Ron Arnold has called himself the “Darth Vader for the Capitalist revolution.” He’s stated that he would like to see national parks opened for drilling and mining, old-growth forests clear cut and endangered species delisted. He’s written several books explicating his positions, according to CounterPunch, he coined the phrase “eco-terrorist,” and he is the executive vice president of the Bellevue, Wash.-based Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise, a nonprofit education organization.
But on Tuesday, Oct. 17 at the annual Montanans for Multiple Use (MFMU) meeting, Arnold, who received a $1,000 speaking fee from MFMU, avoided policy like the plague, instead concentrating on raw political strategy.
MFMU is a Kalispell-based nonprofit that advocates for the use of ATVs and increased logging and road building on public lands. The group is a longstanding foil to area environmental groups.
About 70 people attended MFMU’s annual meeting, 12 of whom were local politicians running in this year’s election. A few local environmental advocates clustered toward the back of the Flathead County Fairground building where the meeting was held
After the candidates took turns addressing the group, MFMU President Fred Hodgeboom handed the microphone to Arnold.
The title of his presentation, projected on the wall via PowerPoint against the backdrop of a magnificent mountain lake, was “Being Right is Not Enough.”
The title got right to the point of Arnold’s lecture—that ideas are not what win in the arena of public debate.
Power, Arnold says, is what wins.
And power, he says, “is a lot of money or a lot of people.”
He points to seemingly obvious ways of acquiring both, focusing on how to network with other groups that share an interest, and projecting schematics of different types of networks, including the “star” network and the “chain” network.
Arnold acknowledges that such information is “nuts and bolts,” but says, “If you want to win, you better learn this.”
Arnold’s message isn’t just about gaining power, though. It’s also about reducing the power of your enemies.
Arnold lists nearly a dozen locally active environmental groups lined up in opposition to MFMU, including Swan View Coalition, Montana Wilderness Association, Sierra Club and Friends of the Wild Swan.
He says that according to his research into locally active environmental groups’ public tax records, such groups collectively have $119,526,661 at their disposal, although Arnold acknowledges that a good amount of that is concentrated in Sierra Club coffers.
The number of groups and the amount of cash MFMU is up against seem pretty daunting, especially when the group’s vice president, Dave Skinner, blurts out that there’s only $280 in the MFMU treasury.
But, Arnold tells them, “If they have a lot of money and people, maybe you can make some go away.”
He then tells his audience about GuideStar.org, a website that allows users to view financial documents that the Internal Revenue Service requires nonprofits to file.
As an example of GuideStar’s value, he projects sections of Swan Lake-based Friends of the Wild Swan’s (FOWS) IRS filings on the wall.
Arnold guides his audience through the documents, showing them that in 1999 FOWS got $175,000 from Ted Turner’s Turner Foundation, Inc.
The name Turner elicits a few reflexive moans from the audience, and Arnold refers to him as “The mouth of the south.”
Arnold then jumps to another section of the FOWS documents showing that while the group’s total revenue for 2004 was $15,986, Program Director Arlene Montgomery earned $21,546 that year. He also points out a woman on FOWS’ board named Kathy Togni, who lists a Hong Kong address.
In a follow-up interview with the Independent Oct. 19, Arnold declined to draw any conclusions about this information. In fact at the meeting he’d told his audience that they should never make any assumptions about what they might find.
Instead, the strategy appears to be to provide others with ammunition for assumption.
Arnold says that MFMU should, “Tell people about it, publish it on their website.”
Hodgeboom says he isn’t planning to do anything with the tax information Arnold presented on FOWS.
“We’d have to investigate it a little more,” he told the Independent.
Montgomery says Togni, the board member with the Hong Kong address, helped found FOWS and decided to stay on the board after moving to Hong Kong. Regarding the group’s revenues and her salary, while Montgomery says she’s reluctant to talk about FOWS’ finances, she explains that some years the group takes in more money than in others, and that her pay isn’t based on a single year’s revenues.
“It all sounds pretty bizarre to me,” Montgomery says. “I’m not sure what they were getting at.”
What Arnold says he’s getting at is that activists shouldn’t “get too focused on content,” or promoting their own message, but should concentrate on networking with similar groups, and researching and exposing their enemies.
But at least one problem with that approach became evident when it came time for audience questions.
The first question Arnold was asked was about how conservatives, who are “free thinkers” and therefore prone to infighting, can possibly fight liberals “who think with one mind,” and therefore work well together.
The second question was about what to do about “activist judges.”
The third question related to Constitution Party beliefs about environmentalism being illegal because we live in a democratic republic, not a democracy, and was frankly difficult to understand.
Arnold tried to explain that these questions are coming from the wrong place, that “hand-wringing” over “matters of opinion” accomplishes nothing. His audience seemed unconvinced, and continued arguing the existence of brain-sharing liberals, activist judges and constitutional conspiracies.
But Hodgeboom, MFMU’s president, took the overall message to heart.
He tells the Independent that MFMU has been trying to move beyond attempting to persuade others of the rightness of their cause, and into networking with like-minded groups and taking the battle to their foes.
“The letter writing and the rallies don’t make any difference,” he says.