The Gristle

A giant passes through

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

A GIANT PASSES THROUGH: Even as the Gristle reported last week on the resurgence of anti-Indian rhetoric and rightwing organizing in Whatcom County, one of the movement’s foremost chroniclers and critics drew his final breaths. Researcher and political commentator Paul de Armond, 60, passed away following a prolonged illness.

“Paul was committed to creating a political arena that was both unflinchingly truthful and completely safe, so that diverse opinions could be shared without fear,” commented Sherilyn Wells, former president of Washington Environmental Council, herself one of the fearless champions—at one terrible moment the very last voice of conscience left standing—in the protection of Lake Whatcom and the county’s natural resources. “In the pursuit of this goal, he courageously entered and exposed dangerous situations, documenting sub rosa activities with an unassailable level of professionalism. His contributions reached the level of national significance.”

“It was Paul de Armond who brought each of us together,” agreed Eric Ward, former field organizer at Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment. “As human rights organizations or individual researchers, each of us was engaged in trying to better understand the political emergence of the Patriot, Wise Use, and Militia movements. The mid-90s convergence of these movements would presage the rise of the Tea Party nationally 15 years later. ...Paul challenged us to collaboratively research a growing threat against democracy, thereby creating a space for collaboration that is still modeled today around the country. Paul was the definition of sacrifice in the face of bigotry and intolerance and never backed down from what was right. He was a tireless fighter for rights, transparency and democracy.”

“There is no way really to describe the extent of his dedication, his energy, the incredible depth and texture of his research and the quality of his understanding. They’re prodigious,” noted Jane Kramer, who followed the rise of Whatcom’s engines of hate and extremism for The New Yorker, culimating in her 2002 book The Lone Patriot: The Short Career of an American Militiaman, which detailed the deluded and doomed efforts in the mid-1990s of county Christian Patriots to assemble an arsenal of pipe bombs and grenades before the FBI arrived to make short work of them.

“What impresses me most about Paul de Armond,” she said, “is his immense generosity of mind, his collegiality, his commitment to enlightening—you could call it benign forced feeding—all of us who are trying in one way or another to understand, with him, what is happening to our country.”

In the earliest days of writing this column, 16 years ago, Paul was instrumental in helping me comprehend the ugly national movement of rising extremism—a toxic commingling of corporatist plunder and racially tinged anti-governnment, anti-environmental nonsense slathered over with political corruption, wrapped in a greasy wad of the Constitution and tied with the pretty golden ribbon of “property rights,” a packaging that endures to this day in groups like the Citizens Alliance for Property Rights and the Agenda 21 crowd that dominate county politics. Then, not long ago, Whatcom County was the vanguard, with more rightwing hate groups operating north of Seattle than in all of Montana, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks these groups.

Yet Paul was equally adept with the rest of the political landscape. In splendid political analysis, he was penetrating, articulate and—above all—droll. He could read polling data with inerrant and deadly accuracy. In prophecy, Paul was gracious as Cassandra.

He understood the nature of politics as satire, without surrendering to the smug view that politics is therefore unimportant and deserving of being shunned or ignored. He knew the enduring vitality of a sticker or slogan, the dirty trick turned on its head. Mailers and mailing lists were his tea leaves. He gloried in the WTO protests and Occupy movements. In one of his most endearing stunts, Paul documented the entire schematic of the cut-and-flip greenfield land grab that has so polluted local politics for the past two decades, mashed up so a child could grasp it in a series of old comic strip panels long in the public domain.

The public domain was Paul’s domain. He was—as David Ronfeldt, a retired senior researcher at RAND Corporation, notes—a pioneering practitioner of what political analyst John Keane calls “monitory democracy,” the power of citizens to hold their government accountable not just at the polls, but every day, through the assembly of data and documents and networks in all their forms.

In its most primitive form, Paul’s network was the backyard firepit, where all gathered frequently to chew fat and marrow from the bones of our public life. Many efforts were born around that welcoming roundtable—entire election campaigns, the human rights task force, recycling and renewal efforts, lore and scholarship that would transform into lasting public opinion and policy. Not that Paul did all this work alone. No, much of the time he was quiet as a monk, stoking and stirring the fire, a catalyst for community thought and action.

I recall early in the dark, new millennium Paul describing the rise of the Millerites and their apocalyptic vision of an earlier century, the Great Disappointment that polarized 19th century America and stalled both emancipation and suffrage civil rights movements as True Believers doubled down again and again on a gloomy end to the world. Horrible; but the world, he pointed out, did not end, and the liberal, charitable humane institutions that rose in response to carry the fight forward have endured longer than the harrowing visions of fire and ice. As then, so now.

He was, in every way, both master and mentor.

—Tim Johnson

Silver Reef Stay and Fly
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