Sunday, May 30, 2004

Well, they're conservatives; what's the difference?

We picked up a huge AP article on "militia subculture" in northwest Pennsylvania. This expose is keyed to "the six-member Christian American Patriots Survivalists." AP's sense of proportions sometimes seems as far off as the stage sets in "This is Spinal Tap."

Even the usual experts -- who make a living (or at least get their jollies) off presenting their topic as a Big Problem -- couldn't manage to work up a head of enthusiasm. “Their numbers are almost certainly very small," one said. "Dozens. I don’t think we’re necessarily even talking hundreds — and we’re certainly not talking thousands.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center bases its fundraising on scaring Northern liberal people in comfortable suburban communities with lurid tales of the kind of "Deliverance" ghouls who still haunt the rural heartland.

But even they weren't much help. According to SPLC, the number of "militia or militia-type groups" -- active militias -- has tumbled from 858 in 1996 to a mere 171 today. And the one the AP had picked as the hook for its article wasn't even on their list.

But you can bet it will be on next year's fund-raising appeal -- even though the members are feckless, scattered, and many of them will be in jail by then.

The real jaw-dropper, for me, in this story was to see the four Pennsylvania groups that ARE on the SPLC militia list. One's the Pittsburgh John Birchers -- senescent paleo-conservatives, but no more dangerous than Pat Buchanan. The other is the Constitution Party, based right here in Lancaster.

We know these folks. The head of the party is a local lawyer, Jim Clymer. He's well-liked around the newsroom -- yes, even my uber-liberal colleagues admire him because, for a politician, he's frank. He tells you what he really thinks, and what he really plans to do. He, and his party, are old-school social conservatives: anti-abortion, Christian-based. They are pro-Second Amendment -- Clymer says so in the article -- but so are a lot of people, and it's hardly the heart of their message or their platform. Their gubernatorial candidate was a mom and day-care center founder from Johnstown. It's frankly a slander to call such people a "militia."