How it should have ended

I just finished reading A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear, an entertaining story about the collapse of a small American town by a local journalist, Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling. It was a fun and engrossing tale with a lot of good points which I really enjoyed reading, but ultimately it failed to live up to its promise, and here I want to explain what was great about it, and why it ultimately failed. Unlike many of my reviews, I think this one is mostly spoiler-free.

The book is a recounting of real events in the town of Grafton, New Hampshire, USA, between about 2004 and about 2018. Grafton is a small rural town in backwater New Hampshire, with a history of opposition to taxes, low property values and rural individualism, and in about 2004 a bunch of libertarian activists decided to take it over in what they called the Free Town Project. This project – which apparently once had a website and a dedicated political program – recognized that the town was politically vulnerable and potentially ideologically sympathetic to their goals, and decided to buy up land, move in, and take over politically. This mean stacking the school board, the local town council, and any other institution that they could democratically invest. They would then implement libertarian policy: defund local government agencies, remove any planning laws and zoning rules, and open the entire town up to the liberating effect of small government politics at its most extreme.

In the book’s telling, as a result of these changes the town’s social services failed, and in the chaos that followed the New Hampshire bear population overran the town, stealing food and terrorizing the locals, killing cats and livestock, and ultimately severely injuring several humans. The bears’ invasion of the town happened slowly, encouraged by poor trash management, ineffective local infrastructure, lack of regulations on how humans and the environment interact, and a breakdown of basic social order which prevented people from living according to common rules. In the book’s telling this is primarily the fault of the libertarian takeover, but I don’t think the book makes the case very strongly, and its disordered framework, combined with a lack of political sense by the writer, means that the libertarians get blamed for the much bigger, much more insidious problems that really drove the confrontation between bears and humans in this small town.

A light-hearted series of anecdotes telling a powerful story

The book is basically a loose history of the town’s last 10-15 years, hung in a fairly loosely-structured way over some key anecdotes from the time when the libertarians invaded. These anecdotes hold up the stories of several key figures in the town’s recent history, either libertarian invaders (like John Connell in the church), libertarian sympathizers (the Barbiarzes), or town residents with various relationships with the bears (like “Doughnut Lady” and Jessica Soule. These people themselves have interesting and sometimes complex back-stories, in some cases having their own part to play in other important historical events (like Soule’s connection to the Moonies). They are often given sympathetic and rich depictions, and their stories, though sometimes sad, are presented relatively objectively. The writing style is light-hearted and chatty, with frequent asides and a careful awareness of the perspectives of everyone involved in the story, including the bears. In this sense I think it is good quality journalistic writing, easy to keep reading and engaging. In between the anecdotes and character histories there are interesting discursions on the politics of the town and the state of New Hampshire, with broader political and economic context presented clearly and simply so that the information is easy to absorb and doesn’t distract from the fundamentally personal nature of the story. Even with obvious arseholes like Redman (or in fact most of the libertarians in the story) it tries to hold off from being openly judgmental or scornful, to the extent for example that the constant threatening, heavily-armed atmosphere of the town is simplified to the concept of Friendly Advice (capitalized), rather than depicted as an openly menacing wild west trashpit (which is what the town seems like to this reader).

This is good work, because what Hongoltz-Hetling is ultimately doing here is telling a story about how a bunch of dickheads walked into town, co-opted its political institutions, destroyed them, physically destroyed the town environs themselves, refused to do anything to help the town or each other, then upped and left the ruins they had created when the going got tough (i.e. when the bears came). They left behind them an elderly, poor and vulnerable population whose social services had been gutted, and whose gardens and roads had become, where they were still passable, dangerous bear-infested wilderness. And make no mistake, a lot of the people described in this book are quite unpleasant: the aforementioned Redman, who can’t shut up and can’t keep his gun in his pants; Pendarvis the paedophile who gets booted out early not because anyone disagrees with his stance on children, but because it’s a bit too publicly embarrassing; John Connell, who took over a 300 year old church, destroyed the local religious congregation and then trashed the church itself; and pretty much everyone involved in the Campfire incident. Other characters, like Doughnut Lady, were at best clueless and at worst actively dangerous, and nobody involved in this story seems to have any sense about how stupid what they’re doing is. It’s really a rogues’ gallery of idiots and arseholes, living in their own filth. Despite this – and the fact that the bears are the most endearing characters in the book – the book manages to keep you involved, and it really is fun to watch, like watching a car crash if the car was full of clowns or something. It’s definitely worth reading, and enough of a page-turner that I tore through it very quickly.

But, it misses the point: through a combination of poor structure and politically naivete typical of journalistic writing, it obscures the real problems in the town, and fails to draw the obvious and deadly important lessons that are there to be learnt if one looks at the story with clear eyes.

The problem of unstructured narrative

There is a timeline and a story in this book, which works something like this: in 2004 a bunch of libertarians took over the town, over time they ground its social services into the dirt, and by 2016 the whole project fell apart and they drifted off to take on other tasks, or died. But within this basic framework there are a lot of stories and events that aren’t clearly placed, and the narrative jumps back and forward in time a lot, so that it is difficult to tell how all the events relate to each other. This isn’t a problem for holding together a fun story (which it definitely does) but it doesn’t help to support the book’s central thesis. For example, it’s not really clear exactly when people turned up and when they left or why, or when exactly key events happened that we are supposed to take as indicators of societal decline or ursine growth. It’s also unclear when exactly the author met these people and where he gets his anecdotes from – it isn’t until the very end of the story for example that we learn he only met the Doughnut Lady in 2016, and it’s not clear how often he met her. A related story takes place in 2017, but somehow through the rest of the book we’re suppose to believe things happened much earlier. The story of Mink the bear (in Hanover) takes place in 2017-2019, while the primary bear situation in Grafton is supposed to have happened in perhaps 2012, after the drought, though it’s not clear. At another point the author pinpoints 2016 as the point where the bears got out of control, and implies it is a state-wide phenomenon, but in other places we’re led to believe it happened much earlier.

This wouldn’t be a problem for a standard story, but it complicates the narrative here because the author is trying to construct a tale of decline linked to the 2004 invasion, but can’t seem to put it all into order so that we can see the degeneration. My suspicion is that this is because the order doesn’t work, and it’s not the libertarians’ fault that the bears got out of control, though they may not have helped. There are bigger problems at play here, but the author has either failed to notice them or did not want to damage his story by telling it properly, and drawing out a darker, much more threatening and much less patriotic story, with much more frightening implications.

The problem of political naivete

In the beginning of the book the author devotes some space to describing Grafton’s long-standing anti-tax atmosphere and its feuds with state and federal authorities over this issue. In other parts of the book he describes New Hampshire’s lax attitude towards regulation and taxation – they have no seatbelt laws, no mandatory car insurance laws, and no sales tax – and at the end he notes the success of libertarians in local and state politics, which did not happen overnight. The obvious sub-text here is that Grafton has never had good social services because it has always been anti-taxation. It has always been poor, and its land values are low, and it has always had poor social services because its residents have always refused to fund them. The libertarians kicked this along a little – probably the Grafton residents by themselves wouldn’t have voted to defund streetlights, for example – but it was always there. And this accelerated defunding of public services comes against the backdrop of a state that refuses taxes, and has the motto Live Free or Die. The problem here isn’t a few libertarians taking over a town, but an entire state that has a long history of libertarian ideology, and more broadly a nation that won’t support social services and won’t accept social responsibility or regulation. Bears are a problem throughout New Hampshire, because Americans refuse to take social responsibility or work together to solve problems, as is now abundantly clear from their absolutely appalling response to coronavirus. The defunding of public services in Grafton is a result of a much longer, slower and more ubiquitous pattern of anti-government, “individualistic” politics that is common throughout the country. It’s just more noticeable in Grafton because Grafton is a poor town in a rich state, and these problems always affect the poor first. That’s why Grafton was dealing with bear attacks on humans in 2012, while Hanover (the rich town that is home to Dartmouth College) only started to notice them after 2017. That’s also why the libertarians targeted Grafton in the first place – they would fail to overturn political structures in a richer and better-connected town, and they guessed that when they arrived.

This isn’t just about a small town either. The behavior of Grafton residents was a microcosm of America’s approach to global warming. They knew what they were doing would cause environmental problems but they kept doing it, and then when the problems began to become evident they refused to take the correct measures or work together to solve it, and then piece by piece the town fell apart. Essentially the people of Grafton became environmental refugees, leaving the town in large numbers since the first bear attack of 2012 and abandoning it to its poorest residents – who of course were then even poorer. This is exactly what is beginning to happen across America, as people who can afford to move abandon low-lying and vulnerable coastal areas or drought-stricken inland areas and move to more climatically viable areas. Yet even as people begin to suffer the consequences of a slow-growing crisis that they were warned about for years, and voted not to stop, they continue to argue against any action to either mitigate or adapt to the coming problems. This is Grafton in a nutshell.

But nowhere in the book does the author discuss this. He does not place Grafton’s libertarian politics within the broader context of Republican politics in America; he doesn’t relate it to climate change at all, or draw the obvious links between the small happenings in Grafton and the larger national and global issues we all face; he doesn’t discuss at all what in America’s culture drives people to this intensely sociopathic politics. He misses the opportunity to really interrogate what is happening at this crucial juncture in global politics. And in this sense he is perfect mirror of American journalism more generally, which consistently fails in its responsibilities, and boils huge global problems down to personality politics, cutesy anecdotes, and debates stripped of context, history or class struggle. Just as his book presents us with the failing of American politics in a microcosm, so his writing presents us with the failings of American journalism in its perfect, decontextualized essence.

This is an excellent book and a fun read, but ultimately it failed to rise to the opportunities the story offered, and is yet another example of the millions of ways that American journalism has failed its own people. Read it if you want to enjoy fun stories about idiots ruining their own lives, but don’t look to it for insight into the political challenges America faces, because that opportunity was missed.