Blowholes and Blowhards

FOR ANYONE WHO considers himself or herself an environmentalist (and that's a lot of us), the display of anti-whaling activists trying to stop the Makah hunt should be nothing less than humiliating. Countless activists over the last three decades have worked tirelessly to eradicate the stereotype of the thoughtless, privileged, racist white ideologue parachuting into the lives of working-class people who know the score better than he or she does. Now, we see where the stereotype comes from.

Ground zero in Native American politics is the issue of treaties and tribal sovereignty. Sovereignty is the paltry payment offered, at gunpoint, in exchange for US theft of tribal land. It is possible to respect tribal rights and still oppose whaling—we oppose decisions governments make all the time. But whale-hunt opponents, in appealing to US officials to stop the Makah hunt, waded mindlessly into the minefield of treaty rights, secure in the knowledge that two centuries of human history are less important than whales.

In doing so, they've made common cause with proven anti-Indian, anti-environment zealots like Jack Metcalf and Slade Gorton, and even appealed to the FBI—not exactly renowned on the res as a source of justice and fairness.

On top of this, we have morons like the Sea Shepherd Society's founder, Paul Watson, quoted in the Times as yelling at a Makah whaler that "you were born stupid, but don't have to stay that way." How enlightened. I'm no whaling fan, but weeks of these sorts of statements in the media have convinced me that Watson and friends are more than accidental racists. Their determined obliviousness to the rights of self-determination—as well as to a history of genocide, ongoing racism and poverty on the reservation, and at times their own overt bigotry—gives all environmentalists, animal rights activists, and direct-action practitioners a bad name. Sadly, that bitterness will last in Neah Bay long after they've packed up their REI boats and self-righteous white asses and gone back to the suburbs.

SPEAKING OF BLOWHOLES and blowhards . . . the biggest story of the election and its aftermath wasn't some supposed mandate for the Democrats or repudiation of Ken Starr's crotch hunt. It was that—stop me if you've heard this before—so few of us voted. Nationally, only 37 percent of those eligible cast ballots—a higher-than-expected turnout. Voters are rejecting not one party or the other, but the electoral process itself. That may be the real and lasting legacy of the alienating mess that has been the Clinton sex scandal, the Clinton haters' jihad, and the media obsession with it.

Within this not necessarily representative sampling, Democrats have been too busy crowing to notice how little changed after the election. Rick White was an anomaly; in the US House, 98.3 percent of running incumbents won. As campaigns focus more on image, less on ideas, and appeal to the plummeting share of adults who bother to vote, we are left with two parties that act as one. They use the same images, promote the same policies, and get a lot of the same money from Boeing.

What's left is elections in which the swing of a few seats here or there changes who gets to funnel corporate pork—but the policies don't change all that much. So we have the spectacle of elections as sporting events, where media focus on handicapping races and afterwards dissecting what went wrong and previewing the next race.

Repulsive as he was and is, Newt Gingrich's defrocking is no cause for joy. His forced removal as GOP leader resembles nothing so much as the firing of a coach who was supposed to win the pennant—in fact, did win the pennant in previous years—but only had an average season this time. Gingrich survived ethics probes, countless political payoffs to friends, his own odious policies, and years of being the most unpopular politician in America. He was then fired because his team didn't win big. Something's very wrong, and—it chokes me to say this—Newt got a raw deal from it.

Back home, the Democrats did well but have no reason to be secure. The seats they gained in Olympia they may well lose in 2000. Between now and then they'll have to do something new: provide leadership. This is particularly true of Gary Locke, who spent his first two years in office raising money and cutting deals with conservative Republicans. Now he must offer, and get enacted, a positive vision. We can only hope it'll be substantive.

Also in the hot seat: city officials. For years—like, for example, every year of Norm Rice's tenure—urban areas couldn't get the state funding they needed because of the hostility of rural and Republican lawmakers in Olympia. Well, Seattle Democrats now have much of Olympia's balance of power—including the governor's seat—and it's stretching credibility to believe a dealer like Paul Schell can't find a way to make common cause. Seattle's Oly delegation has basically had an accomplishment-free tenure in recent years (unless you count stadiums), masked in large part by a booming economy not of their making. It's time to start producing.

Lastly, there's I-200. "The problem of the 20th century," wrote W.E.B. DuBois, "is the problem of the color line." Conservatives didn't pass I-200; white liberals did. They knowingly abandoned affirmative action in droves. Most everybody abhors individual racism or sexism, but nobody wants to take responsibility for the nasty structural stuff. It's the same small-picture focus in racial issues that allows activists to regard whales as more important than tribal rights. Until we have ways to address structural discrimination without finger pointing and guilt mongering, demagoguery like I-200 will continue to succeed, Paul Watson will still be a hero to some, and the color line will be the problem of the 21st century, too.

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