One thing that's become clear since the passage of Prop 1A one year ago is that the project's opponents have learned from their defeat. Instead of launching a frontal assault on the concept of high speed rail, which a clear majority of Californians support, they've decided to focus on generating local opposition along the route in an effort to abuse the CEQA process to undermine the project. It's a Gulliver strategy - tie the giant down with dozens of little but potent attacks across the state and maybe, just maybe, you can kill it outright.
Much of this effort has involved a truly stunning amount of disinformation on the part of the HSR opponents. They have learned well how to use what Stephen Colbert aptly described as "truthiness" - where people see something as true because they "feel" it to be true, because a statement comports with their own inherent biases, even though it lacks basis in evidence.
Truthiness has been rampant on the Peninsula. HSR opponents like Martin Engel have been effective purveyors of misinformation, such as the idea that HSR would be some sort of "Berlin Wall" along the Peninsula (it won't), or that it will require mass demolition of housing along the Caltrain corridor (it won't), or that the CHSRA is determined to destroy communities (it isn't). Of course, it doesn't matter that there are no facts behind these claims, because to NIMBYs, these claims "feel" true. Anything that is perceived to alter the aesthetics of their community is seen as a threat. And Engel is very adept at playing on those sentiments.
One major element of their strategy is to paint the HSR project as some sort of Death Star aimed at the Peninsula, and to paint Quentin Kopp and Rod Diridon as the Emperor and Darth Vader. Both men have a long history on the Peninsula, and have been involved in their share of controversial projects, so in them Engel has found an easy target. If he can find ways to paint them as mean, out of touch, and unwilling to listen to public input, then he and other HSR opponents will have delegitimized the CHSRA and the HSR project. And that helps them gain ground in the local battles, where most residents want HSR but also want it to be built the right way. Engel doesn't want it built at all, so anything he can do to discredit the CHSRA helps pull more people away from the "sensible compromise" camp and into the "kill it!" camp.
That's the background to the latest controversy manufactured by Engel. At last week's CHSRA board meeting, Rod Diridon said he hoped Ogilvy, the CHSRA's new communications contractor, would do a better job fighting the widespread misinformation on the Peninsula. Engel decided to turn this valid criticism of both the Peninsula opponents and of the CHSRA's public outreach into something else entirely, as explained in the Palo Alto Daily Post:
[Diridon said:]"Misinformation is causing serious media relations problems in the mid-Peninsula -- Atherton, Menlo Park, Palo Alto area especially. That misinformation coming
sometimes from inadvertently our own staff. But then again, it's being presented by opponents, blatantly providing false information to the media and then having no correction. No information being provided that would counter that misinformation and I think you related to that earlier.
Robert here: There is no doubt this is a true statement. Project opponents have been spreading lies and the media has fallen for it. This is a potent attack on the NIMBYs, which is why Engel wants to undermine it. Back to Diridon:
"So would you relate to those two examples, not those two specific cases but those examples as kind of in-the-weeds detail that you really need to be on immediately, so that it doesn't, the kind of thing are like a sore that festers, or the rotten apple in the barrel, if you would like to use another example. And you got to get that apple out of the barrel immediately and please figure out a way and let us know at some time in the future and call us individually or give us a report on how you would be creating kind of flying squads of emergency response to nip those problems in the bud.
"You want to avoid them if you can but if you can't avoid them you need to have a way of countering them immediately so that, misinformation isn't allowed to float around, it's corrected. So please consider that as early tasks."
Makes sense, right? Diridon here is merely explaining what has already happened on the Peninsula. One could use any number of other metaphors here - "poisoned the well," "spread like a cancer," anything to illustrate the point that the lies and distortions peddled by Martin Engel and others have spread on the Peninsula and threaten the project. It makes sense for Ogilvy to figure out how to respond to that misinformation. Nowhere in Diridon's statement did he say he wants to attack individuals - just the untruths they have spread.
Of course, Engel decided to continue making stuff up, and used this statement as his way to try and defuse the effort to counter the lies. In a move reminiscent of Sarah Palin's claim about "death panels," Engel spun this as Diridon having attacked himself:
When Diridon told an Ogilvy representative "you got to get the apple out of the barrel immediately," Engel interpreted that as an assignment for Ogilvy to silence high-speed rail dissidents.
Engel said, "Here is Diridon basically saying, 'Take car of these people. Their information needs to be corrected with our information. We need to shut them up because they are a pain.'"
There is no way you can draw the conclusion Engel did from Diridon's quote - unless you place truthiness about actual truth. The quote was very clear: Diridon was referring to the lies, not the people who tell them. Diridon explained as much to the Daily Post reporter:
"What I referred to was that one piece of misinformation will be repeated and repeated and therefore cause a lot of confusion," said Diridon, a former Santa Clara County Supervisor who now sits on the rail authority's board of directors.
But that truth doesn't matter to Engel, who went further in his baseless claims:
Engel said, "Everything they put out is misinformation. That is what's so ironic about this."
"Everything" is misinformation? Ridiculous. What you see here is that Engel is engaged in a classic case of projection, where you take a criticism of oneself and deflect it onto the person making the criticism. And Engel does this for the purposes I laid out at the beginning of this post - to convince the "silent majority" on the Peninsula that CHSRA and its board members are somehow engaged in bad faith and are making mean statements about nice people.
If Engel was confident that he had a solid case against HSR based on the facts alone, he would feel no need to resort to these kinds of manufactured controversies, deliberate misinterpretations of statements, and continued spreading of misinformation. We who support HSR do so on its merits, and we have no hesitation making an honest and factual case for its construction. I suppose that's our weakness, since we aren't willing to embrace truthiness the way HSR opponents will.