Tactics first, ideas last

 

Back when I was a college sophomore, a disillusioned freshman wrote to the campus newspaper: "It seems to me that this college is all about what's going to be on the test and whether the professor is a hard grader. Where are the ideas and the passion?"

He didn't get ideas, but he did get passion: For weeks, the paper was filled with letters telling him that in a tough world, only grades matter. "'Engaged in lots of intellectual chitchat" won't look good on a resume," he was told.

A bunch of my old college classmates must have been at the Media and Democracy Conference held earlier this month in San Francisco. The 600 participants had no time for intellectual chitchat. We already knew the answers to all the big questions in American life. Our job as progressives was to create better tactics: send more timely faxes, get lots of foundation support, speak with one voice and spread the truth by a liberal USA Today.

If ideas had to be talked about, then that distasteful task should be done quickly, and only through the prisms of gender, race and sexual preference. "Please raise your hand if you're gay, lesbian or bi," one speaker asked.

Lack of curiosity about ideas and the outside world was on display at every session. In a snippet of a documentary on Rush Limbaugh, one earnest young follower - a "dittohead' - told the camera: "Rush speaks to me. He's the first person I ever heard on the media with whom I reverberate."

When the lights went back on, we non-dittoheads might have explored Limbaugh's appeal. Why else had the Institute for Alternative Journalism and the Nation, Mother Jones and Utne Reader and the other co-sponsors gathered us together? But we couldn't have that discussion. We couldn't ask how Limbaugh managed to become a major opinion-shaper almost overnight, and without any capital. It was impossible for the audience to take Limbaugh or his supporters seriously, or even to see them as fully human.

Sandy Close, who runs Pacific News Service in San Francisco, tried to open up the conference. She told a packed session that it was her job as an editor not to know all the answers. She said that when Tom Brokaw of NBC asked her to put him in touch with a "remorseless killer" she refused and told him that "remorseless killers aren't evil - you're evil ... Because you think you know the truth."

It was a provocative anecdote - it went to the heart of what the alternative media's approach might be - but it was ignored. The audience probably thought she was attacking major media.

The major media were flagellated and talked of with contempt, but they were not thought about. As with every other issue, the conferees knew the truth long before the conference opened. CNN, CBS, Time and the others have nothing but size and money. We, the alternative media, know the truth, but people won't listen. What was the conference's solution? Say what we have been saying since the 1960s, but say it louder, and with more money that will come from foundations and other, unspecified, sources.

At a panel titled "Framing the Future: Toward an Issues-Oriented Approach," one panelist praised immigration, whether legal or illegal. So I described from the audience HCN's story on Colorado ski resorts' tactic of bringing in French-speaking people from Africa to keep wages down. I also said, since I momentarily had the floor, that we were letting conservatives do all the thinking.

The audience looked shocked and the panelist told me that immigration benefited everyone economically, and that was that. I was also told that the only ideas conservatives had were about how to destroy the poor.

When the moderator rephrased my question by saying, "Perhaps we progressives aren't communicating well with Americans in general," a woman of color responded angrily. "Who are these "Americans in general?" They're white males, and they're not part of the America I care about." That ended the discussion. Her moral authority and anger had cowed us. Pat Buchanan can start with the truth about this country - its harsh economic injustice - and then lump together and attack minorities and banks and immigrants. But a group of progressives couldn't talk about immigration or about how to appeal to a broader America.

The Media and Democracy Conference was my second stop in the Bay Area. My first had been a talk to law students in a public-lands course at Stanford. Together we went over recent issues of HCN: the servant economy issue about African workers in ski towns; the battle between the Hispanic grazing co-op in New Mexico and the Sierra Club Legal Foundation; the Utah wilderness battle; and the Colorado resident who fights prisons in rural areas.

One student said the articles were interesting, but didn't lead to a single conclusion. They didn't give him a clear picture of what was happening in the interior West, or who he should support.

In the Utah wilderness struggle, environmentalists were embattled underdogs, wearing white hats. But in the fight between the Sierra Club Foundation and the grazing co-op, the environmentalists did not look like protectors of rural areas and economies. In the battle over prisons on wildlife land, traditional environmentalists were nowhere to be seen. And in the story on ski town immigrants, he didn't see an environmental angle. Taken together, he said, the articles were a puzzle.

He was right, of course. A few years ago, the major issue in the West - the fate of the land - was obvious and friends and enemies were clearly defined. But as the region suburbanizes, as towns become either colonies for the affluent or worker housing, as commuting becomes a way of life, it is more and more difficult to pretend that only wildlands and livestock grazing and endangered species matter.

Environmentalism is beginning to see the bigger picture. Judging by the Media and Democracy Conference, the broader movement that calls itself progressive is still firmly back in the 1960s.

Ed Marston is publisher of High Country News.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds
  • NEW AGRARIAN APPRENTICESHIP
    Quivira Coalition's 2020 New Agrarian Apprenticeships in Regenerative Ranching and Farming -Apprenticeships run 4/20 - 11/20 Applications accepted 10/15/19 - 12/1/19 NAP partners with skilled...
  • PHILANTHROPY DIRECTOR
    Wilderness Workshop seeks a full time Philanthropy Director to raise funds for our team. Learn more: www.wildernessworkshop.org
  • EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT WITH WESTERN RESOURCE ADVOCATES
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) seeks an enthusiastic and organized problem solver to join our growing team as an Executive Assistant. The Executive Assistant is instrumental...
  • WYOMING OUTDOOR COUNCIL
    Two positions: Development Director OR Development Writer, Communications Director. Full job descriptions at https://wyomingoutdoorcouncil.org/careers.
  • CONSERVATION PROJECT MANAGER
    Great Land Trust seeks to hire a Conservation Project Manager. Position is full-time, based in Anchorage, Alaska. First review of applications will be on October...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eagle Valley Land Trust Executive Director Position Description Summary of Position: The Executive Director, working with and reporting to the Board of Directors, has overall...
  • FINANCE & LOGISTICS COORDINATOR
    The Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, founded in 1928 as an independent nonprofit organization, is a biological field station located near Crested Butte, Colorado. Our primary...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    See Full Job Description
  • DEVELOPMENT COORDINATOR
    Position: Development Coordinator Responsible to: Executive Director Time Commitment: 15-20 hours per week, or as otherwise agreed upon General Description: The Development Coordinator assists the...
  • EDUCATION CENTER MANAGER
    Friends of Cedar Mesa seeks a full-time Education Manager for the Bears Ears Education Center to provide day to day operational and administrative oversight. See...
  • TROUT UNLIMITED SCP SOUTHWEST REGIONAL DIRECTOR
    Seeking to hire an experienced advocate/manager to oversee the organization's sportsmen/women-driven advocacy in Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. Open until filled
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    for northern AZ collaborative conservation ranchlands group
  • AMAZING PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    If you're an amazing Program or Education Manager looking for an exciting and fulfilling position with an organization that makes a difference in the community,...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Partners are seeking an experienced and energetic Executive Director who is excited about the opportunity to lead our growing organization! A full description of the...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    High Country News Seeks an Executive Director to advance its mission, grow its audience and influence, and strategically and sustainably guide the organization through a...
  • 2 PROPERTIES ON THE WESTERN EDGE OF THE GILA WILDERNESS
    Organic farm, hot springs, San Francisco River runs through both. [email protected]
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.
  • SOCIETY FOR WILDERNESS STEWARDSHIP BOARD MEMBER
    Join the SWS board and help us broaden, diversify, and engage the wilderness community.
  • NEW MEXICO BIRDER'S PARADISE.
    Fully furnished 2B/2B home near Bosque del Apache NWR, great for nature lovers.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.