Talking Toms

Picking on Tom

We’ve used Tom McClintock quite a bit in the Prospect, often being critical. At first glance, it might seem like we’re anti-Tom, but that isn’t the case at all. We’ve said it before, Tom is no worse than most, probably better than some politicians of either party. He’s a down-home kind of guy and he spends time with his people in the district. We like that.

We use Tom because, first of all, he’s our representative, we own a little tiny piece of him, and we can pick on it if we like. Second, Tom isn’t afraid to say stuff. Like myself, he’s never really learned when to shut off the air to his larynx. As a result, he provides a lot of grist.

The term "talking head" is popularly supposed to refer to people talking on television, and by extension, to everyone who has a public role and presents themselves verbally in public. The term actually extends through television to a more ancient time, when people wanting to know something about the future would visit an oracle. If you had big bucks, you got a reading from a person who would go into a trance; the average person, though, would give some coins and chat with a stone head with a hole for a mouth. The person would ask the stone head a question, and a minimum wage worker at the temple would mutter some cryptic response into a tube which made it seem that the voice came from the head’s mouth. Hence, a talking head is something which people turn to for information, but which essentially is an inert outlet for the mutterings of someone else. It didn’t take long before it dawned on the temple administrator that useful bits of data could be inserted into the muttering, things like "visit the temple gift shop" or "the Peloponnesian war would be good for your business" or "single payer health care is socialized medicine."

In short, because of the "magic" bestowed on the talking heads by the believers, the heads were useful disseminators of misinformation.

Today, we’re far too clever to believe a head made of stone, so ours are all solid state and digital. We’re using Tom, but it could be most of the talking heads we send to Washington to spend our money.

Because it is so close to our hearts, let’s examine Tom’s take on trees and timber. The entire text is here,


What Tom says: A generation ago, we recognized the importance of proper wild lands management

Nope. Not true in any sense. The notion of "proper wild lands management" has changed many times since "a generation ago" and the only management strategies a generation ago are the ones Tom and his funders prefer: cut down trees. The manner in which the trees were selected has changed often. Tom probably likes clear cuts. It was insistence by the timber industry that the woods not be allowed to burn (only YOU can prevent forest fire, as Smokey Bear told us), that resulted in a change in the ecology of the forest. The woods used to burn frequently, species like Ponderosa Pine, Aspen, and mountain willow need frequent fires to maintain a healthy balance. The woods are in the state they are today because the trees were worth money.

What Tom says: And so we carefully groomed our public lands, removed excessive vegetation and gave timber the room it needed to grow. Surplus timber and undergrowth were sold for the benefit of our communities. Our forests prospered and our economy prospered. And forest fires were far less numerous and far less intense than we see today.

Wildly inaccurate. There was no "careful grooming" of timber lands in most instances, particularly under Republicans like Reagan and Bush, for whom the only thought for the forest was to turn it into cash. Of all the ways of viewing the natural world, none is so pernicious or damaging as the process of "commodification" or turning the wood into a "commodity". To be clear, this editor cuts down trees and mills them into lumber, and firmly believes this is a good thing to do. The key, though, is how those trees are harvested and managed. Republicans in recent history have literally been unable to see the forest for the dollars the trees represent.

Further, wild fires around the world are more intense because of something else Tom doesn’t understand very well: global climate change.

What Tom says: But that was before a radical ideology was introduced into public policy – that we should abandon our public lands to overpopulation, overgrowth, and in essence, benign neglect

There is no radical ideology in "public policy", which is a bastion of resistance to change. There are no groups advocating allowing the fuels to pile up in the forest. Earlier Tom refers to "lunatic fringe of the environmental movement". Terms like "radical ideology" and "lunatic fringe" are not informational, they are emotional terms, intended to make it seem like people who hold those views are somehow not part of society. If that were true, if they really were "fringe" Tom wouldn’t be troubled by them. Instead, Tom is fighting a steady tide of thought which holds that the forest as a functional ecology might have values beyond the dollar.

Distancing these groups is a strategy, but one which causes Tom to sound like either a liar or an idiot. The last thing any successful environmental group wants is the woods choked with undergrowth.

Tom goes on to explain that because of the idea that trees have a value beyond money, mills are shutting down and families are starving. Tom touches a little tiny bit on the truth, but can’t stick with it:

The company made it very clear in its announcement that although the economic downturn was the catalyst, the underlying cause was the fact that 2/3 of the timber they depended upon was held up by environmental litigation.

Despite the recession, they still had enough business to keep the mills open --– and to keep these families employed – if the environmental Left had not cut off the timber those mills depended upon.

The truth is, there are whole forests laying on their sides at the mills. The market is down, scarcely anyone is buying lumber. Sierra Pacific Industries, the "company," is the biggest timberland owner in the state, the company owns whole forests, a lot of them right around us. They don’t need any public timber at all, and if they really need logs, why won’t they buy from private landowners? The Forest Service just tried to sell off 8 million board feet, and no one even showed up to bid. No, the lawsuits might cut off cheap public logs, but they didn’t close the mill. Tom is just being a talking head for SPI.

What Tom says: This occurred despite the ground-breaking work of a local coalition called the Quincy Library Group that forged a model compromise between environmental, business and forest management advocates a decade ago

Yeah, we all had great hopes for the QLG. It turns out some environmental groups were left out, and the ones that remained learned to think of trees as money, too. The QLG has never really achieved what it set out to do: reconcile different views. Some believe its usefulness has passed, and even SPI, which bankrolled the group, is cutting back funding.

What Tom says: …the fire safety of scores of mountain communities is being challenged and undermined by a constant stream of litigation from groups purporting to support the environment. I say "purporting," because, as the website of one of these groups declares, their number one policy goal is to – quote – "eliminate commercial logging on all public lands in California." Their policy is not to protect the environment, but to destroy commercial enterprise.

This is a lovely quote for two reasons. First, it demonstrates that Tom just can’t get his mind around the fact that considering trees as money isn’t the best way to protect the forest. Anyone who believes trees have a value beyond money can’t be talking about the environment. Tom doesn’t explain why they want this, what rational reason they might have. He doesn’t address their rationale, or try to dispute it.

He doesn’t even want you to see it for yourself, and that’s the second point. Most likely Tom was referring to Sierra Forest Legacy. He mentions the website but doesn’t give it because he doesn’t want you to see it. It’s here: . Sierra Forest Legacy has been quite open about wanting to stop commercial logging (but not other forms of commercial harvest) on public lands.

Are the folks at Sierra Forest Legacy also talking heads? Oh, yeah. The organization exists because it pleases its funders. Chances are pretty good that if the leadership at SFL suddenly said, "hey, wait, Tom has a point here, let’s strip mine a forest" that they would lose their funders. Their recent characterization of QLG HERE uses the same kinds of emotional language as Tom does.

What SFL says: In truth, the QLG is a model for corruption, not collaboration.

Not really true. The QLG seemed like a great idea, but times change. QLG could work, particularly if SFL will work with it.

As SPI has reduced funding to QLG, maybe Sierra Forest Legacy should kick in some support. Maybe the corruption will swing the other way for awhile.

But, back to Tom, who says,

These extremists even oppose the salvaging of timber that’s already been destroyed by forest fires or disease. Think about this – trees that are already dead – cannot be salvaged because of lawsuits filed by these extremist groups. They know that if they can delay salvage for two years, the trees decay to the point that they can’t be recovered.

And they would rather let those trees rot on the ground than to be removed and salvaged to provide jobs for families and lumber for homes across America.

Think about this: dead trees are an important part of the forest. Think about this: burned over soil is very fragile and shouldn’t be disturbed. Think about this: timber companies harvest all kinds of trees in a salvage harvest, not just dead ones. Think about this: science shows that logging after a fire isn’t a great idea. But, you can only think about that if you can understand that trees have a value beyond the dollar.

Finally Tom wraps up his rousing speech, which was probably actually delivered to a nearly empty room, like this:

Mr. Speaker, the time has come for the great silent majority of Americans to rise up against the most radical elements of the environmental movement that now seem to control so much of our public policy, and to demand that we restore our public land for public use and public benefit, and that we restore the sound forest management practices that once minimized the forest fires that are now again destroying communities and taking lives

This is one last attempt to marginalize, or push to the side of society, those who don’t want trees to equal dollars. He insists that the "great silent majority of Americans" should rise, but he doesn’t begin to represent any great majority, and in fact most Americans tend toward wanting a healthy environment.

Why didn’t Tom do a better job of presenting both sides of a logical argument and critically comparing them? Chances are, because we don’t want him to.

It has been said that Obama is losing his chance to fix our screwed up health system because he "over intellectualized" the issue. That means that Obama didn’t act like a talking head, he tried to give us facts to work with. We don’t like facts, they reveal that the discussion is hard, that the problems are difficult and will take time to fix. What we want is what Tom gives us: something simple and easy to grasp, even though it creates more problems than it settles, and simply serves to divide us.

Tom is doing us a favor. He doesn’t want us to think too hard. That’s why we went to a talking head for information in the first place, instead of relying on our own wits.

Let’s remember one of the most famous prophesies of the most famous oracle, the Oracle at Delphi, who a thousand years before Christ told a famous Greek: Love of money alone will destroy Sparta.

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