After another week of flak
If for some reason, one finds oneself trying to look at things while standing somewhere in
grass roots, one of the first problems met is smoke generation. Part of learning the lay of
the land involves locating the local, regional, state and national smoke generators operating
near the grass roots one stands in. In other words, what flak, generated by whom, is smogging
local communications with propaganda for whose profit?
Public relations, as it is called, is among our newest professions. Related, and somewhat
newer, are our "environmental consulting firms," known in some circles as "bio-stitutes,"
because they sell their science for fees. If the grass roots in which one stands are
withering, there are biostitutes ready and willing to declare with scientific authority that
the withering is only in the eyes of someone who happens to be standing in grass roots in
the path of development.
One of the worst examples of smoke generation, combining science and PR, is promotion of
genetically engineered seed, crops with patented gene modifications in their seeds whose
pollen spreads the modified genes around the surrounding countryside. The GMO corporations
seem to be companies run almost entirely by their PR departments, with a few scientists in
the lab shotgunning strands of DNA with foreign genes to "see what sticks." Of course,
any farmer knows who ever asked any pesticide salesman why any pesticide worked, only to
receive the answer, "We don't know but it sure kills bugs," there is virtually no
environmental or even agricultural concern involved in the "corporate culture" of the giant
pesticide companies now producing GE seed.
If one's grass roots are in the San Joaquin Valley, the mental smog comes from a variety of
smoke generating equipment, some of it old, some of it new. Pesticide and fertilizer
companies have been promoting their ever-changing products and extracting their profits from
the Valley for decades. Farmers have come and gone, the entire scale and crop mix of Valley
agriculture has changed, but the pesticide (now GE-seed) corporations go on, immortal,
fictional persons that they are. Sometimes it takes a word from afar, even from as far as the
North Dakota wheat deal, to remind us that seed is life, corporations are just pieces of
paper. Some of the commodities -- dairy, cotton, rice, poultry, some fruits -- are old and
possess venerable smoke machines. An odd, and oddly unacknowledged aspect of our economic
system is that although the PR of its biggest winners has never failed to preach the holy
mystery of the market and competition, while doing everything they can to control their own
markets and protect their own government subsidies. The current one-party, far-rightwing
House of Representatives is a psychotic case in point. Taking big telecommunications' firms
money, they vote against enshrining in law the principle of neutrality on the Internet,
proving again the old political adage the the only truly free market in America is Congress,
where everyone is for sale. They call that being conservative and even godly when in fact it
is just religiously sanctified graft.
The grass rooter may take the privilege of remaining skeptical about the economic benefits of
market control and subsidies on certain agricultural commodities. Likewise, he may take a
skeptical position on various governmental strategies to keep land in agricultural production
rather than letting it go to the developer's blade. California's Williamson Act and
Agricultural Preserve laws, which provide a property tax subvention to farmers and ranchers,
has probably been the best law for preserving agriculture in the state -- not that it has not
and cannot be perverted by developers planting large, newly acquired parcels in crops of
convenience (grapes and almonds are popular) waiting for the right time to build the next
subdivision. Meanwhile, of course, this business strategy add to the supply of the commodity
they are growing, lowering the price for everyone else trying to make a living growing that
There is the additional strife among generations in farming families that works its mischief. Families get tired of the struggle to make a living with each other on farms. Selling is a good way of settling up. It's an amazing thing to the urban supporters of agriculture, but farmers do not always love their farms. Another factor is the low social status of farmers, which can be attributed more to the eyes of those who hold themselves above farmers than to farmers themselves, although farmers play status games among each other, too. For a number of reasons, farmers in the Valley seem more conventional than farmers on the coast, for example, although this is a more recent phenomenon than it appears. Valley history is full of stories of colorful, inventive, incredibly creative farmers. The chances are they are still out there, but for some reason, they are not as visible as they once were to the public.
In a place where rapid urban development is occurring, farm commodity groups develop forms of
thinking that would be better taken to a competent psychiatrist for examination and reflection than taken to the public as policy. The skeptical grass rooter can entertain the idea that farm commodities in the US are in a longterm crisis caused by input prices ratcheting ever upward while commodity prices continue their languid wave-like motion in the middle of the graph. Sooner or later, commodity by commodity, despite whatever help the government can and does provide, that rising line bisecting the price graph from lower right
corner to upper left corner cuts through the wave-like motion of commodity prices. Once it cuts through the surface, the gap grows over time. During price troughs farmers are forced out of the commodity; and during peak prices they pay off their mortgage and wait for another price fall. If the commodity is heavily subsidized, it only awaits a new chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture like Rep. RichPAC Pombo, Buffalo Slayer-Tracy, for the axe. Although Pombo has not yet been named chair of the agriculture committee, it seems that is the plan if the wind-power consultant doesn't beat him after McCloskey placed a few
bandilleras and picks in his neck in the primary.
RichPAC, the political strong arm of a San Joaquin County clan of ranch realtors, knows exactly what to do when agricultural inputs rise too far above agricultural prices: sell the land to the developer and import the fruits and vegetables from some other country. It is a popular, practical approach to any agricultural crisis, at least in California, assuming no way for agriculture to evolve out of its crisis. The farmer is caught between the prospects for his commodity and the Pombo approach. This leads to hysterical contradictions in the public utterance from farm groups, as land ownership becomes more important than agricultural production in their family budgets. HBO could do a comedy series on it.
A minor form of flak that occurs within agriculture is the condemnation of farming by organic gardeners or truck farmers. The conventional, commercial farmers get it from all sides. Yet, one of the things they say that rings true is that it is not a good idea for the United States to become food importers just to pave over good farmland for subdivisions.
Development flak is funded by a consortium of interests -- construction unions, building contractors, aggregate mining firms, engineering firms, hordes of consultants serving all development's needs, developers themselves, and the manifold branches of their financial investors. These are largely statewide, national and even international operations, and the larger ones all have flak departments or consultants, ready for a fee on instant notice to flood a promising real estate market in the midst of a speculative housing boom with
flak-to-order for the issue at hand (Measure A in Merced County, for example).
It is when we get to the propaganda of large landowners that the smoke generator is hard to see from the grass roots. However, keeping with a skeptical view, it is possible that the landowning interest is so entrenched in local government it virtually needs no lobby or propaganda, at least to persuade the land-use authorities. The Merced County Board of Supervisors, for example, seems to possess a comfortable quorum of ranch and farm owners whose properties are not far from the path of urban growth, and the chairman of the county Planning Commission is one of the largest land-owning developers on the west side of the county. Some might consider this connection to sizeable tracts of private property -- in view of the de facto pro-growth policies of the board -- to represent what used to be called in a more democratic era "a conflict of interest." But we don't live in a very democratic era, there is a huge amount of money flowing into Merced County in real estate speculation, possibly even a larger amount of money is flowing out of the county, and it is definitely not polite in governing circles to mention the "C-word."
Yet, there are still other forms of flak billowing up in the Valley. There are the "public information" operations emanating out of state and federal bureaucracies like the regional boards for air and water quality and the federal Bureau of Reclamation. Air and water quality in the Valley is deteriorating. The water board recently announced a huge coup: it levied a multi-million-dollar fine against Hilmar Cheese for ruining water quality in its area. Then the water board permitted Hilmar Cheese to sink deep injection wells to pump its waste deep below the surface. The state air board is limited to stationary sources of pollution. The grass rooter looks at this regulatory truncation and speculates that it must be the result of a high level of special interest investment in the free market of politicians, because it certainly doesn't make any sense in terms of the common good or the Public Trust. The federal BOR, which controls federal water projects, has agendas utterly beyond the comprehension of mere mortal grass rooters. Why the BOR produced so much propaganda against the US Fish and Wildlife Service's discovery of the damage done to wildlife at the Kesterson preserve as the result of subterranean drainage of heavy metals from west side farms is still difficult, 20 years later, to understand from a grass roots perspective. Does the BOR just hate birds or fetuses in general? Does the BOR take a pro-cancer position? Can wildlife biology and the BOR exist on the same planet? The mild-mannered Valley grass rooter shudders to think what went on in the free market of congressmen when biological whistles started tooting at Kesterson.
There is also the flak produced by the water districts and irrigation districts, these public agencies that behave so often like private corporations and over whom there is so little real public oversight. They all have marvelously glossy brochures, pamphlets and magnificently jargoned, lengthy reports that could put a grass rooter to sleep before finishing reading the executive summary. There is no subject in California history over which there has been more political conflict (not to mention the gun battles) than water. As a result, water propaganda represents perhaps the most opaque, obscure, slithery official jargon in the state.
Reading California water policy documents conjures up the image of what happens to the San Joaquin River halfway across Fresno County, where it disappears below the sands of the river bed for 40 miles. There has always been too much missing to make sense of it. And when the San Joaquin resurfaces, it meanders northward beside two canals flowing south.
Nevertheless, it is extremely gratifying that so many earnest people, connected to the real sources of information about issues vital to our region are willing -- at other peoples' expense -- to do our thinking for us. It is so gratifying, actually, that it seems as if some people have forgotten how to think without the aid of flak, contenting themselves with parroting the last opinion to which they were exposed.
In our area there is also University of California flak, in a class by itself. First, UC appears to believe that it invented and hold patents (no doubt in fruitful win-win, public-private partnerships) on the truth. Secondly, as manager of two national laboratories of weapons of mass destruction, whatever it says and does not say
carries with it the authority of National Security. For both reasons, UC is very certain what people should know and what they should not know about UC. UC flak is the most impenetrable obstacle to comprehension in the local flak environment because it constantly changes its story depending on what it thinks simple peasants need to know. UC flak games with history -- its own or anything it thinks it ought to control -- are among the most bizarre in the flak industry. The intent appears to be to completely deny the existence of history, at least any other version of it but the current line promoted by the UC flak-du jour, for whatever
the advantage of the moment it is for UC. Perhaps in the highest echelons of UC, they actually believe history is over. Another view might be, however, that as it develops a new generation of nuclear weapons, it simply believes history is UC.
Finally, there is the effortless repetition of flak in the local press.
Measure A: Road fixes to take longer...Leslie Albrecht
While the county can charge developers impact fees to cover the cost of new residents' impact
on roads, those fees can only pay for projects related to new growth, not maintenance
projects like reconstructing Livingston's Main Street.
... because, obviously new residents in Livingston won't be using Main Street like old
This is an example, taken from an article that is supposed to achieve a professional journalistic "objectivity" about Measure A, which recently failed. Instead, it is mindless regurgitation of developer flak, the main purpose of which is to disguise by any and all means available the fact that development doesn't pay for itself. In the speculative real estate boom Merced County is now experiencing, two things that under no circumstances can be said by public officials or local media organs are: a boom busts; and development doesn't pay for itself.
UC names committee to look for new chancellor of Merced Campus...Corinne Reilly
http://www.mercedsunstar.com/local/story/12295105p-13030135c.html June 9, 2006
UC President Robert Dynes has named a 14-member search committee that will advise him in
selecting the successor to UC Merced founding Chancellor Carol Tomlinson-Keasey, who is set
to leave the university's top seat Aug. 31. Three UC Merced faculty members, two UC Merced
students and four UC regents are among the committee members, who are scheduled to meet for
the first time at the university later this month ...
The article continues on its gagged path, announcing that a "diverse" committee including one
representative from the Merced community, will choose the new chancellor. The local representative is none other than Bob "Mr. UC Merced" Carpenter, who has never represented anything but local business -- mainly real estate -- interests from the beginning of the first committee he set up to lure UC to Merced to induce the present speculative development boom.
But, of course, the reporter doesn't know this, because she is perhaps the seventh reporter at the paper to have covered UC Merced since Carpenter was dubbed by a predecessor, "Mr. UC Merced," and her editors have forgotten or simply don't care.
The story mentions in disconnected paragraphs that the top two UC Merced administrators have both left. In fact, that is the story and the question Why? screams for some response. But, as in all stories generated by UC flak, the public gets no answer. Why is Larry Salinas, UC Merced's top flak, on a committee to select a new chancellor at all? Who really runs that campus?
How about Carpenter, Regent Fred Ruiz and Salinas for a guess? An insurance agent, a frozen food tycoon and a professional flak man. The ingenue who has inherited the Blessed Beat doesn't ask who the Hun replaced with Ruiz on the Regents and what was the nature of that insult to farmworkers.
This is a university? Or is it a shell waiting to be filled up with substances too dangerous for the Livermore Valley?
Our problem in the Valley is that the various contending creeds, expressed in propaganda, don't jibe with our history, experience or daily reality. In fact, taken as a whole, they don't produce a coherent path for the human mind. Agriculture, in particular, is currently producing masses of contradictory claims, all commanding our belief (but perhaps increasing our disbelief). In the face of these contradictions, developers and the investors behind them come with a very simple political remedy to all our confusions: sell the land. Lately, we have been seeing farmers who have become developers, along with the well-known path of developers holding land in agriculture until the next boom comes, producing distortions in the supply of the commodity they choose to farm.
But, considering local projects like the WalMart distribution center, Riverside Motorsports Park, and UC Merced, the average grass rooter must remain quite skeptical about whether they will deliver any of their proposed promises for the common good.
But flak is beautiful, anyway. It does all your thinking for you, it promises you wonderful things, and gives you an unerring guide for correct opinions -- and never mind if, taken together, it make any sense except for the people who pay for the flak. The thing to admire is that flak is so smooth and shiny next to your own lumpy, half-finished opinions riddled with unanswered questions and doubts -- those niggling things in the mind that flak deals with so effectively by completely ignoring them.
Flak is also very flattering. Flak cares about you. Flak invites you to join its side, always the "good" side, urging you to march forward to wealth, prosperity and security. Flak is so nice you forget to ask why these talented, clean, wholesome citizens would be working so hard to send you these warm, smiling messages that do your thinking for you. Flak is thought in a chauffeured limousine.
Nevertheless, we are privileged at the moment to get a glimpse at what happens with the American profession of propagandist itself falls under attack, in the following brace of articles from CommonDreams.com.
Published on Thursday, June 8 2006 by the Center for Media and Democracy
Confronted with Disclosure Demands, Fake News Moguls Cry "Censorship!"
by Diane Farsetta
Be afraid, be very afraid! If television stations are required to abide by existing regulations and label the corporate and government propaganda they routinely pass off as "news," the First Amendment will be shredded, the freedom of the press repealed, and TV stations will collapse overnight!
At least, that's what the public relations firms that produce and distribute video news releases (VNRs) and other forms of fake news would have you believe. PR firms are banding together and launching lobbying and PR campaigns to counter the growing call for full disclosure of VNRs, the sponsored video segments frequently aired by TV newsrooms as though they were independently-produced reports.
This alarmist campaign comes as no surprise; the PR industry is like any other business interest. And if there's one thing business is good at, it's avoiding meaningful oversight ...
Published on Friday, June 9, 2006 by CommonDreams.org
Framing Versus Spin
by George Lakoff and Sam Ferguson
Two weeks ago, Rockridge published The Framing of Immigration by George Lakoff and Sam Ferguson, an analysis of the framing surrounding immigration used by progressives and conservatives, as well as a discussion of framings not being used, but which would reveal important truths. Late last week, the DailyKos leaked a memo by Frank Luntz, the Republican messaging strategist, advising Republicans how to talk about immigration. If you want to compare what Rockridge does with what Luntz does, this is your chance ...