Sunshine on Shadow

And he is too humble to take the responsibility for thinking. The whole structure of his world would be endangered if he permitted himself to think. The pieces must stick within their pattern or the whole thing collapses and the design is gone. We wonder whether in the present pattern the pieces are not straining to fall out of line; whether the paradoxes of our times are not finally mounting to a conclusion of ridiculousness that will make the whole structure collapse. For the paradoxes are becoming so great that leaders of people must be less and less intelligent to stand their own leadership. John Steinbeck, The Log from the Sea of Cortez (1941), p. 46.

The following essay developed in three parts: first, some general considerations about leadership; second, a short portrait of a phony leader; and finally a letter from a true Valley leader. The third part arrived only after the first two parts had been posted, as if to make our work more complicated but more complete. It is a letter from Lloyd Carter, Fresno-based director of the California Water Impact Network, to Rep. Grace Napolitano, chair of the House Subcommittee on Water and Power, regarding last Monday's subcommittee hearing in Fresno. It came to remind us not to forget contemporary people of principle in the Valley, although sometimes it seems that all we hear is unprincipled flak. With this third update of "Sunshine on Shadow," we think our work might be done. -ed.

1. Leadership
Peter Koch, president of the Merced County Farm Bureau, addressed the Merced County Board of Supervisors on the terrible water crisis in the Valley this year, demanding the supervisors “act” in some way. He noted that the Hun, our governor, totally committed to a peripheral canal and two new reservoirs, had “condemned nine Valley counties” in June. He said his well driller had advised him recently to drill another back-up well, at a time when wells of all ages are going dry throughout the county. But, what struck Badlands Journal editors, who are not leaders, was this:
“You are leaders of our county,” Koch said, “and I am the leader of the Farm Bureau.”
He went on to say that he would be a part of a 22-bus caravan to the state Capitol on Wednesday, joining supervisors and mayors from several south Valley counties and the Hun to pressure the Legislature into approving a $9-billion bond initiative for the November ballot to fund the reservoirs and the peripheral canal. He warned that with another year of drought, all of Merced County could look like the west side looks now. And, he reminded our county’s leaders, the economy of Merced County is completely reliant on agriculture as speculation is wrung out of real estate, drop by drop.
Koch concluded his urgent oration to the supervisors by quoting from a passage from a recent speech by Pope Benedict:

Perhaps reluctantly we come to acknowledge that there are also scars which mark the surface of our Earth: erosion, deforestation, the squandering of the world’s mineral and ocean resources in order to fuel an insatiable consumption. — “Pope: World’s natural resources are being squandered; TV, Internet exalt violence;” The Associated Press, July 17, 2008

Koch’s final comment was, “I hope you and I can do something.”
The Badlands Journal editorial board, completely devoid of any leadership skills itself, was very impressed by the performance of the local Farm Bureau leader, because we yearn for leadership on the complex of agricultural issues in the Valley. We thought that many people in the room, possibly even the supervisors, would regard Koch as a very fine fellow and responsible citizen for his speech. Perhaps even an elected official or two would follow his lead into the bus caravan to go to the Capitol and join the Hun, Westlands Water District, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and the Association of California Water Agencies in pressuring the Legislature to vote for this bond initiative, so that subsidized water can keep irrigating subsidized crops and Southern California can keep on growing for the benefit of a few finance, insurance and real estate leaders – even during a quite normal California drought and an interesting global credit crisis.
Clearly, it is the role of representatives of the people to “do something” about drought. But, like the old neurosurgeon said, “It’s the judgment that counts.”
Now, leadership – not to make too much of Steinbeck’s dim view of it shortly before Pearl Harbor – is a curiously difficult thing to describe, which is why Badlands’ defective descriptive powers steers clear of leadership as often as possible.
What is it? What makes a leader? What do we mean when we say, “Leader!”? For those of us who have been involved in political activity for an appreciable period, we found upon discussing the matter, that we had no definition of it since the term is rarely used, and if used, used derisively, in that line of work. Most of us find the question itself boring and dumb. In a general way, we realized that the history of “leadership,” here, there and everywhere in the nation seemed to receive an injection of amphetamine in the late 1970s, when the corporations, chambers of commerce and similar organizations began sponsoring “leadership training programs,” which mass-produced “new leaders.”
Have you ever known a real leader? One editor asked another. He had to think about it, but slowly, reaching pretty far back in local and state politics, he came to think that yes, he had known some real leaders once upon a time, once upon a rather distant time, actually, before the “leadership training programs” came into existence to certify the future leaders. We recalled an “emerging Valley leader” recently met at a leadership conference, whose gesture and diction so perfectly mirrored Capitol manners that we could gauge pretty much to the month how long the handsome young fellow had interned there – long enough to be non-committal on the time of day in addition to any other issue. “Perhaps it’s after 6 in the evening but we need a study.”
After discussing it a bit longer, we decided that one criterion for “leadership” we could identify was contest, political battle. The leaders that began to emerge in our memory had all instigated countless rebellions, most had lost elections for public office or in their unions before they triumphed, most were adamantly connected to concrete issues and had learned when to push and when to compromise – and a compromise made today did not mean it would be made tomorrow. We thought of the great farmworker organizers in the Valley, who operated before farm labor unions were legal. In fact, the greatest leader anyone could remember never to our knowledge ever held an elected or appointed post, at least not longer than a few months to tide over difficult financial circumstances, yet was involved in every significant statewide political campaign for three decades. If one had dared call this gentleman a “leader” to his face, it’s hard to know exactly what he would have said except that probably the sum of his reply would have been angry, well-chosen expletives.
When the leaders we once knew recognized you, you felt good; when they ignored you, you felt bad and reviewed your positions on their issues to see where you had failed them. This was because the leaders stood for positions. They were ferocious rivals and only allied themselves with one another around those shared positions. Sometimes, political ambition triumphed over the common cause and they knifed each other with reckless abandon. But, they were less likely to sell out their issues and if they did sell out their positions too often, everyone ganged up on them and they were out.
Among them, there were people who really were irreplaceable and the state is poorer for their departure. Leaders of the sort we recognize are notorious for failing to train competent successors because they were too busy fighting rivals all their public lives and often their careers did end badly. But, they didn’t start that way, with nothing but political ambition to guide them; they did stand for something, if only for the working people of their city over the working people of your city. And in that contest, sometimes you could beat it into their heads that it was the same cause.
Another editor remembered a half hour with Bobby Kennedy in a small backroom of a Fresno hotel with a dozen others, remembering Kennedy’s superb manners and commitment to the oppressed in America.
2. Phony “leaders”
By contrast, what we find in Merced County today is a group of “leaders,” all of whom have been so completely bought and sold if not actually trained by finance, insurance and real estate special interests (FIRE) that not one of them is irreplaceable. They are all interchangeable with each other and any number of others waiting in the wings, because none of them represent anything but their own ambitions and connections to the FIRE. And now that the FIRE is barely smoldering, they look very dim, indeed, and could be replaced by anyone equally as dim who can get enough FIRE money to win and get a place at the public trough.
Although residential real estate was the main target in the recent boom/bust real estate cycle, developers bought farmland at exorbitant rates to build subdivisions. The boom raised all real estate values, rural as well as urban. In fact, it destabilized the farm and ranch real estate market so that now farmers and ranchers are furiously parceling their land to increase the parcels’ worth for real estate, not for farming. The boom/bust real estate deal in the Valley hit like a forest fire. In a forest fire, many trees are left standing and some of them contain much merchantable timber. Although it is a misery to harvest burnt-over timber, it is both necessary and the timber goes for “fire-sale” prices because private and public forest managers know it must be gotten out of the forest before it becomes a home for bugs that infest healthy trees. The speculative boom/bust in Valley real estate has similarly left many entities charred by standing, but the credit disaster in its wake is like forest bugs, infesting and weakening everything around it. We don’t know the exact or even approximate situation of farm credit in this second drought year in a row, but judging from the behavior of rural landowners, it’s kind of shaky.
So, says our local Farm Bureau president, farmers and their “leaders” must travel to Sacramento to back the worst water special interests in the state on yet another multi-billion dollar bond issue to further indebt the already broke state to Wall Street. And it doesn’t hurt to bash environmentalists critical of this trite replay of the movie “Chinatown” the Hun and the best propagandists water money can buy have scripted.
The truth is that President Koch has been swept away by “leadership” and he is now a part of the vast Valley “leadership team.” This team has always misdirected the attention of Valley citizens away from the local, the real, the things that people can actually do, to the Vast Beyond of things Valley people have absolutely no power to affect; not that anyone can affect one of California’s frequent droughts. But, like a witless, superstitious peasant of earlier times, Koch “leads” his members into public rituals to exorcize the outside demon – the Legislature and the environmentalists — and crawls into bed with propagandists for the hydraulic brotherhood. Meanwhile, when it comes to things Koch can do about water, what does he do? Digs a swimming pool.
Koch is ridiculous. We could have used some agricultural leadership in Merced County. Instead, we got Koch, who turned himself into an idiot to become a leader.
Perhaps the paradoxes of these times do boggle most minds, as much now as they did in 1940. Perhaps we shouldn’t be so critical. But the lure of becoming a member of the elite “leadership” overcame every bit of common sense in Koch. Now that he is a leader, he harkens to higher, dumber, more powerful drummers, even to the Hun Himself, the perfect governor for our times, a Hollywood narcissist who stands for absolutely nothing but himself. As the rest of the nation laughs, the Hun hustles to get the state to go into hock for another $9 billion, ostensibly to stop a drought. This is world-class idiocy. But, as long as it’s world-class, it’s good enough for Koch, our very own Pope-quoting Danish-Canadian Farm Bureau president.
3. A true Valley leader
Rep. Grace Napolitano
Chair, House Subcommittee on Water and Power
1610 Longworth Bldg
Washington, DC 20515
July 24, 2008
Dear Rep. Napolitano,
On July 21, 2008, at the suggestion of subcommittee members from the San Joaquin Valley, you held a field hearing of the House Subcommittee on Water and Power at Fresno City Hall which focused on impacts of the drought. You told audience members they could submit written remarks that would be made part of the hearing record. Please consider this letter for inclusion in the hearing record.
My name is Lloyd G. Carter. On June 11, 2005, you visited the California State University, Fresno campus where the subcommittee held a hearing on proposals for a multi-billion dollar dam six miles upstream from Friant Dam on the San Joaquin River. I was a witness before the committee at that time, at the invitation of Rep. George Radanovich, who was then the chair. I was the only environmentalist testifying but appreciated the opportunity to expose the subcommittee to different views. And I was pleased and impressed when I met you.
I am sorry to inform you I believe the panels that testified at your July 21, 2008, hearing showed no balance and that the broad general public was not served by that event. Virtually all of the speakers were officials of the Westlands Water District, representatives of local communities in the Westlands, or representatives of water districts in the Friant Unit of the Central Valley Project. They clearly had their own axes to grind.
Missing from the panels were: (1) any representative of environmental interests; (2) any representative of Delta farming; (3) any representative of the commercial salmon industry, which was put out of business this year because of the collapse of the fishery; (4) any representative of the Trinity River Native Americans, who have seen their river destroyed in the interests of Westlands; (5) not a single representative from the Bay Area; (6) no one at all from Northern California.
As a result, many of the panelists who did testify were able to freely misrepresent, distort, and exaggerate facts, and spread outright lies, half truths and fabrications, without any countervailing voices to set the record straight or offer an alternative view. The hearing that was supposed to be about impacts of the drought on rural communities turned into a cheerleading session for the Temperance Flat Dam, intemperate attacks on federal judges and “radical” environmentalists, and a call for more Northern California water for Westlands even as the Delta continues to decline. The hearing turned out to be little more than a publicity stunt.
I know you had no involvement in the selection of the panel speakers but as the chair of the committee I hope that when you personally convene future field hearings on California water issues that you take special care to see that ALL voices are represented, not just those of local agribusiness.
I also recommended you take the following actions:
1. The drainage crisis in the Westlands remains unsolved after half a century. Nobody at the July 21 hearing pointed out that speakers were calling for more water deliveries to Westlands to continue irrigation of high selenium soils totaling 379,000 acres, which U.S. government scientists say should be taken out of production. I suggest you hold a hearing on this issue.
2. Westlands claims to have 600 “growers” but has never provided Congress with a list of growers to show which entities are contracting for water from the District and whether those various business entities have the same ownership. You should request from the district such a list, showing which entities contracting for water have interlocking directorates or the same ownership. For example, Stewart Woolf, who did testify at the July 21 hearing, pointed out that his father, Jack Woolf, six children and 24 grandchildren all run the family enterprise. That is 31 people, or five percent of the district, controlling one major farming operation. If you investigated this matter you would find that 30 or 40 family dynasties in Westlands control a large percentage of land in the district. There is precedent for this. In 1985, the California Legislature commissioned a study of 42,000 acres in Westlands threatened by the cutoff of drainage due to the poisoning of the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge by the tainted drainage from those 42,000 acres. It turned out the 42,000 acres was dominated by a few multi-millionaire growers. And I’m sure you already know the Westlands is the most heavily subsidized federal irrigation district in America with the most pollution problems
3. If you are really concerned about the longterm welfare of farmworker families I urge you to hold hearings on the lack of clean, adequate drinking water in many farmworker communities in the San Joaquin Valley, a problem which existed before the current drought and will continue afterwards. Concern for the health of farmworkers should be as great as concern for their jobs.
4. You should be aware that the State Water Resources Control Board has issued permits for five times as much water as actually exists in the system. You should be aware that distribution of water in the Central Valley Project is based on a priority system and Westlands is at the end of the bucket line. When whatever water available in a given year is distributed to the senior water rights holders then Westlands gets what is left. Westlands has known this since it signed a contract with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in 1963. Growers who in recent years have planted permanent crops in Westlands did so at their own economic risk.
5. If you are interested in protecting the integrity of Delta water drinking supplies and protecting the Delta’s fishery, you need to broaden the discussion at subcommittee field hearings in order to provide the public with a larger perspective than that pushed by the local congressmen who are simply playing to their local constituencies. A field hearing is needed immediately.
Rep. Napolitano, I retain faith that when you personally decide to hold field hearings that you will provide all California interests an opportunity to share their views about what is necessary to protect the Delta, farming, and drinking water supplies.
My best regards,
Lloyd G. Carter
director, California Water Impact Network
2863 Everglade Ave.
Clovis, CA 93619