This article has been contributed by Frank Houghton. Frank Houghton is a tenured Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Public Health & Health Administration at Eastern Washington University. He has experience of working in Public Health and academia in the UK, Ireland, New Zealand, and the USA. By training he is a Public Health Geographer with research interests in health inequalities, gun control, therapeutic landscapes, and courage/advocacy.
April 22nd 2017 marked the 47th anniversary of Earthday. Conceived in the aftermath of Carson’s (1962) Silent Spring, and amidst the Vietnam War and student unrest, Earthday aimed to energize environmental action through popular protest. The inaugural Earthday in 1970 saw 20 million Americans protesting. By 1990 it involved 200 million people across 141 countries.
However, Ann Coulter, an American social and conservative and political commentator, used the day as a convenient segue to launch yet another racist diatribe against immigrants in the US, albeit through an environmental lens (Coulter 2017a).
Coulter has gained significant exposure through supporting Donald Trump over the last year, as evidenced in her book In Trump We Trust. Her notoriety has increased after the University of California at Berkeley cancelled her speech for fear of violence and civil disorder (Svriuga et al. 2017). This denial led to right wing student groups to sue the university citing free speech (Wisner 2017).
Coulter has a long history of racist attacks on immigrants, including her book Adios, America: The Left’s Plan to Turn Our Country into a Third World Hellhole (Coulter 2015). One of Coulter’s trademarks has been to equate Hispanic immigrants with child rapists:
‘Before breathing a sigh of relief that, unlike Western Europe, we don’t have Muslim rapists pouring into our country, recall that we have Mexican rapists pouring into our country.
Almost all peasant cultures are brimming with rapists, pederasts and child abusers. Latin America just happens to be the peasant culture closest to the United States, while the Muslims are closest to Europe.’ (Coulter 2017b).
The conflation of immigration, border security and sexual assault is nothing new and has been noted elsewhere (Ticktin 2008).
Coulter also openly attacks Muslim immigrants to the US (Coulter 2017c). Recurring themes include: the large US population of Muslims; US Muslims should emigrate; accounts of assaults on Muslims are false; the grandfathers of white US citizens were born in the US (which is supposed to entitle them to more rights, although interestingly the rights of American Indians are not discussed); and the media is a left-wing conspiracy. Before ignoring Coulter it is important to remember that her text Adios America was a New York Times bestseller, and she is a syndicated columnist, active blogger, and author of over ten books.
In her Earthday commentary, provocatively titled ‘Your choice: A Green America or a Brown America’, Coulter (2017a) attacked the Sierra Club before continuing a familiar racist polemic against Hispanic immigrants. Her attack was notable given her use of an environmental conservation perspective.
Coulter’s barrage against the Sierra Club accuses it of accepting a $100 million donation not to discuss immigration. Coulter’s portrayal is notably different from other commentators from the period, who outline how ‘progressive Sierra Club members, as well as 13 past Club presidents, are fighting back’ against attempts at a ‘hostile takeover by forces allied with… a variety of right-wing extremists’ (Hartman 2004, 2).
Coulter’s (2017a) Earthday diatribe continued:
‘people… can’t help but notice the environmental damage being done by hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans clamoring across the border every year, setting fires, dumping litter, spray-painting gang signs in our parks and defacing ancient Indian petroglyphs.
The problem isn’t just the number of people traipsing through our wilderness areas; it’s that primitive societies have no concept of “litter.” That’s a quirk of prosperous societies. The damage to our parks shows these cultural differences.’
The emphasis on the clamoring masses crossing the border is both alarmist and reminiscent of neo-Malthusian ideas of the population ‘bomb’ (Connelly 2006). Coulter describes the ‘Hispanic littering problem’ stating that ‘The Mexican cultural trait of littering is apparently well known to everyone’.
For support Coulter (2017a) draws on the work of Oakes who describes the:
“reprehensible” damage being done to “towering cactus, Joshua trees, flowering cactus varieties, colorful wildflowers and rock formations” by illegals. With accompanying photos, she noted that the immigrants’ litter included “abandoned vehicles … used needles, drug paraphernalia, plastic grocery bags, paper products, empty water containers, blankets, clothing, used disposable diapers, among other things.”
Oakes (2007) provides a written description of areas along the US side of the Mexican border, as well as a number of photographs. It is interesting to remember that the potential cause of at least some of this environmental damage having been caused by animals, livestock, visitors and hikers noted by Oakes is glossed over in the account presented by Coulter. In reading such accounts of the littering and environmental damage perpetrated by migrants, it is hard not to juxtapose this with concerns over environmental contamination in other once pristine environments that have been ignored by the far right. For example the issue of rubbish left by foreign climbers and their local guides on Mount Everest in Nepal is well known. As Figuera (2013) notes: ‘This ecological wonder has become strewn with garbage and peppered with corpses’. Given the danger, distance, temperatures and arid terrain confronting immigrants crossing the border, it seems nonsensical to expect a ‘leave no trace’ approach.
Some of the language used by Oakes (2007) is disturbing. In shaded areas, where migrants shelter en-route in this arid terrain, she describes the accumulation of rubbish as ‘ similar to family groups of nesting apes in the jungle’. This animal imagery is painfully similar to colonial era discourses that provided a would-be ‘justification’ for the enslavement of Africans (Lott 1998).
After reviewing just three US towns with Hispanic Chambers of Commerce and litter problems Coulter (2017a) continues:
Mass Third World immigration is a triple whammy for the environment because:
1) Millions more people are tromping through our country;
2) The new people do not share Americans’ love of nature and cleanliness; and
3) We’re not allowed to criticize them.
This contrast between cleanliness and immigration littering is reminiscent of other racist tropes such as those of the immigrant as dirty (Henry 1994), contagious (Trauner 1978; Leung 2008), and contaminated (Cisneros 2008).
Deliberately misquoting the poem associated with the Statue of Liberty Coulter (2017a) concludes with:
Give me your tired, your poor, your empties and pizza boxes, your Cheetos bags, your soiled diapers and abandoned couches …
Reflecting on Coulter’s piece, it is ironic that a major issue for the National Park Service in the US is the under-representation of minority populations visiting national parks (Rott 2016). Concerns over race, affect and national heritage sites are not unique to the US, with racial exclusivity having been explored in other similar environments (Crang and Tolia-Kelly 2010).
It is alarming that Coulter ignores other contemporary initiatives that will have serious negative environment impacts. These include the construction of the Dakota Access and Keystone XL oil pipelines, and Presidential hostility/ ambivalence towards the Paris climate agreement. Other examples include Trump’s promotion of coal production and his review of Obama’s clean power initiatives. Trump has also critically weakened the Environmental Protection Agency through funding cuts and deregulation, and in the most direct attack yet on parks and parkland in the US, he has ordered a review of new parks created since 1996.
Coulter’s approach to the topic of race and the environment revives and promulgates old clichés of the immigrant as lazy, dirty, untrustworthy, infectious, and a sexual predator. It should be acknowledged that Coulter is an increasingly influential demagogue of the far right in a post-truth world (Davies 2016). Coulter personifies populist politics where alternative facts rule (Swaine 2017), pathos is embraced, and logos and ethos are scorned. However, Coulter should not be ignored. She offers public/ intellectual leadership to the far right. In evaluating the impact of Coulter’s racist propaganda, the term ‘weaponized lies’ is most appropriate (Levitin 2017).
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