The Gibson guitar factory raid, version two: how the successful enforcement of an environmental law was transformed into a narrative of government overreach

At the time of this writing, in 2018, that is, nearly a decade after the events that happened in Nashville, a Google search of the Gibson factory raid will churn up a range of sources claiming to relate what happened, a clear majority of which portray the raid as an aberration of justice and a prime example of governmental overreach. Without even clicking on the links, we read expressions such as, “abuse-of-power scandal from President Obama’s first term,” “Government run amok,” or how “lumber union protectionists incited [a] SWAT raid” on the factory. Evidently, the story of what happened has captivated the public mind, but the most popular narrative is not about how the company deliberately tried to benefit from the fragile political situation in a developing country in order to pillage its forest to obtain cheap material for producing products sold primarily in the West; on the contrary, the narrative which has grown out of the events is one of the federal government using phony claims about climate change as an excuse to punish American companies for employing American workers.

This is precisely what then Gibson CEO Henry Juszkicwicz claimed:

It has nothing to do with conservation and it had nothing to do with how scarce or not scarce the rosewood or ebony is. It has to do with jobs.

According to Juszkiewicz’s argument, had the ebony been shaped into fingerboards in Madagascar, Gibson would not have been subject to regulation under the Lacey Act. Therefore, he reasons, the point of the DOJ’s intervention was to encourage American companies to outsource their work to foreign countries. In other words, President Obama was trying to promote employment in Africa at the expense of workers in the United States.

But Juszkiewicz’s position is actually one of the more reasoned and moderate ones. For example, two years after the fact, one Youtuber opined,

Gibson raided by the Feds. This is a little extreme. What happened to our liberties. I produced this video in response to our out of control tyrannic government. We are now at an all time Historical low. Police state and the disrespect to our Republic, Constitution and the will of the people.

(Caldwell, 2011)

This sort of sentiment is typical of web-based conversations on the topic. Clearly, the story has been integrated into a larger American narrative of anarchism and resistance to tyranny. This tradition is deeply rooted in American history, going back through Henry David Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” and the “Declaration of Independence” to religious dissidence in the 17th century. Later developments undoubtedly had less noble intentions, including Southern states’ rights advocates in the antebellum period. Civil War secessionists and later segregationists warning the federal government to butt out of their local affairs. But there are more admirable strains as well, including Martin Luther King’s thoughtful refusal to obey unjust laws or grassroots environmentalists in the Hudson Valley standing up to international corporations like General Electric, who were unabashedly engaging in ecological criminality. In other words, the story line of the honest little guy fighting against the big, oppressive government is always looming in the background in America, ready to be used as the interpretive prism for any events that seem to lend themselves to that sort of reading. The Gibson factor}', full of American blue-collar workers whose place of employment was suddenly shut down on the orders of federal agents was a perfect setting for a story of governmental oppression. What’s more, the emotional intensity of the meta narrative is as high as the perceived proximity of the threat: if the feds can show up unannounced in Nashville, the argument goes, maybe your town is next. By contrast, the alternative interpretation of the same events offered by the government lacks pungency:

We target corporations and individuals who are removing protected species from the wild and making a profit by trafficking in them. (US Fish and Wildlife Service in response to inquiry by CNN)

In order to measure the actual impact of this unruly mass of discourse is another matter, I decided to examine only videos available on YouTube and try' to see what proportion of language produced was dedicated to which narrative. The idea was to provide a quantitative basis for analyzing what John Wargo, professor of environmental law at Yale, has called “narrative advantage.” (Wargo, 2011) I take this to mean that various narratives are in competition to win over the public to their side. Advantage is achieved when one narrative is more believable and in fact more believed than another. This may not, and in this case does not, correspond to factual reality'. The main point is for the listener or viewer to be able to see him/herself as part of the story. Therefore, the main question for the recipient of discourse is, “Where do I fit in?” It is my’ contention that the logicbased discourse of the various governmental agencies involved in the Gibson case - the Departments of Homeland Security', Justice and Agriculture, in addition to the US Fish and Wildlife Service - failed to provide viable points of entry' into the narrative that would have allowed the public to sec the relevance of the government’s action in a positive way.

There are presently 49 videos dedicated to this case available on YouTube, 46 of which support the narrative of “government overreach,” the rest being relatively neutral and none actually' defending the actions of the government.

Looking at the actual sources of information, two in particular account for nearly half the overall number of views: Fox News and Alex Jones’ Info Wars (see Figure 1.1). Meanwhile, Henry' Juszkiewicz is interviewed on over half of the available videos (25), so that the development of the “Gibson as victim of government overreach” narrative was a joint effort on the part of the company’ and a complicit media. (Juszkiewicz was also invited by Senator Rand Paul to testify' in the US Senate.)

Number of views on YouTube

Figure 1.1 Number of views on YouTube.

Running through all the partisan reporting of the case is a common story line. A typical report begins with a portrait of Gibson’s most famous guitars (the Les Paul or SG) and a quick listing of some of the most famous musicians who have played them (Paul McCartney or B.B. King). Next, the camera turns to the factory workers, a group comprised of people of different races and sexes - an idyllic image of the American workforce diligently going about its business. At this point, the company’s CEO describes how one day armed federal agents made a surprise appearance, shutting down the factory and proceeding to search the premises. The journalist then announces dramatically that the object of the investigation is neither drugs nor terrorism but (after a dramatic pause) ... wood. The camera then returns to Juszkiewicz, who expresses his innocent shock and the report concludes that the government has indeed gone awry, leaving the viewer with the impression that there must be some hidden motive for such a disproportionate use of force.

The sources diverge in identifying what the hidden agenda really is, though the suggestion that Juszkiewicz’s being a Republican donor is frequently evoked as a likely reason for having been targeted when other companies that use the “same wood” were not. Indeed, the Gibson CEO offers three main arguments for his innocence. First, he says, Gibson has always used the same wood, so why now? Second, other companies use the same kind of wood, so why us? And third, Gibson has documents proving that the Malagasy government authorized the sale, so how can it be illegal? The point, of course, is to imply that the enforcement of the Lacey Act’s 2008 amendment was a kind of subterfuge to catch the innocent company off guard.

Juszkiewicz is careful to leave the remainder of the narrative development to the media, who then proceed to dramatize the events and imbue them with anti-tyrannical ideology. A simple survey of the titles of the reports is insightful and six thematic categories emerge: government overreach (“Government run amok - Gibson Guitar factory raid,” “Runaway Government - The Spectacle of Homeland Security’s Raid on Gibson Guitar,” “Gibson Guitars Raided by SWAT Team: Gov’t Gone Wild”), incomprehension (“Ted Nugent On Gibson Raids: Illogical, Anti-American, and Contrary to Claims of Creating Jobs,” “Gibson Guitar Raid Unnecessary,” “Gibson Guitars raid madness”), the shocked public (“Tea Partiers Outraged by Gibson Raid,” “Public Reacts to Feds Raid on Gibson Guitars,” “The Lacey Act Declarations Form! Are you kidding me?”), violence (“FED ATTACKS GIBSON,” “Gibson Guitar Company ‘Attacked’ by FEDs,” “Stringing Up Gibson Guitar by Rand Paul”), illegality of government action (“Overcriminalization in America: Tuning out Justice,” “Judge Napolitano Slams DOJ Over Gibson Guitar Raid: ‘Unjustifiable, Use Of Force Was Criminal’,” “Gibson Guitar-Legal Extortion,” “Green Police Mafia Raid Gibson Guitars”), and finally the “real” motive (“Still no charges months after armed raid on Gibson Guitars,” “Blackburn: President Obama Should Come Clean on Gibson Guitar Raid,” “Was Gibson Guitars Also Targeted by the IRS?,” “Gibson Guitar Raids - Another Case Of Unfair Targeting By Obama Admin?,” “Obama’s Gestapo Raids Gibson Guitars for Being a Republican Donor”).

To better comprehend how the “tyrannical government” theme is developed linguistically, I constituted a corpus of some 55,000 words, the total content of the transcripts of all the videos. Then, using the Brown corpus as a reference and Antconc software as the analytical tool, word frequencies and their relative importance (keyness) were discerned. One of the most significant semantic fields that is revealed is that of military operations. For example, the adjective-noun-verb combination of “federal” (103 occurrences)/“raid” (92)/ “target” [as verb] (26) clearly conveys the notion of a military operation being carried out in a civilian context. Here we arc dealing with hyperbole, for in some sense the inspection did constitute a raid that was indeed carried out by federal agents. However, this narrative element is then reinforced by the use of “semiautomatic” or “automatic weapons” (14 occurrences) and “bulletproof vests” (37) - not to mention isolated occurrences of “jackbooted,” “at the barrel of a gun,” “Nazi” and “Stalin”! At this stage, we have passed into the domain of fiction. Equally inappropriate from a strictly factual point of is the use of the term “SWAT (Special Weapons And Tactics) team” (37 occurrences).

One indication of the degree to which viewers are predisposed to believe such a story can be found in the fact that many of the same sources that promote the SWAT team narrative also provide photographs of the actual event, in which three or four average people wearing khaki pants or jeans and polo style shirts are seen to be carrying clipboards and bubble wrap and taking photos - hardly a group of hardened soldiers advancing in formation. But if the effectiveness of such narrative construction needed further proof, nothing would be more convincing than Gibson’s issuing of a commemorate instrument to immortalize the tragic events and cash in on its popularity'. The “Government Series II” Les Paul guitar sells for a little over a thousand dollars and was designed to celebrate “an Infamous Moment in Gibson History.”

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