Robert Leo Heilman volunteering at his public library in Myrtle Creek, Oregon. (Source: Friends of Myrtle Creek Library)

Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a new email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.

Robert Leo Heilman is a writer and an essayist with what seems like many lifetimes of experience behind him. Working as a logger, his professional journey has taken him around Oregon and behind the scenes of the logging industry, an experience he describes first-hand in Overstory: Zero, Real Life in Timber Country.

In his writing, Heilman often talks about concepts that are, at heart, concerned with civic duty and how we approach living together as a “community,” one of many terms he believes are overused, diluting their true meaning. 

We sat down at the Friends of Myrtle Creek Library in Myrtle Creek, Oregon – Heilman’s long time home – for a conversation inspired by his recent column for The News-Review, a daily newspaper from Roseburg, Oregon, where Heilman’s been publishing for a number of years. 

Heilman is concerned about many things, and stoically calm about others, but what comes through in a pronounced way is his humanism. He is concerned about the environment and ravages of modern-era extractive industries, but before he chains himself to a tree, he’d like to see poverty in Myrtle Creek gone.

Unsurprisingly for a writer, our conversation always found its way back to the question of language, its power and limitations, and the dangers it poses when used recklessly. That became the focus of our discussion, since so much of what is happening in our public life seems to revolve around, or originate with, words and manipulation.  

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Jan Pytalski, The Daily Yonder:  I wanted to start by asking about the most recent piece you wrote [“Of Tyrants and Tyranny”]. What compelled you to write that one?

Robert Leo Heilman (Photo submitted)

Robert Leo Heilman: Well, I mull things over, I’m an inveterate muller of things.  I’m constantly chewing my cud, which is a good thing if you happen to be an essayist. But I’d been thinking about these guys for quite a while. 

We had this group show up, oh, around Christmas time out of nowhere, calling themselves Citizens Against Tyranny. It was a group of business owners… and such who were complaining about the restrictions that had come up due to the current pestilence that’s going about. A local politician was egging them on, giving talks at this church out there, and saying that the restrictions were unconstitutional, calling it tyranny and whatnot, you know, the general hyperbole that people use. 

And then just right before I started writing that thing I saw this piece about protests in Germany in which the protesters were wearing arm bands that had the yellow star of David on them and the word “unvaccinated,” making the comparison between the Holocaust and this petty tyranny that these people had been bitching about. 

So, that was the thing. Being a writer, when I see something like that, I don’t get shocked. I start thinking: “Ooh, I could use that!”

We must not now fool ourselves into excessive anger with our words and we cannot let the bluster of others fool us into expressing hatred for each other.

Perhaps we should fear our words rather than fearing our neighbors.

Robert Leo Heilman, “Of Tyrants and Tyranny”

The desire to write it has much deeper roots. Years and years of watching the local political scene. You know, I recall very clearly back in 2010 when the tea party thing hit here and we had our first tea party rally at the courthouse. A friend of mine who was a former photojournalist went over there and just took a bunch of pictures of the crowd and he was showing them to me. And I was recognizing various people because back in the mid nineties, about 15 years before this, there had been this group that was raising hell, calling themselves the Douglas County Citizens Advisory Council and all of that. They were extremely right wing, talking about a revolution, about civil war, you know… They were holding a meeting and so I went there and I was at the meeting and it was kind of bizarre. They showed this very strange, strange video that was conflating ultra patriotism and the mormon faith, and into the world of paranoia, the United Nations.

And so here it is 15 years later, and I’m seeing the same people in this tea party crowd at a demonstration at the courthouse. I found it disturbing, you know, that here this was starting to spread into a larger portion of our society. It was becoming very much something that was acceptable within the Republican party locally, you know and so I’ve been kind of tracking it all along ever since. 

So that particular column was the result of things that I could trace back to the 1980s. But, as a writer I’m very concerned about the use and misuse of language. It is not just the raw material of my craft, but it’s also what we have to think in and to think with, so it’s very important to me how language is used. Because they’re dangerous things – words – very slippery, very dangerous. There’s a tremendous amount of harm that can come from that.

DY: You warned about that in the column very clearly, both in terms of others fooling us with their words, but also fooling ourselves with our own misuse of language. And I’m curious, what do you think allows for that deception? How do we get to a point where the deception is so blatant, and so clear to see, and yet so widely accepted?

RLH: Yeah. I mean, in a nutshell, it’s simplistic thinking and a simplistic use of language that leads to simplistic thinking. For example: political science jargon. It’s very vague. It’s very abstract. And people get in the habit of using it and you get into the habit of using it. And pretty quick, your thinking becomes vague and abstract. Your understanding of the world around you becomes vague and abstract. You start thinking in terms of categories rather than particulars and therein lies the danger, because when you are labeling entire groups of people, entire categories of human beings, all sorts of horrors can result. We are constantly bombarded with the misuse of language, you know, commercially, in advertising and such, and it’s political speech, which George Orwell, for example, pointed out so clearly in Politics and the English Language, how banal it is, all these cliches being piled up.

You know, I remember back during the spotted owl controversy, the local timber industry had hired this publicist from Grants Pass, and created the immortal sentence: “We face a long uphill battle against a relentless foe whose arrogance, lust for power, and disregard for human suffering seems to know no bounds.” I mean, you know, it’s shitty writing for Christ sakes and that’s the result of shitty thinking. But it’s too much of the jargon getting loose in society. 

What’s the current one right now? Critical race theory! What a lousy name for it. Okay. I mean, it’s a terrible name. People don’t understand ‘critical’. They say things like: 

‘It’s critical and they’re talking about race. It’s critical of America for God’s sakes. We can’t have that! We love our country!’ 

It’s fine when it stays among the academics so that they can talk to each other in technical terms. But when you let it loose into the general population, it’s going to lead to misunderstandings.

‘Defund the police!’ – Oh my God! The Democrats were so heavy with that during the last election, you know. I understand activists saying: ‘Defund this, defund that, defund the war industry,’ you know, ‘get our college to disinvest from [certain] stocks,’ et cetera, et cetera. But you start saying ‘Defund the police!’ and people are saying ‘What? You want to get rid of the police?’ 

What is wrong with these activists? Have they never heard of running a focus group? You know, that’s all it takes, go on the street, ask people: “Hey, I got this thing, ‘defund the police!’ What do you think? Good idea?”

The words we use are the tools of our thoughts. Muddy language is a sign of muddy thinking. Personally, and professionally, this lack of precision when it comes to talking about something as important as the place where we live frightens me.

Robert Leo Heilman, “The Semantic Antics of ‘Community’”

DY:  I found it very interesting how you talk about the misuse of words and how we should have some mistrust towards language and how it’s used. I thought your ideas about the different meanings behind the word “community” were particularly on point. 

RLH: As long as those are abstract concepts, they’re not really worth a lot. You see, real communities have zip codes. Okay. That works. All right. Everything else is ‘as if it were a community,’ which it clearly is not. You see? So, you have to be aware that when you are using something rhetorically, metaphorically, it’s only a rhetorical twist, it’s only a metaphor assembly that you’re using. It’s not the reality of the situation itself because it lacks particulars. 

See, here we sit in [zipcode] 97457, which is a particular place, not only that, but in a particular building in that particular place, a particular room, two particular people talking to each other, so this is not some kind of abstraction. It’s two of us doing some work together.

And I’m a big believer in work. You know, I’m a big believer in specifics. Too much of the time I find people are wanting to talk about doing things, but they don’t actually get up off their butts and do things, you know? It’s tough. It’s very tough. I think part of that is due to our educational system. Part of that is due to our mass media. Part of that is the growth of mass culture.

DY: In your writing, when you talk about the understanding of community as willingness to belong to a community of like-minded people, that strikes me as a very urban phenomenon in the sense that it’s much easier to belong to a group of like-minded people in the city that puts together people from all over, where there’s really very little common background. And so those connections are formed on the basis of ideas, worldviews. 

But obviously there was a jump. I mean, you can see that now in the rural communities. How do you think that jump was made and how now can you have a very real community, a small town with a very real zip code, and yet people being completely disconnected, along the lines of ideology or whatever else it may be?

RLH: Well to a certain extent that’s always been there. I mean, you could go back to Lincoln/Douglas debates and such. People have disagreed about things for a long, long time. A big chunk of what we’ve seen in the recent past, in the last 30 years or so, 40 years, since the elimination of the fairness doctrine, under Ronald Reagan, these media empires being built up out of fomenting discord. So that makes it terribly difficult, you know, with the destruction of the countryside, the things that used to bring people together happened less frequently.

My mother was born in White Lake township, Slope County, North Dakota in 1921. I looked at the census for White Lake and there were 70 households there in the 1920 census. A township is 36 square miles. That’s one household for every half of a square mile, and actually a little denser because some of those square miles were actually set aside for schools and such, but 70 in 36 square miles. Today, there are three households is White Lake township. Three, not 73. Well, how do you get your interaction now? 

Some of it is due to technological innovations with the old ways dying out. Nobody has a family milk cow anymore. This town itself [Myrtle Creek, Oregon], we used to have a Ford dealership, a Chevy dealership, a Rambler dealership, a movie theater, a hospital, it had its own bowling alley – all gone, all gone. Why? Because, well, people can just jump in a car and go to Roseburg for whatever they need. 

What do they get when they get to Roseburg? Did they get somebody local whom they go to church with whom they sit next to at a little league baseball game? Somebody whose kids go to the same schools as theirs? No, you get Walmart, you get Fred Meyers, so the opportunities for, oh God, I hate to use the word like that, but ‘social infrastructure’ to develop are fewer when these areas are under stress. 

And if people can have the opportunity to use the mass media stuff, television largely, to isolate themselves to get some kind of a sense of being connected to the world, through their favorite soap opera, it’s a very tough one that way. It’s complicated. There’s a lot of elements involved in that. 

I’m a big believer in complication. Frankly, I think that it’s all very complicated. All of it, the world we live in, the universe we inhabit, is nothing but particulars. There are no categories. Categories are just ways that we fool ourselves into thinking we understand what we don’t really understand.

DY: How can we  make the community about community again, in that very particular sentence?

RLH: Well, it’s important to remember that a lot of what you’re hearing is just static. It’s just noise. 53% of Republicans think that Donald Trump won, oh my God, that’s alarming. Well, actually nationwide, only 26% of voters are Republicans anyway. Now we’re down to what, 13% of the general population? You know, well, if one person out of every seven is a nutcase, QAnon-believing moron, then that’s the way of it. You know, that’s just the way of it. 

They screw up, everybody screws up, you know, we are all, in the Christian sense, sinners. So it’s important to bear in mind that the alarming stuff is in fact unusual. It’s not the usual that people storm the Capitol Building. This is a tiny, tiny sliver of our nation. It’s hard to bear that in mind because of course you and I both know, being in the [news] business, that what sells the story is it’s shock value. So when you’re getting a constant stream of this stuff all the time, it can give you a false impression of what the nature of daily life actually is. 

The problem is the sources of fear in our society—they’re massive sources, political fear, commercially induced fear. We need to look towards the sources of fear and to reject them and to point them out for what they are, which are destructive forces in our society. 

Really the most radical thing you can tell people anymore is don’t be afraid. Okay. Just anybody tells you to be afraid. Don’t listen to them. They’re doing that for a purpose to manipulate you somehow, to get your money, to get you to vote for them, to give up your power and give it to them.

A huge problem of course is the Milton Friedman, Ayn Rand sort of approach to business. The notion that business is amoral, has no moral consequences. It’s sociopathic really, if the extent of your decision-making is ‘profit is good,’ whatever gets in the way is bad, and that’s all you ever take into consideration, then you can make all kinds of terrible things seem reasonable and desirable. 

Even a force for good cannot notice that the invisible hand of capitalism is giving us all the finger. 

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