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Ranger Rick: Reformer or Revolutionary?

Ranger Rick, the children's magazine with a raccoon for its mascot, was supposed to get me interested in nature. But it ended up getting me interested in politics.
Charlie Bertsch

Issue #29, November 1996

There was a time in American society when children learned about politics in school. Civics classes prodded them to become good citizens. And some of them did, growing up to be Mr. and Mrs. Smiths as perfect as apple pie. Of course, for every child that grew into a Mr. Smith, there were many more who grew into a Mr. Jones, who knows something is happening, but isn't sure what. But even if they didn't know what was going on, students were at least given the tools to intervene in the political process.

It wasn't like that for most of the children of my generation, the one Douglas Coupland has called Generation X. Growing up in the wake of the 60s, we weren't force-fed the propaganda that produces citizens who take their political responsibilities seriously. I began school during Watergate and the OPEC oil embargo, a time when Americans were undergoing an unprecedented crisis of civic confidence. And although the build-up surrounding the United States' Bicentennial did help children like myself to feel a little better about our nation, its effects didn't penetrate very deep into our consciousness. That's because there was nothing deep about it. It was all surface. Americans may have sported bright red-white-and-blue bicycles and bikinis, but their true colors were much more drab. It was like they were going through the motions, looking patriotic without feeling patriotic.

I have often looked back on my childhood and wondered how I ever acquired a taste for politics. Certainly, a great many of people in my generation never did, unless you consider following the advice of MTV to "rock the vote" a sign of interest. What made me turn out different? The answer is clear: Ranger Rick. This children's magazine with a raccoon for its mascot was supposed to get me interested in nature. But it ended up getting me interested in politics. Without the guidance of Ranger Rick, I'd still be wallowing in the same apathy as my peers. But with Rick the Raccoon's dexterous 'hands' to guide me, I learned two important lessons: 1) politics involves a lot more than those boring weekend TV shows like Washington Week In Review would have you believe; and 2) we should not let our disgust with politicians prevent us from caring about political decisions.

Of course, I didn't realize I was learning these lessons when I was reading Ranger Rick. And the reasons I became interested in politics are more complex than I'm making them seem. But I'm convinced that my childhood training in mainstream environmentalism has had a profound effect on my political sensibility. What I'd like to do here is consider the consequences of the particular kind of "political education for everyday life" I received from Ranger Rick. What did it mean for me and so many other children of the 70s to learn about the environment in a self-conscious way? What are the advantages and disadvantages of having acquired an interest in politics through an interest in the environment? And what does it mean to learn ecology from a raccoon?

Ranger Rick is a publication of the National Wildlife Federation. Like its adult counterpart National Wildlife, Ranger Rick is filled with pictures of animals in their natural environment. But it also differs from National Wildlife in important ways. Ranger Rick has always encouraged its readers to see 'nature' not just in the United States' spectacular parklands, but in their own backyard. And how it made a point of inviting them to be more than a mere spectator.

The choice of a raccoon as the magazine's mascot illustrates this point. When the U.S. Forest Service picked Smokey the Bear as its mascot, it was picking an animal of the wilderness. By the turn of the century, bears, mountain lions, eagles and other spectacular animals had been driven out of all but the wildest lands. Unless you're a resident of Alaska or the thinly populated areas at the fringe of the American continent, chances are good that you'll never see one of these creatures at home. And they would have been slimmer still in the 70s, before the environmental legislation passed in that decade had been able to produce significant effects. Raccoons, on the other hand, thrive in densely populated places. Although raccoons are as 'wild' as bears, they are the sort of creature people are likely to see close to home. To represent park rangers with a bear implies that nature is something we can keep at a distance; to represent them with a raccoon implies that nature is always close-at-hand.

If we think of nature as something distinct from our everyday lives, we are unlikely to see how we can have an effect on it. It reminds us of the news we see on TV, something we take in passively. On the other hand, if we think of nature as a part of our everyday lives, we can see ourselves intervening in it. Ranger Rick had such a profound effect on my political consciousness because it made me believe I was capable of meaningful action at a time when most of what I was seeing and hearing didn't.

Issues of Ranger Rick follow a fairly rigid pattern. There are multi-page pictorials featuring both spectacular and commonplace animals, maybe with a centerfold or two; diagram-laden advice on nature-related arts and crafts; and a story chronicling the adventures of Ranger Rick and his animal friends. Looking back on my childhood reading experiences, it's the stories that stand out. I don't remember any plot details, but I do remember how they made me feel. Unlike most of the information confronting me, they weren't dark and depressing. They imparted a lesson about nature, but their approach couldn't have been more different from the doom-and-gloom reports about the environment that I saw on TV. No matter how serious the message conveyed by the stories in Ranger Rick, it was always made to seem optimistic.

In an era of doubt, the stories in Ranger Rick exuded confidence. The news was dominated by complex, confusing stories which it was nearly impossible for a child to understand: the Munich Olympics, Watergate, Patty Hearst, Lebanon, Jonestown etc.. By contrast, the stories in Ranger Rick were remarkably clear. I always understood what was happening. I always knew whose side I was on.

The propaganda inflicted on previous generations of American children had the same effect. For example, if you look at history and civics textbooks of the 50s and early 60s, you'll notice that they aren't afraid to be unabashedly pro-American. But most of my textbooks from the 70s were. The facts they presented weren't much different from the facts in textbooks of a decade earlier. It was the attitude towards them that had changed. The aura of conviction that charges successful propaganda had dissipated.

Unlike so much of that era's culture, Ranger Rick had this aura. This is why I now think of the magazine's stories as 'propaganda'. They weren't trying to sell me on a suspect political system. They didn't hammer their points home with the indeliacy of a wartime newsreel. But they did try to get their message across as forcefully as possible. And, like more conventional forms of propaganda, they did so with an ulterior motive — in this case to produce nature lovers.

Because the production of nature lovers is relatively uncontroversial, we aren't likely to indict Ranger Rick for propagandizing. But I think it's helpful see the tales of Rick and his comrades of the wood and meadow as propaganda. The point I want to make may seem counter-intuitive. I believe that it's difficult to become a 'bad subject' who questions authority unless you first learn to be a 'good subject' who believes in authority. We need role models. Even if they are raccoons.

Am I arguing that propaganda is a good thing? Not exactly. The first American president I knew about was 'Tricky Dick'. He didn't become Richard Nixon until I was a year or two older. And part of me is glad. There's definitely something positive about he fact that I learned to be suspicious of authority before I was asked to trust it. On the other hand, children do need role models. And baseball players aren't usually going to give you much sense of what it means to be a good citizen.

Stories that personify animals have always proven a particularly effective means of propagandizing. The fables of Aesop, fairy tales like "Puss in Boots", modern fables like George Orwell's Animal Farm and present-day consumer icon Joe Camel all attest to this fact. We often find it easier to identify with animals who exhibit abstract human qualities than with a specific human being. In this respect, Rick the Raccoon was a much better role model than any actual human named Rick could have been.

Because I grew up in an era when explicitly political propaganda was discouraged, the propaganda I read in Ranger Rick played a significant role in shaping my sense of what it means to be a good citizen. I wasn't going to learn it leafing through my mother's copy of All the President's Men or watching re-runs of Love, American-Style on TV. I wasn't going to learn it in school, where my textbooks had been purged of the obvious propaganda that filled them in the 50s and early 60s. And I wasn't going to learn it from my peers, who had absorbed their parents' disenchantment with the political process. It was up to Ranger Rick.

Before I push this argument too far, I need to make it clear that the stories in Ranger Rick implied a different sort of citizenship than the pro-American propaganda of previous decades. They weren't meant to produce the sort of good citizen who pays attention to explicitly political issues, who participates in local politics, and who ponders carefully who she will vote for come election time. No, they were meant to produce a different sort of citizen, the sort who conserves natural resources, who is careful not to harm animals, and who becomes a crusader for the nation's parklands.

Ranger Rick inspired me to start reading adult magazines. First I read National Wildlife, then National Geographic, then Audobon — the list goes on and on. At first I was most interested in the pictures and maps. Over time, though, I started to read the articles they accompanied. I learned more complicated ways of understanding the issues I had first encountered in Ranger Rick. I also began learning more about conventional politics. But environmental issues remained the principal catalyst for my politicization. When Ronald Reagan was running for president in 1980, I disliked him first and foremost for his stand on the environment. I knew Jimmy Carter had created lots of new parkland. And I knew Reagan wanted to open up federal lands to big business.

During the first Reagan administration, I became increasingly confident of my overall political beliefs. By 1984 I was able to tell my teachers and classmates that I preferred Swedish socialism to American 'democracy'. However, it was still the environment that got me most worked up. When I look back on the Reagan era, I like to think that it was Reagan's reactionary social policies that troubled me most. It was actually his Secretary of the Interior, James Watt. I would always fly into a rage when I heard that more National Forest land was being opened up to loggers. My reactions to U.S. military actions were rarely as powerful.

I have finally reached the point in my life where I'm as mad about attacks on affirmative action as I am about attacks on virgin forest. Yet I wonder how much the lessons I learned in Ranger Rick are still shaping my outrage. I was taught to leave places the way I found them. I was trained to preserve. Is this why I become so angry when existing social programs are dismantled? Is this why American military interventions piss me off? Is this why the thought of building something new makes me anxious?

Obviously, I can't blame it all on Ranger Rick. However, I do think that there are serious limitations to a citizenship based primarily on the logic of environmentalism. When I perceive a threat to something I care about, my first impulse is to make it into a park. I try to put a wall around it. The problem is, this strategy is purely defensive. If you're lucky, you'll be able to protect what you care about. But if you're unable to see the big picture, you might end up with something like Washington's Olympic National Park, a beautiful wilderness surrounded by land that seems to have been devastated by a nuclear war. In other words, if you make the park but let everything else go to waste in the process, your victory will be a hollow one. In this time when progressives are constantly having to defend social programs against conservative attacks, I wonder whether we're falling prey to this problem. These reflections on Ranger Rick leave me with a final question. Are we losing sight of the forest in the fight to save its most impressive trees?

Charlie Bertsch is a Ph.D. student in the English Dept. at UC-Berkeley, writing a dissertation entitled Subverting the System: Models of Resistance in Post-WWII American Culture. He can be reached by e-mail at the following address:

Copyright © 1996 by Charlie Bertsch. All rights reserved.