Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Eulogy for Paul

One of the ways I always used to chat up potential sources -- especially if they were participants or attendees at militia gatherings in the 1990s -- was by smoking with them. That's what I was doing when I met Paul deArmond the first time.

It was in Maltby, Washington, at the community meeting hall above, in February 1994. The meeting featured Bob Fletcher of the Militia of Montana (MOM), who had come to explain to the gathered "Patriots" how the government was plotting to round up American gun owners and place them in concentration camps hidden deep in the North Cascades. It was a fairly typical militia gathering of the time, featuring tables full of far-right conspiracist books and VHS movies and endless, droning explanations of various conspiracy theories.

One of the people manning the book table for MOM was David Trochmann, a man I wanted to meet. It was Trochmann, you see, who had an outsize role in the origins of the Ruby Ridge standoff that had unfolded tragically in northern Idaho two years before: ATF agents suspected that Trochmann had been smuggling weapons over the border into Canada from his Montana home, and so they had tried to put the squeeze on Trochmann's friend Randy Weaver by threatening him with jail time if he wouldn't act as an informant. Weaver, of course, refused, and then balked at the jail time too, and the rest became history.

I was more interested in learning about MOM's theological leanings: There were indications from other sources that Trochmann and his cofounder brother John were both adherents of Christian Identity, the white-supremacist religion that was also practiced at the nearby Aryan Nations headquarters. When Trochmann went outside to have a smoke, I went out and joined him. And Paul deArmond came with us.

I described this in my first book, In God's Country: The Patriot Movement and the Pacific Northwest:

Dave Trochmann has the same kind of intense demeanor as his brother, but there's something vaguely unsettling about him. I've known men like him, that hard-eyed working-class kind of man, and they are not people you want to mess with. If you do, they'll fix you and anybody close to you. It's hard to believe that Randy is his son. Randy, a skinny, dark-haired twentysomething, is doe-eyed and easygoing, a little jittery like all the Trochmanns, but you get the feeling he'd find it possible to like you even if you were a liberal.

I asked Dave about the Identity Bible studies. Any truth to that?

"Well," he said, looking about before answering, "you know, we're not white supremacists. We just think the races should be separate."

I'd heard the distinction made before.

"We just don't believe in race mixing," Trochmann said. "It's the laws of Nature. You don't see robins and sparrows mating, do you? We don't have a bunch of spobbins flying around."

I started explaining the genetic distinction between race and species, but realized it was a useless argument here.

"We don't hate other races," Randy said. "We just don't think they should mix. That's all Identity means to us." I let it go at that, and we wandered off to other topics, and eventually back into the meeting hall.

Paul was there and began chuckling at Trochmann's biology lesson. I had noticed him acting a bit like a reporter inside the meeting hall, taking notes and standing off to the side, as I had been doing. When we got back inside the hall, we began chatting and I discovered that, while he wasn't a reporter, he was there to do much the same as I was, namely, observing, taking notes, and listening to what was being said at these meetings.

Paul was a political researcher, and he had a special flair for focusing on right-wing extremists. He had been doing this for awhile, and much of the data he collected helped fuel some fine studies and journalism exposing the toxic effects of these extremists and their politics.

He once told me that he got involved in doing this as a way to counter some of the bizarre land-use policies and politics that were arising locally in Whatcom County, where he lived, but that pretty soon it grew to encompass a much broader scope. But fighting the far right was something he grew up with: Paul's father had been a filmmaker whose career had been essentially destroyed by a cabal of McCarthyite witch-hunters who had prowled the Washington state political scene in the 1950s and '60s.

Paul was especially astute at exposing the way mainstream conservative organizations and politicos interacted with these far-right elements, producing public policy that was an utter travesty -- such as attempts to delist killer whales under the Endangered Species Act and, more broadly, to gut the ESA.

And, like me, he was good at digging up information because he was good at talking to right-wing extremists as though they were otherwise ordinary people (and a number of them are). One of the ways he did that, also like me, was that he would smoke with them. It's an easy way to form an artificial bond with someone and begin chatting them up.

Of course, there is eventually a price to pay for that technique, especially if you are a heavy smoker, as Paul was (I was more of an opportunistic smoker, though there undoubtedly will be a price to pay for that too). A couple of weeks ago, Paul died of lung cancer. I for one will miss him deeply.

Tim Johnson at Cascadia Weekly has a beautiful obituary:

Yet Paul was equally adept with the rest of the political landscape. In splendid political analysis, he was penetrating, articulate and—above all—droll. He could read polling data with inerrant and deadly accuracy. In prophecy, Paul was gracious as Cassandra.

He understood the nature of politics as satire, without surrendering to the smug view that politics is therefore unimportant and deserving of being shunned or ignored. He knew the enduring vitality of a sticker or slogan, the dirty trick turned on its head. Mailers and mailing lists were his tea leaves. He gloried in the WTO protests and Occupy movements. In one of his most endearing stunts, Paul documented the entire schematic of the cut-and-flip greenfield land grab that has so polluted local politics for the past two decades, mashed up so a child could grasp it in a series of old comic strip panels long in the public domain.

The public domain was Paul’s domain. He was—as David Ronfeldt, a retired senior researcher at RAND Corporation, notes—a pioneering practitioner of what political analyst John Keane calls “monitory democracy,” the power of citizens to hold their government accountable not just at the polls, but every day, through the assembly of data and documents and networks in all their forms.

Be sure to read the whole thing, especially the many encomiums from the people who knew Paul and worked with him. I especially like this one from Jane Kramer:

 “What impresses me most about Paul de Armond,” she said, “is his immense generosity of mind, his collegiality, his commitment to enlightening—you could call it benign forced feeding—all of us who are trying in one way or another to understand, with him, what is happening to our country.”

Paul had the loveliest dry sense of humor, and many other personal qualities that endeared him to people. He was also unflaggingly tenacious -- a bulldog has nothing on Paul -- and that was why he also had many enemies, especially the politicos who loved to play footsy with far-right nutcases while pretending to just be mainstream conservatives.

He was also unflinchingly, demandingly, honest. Even his friends and allies were not spared if they dared leap to unproven conclusions or play games with facts, or worst of all, make afactual assertions. I grew to inherently trust Paul's data and his analysis because it not only proved consistently inerrant but prescient. Anything he produced was tested eight ways to Sunday.

But most of all, Paul was my friend, a superb bartender, a compulsive tinkerer (we won't even talk about his basement), and a great gatherer of fine people around his fire pit. There will never be another like him, and we are all the poorer for it.