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The Life, Loves, Wars and Foibles of Edward Abbey

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Fifty-three years ago, long before I had heard of Edward Abbey and Abraham Polonsky, I saw a film titled “Lonely are the Brave” that was based on Polonsky’s adaptation of Abbey’s novel “The Brave Cowboy”. The film remains one of my favorites of all time with Kirk Douglas’s performance as a fugitive on horseback trying to elude a sheriff played by Walter Matthau permanently etched into my memory.

Many years later I would have the pleasure of hearing Abraham Polonsky speak at Lincoln Center at a screening for “Odds Against Tomorrow”, a film for which he wrote the screenplay three years before “Lonely are the Brave” but for which he did not receive credit. Using a “front” of the sort Woody Allen played in Walter Bernstein’s very fine movie about the witch-hunt, Polonsky was taking a first step toward reestablishing himself as a screenwriter.

In the panel discussion following the screening, Polonsky was asked whether he had problems writing a script with criminals as central characters when he spent so many years in the Communist Party and still retained progressive politics even after his resignation. He replied that American society itself was criminal and that the film’s characters were just trapped within the system.

“Lonely are the Brave” was by contrast a film with a most sympathetic character, a cowboy named Jack Burns who provokes a bar fight just to land in jail to help break out his old friend, a sheep rancher who has been arrested for sheltering undocumented workers from Mexico. I had no idea at the time how radical the film was, an obvious result of Edward Abbey’s ability to make such an outlaw look like a saint compared to the corporate malefactors that were destroying America’s greatest asset: its wilderness.

The very fine new documentary “Wrenched” that is available from Bullfrog Films is a loving tribute to Edward Abbey’s life as an artist and activist as well as a very astute assessment of Earth First!, the radical environmentalist group that was inspired by Abbey’s writings. Directed by ML Lincoln, a young female director and activist since her teens, it is a follow-up to her first film “Drowning River” that recounts the struggle against the Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona that found a fictional counterpart in Abbey’s most famous novel “The Monkey Wrench Gang”, from which her new film derived its title.

We learn that Abbey, who was born in 1927, became drawn to anarchism at a very early age under the tutelage of his aptly named father Paul Revere Abbey who was both a socialist and an anarchist—and obviously from a different ideological tradition than the one to which wrenchedsmallAbraham Polonsky belonged. As he matured and began to develop his own worldview, the son obviously aligned completely with anarchism, a result of his commitment to preserving wilderness—a goal unfortunately that has not been fully appreciated by Marxists, as I will explain later on.

Abbey was in the Army in 1945 when atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So appalled was he by such savagery that he became an outspoken opponent of the draft. With the tendency to identify the radicalism of this period with the Communist Party and its Trotskyist gadflies, it is easy to forget that many on the left followed the same path as Edward Abbey, including poet Kenneth Rexroth, Lew Hill—the founder of Pacifica Radio, and antiwar leader Dave Dellinger. Arguably they had as much of an impact on the 1960s as the Old Left.

After graduating with a degree in English, Abbey took a job as a forest ranger in the mid-1950s after the fashion of Gary Snyder and any number of other aspiring writers of the American bohemian underground. It was his experience working in the southwest that convinced him that industrial society was destroying nature. Without any fanfare, he began cutting down billboards and disabling bulldozers, acts that fell under the rubric of monkey wrenching. In an early scene in “Lonely are the Brave”, you can see Jack Burns cutting a barbed wire fence in a challenge of private property that corresponded to the individualistic acts of sabotage carried out frequently by the author.

The film is enriched by footage of Abbey speaking at rallies or taking in the landscape of southeastern Utah, where he took his stand against strip mining, clear cutting, dam building, and other forms of despoliation in the name of development. We also are introduced to some of the most important figures in the environmentalist movement that were inspired by his writings, including Dave Foreman the founder of Earth First! Most of these people are now in their sixties and seventies–a reminder of how much time has elapsed since the mid-80s when the radical environmentalist movement aka Deep Ecology was so much in the news. But at least one young person remained inspired by Abbey’s willingness to break the law on behalf of a higher good. That is Tim DeChristopher, the Utah college student who went to prison for two years for bidding on oil and gas leases with money he did not have. In order to protect precious public lands that the Bureau of Land Management had no right to sell, he was willing to put his life on the line.

More problematic, however, were the acts of sabotage that Earth First! became infamous for. The film explores how the FBI infiltrated the group in order to entrap several leaders into blowing up power transformers in 1988. Like the Weathermen, Earth First! had a principle of not engaging in acts of sabotage that might risk lives. But Earth Liberation Front, a more radicalized group, went much further by engaging in acts of wholesale arson that prompted the news media to label them as a terrorist threat as dangerous as al-Qaeda. The film interviews a number of activists who try to weigh the benefits and risks of sabotage but ultimately seem to agree with the words of one of Abbey’s closest comrades that they were largely ineffective in stopping the industrial behemoth in its tracks. As is the case in all good documentaries—and this one is about as good as they come—the goal is to force you to think about the issues that are posed. Since the director comes out of the movement, it is evident that she has thought long and hard about such matters.

Not long ago I stood on the sidelines and winced as a Facebook squabble broke out between CounterPunch editor Jeff St. Clair and Left Business Observer’s Doug Henwood over Henwood’s labeling of Jeff as an Edward Abbeyist. Not only do I have deep affection for both of these personalities, I was reminded of divisions that go back to the days of Karl Marx and Mikhail Bakunin. I am sure that if Facebook had been around in the 1850s, the two men would have been flaming each other with great abandon.

I winced over this for the simple reason that I too consider myself an Edward Abbeyist and have tried over the years to reconcile the Marxist vision of progress through science, technology and planning with aspects of “Abbeyism” that would seem to be its dialectical opposite. Was it an accident of history that people such as Edward Abbey were more finely tuned in to protecting the wilderness? And what accounted for Marxism’s insensitivity to the imperatives of living as part of nature rather than dominating it? When I first read Leon Trotsky’s “If America Should Go Communist” in the 1960s, I found its paean to industrial progress inspiring but by the 1980s, after becoming an “Abbeyist”, I winced at its endorsement of nuclear power and eugenics.

Reading Abbey and other important anarchist thinkers, including Gary Snyder, forces you to think about the whole question of progress. As a product of the nineteenth century, Marxism was swept up by the notion of adopting the industrial infrastructure and putting it to the disposal of the working class. Except for some concerns that Karl Marx had about soil fertility, there is not much evidence that he or the next generation that included Lenin and Trotsky worried too much about ecological limits. The supply of oil, coal, timber, fish, grain, and livestock seemed inexhaustible. As well the problem of eliminating the waste that is generated by their exploitation was barely discernible. It was no surprise that in the 1930s the New Deal and Stalin’s Kremlin were united on the need for megadams. For their part, the anarchists rallied around the need to oppose just such a dam in Glen Canyon. If the purpose of such dams was to supply electricity to places like Las Vegas and Phoenix at the expense of wildlife and drinking water, wasn’t there a need to rethink our basic priorities?

These are not easy questions. The relationship between society and nature and the need to provide a decent standard of living for every human being under conditions of nonstop population growth present themselves as quandaries defying pat responses.

For example, the Bolivarian revolution taking place in Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia entails the mining and drilling that threatens the natural order just as it did in Edward Abbey’s southwest. But it is the export of oil and minerals that provides the revenue that is needed for healthcare, education and housing that will allow such countries to break the back of poverty. Some on the left argue for more sustainable forms of development although it is difficult to conceive of Venezuela’s future prospects under such a plan given the hardships now being endured as the price of oil declines.

There are also contradictions between some deep ecologists and native peoples over their right to hunt and fish using traditional methods that are often related to their cultural survival. Among the people interviewed in “Wrenched” is Paul Watson, the founder of Sea Shepherd, a group that carries out civil disobedience to protect whales. Unfortunately, Watson decided to challenge the Makah in Washington State, a small Indian band that traditionally relied on whale hunting for both its sustenance and spiritual identity. One can understand Watson’s brave fight against Japanese industrial versions of Captain Ahab’s Pequod, but couldn’t an exception have been made for people who have suffered genocidal attacks?

And although the film does not address this problem, there are contradictions between some environmentalists and the right of desperate people to immigrate to the U.S., even the Mexicans that Jack Burns’s old friend was sheltering on his ranch. Despite his sympathy for the character, Edward Abbey—as well as Dave Foreman of Earth First!—became hostile to immigrant rights. In 2004 the Sierra Club became embroiled in a fierce debate when a group led by Richard Lamm, the former DP governor of Colorado, sought to elect members to the board of directors committed to restrictive immigration laws.

The same pressures that were acting on Lamm evidently acted on Edward Abbey, who submitted an op-ed piece to the NY Times that was rejected. Titled “Immigration and Liberal Taboos”, it is—in a word—deplorable:

Thus the pregnant Mexican woman who appears, in the final stages of labor, at the doors of the emergency ward of an El Paso or San Diego hospital, demanding care for herself and the child she’s about to deliver, becomes an “undocumented worker.” The child becomes an automatic American citizen by virtue of its place of birth, eligible at once for all of the usual public welfare benefits. And with the child comes not only the mother but the child’s family. And the mother’s family. And the father’s family. Can’t break up families can we? They come to stay and they stay to multiply.

I would not hold this against Edward Abbey. History will judge him as a prophet of life in balance with nature and not as an anti-immigration zealot. Perhaps the only lesson to be drawn about the deeply contradictory tendencies involving society, nature, progress and civilization is the need to put the ordinary citizen in command rather than the corporate plutocrats who run both parties. Obama’s decision to allow Shell to drill for oil in the Arctic is just the latest reminder that capitalism and capitalist politics have to be superseded if humanity and nature are to survive. Once we can eliminate the profit motive, the door is open to rational use of natural resources for the first time in human history. How we make use of such resources will naturally be informed by our understanding that reason governs the outcome and not quarterly earnings. The alternative to this is a descent into savagery, if not extinction.

Louis Proyect blogs at louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

 

Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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