Streetbuzz Interview

May 11, 2005

Stoney Bird: Retired corporate attorney, enviro-political-community activist, committed bicyclist.
Lives in Mt. Vernon, Washington, USA.

A STREETBUZZ INTERVIEW

Stoney Bird

STREETBUZZ: Where and when were you born?

STONEY BIRD: In 1944 in Waterbury, Connecticut.

STREETBUZZ: Please tell me about your childhood.

STONEY BIRD: My father worked for the CIA. We lived outside Washington, D.C., For a long time, and then moved to Munich, Germany during the 50's. And then after that I was at private schools in Switzerland and Connecticut. My parents moved back to Virginia and just as I was about to graduate form high school they moved to Ghana where my father worked undercover as a Pillsbury flour salesman. I happened to turn eighteen when they were in Ghana and it was there that I learned that he worked for the CIA. After a year as an exchange student in England, I went to college in the U.S. at Yale and there I would have majored in African studies if they had that as a major, but I didn't. I took all the courses related to Africa and the third world that I could.

STREETBUZZ: And after you graduated from college?

STONEY BIRD: After a year studying Arabic in Monterey taking a makeup class at the New School for Social Research, and doing odd jobs, and working for the welfare department in New York, I joined the Peace Corps.

STREETBUZZ: As an aside, I assume that by this point your views were already pretty divergent from those of your father?

STONEY BIRD: Not really. At that point I didn't really understand the role that the CIA played. He really supported my going into the Peace Corps. The one thing about his CIA work that I know of, is that he helped a Hungarian professor of political science, who was on sabbatical with his family, to get asylum in England. It seemed to be a sort of a humanitarian thing to do. The only other thing I know about his CIA work is that he would hold a dinner party once a week and invite all sorts of people, businessz people, diplomatic people, journalists, and just talk with them about what was going on in Ghana. And then I believe sometimes he would invite government people and ask them pointed questions about something, and then sometimes he would ask them to find out something for him. But not often, 'cuz that would involve crossing the line about revealing what he was up to. But usually he didn't tell us anything about what he was doing.
I recently earned that the CIA manual on permissible torture was written in the 60's while we were in Ghana. (So he may have been involved in torture?) I don't know what he did or didn't. But I've since come to see the overall work of the CIA as harmful.

STREETBUZZ: Peace Corps at age...?

STONEY BIRD: Age 24. And was assigned to Libya. I'd requested an Arabic-speaking country 'cuz I'd studied Arabic in college. Our project was to make English a second language in Libya. But after we'd been there for a year, Colonel Khaddafi seized power and almost immediately asked us to leave. Followed shortly by the American Air Force base.

STREETBUZZ: After Libya I spent my second Peace Corps year in Tunisia. Living in a villa on the shores of the Mediterranean with marbled floors and tiled walls, and a maid who came in every day. It was six feet from the Mediterranean. Again teaching English. In Libya we'd been teaching English in the fifth grade; in Tunisia, they started much later, I was teaching students in 10th grade, in their second year of studying English.
Tthen I came back and went to law school at UCLA.

STREETBUZZ: Why law?

STONEY BIRD: Because I didn't think it would restrict my options. I was naive about many things (laughs.)

STREETBUZZ: And then?

STONEY BIRD: And then I went to work for Mobil Oil. My first job out of law school was to join the international legal department of Mobil Oil in New York City. Yes it was exciting. The summer I got there was the first summer (1973) that OPEC had begun nationalizing American oil possessions, and began exercising their muscle in the pricing sphere. And all sorts of people began suing the oil companies saying that it was their fault that oil prices were going up. I was heavenly involved in all that litigation. Like the Hunt brothers in Texas, and apartment owners in New York. And after that I moved over to assisting some of the subsidiaries in Africa, South America and SE Asia.
In 1977 I went to work for the Harris Corporation in Florida. And I stayed with them until 1990, ending up as their European counsel based in London. They were in various kinds of electronics, they did a lot of defense work, and broadcast equipment, superminicomputers, semiconductors..... it got to be less and less fulfilling. In a technical sense it was always interesting, but in a sense of whether I was doing something important and worthwhile in life, I had a harder and harder time convincing myself (laughs.)

STREETBUZZ: You got married in there somewhere.

STONEY BIRD: Yes, I got married twice. Just before I went to law school; that ended just about the time I moved from New York to Florida. And then I got married a second time in 1980 and that one ended in 1996.

STREETBUZZ: Were you in love with your wives?

STONEY BIRD: Certainly the second time.

STREETBUZZ: Children?

STONEY BIRD: Yes, both by my second wife. A son who's twenty-four and a daughter who's nineteen.

STREETBUZZ: So what happened after the Harris Corporation?

STONEY BIRD: We were living in England in the late 80's and they asked me to come back to the U.S. in 1990. By then I didn't want to take any other positions that they offered me in the U.S. I told myself that I needed to take some time off, so we moved to the Skagit Valley, 'cuz my second wife's sister lived here, and we both liked the area. And what I told myself was that I would just take six months off, but that six months never came to an end (laughs heartily.)

STREETBUZZ: Whatever did you do with yourself?

STONEY BIRD: When we first moved here, I lived up the hill above Clear Lake. In a house that had been a schoolhouse for a commune, that definitely needed fixing up. When we moved in it had five different kinds of siding. For at least two years we were living in a construction site and that was at least one of the precipitating causes of our divorce.
For a while I was commuting down to the UW to study music theory at the graduate level. And then really after my wife and I separated, I began getting involved with environmental groups in the valley: Friends of Skagit Valley and the Audobon Society. And for a time I was on the board of Health Care For All attempting to procure a universal health care system in Washington State.
And I really began working on peace issues after 9/11. And was really able for the first time to put what my father had been doing into perspective.

STREETBUZZ: What was that perspective?

STONEY BIRD: Oh, umm, what some people call the projection of American power by fair means or foul. By goodwill or violence, everywhere in the world.

Stoney at home in his kitchen
Stoney Bird

STREETBUZZ: How about George W. Bush?

STONEY BIRD: How depressing. I suppose one of the main points to make about George W. Bush is that the opponents from the other major party, at least in their public statements, didn't make any distinction in any major way from what he's been doing. In the last election we had one candidate who favored pursuing the Iraq war and occupation and the second candidate (Kerry )who favored expanding the US forces in Iraq. We had one candidate who supports Israel strongly, and the other candidate (Kerry) who criticized Bush for not supporting Israel strongly enough. Both candidates favored policies supporting increasing the wealth of the rich, both candidates supported the repeal of the estate tax, and tax cuts for the rich. Neither candidate would have done anything significant to reduce the American assault on the environment. Neither candidate favored reducing the military budget in any significant way. Both candidates favored the further extension of corporate power over employees and over society in general. Both candidates received the majority of their campaign contributions form corporations and other big money interests. So I haven't really answered your question about George W. Bush but I have answered your question about he bankruptcy of the American political system. And if you think about it, an expectation that a mere two political parties would be able to express a full range of political opinion in a society of 290 million people is outrageous and absurd. Because our system is a winner-take-all electoral system, there are almost insuperable barriers to third or fourth parties. To the greater impoverishment of our political lives. And conversations.

STREETBUZZ: How about the apparent collision of Christianity and Islam?

STONEY BIRD: One of the fundamental tenets of every major religion in the world including Christianity and Islam, is the primacy of love and inclusiveness. Unfortunately most religions also have a strand of exclusiveness and elitism, and of the belief that their own adherents are the sole possessors of truth and virtue. In Christianity those latter tendencies have led to some of the worst atrocities the world has seen. Hitler for example justified many of his measures against the Jews on the basis of Christian supremacy.
I'd like to add that Karen Armstrong's many books on religion are very illuminating; on the nature of religious beliefs and on the similarities of the major faiths.

STREETBUZZ: Would you please describe your own spiritual / religious beliefs?

STONEY BIRD: I've been reading recently about Thomas Jefferson who did a cut and paste job on the four gospels. What he cut out was all the theological bits, and what he left in was all of Jesus' social and ethical teachings. That seemed to make a lot of sense. It's commonly referred to as the Jefferson Bible. One of the odd things about Thomas Jefferson though is that even though he barely believed in god, he believed he had to go to church to set a good example for the people of the United States.
Sometime ago I went to a website where they would ask you a number of questions about your beliefs, then present you with a list of the denominations to which your beliefs most closely corresponded. And the one that most closely corresponded to my beliefs was progressive Quakerism, followed by the Unitarian Universalist. Unfortunately neither Islam or Buddhism is included in the list.

STREETBUZZ: Stoney, what kind of car do you drive? Any comments about petroleum?

STONEY BIRD: I don't drive a car any more. I do most of my getting around town either on foot or on a bicycle. Longer trips I use the bus or carpool with friends.
One of the things that persuades me not to use cars is the increasingly more probable predictions that we're reaching the end of the petroleum era. And my desire to use the practical experience of getting around in the community where I live to redesign itself so that way of getting around will be convenient and safe for everyone.

STREETBUZZ: You live in the stunningly beautiful Skagit Valley. What can you day about this place?

STONEY BIRD: It is beautiful. But I fear that its human inhabitants have a tendency to valuate its beauty in terms of money, particularly the money that can be made from real estate speculation and development.

STREETBUZZ: At the present rate of self-destruction, how long do you think our species will last?

STONEY BIRD: Ha! (Sighs heavily, then laughs). I guess I don't foresee the complete die-off of the human species but I do see a great and sudden and painful catastrophic reduction in the population. For example, it's quite likely that the world's food system can only support anything more than one or two billion people because of cheap and abundant oil, which we've observed is probably about to come to an end. Phenomena like climate breakdown euphemistically, known as global warming, and the massive extinction of species which is going on now, the introduction of industrial chemicals into the tissues of every living creature on the planet, all of these will have unpredictable effects which I hope are not as serious as I fear. In the meantime, the policy of our political leaders is to solve problems with violence, instead of addressing the core environmental and resource waste problems. And the response of the medical community is to invent increasingly expensive treatments for diseases caused by the environmental problems instead of addressing the core environmental problems themselves.

STREETBUZZ: You've addressed a few minor issues here. What have we left out?

STONEY BIRD: The pleasure of the wind in your face and the eventually-learned skill and maneuver when you're riding a bicycle.

STREETBUZZ: What's your plan for the rest of 2005?

STONEY BIRD: Continuing the work of trying to make all these ideas more widespread. One of the means being the Magic Skagit Celebration which will take place the end of July. (Please e-mail me for more information or to get involved.) It will include music and food and opportunities for many many different kinds of groups to meet one another and exchange ideas.

STREETBUZZ: Final words?

STONEY BIRD: Thanks to Chris for doing this and for probing questions, leaving room to talk about some very important stuff.

Second Street overpass, Mt. Vernon, February 2003, just before the start of war.
Stoney Bird

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A STREETBUZZ INTERVIEW

Stoney Bird can be reached at sjbird@cnw.com