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How Arizona’s land-use debates make my novel so damned relevant

A major conceit of my novel, High Desert Barbecue, (now available as a DRM-free ebook from the Google ebookstore that’s readable on your Nook, Kobo, iPad and pretty much anything but a Kindle or an Etch-a-Sketch) is the desire of a cabal of radical environmentalists to drive humans off of western lands so that they can return to some natural and, presumably, idyllic state. What some readers may not understand is that I really didn’t stretch the truth much. Tug on it a bit? Sure. But not a lot of stretching.

Last week, the current and former sheriffs in Coconino County (where Flagstaff is located) came out, a day late and a dollar short, against a federal plan, driven by groups like the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, that “eliminates 66 percent of areas where car campers and travel trailers could spend the night, reducing it from a majority of the forest to an area a little more than double the size of the Kachina Peaks Wilderness area,” in the words of the Arizona Daily Sun. The scheme also closes many forest roads to vehicular use at any time.

The Center for Biological Diversity says on its Website:

[W]e believe the highest and best use of public lands is to provide safe harbor for species by protecting the ecological systems upon which they and we ultimately depend. To this end, our advocacy directly confronts land uses that harm species and ecosystems — from off-road vehicle use and livestock grazing to industrial logging and uranium and fossil fuel extraction — while advancing precedent-setting litigation, policies, and strategic collaborations to usher in a hopeful new era of biodiversity conservation for our public lands system. We work toward a future in which species and ecosystems are finally afforded primacy among public lands priorities.

No, the Center is not led by by a fellow named Rupert Greenfield. Well, not officially.

Yes, some of the sandals-and-patchouli set really do want to see human presence swept out of their wind-swept shrine. And they are able to play on cultural divisions to get their way.

In the West, outdoor use is largely divided between motors and sweat. You have your ATV riders, campers and shooters relying on vehicles to get where they want to go in the forests and deserts, and you have your trail runners, backpackers and mountain bikers depending more on their own muscles. Some people like to cast this as a moral or spiritual divide, but it really is cultural. The sweat set is largely urban/suburban and white collar, and sees machines as something to escape, and the motorheads are primarily small-town/rural and blue-collar, and see machines as things that turn back-breaking labor into mere hard work. Both sides tend to ignore the considerable overlap between their constituents while sneering at each other. The motorheads are hit hard by road closures, while the sweat set see themselves as unaffected — or even benefited — by harder access to the outdoors.

Never mind that some of the sweat set are going to be mighty unhappy when they discover some of their favorite climbable rock-faces and unofficial trails are now effectively of-limits — they’re still either indifferent to the road-closures or actively supporting them.

For the record, I’m a backpacker, trail-runner and mountain-biker — well-ensconced in the sweat-set — but I really don’t like being pushed out of the forests and deserts by a bunch of … well … tree-fuckers (read my book if you don’t get that reference!).

Maybe the New Deal was a class war after all

In the piece of Arizona in which I live, there’s a distinct social divide between locally sourced business people and professionals, and those from elsewhere. While everybody mixes at community events and in the professional setting, on their own time, the locals go one way and the imports go another.

It’s not an economic divide — asset-wise, one tribe or the other may have the advantage, but that’s clearly not where the border lies. In fact, there’s a range of incomes on either side; the real common denominator — and source of the division — is culture. In broad terms, one group spends its cash on ATVs, steak and beer, and the other on mountain bikes, hummus and wine. Things are a bit fuzzier than that, of course, but it’s enough to make for two largely detached social networks.

This is on my mind because I’m currently reading Paul Fussell’s much-referenced and very biting Class: A guide through the American status system. Published originally in the early 1980s, the book may be dated a bit in some specific details, but it recalls to me (shudder) my high school years in WASPy Greenwich, Connecticut, and reminds me that economic divides and social divides are not the same thing. One of the great glories of the United States is that wealth really is within the reach of just about anybody with brains and drive — but social barriers are a hell of a lot harder to overcome. Despite his billions, Bill Gates will always be an upper middle-class guy — never mind that he could buy and sell whatever is left of the Roosevelts.

Of course, if sufficiently secure in his own skin, he need not give a shit about that social divide either — which is freedom in itself.

But, speaking of the Roosevelts, this long and somewhat strange introduction is my labored way of working around to an observation that occurred to me some time ago while I was reading Amity Shlaes’s Forgotten Man, about the Great Depression. It’s often remarked that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a “traitor to his class” — that his authoritarianism, corporatist economics and populist bloviating separated him from his natural allies and championed the little guy.

Except … That’s not true, is it?

FDR was fond of bashing “money changers” and plutocrats, and of challenging major figures in business and industry — which is indicative, since he himself was engaged in … nothing. Nothing, that is, aside from politics. Really, his official White House biography speaks of college, law school and political office. Other biographies refer to a brief legal clerkship. But really, his family had lived off of inherited money for generations, and he didn’t have to work at anything that didn’t interest him. The man was a landed aristocrat.

And what about his opponents?

Many of FDR’s opponents may have been wealthier than him, but they also worked at it in ways that the idle social elite have traditionally considered vulgar. Take Andrew Mellon, for example. Widely derided as a shadowy and powerful figure — “three presidents served under him” — Mellon was the son of a Scots-Irish immigrant who started off working in lumber and coal and later went into banking. Yes, he grew immensely rich and powerful, but he worked. By Roosevelt’s standards, Mellon was a social inferior.

In fact, the same could be said about all of those “plutocrats” whose businesses were affected, to one extent or another, by the New Deal. The simple fact that they engaged in commerce beyond managing an ancient estate would have made them a bit … icky … to the likes of FDR and the old elite.

As Fussell writes in Class, “[A]s a class indicator, the amount of money is less significant than the source. The main thing distinguishing the top three classes from each other is the amount of money inherited in relation to the amount currently earned. The top out-of-sight-class … lives on inherited capital entirely.”

By the standard set by Fussell (a liberal Democrat, by the way, who contrasts Ronald Reagan’s “Midwestern small-town meanness” with “Roosevelt’s politics of aristocratic magnanimity”), the likes of Mellon and Henry Ford (another son of an immigrant), who actually worked for the majority of their wealth, would have been one or two social classes below FDR, despite their vast assets.

It’s interesting … Transfer the same cast of characters to, say, fifteenth-century Flanders (not that I’m an expert) and grad students would be cranking out papers about the exploitation of the peasantry as a weapon by the landed aristocracy against the newly empowered merchant class, but clear judgment goes out the window when the scion of a long-established elite New York family takes advantage of an economic down-turn to stir up struggling Americans against newly risen business owners who are overshadowing his social set in the United States of the 1930s.

I’ve long since come to realize that I rarely have original ideas, so I’ll assume that this insight has been covered, to much greater depth, elsewhere. Please feel free to drop me a note telling me what I’ve overlooked, since the subject intrigues me.

‘Last Call’ delves into Prohibition — and the long hangover it left behind

I’m reading Last Call by Daniel Okrent, an interesting history of the rise of the prohibitionist movement in the 19th century, its culmination in the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act, and the inevitable (and gratifying) failure of the once-popular effort to ban the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages. The book is of special interest to me not only because of my strong thirst for bourbon, red wine, microbrews, port, gin and, in a pinch, Sterno squeezed through a handkerchief, but also because I’ve long believed that, with all due respect to the folks obsessed by the Civil War/War Between the States/War to Fuel All Overwrought Historical Novels, Prohibition was the defining moment in terms of a shift in the relationship between individuals and the state in this country.

Among the interesting details supplied by Okrent’s book is the degree to which prohibitionism intermingled with, energized, and was powered by connections with other “reform” movements. Specifically, the early “temperance” movement overlapped with abolitionism, then developed major ties to the women’s suffrage movement — to the point that it’s credited with making early feminism politically viable. Religious fundamentalism, unsurprisingly, played a huge role along the way — prohibitionism was overtly a Protestant-Christian eruption, with the Anti-Saloon League calling itself “the church in action against the saloon.” Nativism, of course, figured in the movement against alcohol, with reaction to hard-drinking Catholic and Jewish immigrants (the myth possibly not out-stripping the reality) fueling much of the desire to ban saloons, beer, booze and fun; Frances Willard, long-time leader of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, favored immigration restrictions on “the scum of the Old World.”

What is new to me (though it makes sense) was the degree to which then-new brands of ideological collectivism played a role. Willard, who often referred (approvingly) to her followers as “Protestant nuns,” was not by any means the only prohibitionist to identify as a “Christian socialist.” The WCTU and the Prohibition Party endorsed a grab-bag of statist policies, including nationalization of major industries.

Prohibitionists, by and large, didn’t seem to be huge fans of sex, either. No surprise, really.

Basically, aside from women’s suffrage (abolitionists may have often been anti-alcohol, but they prevailed on their on merits), prohibitionism was a major player up in a mutually reinforcing whirlwind of statism and intolerance that has done vast damage to the cause of personal freedom and limited government in the United States. Several seemingly unrelated political/cultural tendencies gained energy from one another and went on to transform the country in very important ways.

I haven’t finished Last Call, but it’s already worthy of recommendation. And it will, almost certainly, drive you to drink.

Election horror! I’m moving to (fill in the blank)

Why is is that, after every disappointing election, libertarians generally just grin and bear it (and tunnel a little deeper into the underground economy and counter-culture), conservatives vow to try harder next time (and win back their country for Jeezis), but lefties are forever vowing to toss their Patagonia gear into their hybrid put-puts and flee to Canada or France or some other mythical social-democratic paradise? My Facebook feed is currently speckled with progressive chums contemplating the good life in Toronto, Paris or Lilliput, about all of which they seem equally well mis-informed. This isn’t the first time, either.

Gawker captured the situation nicely with a round-up of five potential cities to which refugees from the recent dastardly Tea Party coup could consider fleeing. Kudos to Gawker for mentioning the uncomfortable truth that much of the world is a tad less lollipops-and-unicorns social-democraticky than progressives might like — less so than the U.S. in many cases. As Gawker points out of our neighbor to the north, “Well, it’s not that liberal. Prime Minister Stephen Harper is a conservative leader, after all,” and even “[t]ax-heavy, expensive Sweden is also moving into a more American style of limited-ish federal government, privatizing many formerly state-owned business to stave off economic woes.”

In fact, deprived of the huge line of credit possessed by the United States, many countries to which trendy lefties might flee have long-since started slashing state spending, freeing their economies (a bit, anyway) and turning toward Tea Party-ish smaller-government solutions.

Canada, for instance, is no longer so much the big-government contrast to the United States. Canadian federal spending topped out at over 50% of GDP back in the ’90s, after which somebody went to tap the piggy bank yet again and found nothing but moths and good wishes. Out of necessity, the old Liberal government began cutting spending well before the Conservatives came to power.

Likewise, Britain is only one of the European countries that have explicitly rejected the Obama administration’s hoary Keynesianism in favor of some sort of fiscal discipline. Sweden really is deregulating and privatizing its economy — to the point that the Christian Science Monitor says, “some believe it should be held up as a bastion of market capitalism.”

On a less-encouraging note, the French have their own problems with nativism and immigration fights. There’s no escaping the border warriors in Paris.

I’m not entirely sure what sort of Erewhon the folks on the losing side of the latest election think they’re going to find once they disembark in the imagined promised land, but it’s probably going to leave them a bit disappointed.

It’s not that the latest crop of elected officials won’t be as bad as everybody fears; the last few batches have certainly lived down to expectations, and why should things change now? But, if progressives insist on fleeing the latest electoral catastrophe (after the previous one, which they themselves brought on us) they might trouble themselves to do a little research to make sure that they won’t be greeted in their new homes by poutine-munching, Gauloises-puffing clones of the scary villains they left behind.

Just how hermetically sealed is New York’s insular political culture?

In the September 20 issue of New York magazine, there’s a brief piece by Dan Amira called “Tea House 2011.” Touted in the table of contents as a look at “lesser-known lunatics of the tea party,” the article is supposed to be a peek at the beyond-the-pale madmen who “are operating out of the national spotlight this campaign season.” These aspiring members of Congress get a tiny photo, a brief bio, and a few words on the unquestionable insanity they espouse, to which we’ll all supposedly be subject should the Tea Party get its way come November. Their craziness is taken as so obvious that no analysis is required once their opinions are stated.

And sure enough, of the exactly six would-be congresscritters profiled in this article, there’s an honest-to-God … well … apparent birther in the mix. He’s running for Colorado’s Fourth District. Cory Gardner is also the least outsidery of the bunch, considering that he’s already a state legislator.

But two of the “lesser-known lunatics” are on the list because they (drumroll please) question Social Security and Medicare. Todd Young, running for Indiana’s Ninth District, “[r]eferred to Social Security as a ‘Ponzi scheme.’” And Jesse Kelly, running in Arizona’s Eighth District, “said he ‘would love to eliminate’ Social Security and eventually end Medicare.” He’s also opposed to the minimum wage.

Uh huh. So of the six crazier-than-crazy Tea Party candidates profiled by New York for their “lunacy,” two of them are in there for positions that are widely held by professional economists. Wikipedia’s entry on the minimum wage summarizes surveys finding that as many as “90 percent of the economists surveyed agreed that the minimum wage increases unemployment among low-skilled workers” and “46.8% wanted it completely eliminated.” Similar surveys of economists find that they consider Social security a mess — 85.3 percent agree that “the gap between Social Security funds and expenditures will become unsustainably large within the next fifty years if current policies remain unchanged.” And Hell, even Michael Kinsley agrees it’s a Ponzi scheme (although he thinks that’s OK). And it’s hard to defend Medicare when the program is widely used as an example of a government scheme run amok.

But, in polite New York circles, criticizing Social Security, Medicare and minimum wage laws is just not done — to the point that anybody who ventures in that direction is considered laughable

From time to time, I miss the sophistication of my old digs. But whenever I get to hankering for exotic restaurants, creative theater and innovative arts in my home town, all I need for a cure is a reminder of the … well … lunatics who run the show there.