Thursday, March 25, 2004

Right-flanking the Sierra Club

My ballot for the Sierra Club Board of Directors -- the object of a takeover attempt by anti-immigration extremists -- arrived in the mail the other day.

It's an interesting ballot (you can read it in a PDF file here) more for the number of candidates who say they are running solely to raise voters' awareness of the takeover attempt. It certainly doesn't hurt that the issue has raised a few headlines in the national press, notably this report from the Washington Post:
Immigration Issue Sparks Battle at Sierra Club
Groups Vie to Reshape Nonprofit's Board

The most notable aspect of this campaign has been the way groups like the far-right VDare (run by Peter Brimelow) have helped recruit new "members" to the Sierra Club specifically for the purpose of voting for the slate being supported by the club faction calling itself "SUSPS," formerly Sierrans for U.S. Population Stabilization. As I've noted before, SUPS is little more than a front organization for anti-immigrant groups who have extensive ties to white nationalist and supremacist organizations and activities.
"The Sierra Club is the most prominent and influential group in America in terms of environmentalism," said Mark Potok, editor of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Report, who said the center got involved because it discovered hate groups were urging followers to vote in the board election. "That's why it's seen as a prize. The aim is to hijack the credibility, the reputation, the membership and the finances of a very important political player."

There are three SUPS candidates on this ballot: Richard Lamm, the former Democratic governor of Colorado; David Pimentel, a renowned entomologist; and an African-American man about whom little is otherwise known named Frank Morris.

It is noteworthy that in the ballot, only Lamm is really forthcoming about his position vis a vis the immigration issue, and even then the reference is brief and somewhat oblique. Here's what he says:
My priorities are wilderness and biodiversity loss caused by habitat destruction and resource extraction -- overpopulation and overconsumption are critical root causes. Our country's population is exploding, 44 million added since 1990 alone, driven by rising fertility and record immigration. The Club's population programs -- global and domestic -- must be strengthened.

Pimentel, on the other hand, says almost nothing about the issue:
Concurrently, our agricultural land, natural areas, biodiversity, and water and energy resources are under increasing pressure. We must courageously address America's surging environmental problems and thereby equitably manage our resources for all generations.

And Morris is even more oblique:
Rapid population growth exacerbates all these problems and must be addressed.

However, in Q&As posted on the Sierra Club Web site, at least Lamm and Morris are more forthright, stating up-front that they oppose the Club's current "neutral" stance regarding immigration. Pimentel, however, claims that he holds "a neutral position on immigration."

There are currently two board members, Paul Watson and Doug LaFollette, elected under the SUPS banner. Three more could bring the faction actual control of the Club's agenda -- and decidedly for the worse. As a recent Oregonian profile of Paul Watson noted:
"We're only three directors away from controlling that (Sierra Club) board," Watson told an animal-rights gathering last September. "And once we get three more directors elected . . . we'll change the entire agenda of that organization."

What's worth observing about the SUPS coalition is that it seems to be itself constituted of two decidedly different factions: one of far-right white nationalists, the other of far-left animal-rights extremists who think the Club is far too mild in orientation, since it admits and even caters to hunters and fishermen like myself. The extremist orientation of this faction is self-evident in their seeming embrace of so-called "eco-terrorism," embodied in Watson himself:
Robert Cox, a former Sierra Club president who sits on the board with Watson, says club members grilled Watson about his takeover comments and past eco-militant statements at the last national meeting.

"He put a very good spin on his statements," Cox says. "I think Paul walks right up to the border of condoning violence but seems to duck when he's called on it."

Indeed, this propensity manifests itself in nearly every aspect of Watson's life, including his wife's:
In February, Watson's wife, Allison Lance Watson was indicted on four counts of lying to a grand jury investigating the May 2000 arson of an Olympia timber operation. Investigators allege a truck she rented was used by her friend in the crime. She is free pending an April 19 trial.

I've mentioned previously that I had some firsthand experience with Watson during the brouhaha over whaling on the Makah Indian Reservation. I've also mentioned that I was unimpressed with him -- because of his strangely egocentric, highly theatrical kind of environmental activism, which seemed more intent on putting on a show than in resolving the issue intelligently and in a way that respected the Makahs' treaty rights. But then, reading his views of himself in this interview, it's fairly clear why: Watson -- how can I put this nicely? -- is a frigging fruitcake.
"We live in a media culture, so that when Sean Penn becomes me, he'll be more me than I've ever been," he says. "And not only that, but what was not acceptable will become acceptable. Society might frown upon what you do, but when they make a motion picture about you then, hey, it's OK."

He smiles. "It even worked for Bonnie and Clyde."

These kinds of far left/far right coalescences are not terribly common, because the two are so constitutionally different in so many regards that they rarely can stand to share the same air.

But they do happen. The most noteworthy of recent vintage was the appearance of white nationalists under Pat Buchanan's banner at the anti-WTO demonstrations in Seattle. (Another case that springs to mind regionally is that of Johnny Liberty -- real name: John Van Hove -- who still sells right-wing "constitutionalist" monetary theories to hippies at Northwest barter fairs.) When the personalities involved are the right kind, as they are here, then it's often possible.

The bigger picture of what's happening here, though, is the most important aspect of all this, because it fits in so neatly with the conservative movement's longtime campaign to "defund the left."

The most public aspect of this effort, as this piece by Bill Berkowitz explains, is to undermine the ability of unions and liberal advocacy groups to make use of federal funding to further their causes. This has been an important, if little-noticed, component of the right's strategy for some time now.

As this 1993 piece by my friend Daniel Junas explains:
Defunding the left, in fact, is the central principle of Norquist's long-term strategy. In Norquist's view, cutting taxes would reduce the size of government, which, in turn, would reduce the number of public employees whose union dues or personal efforts might help elect progressive candidates.

"Every time you nick the budget," Norquist has said, "somewhere a Democratic precinct worker loses his job."

Although controlling Congress is a paramount concern, Norquist and his Republican allies are also pursuing this strategy at the state level, placing a great deal of emphasis on gaining control of governorships and state legislatures. And Americans for Tax Reform has helped sponsor and fund numerous anti-tax ballot initiatives in the states.

Given this agenda, organized labor in general and public employee unions in particular represent the chief obstacle to Norquist's strategy for consolidating Right Wing/Republican dominance of Congress and the statehouses. Besides the AFL-CIO, the National Education Association is one of Norquist's prime targets. Consequently, school "choice" -- i.e. vouchers or charter schools, which would weaken public education as well as the NEA -- is one of Norquist's prime issues. On this issue, Norquist has forged an alliance with the religious right, which favors vouchers as a means for aiding parochial schools. In California, the official sponsors of the anti-worker initiative were previously active in conservative school board politics in Orange County, as well as the 1993 vouchers initiative campaign. And in Washington state, the legal strategy against the Washington Education Association is being pursued by the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, a local think-tank which has close ties to the religious right and which supported a charter schools ballot initiative in 1996.

One of the trademarks of this campaign is the way the right finances a number of initiatives -- ranging in content from anti-tax to land use to education to "right to work" -- aimed at forcing the traditional groups who provide so much of the infrastructure of establishment liberalism to devote their energies to fighting these brushfires instead of concentrating on enacting their agendas. It drains their coffers and their energies, and often acts as a real wedge that alienates the organizations from the public.

The Sierra Club campaign is somewhat unique in the way it attacks the organization -- but undermining it from within, instead of attacking it from without. In an election year, when environmental issues should be playing a major role, the Sierra Club is being forced to confront forces that have infiltrated its own ranks instead of playing a major role in the public debate over the Bush administration's multiple failures on the environment.

Just having to deal with this problem is a major distraction for the Sierra Club, regardless of the outcome. Moreover, if the SUPS candidates succeed in gaining election, there is certain to be a large-scale negative reaction from within the Club, and much of its funding may well dry up and blow away almost overnight.

Why, Grover Norquist couldn't have dreamed up a better scenario.

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