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Excerpt from The Culture of Make Believe

Richard McNamara (p. 392)

From chapter "Competition"

The second example of worrying about what those in power will think hits closer to home. One of the ranchers I mentioned from the Fish and Game meeting has recently been writing lots of letters to the editor on a range of antienvironmental topics. His name is Richard McNamara. One of his recent kicks has been to prevent local schools from having activities associated with Earth Day. He trots out the arguments against Earth Day we’ve all heard before (no, silly, not the ones about how Earth Day is a corporate greenwash, and an opportunity for us all to feel good about ourselves as the planet burns: He trots out the other arguments): Earth Day is pagan, and thus anti-Christian, and thus anti-American; Earth Day is a holy day for the religion of Deep Ecology (I’m not making this up), and thus needs to be eliminated because of the separation of church and state; all Earth Day activities must be based on solid science, and have verifiable results (whatever that means). He brought out a new reason, too, one that surprised me: Earth Day is a celebration of Stalin’s birthday, he said. Never mind that Earth Day is April 22, and Stalin was born December 21. I think he meant Lenin, who, it ends up, was born on the twenty-second, but if you’ve seen one commie, you’ve seen them all. Just for the record, Earth Day is April 22 because it’s John Muir’s birthday, but now that I think about it, he might have been a little pink, too, or, as they say, a watermelon: green on the out side, but red through and through. All of this I found more strange than worthy of response, even though the school board took his request under a somewhat confused advisement—confused because the district as a whole already doesn’t sponsor any Earth Day events, nor do most teachers—and ended up appointing McNamara to an environmental studies committee of the school board, which he promptly renamed “outdoor studies.” But then, perhaps acting out that need to reveal while concealing, McNamara crossed a line that let me know I needed to respond. In letters to the editor about the controversy at Lake Earl he compared government attempts to purchase land to which he holds title to the theft of Indian lands. Karen (the activist, not the hairdresser) and I got together to write a letter commenting on the irony of this, especially considering that McNamara’s name sake forefather was an organizer of the Yontocket massacre. After laying out the history, we wrote, “We suppose McNamara may say this is ancient history. But while he didn’t fire the gun, he benefits directly from the bullets, from the crimes. It is on these crimes that the fortunes of many of this county’s finest are based. It’s ludicrous for McNamara to compare the supposed ‘taking’ of ‘his’ land to taking land from indigenous people. For McNamara’s comparison to be accurate, he would have to have been pulled from his church and murdered. His son would have to have been thrown into a fire. His wife would have to have been killed or forced into prostitution, as many whites did to the original inhabitants of California. Everything he holds sacred would have been destroyed.”

We concluded, “It is inexcusably arrogant for McNamara to call the land here his own, when first, his title to land is based on murder and theft, and second, the ‘pioneer families’ who are so proud of calling this land theirs have only been here for four or five generations. That’s a pittance compared to the two hundred generations or more that the Tolowa have called this their home, during which they learned how to live with what the land gives willingly. In order for the debate over Lake Earl, or over any land-use questions in this county, to be grounded in any sort of reality that makes sense, we must use as our starting point the fact that all of us who are not descendants of the original people of this land cannot lay claim to it as our own. We need to remember that we are all walking on stolen ground.”

Early on the morning the letter was printed, my phone rang. A male voice demanded: “Did you write the letter in today’s paper?”

Not wanting to be cursed before breakfast, I countered, “Who’s this?”

He asked again, and so did I. We continued the dance until I flinched, then prepared myself for the blast. But he said, “My mother was born here, and so was I. I’ve been waiting all that time for some one to say this out loud. I just want to thank you.”

I thanked him.

He said, “When I was a child I used to fantasize that if I’d been here a couple of generations earlier I would have run guns to the Indians.” He rang off.

Also, that day, Karen said a man approached her in a gas station parking lot and gave her a high five. One of her friends at the tribe said someone was copying the letter, posting it on bulletin boards, and handing it to all the people she talked to. But here’s the point: Although many environmentalists were strongly in favor of the letter and were happy it was published, it disappointed many others, made some nervous, and even angered some. The reason they gave for their disappointment or anger was pragmatic: McNamara’s planning a clear-cut next to the lake, and some environmentalists are attempting to purchase this land. “You’ll just piss him off,” they said. “Now he’ll never sell to us.” Tactically, they may be right. But I doubt it, and, in any case, it’s the same old story of appeasement (can you say Munich Pact?): We need to let those in power, even when they’re manifestly unreasonable, determine the terms of the debate. Why did it take so long for someone to state the obvious, that McNamara (and, in fact, each of us whites) is living on stolen property? And once stated, why are so many so quick to step away?

Part of the reason, I think, is that nobody likes to be hated. It’s not fun to be disliked (just as I’m sure the same is true, from McNamara’s perspective, but the truth is that whether we talk about it or not, his fortune is based on murder and theft), and if you tell people that what they’re doing is wrong and exploitative, they’re probably not going to like you. If you’re able to put a dent in their ability to exploit, they’re probably, as I mentioned earlier, going to hate you. And if you make a big enough dent, they’re going to kill you.