Shining a Light: Interview with Jay Taber by Cory Morningstar
Jay Taber is an associate scholar of the Center for World Indigenous Studies, a contributing editor of Fourth World Journal, and a featured columnist at IC Magazine. Since 1994, he has served as communications director at Public Good Project, a volunteer network of researchers, analysts and activists engaged in defending democracy. As a consultant, he has assisted Indigenous peoples in the European Court of Human Rights and at the United Nations.
Cory Morningstar (CM): Juli Kearns, of Idyll Opus Press has observed that you write extensively on effective models of community education on issues mainstream America tends to be protected from, perhaps more by ignorance than any other buffer. Can you elaborate at all on this?
Jay Taber (JT): What Juli said was that I write about “effective models of community education on tear-em-up issues, the kind that shred a place and people in a way mainstream America tends to be protected from, perhaps more by ignorance than any other buffer.” The quote is from a review of my post Mainstream Malice, that Juli wrote in 2005, titled shining a light on the blind spots that aid hate groups.
My post was about former FBI undercover agent Mike German, who had recently been interviewed by Amy Goodman on Democracy Now, discussing his career infiltrating violent white supremacist groups. The 1997 convictions of eight militia members in Washington state, for manufacturing explosives to murder human rights activists, were a result of German’s undercover operation, which was initiated in response to community-based research conducted by Public Good Project field agents, myself included.
The ignorance Juli refers to is the fact that the militias had been hosted by Wise Use Movement agent provocateurs, working under contract to the Building Industry Association, targeting environmentalists and Native Americans involved in ecosystem conservation and treaty protection that impinged on developers’ public subsidies and private profits. CBS 60 Minutes did an expose on the Wise Use Movement in September 1992, titled Clean Water Clean Air, part of which was filmed in the area where Public Good Project and Agent German were involved. Two of the militia hosts were actually in the 60 Minutes segment.
By the time of the 1996 militia arrests, the local media monopoly Bellingham Herald, owned by Gannet Corporation, had actively covered up the industry-militia connection for five years. The effective model of community education our friends developed to get around the cover-up was the creation of a community newspaper, our development of a Public Good volunteer research network to obtain primary documents that could be used as evidence in court, and making contact with mainstream media adjacent to the news blackout area.
By breaking the story in Seattle, Portland and the small town of Anacortes, we were able to scuttle the political careers of militia hosts and Building Industry thugs, and start to open people’s eyes to the fact there was a lot going on behind the scenes that they weren’t reading about in the paper. It also got some organizations previously involved in issue advocacy to start doing investigative research on groups opposing them. That was something new for them, but it was essential to the democratic process, which is fundamentally vital to protect–no matter what your issue is.
CM: Jay, you state that “militias had been hosted by Wise Use Movement agent provocateurs, working under contract to the Building Industry Association, targeting environmentalists and Native Americans involved in ecosystem conservation and treaty protection that impinged on developers’ public subsidies and private profits.” How is this any different than today’s industrial capitalists, whose sole goal is to protect the current economic system and further accelerate growth, targeting, and more precisely, co-opting (via funding) environmentalists and Native Americans involved in ecosystem conservation and treaty protection that could impede on the shifting of today’s current power structures and corporate profits? Can such a parallel be made?
In June of this year you quoted Quinault Indian Nation President Fawn Sharp who remarked, “Our ancestors had to be good stewards of the land. Yet we seem to be paying the price for others who don’t share the same values.” She was referring to the difference between Fourth World conservation and First World consumerism. Currently, under the banner of environment, the NPIC [Non-Profit Industrial Complex] is pushing hard to sell the illusion that in order to “solve” our climate crisis, we simply have to switch from fossil fuel energies, to “renewable” energies with no focus (or mention) of the West’s rabid consumption, and no mention of the displacement such trends are causing indigenous peoples. Can you explain why this is the case. Further, how do we open people’s eyes to the magnitude of the crisis when NGOs acquiesce to the needs/wants of their funders first and foremost?
JT: Pattern recognition is one of the basic elements of analyzing social settings. Has this happened before? How did it go down? What can we learn from history?
Anti-Indian Conference, the story I broke at IC Magazine in April 2013, revealed the emergence of a national campaign to terminate tribal sovereignty in the US, organized in the Pacific Northwest by the same people who fomented interracial discord there in the 1990s. Organizational names had changed, and the Merchants of Fear building resentment against environmentalists and Native Americans are industrial developers this time, rather than commercial like before, but the patterns are the same.
If you substitute the Gateway Pacific Terminal consortium for the Building Industry Association, Tea Party for GOP, and fossil fuel export for strip mall development, the pattern is almost a perfect fit. That’s why Sandy Robson’s January 2014 feature story What Would Corporations Do? Native American Rights and the Gateway Pacific Terminal at Whatcom Watch caused such an uproar; she showed how SSA Marine, Peabody Coal, and Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad had used the resentment generated by the Tea Party and Citizens Equal Rights Alliance — “the Ku Klux Klan of Indian country” — against the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians opposing Gateway Pacific Terminal.
Sandy exposed how the consortium had funded the Tea Party PACs established by the main promoter of the Anti-Indian conference, and noted how the exorbitant fresh water demands of the proposed coal terminal at Cherry Point would likely violate the treaty water rights of the Coast Salish tribes, as well as endanger federally-protected species like Chinook salmon and Orca whales. In February 2014, the Gateway Pacific Terminal public relations consultant threatened Whatcom Watch with a SLAPP suit.
What I tried to convey in my summary of these events, related to fossil fuel export on the Salish Sea between Seattle and Vancouver, is that Capitalizing on Fear is a strategy First Nations on both sides of the Canada/US border can expect from fossil fuel exporters The Politics of Land and Bigotry escalates around shipping Tar Sands bitumen, Powder River Basin coal, and Bakken Shale oil from North America to Asia.
As president of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians and the Quinault Indian Nation — which is leading the opposition to a major oil train terminal on the Washington coast — Fawn Sharp is in the forefront of the Wall Street v. Coast Salish fossil fuel export war.
Sharp is one of the emerging American Indian leaders on the international stage engaged in Resolving Grievances and eliminating violence against Indigenous nations, and, as such, is in the middle of the Netwar between conservation and consumerism you speak of.
Cutting Edge Analysis like you do at Wrong Kind of Green, and I do at IC Magazine, helps consumers of mass communication form their own judgment, rather than consume corporate distortions and state propaganda. Supporting Investigative Journalism for Indigenous Peoples is one way they can circumvent corrupted mainstream media and compromised NGOs.
CM: I encounter many within the left spectrum who do not dispute the problems we are speaking of, and even applaud those activists and writers who are courageous enough to write the cutting edge analysis that you speak of (albeit privately in many cases) thereby exposing the ugly truths that sting … and make many who consider themselves “left” extremely uncomfortable. Shortly afterwards, I will notice they are sharing/promoting a campaign message by the very NGO or chosen/groomed/appointed eco-celeb, that they had understood undermines our legitimate grassroots work, only a week previous. This obviously lends credulity and credibility to those that deserve none. Why do you suppose such individuals knowingly dismiss such critical analysis? I have even witnessed this with those who identify with anarchism. Why do you think the “Western left” knowingly props up the very system and oligarchy that is close to destroying most all life on Earth? The same system and oligarchy that is dedicated to the complete genocide/annihilation of all Indigenous Peoples? If people understand that by “following” (hence giving power to) NGOs such as Avaaz and 350.org means upholding the very system and elites that have brought us to the cliff’s precipice, yet, they still choose to do so, what does this mean? Could it be that the meaning of left in the west has become nothing more than a trend that appeases the guilt of the privileged?
This September you have noted that the People’s Climate Change March, the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples, and the World Summit on Indigenous Philanthropy all take place in New York City. No doubt people will be flying and driving in from all over the world to partake in this circus with the belief they are going to help solve multiple ecological and social justice crises. You once wrote that physical protesting is futile if we don’t have an in-depth understanding of what we are actually fighting against. In fact, such naiveté only further serves to strengthen the very systems we claim to oppose. Can you elaborate on what you were talking about?
Foundations and NGOs focus on idealistic, well-meaning yet naïve young people to further advance their goals. I believe that today’s well intentioned youth are the elite’s sacrificial lambs. As we’ve witnessed (tragically) in Ukraine, those espousing Nazi ideologies have had great success tapping into the youth. In the case of climate and indigenous people, the irony is that the youth are the very ones who will lose the most: a planet hospitable/conducive to life, along with the knowledge of the Indigenous Peoples which continues to be lost and eroded.
JT: In the United States, we live in a society where consciousness is almost totally controlled by Wall Street. Since we don’t have a totalitarian form of government where freedom of travel and association are restricted, it is commonly assumed that we have freedom of thought and expression. While it is true that we can think what we want, and even say what we want within the boundaries of libel and defamation, the vertical integration of controlled consciousness sets rigid parameters on what American citizens are capable of imagining, let alone understanding.
In my editorial Moolah Boodle Lucre Simoleons, I wrote that, “Wall Street’s vertical integration of controlling consciousness is based on five components: ownership of media, fabrication of news, integration of advertising with state propaganda, financing of foundations and brokerages, and co-optation of NGOs. While many well-meaning people are channeled into the latter by the concerted collaboration of all the former, the corporate agenda that determines the policies, practices and projects of these NGOs is anything but benign.”
This systematic prevention of independent, critical thought — that begins in early childhood, and interferes with our ability to comprehend the world around us 24/7 — is one of the things I described in my editorial A Culture of Imbeciles, which created quite a stir around the climate change fraud promoted by Bill McKibben and 350.org. As an introduction to the work of Guy Debord, author of The Society of the Spectacle, I quoted his remark from 1957: “We have arrived at a stage of ideological absence in which advertising has become the only active factor, overriding any pre-existing critical judgment or transforming such judgment into a mere conditioned reflex.”
Debord’s remark was predicated on his analysis of the impact on human consciousness of the invention of television, but it could easily apply to computers, the Internet and social media today. His comments on the deepening separation of industrial civilization from reality, and loss of children’s capacity to think for themselves, certainly seem apropos.
I also mentioned in my editorial that producing fantasy has become such a prescribed art that few even question their fantasies about such things as political power. People will literally believe anything, even that Wall Street-financed organizers like McKibben — or Wall Street-owned politicians like Obama — are capable or interested in making fundamental change in power relationships between Wall Street and Main Street. Absurd as that sounds, it is an indication of how psychological manipulation is able to create Messiahs in the non-profit industrial complex and political arena. Because almost all progressive activism is based on people’s preconceptions, and what is fundable by Wall Street derivatives — laundered through brokerages and foundations — social networks, in large part, become part of the spectacle.
Those of us who produce coherent analysis, based on research, are actively marginalized, and even attacked, by both mainstream media and progressive activists. Uncomfortable truths, as you call them, are too unsettling for most people. They’ve built up personal identities around their fantasies about political power that are extremely difficult to break. Those that do eventually get it, are often adrift, and only come around to being effective in the public arena after reorienting to reality. This is when we often encounter people, when they happen across magazines like IC, or websites like Public Good Project or Wrong Kind of Green.
In my editorial about Cutting Edge Analysis, I discussed mainstream media and the Indigenous peoples Movement, including the concept of Netwar, a field of study pioneered by my colleague David Ronfeldt at RAND Corporation in the 1990s. I elaborated on this concept in the 2013 publication Communications in Conflict, which you helped to edit for IC Magazine. In the editorial, I linked to some examples of cutting edge analysis I had done for IC, as well as a sampling of netwar conflicts we had won.
One of my favorite books on the topic is The Zapatista Social Netwar in Mexico, by David Ronfeldt, John Arquilla, Graham E. Fuller, and Melissa Fuller, which you can download as a free ebook.
When people start organizing for political power outside the activist system imposed by Wall Street, volunteering as citizens, rather than as career advocates, they see how effective they, their neighbors and friends can be. Once they are no longer dependent on Wall Street funding or NGOs, the strategies available to them increase exponentially. Our job as writers is to show them that they can do that. Granted, that entails taking risks, and challenging habitual assumptions about reality, but the rewards far outweigh the risks.
Once people experience this kind of empowerment, they are less inclined to engage in protests or marches that don’t lead to taking back power from Wall Street for their communities. They become more mature and confident, and have a healthier sense of identity–as opposed to one based on consuming Wall Street-produced spectacle. They become, instead, human beings whose lives have both meaning and purpose.
CM: Stephanie McMillan‘s excellent work has been described as “Uncomfortable reading for liberals”. I quote: “Her impossible message is that all of the individual efforts to make things better (recycling, getting off grid, and even sharing with your friends) don’t make any difference if you don’t take on the structural problems of capitalism. This is the acid test for radicalism. Either you believe that you need to step out of your comfort zone and fight for systemic change against quite impressive monsters or you think personal positive actions are enough. Her impossible message is that all of the individual efforts to make things better (recycling, getting off grid, even sharing with your friends) don’t make any difference if you don’t take on the structural problems of capitalism. This is the acid test for radicalism. Either you believe that you need to step out of your comfort zone and fight for systemic change against quite impressive monsters, or you think personal positive actions are enough.” Surely capitalism and imperialism must be fully understood if we are to have any success at all as activists, and as citizens with dignity. Despite America believing it has an “educated” populace, it is apparent that in many countries within Latin America and other parts of the world, such as Africa, although there is sometimes very little formal education, there is a much deeper understanding amongst the people of imperialism and capitalism, and politics in general. I cannot help thinking how they must laugh at our collective ignorance. Can you elaborate on this subject?
JT: Americans of every generation have fought back against oligarchy or plutocracy and the capitalist system of rule, but the Wall Street/Hollywood/Madison Avenue combination has too much firepower for the average American to stand up to. Using my generation as an example, look at what the U.S. Department of Justice did to the Free Speech Movement and the Negro Revolution, the Civil Rights Movement, the Anti-War Movement, and the American Indian Movement. The Burglary by Betty Medsger, and Seth Rosenfeld’s book Subversives, are real eye-openers about how the FBI treated students, minorities and peace activists attempting to exercise their constitutional rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.
The amount of money invested and manpower mobilized to prevent human consciousness from spreading into mainstream America has been astonishing. Even cynicism and smugness have been programmed into the American character in order to keep democracy down. Every emotion you can think of has been commodified in order to maintain an infantile level of awareness consistent with this popular political illiteracy.
The punishment for stepping outside the cultural comfort zone of conformity, which many of my generation did, was severe. It still is. Why would anyone want to experience that?
There is, of course, the reward of self-respect and human dignity, but that’s small comfort for social marginalization, political repression, and economic suffering. Any successful movement has to be built on social solidarity, where mutual aid is organized and sustained at a community level. Otherwise, the best and brightest are continually sacrificed, and continuity is extinguished. How can you expect Americans to commit to multi-generational struggles for freedom if every generation has to start from scratch?
Mentoring has to be institutionalized in order for consciousness to grow; without a commitment to that essential project, nothing lasting can be achieved. Monitory democracy is a term sometimes used to describe a system where ordinary citizens keep an eye on what’s going on in their communities, and collectively intervene whenever they see threats emerge. This is in stark contrast to the system where everyone is oblivious to nefarious developments until it’s too late, and their community is thrown into social turmoil.
My friends and I used to have a camp fire club, where we invited community activists to a barbecue every Saturday night, and sat around a campfire talking about what was happening. From that club, we created a social milieu that sponsored a human rights speakers’ bureau in local churches, developed a computer researchers’ network, and ran independents for political office. All financed by garage sales and bake sales.
This social milieu grew from a handful of friends and neighbors into a political force that took over our city and county governments, published its own community newspaper, and began repairing relations with nearby American Indian tribes that had been abused for a couple centuries. Not bad for a group of radicals without a pot to piss in.
CM: Jay, who were some of the people that influenced you most?
JT: Paul de Armond, Public Good Project research director from 1994-2007 — my partner for eighteen years, until his untimely passing in 2013 — unquestionably influenced the direction of my intellectual pursuits and orientation toward public service. Bill Wassmuth, who in the 1990s led Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment — the most effective human rights network in the US — and passed away in 2002, demonstrated for me the importance of nurturing the involvement of people of faith in the human rights movement.
Rudolph C. Ryser, chair of the Center for World Indigenous Studies and architect of the field of study known as Fourth World Geopolitics, welcomed me with open arms as an associate scholar in 2005 — after completing my masters in humanities and leadership — and published my work at Fourth World Journal, which exposed my thinking to a global academic and Indigenous audience. David Ronfeldt, a senior analyst at RAND Corporation, and author of Tribes Institutions Markets Networks: A Framework About Societal Evolution, as well as The Zapatista Social Netwar in Mexico, perhaps more than anyone provided me with a top-view of communications in conflict.
Guy Debord, author of The Society of the Spectacle, afforded me a model for analyzing social settings essential to forming an estimate of the situation. Native American novelists like Leslie Marmon Silko, N. Scott Momaday, and Ray A. Young Bear inspired me to write more poetically, in a way that involved honoring what author Jamake Highwater called The Primal Mind: Vision and Reality in Indian America. William Shakespeare and Jay Ward (creator of Rocky & Bullwinkle) rounded out my appreciation of consciousness-raising in popular formats.
CM: What are you working on now?
JT: I’d like to find a home for Church and State — my series on religious hysteria in America and the spiritual warfare of Puritanical conservatism against socialism and the Indigenous peoples Movement — in an anthology on the Religious Right, or perhaps in a special issue of Fourth World Journal. That, and A Mandate from God: Christian White Supremacy in the US — which examines Christian Identity doctrine, the driving force of the Anti-Indian Movement — would be useful for Indigenous communities and their civil society friends in understanding what they’re up against.
Other than that, I spend most of my time mentoring other writers, helping them to gain a top-view of social conflict, and cultivating in them an appreciation of the theater arts involved in political pageantry.
CM: What’s next?
JT: The social netwar associated with the upcoming World Conference on Indigenous Peoples should start cranking up soon, as should the propaganda related to the People’s Climate Change March and the sophistry of the World Summit on Indigenous Philanthropy. All three take place in New York between September 20 and 26, so it ought to be a real three-ring circus, especially with all the public relations puppets from the non-profit industrial complex swarming for media attention to keep their foundation grants flowing.
I’m also monitoring media for new developments in the Wall Street v. Coast Salish netwar in the carbon corridor conflict on the Salish Sea between Seattle and Vancouver, where the fossil fuel exporters plan to ramp up operations to expand shipping of Tar Sands bitumen, Bakken Shale oil and Powder River Basin coal to Asia. The coal exporters were involved in helping the Tea Party promote Anti-Indian racism and resentment there last year, so it’s one of the Fourth World hot spots I keep an eye on.
One of the things I found astonishing about the Salish Sea conflict, was that the local peace and justice groups never said a word about this organized racism taking place in their community, leaving it to one of my investigative journalism proteges to expose the sordid affair. Even when CERA, the “Ku Klux Klan of Indian country” came to town, the Quaker/Unitarian milieu — people I usually associate with righteous courage — kept completely silent. It was as though they had buried their heads in the sand, wishing it would all go away.
The peace people evidently have no problem turning out crowds to protest invading Iraq or bombing Gaza, but then don’t lift a finger to confront bigotry in their own hometown. I find that very disturbing.
When my referenced colleague was attacked by the coal consortium spokesman for her exposé, there was actually quite a bit of cowardly behavior by local environmental activists, including blaming her for bearing this unsettling news. Based on my experience, this is unfortunately not all that uncommon.
CM: What advice, if any, do you have for young writers?
JT: Read, travel, and study. I learn a lot about storytelling, language and vocabulary, for instance, by reading mystery novels or watching a play.
Don’t limit yourself to one genre to find your rhythm and voice. I switched from long-form essays when I started writing editorials. People have short attention spans; you need to grab them with your opening sentence.
Working with words is serious business. They serve as tools of social organization, as weapons of war, and as means of manipulation. Depending on how they are used, words can cause horrendous harm or great good.
Working with words can gain one respect, renown, and reward, but it can also generate resentment. Not all messages are appreciated.
Learning to use words effectively requires an understanding of the principles of communication, especially in what is termed netwar, which assumes that all communication in all its dimensions is contested. Words are meant to achieve, and as propositions in the arena of human consciousness, they will be confronted.
For those lacking a background in journalism or literature, manuals on such topics as briefings are worth looking at.
Writing is essentially storytelling; the narrative orients an audience toward a point of view or perception of reality. Based on that perception, an inspired audience can become further educated, make efforts at organizing others, and participate in community actions for social change.
Competing narratives redistribute political power.
It’s also true that the more integrity you have as a writer, the fewer friends you will have. Those you do have will be worth the sacrifice, but human frailties among colleagues that self-censor, in order to avoid criticism or pursue a steady paycheck, can be disheartening.
If you do what has to be done, without expecting gratitude or recognition, you’ll experience less grief. Telling the truth has to be its own reward; otherwise you’ll be sadly disappointed.