Monday, September 5, 2011

Gibsongate: Obama starts to alienate his last supporters—UPDATED

Gibson Les Paul DC with gold hardware
There are two segments of American society that still place some credibility in the Obama Administration: The mainstream media and the entertainment industry ... if they can still be considered separate entities. Not above shooting itself in the foot, the administration is now eroding one of those power bases.

If you have any knowledge or love of guitars, you know about Gibson guitars. They have made three of the most iconic axes ever to be played on stage or in the studio, from the late Les Paul's eponymous single-cutaway to the SG carried by John Lennon to the Flying V owned by Sammy Hagar (and played by Dr. Gregory House on House MD ... not the same one, of course). You can't buy a Gibson Les Paul in good shape for less than $800 unless you catch a very hard-up musician; in fact, Gibson licenses Epiphone to make Les Pauls with cheaper woods and sell at lower prices. The Les Paul DC is just one of many variants; they're not normally made with gold hardware, nor do they always come with vibrato arms. (Do not, for Pete's sake, call it a "whammy bar", or any number of guitarists will descend upon you to slap the taste out of your mouth.)

Guitarists from all over the musical spectrum just love Gibson guitars for the smooth "humbucker" sound produced by the double-coil pickups and the flattened frets that allow a greater freedom of movement over the fretboard. They are the Rolls-Royce of luthiers.

And, for reasons yet to be fully comprehended, the Department of Justice raided their factory on August 24th, shutting them down and forbidding them to move any of their stock.

The apparent premise for the DoJ's action is their interpretation of an Indian law requiring wood from Indian trees to be finished by Indians. Under a 2009 amendment to the Lacey Act of 1900, manufacturers and suppliers who purchase wood from a foreign company must obey that country's laws. However, to date India has not complained of importation violations nor requested US intervention, and charges have yet to be filed.

Now, there's some suggestion that the effort is politically motivated. CEO Henry Juszkiewicz, according to Andrew Lawton of Landmark Report, is a major GOP contributor, and that C. F. Martin Guitars uses the same wood but hasn't been raided once (let alone twice, as has Gibson). Another rumor is that the raid was motivated by the American Lumber Union, though I have no linkable source on that at this writing (9/5/11 @ 10:07 PM CDT).

[UPDATE: In his press conference shortly after the raid, Juszkiewicz related a story he'd heard that the Lacey Act (at least the amendment) was passed by Congress to benefit the lumber unions, in order to push vendors and manufacturers to purchase American lumber. The YouTube clip is 29:14 long; the reference to the story comes in at 23:39. Juszkiewicz explicitly states that the story is "hearsay"; it isn't a direct accusation of the Lumber Workers Industrial Union or the Industrial Workers of the World, nor does Juszkiewicz accuse the government of bending to IWW/LWIU pressure.—TL]

But Triple Pundit's Raz Godelnik suggests that Juszkiewicz's claim to complete legality may not be all that it seems. The government still holds wood seized as evidence in 2009 stemming from a US Fish and Wildlife charge; Gibson filed a motion to overturn it but was denied. And in 2010, a plan Gibson developed with the Rainforest Alliance had as its first principle "eliminating risk in its supply chain by identifying potentially illegal or unsustainable sources, banning future purchases of ebony or rosewood from Madagascar, and requiring all future purchases are from documented legal sources”. Kudos to them for doing that, but not exactly inspiring confidence that their supply chain is/was uncontaminated by illegal wood.

Nevertheless, the DoJ's immobility on the 2009 charges, when connected with this later raid, smells very fishy. The fact that the FWS charges weren't overturned, while carrying some presumptive bias, isn't a locked-tight guarantee that the accusations have good foundation; judges on all levels of the system have been known to make bad calls based on personal or political bias. And while I place very little credence in the claim of administration pressure on behalf of the American Lumber Union, I don't dismiss it out of hand; previous actions by the administration show that its interpretation of law — American or foreign — is very flexible when enforcing it against employers.

In fact, between raids on Amish milk producers, providing gay porn to school kids, forcing Catholic colleges to offer contraceptive coverage on employee health plans, bullying states to fund Planned Barrenhood and refusing to defend DOMA — oh, and linking to websites telling parents to let their kids masturbate — it appears the only thing the Obama Administration is prepared to enforce is its funhouse-mirror system of values. No wonder people like radio host Alex Jones are fed up with it: