What was important to us in 2016? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the year’s issues, big and small.
I can’t remember when my thing with the preppers started. It must have been early in the year because it was cold outside, and my house was warm, and no effort or understanding on my part had made it that way. When I move a lever in a box on the wall, my house yawns, and I purchase comfort. Every month I own and then don’t own money: it slides in and out of my possession on the say-so of computers I have licensed to act on my behalf. My bank account is a web page.
I can’t remember which internet rabbit hole I slid into, but I went down sometime in the new year, and by the time the snow had thawed, I was a regular, lurking reader of the American Preppers Network’s online message boards. Effete and soft and sans skills, I spent my time eavesdropping on people who believe that an inability to do things for oneself is not only impractical or short-sighted, but morally punishable.
“Prep” is short for “prepare,” which, if you source the Latin, means “to make ready before.” It comes with an invisible ellipsis, segue to some future you’re counting on to be or arrive or happen. Preparation is something you do now that isn’t for now. It’s defined by what isn’t, yet.
And for preppers that something is: disaster. A big one. There is no universal agreement on cause and effect: economic bottoming out, riot, terror, natural disaster—all the ways the earth might send something wet or hot or fast to come for you. Prepping covers any and all of it. In a spirit of inclusiveness, preppers refer to the future they ready for under the catch all SHTF: Shit Hitting the Fan.
To prep is to be ready for something inevitable but unspecific. It means being completely certain about, and defining yourself in relation to, the future’s uncertainty. What preppers have in common is a belief in the magnitude of the unknowable, and the will to live through it.
I’m interested in communities founded on shared delusion. I actually think that’s a pretty good way of describing all communities—some delusions are just more licensed than others. And I want to know what, if anything but the familiarity of exposure, makes us call one way of describing the world “fringe” while we hoist another unlikely story beyond reproach as “faith.” I’m drawn to outcroppings in the hinterland of the territory we give people to believe that what they think is true.
I tell myself my mission is exploratory—that I am just looking at things because I want to try to see them. But if I’m being honest, I’m not sure this urge to chart subcultural satellites is purely academic. My curiosity feels cut with something more uncomfortable—some churning desire to get in on something, train some sense of purpose into parts of my brain that go ungoverned, set loose into an unorganized, godless universe to scavenge whatever they can find.
I read a lot when I was a kid. There are different sub-species of junior bookworm: precocious keener, genre completionist nerd, encyclopedic factoid-gatherer. My breed had conflicting tendencies. I was a reachy Matilida-wannabe on the one hand, the kid who petitions to have the J for juvenile punched out of her library card prematurely. But I also had a relentless, pretty indiscriminate hunger for reading not up or out or beyond but over and over and over. I was content to wallow in an eddy of re-reading the same book five, ten, twenty times. And more. Sometimes for years. There are whole sections of childhood novels I’ve inadvertently memorized verbatim—like some tattoo I got while wasted, or ultraviolet exposure I’ve baked into my DNA.
We encourage children to read because we agree that it’s good to use your brain to access things that are not immediately present to you. Literacy is a passport—a world-expanding reprieve from the limitations of your mind, your body, your place in the social strata. In university English departments, we are fond of saying that literature is a training ground for empathy. It prepares you to recognize in others the humanity you experience in yourself.
I am grateful for my childhood spent reading, but I have to admit that I didn’t always read in humanist kinship or discovery. That re-reading habit of mine was consumptive and inward turning to a point that, in retrospect, seems kind of masturbatory. I often read comfy. I wallpapered my mind with voices that felt as familiar as, if not more than, my own. This way of reading does not deliver you somewhere new, but rather bulwarks you deep inside what you already have. You push away the real world and its unpredictable disruptions. You choose the safety of knowing exactly what’s coming next.
Preppers are many things.
On one end of the spectrum, prepping is basically just getting back to the land. It includes the imperative to make one’s subsistence not only self-reliant but renewable. Not necessarily because it’s the right thing to do, maybe, but because it’s the most practical way to survive. Here prepping looks to ancient and analogue models for interacting with the world we live in. It’s lock-stepping with nature, taking less and doing more with it. And if you find those views sympathetic, or even aspirational, you might start re-organizing some space in your mind to consider whether a little light prepping could be for you.
But it’s a short trip to the widest, bluntest edge of the wedge: a crowd of well-armed paranoiacs prepared to fight off the weak in order to hang onto what they have. Even at its best, prepping is a fear—and a fantasy—in which the things you have are taken away from you. It’s an emergency one staves off by storing and stockpiling, clutching the resources you can gather close, building walls and shelters to keep others out of what you’ve bought, saved, told yourself you’ve earned.
Prepping is an acknowledgement that the systems upon which our lives and our life-styles rely are frail. And once you start questioning the system’s structural integrity, it’s common to start questioning what it is propping up, who is benefitting by its fissures, why they might be denying its failure. Conspiracy theories are a strong thread woven through the prepper forum. So is unfettered racism and bigotry. So are links to news sources I’ve been trained to believe are not to be believed.
Self-reliance can morph from a freedom to a moral imperative. And so one of the more off-putting notes running through the prepper forums is the portrayal of the unprepared—the willfully blind “sheeple” whose failure to participate in their own liberty renders them parasitic.
When SHTF, they will be punished. Sometimes they are punished now.
When you join the American Preppers Networks forums, you are directed to a YouTube video entitled “Philosophy of Liberty.” You prove you’re not a bot by filling in the blank for “Liberty.”
Here’s something I’ve never really understood (I’m sure this screams sheeple): why do people want to live through the apocalypse?
Eventually I post on the prepper message boards myself. I cop to being a writer, but I say I am not a journalist, not looking for on-the-record sources. (Preppers, as you can imagine, are wary of all outsiders, not to mention media.) I say I am curious, that I want to talk to preppers about what they do.
What I thought I wanted to know: what is the threshold that makes a person cross over into prepping? What is it that makes these preppers take the looming feeling of being alive as impetus to build electromagnetic-resistant cages or hoard consumer goods in their basements, when for me that feeling is impetus to swallow seasons of Gilmore Girls whole and lie down on the floor and watch a grid of light aim through my blinds and move across the wall? What makes a person go from living with a feeling to acting on it?
A lot of novels for children are about survival. Stories of boys and girls left behind on islands, holed up in box cars, hunkered down in the woods, roving cross-country. They pioneer the frontier with their family, or band together in makeshift kid clans, or go it alone. Without travelling to alternate worlds and dystopias and other planets, even realist children’s fiction tends to present a fantasy of capability. This is competence porn for the pre-pubescent set.
Some of my favourite re-reading pleasures were of this ilk: My Side of the Mountain, Island of the Blue Dolphins, all nine Little House books (I even got into the Little House-adjacent series that follows Laura Ingalls’s daughter, who, as it happens, grew up to be one of the founders of American libertarianism). What’s remarkable about these books and others like them is that for stories we might associate with thrill and adventure, they are in fact oddly grounded and pragmatic. Frequently less plotted than instructional, long sections steamroll narrative in favour of detailed, didactic portraits of subsistence. These books were popular. And like a lot of kids, I had a weirdly high tolerance for—was in fact mollified by—long how-to processionals through extracting bear meat head cheese and chiselling whalebone spears and pounding acorns into borderline-edible flour.
All this time spent reading what were basically survival manuals did not inculcate me with skill. My attachment to self-sufficiency was wan and theoretical. I craved independence less because I believed in the value of doing things for myself and more because I wanted to do them by myself. I wanted to go out into the world but stay alone in my head.
I would stalk the fridge for staples running low so I could ride my bike to the corner store for convenience-priced bags of milk, cycling home in wonky half-moons as the heavy load swung from one side of my bike’s handlebars and was chewed in the greasy gears. This was my scavenging, my gathering of supplies.
For my ninth birthday, I received a junior-sized Swiss army knife. I spent hours fanning the miniature tools in and out of it, marvelling at its compact utility. I pictured being a Swiss soldier sent into the woods to, say, take an inventory of the trees (my stock of Holocaust fiction had led me to believe that the Swiss military might have a peaceful, “neutral” mission). In my actual life, I occasionally used the stubby jaw of the miniature scissors to gnaw feathered, uneven paths through paper. I whittled pointlessly at a plank of craft-grade balsa, transformed the Styrofoam-light, buttery wood into a useless, pale nest of shavings, and was done.
My childhood was soft, unchallenging, protected. I sent myself on missions to re-stock a food supply that never ran thin, played with tools I admired but had no real need for. The furthest reach of my self-reliance was the seven short blocks my parents reluctantly let me bike alone to the public library branch. And there I read and re-read stories of survival with the fascination of someone for whom the need to survive is only ever as present—and as distant—as a fiction.
One form of prepper humour: monologues from the imagined perspective of non-preppers responding to world events.
I can hear the snoflakes [sic] screaming now, — “If you don’t FORCE the healthy people to buy overpriced insurance that they don’t need, then the insurance companies won’t be able to pay for the sick people, and the shareholder’s profits… . WAH, wah, wah, sniffle, somebody has to pay for insurance for everybody else… . sniffle, snuffle, snork.”
The hate has made it to the rural areas , and I have become a victim of the hate . I need a puppy or kitten to hold and a safe place to rest . It has caused a disorder in my life now I may live in fear or do I just fear for my life . this crime has shaken me to the core I may never get a good night sleep now or be able to eat and keep a good meal gown . the hurt and the pain is unbearable .They stole my darn Trump sign .
Blind liberals, whinging millennials. Sheeple ventriloquism.
I bought and killed four house plants this year.
It’s May in Ohio. The Sunday New York Times is strewn across the table like the remains of a carcass I’ve picked over. I’m making use of every part of the animal: “Travel” for envy, “Vows” for anthropological superiority, “Ethicist” for guidance. Front page for paranoia. Like a mustache that started out ironic and is now just the shitty way America’s face actually looks, Donald Trump has just been upgraded to the presumed Republican nominee for president.
My husband is trying to enjoy his eggs. I’m pestering him to go over plots.
Trump wins in November. Do we just go home to Canada? Should I even finish my degree?
Yes, Andrew says. We stay until you finish your degree.
But that was a softball—I have more. Trump is assassinated before the election. Do we wait around to see if white militias to rise up, or do we pack up the car and drive north right away?
I don’t think there are going to be militias, Andrew says.
What if there’s a line at the border for days? What if they’re walking up to cars and shooting the people inside?
Zani, Andrew says, gently, I don’t really think this is helping.
Do we have a compass? I ask.
At the time, I didn’t actually think Trump would win, and I was shamefully far from understanding who will be hurt and unsafe now that he has. My fears were selfish. I wanted protocol, plans at the ready. I wanted to prefab decisions and stockpile them. When the future happens, I want to be ready to say: ah yes, I know how this one goes. In case of emergency, proceed as follows.
I fixated on the border. Not the one Trump promised to shore up with his heinous wall, but 196 kilometers straight north of us as the crow flies—an invisible, imaginary line through Lake Erie, one fragment of the longest international boundary undefended by a military. I’m afraid soon I won’t be able to cross it.
Andrew and I moved to Ohio from Canada two and a half years ago for me, for school, licensed by dual citizenship I inherited from my Brooklyn-native mother (Politico once described Bernie Sanders’s accent as “Brighton Beach butcher,” which, it just so happens, is exactly what my grandfather was). I’m a bona fide, if ambivalent, American citizen, and my husband is now a green-carded resident alien, and we’re weirdly, sometimes improbably happy at this moment—because we live in the States, or in spite of it, and probably both.
It seems inevitable to believe that whatever path you happen to already be on is the one that will least resist you. I’m obsessing over the moment inertia becomes deadly. It’s one thing to plant your feet somewhere crappy because, like it or not, it’s your home. It’s another thing to meander like a pair of idiot-babes abroad into a time and place in history no one would voluntarily write themselves into, something no one would choose if it wasn’t already theirs. I’m afraid that if we don’t pause now and decide, from a perspective we haven’t yet adapted to emergency’s slow increments, what our threshold for action ought to be, we might become permanently, pointlessly foreign. Deadweight fools who lingered too long rubber-necking at the wreckage.
I started re-reading some of the familiar survival fiction from my childhoodafter seeing Little House on the Prairie mentioned on multiple prepper forums and blogs. For some preppers, these books’ instructional qualities are not merely fantastic or theoretical—they are a source of real, practical knowledge. But the Little House books seem to occupy an interesting place in the prepper lexicon. On the one hand, they are both used as instructional materials and cited as evidence that it is possible to build a nuclear family happily well-oiled for subsistence. In other instances, they are a shorthand for the naïveté of initiates who come to prepping with dreams of playing Little House. They are a shorthand for fantasy.
I admit, I went into reading these books differently this time, unavoidably freighted by the personal uncertainty I drag around with me these days. I don’t know where to live, what to do with myself, whether or not it’s ethical to procreate in the age of peak oil. With all this uncertainty about both the world’s future and my own, I re-read my childhood quasi-narrative instructionals with more room to project myself into them.
Could I do that? Should I get ready to?
There are things I noticed on this spin through the re-reading cycle that I had not before. Sam Gribley, the narrator of Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain who runs away from a New York city apartment crammed with eight siblings to live off the land in the Catskills, is not only the über-boyscout I remembered. Sam is a Malthusian prophet, and he’s a Cold War kid.
On a rare trip out of his hollowed-out tree and down the mountain into town, Sam talks to a boy who asks about Sam’s buckskin suit. “I’m doing research,” he says. “Who knows when we’re all going to be blown to bits and need to know how to smoke venison.” Later, when Sam meets a news reporter chasing the story of the boy in the woods, Sam tells him he is “working for Civil Defense.”
In July, I am on the prepper forums when Philando Castile is murdered by police in Minnesota and his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds broadcasts the footage to Facebook live. Her four-year-old daughter is silent in the back seat. I watch Reynolds—her instinct to hold up her phone’s camera in the first place (I will learn later this is not the first traffic stop she’s filmed), the calm persistence of her narration, the deft, grounded power with which she wields the word “sir” both against and for the benefit of the hysterical cop who’s killed her boyfriend. Her grace is so ready and so seamless it is unnerving.
I can’t help it—I find myself thinking: She is a prepper.
I’ve been spending all this time listening in on people who look like me chattering about the emergency that threatens them. As if the emergency wasn’t already happening, as if other people haven’t been surviving all along. SHTF isn’t a moment—it’s a century. It’s a country.
They are walking up to cars and shooting people inside.
Months later, I will read a Washington Post profile of Reynolds in which she describes training her toddler daughter in “survival skills.” Not how to flicker flint and steel into heat or forage edible flora, but how to duck at the sound of gunfire, be silent when you want to scream. Not skills of production, but ones that control where you are in relation to all the danger around you—marshal your fear to make you quiet and make you small.
I thought that what I wanted from preppers was access to their worldview. I thought I wanted to understand something. But I didn’t, really. I kept reaching out and then, when I found a willing subject, I dodged them. Sometimes I was actively scared off: “things have changed for me,” one wrote, as he warned of a prophecy of interstellar collision. (A pseudo-theory debunked by science—I checked.) More often, though, the thing that kept me from writing back was unspecific, a squirming avoidance I didn’t press myself on. I exchanged one or two messages, but most I left hanging. My draft folder is full of unsent questions.
I kept up one back-and-forth for a minute. His emails came in under the name “Nunya Business.” I have no idea who he is. Even though I admitted to my total ineptitude and lack of preparation, he welcomed me, told me it was good I was at least paying attention, looking for answers. He was open and generous with me, explaining his perspectives, sending me links. And on many topics, I really heard and understood him, could see his grounding and his reason.
Then the conversation veered away from prepping, and we were talking about Black Lives Matter. Having established the center of our Venn diagram, we were now at the firm borders of its outer edges. And this felt like the thing we are supposed to be doing these days: trying to understand those we feel divided from, try to imagine closing the gaps in our perspectives. This is the moment I’m supposed to take that opening—stick some tool into the conversation and pry it open, arrive at some understanding. (Or, really, make him arrive at it—because in this fantasy my way is right.) I feel like we might be onto something. Then he sent a quick post-script asking why there is no “White Lives Matter.”
My imagination fails. I just don’t respond.
It’s November, the last days before the election. You know how this part goes. I’m looking ahead to the next four years, eight years, a lifetime of her presidency watched over by a peanut gallery of Trumpets blaring about those stupid emails. I despair at what his mere presence in the election has allowed to thrive—the toxic sludge of precedent set. I deliver unrehearsed and probably ill-conceived orations to my creative writing class: a negative thinker’s version of motivational speaking. I’m afraid to think of them coming of age in a world that would have them believe that this—that he—is acceptable. That this is anything like okay. Anything like what they deserve.
I fret over all the adjacent space he has occupied, everything his no-longer-ha-ha-funny, tiny, pussy-hungry hands have grubbed through and ruined along the way. But I don’t really worry deep or hard enough to believe he will win. My doomsday fears have been tamped down by numbers and polls which seem like science and seem like real. I’m just another one of the sheeple doing what I think is due diligence: reading the New York Times, listening to Slate podcasts, refreshing Five Thirty Eight. I am assuaged by experts and systems because the value of experts and systems is one part of a delusion I share.
Like a whole lot of people, including the man himself, I am totally unprepared.
The conclusion a lot of people expected to draw, or wanted to, was that Trump was elected by people who look like standard-issue preppers: white, rural, downwardly mobile, pissed. The truth is turning out different. A viable percentage of that demo may have voted for Donald Trump, but they aren’t the reason he was elected. He was elected because of people like me: white, college-educated women. Mine is the demographic that lied to pollsters, voted in secret, voted—maybe—in shame.
This is a white people problem. I’ve said this aloud to myself in public as I stumble out in the world, alone in my head. I’ve said it to my computer screen while I sob at it. I say it as though it’s a password, a tool that might pry open my brain and let in a truth about who I hold my beliefs and fantasies in common with.
The delusion of whiteness is that it’s a non-category, an absence, a blank no one makes you solve for or fill in. I learned that one from the theory-soaked education that has, no matter which direction my mobility is aimed, secured me as elite. And even if you know it’s a fiction, the story of a racial identity that can be taken on and off, owned and disowned at will, enables another delusion many of us have been happy to share: I’m not that kind of white person.
But duh, of course I am that kind of white person. Because I am white.
There’s been so much talk about empathy lately—who owes it to whom, what it might repair. Empathy as politics and panacea. A tool that will knit all these individuals fighting to survive back into a populace.
Distance can make it easier to act with one’s imagination. A faraway perspective is like a screen: a novel, indifferent surface against which there is plenty of room to center and square your own projection. And we reward our imaginations for performing thrilling, balletic leaps, but really, it’s much harder to make the awkward, crabwise shuffle to reach the thing you are pressed right up against. The perspective nearly-but-not your own, torqued by a single genetic digit into some other creature crawling up the slippery edge of the uncanny valley, flickering in and out of grotesque familiarity.
Empathy means recognizing the humanity in others that you experience in yourself. Thing is, that means you have to start by actually, fully experiencing it in yourself. And maybe the hard part isn’t imagining being someone else—it’s imagining that you are exactly who you are.
I’m filling out shipping calculators, calling for truck rental quotes, crunching numbers. We haven’t decided if, or when, or where, but I’m trying to get ahead, be prepared to haul away the pile of stuff we have accrued and surrounded ourselves with here. All these possessions. I’ve learned that when you have a basement, you just fill it with crap.
I’m pretty sure I’m not equipped to stay here. I still don’t feel ready to leave.