Of Owls And Uranium

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.

* * * * *

Update: In the comments, the estimable Dean Esmay rebuts:

As a (mostly) former Democrat, I thought I’d point out two things:
  1. Democrats’ record on race issues really is no better than Republicans’, on sensitivity or anything else, and
  2. 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:

  1. Maybe we really did kill and hurt fewer Iraqis with our invasion than leaving Saddam in place would have hurt and killed.
  2. Maybe we really are going to let them do with their own oil as they choose.
  3. 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.

* * *

36 comments.

  1. Apparenly I am not taking the whole week off after all.

  2. I read this long entry, expecting to find something funny, or rather comical about it. Then when I reached the end, I only found that I had wasted a good 2 or 3 minutes reading nothing but the fowl stench of wasted brain space that I used reading this blog.

    Thank you

  3. I’m not enitrely sure, but I think that last commment was a negative review. If that is correct, I would reply simply by saying that I read DY for the variety, and quite enjoy the mix of humor, insight, and thought inspiring entries that give me a sense that Matt isn’t just trying to make us laugh, but is actually giving us a snapshot look into what’s going on in that head of his.

  4. I think you meant “Capitol Hill”

  5. I was reading your posts randomly, cuz I got a link from Weeble and Bob. (I love the pirate keyboard.) I didn’t want to comment on the parts that I read, because they were very old, and you wouldn’t have seen them.

    I very much enjoy your movie reviews. You seem to have the same opinions as me, with the movies that I’ve seen, at least. I’ll have to keep coming back here, cuz Leanard Maltin just doesn’t cut it sometimes.

    I take it you live in the states because you referred to the Harry Potter movie as ‘the sorcerer’s stone’. Man, you should read the uk/canadian versions of the books. (if you can get them from your library…) They change the books/movies cuz they figure Americans are too dumb to understand British slang/vocabulary. Plus, the canadian/uk version of the 5th book is printed on recycled paper, and Rowling wrote a little message to us on it saying how forests are magical… Aren’t WE special!

    that’s a long reply.

  6. Dear Nathan,

    You think this blog exists for your dyspeptic entertainment?

    You think funny people should not have opinions?

    You think you are entitled to specify that this weblog does not engage with the world?

    Phooey!

  7. Wonderful post. I’m even passing this along to my ultra-conservating father. Amusing, well written, intelligent, and most of all – painfully accurate.

  8. David, don’t be peckish with Nathan, it will only egg him on. Wren someone has a different opinion you shouldn’t get soar. Remember, different strokes for different yolks.

  9. Goodness. Back with a vengeance, I see. And I agree wholeheartedly.

    It’s a good day for unintentional jokes, with Nathan noting a fowl stench emanating from the spotted owl debate, and Matthew ‘vehemously’ siding temporarily with the followers of Bush.

  10. Ahem: I see Lora’s pointed all that out a wee bit more subtly.
    I’m like that kid who, while everyone else has already been snickering since class began, announces in a loud whisper that it’s pretty funny that the teacher’s zipper is down.

  11. Wow! I had assumed Matthew was only doing this blog lark for laughs, and then he goes and writes this post – I thought it was brilliant!

    I agree entirely with his comments, and can’t help but note how applicable they are to Tony Blair and our current Government (I didn’t vote for them!)

  12. in a world where we celebrate someone who got captured, shot, and rescued as a hero. while we all but ignore the people who risked their lives to rescue her, it is refreshing to see someone who can take an interesting view or stance on an issue.
    i completely agree with the message of the article and am rather dishearted by the current state of the democratic party (you know they’re in trouble when their number of pres candidates rivals their senate seats ;) )
    and i must applaud you for using the macrocosm of the spotted owl to show the much larger issue.
    kudos to you

  13. Risked their lives? What, like some hospital intern was going to shoot them or something?

  14. As someone who has tried wholeheartedly to get back into politics but has become completely embittered by the Dems resorting to reactionary tactics instead of being pro or even ag-gressive in anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed this post.
    But I must admit that what I enjoyed most was your casual use of what must be the greatest contemporary proverbs I have ever read:
    “don’t build your house of cards on a bed of lichen”
    and
    “don’t hitch your wagon to the yellowcake star”
    Years from now, lifetime Sierra Club members will be repeating these to their grandkids.
    Way to contribute to the collective unconscious, Matthew!!

  15. As a former Republican, I must say that it’s commentary like Matthew’s that help me understand and welcome views outside the ones I was brought up with and have held onto until recently. Thanks.

  16. heheh now i have “spotted Uranium” on the brain.. i had a mental image of one of those animal planet specials on this cute but misunderstood Element, right down to the “money shot” photo with a big element with plate sized sad eyes

  17. As an ex-political journalist, sick of the whole bunch of lying bastards, I remember the entire Republican presidential campaign of 1988 centred on a simplification (“Willie Horton”).
    The case against Bill Clinton was a little more complex than Monica Lewinsky + Whitewater too…

  18. I can’t tell from a lot of these comments whether the folks agree or disagree with your post – even the comments that refer to it. Philip’s comment about “Willie Horton” would seem to contradict what you are saying – that Poppy was able to beat Dukakis with a single, simple issue.

    I go back and forth on your point. I want to be libertarian when it comes to people and the media – I want to believe that people are smarter than most give them credit for being. But when I hear that over 40% of Americans believe that there were Iraqis on the 9/11 airplanes I start to freak out a bit.

    Was it Roger Ailes’ (the good one) blog that had the headline – “New Poll Demonstrates Most Americans are Morons?” He was referring to a recent poll which showed a huge number of people thought WMDs had already been found. So I don’t know – sometimes I have to wonder just how washed or unwashed the great American public really is.

    Certainly the danger of Spotted Owl syndrome exists and the “16 words” has plenty of potential.

    I recently got an email from the DNC crying about the RNC’s tactics to fight a DNC funded tv commercial about Bush’s 16 word SOTU lie. Here’s the thing – not only does the commercial obsess over the 16 words – but it weasels the issue by carefully omitting a couple of those 16 words making the statement much more direct than it actually was. (They leave out the “British intelligence has learned…” words and go right into the quote from that point.)

    This only served to give the repugs a clear opening for attacking the ad, calling its honesty into question, and quickly dismissing it.

    Sad. And a waste of time and resources. Because you don’t have to embellish or play games with these guys – just tell the truth. That’s all it should take to beat them.

    Great post though – keep blogging whatever comes to mind…thekeez

  19. Politicians speaking frankly? It will never happen. Look what happened to Paul Tsongas. Brain tumor or no, that “I’m not Santa Claus” line cost him everything.

    Great post, Matthew.

  20. Wow, take a few days off and look what happens!
    Now lets finish the story in each example you laid out.

    After Clinton’s “Timber Summit” over the spotted owl and the Northwest Forest Plan that was implemented, the Pacific Northwest saw a dramatic increase in loss of old growth forests. That’s because all the folks who owned large tracts of old growth liquidated them (read clearcut) before the new laws locked up their lands. Not good for Spotted owls or Buxbaumia Aphylla (bug on a stick)

    When the Dems jumped all over Trent Lott the effect was removing the stodgy southern white guy that was the face of the Republican senate and replacing him with a young southern heart surgeon who goes to Africa every year to treat aids patients and stops on the side of the road to give CPR to small children in traffic accidents white guy who will be the face of the Republican senate for years to come.

    And what will be the outcome of Yellowcakegate? Howard Dean will be the democratic candidate in the 2004 elections.

  21. I believe “Build Your House of Cards on a Bed of Lichens” was a rejected Bon Jovi track from the sessions for 1992’s “Keep the Faith”. It was a fifteen-minute power ballad rock epic that critics called “a masterful mix of Meatloaf, Jethro Tull, and Alabama. And Dokken”. Inspired by Robert Altman’s free-form Western “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” it’s a tale of a pioneer who tries to found a gambling empire in an old-growth forest in the Pacific Northwest.

  22. matt, nice one. i wasn’t expecting this from you when i did my daily DY blog check but i must say your analysis seems painfully accurate. as a democrat & so called liberal i feel like i’m watching my political groups fall apart and turn into a zombiefied left wing, version of the christian right winger automatons. its amazing. its like if you criticize a fellow liberal or maybe point out that pacific radio is largely full of crackpots spouting the same, yet different, misinformation other outlets are providing they think you’ve turned against them. it like invasion of the body snatchers or something.

  23. As a (mostly) former Democrat, I thought I’d point out two things:

    1) Democrats’ record on race issues really is no better than Republicans’, on sensitivity or anything else, and

    2) 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:

    1) Maybe we really did kill and hurt fewer Iraqis with our invasion than Saddam.

    2) Maybe we really are going to let them do with their own oil as they choose.

    3) 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.

  24. Er, that should have said above:

    1) Maybe we really did kill and hurt fewer Iraqis with our invasion than leaving Saddam in place would have hurt and killed.

    Sorry. :-P

  25. Go, Dean! As another (almost) former Democrat, I couldn’t have said this better.

  26. Interesting, well-written, and several good points. However, the idea that anyone “should respect the people enough to speak frankly about these matters” went out the window long ago. From what I have seen, “speaking frankly” about doubts about the war has gotten people marginalized, jeered at, and accused of being traitors.

  27. Nothing like mentioning politics to get folks riled up. ;-) As to “Beerzie Boy”‘s statement about anyone who “respects the people enough to speak frankly about these matters” going out the window a long time ago, allow me to suggest you check out Govenor Howard Dean, one of the current Democratic candidates for the 2004 election.

    His position papers can be found at:

    http://www.deanforamerica.com/site/PageServer?pagename=policy_home

    But of more interest would be his speeches. He is the only candidate I have seen who does eschew “soundbite politics” and does respect the people enough to talk frankly about matters of import.

    *shrug*

    Just a suggestion if that is the kind of canddiate you are looking for.

  28. Matt, well spoken and insightful. I can’t help but disagree with some aspects though:

    “A fool believes a politician. An idiot believe a politican after it’s proven he’s lied.”

    As you stated, it’s more of the bubling, finger-pointing that has fed the media frenzy then anything else. But shouldn’t there be some type of whistle to pull on the continued deceptions of the White House? I would like to say that Uraniumgate is the fatal flaw in Bush’s political glass house, but it goes beyond that. WHERE are the weapons of mass destruction we went to war over? WHERE are the Al Quida links that we stormed a nation even it’s formerly-invaded enemies (Iran and Kuwait) considered a minor threat.

    Don’t get me wrong. Even Clinton spoke about getting rid of Hussein and a regime change Iraq, but Bush did it. And I’m not sure if that’s something to be praised. I would rather see Hussein back in power, knowing we COULD destory his country and powerbase, then see more Americans die for an as-yet unsubstanciated war.

    I can praise our soldier for thier bravery and sacrifice while hating the government for putting them there. I’m all for pinning medals on these heros, and I don’t use that term lightly, but let’s not forget we have an all volunteer armed forces. These people CHOSE to follow this route. This is their JOB. I won’t get a medal for staring down a drug addict holding up a 7-11.

    Should the Democrats pin thier hope on one part of this smudge on American politics? No, they should focus on how little of Bush’s promises have come true. No WMDs. No proof of a continued nuclear weapons program since the last war. A weaker economy, and more money being siphoned off daily by this continued conflict. Worse yet, in my eyes, he tackles a beaten bully in Iraq and ignores the gun-nuts in North Korea.

    You are correct that the Republicans like to get the sound bite. Boil down the topic. Give you the bare basics. Whatever you want to spin it as they want to dumb it down, where the Dems have consistantly been reluctant to do that. And again you’re right when you say that when they DO try thier hand at it they end up doing it poorly. It’s not the banking on the yello-cake uranium that will lose the Democrat’s face, it will be the complete lack of any charismatic leadership. At least with the Republicans you’re pulled into believing what they want you to believe. The Democrats just don’t have that pull.

    Now let’s not forget that the Republican’s were equally one-topic oriented. Clinton had inpeachment proceedings because he lied about a blowjob. The Reps locked in on this lie and proceeded to pull out the cat-o-nine-tails to have at this deceased equine. Or that they wanted to look at White Water with a microscope. Now Clinton will go down with Nixon as one of the most criminal presidents in history. A sorry disregard of his economic policies that raised us out of the mire that was the Reaganomics of the 80s and early 90s, and his dealing with world-changing events like the fall of Communism and the growth of Democracy in Eastern Europe. Something could be said for his hands-off approach to the Balkans problem. At least then we weren’t compelled to step in when every other nation was having rebel problems. Now we’re going into Liberia. Next we’ll invade Syria for helping Saddam, then we’ll intervene in the Phillipines because they’re havign rebel problems too. We may be the only military superpower left, but our military is not, and should not be, a world policing-organization. Other countries already hate us for telling them how to live thier lives with our down your throat homogenised American culture. How much more will they hate us once out troops are in thier cities?

    Thoughts to think on.

  29. > Here’s something to consider some time, just as a possibility:
    > 1) Maybe we really did kill and hurt fewer Iraqis with our invasion than Saddam.
    > 2) Maybe we really are going to let them do with their own oil as they choose.
    > 3) Maybe we really are going about spreading democracy and human rights in the region.
    > Consider that as just a simple possibility.

    Considered and rejected. What this comes down to is exactly what the Bush administration is trying to spin: The Ends Justify The Means. Are you really going to tell me that Bush et al pushed us into Iraq to satisfy a Mr.-Spock-esque “the needs of the many” philosophy? A quick look at North Korea and Liberia would suggest otherwise. Even if altruism was A justification for war, it wasn’t anywhere near THE justification. If you’ll remember, THE justification was Clear and Present Danger which manifested as ready-to-launch WsMD, the non-existent Iraq/Al Queda connection, and yes: recent African uranium purchases.

    I disagree with you, Matt; I don’t think those 16 words are just a “single sentence” in the scheme of things. Those words are an insight into a person and a presidency, just like “I am not a crook” and “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is” were. Nixon was willing to flat out lie. Clinton could never stop thinking/talking like a lawyer. And Bush II will use purposefully misleading statements – in the State of the Union Address – if they achieve a desired end.

  30. I was about to launch into an attack of Dean Esmay’s “insights” but I see I’ve been beat to it. (Ably done!)
    Make no mistake: The U.S. occupation of Iraq was done to control oil and make people forget about Osama — you know, that guy who ACTUALLY attacked out country.

  31. While the spotted owl tact may have proved dubious, it worked in the long run. Candidates cannot get elected without at least giving lip service to environmental concerns. The dubious claim from a position of authority worked in the long run.

    Environmentalists couldn’t explain why environmental protections were good without some sort of fuzzy and adorable hook, but, “Democrats … should respect the people enough to speak frankly about these matters, instead of getting investing [sic] huge amounts of time … into oversimplifications…”

    So, those seeking to explain things should do it without a) making outragous and dubious claims from a position of authority or b) some sort of accessible hook. Yes, you’ve found the perfect formula for being completely ignored.

    If you want frank talk about serious matters, the last person to turn to is a politician.

  32. Re Mindar’s comment:

    Clinton was NOT impeached because he lied about a blow job. Clinton was impeached because he deliberately lied under oath, and as a LAWYER and our COMMANDER IN CHIEF it doesn’t MATTER what he lied about under oath, and he should have known better. If he’d just come out and said, “yeah, I’m no Boy Scout, and I’m sorry, and I’d like to keep my private life between me and Hill, in the future,” then probably we would have all forgiven him and moved on.

    This does not mean that Bush is any better. If ANY president lies to the people he or she should be dealt with accordingly.

    I wish everyone would just get over this Clinton thing and get on with their lives. Please??

  33. Can you go back to being funny?

  34. Judging from the REO Speedwagon post, the answer appears to be “no”.

  35. You know, Im a 20 year old male in the Air Force, and not really*allowed* a political opinion, i follow what my commander in cheif tells me to do. But i find your article refreshing and sincere, and quite frankly, just damn good. So thank you for making me think about things, instead of just fllowing the lines.

  36. Laurie: you are pretty naive if you believe Clinton was impeached for lying about anything. He was impeached because the right-wing activists who had taken control of Congress couldn’t stand him, personally or politically. End of story.

    The whole Monica thing was a transparent trumped-up excuse. Fifty-odd million dollars of taxpayer money were spent digging up dirt about Clinton. If you dug up dirt about all forty-three Presidents of the United States, and then lined them up against a wall and asked them about intimate details of their personal lives, under oath, every last one of them would lie about something. Would the American people have been better served if Congress had subjected every sitting President to such a trial? Wake up!

    Clinton’s lie is totally different, in both degree and kind, from standing before Congress and lying about the gravest decision that a nation can make — the decision to go to war. The two are not comparable; they aren’t even in the same ballpark; they aren’t even the same sport.