Wednesday, June 13, 2007

How North Korea won the war against wilderness

The free market, literal or abstract, is as much a myth as a communist utopia.


John Rember

If you remember the Cold War you've probably heard stories of North Korean brainwashing. U.S. POWs were subjected to psychological techniques to turn them into Communist-directed automatons.

It didn't work. But a substantial number of American ex-POWs spent time in mental hospitals until it was concluded that they weren't Manchurian Candidate-types, sent home to lay groundwork for a communist invasion. We took the idea of robot-like communist agents seriously. Perhaps we should have.

Because in one way the North Koreans were stunningly effective: America bought into the notion that loyalties to country, family and ideals could be erased and replaced with loyalties to a political party or cult or economic theory.

Fast-forward 50 years. Asian communists have invaded, cleverly disguised as well-stocked shelves in Wal-Mart and Home Depot. Video games have turned an entire generation into hypnotized sofa-golems who come to jerky life only in response to product placement ads. Entire countries, including our own, have become helpless prisoners of war.

The programmable human, reduced further by techno-metaphors that portray the brain as a hard-drive, has become not just the focus of marketing campaigns, evangelical missions, talk-radio hosts and national education policy. It has also become the human we worry about becoming.

It's hard not to feel a vulnerability to being brainwashed when a friend suddenly starts quoting Limbaugh or Scalia. It's easy to imagine that our ideals could be erased by the propaganda of a rigid ideology.

Hang on, because I'm about to bring this argument home to land-use issues in the American West. This time the ideology that threatens American ideals isn't communism, but neo-conservative free-market capitalism, which isn't so different from what North Koreans were selling over camp loudspeakers in 1950.

This statement may seem absurd, but many neo-cons see the free market the way Marxists see the inexorable dialectic of history. It guarantees justice, prosperity, the destruction of old corrupt orders, and the triumph of scientific materialism over superstition. In the minds of some free-marketeers, the free market is reality, the economic equivalent of the laws of thermodynamics. It's the sort of literalization of the abstract that must have bored POWs in North Korea to tears.

The free market, literal or abstract, is as much a myth as a communist utopia. But it's not a myth that some people will manipulate markets to their profit and then explain that profit as a law of nature. You will find these people clustered about the choke-points in any distribution of goods and services. Right now, hordes of them are clustered near wilderness and recreation areas in the American West.

Land near wilderness has become the new gold. The choice parts of Aspen and Telluride and Sun Valley passed a million dollars an acre decades ago. Nearby choke-points lie on the borderline between federal and private lands. Market manipulation is occurring because new wilderness is offered in return for nearby federal lands being transferred to private ownership.

Right now, Congressman Mike Simpson is attempting to resurrect his CIEDRA federal land-transfer bill. It trades wilderness designation of part of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area for the privatization of another part. It's an act of perverse genius: the trade-off turns both pieces of land into commodities.

Furthermore, negotiating on this issue has changed the wilderness movement in a way North Korean psychologists would envy: Wilderness advocates have been transformed from believers in ethical, aesthetic and spiritual ideals into pragmatists who believe in realistic trade-offs and economic hardball.

The North Koreans would understand how some wilderness advocates have embraced pragmatism. All it takes is a self-image that is close to the Marxist idea that we really are plastic enough to be molded by a brutal realism, that ideals are trade-goods, that the means justify both the means and the end, that the interests of the masses are best determined by people who really understand the way things work.

It didn't work in 1950. It hasn't worked in Iraq. But Simpson is at it again anyway, here in the West, setting the stage for the transformation of the federal commons into commodity, and the transformation of a lot of Westerners into the compliant slaves of the free market.

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