Wednesday, March 19, 2003

Demonizing the left

R. Scott Greacen chimes in with the environmentalist perspective:
Just for your background, I'm a 37-year-old third-year law student at Lewis & Clark in Portland, Oregon, where I'm focusing especially on the public lands environmental issues in which I've been involved since I worked at Oregon Natural Resources Council for a couple of years at the height of the spotted owl imbroglio. Since 1990 or so, I've been involved in conservation issues, mostly but not exclusively having to do with forests or threatened/endangered species, in the Pacific Northwest, California, Arizona and New Mexico, and Montana. I've been reading your series in light of that experience, and especially as it relates to what I've come to see as the increasing marginalization of the environmental movement in the West over that period. Your discussion of transmitters and the relationship between the extreme and mainstream conservative positions has given me some powerful insights into anti-environmental efforts, but it has also helped me to to look at the environmental movement, and progressive political efforts generally, in new ways.

Part 12 is particularly important to me as it reflects on the horrible Flathead situtation, which for me stands as an extreme yet paradigmatic example of the circumstance of environmental advocates across the rural West. In brief, people who work for the protection of public resources, espousing positions well-supported by science and public opinion at large, are consistently marginalized in their communities. They are usually targeted by hate-mongers, not uncommonly subjected to verbal and even physical assault, and yet generally do not receive effective support even for their right to hold politically unpopular positions from leaders in business and politics.

Even on the political left, the fact that environmentalists are directly facing quasi-fascist activists and political techniques denounced as hate crimes in other political contexts has drawn relatively little attention from other activists who so often feel themselves to be the focus of far-right attacks. At a personal level, the links do get made between environmental activists and the folks working on what I think of as the various factions of identity politics, and even between environmental and labor activists in the right circumstances, but too seldom does the partnership get reflected at a strategic level or in the mutual support of state and regional groups. This is sad and very dangerous. One of the ways your work is important is that it can help to show people our common enemies and the necessity of cooperating to face and defeat them.

I had the opportunity to read an unpublicized focus-group study that was conducted in the Flathead Valley last spring or summer at the behest of environmentalists. The study showed two things which startled me, and which stand in stark constrast to each other. First, it showed that Stokes & Co.'s efforts in the Flathead (building, of course, on decades of work by the timber industry and their more-or-less-goonish allies in both labor and "Wise Use" and its offshoots) have been spectacularly successful in encouraging Flathead residents to vilify and despise environmentalists as fellow-citizens. Though I thought I knew how generally disliked activists have become in the rural West, the contemptuous bile was truly frightening to me; it reminded me more than anything of the vicious, just-under-the-surface racism which poisoned the southeastern Virginia towns and cities of my wasted youth.

But the second thing the study showed was that people in the Flathead still love all the things that environmentalists stand for, albeit not necessarily under the politicized labels which enviros fetishize to far too great a degree. That is, while people don¹t express much love for "wilderness," they're absolutely in love with wild country, roadless lands, and with wildlife. They value forests, mountains, and wild landscapes for their inherent value, as well as for habitat, clean water, and non-motorized recreation, just as much as they do for all the consumptive uses that rednecks are stereotyped for. Obviously, this disconnect presents important opportunities to reposition the environmental movement in the public mind.

Equally obviously, it raises disturbing questions about the ability of environmentalists to accomplish such a change given our new pariah status in the public mind. Which takes us back to the success of anti-environmental efforts.

Environmentalists used to be widely trusted as a source of information by the public. (Sorry I can't give a cite for this but I'm certain I've seen some decent survey data to that effect.) The ongoing demonization of environmental activists have done more to poison that perception, and consequently to dimish that singular truth-telling ability of the movement, than all the stupid things environmentalists have said and all the wise responses from our opponents over the last generation. It's essentially a slow-motion, relentless game of shoot the messenger.

Meanwhile, Democrats and lefties generally seem in important ways to be following exactly the opposite path of the comprehensive ideological offensive you've described on the right. Even though we may well have more latent support for our underlying positions in the population, our lack of strategic focus has left progressives constantly struggling to mobilize political support to address particular problems.

Over the last fifteen years of activism, I've been attempting, like many other activists, to straddle the two relatively radical strands of the environmental movement in the West. In thumbnail form, those two currents are:

(1) The locally and regionally-based "major reform" groups centered around fighting bad policy on the ground and and promoting substantially different policy initiatives (i.e., the Swan View Coalition, The Ecology Center, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, and Wildlands Project, just for example) and

(2) The direct-action faction which wants mostly the same things but uses less mainstream techniques, ranging from demonstrations to civil disobiedience to full-tilt physical obstruction, to promote its views. This position was once dominated by Greenpeace and the Earth First! (dis)organizing meme, but now includes everything from established groups like the Buffalo Field Campaign and Cascadia Forest Alliance to the Seattle mobilization and the near-infinite local variations targeting specific forest abuses with blockades and tree-sits.

Without going too deeply into a very sticky subject, I think it's worth noting that Anthony and Robbins' observations about the psychological profile of radical groups is amply borne out in my experience. In fact, the most persistent quality of the people who gravitate to the direct-action faction and remain effective within that mileu over time is their ability to tolerate a high level of psychological dysfunction in their comrades while still maintaining the ability to "bridge" back to people in the mainstream.

As I look back, I'm struck by how effectively both strands have been, and remain, marginalized, and how that marginalization has even increased over time. What's this got to do with transmitters, the relationship between the layers of the far right in and out of power, and incipient fascism? Quite a bit, I'd suggest.

First, a wise friend of mine whose work I recommend to you (Jim Britell) once pointed out to me that effective environmental activists come in for such exceptionally virulent treatment from the political/industrial powers-that-be because in many cases (and especially following the near-dismantling of the industrial unions as checks on management power), we are the only effective opposition to their hegemony in rural areas. Thus, I think you're directly on target when you suggest that the manufacture of contempt in the Flathead valley might represent the experimental deployment of a model of political control which might be more broadly deployed in circumstances like those which seem now at hand.

Discussions of Alterman's What Liberal Media and your series have helped me to see that the political right continues in effect to "work" society as it has the press (as in "working the refs"), pushing so hard on key issues and themes that they succeed in shifting the center of political discourse in the direction of their preferred framing and solutions. People in politics for the usual mixed bag of ideological and power-seeking reasons generally adapt to this pressure by dropping the "hot" issues as much as possible, if only in order to free their time and energy to work on problems which don't attract such high negatives and vocal opposition. This can mean effective disconnects between political leadership and public desires on hot issues.

I see this in spades with environmental issues in the West. For example, recent polling data shows that even in rural areas, more than 60% of respondents in the Pacific Northwest favor protecting all remaining old growth forests. Similarly, even in Idaho, the state with the largest areas of roadless federal lands, substantial majorities of the state's residents supported the Roadless Rule. Needless to say, only the safest and most progressive Democrats will even approach those positions, and Republicans in Idaho are as absolutely opposed to the wholesale protection of roadless lands as they could possibly be. Meanwhile, the tendency of moderates in both parties to respond to far-right offensives on environmental issues with the kind of contemptuous neglect that failed to stop the Aryan Nations and company has had the same predictable result: nothing.

Demographic changes joined with far-right ideological offensives and timid Democratic response have largely stripped the West of its environmentally progressive political leadership over the last two decades. The tattered remnant is often bizarrely hostile to the efforts of the radical currents outlined above. Witness, for one example, Daniel Kemmis' efforts to cast zero-cut advocates in Montana as beyond the pale of civilized resource management discourse during disputes over salvage logging following the Bitterroot fires of 2001. (See his posting at for example).

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