Sunday, March 09, 2008

Empowering the extremists




-- by Dave

The Republican empowerment of the far right -- especially the so-called "Patriot" movement folks whose anti-government extremism wreaked domestic havoc in the 1990s -- has for the most part been a systemic, ideological phenomenon: adopting ideas and talking points that originate on the fringe and gradually adopting them as "mainstream" positions that help the GOP maintain a distance that allows them a kind of plausible deniability about their relationships to these factions.

Evidently, Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons has no such compunctions:
Nevada's new Agriculture Department director is no fan of environmentalists or the federal government.

Tony Lesperance, a Paradise Valley rancher and former Elko County commissioner, was a vocal member of the Jarbidge Shovel Brigade that, back in 2000, marched down the tiny northeastern Nevada town's Main Street in defiance of the federal government, according to reports at the time.

The man taking charge of a major state office today once nearly got into a fistfight with a fellow commissioner in the dispute over a flooded-out road leading to a rural campsite. He told a national magazine, "We will rebuild the road, come hell or high water," and vowed never to compromise.

Lesperance is a real piece of work, as a Mother Jones feature about the Jarbidge brigade makes clear:
Long angered by federal restrictions on everything from water access to grazing rights, county officials and anti-federalists across the West seized upon the obscure road as a symbol of their discontent. "We will rebuild the road, come hell or high water," declared Tony Lesperance, an Elko County commissioner. The demonstrators, met by dozens of law enforcement officers and media cameras, paraded down Main Street, brandishing their shovels and singing "The Star Spangled Banner." An all-terrain vehicle pulled a trailer decorated with a tombstone reading "U.S. Forest Service." A teenager's sign declared "Tree Huggers: the other red meat." When they reached South Canyon Road -- a dusty, dead-end track leading to a campground -- they wrapped ropes around a four-ton boulder blocking the way and heaved it aside.

Their exploits made the evening news. "The major media practically engulfed us at times, trying to out-quote each other and line up for photo ops," one participant noted gleefully. It was a classic fin-de-si├Ęcle American protest: a staged telegenic moment steeped in Western symbolism.

The protests have not been confined to assaulting boulders on federal land. In recent years, Elko has gained a reputation as the most lawless county in the West. In 1995, on the same day a bomb exploded in a Forest Service building across the state in Carson City, a detonated pipe bomb was discovered in an outhouse at a campground near Elko, the county seat. Federal employees and their families have been harassed and threatened by local residents, prompting one top-ranking Forest Service official to resign. Snowmobilers venture into protected habitats, ranchers "trespass" their cows on pastures set aside as off-limits, and residents take firewood from federal lands and forests without permits. In Jarbidge, even local politicians have abandoned civility and due process. The week before I visited, two county commissioners feuding over floor time at a public meeting had to be physically separated by the sheriff, and the former publisher of the local paper expressed his civic spirit by shooting an officer's dog in the middle of town.

... "We gave up too damn much," says Tony Lesperance, a rancher and one of the commissioners who was stopped by the sheriff before getting into a fistfight with a colleague during a discussion of the issue. Lesperance is willing to fight the feds in court, despite the tremendous public cost and the shaky legal ground.

"I can't go on with extinguishing our rights," he says. "It's a line we cannot cross. To people who say, 'How are we going to pay for it?' I say, 'Go to hell.'" Once the lawsuit is filed, he adds, many supporters "will be willing to put their shoulder to the wheel" to help pay for it.

So now Nevada has as its agriculture chief a radical who believes in gutting the government, and who thinks a fistfight is the proper way to settle a political dispute.

Ah, nothing like right-wing governance, is there?

[HT to Myrna Minx.]

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