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Ochenski: Animal farm

Judy the Turtle meets Libby’s Vermiculite Man

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It’s getting harder to discuss current events and politics in humorous terms these days, what with planes falling out of the sky, people dying from anthrax-laced mail, and ominous warnings from the federal government to live “in a constant state of high alert,” whatever that oxymoronic phrase is supposed to mean. Humor, besides being an almost natural fit for political discussions, has always been a much-valued salve to the human psyche in times of distress. Which is why we owe a debt of gratitude to Vermiculite Man, for bringing us a good laugh (and a great message) when we need it most.

The story begins with the fortification of the state Capitol following the East Coast terrorist attacks. Right out of the chute, Governor Martz decided to post armed Highway Patrolmen outside her office and require their escort whenever she leaves the Capitol. Many wonder at these actions, which seemed excessive expenditures for a so-called “fiscally conservative” governor. Considering how many miles of roads we have, the two highway patrolmen now assigned to the governor’s office could undoubtedly be put to better use. Even worse, the Capitol is now surrounded by concrete barricades, visitors have to sign in and state a destination, and Montanans may only enjoy their own, newly-restored statehouse as part of a guided tour. Given that Montana is just about 50th per capita in nearly everything except empty space and cows, it seems an overreaction for such an unlikely terrorist target.

Then again, those of us in the regular population are not privy to the recent “homeland security” secret briefings being attended by our highest elected officials. Those Montanans who value the open government provisions guaranteed by our Constitution are finding state actions taken as a result of these closed briefings a bit puzzling, and history is rife with examples that governments without the oversight of its citizenry are governments destined for abuse of power and all their attendant problems. Since we can’t know what is being said behind those closed doors, all we can do is watch the reactions of the public officials being briefed and draw some conclusions. In this regard, the results are not encouraging.

One insight comes from a Washington Post story that quotes South Dakota’s Governor, Bill Jankow, while attending the Republican Governors’ convention in Las Vegas: “[H]aving heard talk about the rounding up, jailing and trial of terrorists, [Janklow] grabbed a microphone and blurted: ‘We’re in a war, with people who want to kill us. And somehow we’re still taking about ‘arresting’ them and ‘bringing them to justice.’ I don’t get it. We need to kill them until the rest surrender. No lawyers and no courts. Then we need to capture their leaders. We can try them—and then kill them. Governors applauded.” This is not exactly a statesman’s approach to problem solving, nor much of a defense of the civil liberties, including the right to a trial and the presumption of innocence until proven guilty, upon which our country was founded. In fact, it sounds a lot more like a scared man professing that we emulate what we have been told are the moral values and bloodthirsty politics of those with whom we are now at war. Which brings us back to the humor.

It is well known that Governor Martz is fond of using animal analogies to describe her administration, although with debatable success. During the campaign, she declared herself “the lapdog for industry,” which isn’t much of a flattering image for Montana’s governor. Nowadays, Martz has taken up wearing turtle pins because, according to the governor, “a turtle only goes forward if it sticks its neck out.” So taken is she with the image that, rather than stick her neck out and indulge in the high-risk activity of handing out Halloween candy to kids, the governor decided to dress up as Judy the Turtle and dispense the candy (and turtle wisdom?) at elementary schools. After all the secret briefings, she had apparently decided the schools were safer than the governor’s mansion.

Meanwhile, back at Turtle Mansion, eight pieces of pottery crafted by a Libby artist had been on display in her living room for the last two months. During the governor’s reception for the artist, lights glittered and reflected off the thousands of tiny golden facets covering the sculptures, especially the one depicting a weasel guarding the henhouse. The substance, intentionally glued onto the pottery by its maker Steve Thorstenson, was vermiculite, the mining of which has killed hundreds of Libby residents and sits at the crux of the debate over Libby becoming a Superfund site. Thorstenson, who says he is normally “very apolitical,” grew up in Libby playing in the asbestos-laden vermiculite piles, and created the weasel piece specifically based on comments the governor made about the Libby situation earlier this summer. Although he used clean, recently-purchased vermiculite, Thorstenson says when he received his invitation to exhibit his work he thought, “I have to do something about Libby ... so I used this surface decoration to try to make sure the governor doesn’t forget Libby.”

Judy the Turtle, contacted in Las Vegas where she was sticking out her neck at the Republican Governor’s convention, failed to see the humor in the whole affair. “I trusted him to put art in my house,” she lamented to reporters, and then went on to say that in the future she would ask artists “if they have an ulterior motive, they should tell us.” Personally, I hope the governor gets her wish “And in this piece, governor, my ulterior motive revolves around a dream interpretation of the primal scream.”

For his part, Thorstenson should receive an award. Besides making his point about the dangers of the innocuous-looking substance that has poisoned his hometown, he brings the rest of us a good laugh in a time when humor and politics really need it. He also reminds us, and especially Judy the Turtle, that in Montana you’re much more likely to die from mine wastes than terrorists.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Missoula Independent.

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