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My Dance with the Economic Club of Grand Rapids

December 17, 2009

(This article was submitted by Kate Wheeler)

After having read a GRIID report of Marcus Luttrell’s speech to the Economic Club of Grand Rapids, I wanted to know who exactly had chosen him as a speaker. I also wanted to find out what connection he had to any economic concerns or interests that club members might have. This proved a more Byzantine task than I first thought. 

The only members of the Program Committee listed on the club’s Web site were for 2007 and 2008. So I had to call the Economic Club for the current list. A nervous administrative person did not want to tell me. I finally convinced her that since a list of past members was already posted, it didn’t seem like confidential information. Once I had the members’ names, it was easy to find their corporate affiliations using Google. 

I wrote to the members, asking about their choice of Luttrell as a speaker. My e-mail in part asked if there was some economic information to be had from the speaker: “Were you suggesting through this speaker that Grand Rapids should grab a larger share of war profits? After all, the occupation of Afghanistan is costing us $3.6 billion a month…and the addition of 30,000 troops is going to add at least another $30 billion to the overall total, according to White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs. There’s obviously a lot of money to be made. Perhaps the members of the club were anxious to discuss this?” I also asked if the choice represented a particular political viewpoint that appealed to members. 

This caused more concern than I thought it would, and a lot faster, too. Later that same day, I got an e-mail from Lorna Schultz, the executive director of the club, who said a number of committee members had forwarded my e-mail to her. She asked that I call her to discuss “the objectives of our organization and the consideration given to [Luttrell’s] invitation to speak.” 

I finally connected with Ms. Schultz on December 14. I do want to say up front that I was impressed by how time she gave me. She started out by stating that the Economic Club invited a “diverse array of speakers on government, economic, and social issues.” I asked, “So which is Marcus Luttrell? Is he speaking on behalf of the government, the economy, or a particular social issue?” 

Apparently, none of the above. Ms. Schultz told me that in December, the club often invited a speaker who would “inspire, offer a show of patriotism, or who was a celebrity of some kind.” She noted that Mr. Luttrell had written a best-selling book that was “a story of teamwork, camaraderie, and sacrifice.” 

Ms. Schultz’s biggest concern with me seemed to be that I was a mainstream media journalist. I told her I wasn’t. But often after our opening steps in this dance, she would say something like, “Now you’re sounding like a journalist!”  

So we embarked on a lengthy back-and-forth two-step, where I tried to find out if she’d actually been involved in the selection of Marcus Luttrell as a speaker and she tried to figure out why I was interested.  

Finally I extracted a few shreds of information. Ms. Schultz said that she had in fact been at the meeting in which Marcus Luttrell’s speaker potential had been vetted. “Why did people think Mr. Luttrell would be a good choice?” I asked. 

“He had a story of teamwork and camaraderie and sacrifice,” she said again. “It’s a commentary on the difficult time our armed forces have in Afghanistan.” 

“OK,” I said. “How was his story presented at the meeting?” I was trying to find out if anyone on the committee had offered a less glowing version or opinion. After all, Luttrell had nearly violated the Uniform Code of Military Justice in his “big moment” in Afghanistan. After capturing three unarmed civilians, he and his squad had to decide if they should shoot them or release them, knowing that they would probably go to the Taliban and report having seen the squad on the ground.  

Luttrell, in fact, had no real decision to make—it was his military duty to let the men go regardless of what might happen later. But instead, he and his squad voted, as if they felt they had the right to modify the Uniform Code on the spot. This, I feel, is a strong indication of how the US government’s unspeakable decisions to occupy Afghanistan and to allow torture in violation of the Geneva Convention are causing any safeguards in military behavior to completely fall apart.  

And now Marcus Luttrell is making a lot of money touting this event as a spiritually powerful, inspiring act of heroism. 

Ms. Schultz said that some committee members had read Luttrell’s book and “everyone had information about the book.” It emerged that the information that they had was PR copy taken directly off Luttrell’s Web site. I asked if anyone was concerned that Luttrell might be a controversial choice. She said, “Oh, no. We invite controversy.” 

Ms. Schultz then explained that after names were approved by the committee, invitations were sent out. Any speakers who agreed to come were reviewed and final choices were made. She absolutely refused to tell me who made that final decision. When I asked her point-blank for the name of the person, she employed the Alberto Gonzales defense and said, “I don’t recall.” 

“You said that you invite controversy in your choice of speakers,” I added, looking at the list on the Economic Club speakers from past years. “I’m not sure many of your members would find these speakers controversial. Most of these names seem to me to come from the political right.” 

“That’s not true,” she said. “We have a variety of members and choose a variety of speakers to address that.”  

“Have you ever had a left-wing speaker at the Economic Club?” I asked. 

“Oh, yes,” she answered triumphantly. “Bill Clinton.” 

And so, although I didn’t wind up with answers to all of my questions, I did learn a few things: 

One is that committee members at the Economic Club don’t appear to like the idea that their decisions might be dragged out into the bright light.  

One was a realization of just how far to the right this group is, despite numerous claims about its “diversity.”  

And one is that, although the gates to capitalism are firmly shut and carefully guarded, what’s going on in there seems to be pretty much exactly what we think is going on.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Micah permalink
    December 23, 2009 6:28 pm

    Any chance we could get some regular commentary from Kate Wheeler? Pretty please? She’s got some serious chutzpah, as this article makes clear, and her commentary is great.

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