(or other places to find my writings from the mundane to the supermundane)
The Magic of Yellowstone
A sample of Jim's writings
Bozeman Antifa Dance (& Theatre Collective)
- Name: Jim Macdonald
- Location: Bozeman, MT, United States
Hi, my name is Jim Macdonald, and I have an odd assortment of interests. In no particular order, I love Yellowstone, I am an anti-authoritarian activist and organizer, and I have a background in philosophy, having taught at the college level. My blog has a lot more links to my writing and my other Web sites. In Jim's Eclectic World, I try to give a holistic view of my many interests. Often, all three passions show themselves interweaving in the very same blog. Anyhow, I think it's a little different. But, that's me. I'm not so much out there, but taken together, I'm a little unusual.
View my complete profile
I've just read a couple of books about Yellowstone, one a bit older and one brand new. The older book is Paul Schullery's classic Searching for Yellowstone
, revised most recently in 2004. The brand new book is Yellowstone Denied: The Life of Gustavus Cheney Doane
, published this year.
I don't have much to say right now about Schullery's book, which I recommend for anyone who wants to engage issues related to Yellowstone National Park. Yet, while I recommend the book, I would have little kind to say about it. It is the antithesis of Alston Chase's Playing God in Yellowstone
, and the two authors are quite hostile toward each other. Yet, I'm disappointed with Schullery perhaps even more than Chase. Frankly, I like both books for the way they engage important issues, and I hate both books for their unwillingness to confront philosophical and values questions in any meaningful way. Chase is loose with facts and has an obvious axe to grind while Schullery sounds like an apologist for the National Park Service, from whom he is quick to assert his independence. I think for now I will leave it at that; there wasn't enough in Searching for Yellowstone
to provoke any response that you can't find in the various posts written the last few months on this blog and across the Web.
The biography of Doane, however, has been on my mind a lot, perhaps because like so many I have a strange curiosity into the founding of Yellowstone National Park
. In putting together my Web site, one of the more interesting projects I undertook was typing out the transcript of Lt. Doane's report from the 1870 Washburn expedition
. Doane led the military escort of Washburn's expedition. In the history since then, it has been Nathaniel Pitt Langford's stirring and now in portions discredited account of that journey that has been far more famous.
I can say that if Doane had read this account of his life that the man likely would have been beside himself with anger. Scott portrays Doane as a man consumed with becoming a famous explorer like John C. Frémont. Besides his travels in Yellowstone, Doane led an ill-fated expedition of the Snake River country, where he and his party nearly froze to death, and took part in an ill-fated and badly organized attempt to explore the arctic where he was stuck in Greenland for a significant amount of time. Was it ill fate, or was it Doane, or was it both? The book suggests that Doane never became famous partly because of who he was and partly because he had his share of bad luck. Still, on the whole, the portrait of Doane is unflattering. Here is a man who left his family behind for a very long period of time, used connections (generally unsuccessfully) to advance during the Civil War, and then was the carpetbagger mayor of a town in Mississippi that his troops had previously helped to destroy. He ultimately fled the town in scandal. As an officer, he was generally (though not always) competent but like many in his time, schemed incessantly to advance his own career. During that career, he proudly had a significant role in the Marias River Massacre
of about 200 Piegan Indians, and was an incompetent and sometimes cruel liaison between the Army and allied Crow Indians. He left his wife to pursue his own career and a younger woman. Ultimately, he died a broken and defeated man, having just failed - again - at becoming superintendent of Yellowstone National Park.
So, perhaps, it's not hard to see why there haven't been many significant tellings of Doane's life until now (though that, as the Epilogue shows, is a story unto itself). He was hardly a hero and about as wretched a man as Nathaniel Pitt Langford, the man who ultimately took so much of the glory for mythologizing the founding of the national park idea. In fact, Doane is so full of himself that it's hard to have much sympathy for him, and the author barely tries.
I don't think we need heroes; they get in the way. They lead us to the severe judgments we make about other people. If you set yourself on a pedestal, then you will be rightfully taken down. Doane was never turned into a hero, was bitter about it, and now his biography is the story of a bitter, dead, white man and why he never got the glory he so hungrily lusted after. And, as cynical as it sounds, it is hard to deny that truth. The sadness is that because we live in a world where that kind of glory, where that kind of heroism is so adored, we aren't allowed to meet Cheyney Doane on his own terms, terms that are probably not a whole lot better or worse than the rest of us, or might not have been if we didn't live in a society that has such artificial metrics of value.
Like many things in life, heroes are too large and abstract. In all our circles, there are people we love and people we hate. They aren't the sort of heroes and villains that I'm talking about, however. Those in our circles are still tangible to us; we really do feel them and know them, or should if they really are so close to us. The heroes I am talking about are distant, only known in a few details, identified with some kind of abstract ideal that probably isn't so ideal either when you break it down. The national park idea is one such archetype that we need to question. What is grand about the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone wasn't that it was protected but rather that it inspires the senses the way it did for people like Langford and Doane. We forget that when we lift up these men instead of lifting up the sensuality of the experience. And, ironically, we tear down the men as well.
When we search for Yellowstone and search through its history, of course we are haunted by that 1870 expedition and what came before and after it. I don't see National Park Mountain and not think of a whole cast of characters in a history and a myth. Yet, I hope we can build and lift up new stories besides that one. While Doane will never truly be put to rest in the Yellowstone story, I think books like this will help us from putting his place on that river junction too far out of proportion.
Scott's book is hardly a must read, but I'm thankful for reading it if only to recognize the traps faced by me and and all of us in becoming too enamored with such fleeting and yet abstract values as the ones that tortured Doane - which tortured him far more than his infected thumb during much of that 1870 journey into the future park.
Wow, there's been a lot of news about the so called Yellowstone wildlife this week. First, there was a hearing on bison
a couple miles down from me over on Capitol Hill. That generated a fair amount of national news and press releases, but none of that can possibly compare with the news onslaught generated by the announcement that grizzly bears in Greater Yellowstone would be de-listed
entirely from the endangered species list. Even the news that the newest draft environmental impact statement on snowmobile use would be largely unchanged
, much to the chagrin perhaps of a noisy group in Cody
, was pretty much thoroughly buried by the grizzy announcement.
Predictably, some are for the bison
, and some seem to be against
. Some are for
grizzly de-listing, but some aren't so sure
, while others vow to fight
against it. Of course, what is it that we are for or against? Are we for bison, for grizzlies, for snowmobile use, for Yellowstone, for the Earth, for ourselves, for everyone all at once, for compromise, for plus four? That's where things get murky. Some commentators, notably the ever-perceptive skyblu
, have had a lot of observations to make about all the observers--or should we say cheerleaders--keeping a tally on behalf of their own side.
Take a close read of all of these fine essays just this week:Static & Iconic Yellowstone
- Friday, March 23Watch Wolves Watch You
- Thursday, March 22Of Wolves, Bison, Elk, Iraq, & Yellowstone
- Wednesday, March 21
and probably the one you should read first - Yellowstone ‘Wildlife’ - Hypocrisy Or Dilemma?
- Sunday, March 18
I'm not sure what to make of all of this news, just the sense that I'm supposed to make something of it. There's a part of me that wonders whether there are in fact 500 grizzlies in Greater Yellowstone and probably should read up on the methodology used, especially since I know that some have called that methodology into question over the years. I guess I should be excited that a deal is near for a grazing allotment for bison north of Yellowstone
, and that a huge allotment
was announced this week near Jackson, but the truth is I'm suspicious of just about all the players involved and know that nothing changes the fundamental problem facing all wildlife in Yellowstone.
What is that problem? Well, they aren't really wild, but we continue to pretend that they are. When we realize that wildlife--and people--need more room to roam around, we simply shift the lines of the fence and the ideological divide.
Everything is cut into neat little zoning slices with clear regulations about what can and cannot happen on a parcel of land. Hey bison, you go here! Hey, grizzly, stay out of the trash! Hey, tourist, this is especially for you! Hey, Washington, D.C., transplanted nomad from Ohio, we have a blog where you can say whatever you want about Yellowstone National Park! (And, three or four people might pay attention!) Some get more of the zoning pie, some understand the zoning game a bit more, and some know how to get many kinds of things out of their plot of the earth. It's wild in a sense, if by wild one means crazy, but it's not wild as we think it is.
is our photographs in Yellowstone are liars. If I were to re-paint Thomas Moran's famous canvas, The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone,
I would have to show dozens or hundreds of people taking pictures. I would probably paint a parking lot. I would have to, just so people could understand the context, show some professional lobbyists in a bubble talking about this or that pet cause that they are cheerleading. All of the advocacy groups would need their spot, and what would we do without bloggers and grassroots activists? Let's stuff some bison, mule deer, elk, grizzly, wolves in there. Let's throw in some stocked fish; maybe they don't belong in this painting, but why not. Let's make sure people understand that Sheepeaters will still be deleted from the canvas, maybe we can paint them in and make them look erased. We can also do that for a lot of animals, many of them without huge advocacy groups, that no longer exist. Then, we should paint a big fence around it, perhaps with Governor Schweitzer or someone like that on the edges talking about minor modifications to the boundaries.
That would be my painting, but I would put it right next to the original, and then next to the most photorealistic photograph you could find. The Yellowstone we think we love is the one in the photograph, the one we thought we had seen in the painting, and the one we don't want to see but actually exists in my mess of a painting.
The Yellowstone we think of as wild with wild animals is a grand delusion; I have loved being deluded because even the deluded version of Yellowstone in reality
is much better than any place I have ever been. It manages to touch me in ways that are utterly remarkable and make me forget what the grizzly
So, I can't get excited or even terribly more worked up than I already am. Do we really have any idea what a recovered grizzly population is? Do we know what a wild buffalo is like? Do we as humans have any idea how to be ourselves in this land? We have our romantic moments of inspiration, but the truth is we are so lost. The amount of information is so bewildering, the power brokers so entrenched, the zoning limits so demarcated, that we are forced into our own little world. We are forced to be Yellowstone advocates, wolf advocates, bison advocates, peace activists, or even proponents of our favorite American Idol
contestant. It seems that America has spoken - Sanjaya is the most hated but not the least
favored by those who use touchtone phones on Tuesday nights. But, isn't it also grizzly and relevant to mention old Luis Marti - who the hell is he
If we aren't advocates, we are pragmatists. We believe we can make everyone relatively happy. We become advocates for compromise just so that there can be peace and quiet. Bill Clinton was a pragmatist like this, and now we see it in Montana's Governor Schweitzer. However, the pragmatists are the zone makers, those who think they can cut babies in half like Solomon to show their governing prowess. They see the field, they know the score, and they know how to please everyone by pissing off only their "radical fringe" elements. Maybe, the world has changed, and it's not possible for there to be bison habitat like there used to be, and maybe we need to play nice with livestock interests, and maybe we can find some way to have just enough snowmobiles in Yellowstone so that we all won't choke to death. Perhaps, we can also help things enough by selling off more and more to a couple big player corporations. Some call this realism.
Oh, but anyone can call themselves a realist; it's just a fancy way of saying that one is right. I use the word myself; I am a realist, too. The point is that in the crazy morass of opinions, fringe groups, pragmatists, and tame animals, I think that all of us need to step back and ask ourselves what is the essence of what we are so worked up about. What is it that we want, and why do we want it? And, once we've done that, what is being left out by the zoning decision
of our desires.
Yellowstone National Park is a zone of a kind; the national forests another zone, the land around them another zone, and we all have zones where one thing is appropriate and not something else. I think that all wilderness amounts to is not building walls around our zones. Unfortunately, that's exactly what we have done. Because we have believed that we are entitled, (see the essays
I wrote recently on John Locke and property, perhaps the last one
most of all), we don't let bison, grizzlies, wolves, or anyone else breathe or change
. Everything is controlled to the last border checkpoint, the last grizzly counted (or so they say), the last letter of the law, which guides our so called rights.
This week's news, no matter what you feel about it, suggests to me that we are all nuts. We are no closer to wilderness because there are more grizzlies or because there is a little more space for bison and elk to roam. In fact, everything is still just as hopelessly zoned as before. If anything, we are less empowered. Just because some enlightened despots in Congress opened up public hearings on bison doesn't give us any more power than the delusion of Yellowstone gives us a wild park. It feels very nice, I must admit, but we are in the same tangle. We are less empowered because we are deluded just that much more. Personally, we are hostage to this delusion, and so are all the various things we root for whether we are simply standing on the sidelines (like most of us) or actively trying to control the outcome.
Until we are forced to see the ugly truth about our world, the grizzly reality
, I think we are not served well by the beautiful and stunning pictures we like to take and the myth of wilderness with which we cloak ourselves. If not, how much longer will it be before our delusion no longer even appears to be so nice? Our national parks traveler himself, Kurt Repanshek, and others before him have wondered whether the romance of our parks
is starting to slip away. I think sometimes the deception (like The Matrix
) can be very wonderful for a moment, but I can't believe that it is as beautiful as a world where our reality and our hopes and dreams can actually be present in the same place. In Yellowstone, we can have that reality. In our world, I think we can as well. But, there's no doubt it's going to hurt to break our habits, much as it undoubtedly did for bears to be forced into breaking theirs.
Yellowstone, I'm rooting and cheering for you. Yet, what that means is as endless a wonder as meandering through your forests.Jim Macdonald
by Jim Macdonald
Did you know that when I took the following picture that I was in the middle of an argument?
The shot of ice on Yellowstone Lake might serve as a metaphor for something going on in our lives, but really that was just a coincidence. Yellowstone is so large and so beautiful, but we seem to take pictures only of the most beautiful, symbolic, or happiest moments. The rest we edit out. And, of course, that doesn't just go for Yellowstone; it goes for everywhere. We tend to put the best face on things except for those rare moments of despair.
Often, I think about that because there is so much of our experience that we edit out. When telling you about my day, I don't tell you about the five feet I took to open a door, I don't tell you what it was like to use the bathroom, much less the few moments before and after that. I don't share with you things that are so common, so taken for granted, that they are incidental to the experience.
However, in Yellowstone, I am so astounded by this place that I don't think there's much that's ever incidental. When I think of even the bathrooms in my dormitory rooms, there is something that interests me to think that the same grandeur and beauty coexists with something as mundane as a sanitation system. As someone who worked there among employees who are largely behind the scenes, I find myself thinking of all the wonders of the world in this place that are hardly noticed. My mind just turned to a woman I used to work with named Nancy from Indiana; she and I worked together for several years in Grant Village, even for a short time in the same apparel department on the same shift. She was the nicest person I think I've ever met. And, while I'm sure pictures of Nancy in Yellowstone exist, I doubt you'll ever see them, and none of us will be privy to so many of the special and not so special moments that Nancy had in Wonderland. Yet, to me she was one of many largely unseen wonders of Yellowstone.
When you visit Yellowstone, you will of course be drawn to things you have seen in photographs and several surprising features you haven't. Yet, I bet you will also notice the buildings, the power lines cut between acres and acres of lodgepole pine forest. You'll notice the electric infrastructure, the sanitation system, whether your cell phone works (and for most of you, it will), where the gas stations are, and of course the places you can buy those souvenirs. Yet, we don't photograph the souvenirs; we don't remember the cash register where we bought the keepsake. We probably won't remember much about the person we bought our gift from. We won't talk about our trips to the bathroom, though we might talk about the food. Our pictures will show bison, Old Faithful, elk, and bears and wolves if we are lucky. It will show pictures of our loved ones smiling into the camera.
One summer back in 1996, I wanted to film the Yellowstone you don't see. I wanted to film the workers and people standing behind the shot taking the shot. It was too big a project for me, and people were stunned to have a camera pointing at them. They thought they were in my way, and of course were shy to be shown in their vulnerability. I was too shy to organize interviews with my co-workers, and I was too busy with the intricacies of my romantic relationship to spend time working on such an ambitious project. I almost managed to document my own death at the hands of mosquitoes on the DeLacy Creek trail at Shoshone Lake, but I survived that and can only now look at the footage and laugh.
I wish I could hear people's unusual or mundane stories in Yellowstone; it's just my perverse preference. I don't want to know about them anywhere else. Did you write some of the grafitti on the bathroom stalls at the campground? Did you trip on a trail in the woods? Who did you know, and what were they like? Was there a bird you were fond of, a pine needle that you can't forget? I remember walking through the Xanterra dorms having to avoid toxic bat excrement coming from the rafters. I remember the day that the security guard Ira caught a man trying to shoplift cheese by concealing it in his spandex. I remember beating Kim Hunt, who later won a million dollars on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire
, at ping pong and also losing many times; I remember some other things Kim shared with me that wouldn't be appropriate here. I remember feeling drowsy driving along Yellowstone Lake in mid-afternoon sun. But, so rarely do people share these stories? They don't take pictures of puddles in the parking lot, the steam evaporating almost as fast as it dropped. They don't paint pictures of sparrows or storm drains in Yellowstone.
I think I wish for that story to be told because I think the myths we can tell about Yellowstone can be more compelling. We labor under the delusion that Yellowstone is a wilderness; we don't know what to do about our place in the narrative or with things that are difficult or painful to share. So, we don't know how to talk about the experience beyond one of discovery and exploration, wonder, surprise, and excitement. No tale of Yellowstone would be complete without a chronicle of all of that in heavy doses, but that's not the whole story. What happened when the small earthquake erupted followed by everyone being mildly amused? What were you talking about when you saw a minor
eruption of Steamboat Geyser; why did you bother to remember what the name of this geyser was? What was it like to see lawns in Mammoth Hot Springs? Did you ever almost run out of gas while on a mountain pass? I remember once pushing a Jeep down Signal Mountain in the Tetons so that the clutch could be popped.
What goes on in the space between frames? Please share.
On Day 2 of the National Conference on Organized Resistance
(NCOR), I attended a discussion on class and race within the social justice movement as well as a workshop presented by members of DC Central Kitchen.
You can read about this more on Beltway IMC
All in all, NCOR had a lot of great workshops and educational opportunities, but there is a deep disconnection between NCOR and the District of Columbia community. In the essay, I mostly describe what happened at the sessions, but I can't help noting the priorities of the attendees at NCOR as evidence of the disconnectedness. While many rightly sought intimacy, I'm not sure how it can be found without some connection about where we live.
Read full article
The National Conference on Organized Resistance
(NCOR) is back at American University this weekend where I attended three of the workshops. The annual conference brings together a large number of anarchists (along with other left-leaning activists) for education workshops and networking to the small university in upper Northwest Washington, D.C.
I've posted the full essay to Beltway Indymedia
. The site is starting to look better all the time, and I want to encourage people to post any news they have there, especially about DC and its metro area, but also any news whatsoever (that's not simply a re-hashing of news somewhere else on the net) from a radical perspective.Go here to read the full article
To give you a flavor of one of the workshops I attended (the others being on "Parenting and Social Change" and the other on "Indigenous Struggles and Resistance in Canada), let me share the paragraph I wrote on that. This was related to resistance to the Interstate 69 project in Indiana by some Earth First!ers.Switching gears from the first workshop and after meeting and networking with people during lunch, I attended a workshop given by Roadblock Earth First! from southwestern Indiana, who are working with farmers in that rural area to stop the continuing work on Interstate 69, which has been dubbed part of the NAFTA Superhighway. I-69 is being built from Port Huron, Michigan, to Texas, connecting with a highway project there, and ultimately to the Plan Puebla Panama (PPP) project. These highways are being built with commerce in mind, in places 12 lanes wide, four of which dedicated only to trucks. In southwestern Indiana in particular, I-69, which has thus far been built to Indianapolis, many farmers risk losing their land to eminent domain. The activists have worked with farmers, many of whom are planning on taking direct action to protect their farms. Much of the workshop was spent drawing the local connection with the global connection of the PPP, which has had a disastrous effect on local and indigenous communities throughout Central America. Since the highway system is the tangible expression of capitalism, it also represents a vulnerability for activists in the United States and in Central America, and an opportunity for direct action. For years, mainstream groups have opposed this project and poll after poll shows over 90% of Indianans oppose the project, and yet it is slated to be built next year with evictions starting this summer. The Earth First! participants do not believe that democracy or lobbying has worked and believe a direct action approach will pay dividends (to speak capitalistically), and they cited the success of activists in the UK who successfully stopped road building in the 1990s. However, they did not talk at all about their own tactics for security reasons. The workshop had about 50 participants, and most in the room had never heard of the PPP. So, there was a lot of new information for people about a project where the local and global connection was very clear, touching also on issues related to privatization (especially of the transportation system) and multinational corporations working in collusion with the World Bank. What wasn't mentioned but was beneath the surface was the issue of immigration, which is directly related to the projects which are displacing so many people.
For more and for some general comments on NCOR, read my full article
Part 4: John Locke, Yellowstone, and the Dogma of the Right to Private Property: Ethics in Yellowstone without property rights
by Jim Macdonald
Read Part 1: Who gave whom the right to create Yellowstone National Park
Read Part 2: John Locke and his defense of a right to private property
Read Part 3: Against the right to private property
On a cold summer morning in the mid 1990s in Grant Village, Yellowstone National Park, I stumbled to the boardwalk leading me to the Hamilton's General Store to work.
My slumber was suddenly broken by the sight of something tan. I let out a gasp. It was not a bear but rather a cow elk feeding at the side of the boardwalk not more than a few inches from me. I sprang backwards; the young woman looked at me for about three seconds. She, then, continued to munch on the vegetation, and I continued on.
This has happened to me many times in Yellowstone and is very common in this strange world. Many of the elk will not run at the sight of a human being; whether this is the Garden of Eden or whether it's human domestication of supposedly wild elk run amok, I cannot say. In Yellowstone's past, bears used to beg for food at the side of the road, but now this is no longer the case. There used to be 30 - 40 million bison on the North American continent, but now the 4,000 confined in the cold Rocky Mountain environment of the park are considered far too many. Like the elk but unlike today's bear, they can seem domesticated except for those instances when a tourist has gotten too close or proven to be too annoying. The wolf, first eradicated by humans, then reintroduced, and now threatened again by state governments, seems to be wild when the pack chases down an elk for prey. Yet, so often, beyond the wild scene is a group of watchers with spotting scopes looking on and taking pictures. Many of the animals have collars in order to be studied by science. Bison are hazed, quarantined, and slaughtered, or subjected to canned hunts, shot on sight by hunters the moment they cross the invisible political line that is Yellowstone National Park.
On a hike into the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone this past summer, down the Seven Mile Hole trail, my silence was interrupted by two fighter jets that flew low over the Yellowstone sky. They zipped by several times during the hike shattering the silence. They came back through the next day when I was on the Mt. Washburn spur trail
. In wilderness, I dined in hotel restaurants served by foreign workers from Poland, the Czech Republic, Ecuador, Taiwan, and Bulgaria. Many I spoke with were unable to enjoy the scenery around them because they had to raise the money just to get home, having claimed to have not been informed of the total costs of working in Yellowstone. Some washed cars and did anything possible to make a little money.
By and large, in my experience, I have been blessed with some of the most personal encounters a person can have with one's environment, and I have been blessed to know some of the nicest and most interesting people who have shared the experience of living and working in Yellowstone. I will never forget how awestruck I have been every time I have seen a backcountry waterfall, smelled the air scented by a lodgepole pine, or seen a geyser erupt. I've also been in awe of the people I have met, the animals I have seen, and the crazy landscapes I have witnessed. There is nothing I want in my heart but to preserve that experience and to add to it. The way some people feel about their home country is the way I feel about this particular land.
It is for that reason that I have chosen to explore the Yellowstone experience and to try and know as much as possible about the land my heart inhabits. Whether it is the unusual rock on my path or the human history of the place, I have desired to enrich my experience by understanding what it is that makes it what it is.
Over time, I have learned that Yellowstone is far more complicated than we could ever imagine. My experience with the elk was not an accident or a coincidence. The experience of the bear, the buffalo, and the wolf as we see them in Yellowstone is also not an accident. That of fighter jets flying over me and that of the workers of Yellowstone are also not accidents. Our experiences, as curious and as singular as they are, might have been otherwise, and when faced with that, we are faced with the question of whether they might have been better. And, even if we think of ourselves as people who refuse to look backward, in looking forward, we who love Yellowstone so much that we cannot help but knowing as much as humanly possible, would like to know what to do in the future. That is, we cannot understand what it is we should be doing if we don't understand anything about the world in which the doing happens.
Yellowstone is a national park; it is a land created by politics. That politics has been premised on a complex ideology of property rights. In this series of essays, I have made the case that the ideology of property rights infected the debate about the founding of Yellowstone National Park as well as the debate about the issues of today. Most advocates of Yellowstone argue along a continuum of property rights ranging from advocating the highest degree of private ownership to those arguing for the highest degree of public control. However, rarely is the whole ideology of property rights ever challenged. In these essays, I have done so, tracing the ideology of property rights back to John Locke. We have explored his defense of property rights, and we have rebutted Locke (see Part 3
). My conclusion thus far has been that property exists; in fact, ownership of property is infinite and even necessary for every being whatsoever that exists. Yet, a right
to property is a dogma with no basis in reason. Determining the value of one's labor is in the absolute sense impossible, determining the value of one kind of being over another is just as much impossible, and even if one could do either, one could not necessarily establish a right because one would not know whether the particular way in which a person appropriated a right was in fact proper. So, though in order to live, I must eat, and must use labor and in some sense make the food mine - that is to own the food - to say that I have a right to what I've taken ownership of is to say more than reason will allow.
Thus, Congress had no right to create Yellowstone National Park; to manage its plants, animals, and features; to give leases to private concessionaires; or to do anything that we have loved or hated in the name of that park. At the same time, no one and nothing else - not even the animals and plants - has had a right to Yellowstone either. We didn't even have a right to "do nothing" with the land. The concept of a "property right" is simply a fiction, and if there is an ethics in respect to Yellowstone, the notion of a "right" must be vanquished from our vocabulary. You and I have no right to it, either. That is, both the libertarians who would strip the government of ownership of parks and
the liberals and socialists who would hold it in so called public ownership are all wrong.
Yet, what is there for me to do in Yellowstone, or anywhere else for that matter, if I don't have a right to do it? What is ethics in a world with property ownership but no property rights?
In life, we are faced with many things where we are forced to do something, but we do not know whether it is right. We do not know sometimes whether we should take the short cut but perhaps be stuck in traffic, or to take the long way but perhaps a smoother ride. We are faced with a lot of gray areas in life; I am suggesting that the gray area is even larger than we imagine. We have no reason to be so self assured when it comes to many of our actions, especially those actions that have to do with our sense of entitlement or privilege to or over another being. That can be a rather disconcerting realization.
Disconcerting as it may be, it is more disconcerting to pretend that one is in control when one is not. The theory of property rights depends upon knowing things we cannot know. Most disconcertingly, it forces us to codify value judgments - we have no basis to make - on the use of our labor - even though we cannot possibly know the best use of our labor in a particular place and a particular time. While we may wonder whether it was better for the elk to have looked me in the eye or to have run like mad, a world of rights says that the elk was there to serve me. Whether its eating in front of me, whether it was overpopulated, whether the vegetation should be allowed to grow instead, the elk is not relevant so much as its ultimate value to me and the labor of my commonwealth (the United States of America). Wonder all I might about our place in the universe here and now, the moral question for the property rights advocate is ultimately to the usefulness of the owner. Yet, the answer of that usefulness can never be determined with any confidence.
For instance, switching metaphors, let us consider the war in Iraq. The war in Iraq was predicated on Saddam Hussein's so called weapons of mass destruction, and then it was predicated on freedom and democracy for the Iraqi people. Aside from the myriad value judgments contained there, how are we to determine the rightful condition of the Iraqi people, and even if we could determine it, how would we make it happen? We cannot really know the consequences of the Iraq war except that beings died; the rest of it was dogmatic vanity. Just as there cannot be knowledge of a right to property, it is beyond me how there can be knowledge of a just war.
It is far more disconcerting to act as though one knows what is true when one cannot possibly know whether it is true. Yes, act we must, but to act as though one is right when one has no idea whether one is right is the clearest wrong I can imagine. It is wrong because it is incoherent and self contradictory. It is not possible to make sense of the action. The act can only confuse us or make us blind to ourselves. Either we will act and pretend that something is true, which we have never gotten to know, or we will know that the thing cannot be true but assert the right anyhow. The first case shows a lack of love; the second case shows animosity. If I love Yellowstone, my actions toward her are drawn in by knowledge. If I act but refuse to know my actions, then how could I say I love her? If I act in spite of what I know, how can anyone say that I have anything but hatred?
So, it may be disconcerting not to know what to do, but it is far more disconcerting to act with defiant certainty about something one has no reason to be certain about. If one knows that property rights are fictional and asserts that they are in force anyhow, then any person conscious of that would be suffering from a soul at war with itself. On the other hand, if one never bothers to explore the rightness of one's actions, to what degree could they be said to be acting as moral beings at all? If one acts and does not know whether one should do it, how can that be considered a moral action? In fact, that's how we act in 95% of what we do, and we feel no moral qualms about any of it. And, we don't, because most things we do involve moral questions we could not possibly answer. However, there are those acts we do that we say we should do but have no idea whether we should be doing them. Those acts are scary. It's like driving home while drunk. You might be okay, but it won't be because you knew what you were doing.
The first step, then, in acting in a world without property rights, is to renounce them, if only for the sake of your soul. In renouncing them, this does not mean that you give up all your possessions. You will still eat food, build shelter, and clothe yourselves. Yet, in renouncing your and anyone else's right to possess, you relieve yourself from the moral vanity of pretending you know that the way things have ended up are for the best and should be that way.
The people of the world, who believe in rights, materially affect everything else. That elk would not have seen me had there not been an effort to save elk, that is, to feed them, to protect their habitat, and to prohibit poaching. I cannot tell you whether such a world is better than the world that might have been otherwise except in one respect. I know that it was the self delusion of privilege that maintains these conditions, and self delusion is more harmful and less moral than the alternative. And, as much as that self delusion enforces itself on the world, that is for the worst. It is not only self oppression; it creates the habitual conditions where others must labor under this vanity. We cannot possibly know the extent of it, but we know that the condition makes little sense. Our own mental world does not happen in a vacuum, and so it is not enough to simply renounce the right to property as though they were only words on a page. Renouncing means action in the world. The extent to which action based on this dogma has been resisted, breaking the habit of property rights-based action, the better it is. It is not that you have some kind of personal right to act; it's that you must if the condition that you and others labor under is to be eradicated.
The moral world, then, is not one where we judge our success on the property that we construct but rather on whether we have torn down the vanity that has been attached with that construction.
But, why should that matter? What did a little vanity ever do?
The vanity that one race might be entitled to own another set the conditions for slavery; the vanity that one type of person was greater than another has set the stage for one genocide after another; the vanity that people were greater than their environment has produced the global environmental catastrophes that await. Yet, all those vanities would be nothing we could judge if the silent one behind it all were not exposed. It is not the sheer numbers of dead, tortured, and abused that are the most telling signs of immorality but rather the simple one behind it all. If it were numbers alone, then meteors that struck earth would be branded immoral (as well as the hurricanes that strike New Orleans and tsunamis that hit lands along the Indian Ocean). What makes something immoral is the inconsistency of the act. To act as though something is true when it is not is the condition of immorality. We cannot say what kinds of natural disasters would happen in a world where people acted naturally, whether someone accidentally passes a disease to every other person the planet, or eats the last raspberry, or shoots the last grizzly bear, but the immoral disasters that are wholly unnatural are the true tragedies of human history. Our sadness and disconnectedness from ourselves, from each other, and from nature result today from asserting ourselves as better, more deserving, more right
ful than other beings when we have absolutely no basis on which to make the claim. The magnitude of the vanity does not matter, whether we think we are right in slapping our children, building a nuclear bomb for our own self defense, or even creating Yellowstone National Park. All actions have good and bad consequences that we cannot see, but privilege, self entitlement, and therefore property rights, lead us to act in a way inconsistent with what we know, which is ruinous. That, we know for sure.
So, it is our separation from ourselves and from each other, the internal inconsistency in our soul, that is the greatest crime. Martin Luther King Jr. recognized it when in Letter from Birmingham City Jail
he cited the theologian Paul Tillich in identifying the root problem with segregation being "separation." That, in fact, is what he and others have identified as the very nature of sin. Sin isn't bad simply because it is sin; it is bad because of what it does. It destroys a being by making it out of whack with itself; it keeps a person from being private since the person does not even know the most itimate part of himself while keeping a person from being public since he does not understand how one's acts are out of tune with the rest of the universe. How ironic it is that understanding the limits of our knowledge is the best way to act in accordance with everything whatsoever.
We have no right to choose working on Yellowstone over social justice over war over animals over environmental work over anything we do. In my case, like the fact that I eat food and ride a bicycle, I simply do. What I hope I am doing, however, in the particular manner of my life is to renounce the oppression waged by the belief in property rights. That alone is what makes my acts moral in this context. By writing, by speaking, by being, I am engaged in communication not simply to make the world better in this one respect, but as part of my own private renunciation. I do both at once, and it is not possible to do the one without the other. It does not matter whether Yellowstone is owned by a syndicate, by me, by that elk, or by the U.S. government, when someone asserts a right to that ownership, it is something that ought to be resisted.
One problem that some of you might have of this strange minimalistic morality that I have outlined is that it does not tell us what to do in particular situations or what we would do once we have cleared ourselves of vanity. How will renouncing a right to property make the problems with bison, elk, bears, and wolves go away? How will that relate to the management of wild lands? What difference will it make if the rights to Yellowstone National Park are ever renounced, assuming one could even go that far? And, given that many people are not going to ever renounce their entitlement, rights, and privileges, how will that practically play out? It may seem more than a tad bit mystical to talk about renouncing rights without a particular sense of saying how one will act. It seems to tend toward ethical nihilism.
While I do not have many particular answers, I don't think the change I am talking about is insignificant. We have to ask ourselves why the world is the way it is now. Why is there Yellowstone National Park? Just considering the myth for a moment, many people believe it exists in order to set aside a natural area that might not otherwise be there if the Congress had not set it aside. Yellowstone exists in a world where people believe they can control their environment and yet are afraid they will not be able to control it. They want to control it to the extent that they can, and so they set aside boundaries. People invent things because they want to control something about their lives and believe they have the privilege to do so. In part because their lives are so out of control, they build tools in order to better manage and give off the illusion that they can make their way. Nations build militaries and people carry weapons because they want the illusion that they can and should be able to control their lives from danger. Industrialization has happened in a world where people have increasingly great insecurity about their place and yet increasingly greater confidence in their ability to parcel something off to be bettered and secured. Medicine cheats our deaths for awhile; safety rules do the same. Walls and fences are all about cheating a nature we ultimately cannot control. As beings, most of us want to live, and we want to enjoy our lives. As a result, we will practice arts that will do our best to laugh at the face of a reality that's actually out of our control. All beings, through their own inertia, tend to do this, though ultimately we all will be scattered like the wind.
Rights take this instinct to survive and enjoy our survival and adds moral motivation to our actions. What happens when we take that kind of moral motivation away? Surely, we are going to try and survive and enjoy ourselves just as before, but are we as likely to believe we are entitled to make the world for our survival and enjoyment? Is there not a cause and effect relationship between the industrialization of the past several hundred years, the pace and amplification of wars and genocide, the sheer population growth of humanity, and everything that Locke was writing about property rights? We cannot look that elk into the eye and feel good about it for long because both the elk and us are caught up in a moral universe so complicated where we are told everything we should be doing but cannot understand any of it. Is the elk eating good for elk in general? good for beaver? good for me? Is the lack of fear in its eyes a wonder or a sign that she ate too much alfalfa at the National Elk Refuge the winter before? This world has been built and motivated by rights, and while taking rights away does not guarantee that the same world won't come back in its place, I do not know how we could look at the empirical realities of our experience and think that it will. If I have no more entitlement to the space I occupy than the air, am I as likely to harness the air absolutely for my purpose? I will still breathe, but am I as likely to go to such wild extents to make sure that I can?
Property rights give people the illusion that their reason makes them lords of the land. There is no doubt that these rights give them greater tendency to protect what they think is theirs and to act in the greatest possible way to protect that ownership. That, in fact, is one of the problems with rights, though its proponents starting with Aristotle lift it up as the greatest virtue. The propensity to act is more and more grandiose and global in nature because the threats to our property rights are almost infinite. Because we believe we have these rights due to our ability to reason, the use of our reason to construct barriers to protect our rights also grows infinitely. Rights, in essence, are capital used to act and build upon; they are the capital of the moral universe. Yet, the grandiosity of our global assertion of our rights only creates a global catastrophe of chaos and confusion. What reason in a world without rights would there to be to build the Berlin Wall, to build the nuclear bomb, to police the border, or do so many of the things that we do?
However, maybe a world with Berlin Walls, nuclear bombs, and national borders is just as good as a world without one. Maybe so, but how could we possibly say that this is the world that we would want? If that is the world that you want, I guess I'd have to think that one of us was crazy. These things are constructed not because people want them but because people believe they are entitled to a particular way of living.
In my experience, which derives from my senses, I am first drawn to that which pleases the senses. We call this aesthetics. I eat, not because it is right, but because it pleases me to do so. I smell the air, hear the noises of the waterfall, and act based on this experience. However, the world we now inhabit, built on a fortress of property rights, is one where action is not based first on aesthetics - that is, sense-based - but rather on the entitlement to a particular kind of experience. We live and die for vague ideas like freedom, we work for justice, and those of us who are philosophers seek the truth. These are not small ideas, but they are vague in application. When we pretend that the ideas are clearer than they are, we act in a way that is not consistent with the drives of our sense experience or with freedom, justice, or truth! If you strip the value of the right away, you are left instead with the values and drives given to us from our experience. We don't have to pretend we can figure out whether bison or cattle should occupy some "Montana" outside of some "Yellowstone National Park," but we are going to be drawn in any number of directions. As humans, we would not be able to survive without each other, and most of us are going to want to survive. We will form groups of people and dissolve groups of people, but we need not have the baggage of a chosen group, an entitled people, or a people who makes more rightful decisions. We will create rules, manipulate the land, and we will have no shortage of difficulty, but how can we say it is more difficult than living and acting on the burden of defending the rights to what is ours? The difficulty of the reality I describe is a difficulty that relates directly to our sense experience; the difficulty of the other has been abstracted from it. The first makes use of our common sense; the other one is an artificial contraption used to make certainty where there is none.
Right now, everything we do is fraught with moral peril. Morality, however, is rather sparse in its demands of us. We are simply asked not to go against the simple demand of reason, that we not claim to know more than we know. However, we have managed to make morality in practice a lot more demanding; as a result, we are all bound to an immoral condition. The better world I describe is still fraught with peril. It is not possible for one being to live without another dying; it is not possible to preference one thing without shafting another. There are consequences in all our choices, and we have no idea the full reach or extent of them. In the end, we will still die. However, that is peril enough; in attempting to moralize the way we deal with our peril, we've only created that much more.
In the meantime, there's a lot that can be done. In a world besieged by a belief in property rights, some are less able than others to resist the consequences of this reality. In Yellowstone, there is nothing that a buffalo can do that has crossed the Yellowstone National Park boundary. It will probably die. One tangible thing that can be done to resist a world of property rights is to stand with bison who are simply attempting to assert their desire to survive and thrive. Bison may not have a right
to wild lands, but our rationale for preventing them is an abstract and needless roadblock standing in the way. We might say the same of the other animals that are being managed in various ways. In some ways, it may seem that elk are thriving under the management. No doubt that individual elk are thriving in individual ways, just as many of us can be fat off the fruits of American imperialism. At the same time, the cause of elk is being used as a bludgeon against wolves in the name of protecting the proprietary rights of hunters as well as those of livestock owners. This assertion of a right ought to be resisted, and one should stand in solidarity both with wolves and with elk for a world that frees them from the burden of these rights. If we consider humans, the class hierarchies and privileges that exist in Yellowstone in some ways benefit people of even the lowest classes; they are the ones who get paid to spend a lot of time in paradise. Nevertheless, these class distinctions are based on a complex view of entitlement and property rights; as such, when workers find themselves abused by such processes, it is helpful to the entire process to stand in solidarity with workers. Foreign workers, in particular, should not be lied to about the terms of their employment; no one has a right to profit from their labor. Standing with workers is a statement against the proliferation of a property rights-based society and better allows them to stand against it. We cannot say that the consequences of their resistance will be in every way desirable; we would be foolish. However, as we have discussed, it will strike at the most critical condition that's driving the self oppression of our society.
This also means standing against the privatization of Yellowstone. While I have spent a great deal of time talking about how impossible it is to distinguish private property rights from public property rights, one should oppose privatization all the same. It is not on the basis of a public right to the commons that it should be opposed but on the basis that privatization most creates the conditions that make it harder for others to resist all property rights. Since the private property rights are concentrated in the hands of the few, the ability to resist the decisions that are made becomes less (which can be derived from Aristotle's discussion in Part 3). If given a choice between private and public, one should usually choose supporting public control of resources for no other reason than the fact that public control should in theory be easier to resist. Thus, it's not because the land belongs to us that we should assert it; it's because it is easier to fight an improper claim that has already been made if more people have a stake in it.
The principle in choosing an action, then, is not based on rights but rather upon which action has the possibility of usurping the claims to a property right. If beings are unable to assert themselves because a right has been claimed, then they are the ones least able to resist. Since the reality of every being alike suffers under the self delusion of property rights, it makes far more sense to stand with those who are oppressed under a right in order to abolish that moral reality altogether.
When I go back to Yellowstone, I intend to dance on the shore of Yellowstone Lake. I will continue my quest to love and know a land that I have been drawn to in the most sensual way. My first kiss was on a wooden boardwalk in the Norris Geyser Basin. I grew up among the people, animals, plants, and machines of this park. I've driven its roads, taken them by bicycle, and hiked the trails. I've filled up gasoline, and I've contributed to its sewage. I've seen displays of wildlife that were not nearly so natural as they seemed to me at first. I still love this land with all of my heart. I sing out loud thinking about it. There, I have seen rainbow rivers of glitter, shooting stars, and the eruption of Steamboat Geyser. I am as in love with Yellowstone as I have been any person in my life. It's a part of me; in some sense, I own Yellowstone, and Yellowstone owns me. That love is a private joy that I could not express to you publicly; it is a public wonder all the same that has been shared by millions of people and countless other beings.
When I dance on that lake, as the sun sets and the planets and stars arise, as colors that should not be possible float along a shore without waves, all will seem right in the world. In those moments, I might wonder whether it might have been better. Perhaps, the moment was not all it was cracked up to be. In truth, I cannot possibly deny it. As long as I look down on even the smallest part of my experience, it still could be better. As long as there is some part of my world that believes that it is owed something, then there is something in our dance that is not as magical. Love is not delusion, and as I love a place, I will know it. In the moments as I dance, I can't help but hear about all that's taken me away from the sensuality of experience. I cannot rest satisfied with that; maybe I don't deserve better and maybe Yellowstone doesn't either, but I so desperately want it. And, that desperate sort of wanting is not so bad. I will be content if I can leave that moment like that; that will be one small step in resistance against the insanity of our world.
Please also see relevant essays related to this piece:
Upcoming project: John Locke, Yellowstone, and the Dogma of the Right to Private Property
Part 1: Who gave whom the right to create Yellowstone National Park?
Part 2: John Locke and his defense of a right to private property
Part 3: Against the right to private property
The Founding of Yellowstone National Park into Law and into Fact
Yellowstone and class
The company towns of Greater Yellowstone
Projects stalled in Yellowstone - Privatization coming?
Privatize Yellowstone? One capitalist think tank says yes
all from The Magic of Yellowstone
is a mess, but I was able to upload an article to it. Today I went to part of the DC Social Forum at Catholic University of America.
I wrote out a transcript of the workshop
and posted it. Here is a portion of it from a man named Salvador from the Woodbridge Worker's Committee:
I represent the Woodbridge Workers Committee. I’m going to tell you my personal story and the story of the town that I come from. I come from a town; our main work is to grow coffee in Puebla. About 15 years ago, the price of coffee came down. At first, it was 50 cents a kilo (and is much lower now). Many times we have to abandon our lands because it is no longer profitable to cultivate coffee, and so many of us who were involved in that kind of work went to a bank to ask for a loan, often leaving our title to the land with the bank in order to be able to grow our product. And, those of us who are no longer able to sustain our work have to turn our lands over to the bank. So, we are forced to come north to this country and leave our families and our land. We come in order to be able to resolve our economic situation and to take care of our families. We come here leaving our children, our families, our wives…
In Woodbridge alone, this is my personal story, but I imagine this is the story of my brothers and sisters across Central and South America. In Woodbridge alone, there are 300 of us who come from that one town. In my personal case, we suffer many things, all of us do, in my personal case, my father gave me his blessing to come north. I will not see him again. I came to pay for his leukemia expenses, but he died. We were not able to help; when I return, I will not be able to help him. We have come here to work honestly, to struggle so that our families will have what they need. We come to suffer dangers, and they suffer there without us. Part of our experience here is to come here to work and to struggle to organize as workers to struggle for our rights.
Thank you for your attention.Read more
and support them as they host a delegation from Oaxaca this week - protest at the Mexican embassy, Tuesday, March 6, 4PM, at the Mexican Embassy and the night before for a reception at Alfishawy People's Media Cafe. For more, follow the previous link.
I have been working on an outline for what will appear in Part 4 of my essay series: John Locke, Yellowstone, and the Dogma of the Right to Private Property (start at Part 1
). The essay has been held back by an inordinately hard schedule at my daytime job and a lot of other things going on in my personal life (mostly wonderful). However, the essay is in the works.
Secondly, I've become part of a new Independent Media collective in the District of Columbia called the Beltway Area Independent Media Collective http://www.beltwayimc.org/
. As you can see, it's virtually empty, but you can start posting news there (though it's a bit buggy and under construction). There already is an Independent Media Collective in DC
, and there's no reason that people shouldn't continue to use or stay involved with them. However, some of us believed that the geographical scope of that indymedia was too narrow and sometimes exclusive to people inside the city. For instance, in gentrified DC, many people are being pushed outside the city limits and outside the Beltway. The vast majority of immigrants coming into the area are moving into the suburban outlying areas. What happens in each area is interrelated, and it's ironic that the traffic corridor around DC, the Beltway, which is synonymous with insider politics and dirty air caused by automobiles, can serve to remind us that those of us who are residents inside the city often are quite provincial and blind to the realities and struggles of the region both inside and outside.
We also formed the collective so that there was a more open, transparent indymedia collective for all people in this area inside and outside the city. Membership and meetings are open to all, even those not a member of the collective.
You may start publishing news now. I don't think the editorial policy is up, yet, but if you have any questions, you may contact me or other members of the collective. You may join the IMC list by sending a blank email
to the link and then following the instructions in subsequent emails. Please be patient; right now we have a technology working group of one person. If you'd like to help, posting interest to the list would be a great first start. We also have formed an editorial working group, and there's been interest expressed in a public access tv working group and a radio working group. Again, posting interest to that list would be the way to start. The next collective meeting date is at the end of March. I'll post more details as they are ready.