Monday, July 17, 2006

Beavers in Becket

Okay, if the local dads are being straight about this, those flat-tailed rodents are symbols of what's wrong with Massachusetts politics. Conversation at Camp Becket Dads' Weekend is generally as wholesome as the activities at the nation's oldest Y camp -- 103 years at it.

Politics are rare here. It's about the boys, about sailing and soccer, about the kind of coffee the French call sock water, and about counting mosquito bites. A few Deval Patrick bumper stickers and t-shirts came with the fathers, but the weekend is about the boys.

The one mealtime conversation had to do with beavers...and taxes.

The men seem about equally split between New York State and Massachusetts, which makes sense in the Berkshires. While there are staff from South Korea, Ukraine and Scotland, campers are centered near the City and Boston. You see as many Yankees caps as Sox ones.

One local dad from Washington, about three miles North, couldn't stand it any longer. It was the damned dam builders.

To those of us Easterners, it is a clear tone to hear the strong, simple message from places without public school violence, mass transit concerns, complex immigrant assimilation issues and other urban problems. It was the beavers.

This dad holds that the commonwealth restrictions on beaver trapping:
  1. Have caused a huge increase in related damage throughout Massachusetts,
  2. Illustrate the how insensitive the largely Eastern, urban legislators are to Western, rural issues, and
  3. Prove that his tax dollars go to support only concerns unrelated to his region.
I confess that I had only the vaguest recollection of changes in beaver-related laws. Researching it was a short-course in Massachusetts politics...as well as one of my favorite horses to mount, ballot initiatives.

Easy answers include that he was right about the beaver damage. However, nothing except provincialism or perhaps hunter's entitlement begins to support the rest. This actually returns to the main topics here, including both ballot initiatives and voter perceptions.

To their proponents, the sides on this issue were as passionate as those for same-sex marriage laws. In 1996, the Human Society of the United States pushed a ballot initiative, which became Question 1 on the 1997 ballot. It centered on banning leg-hold traps. Predictably, opponents included self-described sportsmen, such as the NRA and the small number of trappers.

It was a nasty campaign. The anti-trapping folk had the edge. The Humane Society picked the most emotional and compelling angle. Many wildlife associations joined it in the "ban cruel traps" campaign.

Hunters screamed a complex message about how this was just the opening salvo in an effort to ban all hunting in Massachusetts. Instead the image of agonized animals writhing while they slowly starved in the hold of traps won.

As we see in the most recent anti-SSM campaign, the Let the people vote! slogan is powerful. While inane and illogical, it is easier on the ears than the more complex truth about safeguarding the minority and the democratic process.

For the traps issue, it wasn't even close -- 64% to 36%. This became General Law 131:80A. It forbids beaver trapping except with expensive live-catch traps. There are also numerous restrictions on what pressing needs justify trapping beavers. Fines are serious -- up to $10,000.

The folklore aspect of the dad's arguments is similar to that of SSM. The dad would have it that the evil legislature steals his tax money and lets pests ruin his property with onerous laws not suited to reality.

Meanwhile in the verifiable world, it was actually a ballot initiative again, not lawmakers, many of whom opposed the Wildlife Protection Act. Yet, to him, government seems to be government, no matter how the laws arise or become mandates.

Other than the raccoons eating garden plants and the squirrels stealing birdfood, this Bostonian doesn't have problems with rampaging wildlife. So, it was enlightening to hear from someone who did.

I rather wish I had not been as ignorant of the issues. That would have made for a fun mealtime discussion.

For ballot initiatives, the emotional pull can be powerful indeed. Their original purpose was to seek redress from terrible legislation. As we can see all too plainly in initiative states, this is not what it has become in the main.

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5 comments:

Uncle said...

1. I grew up country. My brother trapped beaver as a part-time high school job. So solly: most of the hype about suffering beavers is just that: raw, undistilled hype. Even the leghold traps were costly and trappers knew exactly where each one was. That's a skill beyond the comprehension of urban people.

2. My urbanised daughter took one of her clinical affils in darkest upstate NY and was brought up short by the importance country people put on such issues. I didn't whitewash the experience for her, and she had the wisdom to learn from it.

3. I have never understood, will never understand, why urban people insist on taking such an unjustified superior attitude to rural culture. This behaviour is a free gift to the most cynical forces of the right: The urban left GIVES this wedge issue away. The people who lose most are the rural poor who otherwise could benefit from most progressive stances. Progressives generally lose by giving potential allies away. Could it be that the urban rich truly do not give a damn about the rural poor? That's what the rural poor think: perhaps they're right.

For crissakes, when is anyone on the progressive side going to LEARN? Urban people do not know everything. If progressives mean to win, they need to start learning from people like this gentleman from Washington, MA.

It is tempting, but absurd, to compare a livelihood issue for rural people to the SSM issue. That is merely the far-right argument from the opposite pole. "The people" should never have had a chance to vote on the traps, either. It is not your problem if you live in Newton or JP. If you can't be bothered to understand it from the POV of those for whom it is a problem, perhaps you should neither vote on such things, nor give yourself airs for being on the correct side of some other issue. It's as much an argument for the fallacy of western and eastern MA being the same state. That issue has burnt since Shay's Rebellion, and will go on burning until something gives urban progressives some sense.

Wish I could have met that man: we'd have much in common.

PS: I voted against the banning of leghold traps from experience and for just these reasons.

Mass Marrier said...

I don't denigrate the dad's experience. However, I am against blood sports for their own sake -- killing animals for amusement, mounting antlers but no eating of the meat, using the pelt or otherwise owning up. Killing to kill is inhuman.

You, Uncle, are welcome to catch Castor, as far as I am concerned.

The dispute I have with the Becket dad is his absurd contention that his hard-earned tax dollars go to support Boston. Bovine feces! The bucks here come from the few big cities, with the poeple, businesses and real estate bases. Washington, Mass., pays far less than it gets in revenue sharing and general funds. The commonwealth pays for the urban and exurban infrastructure, the highways, the education and on and on. The cities are left staging the immigrants, dealing with the slums, educating the masses and more. Boston can't even raise or spend its own funds without state approval for anything significant.

The issue for me and the comparison is how ballot initiatives are driving such issues. These are not the legislative grievances for which the process became Article XLVIII of our constitution. Instead, we have interest groups pounding through their concerns and manipulating the emotions of voters. Right now, we see this inane SSM amendment. What's next?

Boston Eye said...

You well made the point that ballot initiatives are abused. Ignernt urbanites outvote the rural minority. Ignernt anti-SSMs hope they can outvote the pro-marriage folk. (I voted for the leg-trap ban, I think. What did I know?)

Uncle said...

I should know by now that it's futile to suggest to urban people that rural people might possibly have a brain in their heads. Usually I just shut up and allow urban progressive interests to hold on to their unacknowledged prejudices and shoot themselves in the foot by failing to build bridges with people unlike themselves. Such political self-mutiliation may be bloody, but it's not a sport. Neither, as I pointed out, is trapping.

"You, Uncle, are welcome to catch Castor, as far as I am concerned" is a remark unworthy of you. Its only value is to reinforce my deep concern that urban progressives would rather hang onto their preconceptions than to open their understanding and find ways to build their base amongst people they are simply giving away to the right.

Mass Marrier said...

Your provincialism seems astonishing for someone who has lived as long where and under the conditions you do. Put down the beer and put on your glasses; I see reasons for trapping and think -- as the post includes -- that the beaver trapping law was emotionally based and ill conceived.

There are indeed savvy rural residents, and likely as many hick fools per capita as urban ones in your town or mine. The issues in the post include that I was too ignorant to have considered this man's issue before he raised them, that the way this became the law of the land illustrates process problems that have ill effects, and that he was as ignorant about how the laws were made and taxes allocated as I was of his flooding problems and trapping solutions.

I learned from him, but he loved the idea of that bad old government passing stupid laws (it didn't) and spending his money on Boston issues (he gets more than he gives) that he's not likely to let that go.

My family came from West Virginia, where the "gummint" is always a good and handy villain too.

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