I’ve been angering, or at least annoying, readers in southeast Utah and beyond for more than 20 years. I am proud to say I have infuriated both ends of the political spectrum at one time or another.
When I started my own newspaper, The Canyon Country Zephyr, almost 22 years ago, I was determined, for better or worse, to be evenhanded and consequently, I always provided space for even my most vehement opponents. There has never been a hostile letter to the Editor I would not print.
Looking back, clearly there have been times when some of my own sarcasm and “humor” has been counter-productive and hurtful. Beyond that, I was sometimes unwittingly creating a sympathetic backlash. Later, I’d learn that facts are more powerful than rants.
I admit that in the early years I was more of a knee-jerk liberal — nowadays I’m a knee-jerk for all people. Consequently, much of the criticism hurled at me came from the conservative wing of my readership.
For example, in the early 1990s, when The Zephyr expressed opposition to a proposed multi-million dollar road over the Book Cliffs to Vernal, the local politicos were furious.
When the BLM chained Amasa’s Back, it was my turn to be furious and that made the ranchers mad.
I didn’t much care for a toxic waste incinerator at Cisco and I caught hell for that too, mostly from the part of the population who had a background in mining and oil and gas exploration.
I could understand their hostile reaction, though I did not agree with them. When asked about The Zephyr, the Grand County road chairman simply said, “I only need one word to describe it...CRAP!!!”
Real estate developers didn’t like my “anti-growth” attitude and I made very few friends from that sector either.
One Moab realtor complained that I read too much Edward Abbey and that I wanted to roll the clock back and live in a cave. I replied that it depended on the cave.
Several years ago, I looked around at what “my side” was doing to both preserve wilderness and create an economy based on recreation, tourism and “amenities,” and realized the liberal solution to the economic woes of rural Utah -- to turn it into a little urban New West population center -- creates impacts of its own.
I’ve always believed that saving what remained of wilderness is a moral and ethical issue, not an economic one, and when the environmental movement started promoting the economic advantages of wilderness, even when it degraded and demeaned their own cause, I took exception and subsequently incurred the wrath of my liberal friends as well.
When I exposed the fact that many green groups are funded by wealthy capitalists whose interest in being on their boards is questionable and whose conflicted agendas reek of hypocrisy, they came unglued. In a Salt Lake Tribune editorial, SUWA’s executive director called me the “Barney Fife of the desert” and maintained that my “rant says less about SUWA than about Jim’s own curious little world. As its only resident, he’s in charge. He gets not only his own opinion but his own facts.”
But if SUWA and the road board were being honest, they’d have to admit that what infuriates them the most is when I quote them accurately and I DO get my facts right.
Clearly, I can’t please anyone, right or left. But as a writer it’s not my job.
So here it is, 2011 and the conservatives and liberals are as happy with each other as they ever were, the name calling is getting even hotter, the rhetoric more irrational, the country is spinning out of control and if I really had my druthers, I’d say to hell with the whole mess and hide out in a corn field (which is what I do most of the time anyway).
When it comes to my own rhetoric, no matter what I say, do or scribble, the Right still thinks I’m a bleeding heart lib and the Left thinks I’ve abandoned my ‘progressive’ components and become a gun-waving redneck.
A few weeks ago, I stuck my nose into San Juan County’s latest controversy, the “Wanted: Dead or Alive” posters at some trailheads and threatened the environmental group Great Old Broads for Wilderness.
Whoever printed the posters and distributed them acted recklessly and irresponsibly or worse, and my essay said so. In San Juan County, I noted, hot-headed rhetoric from both ends of the political spectrum runs rampant.
Because the political mood here is dominated by conservatives, their rants are easier to find. But I also included some of the condescending words from the Left, specifically a passage or two from author and SUWA employee Amy Irvine and her bitter personal attack on the residents of Monticello.
The response from the Left was just as I expected...nothing. I once noted that when a Conservative really gets hot under the collar, he’s apt to get right in your face and growl, “One more word and I’ll knock your block off!”
But the Liberal? He’s more likely to sniff, “I will not even dignify that comment with a reply.” I think I’d rather get punched.
But for the last couple weeks, Blanding’s own conservative polemicist/letter-writer, Jim Garmhausen, has been confusing me with a combination of conflicting comments.
If he thinks he can placate me by agreeing with me, all the while making my point for me via his recent rash of letter-writing, he is mistaken.
A couple weeks ago, Garmhausen took note of my effort to be evenhanded. “To his credit,” he observed, “San Juan Record columnist Jim Stiles has made an honest attempt to find a neutral ground for non-confrontational language and reasoned discourse in the current land-use debate.”
Even that wasn’t quite right, but it was all downhill after that.
He described the difference between the “sweet, decent, hard-working people of San Juan County and the grant-dependent neurosthenic Old Bags, who have come here to facilitate Big Government suppression of our civil liberties.”
He wrote: “Here’s a good idea Ms. Egan (executive director) of the Old Broads could use to suck even more grant bucks out of Government bureaucracies and bored rich white people: declare Durango an Area for the Study of Noxious Invasive Species. That way the Old Broads could study each other.” I can almost feel the love.
Garmhausen actually scores a couple valid points, but they’re so buried in his vitriol that the facts get lost in the rant.
The truth is, most of the Great Old Broads’ staff and board are longtime residents of the rural West and its director, Ronni Egan, is an accomplished wrangler who could probably rope and brand Mr. Jim before he could scream “Liberal Bolshevist Bag!”
It’s reasonable to surmise that many of its members are from urban areas or are recently transplanted to New West communities and here is where the differences with rural residents become so sharp. Urban environmentalists, after a lifetime in the city, see the sparsely populated West differently than those who spent their lives working here.
If you can imagine what it’s like to live in a sardine can for most of your life, perhaps you can also understand how precious the wide-open spaces are when they get the rare chance to enjoy them. Consequently, right or wrong, many urbanites see the West in its entirety, as one big national park. Even when they move here, they generally loathe the idea of anyone making a living from the land. Many come here after retiring, when earning a living is not a problem.
For decades I’ve heard rural Westerners accuse their pro-wilderness opponents of wanting to “lock up” the West. Well...that’s probably true. They do. But their motives aren’t nefarious. Their goal is not, as Mr. Garmhausen insists, “to facilitate Big Government suppression of our civil liberties.”
Urban environmentalists’ vision of western land use may be naive, but it’s not sinister.
I still find myself pulling a quote from the most honest conservationist I’ve ever known, Wendell Berry, who notes that while most environmentalists object to the impacts from the extraction of natural resources, they rarely connect the dots to the gasoline they keep pumping into their SUVs. They loathe the damage caused by the production of resources but have no trouble consuming them.
Still, I don’t see how anyone can mock their conviction or their dedication to a cause, even if you vehemently disagree with them.
Clearly, environmentalists believe the best way to “save” Utah’s wilderness and make a buck as well is to abandon the extractive industries, like mining, in favor of tourism, which in the end is the most extractive business of them all. But isn’t that what San Juan County is doing too?
Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think that Blanding, the bastion of anti-wilderness conservatism, promote itself as the “Base Camp to Adventure.” And the county advertises our scenic beauty on...of all places...NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO! Surely Mr. Garmhausen can see the irony in that.
If there is a fair criticism to be made here, for me at least, it’s the way Great Old Broads, like every other environmental group I know, has got caught up in the money game.
My friend Susan Tixier founded GOB, about 20 years ago with some other women over 50. She was its first executive director, worked practically for free, and simply liked being an “old broad” with the courage of her convictions. She could also probably pin Jim Garmhausen before breakfast.
Nowadays, GOB has a quarter million dollar payroll and gets some of its funding from the same wealthy capitalists who are compromising the integrity of other grassroots green groups. Their argument is (and I think they really believe this) that they need all the money they can get their hands on, dirty or not, to fight the corporate giants that they oppose. The irony here is that billionaires who DO have vested interests in energy companies and the profits they generate ALSO sit on the boards of environmental groups and donate huge amounts of money. The staffs of these groups should wonder by now just what these guys are up to...but they don’t.
Jim Garmhausen also has a few words about author Edward Abbey. If he is just now discovering Abbey’s extraordinary bundle of contradictions, he is late to the game. Jim is absolutely right when he says that some mainstream environmentalists pick and choose their favorite Abbey quotes and leave the rest under the couch.
So do conservatives. Ed Abbey may have been the greatest contrarian of all time and he did it for decades with a wink and a smile. To this day, I’m not sure what Abbey was really thinking. I gave up even trying a while back. I do think he’d be happy to know we’re still debating his real essence, more than 20 years after he died.
Finally (thank Heaven), and still referring to Ed Abbey, Garmhausen complains, “I seriously doubt that Mr. Abbey would approve of the people who act in his name bursting into tears and threatening to tell Mom because somebody said harsh words.”
I don’t think any of the Great Old Broads is on the verge of tears, nor am I. When I talk about civil discourse, I’m not talking about “neutral ground” or “non-confrontational” behavior, or even compromise.
What I’m talking about is sticking to the facts...arguing with passion and conviction, but with some class and integrity. And here’s something rarely tried—try standing in your opponent’s shoes.
I am — foolishly or not — convinced that none of us are quite as bad as we think and I wish there weren’t so many people trying to prove me wrong.