Thursday, November 19, 2009

On Becoming Non-Republican

I've never joined a political party, but I used to think I was more Republican than anything else. I voted for the occasional Democrat, yes.   I had great respect for what I read of Harry Truman who was before my time.  But the preponderance of my votes over the years went to Republicans, including more than once I  pulled the 'straight Republican' lever in the booth.   Republicans seemed to talk more my way and I eventually began to think of myself as 'Republican' even though I never formally joined the party.

I was cheered in the early 80's when my neighbor in New Bern, North Carolina was elected city mayor as a Democrat, and the very next day switched parties.   I did wonder a little at the time at the oddness of that.  It did seem a bit on the duplicitous side - but no matter.  Republicans seemed more like me, and therefore, her becoming one seemed justified.   I ignored the duplicity.

Then I moved to Alaska - a solidly 'Red State' then and now, almost.  I didn't move there because it was a Republican state, but didn't mind that either.  The people I met seemed more open and natural than the ones I'd known back east.  I think it's just the  'western' way.  I lived in a small island village in southeast Alaska and loved it.  We were in the midst of the largest national forest in the country - the Tongass National Forest.  I worked everyday with a guy who cheerfully identified himself as a 'tree hugger', and an officer in a small environmental group interested in protections for the forest.  He invited me to a meeting.  I didn't think I had much in common with the tree and bunny hugger crowds but went anyway out of curiosity.

The people I met at the first meeting - only a half dozen or so active folks - seemed salt of the earth and passionately dedicated to their cause.  There was a carpenter, a fisherman's wife, a couple commercial fishermen, a shipbuilder, a traveling fruit and vegetable trucker, a retired wildlife biologist and a few others.  Most were solid members of the local community and just plain folks.   One woman was the real spark plug and the cohesive glue holding the group together.  As an ex-Forest Service employee she had inside knowledge of how things worked in that peculiar bureaucracy. She was also one of the bravest people I ever knew.  In the interests of privacy, I'll simply call her 'Astra' here, after the Greek goddess of justice.

As an outsider from back east I was viewed with some suspicion, but I was intrigued and came to more meetings, eventually joining the group and becoming involved.  A year or so later I even became a vocal activist too and an officer of the group.  How did this come about?

At the time there were two huge pulp mills in the Tongass region, one of which was Japanese owned.  Both were multi-national corporations holding 'sweetheart' deals with the Forest  Service in the form of long-term contracts (fifty years!).   When the pertinent facts were boiled down to reality, particularly the fiscal ones, the stark result was the virtual corporate rape of a US national forest at American taxpayers' expense.  At the time, every timber industry job on the Tongass National Forest ended up  costing the US taxpayer $40,000 to $60,000.  Today it is even higher - much higher. As an actual, real fiscally conservative American I could not understand this.

But the timber industry, like all resource extraction industries maintains a powerful lobby.  The entire Alaska congressional delegation - all Republican at the time - were all doing the bidding of timber, oil and mining interests. They were vocal and strident in their defense of big  timber interests.  But,  American taxpayers were (and still are) being cheated at their own expense.  A real tragedy was that precious irreplaceable old-growth forests, valuable for lumber, were being chipped up to make toilet paper.  Trees not chipped up were shipped 'in-the-round' overseas to Japan and Korea. There was little effort to add value to the commodity.  Alaska, and the Tongass National Forest were treated as part of a third world country - no American jobs were involved beyond the acts of felling and transporting the timber,  and the taxpayer subsidized acts of building the access roads.

After I moved to Alaska also came Newt Gingrich's  'Contract With America' and the 'conservative Republican' capture of Congress.  If things were bad before they quickly got worse.  The final straw for me was when Gingrich as Speaker of the House  threatened to 'train wreck' and shutdown the US government over the budget - and partly did so in fact.  Apparently that was too much for lots of others too and Gingrich was eventually forced to resign as Speaker.  Roundly castigated, Gingrich  petulantly gave up his house seat and quit Congress altogether.  Nor was he the only one.  A whole slew of Republicans left Congress voluntarily (i.e., QUIT) saying it was 'no longer any fun' under a Democratic administration.  Incidentally, I've noticed the same phenomenon of Republican quitters lately too, with Sarah Palin being a prime example.

I contrasted the so-called conservative Republicans with Astra,  the head of our little environmental group.  Here was a person, an otherwise unexceptional wife and mother, who sacrificed most of her personal time, not a little money, and heroically faced a great deal animosity and slandering by powerful and ruthless forces arrayed against her.  She was publicly attacked in the local and regional papers, ostracized by many in the community and continuously threatened with lawsuits known as 'slap suits' designed to discourage opposition to the corporate rape of our publicly owned forest.   Specialists were hired by the industry group, 'Alaska Forest Association' to form opposition groups disguised as 'grassroots' organizations.   Local loggers and other industry employees joined up and held loud meetings, much like the 'Teabaggers' of today.  Some even physically threatened Astra and her family with destruction of her property, assault, personal injury and death.  Yet she persevered through it all.  As I said, she is one of the bravest people I ever met.

But, Astra was very effective, using every legal option available to her, including the support of major national and regional environmental groups.  Today, because of their efforts, those two huge pulp mills are gone from the Tongass National Forest, and some of the timber harvest there now receives at least a modicum of value added processing.  With the mills gone, the level of harvest is now down to about 10% of its former volume, although still very heavily subsidized by the taxpayers.  At least the old growth forests left aren't being slaughtered wholesale to make toilet paper anymore.  In my mind Astra is a genuine hero.

Through Astra's example, and with the scales falling from my eyes,  today when I see the label 'Republican' my reaction is to look the other way.  At my core I'm a moderate.  I've watched the GOP be captured by radical fringers intent on ridding the party of all moderate or progressive elements.   The end result is the GOP morphing into a club for an weird assortment of non-intellectual, belligerent southerners, evangelicals, militia types and disgruntled westerners who regard thoughtful deliberation with anyone as a social disease. And, my heretofore 'middle of the road' leanings are now considered by GOPers as 'liberal', 'socialist' and worse.  So be it.  The GOP 'Big Tent' of yore is now down to a doll house on the edge of a cliff. Fortunately for everyone,  I believe that to be a decidedly self-limiting situation.

Today's GOP extremism reminds me of the words of comedian Pat Paulsen who only half-jokingly 'ran for president' in Richard Nixon's time as a member of the STAG party (Straight Talking American Government).   When asked if he considered himself 'left-wing or right-wing', Paulsen's priceless and very apt response was:

"Well actually, I'm kind of a middle-of-the-bird.  I've always felt that if you have too much left-wing or too much right-wing, all you do is fly around in circles."

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