Politics & Warblers: The Wit, Wisdom, and Frank Opinions of Rikki Hall

Richard "Rikki" Hall (1965-2014) was precisely the type of political columnist that Tennessee most needs: reasonable and logical, yet with a passion for justice. With his background in biology, he originally started writing for Metro Pulse with That's Wild, a nature column that covered everything from the joys of birdwatching to the horrors of bad environmental legislation. He brought his analytical style to state and local politics with Sideways Glance in 2008, injecting some common sense into the discourse over our often fractious—and sometimes bizarre—political system. Although he certainly got fired up over the latest backwards move by our fearless leaders and their minions, he always tried to make his comments meaningful rather than just angry. As a scientist, he strove to understand why things are the way they are—right before he dissected them. With his passing last Sunday, we present some of his most unsparing, inspiring bits from his years writing for Metro Pulse.

On the Marketplace:

Let's stop pretending we have rational leaders and free markets. It might be true for widgets and pickles, but for many commodities an army of lobbyists, not a marketplace, sets the rules and picks the winners and losers. We lull ourselves into complacency with all our happy talk about free markets and capitalism, but does anyone really know what those words mean?

Capitalism describes a legal framework that favors capital. It is what allowed O.J. Simpson to go free while our jails disproportionately fill with poor black men. Capitalism is what allows BP to stay in business and write off billion-dollar ad buys while not one executive spends a day in prison for killing 11 workers and a huge portion of the Gulf ecosystem.

A free market is a more basic concept than capitalism, simply describing an economic system where buyer and seller are free to negotiate the price of goods. Any large economy will include a mix of free markets and restricted markets. How free are we when banks pull trillion-dollar heists and gas drillers poison groundwater with chemicals they refuse to name? (Dec. 12, 2013)

On Health-Care Reform:

America has been trying to pass health-care reform since before Clinton took office, and now that we have taken a step in that direction, Republicans (and health-care grifters) are desperately trying to prevent the accomplishment. It is pathetic to witness.

Bill Haslam had a great chance to show off his business prowess. He could have set up a health-care exchange for Tennessee. Kentucky did it. Haslam took $8 million in federal funds and produced nothing but the aborted thought that perhaps imitating Arkansas would be worthwhile.

Tennessee actually had a promising health-care market for a brief time. It was called TennCare, and it was driven to cost overruns by all the Kentuckians who signed up claiming to be from Tennessee. Now Kentucky has one of the best exchanges in the country and we have nothing but whatever the feds can manage to cobble together.

Maybe it's time to start relying on ourselves. We definitely can't rely on Haslam. (Nov. 6, 2013)

On the Fate of the Hooded Warbler:

My first job in the South was listening to birds sing. As a lifelong birdwatcher, I've developed the ability to identify most any local bird by sound. All good birders can do this, and it's a skill that allowed me to earn a living one spring by hiking Nantahala National Forest at first light to census the dawn chorus.

In a healthy forest, a dozen species of bird might be singing simultaneously: thrushes, warblers, vireos, tanagers. Dawn sets them off. Once you know the songs, the chorus is a roll call: wood thrush, red-eyed vireo, tufted titmouse, hooded warbler.

To hear some birds, you must visit high elevations or a particular forest type, but many local species occur throughout the forest. Black-throated green warblers seem to be in earshot at all times in our mountains, or it used to seem that way.

"Trees, trees, tall sweet trees," the warbler sings in high, sweet buzzes.

I say it "used to" because this common bird has become scarce. They nest in hemlock trees, which are mostly dead or dying from infestation by tiny, parasitic insects. Rather than switching to a different tree for nesting, black-throated green warblers seem to be disappearing with the hemlocks. On a four-day trip to the Smokies this year, I should have lost count of black-throated green warblers, but I heard only one. (Aug. 14, 2013)

On the Financial Meltdown:

Just a couple decades ago, it would have seemed crazy to speak of grand economic manipulations by financial elites, but we have all witnessed this "Great Recession." Wall Street got us all hooked on easy credit, tricked us into investing retirement savings in our own debt, bet against us, and let the facade collapse. They got bonuses and bailouts, and we got bankruptcy and unemployment.

Neither Iraq nor Afghanistan had any military capacity, yet we have spent more than a trillion dollars at war. The defense industry got contract extensions, and soldiers got prosthetic limbs.

While citizens and governments worldwide struggle under financial strains, the stock market hums along unperturbed, its masters seemingly above both the laws of supply and demand and laws of the courts. Rather than crazy, it seems obvious financial elites are operating in a realm where their interests diverge considerably from those of general humanity.

So what do we do about it?

We need to build local economies and wean ourselves from the globalists. It will take self-reliance and a new emphasis on democracy to slough off the wealthy parasites. Happily, we have an example of just such an effort right here in Knoxville. (Feb. 27, 2013)

On Gun Control:

The elementary-school massacre in Connecticut set off renewed conversations about how to avoid such violence, but as usual gun-rights advocates have no interest in discussing what "well regulated" in the Second Amendment truly means. By conflating limitations on what types of guns can be privately owned with "taking away our guns," they reduce conversations on gun control to pointless blather.

Wayne LaPierre, head of the National Rifle Association, said, "The only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun." What people really want to talk about, however, is how to stop bad guys from getting guns in the first place. Reframing an issue so the crux of the matter drops out of sight is a common tactic for those who favor the status quo. Confusion and distraction serves their purposes, possibly more so than making a persuasive case.

LaPierre advocated armed guards at schools. Others on the right have echoed that call, but against the backdrop of the "fiscal cliff" showdown, none have offered suggestions on how to fund such a project, whose cost has been estimated at $8 billion. As with Homeland Security or invading Iraq, a more expensive, militarized society sounds great to Republicans, especially when they just change the topic whenever someone asks how they plan to pay for it. (Jan. 3, 2013)

On the Future:

By now everyone but the professionally dishonest and woefully ill-informed realizes climate change is a serious and impending threat. The insurance industry and U.S. military place the threat of rising seas and powerful storms high on their list of worries.

What worries me most about the future is who we are electing to tackle these problems. There are solutions, but when it comes to elections, the popular way to handle problems is to pretend they don't exist. Discounting the future is an effective political strategy because the young rarely vote.

As an economic strategy, our eagerness to dump costs into the future is a reflection of how poorly long-term value is represented in our markets. Governments should manage resources as if the future matters, but excise taxes and mineral rights are still priced at last century's rates. Despite the gnashing of teeth over budget deficits, no one is proposing we charge oil companies and mining conglomerates fair prices for the finite resources they consume and convert to profit.

Corporations, not being people, could hypothetically behave as if they expect to last centuries, eras, evermore. In practice, they are as fungible and disposable as labor. Only capital is meant to last, and the planet can be turned to wealth one shovelful at a time. We have an unlimited supply of shovels. (Oct. 11, 2012)

On Agenda 21:

A joint resolution passed this month by the State House condemning a 20-year-old United Nations document should be placed into a time capsule so future generations can understand why they inherited an unsustainable and deteriorating world. The legislators who sponsored HJR0587 embarrass not just Tennessee but also humanity.

The bill calls U.N. Agenda 21 "destructive and insidious" and says it "views the American way of life of private property ownership, single-family homes, private car ownership, individual travel choices and privately owned farms all as destructive to the environment" and will accomplish its goals "by socialist/communist redistribution of wealth. … National sovereignty is deemed a social injustice."

In fact, the document is a call for industrialized countries to establish investment and trade partnerships with developing countries to encourage sustainable development, open new markets, and sell our goods and know-how to the rest of the world. Reading like a Reagan-era statement on international policy—essentially what it is—Agenda 21 calls for reduction and elimination of tariffs. (March 29, 2012)

On Smart Growth:

Commissioner Richard Briggs asked an interesting question during the discussion leading up to last month's vote on the East County Sector Plan: "What do we want Knox County to look like in 25 years?" He talked himself into voting for the Midway Business Park by imagining future Knox Countians with no vacancy in their business parks glaring back at us through time and wondering, "What were they thinking?"

If Knox County continues to pursue unimaginative, sprawling development strategies, those future residents are more likely to wonder, "Why weren't they thinking?" Treating what is left of county farmland as nothing more than bait with which to lure jobs will result in a county without character. As experience proves, businesses attracted by the infrastructure and incentives that local governments like to dangle in front of them will just as readily move on to the next shiny opportunity, whether it's in an adjacent county or state with lower taxes or in another country with cheaper labor.

Trying to stay ahead in this race to be cheap undervalues the resources we have and renders all things as nothing special. We can level our rolling hills and plop subdivisions down in every pasture, but it will leave each corner of the county forgettable and interchangeable.

A better economic strategy is to focus on what makes our region unique. As we transition from an expansionist economy, businesses that can serve as a cornerstone for a sustainable economy will be those that depend on local resources. (Jan. 6, 2011)

On Creation Myths vs. Theories:

Regardless of how we stumbled onto the idea of evolution, once it was here it dictated the course of a century of science, going on two. It's just a theory, and that's what theories do.

I am fond of another grand idea that has defined the course of history: the theory that we are imperfect and achieve salvation by loving and forgiving one another. It is not a scientific idea. You cannot set out to prove or disprove it, but you can discover that it is true. Darwin was also fond of this grand idea, and his theory evolved from it. Evolution is the idea that imperfection in reproduction enables a march toward perfection with each cycle of birth.

I know it is a myth that Earth was created in seven days, but I would not say it is "just" a myth. It is part of a profoundly important book and deserves only the highest meaning of the word "myth."

Often, ideas are bigger than the words we use to express them. We should be careful not to lose sight of big ideas by squabbling over words. (April 29, 2010)

On Voting Locally:

Everyone complains about politicians, but no one does anything about them. The Knoxville city elections going on right now are the perfect opportunity to do something. It is a non-partisan election for the least powerful seats around, so the politicians come in their purest form: mere citizens without ties to larger political forces. There are no Goliaths, and candidates can win without getting the stink of big donors on them.

At the same time, power-seeking creeps and paid-off puppets usually get their start in local offices as well, so voters in local elections are the first line of defense against politicians who will become a lobbyist's best friend. Entry-level political offices lack the glamour that draws voters to the polls, but that same glamour makes the cost of campaigning for higher office prohibitive to those lacking the connections political parties and incumbency provide. Those high costs are the main reason we have a government that is more responsive to monied interests than to citizens. Changing that fact starts with more of us acting locally. …

At the local level, our democracy still feels like it is of, by, and for the people—except for the abysmal turnout. City elections are often won and lost by margins of just a few dozen votes. When you look at the results in the newspaper on Wednesday, you will feel like you made a difference, and it will not be an illusion. (Sept. 16, 2009)

On the Two-Party System:

Nowhere in the Constitution of Tennessee or the United States are political parties mentioned, yet the two major parties wield considerable power. The Tennessee Constitution provides that every citizen over 18, duly registered, be allowed to participate in all federal, state, and local elections, yet we routinely hold elections where a citizen's desire to support a Democrat at the federal level, for example, precludes his or her desire to support a Republican at the state level. You cannot participate in all elections; you must choose. Why taxpayers should be funding party primaries at all is not clear. Parties are not part of our electoral structure.

National surveys on party identification generally show the country split into approximate thirds: one-third Democrat, one-third Republican, and one-third independent. There are only two independents in Congress and one in the Tennessee General Assembly, so the two parties hold power far out of proportion to demographics. They have done this by rigging our election laws to their shared advantage, and the procedures for selecting election commissioners and administrators are a prime example.

Because Republicans now hold a majority in the state Legislature, every election commission in every county had to eject a Democrat and add a Republican. Independents get no place at those tables, nor do Libertarians, Greens, or any other party. The Tennessee Constitution says elections must be "fair and equal," but two parties have devised a system that is deliberately unequal. (June 25, 2009)

On the Void:

If you hear a sound in the night, are you content to chalk it up as unknown? You hope to hear it again, and you speculate on where it came from and what it was. Our minds do not like holes, so they fill them. Intruder? Raccoon? Ghost? If we can't solve the mystery, we settle for a best guess.

We all walk around with conclusions unsupported by evidence.

Jim Adkisson's would-be suicide note is full of voids: "They want America to lose this war for reasons I can not understand. It makes me soooo mad!"; "I can't for the life of me understand why these people would embrace Marxism like they do." Two big holes he could never fill: why liberals want to lose and why liberals embrace Marxism. Those unknowns vexed him.

It was not vexation that drove him to murder, however. Deadly stakes came into play over other voids. He had been out of work for some time and wrote that "‘overqualified' is a code word for ‘too damned old'." He was haunted by the thought that he had been meant to die in Vietnam and his life was a gap in the fabric of fate.

Our minds fill holes, and Adkisson filled his with a suicidal rage. His sane mind wanted a noble death, however, so it filled the rage with purpose. His suicide became a suicide mission, pairing his urge to destroy himself with a need for deserving victims. Whether anyone deserves to die, every role must be cast, so Adkisson plugged liberals into his holes.

The frightening thing about Adkisson's confessional is its normalcy. He makes a convincing everyman adrift on the seas of divorce and unemployment, undeluded about his future prospects. The hatred he channeled into his turmoil was readily available and easy to consume. He was not into something weird and esoteric like Marxism. He listened to the same radio stations we all do. (Feb. 19, 2009)

Last Blog Post:

A couple weeks ago I pruned the saucer magnolia in the front yard. The pruned branches now bear defiant flowers. Life is powerful and spirited.

Though doomed, these branches retain water and even draw some in when humid air sits over these hills. Death can be sudden, but only after taking its time. We all get a fair allotment of life to use wisely. I can not keep the spirit down when I see a cut branch make a few final blossoms, laughing a pink punchline. What a wonderful world. (March 16, 2013)