It has been a typical couple weeks on Facebook in the land of leftie politics. Whether I am visiting the group for Save The Scenic Santa Ritas down in Abbey Country, or reading a post from a local food activist here in Nevada City, or perusing the many leftie slogans that litter my news feed, it is pretty much the same. People who care fervently about their causes are driving potential supporters away with their rudeness and their inaccurate and objectifying language. After ten years of covering left-wing politics as a reporter, this doesn’t surprise me. There is a reason why our frequent refrain in the newsroom was “fucking lefties!” There is a reason why it is a cliché that the left forms firing squads in a circle. But what somehow surprised me about what I’ve witnessed on Facebook these past weeks is that the people spouting their venom and lies—spouting them in the hopes of prosthelytizing —know they are venom and lies but don’t care.
First, let’s go to Abbey Country, where Arizonans have been engaged in a feisty debate for months now. A Canadian company doing business as Rosemont Copper Mine wishes to build and operate a mine in what is known as The Scenic Santa Rita Mountains. Thousands of birders, hikers, wine enthusiasts, and other tourists visit these mountains each year and strongly oppose the project. There is also a great deal of support for the mine, especially with Arizona’s unemployment rate finally catching up with the rest of the nation’s. With publication of the DEIS delayed more than once, the state has been in limbo. Now that the document has been published, public hearings are being held and there may soon be some actual movement. It’s very much the same story line as Nevada County, gold, and Emgold.
Every few weeks I visit the group page Save the Scenic Santa Ritas on Facebook. When I went there late October, I observed a conversation between two women, we’ll call them Katey and Amber. Katey was speaking passionately against the mine; I don’t know what her role is with the organization Save the Scenic Santa Ritas, but she posted with authority and obviously a great deal of knowledge. Amber popped in to the group having just been to an informational meeting sponsored by Rosemont Copper; she had follow-up questions.
As typical with Facebook, I saw the end of the conversation first, in which Amber sarcastically thanked Katey for her rudeness, since it had helped win Amber over to the side of the mine’s developers. Having been to one of those informational meetings at Rosemont, I can see how Amber’s decision might have been made easier. The spokespeople at the meetings are very nice, quite calm and yet passionate, plus they had out free beverages and chips. Treating people well is a great way to seduce them; Rosemont gets that but Katey doesn’t seem to. As I skimmed through their conversation, I was stunned by Katey’s rude tone and dismissive approach to Amber’s questions. Amber and I tried to tell her not to be so rude. “A little honey with your vinegar?” I wrote hopefully, only to also be chastised that Katey doesn’t have time for oversensitive people because it was a “fight” so she had to fight. (I regret I cannot quote Katey more specifically, because she or someone on her behalf went back and removed every single one of her comments from the conversation. I attempted to contact her to follow up, but not only her posts but apparently her profile have disappeared from Facebook.)
In the rhetorical nightmare that embodies the flaccid ineffectuality of left wing politics, Katey has hit the jackpot. Meanwhile, Rosemont Copper Mine has a new supporter. Amber is a small business owner in Tucson, so I imagine that she already has a sign up in her shop window supporting the mine. Has Katey won the “fight”? Hopefully the gorgeous Santa Ritas have wiser spokespeople in their camp—or else it will be Rosemont Copper Mine in Abbey Country. More jobs, less tourism, American copper sold to China to make more cheap shit we’ll buy at Walmart. Katey does not see that she is actually fighting for the enemy. Perhaps she’ll get a thank you card from Rosemont Copper.
(And we need to remember that Katey, Amber, or both women could be on Rosemont’s payroll. Corporations regularly hire shills to infiltrate and affect grass roots groups, and given Rosemont’s manipulative television spots, I wouldn’t be surprised. I have no evidence of this; I am merely saying it is possible. If either woman were to be on their payroll, I’m sure that the company feels its money is well spent.)
Meanwhile, in Nevada City last October, I attended a dinner-and-a-movie fundraiser for a local farm defense fund. The event was at The Willo, which impressed me, because it’s not a typical leftie venue. It’s a venerable old roadhouse famous for its steaks and affordable cocktails. And eat steaks and drink cocktails we did, before we watched the film Farmaggedon, which offers vivid evidence and video footage of the USDA raids on artisanal and organic farmers across the country. In the film, the footage of these raids is frightening to say the least. Machine guns and children in the same room, people’s yogurt, chickens, grains, sheep, confiscated before their tearful eyes. The raids are violent, the technology and firearms ratcheted up to the point of absurdity. Before the film began, a spokesman for the farm defense fund gave a speech, as is customary at such events. He said there had just been a raid in Placer County, and that soon they expected equally dramatic events in Nevada County. As we listened to him, we were all sobered by the reality that USDA tanks and guns could soon be rolling down Cement Hill Road and Highway 174. It seemed far-fetched, hyperbolic–until we saw the film.
A couple weeks later, about the end of the month, a farm activist posted on Facebook: a food swap organization shut down in eastern Nevada County, in the town of Truckee. The farm activist, let’s call her Sheila, announced the incident with screaming caps on both Facebook and email: RAID in Nevada County. I checked in on Facebook with the group who’d organized the food swap, Tahoe Slow Food, and saw that the spokeswoman for the group was already putting out that fire. “I would like to clarify,” she said, “There was no raid!” She went on to explain the relatively polite exchange between the group and the health department, and said they hoped to resolve things with further conversations. (Not as exciting as a raid, I know.) I went to Sheila and said, “Look, no raid.” Her response: “a minor difference to me. Swapping food is still illegal.”
Most people, particularly food consumers who are not activists, would see more than a minor difference between an armed USDA raid and a quiet conversation between health department officials and a slow food group. Those people, who can’t quite grock that the USDA raids are even real, will brand Sheila’s hyperbole as hysteria and say something like this: “Those left wing nuts. Talking all this shit about raids when there aren’t any. We can’t believe a word they say. Go Monsanto! Go Walmart!” Sheila joins Katey in getting a warm, fuzzy, thank-you note from her enemy. The more misinformation is out there, the less mobilized the public will be to engage in causes that are central to their lives. But, like Katey, Sheila can’t see beyond her strident view to the larger rhetorical concern.
I had been thinking about Katey and Sheila, about the frustrating reality that so many people with profound ideas about the future are marginalizing not only themselves but also the very causes they dedicate their lives to. Incidents such as the two I’ve described are as commonplace as they are polarizing. Why is this, I’ve been wondering. Meanwhile, on Facebook, I began noticing a trend developing—a trend that began about the same time the Occupy movement went viral. People began creating and sharing slogans and testimonials through photographs. One stream of these photos is dedicated to the 99%, one person at a time telling his or her story about their fall from the middle class. These, at least, have some text and explanation for why they are saying what they are saying. Less so the slogans, which encapsulate complex social dynamics into dangerously simplistic ideas. For example: “I have nothing against God, it’s his fan club I can’t stand.” These slogans seem to make people happy; I think that’s because it does feel good to have one’s philosophies and ideas wrapped nicely and placed beneath the Christmas tree for others to “ooo” and “ah” over. These slogans are as dangerous to the left as are the rash actions of Katey and Sheila. The absurd generalization that God’s “fan club” can be lumped into one demographic is insulting not to the faithful but to the intellectual capacity of the left.
It is easy to fall through the trap door into the soft, pillowy comfort of smugness. Back in 2003 when I was a reporter I remember asking Jeremy Skahill, who’d just returned from months in Iraq, how the Iraqis felt about Americans. Skahill was as nice as he could be when he told me how ridiculous my question was: “There are hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, each with his or her own opinion,” he reminded me. When we do as I tried, and attempt to reduce the complexity of a nation into a pat, sentence-long encapsulation, we oversimplify. When we oversimplify complex issues, we polarize our audience. “Where is tolerance?” a Christian I know and love wrote on Facebook. “Why are there so many posts about how evil we are?” The creator of the “fan club” slogan wasn’t picturing my friend, a hard-working, home-schooling, fair and open minded woman who happens to get strength from a different place than he does. He was objectifying her, oversimplifying the dilemma of organized religion and the harm done on its behalf, and in the process creating more hate and angst. He was, in essence, sabotaging his mission just as completely as Katey and Sheila sabotaged theirs.
Creating animosity, misinformation, and polarization are all ineffective, counterproductive ways out of the mess we are in. There are mountain ranges to be stewarded, wholesome foods to be protected, and individual choices to be honored. Only when the left begins to treat others with the respect it demands for itself can it truly help the 99% it claims to care about. Offering faux compassion to a massive body of people is meaningless; we need to care for and respect each individual that contributes to that statistic. Furthermore, we need to make a commitment as individuals to go beyond the slogans, to challenge the hyperbole, to demand honesty and integrity in our daily conversations. If we can’t do that, how do we seriously think we change an entire planet for the better?