On Monday, Rachel Humphreys, Alec Rothman and Samantha Corbin stepped inside the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C., and released a handful of balloons.
The balloons were attached to a banner, and when it rose into the open space of the building’s atrium, it was clear that the banner’s message took aim at Alaska’s senior U.S. Senator, Republican Lisa Murkowski. It included an older official photo of the senator and the words “Lisa Murkowski, happily matched since 2004.” Three floating hearts bore the logos of Exxon, Chevron and Southern Company. The activists who launched it were members of Greenpeace and it was an extension of that organization’s Polluter Harmony campaign, a spoof on the dating site eHarmony.com meant to highlight the campaign contributions Murkowski’s received from oil companies—and insinuate that they’re behind her fight to stop the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gasses. (For more on the Polluter Harmony campaign, which launched with a mock infomercial on YouTube, check out “In brief,” February 17.)
A slideshow on the Greenpeace website documents the brief interlude, and it opens with two arresting images (no pun intended). The first shows the banner being released and what appears to be a U.S. Capitol Police officer caught mid-stride as he dashes toward them. A moment later, he’s stock-still, head cocked upward watching the ascent he failed to stop.
The slight slapstick quality of the mini-narrative those two images tell is worth savoring, because it’s about the only bit of humor that can be salvaged from this story.
The reaction from the Murkowski camp—perhaps still smarting from the YouTube video—was sore.
“It's unfortunate that some extreme groups have to resort to breaking the law to try to quash that debate,” Murkowski spokesman Mike Brumas told the Associated Press.
He’s right on that score, technically. The trio were arrested and charged with unlawful conduct (for obvious reasons of practicality, demonstrations are forbidden in Capitol buildings).
Yet without excusing the lawbreaking, this one seems like a stretch—particularly when compared with attempts in January by activists on the conservative side to wiretap the phones of a Democratic senator. Greenpeace may well be extreme, but the banner antic hardly proves it.
(Now would be a good time to point out two things. First, despite what this interlude suggests, Brumas is a good flack, and a good guy, at least from my limited interactions with him. And second, Murkowski is probably right about at least one thing: The Clean Air Act is as poor a tool with which to regulate greenhouse gasses as the Endangered Species Act would’ve been in the case of the polar bear, and environmentalists risk undercutting their credibility and effectiveness in their rush to do something—anything—in the face of climate change.)
Ordinarily it’d be easy to dismiss this kind of rhetoric as the typical hyperbole that inevitably results from the hyper-partisan battles in Washington. But something else Brumas said in the same statement caught my attention: "This is another desperate attempt by an outside group to distract from the merits of the debate.”
I believe what Brumas meant to say was that it distracted from a debate on merits, or something similar. But the ambiguity his statement introduced is instructive.
If there’s anything Greenpeace’s actions did prove, it’s that they believe strongly in the merits of a debate over regulating greenhouse gasses—and even more strongly in the merits of their particular stance. Still, you don’t have to look far to find a sort of political nihilism that Brumas unintentionally described.
Not long after the “Faces of ACES” ad campaign aimed at lowering Alaska’s petroleum profit taxes was launched, a parody surfaced called “Faces of Asses.” Its singular artistic achievement was to superimpose the face of Vladimir Lenin over that of Democratic state Representative Les Gara (who also sports a goatee) proving… what, exactly?
That’s the sort of political dialogue that scoffs at the merits of the debate (and, by extension, any debate)—that considers bullying and innuendo legitimate tools for pushing policy.
Lest this kind of abject cynicism seem to be the province of the political right, word comes that the group Friends of Animals is launching a travel boycott of Alaska in 2010 in response to the state Board of Game’s recent decision to remove a buffer zone that would’ve protected wolves from Denali National Park that strayed north of the park’s boundary. The change was controversial—in a rare move, even the National Park Service broke silence to oppose the plan—and will likely be revisited again.
Friends of Animals, which testified against the plan, could’ve redoubled their efforts to educate the public about its position, and marshal whatever research they can find in anticipation of the next round of this battle. Instead they took a petulant course, taking out their frustrations on unrelated businesses, who are unlikely to respond by pressuring the game board. And on the wild chance such a boycott succeeded, it would undercut a substantial portion of the group’s argument—that wolves are valuable as a tourist attraction.
But Friends of Animals must know that. Which is why their cynicism places them in the company of the anonymous oil company apologists behind the “Faces of Asses” spoof, rather than their lefty compatriots at Greenpeace.
I tend to believe pretty strongly in the rule of law, but I think I’d rather have a few activists so zealous in their beliefs that they’re willing to engage in (non-violent) civil disobedience than a few cynics who make a mockery of “the merits of debate.”