Survivalism isn’t just for white right-wingers anymore.
This all comes against the background rumble of hundreds of competing and complementary conspiracy theories, all given new life and an all but guaranteed audience by the Internet.
“When people stop believing in God,” wrote the devout Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton, “they don’t believe in nothing—they believe in anything.”
Switch out “God” for “the Soviet Union” in that sentence and you’ve got a pretty decent description of the confused post-Cold War survivalist zeitgeist.
Salguero thinks all religions contain “seeds of truth.” And so, he says, do all conspiracy theories. When asked to list some of the reasons people have joined Survive and Thrive, Salguero starts with the Mayan calendar (which predicts major, possibly universe-ending change in 2012) and ends with the H1N1 virus.
In between he mentions the 9/11 Truthers, “martial law lite,” something called Time Wave Zero, “war and rumors of war, economic distress, Posse Comitatus, solar flares and Hopi Indian predictions (they give us till 2040).”
Salguero argues that the neo-survivalists, whatever the reasoning behind them choosing to learn hardcore survival skills (“bee colony collapse or planetary disruptions or heavy metal contamination in the food supply”), are responding to “a visceral, gut instinct” that everything they know and rely upon could disappear at any moment.
In a photo on the Survive and Thrive site, Salguero is holding a German shepherd by a harness and wearing a T-shirt that manages to combine both death metal and Native American imagery. He also admits to owning a T-shirt that says “SURVIVOR OF THE ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE.”
“It’s a joke,” he says.
Then there’s 38-year-old lay preacher and rock singer Donald “Donno” Layton, whose dad is a “hardcore, old-school survivalist” who’s “locked and loaded,” should the apocalypse ever hit the Jersey ’burbs. Layton himself shares a West Philly house with his wife, his son Uzi, a Glock pistol, a Remington pump-action shotgun and an AK-47 assault rifle.
Layton chose the AK (the weapon of choice for terrorists everywhere) for its punk-rock shock value. But the Remington and the Glock, he says, were purely practical choices, both being popular enough with urban gun-owners that ammo and spares would be easily available, even after EOTWAA, (the End of the World Armageddon Apocalypse).
“I don’t want the world to come to an end,” says Layton, “but if there’s zombies in the street or rioters or whatever, trying to get in here, they’re going to have a hell of a time doing it.” And then he laughs.
When I first meet 32-year-old AIDS activist Val Sowell, she’s sitting on the sofa in a West Philly lefty-nerd commune, playing the zombie apocalypse game Fall Out on XBox. Sowell says she has a “go bag” packed, which is “part semiserious zombie survivalist and part me taking the advice of civic emergency planning people (and SEPTA ads).”
The coming apocalypse is a common topic of conversation in the commune. “I don’t think we’re unique in this at all, actually,” says Sowell. “I mean, the apocalypse looms large in the public imagination; we admit the potential for multiple apocalypse scenarios. There’s the obvious zombie apocalypse, but there’s also potential for alien apocalypse, shadow-government-overthrowing-everything apocalypse, the ‘Jesus comes back as a zombie and raises his army of zombies’ apocalypse, peak oil/global-economic-instability apocalypse, the whole 2012 Mayan apocalypse … ”
She goes on to catalog the nonstop, drip-drip-drip of the world-gone-to-hell/zombie movies, books, balls, crawls, comics and other apocalyptic paraphernalia, most with images of the fly-blown dispossessed munching vengefully and with righteousness on the bloated faces of the bourgeoisie.
A Pride and Prejudice zombie mashup stormed the bestseller list; Will Smith and his dog desperately sought the antidote to the to the super serum that cured cancer but turned everyone it touched into hyperventilating zombie vampires. They roamed a New York presumably already well-picked-over by the hyper-rabid face-munchers of the 28 Days Later franchise and then stomped into flaming rubble by the civilization-crushing clumsy teenager from outer-space code name: Cloverfield .
Every week the reality-based news media conjures up a hundred new ways that civilization as we know it might go splat. And every week thousands of filmmakers, novelists, comic writers and artists try to come up with a thousand more. It’s almost as if Western culture—the freest, cutest, sexiest, cleanest, least intestinal parasitic worm-ridden and most affluent culture the world has ever seen—has a death wish.
Then, of course, there’s the relatively recent example of an American city undergoing meltdown. The lessons of New Orleans during Katrina seem obvious. Despite all the fabricated, sensationalist and racist news reports about mass murders, rapes and beatings, when human beings find themselves in extremis—as happened at the Superdome—the strong looked after the weak and civilization of a sort was restored.
That’s not how 39-year-old Jason Lawrence sees it. A Philly native, he’s been organizing his Northwest Philly neighbors for the economic collapse he thinks is imminent. He thinks the big lesson of Katrina (and of the collapse of the Argentinean economy in 2001) is that when push comes to shove, well-armed neighborhoods will have to fight off mobs of looters.
“Traditionally, the stereotypical survivalist is the guy out in the woods,” he says, “ready to bug out if society collapses. But my take on this is that we live in the city, in neighborhoods where lots of different people have different skills.”
Harking back to the Great Depression, Lawrence says: “They were tougher people back then, we’re a little more sissified. Maybe all the trouble we are going through now, we might learn some vital lessons such as self-sufficiency. Maybe we’re getting fat and lazy and maybe we need to go on a diet.”
Ron Paul supporters and Occupiers make for strange bedfellows: While Paul’s supporters and Occupiers agree that this country is in big trouble, they advocate wildly different solutions.
Our friend and colleague Steven Wells died two years ago today of the cancer he had documented so well in two cover stories for Philadelphia Weekly. On June 14, he submitted this column.
PW's Summer Guide 2014