are living in the end times…” The room erupted in a chorus of amens.

A chill still runs down my spine when I recall the undercurrent of fanaticism which surfaced on that Saturday afternoon in the little Grange hall. I was dissatisfied with the purely ideological, social, economic and political explanations which had been put forward by other observers of this growing movement. Each explanation seemed too reductionist, too focussed on a singular causative explanation and derived from the doctrinal lens through which a particular observer brought to bear on the phenomenon: racism, environmental damage, economic exploitation, changing social structures in rural areas, expanding urbanization, a widely shared and realistic appraisal of a future which is overwhelmingly pessimistic for all but a wealthy and privileged few, and a relentless search for enemies on whom these troubles can be fastened.

By chance, I was reading Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror, a history of the turbulent 14th Century as seen through the life of a member of the French nobility. Tuchman explains her interest in the 14th Century as starting with “a desire to find out what were the effects of the most lethal disaster of recorded history — that is to say the Black Death of 1348-50, which killed an estimated one third of the population living between India and Iceland.” The answer to that question eluded her because of the “strange and great perils and adversities” (according to one 14th century writer) which showed that the plague alone was not the sole cause of the disorders and upheavals which afflicted that century.

Tuchman’s interest was further piqued by the “phenomenal parallels” between then and now — perhaps the sole consolation of history, the recurrent feeling that humankind is never alone in time or space, but exists as a continuous and interwoven tapestry of both events and processes. Historical insight and understanding is available only to those who can place themselves in the shoes of others. She found that she was not alone in these feelings, citing James Westfall’s comparison of the Black Death and WWI, who “found all the same complaints: economic chaos, social unrest, high prices, profiteering, depraved morals, lack of production, industrial indolence, frenetic gaiety, wild expenditure, luxury, debauchery, social and religious hysteria, greed, avarice, maladministration, decay of manners.”

Religious hysteria was what I thought I was seeing at the confluence of the “property rights” and militia movements. In their role as social critics and collectors of grievances, the “Patriots” and Wise Users are remarkably acute, but they are unreasonable in both analysis and action — rejecting a discourse which supplies reasons and appeals to reason and instead relies on force for persuasion.

The basis of their public appeal are widespread and legitimate grievances which have failed to be addressed by the establishment:

€ the collapse of economies based on diminishing renewable (though unrenewed) resources;

€ the increasingly regressive taxation structures;

€ the lack of a free press which informs opinion instead of molding it;

€ the arrogance of regulation which replaces public with private interest;

€ the increasing political, cultural and social marginalization of individuals in favor of chartered institutions;

€ and the debasement of the political process by self-interest and the power of concentrated wealth.

The instability of the middle socio-economic class is a classical condition of revolutionary movements throughout history. The mobs which followed the medieval prophetae were mostly urban artisans, journeymen and casual laborers. These were not the lowest strata of society, the serfs, beggars, and Jews, but rather the section of middle-class which was subject to the greatest economic uncertainty. Generally they aspired to the status of the solidly middle-class burghers, clerics and guild members.

One of the earliest of the prophetae, Tanchelm of Antwerp, began his career as a notary in the court of Robert II, Count of Flanders in the early 12th century. Unsuccessful as a prophet in Flanders, he moved to the coast and ultimately established himself in Antwerp. Dressing as a monk, he challenged the authority of an admittedly corrupt Church — the only priest in Antwerp was openly living with a concubine. Once he gathered a following and assumed a position of power, he discarded his monks robes and dressed in costly clothes while professing to possess the same Holy Spirit as Christ and like Christ, to be God.

Tanchelm’s court styled itself as a guild of apostles, led by a blacksmith and including a woman symbolizing the Virgin Mary. The outer circle of his movement was organized as an armed bodyguard, described as “a formidable and fanatical force.”

To say that revolutionary movements arise in times of social and economic change smacks of predicting the past, but the facts show that popular revolutions typically start at the distressed lower margins of the middle class, not in the much feared and reviled lower classes — which become scapegoats when the mob fails to locate their mythical and non-existent enemies.

Skip Richards opened the meeting.The audience which greeted Don Kehoe’s pronouncement of the “end times” at the Laurel Grange in 1994 was similar in social status to the crowds which responded similarly to the medieval prophetae. Most of the people attending that day were no longer sure of the solidity of their middle class status. Bombarded for two years by predictions of immanent economic ruin in the form of Wise Use anti-environmentalist propaganda, they were drawn by their fears of losing what little economic security — mostly nest-egg land investments — that they possessed.

They had witnessed a dramatic increase in the assessed value of their property and a steady increase in taxation. Wise Use propaganda explained this change in the form of conspiracy theories involving environmental regulation. The social changes accompanying the influx of new population during the development boom further challenged their view of an established order and their security within it.

The repeated tax increases and currency devaluations of the Middle Ages were similar effects of a changing society. As the wealth of the towns increased and the burghers grew wealthy through commerce, the landed peasantry fell in social stature and wealth. As the lower tier of the agricultural middle class absorbed the costs of change, they formed the basis for mass movements. Because of their precarious economic situation they only lacked the leadership out of which such a movement could form.

Times of change are not uniform — the tide that raises some boats can cause others to sink. The members of society who fail to rise — but had some hope of doing so — often provide the leadership for revolt, be they prophetae or “property rights” activists.

The prophetae of the militia movement come from the Wise Use anti-environmentalists and Christian white supremacists. The both factions were clearly present at the Laurel Grange meeting. Don Kehoe’s Committee for Environmental Justice was a mixture of both Wise Use and Christian Patriot white supremacists drawn from the leadership of the Snohomish County Property Rights Alliance (SNOCO PRA.) They were sponsored and hosted at the meeting by Whatcom Coalition for Land Use Education (CLUE.)

At the Laurel Grange, Skip Richards — a developer, real-estate consultant and the leader and co-founder of CLUE — opened the meeting and introduced Committee for Environmental Justice. These visitors came from Snohomish County and consisted of activists from SNOCO PRA. Don Kehoe, a landscape contractor in Monroe, Washington who was later elected to the board of SNOCO PRA, also publishes and distributes conspiracy literature under the name of “Blowing in the Wind.” Ben Sams introduced the speakers and kept time at Laurel Grange.Fellow SNOCO PRA board member Ben Sams filed “sovereign citizen” papers declaring his status as a “white sovereign state citizen” and also participated in Militia of Montana leader John Trochmann’s “support group” for white supremacist Randy Weaver, United Citizens for Justice. David Montgomery, formerly the treasurer of the Washington chapter of Rev. Sun Myong Moon’s American Freedom Coalition, had worked as an engineer at Boeing.

The occupations of all of these people demonstrate that the movement activists do not come from the “fringes” or “margins” of society. They are typically above median in both wealth and education, as were the leaders of the medieval social revolutions. Likewise, their followers are not “marginal” to the society around them. They have been successful in obtaining political power and influence, and as they become part of the establishment and decapitated their own movement, their less successful brethern have repeatedly splintered off into more groups and become more violent and irresponsible in both rhetoric and action.

In pursuing these notions of a historical parallel, I contacted a Catholic historian at a local parish. I asked his help in locating a historical parallel for reintegrating these sorts of movements into society. The Roman Church ultimately lost its position as the central religious institution in Europe as a result of the passions stirred up by the millenial and antinomian heresies of the prophetae. After several hours, he called me back with the results of his preliminary research.

“I’m afraid I have bad news for you,” he said. “As far as I can determine, if they were poor, we killed them.”

Maybe it’s time that we start to learn from history instead of reliving it.


Sources and Further Reading

Cohn, Norman, The Pursuit of the Millenium: Revolutionary messianism in medieval and Reformation Europe and its bearing on modern totalitarian movements, 2nd. ed., Harper &;Row, 1961.
de Armond, Paul, Wise Use in Northern Puget Sound, Whatcom Environmental Council, 1995.

David Helvarg, The War Against the Greens: The Wise Use Movement, the New Right and Anti environmental Violence, Sierra Club Books, 1994.

Tuchman, Barbara W., A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, Ballantine Books, 1979.

Paul de Armond is a writer and political researcher in Northwest Washington State. He has been covering Wise Use, the Christian Patriot movement, and human rights issues since 1994. His research project and public archive can be found at http://nwcitizen.com/publicgood


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