03 May 2007

Laytonville And The Lorax

I noticed today that someone had wound up on my site though googling "Laytonville Lorax," which sent me looking back through the collection of articles that I wrote for the Anderson Valley Advertiser back in the late 80s and early 90s. The Advertiser at that time was edited and published by the irascible and - to put it mildly - controversial Bruce Anderson (no relation to the valley of the same name, but boy, did they deserve each other), and who for about 20 years devoted himself to annoying and outraging the local hippies and rednecks with his Menckenesque attacks on the pomposity, hypocrisy and parochialism that he felt (correctly for the most part) ruled local politics and culture.

I came to Bruce's attention through my efforts to do much the same thing with my own magazine, Lookout. He started reprinting many of my Lookout articles, and eventually I began submitting new ones directly to the Advertiser, becoming in effect its Laytonville correspondent. I've decided, after some hesitation, to reprint one here. You'll no doubt see why I was hesitant; it makes me sound like some 16 year old anarchist (I believe I was in my early 40s at the time) rather than the careful, compassionate, thoughtful and reasoned observer you no doubt know me as today.

I'm also reluctant to print it because the piece paints its chief villain, local logging baron Bill Bailey, in more unflattering terms than he deserves. Yes, he was wacky to try and ban The Lorax, and yes, I'm sure I could still find quite a few things to disagree with him about, but in the years following the publication of this story, I came to respect the man a good deal more, not least for his philanthropic efforts, but also for his character, one aspect of which was a good old-fashioned Western-style cussedness that often masked a heart much bigger than people gave him credit for. Okay, enough disclaimers, here's the story, and just try to remember: we were all a lot younger in those days.

(P.S. It's long, so if you're not interested in the ancient history of small town environmental conflicts, feel free to give it a miss.)

Sometimes I just get so tired. There have got to more interesting and useful things to do with a Thursday night than drag oneself into Laytonville to do battle with a handful of closet nazis who feel threatened by the idea that our schools might somehow produce a generation less ignorant than themselves.

Sure, the national media had a field day ridiculing the northern California hick town goobers who were out to ban Dr. Seuss, and I suppose readers accustomed to my not inconsiderable bent for sarcasm and satire might expect the same from me. But I'm just not in the mood for it.

Even though I've gotten a lot of mileage out of making fun of Laytonville over the years, I happen to like this town and I also happen to know that it's populated by many intelligent, caring people. That's why I resent it when some two-bit fascist twerp like Bill Bailey can turn the name Laytonville into a synonym for ignorance, prejudice, and know-nothing bigotry. Not just in Mendocino County — he's already been doing that for years — but across the entire United States.

Mr. Bailey has gotten it into his head that the ability to acquire large amounts of money is somehow indicative of intelligence, and that since he is the richest man in town, ipso facto he must also be the smartest. So it doesn't seem at all out of the ordinary to him that people like himself are best qualified to decide what children should be thinking about, as well as what they should be prevented from thinking about.

An unarmed man caught in a battle of wits usually goes looking for a club, and Bailey has a sizable one, namely a bankroll that would choke a whole passel of loraxes. If you or I don't like some idea that is going about, our only recourse is to come up with a better idea and then be able to convince others that it’s a better idea. Bailey, whose intellectual larder is as barren as his moneybags are full, doesn’t have that option.

If he thinks The Lorax gives children a mistaken impression about the value of conservation and the destructiveness of greed, let him present the schools with a book that will give an opposing viewpoint. Let him show us an interesting, well-written children's book that explains why it’s a good thing to cut down what's left of our forests, to destroy our streams and fisheries, to alter our climate, to leave behind a monumental legacy of toxic waste and pollution so that Mr. Bailey and a handful of corporate bigshots like himself can make a few more million bucks. If Bailey doesn't like The Lorax, it's because he sees himself in it, and what drives him all the more nuts is that with all his money, he can't pay an author enough to write a book that will make him look good.

The millions of dollars he has made selling implements of destruction to forest-rapers around the globe will never be able to buy him respectability, but they have bought him two seats on the Laytonville school board. That, combined with the vote of good ol’ gal Judy Geiger gives Big Bill a majority vote, and an awful lot of power over what does or doesn't go into the minds of Laytonville school children.

Thanks to the efforts of Big Bill and a few similarly minded yahoos, Laytonville has long been notorious around Mendocino County for being a hotbed of intolerance and carefully cultivated stupidity, and now that reputation has spread across the country and around the world. But the TV news people and the reporter from People magazine who showed up for the Laytonville school board meeting last week must have been severely disappointed if they were expecting a hall full of Bailey-style peanutbrains.

What they found instead was small town American democracy at its finest, a couple hundred outraged citizens of all ages there to tell their elected officials in no uncertain terms: leave our kids alone. Yes, there were a few professional serfs ready to testify that whatever Massa Bailey said was just fine with them, but a good 80 or 90 per cent of the crowd was there to speak out on behalf of freedom, justice, and the American way. And I say that without the slightest trace of sarcasm, because while there are many things most vile and heinous done under the banner of Americanism, there is also in this country a tradition of free thought and inquiry that even the most brutal cynic must acknowledge.

Which is why Bill Bailey, despite his flag waving and pandering to the most reactionary sort of patriotism, is fundamentally un-American. He doesn't believe that people should be free to seek out the truth; he believes that the powerful should determine for the people what the truth should be, and that further discussion is not only unnecessary, but also downright subversive. Yes, taking one book off the second grade reading list in one small town elementary school is a fairly minor step in the direction of state censorship, but the fact that Bill Bailey wants to take any steps at all in that direction makes any of his educational views highly suspect.

Those views would be of little note in Laytonville, where he is widely regarded as a laughingstock, if he hadn't managed to put his hired hands on the school board during the past summer's election. Their victory was largely due to their stand on the new high school building site, not to their affiliation with the Bailey slate, but huge infusions of what Bailey lovingly calls "timber dollars" couldn't have hurt.

Ironically, one of Bailey's new lackeys on the school board is Art Harwood, the scion (the "crown prince," in Judy Bari's words) of Laytonville logging's long-time first family. But, as so often happens out here on the frontier, new money has overtaken old, and young Harwood now has to do the bidding of Mr. Bill. Mike Wilwand, Bailey's other representative on the board, should have no illusions of independence; his weekly paycheck comes directly from Bailey Enterprises Amalgamated, Inc.

The swing vote on the five-member board belongs to Judy Geiger, who while she hails from another of Laytonville's principal clans, gets along with many of the newcomers (they used to be called hippies in polite society and a variety of unprintable names in most of Laytonville) who have moved to the area in the last twenty years. But when push comes to shove, she still sides with the old-timers, and that's why, regardless of how many citizens turned out to defend The Lorax, the fix was already in. The votes were in Bill Bailey's pocket, and The Lorax was one dead duck.

At least that's the way it looked for most of the meeting. There was an hour of speechmaking allotted to the public, some of it quite eloquent. A representative from the Long Valley Teachers Association attacked "the demagoguery of a few wealthy businessmen," a plain-spoken logger gestured toward his four children who "eat and sleep in a house paid for with timber dollars," but who was nonetheless opposed to the sort of censorship being proposed by the Bailey forces. Still another declared, "I'm not so much afraid of ideas as I am of taking away the freedom to discuss ideas."

About ten speakers had denounced the book-banning proposal before one rose to insist, "There are many in this community who find this book offensive." Very few of them, however, bothered to show up for the meeting. For that matter, Bill Bailey himself, the author of the entire mess, was nowhere to be seen. It was a prudent decision on his part, since given the temperament of the crowd, his ego would have suffered the emotional equivalent of a big fat cream pie smack in the kisser. One of the evening's biggest laughs, in fact, came when a speaker alluded to "Bailey's coat of arms," the ludicrous symbol Big Bill had commissioned in an attempt to glorify a logging industry now engaged in a Final Solution to the Northern California Tree Problem.

(By the way, those of you interested in supporting Mr. Bailey's efforts should pick up his fall catalog, which offers you a chance to purchase about 100 different items emblazoned with the "Woodsman's Coat Of Arms," including some hewn out of 14k gold at several hundred bucks a pop, and others adorned with genuine spotted owl tail feathers mounted on a plaque of guaranteed old growth redwood and coated lightly with a petroleum-based dioxin product for preservative purposes. All proceeds go to benefit the Woodsman's Philanthropic Society to Buy Bill Bailey Another $100,000 Sports Car.)

Someone read into the record Bailey's pronouncement that, "The Lorax...criminalizes a very legitimate and needed industry, implies that we lack concern, ignores that we are planting trees, that we give a damn about creeks and erosions, and that we are looking for sustained yield." This didn't get such a big laugh, probably because the truth of the matter is so tragic. If the logging industry has been criminalized, it was not by Dr. Seuss, but by the criminals who now control it, corporations like Louisiana Pacific and Georgia Pacific and Maxxam, and, sadly, our own Harwood.

Planting trees? Sustained yield? Even the timber industry-controlled Department of Forestry acknowledges that trees are being cut down in Mendocino County twice as fast as they are being replaced. Give a damn about creeks and erosion? Don't make me sick. A seven year-old child, whether or not his mind has been contaminated by The Lorax, can walk anywhere in Mendocino County and see the contempt big timber has for our waterways. Come look at the land where I live, where I've been working for eight years to clear out the mess they made of my stream.

But through all the testimony, through all the pleas for tolerance and open-mindedness, the three Bailey stooges on the board sat apparently unmoved. Every once in a while Geiger would roll her eyes disdainfully, most notably so when board president Bill Webster argued that The Lorax expresses "...a valid point of view — it won't harm kids to see that." Harwood, whom I had originally mistaken for the high school student representative, successfully kept a look of mock seriousness plastered across his face most of the time, but every so often you detected a trace of a smirk in his unnaturally youthful countenance, the kind of smirk that says, "Yeah, yeah, but I don't care because my daddy has more money than yours."

Only Wilwand appeared to be giving any consideration at all to the sentiments being expressed by the overwhelming majority, and as the evening went on, he looked increasingly troubled. As he spoke, he steered a tortuous path through his own circumlocutions, trying with a tired desperation to prove that even though he was going to vote for yanking The Lorax, he was doing it to support academic freedom, not to oppose it. His argument was of course preposterous and he knew it; the pain of having to utter such patent tomfoolery showed clearly in his strained features. A sensitive and intelligent man, Wilwand could not have felt entirely comfortable about what he was doing, but on the other hand, it wouldn't be too much fun to show up for work tomorrow morning and have Boss Bailey saying, "What's this crap I hear about your conscience?"

Harwood and Geiger appeared untroubled by such considerations, and plowed ahead with their game plan, apparently arranged in a pre-meeting caucus, to present the anti-Lorax move as a blow for academic freedom. "There's a better way to handle this book," said Harwood, claiming that second grade was "not an appropriate level" for children to be studying it. He suggested that it be moved to the seventh grade, a proposal that strained the credulity of many present, although one wit muttered something about Laytonville kids having to be in seventh grade before they could read at a second grade level.

"The mandated reading list should be obliterated," said Geiger flatly, her choice of words perhaps unconsciously revealing her pro-logging bias. There was a certain logical appeal to this tack, even I had to admit; why should a teacher have his or her reading lists established by some committee? But as one Laytonville Elementary School teacher explained to me afterward, "If we didn't have a list, every time I assigned a book like The Lorax, I'd have parents coming to me saying, 'Why that book? Why couldn't you have picked one of these less controversial books?'"

At any rate, despite the attempts of Harwood, Geiger, and Wilwand to change the focus of discussion from The Lorax to the whole concept of required reading lists, it was only The Lorax that was being voted on, and that's where the anti-Seussian cabal was finally tripped up. The fifth board member, Dan K'vaka, who had already spoken firmly in favor of keeping the book, made a suggestion that the matter be shelved for the time being while the Superintendent prepared a recommendation on whether the required reading list should be abolished and replaced with a suggested reading list.

Geiger and Harwood couldn't very well reject K'vaka's proposal without admitting that the business about required reading lists was merely a smokescreen, and Wilwand looked positively relieved to be offered a way out of the dilemma. Before the audience realized what had happened, the board voted unanimously to leave The Lorax alone until such time as Superintendent Buckley could report back to them, and the meeting recessed.

It was a small victory, though; Bailey still has the votes, and if he insists strongly enough, he can probably get any old lunkheaded book-burning proposition railroaded through. And while book-burning may seem too strong a term to apply to what is really a fairly mild bit of censorship, there is, as Ray Bradbury said in his coda to Fahrenheit 451, "...more than one way to burn a book." To question the validity of ideas is the essence of freedom, but to attack the very existence of ideas is the underpinning of fascism, as well as being the intellectual equivalent of hauling out the kerosene and the matches.

This whole sorry chapter allegedly started when Bill Bailey's own son came home from school after reading The Lorax and confronted dear papa with the reality of what he was doing for a living, and with the ultimate consequences of the way of life he propounds. A wise man learns from his children, while a foolish man cannot imagine that one so young and innocent could have anything to teach him. But it takes a truly vicious man to attempt to deny even the possibility of wisdom to those younger or weaker than himself.

Fortunately the people of Laytonville came forth to demonstrate that Bill Bailey doesn't speak for them. The fact that a town is populated by sensible, freedom-loving individuals might not make as good media copy as the image of a howling lynch mob prepared to burn pinko children's book writers at the stake, but if Laytonville is going to have a national reputation, I'd much prefer it to be for the former reason. Personally, I'd like to see Bill Bailey take out one of his full-page newspaper ads to apologize to our community for the disgrace he's brought on us, but I suppose that will happen about the time his own private hell, where he seems to want the rest of us to dwell, freezes over.

Until that happens, unfortunately, I'm afraid there will be those who will continue to believe that, as one woman stated that night, "Laytonville really is the dope capital of the world."


Anonymous said...

i grew up in laytonville and was in fourth grade when all this lorax hoopla happened. thanks for posting this - i was just relaying the story to an incredulous friend a few days ago.

thanks for the flashback!

Austin Powers said...

What a well-written article. I am researching the Lorax for my AP Environmental Sciences class, and came across this post while searching on Google. Though I have no background in this particular situation at all (I live in Florida), I have seen this kind of thing happen to many books, for a variety of reasons. Your article was a great read, and while it may not be helpful for my homework, it certainly shows just how dense and closed to change people can be.