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In Character: Jeffrey St. Clair, editor of Counterpunch

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Sunday, October 01, 2006

Blowing up the system

Leftist critic Jeffrey St. Clair is working to turn politics upside down from his quiet little subdivision in Oregon City.

By Oakley Brooks

In the fall of 2000, with George W. Bush and Al Gore headed toward the nail-biting presidential election, Oregon City’s leftist agitator Jeffrey St. Clair launched a Molotov cocktail of a book onto the political scene. Al Gore: A User’s Manual, written by St. Clair and colleague Alexander Cockburn, depicted the vice president as a vicious, vain political creature who had consistently betrayed the left. The book was tame, however, compared to what St. Clair asked progressives to do. Two weeks before the election, St. Clair told Portland’s Willamette Week that given the choice between Bush and Gore, “My inclination would be to vote for Bush, for this reason: It would energize the opposition. You look at what it means to be a liberal or a progressive and I think you’ll find very few areas where Gore is on your side.”

Six years, nearly 3,000 American war dead, two lawlessly violent Middle Eastern countries, one recession, $3 trillion in new national debt, one botched hurricane response and a Plamegate later, St. Clair says he underestimated Bush’s incompetence and couldn’t foresee the loss of life, but he’s far from ready to retract his statement of 2000. In fact, he’s feeling somewhat redeemed.

“As an anti-imperialist, I would say Bush has done more to destroy the empire from within and without than any president in American history,” St. Clair says. “He’s shattered American credibility across the globe. And under Bush you’ve seen progressive groups get off the mat and begin fighting politically again.”

Such is the view from St. Clair’s world of chaos politics. It’s a perspective with some following: St. Clair has published 11 edgy books and co-edits Counterpunch, a website of daily leftist commentary and Bush critiques with 2.5 million hits a day. (Undoubtedly some of the audience derives from the same shock-value draw afforded right-wing radio’s Lars Larson.) To St. Clair, everybody in Salem and Washington, D.C., holding hands and making nice won’t solve the current political malaise. He’d like to see a Political Big Bang and something new created out of that primordial ooze. Bush is just the beginning. Third-party candidates, taking to the streets and even avoiding the ballot box in disgust are all viable instruments, as is the regular sardonic quip.

“It’s like the spinal cord has been ripped out of the national body politic,” St. Clair says. “Take Katrina. I mean, the death of an American city doesn’t generate a million people on the streets calling for a regime change? It’s just shocking. Maybe it’s the sign of the empire in a state of slippage.”

St. Clair’s only officemate — his Australian shepherd, Boomer — begins to bark sharply when he hears these lines wafting recently from the family living room. (Has he heard this all before?) The 47-year-old St. Clair, in bare feet, a black shirt and jeans, his dark hair tousled, sets after Boomer. “It’s off to Gitmo for you,” he says, before the dog slips away.

Outside, in a humdrum, 1980s vintage subdivision, a teenager is fixing his motorbike along an otherwise quiet street. It’s hard to picture an influencer self-described as a cross between Che Guevara and the anarchist monkey-wrencher Edward Abbey at work in this neighborhood, diving as he does into a file-stacked basement office to edit the website each morning, before concocting his own screeds. But St. Clair is much gentler in person than his writing suggests. He helped coach the local soccer team when his two grown kids were younger. And don’t forget how the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, survived for a while in small-town anonymity, too.

St. Clair was an environmental activist in Washington, D.C., and his native Indiana, before moving with wife Kimberly and the kids to Oregon in 1990, first to take over a small environmentalist magazine, the Forest Watch, before founding his own ‘zine, Wild Forest Review. In the Review, he offered a scathing critique of Clinton administration environmental policies in the early 1990s and attacked Oregon environmental groups for signing on to the landmark Northwest Forest Plan, which reduced federal timber harvests but allowed logging to continue. That earned St. Clair his first round of enemies — conservationists who didn’t take kindly to the suggestion that they’d been co-opted by big business.

“Jeffrey is a fundamentalist,” says conservationist Andy Kerr, who headed the Oregon Natural Resources Council in the early 1990s. “Fundamentalist enviromentalists are no different from fundamentlist Christians, or Muslims or Jews. They have a world view that’s pure and they tend not to tolerate anybody who doesn’t think like them.”

St. Clair’s  Clinton writings caught the eye of Cockburn, who’d already made a name at the lefty ’zine The Nation.

The two teamed up to found the newsletter Counterpunch in 1993, the precursor to the website (the bi-weekly newsletter still goes out to 4,000 subscribers). They also co-wrote Whiteout, published in 1999, which examined the CIA’s link to the cocaine trade, first exposed by reporter Gary Webb and later repudiated by the mainstream press.

They began dabbling with web postings during the Kosovo war and the election of 2000. Then, within hours of the Sept. 11 attacks, Cockburn and St. Clair posted a cautious explanation. Could it be that the U.S. backing of Israel, or sanctions against Iraq that led to the deaths of Iraqi children, or Clinton’s cruise missile attacks following the 1998 African embassy bombings might be to blame? Web hits rose to 5,000 that day and grew exponentially in the following weeks and months as writers as diverse as Noam Chomsky and Paul Craig Roberts, Ronald Reagan’s assistant secretary of the treasury, responded to the Bush Administration’s foreign policy adventures. St. Clair notes that Bush has been excellent for growing the  Counterpunch audience, especially foreign readers, who now comprise 40% the total.

“If we can’t have George for another four years, we’ll take Jeb,” he says.

In the Northwest, St. Clair has found plenty of issues to engage. He excitedly covered the anti-globalization protests in Seattle in 1999 and he lambasted the Oregon Democratic party for keeping Ralph Nader off the presidential ballot in 2004. He was thrown out of Nike’s annual meeting in 2000 and wrote an unflattering 1995 retrospective of timber baron Harry Merlo.

But, true to form, St. Clair can’t find any group he identifies with here. The Libertarians are too obsessed with the tax code. Liberal Portland is so holier-than-thou that St. Clair says dissent is not welcome. Hope, in his eyes, lies in places with mixed identities such as John Day and Wallowa and Corvallis, the Benton County seat. Two years ago, with the state threatening to sue Benton County after commissioners there announced intentions to issue gay marriage licenses, they stopped giving out any marriage licenses to anybody, gay or straight. “I thought it was the perfect response,” he says. A true, pure act of chaos politics.

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