How Obamacare fails my family

    My latest re the nightmare of Obamacare:

    A Biocentrist History of the American West

    (Originally published at Harper’s, as a companion to my investigation of the USDA’s Wildlife Services)

    When in the late nineteenth century millions of cattle and sheep invaded the ecosystems of the American West, it produced, as historian Donald Worster writes, “the explosive, shattering effect of all-out war.” Native plants were trampled beneath hooves and replaced with forage preferred by stockmen, grasslands were denuded and desertified, soil eroded and blown on the wind, rivers and streams were diverted, dewatered, and polluted by a cocktail of pesticides, fertilizers, and cattle feces. The communities of fish, reptiles, insects, and birds that depended on healthy riparian environments spiraled into chaos with the coming of the alien ungulates. Wolves, bears, and other so-called predators were trapped, gunned down, and poisoned to protect livestock. For the past century, says Worster, mainstream historians have ignored this war on wildlife. “[M]uch effort has gone into calculating the collapse of the native human populations under the European invasion,” he writes in his collection of essays, Under Western Skies, “but almost none into the precipitous decline of the many nations of wild animals.” A biocentrist tragic history of the West has yet to be written.

    We are blessed, however, with the existence of a U.S. government agency that happens to have documented at least some of the destruction—because it was responsible for it. In the March issue of Harper’s Magazine, I investigate Wildlife Services, a branch of the Department of Agriculture that is notorious among activists but largely unknown to the public that has financed its operations for more than a century. In the West, where much of its lethal work has been conducted, the agency mostly serves the interests of cattle and sheep ranchers. Former Wildlife Services trapper Carter Niemeyer, in his 2012 memoir Wolfer, goes so far as to assert that many of its employees have acted as “the hired guns of the livestock industry.”

    Since 1915, when Congress first funded federal trappers specifically for the purpose of eliminating wildlife that posed a threat to livestock, Wildlife Services has been responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of animals. It has killed coyotes, wolves, foxes, black bears, grizzly bears, cougars, bobcats, and wolverines. It has killed animals deemed “pests” by stockmen: beavers, prairie dogs, minks, martens, muskrats, badgers, pocket gophers, ground squirrels, jackrabbits, opossums, porcupines, skunks, raccoons, and weasels. It has killed eagles, crows, ravens and magpies. Between 2000 and 2014 alone, two million native mammals fell before Wildlife Services, including twelve taxa of mammals listed as endangered, threatened, or as candidates for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

    The agency has always taken its direction from Western stockmen. When bison, elk, and deer were hunted to near extinction at the turn of the 20th century, the wolves and the cougars and the bears looked to cattle and sheep for food, as their natural supply dwindled. The cattlemen and sheepmen in turn placed bounties on the predators, but the bounties failed to solve the problem. By 1900, the stockmen’s associations were lobbying federal authorities to complete the job they could not. With the founding of the Forest Service in 1905 under its first chief, Gifford Pinchot, federal authorities bowed to the demands of what Pinchot described as “the best-organized interest in the West,” and established a program for the extermination of wolves and coyotes in the national forests.

    The Forest Service sought help from an obscure research arm of the Department of Agriculture called the Bureau of Biological Survey, whose biologists it tasked with identifying and tracking predators so that forest rangers could swoop in for the kill. In 1915, the Bureau of Biological Survey took over lethal predator control as a full-time operation. Thereafter it thrived under the steady hand of Congress. In 1931, with the passage of the Animal Damage Control Act, Congress expanded the agency’s purview and funding, directing it to “conduct campaigns for the destruction” of any “animals injurious to agriculture.” By 1947, the agency had singlehandedly persecuted wolves to remarkable success: wolf populations were drastically reduced in the continental United States.

    In 1971, a reporter named Jack Olsen investigated Wildlife Services, then known as Animal Damage Control, in a series of articles for Sports Illustrated, which he published later that same year in his book, Slaughter the Animals, Poison the Earth. Olsen remarked on the close relationship between livestock producers and government trappers, the shared cultural attitude toward wild things. “[T]he hatred of sheepmen for coyotes, bears and mountain lions,” wrote Olsen, “seems to go so far beyond the dimensions of reality as to be almost pathological in origin.” Former trapper Dick Randall, who left the agency in the 1970s to become an activist with the Humane Society, described how a rancher working with Animal Damage Control dispatched coyotes. “[H]e takes a burlap bag, cuts out a hole for the head and two holes for the front legs, pulls the bags on the animals, pours kerosene on, sets them on fire and turns them loose. And he laughs when he tells that, as if it were the greatest thing!” Activist Lynn Jacobs, author of Waste of the West, compiled dozens of such accounts. Jacobs writes of ranchers who “torment trapped animals by beating, stoning, burning, shooting, or slashing them. Or they may saw off their lower jaws, wire their jaws shut, blind them, cut off their legs or tails, or otherwise mutilate them and then release the unfortunate animals.” Olsen told the story of a sheepman on the Frio River in Texas “who liked to saw off the lower jaws of trapped coyotes and turn the mutilated animals loose for his dogs to tear to pieces.” He wrote about “a rancher and his wife and children who spent a delightful winter weekend cruising their property on snowmobiles, throwing out strychnine ‘drop baits’ to kill coyotes….The Western stockman who does not engage in such popular practices is branded an eccentric.”

    Olsen described how federal predator control agents, moving beyond the simplistic trapping and shooting that had characterized the methods of the stockmen’s bounty system, innovated in the 1940s the dissemination of deadly poisons on public land. Among the preferred weapons was thallium sulfate laid in baits and in carcasses, which persisted in the food chain, producing secondary and tertiary poisonings, and caused untold numbers of deaths of wildlife feeding on carrion. The newly developed toxic compounds, as Olsen wrote, “turn[ed] the tortured rangelands into a reeking abattoir of dead and dying wildlife and contaminated watersheds.”

    In 1946 Animal Damage Control debuted the use of sodium fluoroacetate, otherwise known as Compound 1080. Tasteless, odorless, and colorless, described as a “super poison” by the FBI, it has no known antidote. A single ounce can kill 200 adult humans, or 20,000 coyotes, or 70,000 house cats. For decades, the agency distributed Compound 1080 like candy across the West, mostly targeting coyotes. The effect of 1080 on canids is horrific. It produces “a frenzy of howls and shrieks of pain, vomiting, and retching,” attacking the central nervous, respiratory and cardiovascular systems before ending life in cardiac or respiratory arrest. (Following the invasion of Iraq in 2003, an Iraqi military official claimed that Saddam Hussein used 1080 extensively to eradicate political opponents.) Between 1960 and 1970, Animal Damage Control agents laid on public and private lands 156,378 meat baits of 1080 and about 1.5 million pounds in the form of grains. Enough poison of various kinds was spread on the Western range in a single year during the 1960s to kill every man, woman, and child west of the Mississippi, according to Olsen.

    By the 1970s, rangeland ecologists were raising an outcry, calling for reforms. The 1972 report of the Advisory Committee on Predator Control, commissioned by the Department of the Interior, found that the agency, now christened the Division of Wildlife Services, “contain[ed] a high degree of built-in resistance to change.” The investigators, led by University of Michigan ecologist Stanley A. Cain, remarked that “several hundred control agents today are the same persons for whom…the job requirements and measurements of an agent’s success have been the killing of large numbers of predators and of personal, uncritical response to the complaints of stockmen….Agents are frequently long-time acquaintances, friends, and neighbors of the individuals demanding service.” The Cain Report, as it was known, advised “substantial, even drastic changes in control personnel and control methods.”

    Such was the concern about Wildlife Services’ policies that the most notoriously corrupt president in modern history, Richard Nixon, who privately derided conservationists as “hopeless softheads,” issued in 1972 an executive order that included a ban of the use of thallium sulfate and Compound 1080. His administration authored a bill, the Animal Damage Control Act of 1972, which, if passed—it didn’t—would have repealed Wildlife Services’ enabling legislation of 1931. Nixon had read the Cain Report, and publicly praised it. He lamented that “persistent poisons” had been spread across the American landscape “without adequate knowledge of the effects on the ecology.” He talked about “an environmental awakening” and “a new sensitivity of the American spirit and a new maturity of American public life.” He told the country that “the old notion that the ‘only good predator is a dead one’ is no longer acceptable.”

    Nixon got it wrong. At Wildlife Services there has been no environmental awakening, no new sensitivity, no new maturity. The only good predator is still a dead one. The public continues to pay the price. In reporting my article for the magazine (“The Rogue Agency,” March 2016) I discovered dozens of examples of senseless destruction resulting from Wildlife Services’ actions and policies. It will suffice here to recount one of these tales that didn’t make it into print.

    In May 2008, Brooke and Cliff Everest, a couple from Bozeman, Mont., embarked on a rafting trip on the White River of Utah. One day during the trip, on a hike they had taken after beaching their boat on public land, their dog, an American Brittany named Bea, inspected a carcass of an animal in a canyon. Later that day Bea descended into the throes of poisoning. Cliff and Brooke Everest wrote an account for the nonprofit activist group Predator Defense:

    “We were totally mystified as Bea went from a dog calmly lying around camp through a progression of ever more bewildering symptoms. After seeing her heaving and trying to vomit, she suddenly jumped into Brooke’s lap with a scream of pure terror. She then charged around camp, jumping in and out of the raft, crying and yelping in a frenzy of fright and pain. Our efforts to calm her had no effect. She ran a high speed circuit around camp, accidentally slamming into our friend sitting in a chair, then launched off the raft into the river and started swimming for the opposite shore…. Our frantic calls were ignored as the current carried her downstream. She finally turned back towards our side of the river, but when she reached shore, she raced away from us. We found her collapsed under a bush in violent convulsions with a frightening stare, pounding heart, gagging and gulping for air. After 15 more minutes of this agony, Bea died and her body immediately became very rigid. We carried her stiff, lifeless body back to camp and buried it under a cottonwood tree.”

    Every indication suggested she had been killed by Compound 1080, which continues to be used by stockmen and Wildlife Services agents in ways that violate federal law—and render our public lands into places of torture and death.

    Latest in Harper’s: An Investigation of the USDA’s Wildlife Services and its war on the wild

    My latest piece in Harper’s is about the stupid, cruel, wanton waste of the USDA’s wildlife slaughter program called Wildlife Services. Read all about it here and weep.

    Extinction, the New Environmentalism and the Cancer in the Wilderness

    [Originally published at CounterPunch]

    The word is in from the wildlife biologists. Say goodbye in North America to the gray wolf, the cougar, the grizzly bear. They are destined for extinction sometime in the next 40 years. Say goodbye to the Red wolf and the Mexican wolf and the Florida panther. Gone the jaguar, the ocelot, the wood bison, the buffalo, the California condor, the North Atlantic right whale, the Stellar sea lion, the hammerhead shark, the leatherback sea turtle. That’s just North America. Worldwide, the largest and most charismatic animals, the last of the megafauna, our most ecologically important predators and big ungulates, the wildest wild things, will be the first to go in the anthropogenic extinction event of the Holocene Era. The tiger and leopard and the elephant and lion in Africa and Asia. The primates, the great apes, our wild cousins. The polar bears in the Arctic Sea. The shark and killer whale in every ocean. “Extinction is now proceeding thousands of times faster than the production of new species,” biologist E.O. Wilson writes. Between 30 and 50 percent of all known species are expected to go extinct by 2050, if current trends hold. There are five other mass extinction events in the geologic record, stretching back 500 million years. But none were the result of a single species’ overreach.

    I’ve found conversation with my biologist sources to be terribly dispiriting. The conversation goes like this: Homo sapiens are out of control, a bacteria boiling in the petri dish; the more of us, demanding more resources, means less space for every other life form; the solution is less of us, consuming fewer resources, but that isn’t happening. It can’t happen. Our economic system, industrial consumer capitalism, requires constant growth, more people buying more things. “I will go so far as to say [that] capitalism itself may be dependent on a growing population,” writes billionaire capitalist blogger Bill Gross, Forbes magazine’s Bond King. “Our modern era of capitalism over the past several centuries has never known a period of time in which population declined or grew less than 1% a year.” Growth for growth’s sake, what Edward Abbey called the ideology of the cancer cell.

    The biologists, who in my experience tend to loathe the Bill Grosses of the world, begin to sound like revolutionaries. The most radically inclined among them – their goal to save some part of the planet from human domination and keep it wild and free (free of bond managers for sure) – agree that human population will have to halt entirely, and probably decline, in order to protect non-human biota. Then the biologists begin to sound like misanthropes, and they shut their mouths.

    “What’s wrong with misanthropy?” I ask Leon Kolankiewicz, a former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who has written extensively about the human population footprint and its disastrous effect on biodiversity. “The human race,” I tell him, “has proven to be a bunch of assholes.”

    Kolankiewicz laughs. My attitude, he observes, is not a very good tool for marketing conservation, given that the market, after all, is made up of people. We’re supposed to make biodiversity appeal to the buyer, the public, as something useful. We talk about ecosystem services – ecosystems that service us. “It’s a completely wrongheaded approach to conservation, of course,” says Kolankiewicz. “It’s raw anthropocentrism. There’s a lot of nature that isn’t particularly useful to people.”

    Industrial-strength Homo sapiens could function without much trouble on a vastly simplified, even depauperate, planet, one wiped nearly clean of its fantastic variety of life. I read in Science magazine not long ago, for example, that Earth could lose 90 percent of the species that produce oxygen – not 90 percent of total biomass, mind you, just the diversity of the oxygen producers – and this would hardly make a dent in our modern lives. One of the conservation statistics that Kolankiewicz had encountered in recent years, one that he said “just blows me away,” shows that the combined biomass of the living 7.2 billion human beings, along with the few species of animal we have domesticated – dogs, cats, cattle, sheep, pigs, chickens – now constitutes at least 95% of the entire biomass of all extant terrestrial vertebrates on Earth. That is, all of the living specimens of wild mammals, birds, amphibians, and reptiles, more than 20,000 species in total, constitute a mere 5% of the aggregate living cellular tissue of all vertebrates. “Almost total usurpation of the biosphere for the benefit of one species alone,” says Kolankiewicz. “It’s ecological imperialism. Given this tragic reality, how can any sentient, caring person not be a bit of a misanthrope?”

    We talk about the remaining places on Earth where the imperial species has not usurped the biosphere, where the bears and the wolves and the tigers roam, where the little babbling bipeds with their iPhones might get eaten, and we agree that these places can be called wilderness. We agree that the language of the 1964 Wilderness Act best defined those places: “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man,” where the land retains “its primeval character and influence.” Observe the original meaning of that word, trammeled. It means to shackle, to hinder, to chain, to make un-free. An untrammeled ecosystem is one where man may be present but does not dominate, where the willed self-propelling processes of nature have not been subjugated entirely to human ends. (Kolankiewicz observes that it is from willed that etymologically we get the word wild.) Wilderness, among its other purposes, is to be a refuge for wild animals and plants, their evolution to remain unmolested and unhampered. There is a practical argument here – the preservation of a genetic pool evolving without help or hindrance from us (as we busily meddle with and wipe out genetic diversity elsewhere) – and a transcendent one, related to the not-so-transcendent fact that when we do away with wilderness we are also doing away with the crucible of natural forces which birthed our ancestors out of the muck and which shaped our character as a species. Without wilderness, we lose two million years of evolutionary heritage. We lose our deep-seated and long-standing relations with the non-human; we lose the awareness, the consciousness, of a natural environment not arranged entirely for human convenience. We lose our capacity, in the words of Howard Zahniser, the primary author of the Wilderness Act and its principal mover, “to know ourselves as the dependent members of a great community of life…to know the wilderness is to know a profound humility, to recognize one’s littleness, to sense dependence and interdependence, indebtedness, and responsibility.” Kolankiewicz tells me to read Wallace Stegner’s famous Wilderness Letter of 1960, issued as a public rebuke to the Kennedy administration. I tell him I know it well. “Without any remaining wilderness,” wrote Stegner, “we are committed wholly, without chance for even momentary reflection or rest, to a headlong drive into our technological termite-life, the Brave New World of a completely man-controlled environment.”

    Kolankiewicz admits to a strain of Luddism in his blood, a dislike of technocrats, and certainly he is not the kind of environmentalist one finds salaried in the cubicles of the Big Greens in DC – by which I mean the Nature Conservancy, the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the half-dozen other multi-billion-dollar enviro-nonprofits. Peter Kareiva, the chief scientist at the Nature Conservancy, is more typical of the breed. He’s an optimist, he’s people-friendly, full of bright ideas that promise hopeful partnerships with corporate business, expressive in his love of technological progress as the ultimate fix to conservation troubles, unabashed in the belief that good management applying the scientific method can handle any challenge no matter how frightful, and thoroughly dismissive of what he calls “the wilderness ideal.” In the new geologic era scientists are calling the Anthropocene – an era in which “humans dominate every flux and cycle of the planet’s ecology and geochemistry” – Kareiva believes that conservation has reached a threshold from which there is no turning back. Climate change, a world-encircling shroud of domination, is the most pressing fact of the Anthropocene. There is no place untrammeled by man, no ecosystem self-willed, and wilderness is therefore dead. Embrace the painful truth, says Kareiva: We are de facto planetary managers, and though hitherto we have been lousy at the job of management – selfish and self-aggrandizing, thoughtlessly destructive – we will not cease to dominate. And this is a good thing, as the very consciousness of our power as totalitarian managers of nature may be a blessing: It compels us not to question this power – for Kareiva it is unquestionable – but to become wise managers, like Plato’s philosopher kings, full of noblesse oblige, tyrannical but enlightened. So much for profound humility.

    Let’s hear at length what Kareiva has to say about this “new vision for conservation”:

    Conservation should seek to support and inform the right kind of development – development by design, done with the importance of nature to thriving economies foremost in mind….Instead of scolding capitalism, conservationists should partner with corporations in a science-based effort to integrate the value of nature’s benefits into their operations and cultures. Instead of pursuing the protection of biodiversity for biodiversity’s sake, a new conservation should seek to enhance those natural systems that benefit the widest number of people, especially the poor. Instead of trying to restore remote iconic landscapes to pre-European conditions, conservation will measure its achievement in large part by its relevance to people, including city dwellers. Nature could be a garden….

    The notion of a gardened planet managed for “thriving economies foremost in mind” is a radical departure from the environmentalism of the 20th century, such that the Big Greens have marketed a nomenclature to describe the new thinking. They call themselves, variously, “ecomodernists,” “post-modern greens,” “neo-greens” or, simply, the “new environmentalists,” and their goal is the implementation of “eco-pragmatism.” Their most important departure from the old environmentalism is the jettisoning of any concern about the limits to economic and population growth. If human population doubled between 1804 and 1927, and doubled again between 1927 and 1974, and almost doubled again to 7.2 billion today, with the latest forecasts projecting more than 10 billion people by 2100, the New Enviros bid us look to nanotechnology, genetically modified crops and animals, laboratory meat, industrial fish farms, hydroponics, optimized fertilizers and bio-friendly pesticides, geoengineering (mass climate modification), more efficient transportation networks, electric cars, denser cities (with more people efficiently packed in them), unconventional oil deposits, safe nuclear energy, wind and solar arrays, smart grids, advanced recycling, and much else in the techno-arsenal to keep the human species from crashing against the wall of planetary carrying capacity. “There really is no such thing as a human carrying capacity,” writes Erle Ellis, a professor of geography and environmental systems at the University of Maryland, in an op-ed in the New York Times. “We are nothing at all like bacteria in a petri dish…. Our planet’s human-carrying capacity emerges from the capabilities of our social systems and our technologies more than from any environmental limits.”

    The ideological shift in the New Environmentalism represents a historic alliance of conservation with the doctrines of industrial growth capitalism – which is to say, this can no longer be called conservation in the traditional sense. It has not arisen in a vacuum, but is the logical culmination of 30 years of corporatization of the Big Greens, as enviros starting in the 1980s degenerated into a professionalized, business-funded interest group and began to operate like the businessmen they once saw as the adversary. Consider that the president and CEO of the Nature Conservancy today, Mark Tercek, is a former managing director and partner at Goldman Sachs.

    The advent of the New Environmentalism frames a central conflict to unfold in coming years in the conservation community. What happens to wilderness in a world where it is managed for the economic benefit of the “widest number of people” and not for the health of the inhabitants of the wild? And what if, as Leon Kolankiewicz notes, large parts of wild nature are found irrelevant to “thriving economies”? Whither wilderness if industrial capitalism’s expansion is our only measure of its value? And overarching all this: What happens to human beings – psychologically, spiritually, morally – when we no longer have an escape from the confines of our technological termite hill?


    My latest in Harper’s was the cover of the February issue, a story about the plundering of the public lands of the American West by the livestock industry. Find it here. For Earth Island Journal’s Spring 2015 cover story, I spent five days backpacking in Grand Canyon National Park for an investigation into the idiocies of industrial tourism. And in Vice last May I published a piece about my First Amendment lawsuit, represented by the ACLU, against the National Park Service in protest of the government’s brutal and stupid policy of slaughtering wild bison. Apparently all the news is bad news!

    Drought, Wolves, Plagiarists, Our Eastern Forests Ruined, and the Deserts of Utah too

    I’ve been neglecting this website for more important things — like, you know, life — but readers have been complaining. Forthwith an update on my latest work. In Harper’s last April: a story of drought and the Southwest. In Vice Magazine last February: a story of infiltrating a bloodthirsty wolf-and-coyote derby in Idaho, where contestants race to kill the greatest number of wild canids in the shortest time.

    In the American Prospect in February: an investigation of the ongoing rightwing/GOP effort to deregulate and privatize the public lands of Utah.

    In Nautilus Magazine in April: a piece about what happens when there are no wolves in the woods to keep deer in check. Hint: the deer, like humans (who also have no wolves to keep them in check), ruin the ecosystem.

    Finally, in the New Republic this month, an investigation of lefty hero and author Chris Hedges, who turns out to be a serial plagiarist.

    Latest in Harper’s and the American Prospect

    My latest for Harper’s, published in the January issue, is about the normalized criminality of the banking and mortgage industry, as the plundering of the American homeowner continues apace. The American Prospect last December published a piece of mine about Occupy called “The New Populists: The Rise and Fall of Zuccotti Park.” Also in the Prospect is a piece this spring about the slaughter of wolves in Idaho.

    Reculer pour Mieux Sauter: Facebook and the Degradation of Personhood

    Behold homo sapiens lashed on the wheel of the digital social network: held frozen over a computer which is tied by a cord to a wall wherein the fiberglass cable carries the message; staring into the lit screen, the face pale in the unnatural light; or, with head bent in the street, the appearance sullen, running fingers across the blinking object of desire. The creature is secretly harried: Constant updates are necessary, the user must tend the machine whenever and wherever possible – which is all the time and everywhere – and god forbid there is too long a lapse in the slipstream. On Facebook, new friends and old are counted – may they always increase in number! Some are in fact “friends,” in the now rotting sense of the word: the person who is to be confided in, who listens, cares what to listen for, knows secrets, keeps them, knows who you are to the extent that a friend can – the friend as he or she who might look into your eyes and, with affection and even love, claim to see the windows of the soul.

    As we know, however, many Facebook “friends” bear no relation to how we want to understand the term. Perhaps known to the user at work or at school in the flesh, yet they cannot be counted as real friends. Some are strangers, known only via the interface of the machine, attracted to the user by an algorithm calculating the databit “likes” and “dislikes.”

    Let’s forget for a moment that Facebook is probably the most ingenious info-aggregator yet invented for governments to spy on citizens. Forget that the citizens are willingly doing the work for the intelligence agencies in building the database. I worry about the matter of efficiency in friendship. Facebook makes friendship efficient, in the manner of the assembly line, which is exactly what friendship should not be – if it is to remain human, if the friend as person is not to be degraded. Friendship is dirty. It’s difficult. It smells – it sometimes has bad breath. It’s unpredictable, and sometimes hazardous. The issue is about persons and about friendship defined, for if we are to take Facebook seriously, then we must recognize that the form of friendship it is promulgating will by technologic necessity reduce the nature and meaning of the friend. Personhood on the Facebook page can only go so far. It is a managed self. It is degraded personhood.

    I watched my daughter in Christmas of 2010 using Facebook. I had never seen the social network machine in action. Lea is 15, lives in a suburb of Paris with her mother, bored to tears like all suburban kids, and of course has perfected a Facebook personality. Many pictures of herself, and friends, at parties and events attended, and much else: commentary on this or that pop culture item of interest – musical acts for the most part, but also the usual amalgam of commodities sought after. I watched for a moment and then, abruptly, she shut it down, want me to see no more of the Facebook self. I wondered how many “friends” she had, but she wasn’t talking.

    A few months later, in the springtime, she was in Utah, in the town of Moab, where I used to live and where I return every few months or so to hide out and write in a cabin I rent from a friend. Moab was once a lost little place in the desert. Today it is invaded by people like me, who want to be in a lost little place and who thereby nullify each other’s desire for solitude. Lea had a Blackberry, courtesy of complaining to her mother or grandmother – I never got a straight story as to who gave her the gift – but of course it had no signal at our cabin. Disconnection today is a wondrous event; it’s almost like being punched in the face. To be shut off from the global chatter, to not have to field the unending course and scrum of digital information, to be human in the primary sense of being merely person to person – this is what cabins in Utah are now apparently made for. Lea and I sat in this informational darkness and ate big American breakfasts in the morning and lazed about in the afternoon sun and read books – she with “Lord of the Flies” – and went on hikes in the long spring light, carrying extra water but no cell phones.

    Still, the connection was sought, and we were both sad little addicts. Wherever there was wifi – at the neighbor’s house nearby the cabin, at the library in town, at the restaurants – I wanted my e-mail. And Lea looked to connect and find the latest news on Facebook. Being a hypocrite – having gathered up my own email and touched on my “friends” via the simpler (Lea would say archaic) interface – I chided her about Facebook. She didn’t laugh. This is a 15-year-old. Social connection is tragically important.

    Yet she admitted there was something not quite right in what Facebook asked of her. “Facebook is good,” she said, “but it’s weird too. You have to be constantly social,” she said. “But with people – with friends – you should also have” – she’s bilingual in French and English but here searched for the right word – “some kind of recule.” Recule meaning a stepping back, a moving away.

    “Okay, recule,” I said.

    “You’re not always there, you’re not always connected. You have your own experience. That’s what vacation is for. You’re apart. And then you come together and you talk, you know, face to face, and you tell everybody what happened on the vacation.” Weird indeed, Lea. You sound like a Luddite.

    Would that there were more like her among the adults. Not a week goes by that people who I’d otherwise consider mindful and intelligent do not fail to invite me on to Facebook. Which prompts the immediate question: Why would any mindful and intelligent person be on Facebook? I have a friend in Brooklyn, admittedly a vulgarian and not much in tune with the melodies of political correctness, who considers Facebook the province of “people standing in mirrors tarting themselves up and bullshitting and mincing around. Facebook is the biggest waste of time since television.” The man has a point. Facebook is the ideal venue of expression for a society in which narcissism, as Christopher Lasch long ago pointed out, has become the rampant personality disorder. Facebook as sociopathology, as a symptom of social disorder and disease? Perhaps.

    Back in New York City, after three months of marginal grace in the cabin, I am confronted again with the mass of my fellow humanity carrying Blackberrys, SmartPhones, i-Phones, i-Pads, i-Pods – these electroplastic appendages without which modern survival is apparently impossible. The urge is grab the things, with banzai scream, and smash them under my boot. An intolerant, and intolerable, attitude, and certainly anti-social. Still, there is something at once pitiful and repulsive – nauseating – in so many fellow human beings doing the same thing with the same electroplastic appendage hooked up to the same global network: the hand outstretched with device cupped, the eyes locked on the singular object, hooked into the Singularity. The appendage, always making some sort of rude noise demanding attention, appears to be doing the living, the leading, the looking, and the human holding it is afterthought, necessary only to point it like a divining rod to determine the next step forward. A savage dropped from the sky into the city would say it looks as if the user is servicing the machine.

    I read an essay by one Damon Darlin, a “technology editor” at the New York Times, who makes the classic argument of the technocrat, the scientific manager, that the benefits of efficiency trump whatever cost to humanness imposed by new technologies. Probably a perfectly decent person, Darlin has at the same time clearly replaced his mind with a microchip. He writes how he “learned to stop worrying by loving the Smartphone.” “For most people,” he writes, “a smartphone will change their lives and most likely for the better.” And what are these “improvements”? Poor Damon is “never lost” anymore in New York, or, presumably, anywhere that he can get a signal – the machine tells him where he is. He is “never bored” – the machine entertains him. He is “never without an answer” – the machine provides the answers. He “never forgets anything” – the machine remembers. “Google,” he writes, “begins to substitute for my memory.” He writes that the Smartphone “can help us recall events in our own lives.” The machine, says Darlin, becomes “an auxiliary memory of everything I do.”

    To never be lost or bored or forgetful or without answers is to be something less than human. That Darlin’s article was not satire, indeed was grimly serious, is an indicator of how far along we’ve come in the degradation of personhood to make the machine look useful. Yet his thinking is the gospel of the age. It is a demented vision of human life, a form of technology-induced insanity – accepted almost totally as the norm.

    Latest pieces: The Wild Coyotes of New York…Harper’s…Earth Island Journal

    Couple pieces to check out: I’ve been spending time hunting in the Bronx and Manhattan for the wild coyotes of New York City, which I write about in the latest issue of Orion magazine.  Earth Island Journal published my piece about night-hiking in the canyonlands of Utah and the disappearance of true night in America.  Also, for those who missed it, my latest piece in Harper’s is out electronically, here.

    Finally, if you use Google or its applications such as Gmail – and of course you use Google, given its monopoly control over the search engine market and much else on the Web – you’re feeding the beast with data that in turn is likely being fed to the US intelligence services, or, at the very minimum, is being catalogued and archived by a corporation whose wealth and power depends on the privatization of the informational commons created by user data.  Read about it here in my piece, co-authored with writer Travis Kelly, called “The Google Panopticon.”  So much for Google not being evil.

    Vermont Revolutionaries and the Rise of a Green Tea Party

    The most radical antiwar candidate in the US is not Dennis Kucinich or Rand or Ron Paul or any of the usual suspects. It’s a 42-year-old Vermonter named Dennis Steele, who is running for governor of his state as an open secessionist. From what I can tell, Steele is just an average dude. He wears Carhartts and a baseball cap and drives a pickup truck and lives with his wife and two kids in a little Vermont village called Kirby (pop. 500), off in the wild hills of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. On occasion, he feeds his family by hunting deer and butchering the meat himself. He served three years in the US Army — working for “the Empire,” as he puts it — and he tells me his main reason for running is that he doesn’t want his kids serving in the Army. Or any other branch of the Empire. He wants the Empire to drop dead. And he thinks the best way to start that process is by getting Vermont to secede from the union. Destroy the empire by undermining it from within. That’s the goal.

    Steele is no Tea Partyer, not a Palinite, not a Paul drone, not a liberal or a conservative, not a Democrat or a Republican, is endorsed by no official party, has no corporate donors. He’s the kind of candidate who, spending his own money and taking time out from his work and family, drives around the state crashing gubernatorial debates to which he is clearly not invited. Last April, organizers for the Democratic Party in Barre, gathered in that town’s Old Labor Hall, called the state police after Steele repeatedly shouted out from the crowd to his fellow candidates on the rostrum: “$1.5 billion dollars — our pro-rata share of a failed foreign policy — the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — what could be done with all that money right here in Vermont?” The cops grabbed him by the arms and hauled him away, amid fearful yells from the crowd that he might be tasered. He wasn’t, but instead was booked on disorderly conduct — for saying something no one among the Democrats wanted to hear.

    So much for the vaunted political tolerance in granola-eating, tree-hugging, gay-marriage-condoning Vermont.

    The liberal progressive machine that runs the state — its chief beneficiaries Senators Bernie Sanders and Patrick Leahy — tends to have a lighter view of empire. When Vermont National Guardsmen are called to arms to be killed or maimed in the wars, Sens. Sanders and Leahy are there for the send-off, the photo-ops, the patriotic gibberish and the bowing of heads. When it is proposed that squadrons of killer drones and the newest F-35 fighter jets, costing taxpayers $115 million each, are to be deployed out of the military airfields at Burlington International Airport, they’re for it. When nuclear weapons developer Sandia Corp. expresses interest in setting up operations in the state, bringing to Vermont good jobs in service of the imperial arsenal, Sanders lobbies in favor.

    Unsurprising that Steele, who views Sanders and Leahy as “collaborationist,” is shut out from the debates about the political future of Vermont. Still, he’s not so lone a voice as might be expected. His running mate, for the position of lieutenant governor, is an ex-Subaru salesman named Peter Garritano, who keeps it short and simple in his campaign statement: “I do not want my tax dollars,” says Garritano, “being used for war and killing.” Seven other secessionist candidates are contending for seats in the state legislature (these include a consultant to Oracle, a former U.S. Army lieutenant, and an executive from one of the largest solar energy companies in the Northeast). A professor emeritus of economics from Duke University, Thomas Naylor, 74, a Southerner by birth and a bombthrowing contrarian by nature, is the white-haired intellectual voice of the movement, founder of the thinktank Second Vermont Republic (the name is homage to the fact that there was a first Vermont republic, founded in 1777 as an independent nation and enduring for 14 years, until 1791). The secessionists have partnered with a successful publishing base, the Chelsea Green Publishing Company — the company’s founder, Ian Baldwin, is a raging secessionist – and they have a bi-monthly newspaper, Vermont Commons: Voices of Independence, with a circulation of 11,000, the latest issue of which features on its cover a pig attempting to fornicate with a sheep (the caption reading “Wall Street Hog Jumping Main Street Sheep”). They even have their own silver “independence coin.” And they have a surprising degree of support from the street: when last polled on the matter of secession, in 2007, 13 percent of Vermont voters were for it.

    The Vermonter secesh, particularly Thomas Naylor, have been hammering for political disunion for more than a decade — Naylor was converted, he says, when Bill Clinton in the mid-’90s completed the sale of the Democratic Party down the river to the corporatocracy. The point is: These people aren’t the playthings of the two-party game, and they’re smart enough to understand that a violent, racist empire functions today just as nicely with a dash of melanin in the Oval Office. (By contrast, as recently as last April, 80 percent of typical liberals approved of Obama.)

    Granted, we’ve all heard in recent years the secessionist jabber from the right-wing, mostly as tantrum in the wake of Obama’s election. You hear it from Glenn Beck and the 9/12ers and the Tenthers and the Oathkeepers and the neo-Confederates and even from Christian separatists, and you hear it as a kind of sepia-tone sentiment among Texans like Gov. Rick Perry and Ron Paul, who, Saran-wrapped in the Constitution, won’t dare take it beyond sentiment (the good Dr. Paul, for his part, gets re-elected year after year to continue not seceding during his service in the imperial city). No one knows where the right-wing secesh, clutching the sacred parchment, were hidden during the eight years of George W. Bush. Apparently the Patriot Act, the Military Commissions Act, the Homeland Security superstate, massive increases in federal spending and debt, warrantless wiretapping and executive secrecy, the institutionalization of torture, the erecting of our very own gulag archipelago, state-sanctioned kidnappings sweetly dubbed “rendition,” state terror unleashed overseas in the form of two illegal wars, Congress whored out more than ever to corporate America, corporations preying more than ever on Americans with the help of government — none of this was enough to inspire a rebellion against federal power. Then Obama was elected. And everything changed: The military budget for 2010 climbs to $1 trillion from $700 billion, the wars go on and on (and get expanded in Afghanistan), big government and big business are undisturbed in their marriage vows, the empire unfazed except for some inklings about money troubles. But now a Democrat was chieftain of the empire. That was simply unacceptable to visionaries like Glenn Beck. Wake up, people! Let’s secede! The upshot is that secessionism has been captured by the mindless right as a talking point on Fox News.

    What the Vermonter secesh present is something altogether more serious, a new paradigm in American politics: the rise of a left-wing populist peacenik secessionist movement, a leftism that rejects big government, that seeks not a take-over of the federal center but an end to centralized power altogether. Call it a kind of Green Tea Party, shorn of the gun fetishism, the blind rage, the know-nothingism. Or call it the thinking man’s secession, arising as a reasonable answer to the cold facts of our national impasse. What’s gone wrong with the US government, argue the Vermonters, is that it has been totally captured by the corporatocracy, corrupted to the core, a lost cause, unreformable. Its laws are written by and for the rich and the powerful, whose predatory business models — Walmart, Monsanto, Goldman Sachs et al — operate against the interests of average Vermonters. It blows Vermont’s precious tax dollars in bailing out insolvent banks and piratical financiers, bombing children in Pakistan, kidnapping and torturing foreigners, slapping military bases on every continent (over a thousand of them across 153 countries), etc. etc. ad nauseum. The Vermonter secesh see no good future for the US. Instead, the country will likely flush itself down the toilet of its own corruption and hubris — ruined by unsustainable debt, unwinnable wars, military overstretch, pathologic dependence on cheap oil.

    So what’s a proud Vermonter to do? “Rebel and say hell no,” says Dennis Steele. “The gods of the Empire are not the gods of Vermont.” Kicking the U.S. out of his state, in Steele’s view, is a matter of life, liberty, happiness for himself, his family, his community. In the short term, it’s about ending Vermont’s involvement in the wars, bringing home Vermont soldiers — who happen to suffer the highest per-capita casualty rate of any state — cutting off the tax base that helps fund the wars, ending the moral support of war that tacitly defines the continued association with the empire.

    Objectors will say that Steele and his ilk are treasonous and crazy, that secession is illegal and unconstitutional, that Vermont would shrivel and die as a free republic, that it couldn’t survive on its own. To which the secessionists answer that they’re no more crazy than the colonists who founded the United States, who asserted a natural right of revolution, and who didn’t wait for English parliamentarians and courts, the established law-givers of empire, to rubber-stamp their revolt. They just went ahead and did it and damned the consequences. The Vermonter secesh stand for a return to an aboriginal American idea: the right of revolution against unaccountable power. As Steele tells me, “Let’s always remember that the Declaration of Independence is a secessionist document.”

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