My friend Ceredwyn Alexander lives on a homestead in the mountains of Vermont. She and her family raise a lot of their own food, from chickens to cabbage, and they heat their home with wood they chop themselves. (She won't live anywhere, she tells me, "without supplemental heat that operates without electricity.") They worry about peak oil. They try not to buy things on credit. They always keep a great deal of food and water and other supplies on hand. If everything goes to hell tomorrow, they want to be prepared.
People who say and do such things are often called preppers, and Ceredwyn willingly applies the term to herself: It's a decent label, she says, for people who try to be prepared for sudden, disruptive emergencies. If you've been absorbing the recent portraits of preppers in the press, where they've been depicted as doomsday-fearing right-wing paranoiacs stocking up on guns and canned goods, you may think you know all there is to know about Ceredwyn. But before you use your stock of stereotypes to fill in those blanks, here are a few more facts about her.
Her politics are liberal and feminist. Her family's firearm collection consists of a single shotgun, which they own in case a four-legged predator passes through. (As I said, she lives in rural Vermont.) She speaks disdainfully about survivalists who spend their time "waiting for the Mutant Zombie Bikers to come take their guns, drugs, and women away." Ask her about survival strategies, and she doesn't start spinning fantasies about a well-provisioned family fending off looters. "When the shit hit the fan during Irene," she says instead, "neighbors were everyone's best resource." Preparedness, she says, requires "learning skills and community involvement…not freeze dried food and razor wire." To those ends, she has joined the volunteer fire department and become the town service officer.
As far as the mass media are concerned, America's preeminent preppers are the Alabama kidnapper Jimmy Lee Dykes; Nancy Lanza, whose son raided her gun collection before he carried out the Sandy Hook massacre; and the people who appear on the National Geographic TV show Doomsday Preppers, who might charitably be described as "colorful." Dykes "is described by neighbors as 'very paranoid,' anti-government and possibly a 'Doomsday prepper,'" the New York Daily News reported. The London Independent called Lanza a "so-called 'prepper,' a part of the survivalist movement which urges individuals to prepare for the breakdown of society by training with weapons and hoarding food and other supplies." When the liberal historian Rick Perlstein wrote about preppers in The Nation this month, he headlined his essay "Nothing New Under the Wingnut Sun: 'Survivalism.'" After invoking Dykes and Lanza in his lead, he talked about the right-wing survivalists of the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, linking them to the preppers of the present by describing the lot of them as "Americans who fear change, fear difference, fear you and me, fear everything falling apart. So much so that they organize their lives and politics around staving off the fear—which often entails taking political action that only makes America more fearful and dangerous for everyone; which destroy the trust and love it takes to sustain communities; and who reinforce one another in their fear to such a degree that the less crazy among them surely play a positive role in spurring the more crazy to the kind of awful acts we see around us now." (Speaking of fears that people who are different are making the world fall apart.)
In fact, the prepper community includes a lot of political and cultural variety. If there is right-wing survivalist DNA here, there is also the DNA of the Whole Earth Catalog and several generations of bohemian back-to-the-landers, plus a fair number of families whose inspiration isn't much larger than the Boy Scout motto, "Be Prepared." Tour the online prepper communities, and you may well run into people who have embraced the long-lived conspiracy yarn in which the Federal Emergency Management Agency is plotting to put us in concentration camps. You may also encounter FEMA itself, which currently has an advertisement on the front page of the American Preppers Network. The ad asks, "Do you meet President Obama's minimum Prepper Standards? Are you 'FEMA Ready'?" Talk about all-encompassing diversity.
There may be even more diversity in the scenarios these people are preparing for. Ceredwyn got her family on board with her prepperdom about 12 years ago, when an ice storm hit their then-home in Shreveport. "We were out of power for 10 days," she recalls. "No heat, no water, no stove, no phone. Couldn't leave the house for three days due to ice. Could have been completely awful, but we had everything we needed, including a propane heater and stove I bought." Her own interest in preparedness began earlier, when she was working for an abortion clinic: "Nothing like being the possible victim of terrorism to get the survivalist juices flowing," she recalls. Or maybe it was even earlier than that: In an essay for her blog, she writes about
the day I told my mom that my dad had a girlfriend. My mom's carefully wrought denial came crashing down around her ears. She then found out that my dad had drained the various savings accounts. She filed for divorce the next day….In short order, we went from the sort of people who gave to charity, to being the sort of people who had to choose between eating and paying the light bill.
We got through it, obviously, but my mother never enjoyed upper-middle-classdom again. I am left with a fear of empty cupboards and a clear understanding that, at any moment, the bottom could drop out of my world.
Disasters, she concludes, come in all shapes and sizes, and they strike people every day. "It's always interesting to me that people talk about collapse as though it's in the far off future, and as if it will hit everyone, everywhere, at the same moment," she writes in that essay. "Many, many people are already living in a state of collapse. It doesn't matter if the rest of the world is going merrily on when you've been evicted, your kids are hungry, you have an infected tooth you can't take care of, and you're trying not to let anyone know the family's been sleeping in the minivan." It's a class-conscious take on poverty, disabilities, and other issues that might not come up much on Doomsday Preppers but obviously aren't absent from preppers' minds. When the American Preppers Network lists problems to prepare for, it explicitly includes "the loss or major injury of a breadwinner, loss of a primary job, extended sickness, accidents and other personal calamities."
OK, you say, so preppers aren't all nuts. In the future, when I want to make fun of people holed up in a suburban fortress awaiting a zombie attack, I'll use a more specific term. But so what? Does it really matter if some of the stories I've seen in the last few months have been too sweeping?
Yes, it does. It's always worthwhile to push back when a subculture gets scapegoated, whether it's Goths after Columbine or preppers today. It's especially important when those attacks are embedded in our political debates, skewing the ways we see the world.
Consider one of those divisions within the prepper culture, the one that separates the people engaged with their local communities from the people preparing to go it alone against the lawless zombie hordes. (A member of the Zombie Eradication Response Team, a group that does survival training, told a reporter last year that "'zombie' is really just a palatable metaphor for some guy trying to take your stuff.") This division also exists, and is much more important, in the world of official disaster preparation. On one side there are emergency workers and social scientists who understand that looting and panic do not usually break out after a disaster, that spontaneous cooperation to solve problems is the norm, and that the real first responders, as the saying goes, are the calamity's victims themselves. On the other side there are officials whose first instinct in a natural disaster is to get ready for a riot and who think they need to withhold information to prevent panic. In other words, officials afraid of the lawless hordes. If they imagine a post-disaster world filled with trigger-happy survivalists, that's just going to reinforce their fear of the public.
Anti-prepper rhetoric is affecting the debate over gun laws in a similar way. There are those who perceive the people at the scene of a crime as informal first responders, and who thus see widespread gun ownership as a neighborly civic virtue, and there are people who are wary of any approach to crime control that doesn't depend on the police, and who thus see widespread gun ownership as a recipe for a Hobbesian nightmare. Now, the social science on gun ownership is more ambiguous than the research on how communities respond to disasters. If you rely on the National Self Defense Survey, you'll conclude that firearms are used defensively much more often than they are misused; if you follow the National Crime Victimization Survey, you'll say successful self-defense is less common; and of course there are scholars who think the truth sits somewhere in-between. With the data disputed, political imagery becomes all the more influential. And the image of the anti-social survivalist feeds the impression that gun owners, particularly gun owners interested in more than just sport shooting, are yet another lawless horde.
So the gun owner is envisioned as a prepper, and the prepper is envisioned as a frightened survivalist. Neither real-world gun owners nor real-world preppers are well-served by these stereotypes. And neither is anyone who isn't a gun owner or a prepper but who wants an accurate image of the world.