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Essay by Martha Quillen

Politics – September 2006 – Colorado Central Magazine

RECENTLY, AN AUDIENCE MEMBER on C-Span2’s Book TV made an observation that I suspect most of us have made at one time or another. (For those unfamiliar with C-Span, it’s a cable channel which airs U.S. Senate proceedings, congressional committee hearings, interviews with foreign dignitaries, and the like, and the programming includes CSpan2’s Book TV, which features 48 hours of non-fiction book discussions every weekend.)

In this instance, author Sandy Tolan was talking about his book, The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East. The Lemon Tree tries to illuminate the history and heartache on both sides of the Arab/Israeli conflict by telling the story of a Palestinian family who lost their home in Ramla, Israel, and of the Jewish family who moved in.

Tolan’s book is, of course, controversial, since it shows considerably more sympathy to the plight of Palestinians than U.S./Israeli defenders generally do. But it also tries to do justice to the great humanitarian dream that Zionism represented to the world-weary post-Holocaust families who settled in Israel. Tolan says he wrote the book in order to “humanize” both sides of the conflict — an aspiration he undertakes by sharing the history and personal perspectives of an Arab family and a Jewish family who share an unusual relationship.

During the question and answer period following his presentation, Tolan said he wasn’t comfortable commenting on what Israel or the Palestinians should do next because he didn’t know and was certainly no expert on international diplomacy.

The audience, however, had other ideas. One woman insisted that Tolan must realize that it was past time for the U.S. to stop Israel’s illegal wars. A man accused him of being a Palestinian apologist. “How can we stop Israel?” “Hamas?” “Hezbollah?” the audience clamored.

Finally, one man commented that it was as if the author had not spoken at all, because clearly no one had listened. Instead, people had come to argue their own convictions, and really weren’t interested in hearing Tolan’s. “So what’s the point?” the man asked. Did the author really believe that a book could make a difference?

The author responded, as he had again and again, that he believed that it was absolutely essential to humanize both sides. Within a few minutes, however, an audience member accused Tolan of dishonest reporting and sympathizing with terrorists. Whereupon the author got a little hot under the collar, himself. Thus the discussion ended just in time to avoid another Arab/Israeli conflict.

SITTING AT HOME in my living room in the wilds of Central Colorado in the wee hours of the morning (which is when C-Span2 inevitably airs the most interesting stuff on Book TV), I found myself agreeing with the naysayer who questioned whether there was any point in trying to say anything about the issue.

What is the point of writing about or talking about contentious political issues when the most noteworthy result usually seems to be to make matters worse?

Yet the gentleman who questioned whether there was any point in writing about Arabs and Israelis was attending Tolan’s lecture, and here I am re-introducing Tolan’s controversial thesis. Clearly neither of us believes that people should avoid distressing subjects; we’ve merely gotten disillusioned with the way fractious issues usually get addressed. In fact, I suspect that most citizens are tired of all the belligerent and maddening, yet wholly ineffectual, confrontations over issues from Iraq, to abortion, to immigration.

The weirdest thing about today’s peskiest issues, however, is the general state of agreement between political adversaries. Take Iraq, for example. In the beginning, both sides of Congress accepted faulty intelligence and sanctioned military intervention in Iraq — even though civilian opposition to the war was substantial. And now, most public officials, regardless of their party affiliation, contend that we should get out as soon as the new Iraqi government is ready — and in the meantime we should start reducing our forces in the region. It’s strange, isn’t it, how people can keep fighting when they basically agree on an issue?

Currently, however, there’s a huge gap between how Democrats and Republicans see the Iraq War. But the chasm is less about what we should do, than about what we should have done in the first place.

A front page story in the July 30 New York Times examined partisan divisions over the war in Iraq. Polls indicate that current partisan divisions over the war surpass all Viet Nam era divisions. During Nam, the difference between Republicans and Democrats over whether sending in troops was a mistake never exceeded 18%; whereas a recent poll indicates a 50% difference for a similar question applied to Iraq.

Partisan schisms don’t apply to every difficult issue, but most of the people quoted in the Times think current divisions are excessive.

“This era in general feels excessively partisan….” said Thomas Donilon, a former assistant secretary of state under Clinton.

Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, told the Times that “all nuance” had gotten lost in political debate. “You end up with very stark choices: quote, stay the course, versus, quote, cut and run. And in reality a lot of policy needs to be made between them.”

In Our Endangered Values, former President Jimmy Carter wrote: “Nowadays, the Washington scene is completely different, with almost every issue decided on a strictly partisan basis. Probing public debate on key legislative decisions is almost a thing of the past.”

The cover copy of Joe Klein’s new book, Politics Lost, declares: “People on the right are furious. People on the left are livid, and the center isn’t holding. There is only one thing on which almost everyone agrees: there is something very wrong in Washington.”

YES, ONCE AGAIN those people in Washington have failed us. But maybe we don’t need them. After all, we are the Americans most experienced in quelling mayhem and restoring tranquility.

In days gone by, gambling and prostitution were the norm from Leadville to Creede and in between; stabbings were common; and drunken young men routinely carried guns. Local newspapers encouraged vigilantism; local communities were the sites of several lynchings.

Lake County (which included Chaffee County at the time) launched a shooting spree which became known as the Lake County War. It started with a fist fight over a ditch, which inspired a barn-burning, whereupon rancher George Harrington was shot dead as he raced to put out the fire.

Locals accused Elijah Gibbs and a lynching party formed, but Gibbs was rescued and sent to Denver for trial, where he was found innocent.

Locals, however, didn’t agree. After Gibbs returned home, a mob tried to burn down his house, and Gibbs shot two of them. Thus Gibbs was tried once again and released after a jury determined that the killings were in self-defense.

In response, a committee formed and demanded justice. At their bidding, the local sheriff went to Denver to collect Gibbs, but Gibbs escaped. So the committee turned against Gibbs’s friends, killing one and trying to hang another, and driving who knows how many from the county, including probate Judge Elias Dyer, son of the famed Reverend John Dyer.

WHETHER THE COMMITTEe actually killed others is the stuff of legend, but unknown to history. Whatever the real count, things seemed calmer by spring, and Judge Dyer returned, along with Jesse Marion, who lodged a complaint against the men who had tried to hang him. Another mob formed, and Marion wisely skipped his court appearance, whereupon Judge Dyer duly dismissed the charges. But that was not enough to pacify the angry vigilantes.

Elias Dyer was killed inside the courthouse in Granite. Many citizens had apparently seen who entered the building, but no suspects were ever officially identified, apprehended, or tried. Years later Charles Nachtrieb, a member of the notorious committee, was murdered. Some claimed Nachtrieb was another casualty of the Lake County War, and some went even further and claimed that many of the committee of 60 or so met similar ends, but the true tally remains unknown.

Clearly murder was not just an aberration in the Old West. It had vocal and respectable supporters, who insisted that rustlers, claim jumpers and card sharks needed killing. In fact, New York City and Washington D.C. would tremble in terror if they ever approached some of the Old West’s 19th century murder rates.

So how did we establish peace and quiet in our part of the world?

That’s an excellent question.

I suspect that many Republicans would say it was due to old-fashioned values, the death penalty, and not being soft on crime. But history shows that our forebears had a curious tolerance for any kind of killing, and often gave those convicted of murder a mere four- or five-year sentence or even probation (because, after all, the man was drunk, or he hadn’t meant to do it.)

Conservatives often accuse modern liberals of moral relativism. But our forebears embraced their own version of that ethos. What kind of society finds showing too much ankle risque, but tolerates open prostitution? What kind of culture makes heroes out of bank robbers and celebrates shoot-outs?

An interesting one to be sure — so interesting that Denver’s redlight district actually became a tourist attraction in the 19th century.

“Ahhh,” I hear some say, “Do you think that would work today? What if we got GOCO grants to establish old-fashioned brothels and saloons?”

In that case, we just might be able to recreate the fervent violence of the Old West — or the Middle East.

But as far as I can see, Western history doesn’t appear to offer any easy history lessons relevant to the Middle East (except, perhaps, that Indian Wars and massacres, rustling, claim jumping, ethnic strife, Klan dominance, and labor unrest in our region did eventually give way to peace and quiet after seventy or eighty years).

PEACE, HOWEVER, didn’t arrive until after the gold and silver ran out and the prospectors, outlaws, claim jumpers, gamblers, and prostitutes moved on. In fact, any tranquility in our region is probably due to low population and wide open spaces rather than compatibility. Or as Ed often points out, “People don’t move to the hinterlands because they love their fellow man.”

Holy land, however, appears to be a bizarrely renewable resource, sustainable for countless millennia, and thus one suspects that the Middle East won’t be lucky enough to run out of its most precious resource any time soon. Therefore, our best ploy for peace can’t work there.

So I can’t see that the Old West has any lessons to impart to the Old World. But the Middle East may have some for us.

In the early twentieth century Jews flocked into Palestine, drawn by a growing Zionist movement. After World War I, the region was partitioned by allied forces, and Palestine was put under the military administration of Great Britain. For several decades, Jews were accepted as a minority with guaranteed rights, but the Arabs in the region were adamantly opposed to making any part of Palestine a Jewish state.

IN 1942, a conference at the Biltmore Hotel in New York called for unrestricted Jewish immigration into Palestine and the eventual establishment of a Jewish commonwealth there. By the end of World War II, there was a huge clamor to implement the Biltmore resolution, much of it coming from the U.S. — and even President Truman took up the cause.

So in 1947, Great Britain referred the matter to the United Nations, whereupon Palestine was partitioned into two states, one Arab and one Jewish. The new nations’ neighbors, however, were not welcoming. In the spring of 1948, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Transjordan sent troops in.

But Israel prevailed. In the armistice agreements signed in 1949, the entity hitherto known as Palestine ceased to exist. Palestinian Arabs fled into Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and other Arab nations, and Israel took charge of the territory.

That was merely the beginning, however, not the end. Since then, attacks on Israel have been common and there have been wars, coups, civil wars, and overturned regimes amongst Israel’s Arab antagonists. Over the years, allegiances have shifted and morphed and innumerable new factions have evolved: Sunni, Shi-ite, Kurd, Druze, Ba’thist, pan-Arabists, communist, socialist, Hamas, Hezbollah, Al Qaida….

At this point, the countless factions and multifold national viewpoints involved in any Middle Eastern crisis seem beyond comprehension. Thus it’s not too surprising that American intercession in Middle Eastern politics seldom goes according to plan (whether we’re supporting the Shah or Iran, or arming Afghani freedom fighters, or underestimating the insurgency in Iraq).

When you look back at Israel’s history, you can’t help but wonder if perhaps the U.S. could have done things differently. Maybe if all the way back in the beginning, we’d met with more Arabs, or persuaded someone, or negotiated something….

But some things become clear when you reflect on America’s history in the region: First, it’s not enough to want something. Or to believe in it. Or to support it.

Nor is it enough to fight for it. Or even win.

Nor is it enough to vote for something, or pass it, or even implement it.

In the long run, the citizenry must be persuaded to accept the new conditions and abide by the rules. And that’s true whether you’re talking about Middle Eastern politics, or American Indian policy, or just local ordinances and zoning regulations.

But modern America doesn’t encourage collaboration and compromise. We’re partisan, polarized and confrontational.

Therefore, I have no idea how it happened, or why, but lately local politics have seemed calmer, to me — and the citizens seem more reasonable and integrated.

Just a few years back, Salida often bristled with conflict — over new trails, disruptive street repairs, bicycles and skateboards, city management, vision statements, noise abatement, teen cruising, out-of-control kids, loitering laws, escalating housing and utility costs, and the hazards of having a new Super Wal-Mart.

Salida used to have parking space wars, but now we’ve got parking lots. Kids today can be as troublesome as ever, driving around aimlessly, hanging out, and occasionally even vandalizing property, but the community seems more intent on catching the perpetrators than corraling the whole generation.

Now, citizens seem less angry — although we certainly haven’t fixed everything.

But we seem to have put aside a little of our partisan antipathy (although only on local issues, so I wouldn’t suggest bringing up Iraq). In recent months, the most contentious debates in our county have been about Christo and Jeanne-Claude, zoning, water usage, and real estate development — and locals don’t necessarily divide down party lines on art or development.

In fact, Chaffee County voters frequently cross party lines. For example, even though Chaffee County is predominantly Republican, all three of its county commissioners are currently Democrats.

BUT THAT COULD CHANGE in November. And if it does, I suspect this lovely lull in hostilities will pass with it.

Beverly Scanga, the Republican candidate for commissioner, sounds thoroughly angry. On her website, she accuses the current county commissioners of “CARELESS disregard for past regulations,” “making “outlandish decisions,” and “trashing the ideas of our predecessors and ancestors.”

Beverly Scanga is the wife of Terry Scanga, Managing Director of the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District (UAWCD), and that’s somewhat problematical since the conservancy district and the county seriously clashed on several occasions last year, and will likely do so again.

The relationship between the county and the district isn’t primarily antagonistic, though. They have to coordinate their efforts as a matter of course (since it’s impossible to separate land, water, and development issues) and the two agencies recently discussed jointly purchasing land, water, and a reservoir. This is expensive stuff and should be shrewdly negotiated between them — and argued about if necessary. So how will Scanga handle such negotiations? And what if something goes wrong? Or ends up in court (as has happened in the past)? Will she refrain from voting? And presuming she does, is that fair to her supporters — since water usage is arguably the biggest issue facing our region?

As I see it, occasional run-ins between the two agencies are inevitable, and may in fact be healthy, because they guarantee that major issues are diligently vetted. But clashes between UAWCD and local towns and the county are considerably more frequent than they used to be, because our county has thoroughly changed, and is still changing. Ranching, mining, and railroading aren’t as important as they once were. Today, local citizens service and repair computers, install satellite dishes, own galleries, and do data processing. People rent and sell bicycles, kayaks and river gear; they produce art, pottery, and sportswear. In Salida, motels, restaurants, raft companies, acupuncturists, realty companies, coffee outlets, and health food stores have flourished.

CHAFFEE COUNTY is a different place today than it was when UAWCD was founded in 1979. And thus people have different ideas about how we should use our limited water resources. Recently the county commissioners obtained a Recreational In Channel Diversion to safeguard minimum water flows through Salida’s new river park. Such diversions are very new, and give instream users a chance to have their rights quantified and legalized.

Water conservancy districts are not all against RICDs. UAWCD stood against Salida’s, but Gunnison’s water district backed one for their river park.

Bev Scanga, however, claims that our county’s RICD is for special interests only.

Citizens in support of the measure, on the other hand, believe that keeping more water in the river will not only serve the park, but also the rafting and kayaking industries, Salida’s downtown improvement district, the Arkansas River Recreation Area, campers, fishermen, all of the local businesses that rely on tourism, plus the quality of our recreational attractions, and the wildlife and fish.

Of course, Bev Scanga doesn’t think that county commissioners should have any say about water, because “we pay taxes to the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District to have them protect our water.”

Scanga’s website promises, “Bev Scanga will not allow more tax money to be spent carelessly on matters that the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District is responsible for.”

But that’s nonsense. Protecting water is just as much county business as it is UAWCD business. Towns, cities, counties, municipal waterworks, treatment plants, state parks, federal parks, hydro plants, the DOW, the BLM, and the army core of engineers must all safeguard public water supplies because its an inherent part of their other duties.

After all, water is the primary medium of development, it’s vital to flora and fauna, essential to farming, necessary for manufacturing, and a prime tourist attraction. Thus it has to be considered when you’re planning, zoning, designating green space, designing roads, formulating weed control programs, running landfills, approving septic systems, et al.

But Beverly Scanga even questions the right of our elected commissioners to rezone, which is clearly their responsibility.

And she habitually champions her husband, which is nice, but hardly devoid of “favoritism” or “special interest” on her part.

All in all, Scanga’s website suggests an inflexible attitude, an inability to compromise on land and water issues, and a “careless disregard” for the fact that if she wins, she would have to work with two of the commissioners she’s repeatedly insulted.

Scanga’s arguments bring to mind the Old West/New West divisions that we so mercifully put behind us a few years ago. I remember those days — when ranchers tried to keep rafts from floating past their property, and old-timers threatened hang gliders. I also remember rude newcomers who complained about all of the deer heads in our restaurants, and arrogant yuppies who were sure that they were smarter than anyone wearing a cowboy hat. Those times weren’t admirable, but they weren’t intolerable, either. So I guess if Beverly Scanga takes us back there, we’ll survive.

BUT THE POLITICAL CLIMATE here has seemed so much more congenial of late that I had thought we’d mellowed and grown more philosophical. Thus I’d hoped that local candidates would assume we wanted facts, logic, and earnest presentations rather than all those strident accusations, exaggerations, partisan buzz words and overblown theatrics.

After seeing the World Trade Center towers implode and the Middle East reduced to rubble again and again, I thought maybe we Central Coloradans had finally put our problems in perspective, and weren’t going to engage in any more pointless political posturing.

But that’s got to be the stupidest thing I’ve thought in a long time. Because if history teaches us anything, it’s that bad ideas return repeatedly. Just when things seem to be getting better, the bad ideas come back. You can’t escape them, or forget them, or relegate them to the past, because someone always seems to want to resurrect them.