When I was a college student, my classmates couldn’t expel a lungful of air without articulating the phrase “Spotted Owl”.
Now, granted, I was an Environmental Science major at the aggressively liberal Evergreen State College, which is situated within chainsaw-earshot of the Olympic Peninsula, epicenter of the whole “Spotted Owl” brouhaha. So it’s perhaps unsurprising that we all had Strix occidentalis on the brain. But at the time, 1992, it seemed like the Spotted Owl was a topic of conversation throughout the US, with everyone insisting that it be either assiduously protected or roasted on a spit and served with caramelized onions.
The Spotted Owl occupied the center stage of the logging debate largely because environmentalists had thrust it there. Convinced that they could never sell the public on the idea that old-growth forests were complex ecosystems worthy of protection for a multitude of environmental, economic and aesthetic reasons, they instead opted to pin their hopes on a cute, fluffy, big-eyed bird. Funny how pseudocyphellaria — an endangered lichen so unloved it lacked even a common name — never wound up on a Sierra Club leaflet.
Eventually, Spotted Owls came back to bite environmentalists in the ass (figuratively speaking only, alas). Having reduced old-growth advocacy to the well-being of a single species, environmentalists were aghast when reports began to trickle in suggesting that the owls might be able to survive in second-growth stands as well. Many of my classmates denounced such findings as scurrilous propaganda invented by a cabal of timber-company fiction writers. Naturally, these were the same people who hailed every study favoring their cause as a paragon of Pure, Unadulterated Science.
As Spotted-Owls-in-second-growth findings became more prevalent and credible, environmentalists found themselves in a tricky position. After all, if studies had shown that good old pseudocyphellaria was able to live in second-growth, no one would have given a tinker’s damn because no one had built their house of cards on a bed of lichens. But with their poster child at risk, the environmental movement found itself having to laboriously retrace its steps. Suddenly the Spotted Owl was never the point in the first place, oh no. It was just a symbol, you see, for the larger issue of saving the old growth. But by then the public considered the Spotted Owl synonymous with anti-logging activists, and may well have concluded that if the owl didn’t need the old growth then maybe the US didn’t either.
All groups fall prey to Spotted Owl Syndrome from time to time, but lefties seem especially susceptible. The Trent Lott case was a classic example. Frustrated by the Republican stranglehold on political power, Democrats and left-leaning bloggers dogpiled Lott after he uttered an ethically ambiguous accolade at Strom Thurman’s birthday bash. Rather than use the occasion as a springboard to address the many very real cases of institutionalized racism inherent in our political system, Lott’s detractors opted instead to simply hound him from office. In the end, the Republicans switched to a more charismatic and less controversial Senate Majority Whip, while the Democrats belatedly tried to focus on the “larger issue.” But like the townsfolk in Shirley Jackson’s Lottery, Capitol Hill was content to return to the status quo once the stoning was complete. Republicans came out stronger, conservatives were lauded for their strong stance against racism, and Democrats won a completely symbolic and useless “victory”.
All of which brings me to the current “uranium from Africa” hullabaloo, a debacle that has all the earmarks of a liberal self-petard-hoisting: overzealous zeroing-in on a single aspect of a complex issue — not even an aspect, really, but, as in the aforementioned Lott-ery, a specific string of words — accompanied by a great show of feigned outrage. It has long been known that the Saddam / Niger / yellowcake allegations were all but groundless, but it’s only now that the story is getting traction that the Democrats are loudly declaring themselves shocked — shocked! — to learn that the statement was deceptive.
Oh, brother. I hope the folks at the Democratic National Committee HQ aren’t high-fiving each other over keeping this story in the headlines, because, truth be told, it’s not critics of the White House that are giving this thing legs but the Keystone-Cop-esqe bumbling of the White House itself. If Bush had just ponyed up with a “Whoops!” three weeks ago, that would have been the Second-Growth Study to this issue’s Spotted Owl. Instead we’ve been treated to the last 10 minutes of a Perry Mason episode, where, one by one, various persons in the courtroom leap to their feet and announce that “no, I’m the guilty one!”
It’s no longer even a political issue, really — the embarrassing ineptitude of the administration in addressing this imbroglio has passed into the realm of entertainment, like a montage of People Falling Down clips on America’s Funniest Home Videos. Sooner or later the White House is going to figure out that the optimal strategy for Uraniumgate damage control is abbreviated STFU, at which point the issue will evaporate. Unfortunately, many of the Democratic presidential candidates have already hitched their wagons to the yellowcake star, and may find themselves floundering when it winks out of existence.
Conservatives love to refer to liberals as elitists. I wish I could vehemently object to that characterization, but in many ways I think they are right. After all, while forever accusing Republicans of pandering to the ignorant, of dumbing everything down for mass consumption, of assuming that the public can’t handle anything more complex than a soundbite, lefties blithely do the exact same thing and, worse, do it poorly. They start by assuming a nation largely populated by uneducated rubes, and conclude that they have no choice but to go all reductio ad absurdum to make their case. That’s why they tie the entire old-growth logging debate to a single critter that may or may not depend on the forests in question; that';s why they skewer the Republican’s Senate Majority Leader not because of his party’s frequent insensitivity to racial issues but because he coughed up a grammatical hairball that could be interpreted as a slur; and that’s why they are making a big to-do about a single sentence uttered by a President whose entire agenda, foreign and domestic, is a Progressive’s nightmare.
I understand that in an era of superficial media coverage, politicians must rely on symbols and shorthand to get their messages across, but Democrats seem especially prone to confusing their own metaphors with the broader issue they are supposed to represent. The uranium reference in the State of the Union address is interesting insofar as it’s symbolic of the larger campaign of deceit and distortion that was used to justify the Iraqi Invasion, and that is what the “opposition party” should be talking about. If the Democrats are truly the “Party Of The People” as they like to boast — and if they hope to recapture the White House in 2004 — they should respect the people enough to speak frankly about these matters, instead of getting investing huge amounts of time, resources and energy into oversimplifications that serve mainly to insult the public’s intelligence. Otherwise they might as well change their mascot to the Spotted Owl and call it a day.
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Update: In the comments, the estimable Dean Esmay rebuts:
As a (mostly) former Democrat, I thought I’d point out two things:
- Democrats’ record on race issues really is no better than Republicans’, on sensitivity or anything else, and
- I haven’t seen any particular “campaign of lies and distortion” from this administration–because all of the supposed “lies” and “distortions” are pretty much exactly like the silly yellowcake nonsense: things which can be explained perfectly reasonably for people who don’t start with the axiomatic, a priori assumption that the administration always lies about everything.
I’m also surprised to see anyone see a foreign policy conducted on spreading democracy and human rights to be a progressives’ nightmare, honestly. It’s actually a terribly progressive agenda. That’s the funniest part: lots of people are starting to notice that there’s very little that’s really particularly “conservative” in the current administration’s agenda. Which probably explains in large part why self-described progressives are having such a hard time getting traction on any issue against this administration.
Here’s something to consider some time, just as a possibility:
- Maybe we really did kill and hurt fewer Iraqis with our invasion than leaving Saddam in place would have hurt and killed.
- Maybe we really are going to let them do with their own oil as they choose.
- Maybe we really are going about spreading democracy and human rights in the region.
Consider that as just a simple possibility. That all the negative spinning about it has been just that: negative spin.
If you can make yourself consider that, and consider it seriously, I’d say you’re a real liberal. If you can’t, if your instant reaction is to scoff, then perhaps you aren’t a liberal at all, but are merely a reactionary.
That’s what I’d say, anyway.