Sunday, February 14, 2016

Malheur a Dangerous American Tail Tale

By Bob Ferris
Conservative activist and “Liberty Speaker” Gavin Seim with the all too familiar annotated pocket constitution.
I listened with a mixture of horror and profound sadness to the last moments of the Malheur occupation.  Not a whole lot of “feel good” moments came out of that closing ceremony.  But one thing that David Fry said stuck for some reason.  It was something about his frustration over his act of voting not bringing the change he wanted.  I suspect that if there was a cluster of themes that could be distilled from this incident they would revolve around the pivot point of that idea offered up by this lost and lonely fellow.

David Fry the last to surrender.
During this armed siege we heard a lot of rhetoric from those at the refuge and many of us tried to make sense of what we heard so we could formulate logical responses.  That proved to be difficult, because a lot of it was not fact-based and much of it was illogical as well.  Applying facts and logic were not viable strategies because this was really about why America was not the way the occupiers wanted it.  And not by just a little bit, but enough to where they were willing to risk life and limb to bring about the change—even if they did not know what change they wanted.   (For a good look at this collection of ideas see Hal Herring’s excellent piece in High Country News.)

Why this did not work and will not work is that the “America” they aspire to lives in the far right tiny tail of the infamous bell graph.  It is in a word: Extreme.  This is two-standard deviations or more from the mean political tenor of the country.  And while this extreme view is somewhat valuable in terms of political debate and keeping us open to other ideas, it is not how or where the vast majority of us can or want to live.

The political bell curve is not static, but the extremes, while growing, remain relatively small.  
The whole situation reminds me of a friend I once had when my wife and I lived in Vermont.  Each year on town meeting day he would offer up ideas or put forward resolutions that never passed.  I know that he left those meetings sad and upset.  And I suspect the feelings he experienced were not unlike those felt by this collection of folks at Malheur.  But regardless of how this made us feel for our friend that did not mean that we all were willing to derail what we had to make him happier.

It is hard to tell who drifted from whom and when in this Vermont equation or at Malheur, but there is a clear and demonstrable separation almost as if there are two Americas—one where most of us live and another inhabited by extremists.  And while those who were at Malheur were patriots to one of these Americas they certainly are not viewed as “patriots” in the one where most of us go about our daily lives.

A couple of good examples of this America duality situation come from Gavin Seim and KrisAnne Hall the “negotiators” who were dramatically streamed to America during the last hours of the occupation.  In the extremist milieu they are well-regarded, heroic and even adored.  He is a popular Washington State activist and she is a former prosecutor from Florida who crisscrosses the country lecturing on the US Constitution and the Founding Fathers.  They have well-visited webpages (1,2), Facebook pages (1,2), YouTube channels (1,2) and sell a little merchandise here and there.  All is good in this “land” separated significantly from the middle of the US political spectrum.  Mr. Seim seems to be award-winning at much of what he does and Ms. Hall is the legal and Constitutional Attorney for the Coalition of Western States.  Cool.

As long as our friends above stay within their ultra-conservative cocoon all seems to go well for them, but when they venture out into the general population the picture is not as pretty.  One illustration of this is when Mr. Seim tried to run for Congress in Washington State in 2014.  Even though he ran in the conservative District 4 of Washington that once hosted Doc Hastings for years and seems to be friendly to Tea Party candidates, he was only able to garner about 2% of the vote in the primary. Now part of that could be Mr. Seim’s tendency for on-purpose collisions with law enforcement, the courts (1,2) or federal agencies in general, but it does demonstrate in a very statistical way that his message is not a vibrant one even in this fertile ground.
How the Broader World Characterizes Ms. Hall’s Constitutional Qualifications:
“…styles herself as a scholar of American history and the Constitution…”  Better Idaho January 2016
“…self-proclaimed constitutional lawyer…” Law Professor Michael Blumm Legal Memo January 2016
“…calling herself a constitutional lawyer.” Law Professor Suzanne Smith Legal Memo January 2016
“…self-described constitutional educator…” Southern Poverty Law Center February 2016
“…dubs herself a constitutional scholar…” Oregonian February 2016
“…self-proclaimed constitutional educator…” New York Times February 2016
Ms. Hall too is trapped in this two America dynamic.  Her website touts her as a constitutional educator and lawyer but when she trundles into the wider world she seems to be some sort of legal Rodney Dangerfield and gets scant respect from traditional media or academics.  Perhaps those looking see that the Coalition of Western States that she mentions (1,2) is essentially a website with a handful of posts set up by Mr. Seim following the first Bundy stand-off (1,2) rather than an organization of overt standing and gravitas.  Perhaps it is that her constitutional arguments are too fringe, but when one looks at those written and electronic sources beyond the Tea Party and “patriot movement” sweet-spots most mentions of her constitutional knowledge or skills are qualified or she is simply identified as a conservative activist or radio show host.  These characterizations are remarkable to me because in my more than three decades of professional work as a wildlife biologist no one in the mainstream press ever seemed to feel the need to identify me as a so-called biologist or self-proclaimed ecologist.
“The phone call's tone shifted with Hall's arrival on the line. What had until then felt like a crisis negotiation became a monologue on Hall's political views with pauses in which she checked in on the occupiers.
Her speech won Hall social media ridicule, with some saying she was doing more harm than good.” from Who is KrisAnne Hall? Conservative activist joins Oregon standoff negotiations Oregonian February 11, 2016 
The counter argument here for both Ms. Hall and Mr. Seim would probably be a Palin-style denouncement of the liberal bias of both media and universities.  Certainly that is expected, but then you look at how “We the People” reacted to Ms. Hall and Mr. Seim’s insertion of themselves into the occupation’s final hours.  The comments section on the Oregonian article is fairly brutal but it echoes what we saw on Mr. Seim’s Twitter feed after he declared victory over the FBI .   Absent in both is any semblance that Hall or Seim speak for any significant sector of America other than that tiny tail on the right.  Most recognized too that Mr. Seim and Ms. Hall seemed to be looking for praise for helping put out a fire that moments before they were throwing matches and gasoline towards (1,2,3,4,5).
"Gavin Seim, a right-wing activist who had set up the live feed, said after Fry had walked out that "America needs to learn from what just happened here. David's concerns and his fears reflect what all of America feels." in All 4 Oregon Occupiers Have Surrendered 
The above quote by Mr. Seim encapsulates a lot of this idea of the ultra-conservative "tail" thinking it wags the "dog" of America.  For it seems unsupportable that a person who garnered only 2% of the vote in an election truly knows the needs of America or should feel licensed to speak for all of us.  Moreover, through what logic does this tortured young man—David Fry—so bereft of control and direction reflect anything about anyone, but this small and estranged “tail” of America who planted themselves and their arsenals on land that clearly was not theirs? If America learns anything from this it is what it already knew: The tail should not wag the dog no matter how many guns the tail waves.

Mr. Seim being arrested for disrupting court proceedings.
The secondary dangers here are that folks will either believe Mr. Seim’s characterization or that the forces that want to bring harm to our country and steal our public lands (1,2,3,4,5) will amplify this molehill through smoke and mirrors into the mountain that it certainly is not.  I am encouraged in this when I see analyses like those completed by the High County News demonstrating the incestuous nature of the new Sagebrush Rebellion and the so-called “patriot movement.”  I think this is fine work but we need to also tie these actors to the promoters such as Seim and Hall and puppet masters like the Koch brothers and their allies (1,2,3,4) who use them as tools for this great and continuing injury to us all.

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