S&R and the marketplace of ideas: yes, Dorothy, sometimes people disagree…in public, even!

Earlier this morning Chris offered up a post entitled “Why are environmentalists missing a mild-weather opportunity?” It raises a pragmatic point about how the climate “debate” plays out in the public sphere and is well worth a read. Go ahead – I’ll wait.

Predictably – and by “predictably,” I mean that last night I e-mailed our climate guru, Brian Angliss, and said “when Chris’s post lands, here’s what’s going to happen,” and it has played out as though I had scripted it; the denialists have jumped on the post in an attempt to cast Chris and the rest of the S&R staff as “hypocrites.” One prominent anti-science type wants you to believe that the message is “we know weather isn’t climate, but let’s lie to people anyway!”

Like I say, as predicted.

The truth is that Chris’s post is part of a larger context. S&R has always discussed strategy and tactics, and recently we’ve been doing so more pointedly. Witness Otherwise’s excellent post from March 7: “Note to progressives: stop being wimps.” In this analysis, he points out that the progressive approach to politics – knowledge, fact and science-driven, assuming that people respond to fair-mindedness and rationality, hasn’t worked so well here in the age of the conservative noise machine. Frankly, the stakes are too high, he suggests.

Enough of this responding with subtle irony that the right can’t or won’t follow. We need to respond with a brick. If they don’t get that, we need to reapply it until they do. We need fewer dickless men wearing bow ties and more more pit bulls with microphones.

We need fewer witty asides, and more slaps to the side of the head.

We need fewer real facts and more compelling ones. Instead of climate science, we should just say, “Alabama’s going to get hit with a hundred tornadoes every year until the oil companies stop selling the carbon-free oil to China.” Instead of economics, say, “We could erase this deficit tomorrow and give everybody a $10,000 check if we just made those billionaires who inherited all that money pay their fair share.” Instead of explaining the complex politics of the Middle East, say, “We done won the damn war and killed Osama in Iraq, now let’s bring our boys and girls back home again.”

We need to get our bile back.

Stop smiling for Christ’s sake. It’s not fucking funny what they’re doing to our country.

So what we have, then, is actually a very public debate, involving various members of a diverse, thoughtful community, as to how best to effect outcomes that benefit our readers, our families, our friends, our country and the planet. I have news for you, folks – here at S&R we don’t always agree with each other (just this morning one of my colleagues, in an e-mail, stomped on one of my most important pieces ever), and since we devoutly believe in the principles of free speech, we’re not at all afraid to put it out in public where the rest of you can see the debate and jump into it yourself, if you’d like.

Contrast this approach with how the conservative apparatus in America works. If we were a conservative think tank or a denialist front like Heartland, we’d meet in secret. We’d allocate financial contributions from wealthy donors who’d sooner die than let their names be known. We’d craft disinformation campaigns and pay professional liars and hire Congressmen. We’d write “model legislation” that would serve our narrow interests. If, somehow, word of this leaked out we’d lie like coonhounds in the shade on a hot day in Mississippi.

And the gods help any member of our team who defected or disagreed with us publicly, because we’d spend millions to destroy his or her life.

So, yeah. We’re having a public conversation about what strategies might best yield political victory. And we disagree in spots. Or we haven’t made up our minds. I suggested earlier today that on the climate issue, for instance, you have to have multiple approaches because you have very different audiences. More educated, science-savvy types feed on the kind of work that Brian has been doing at S&R for years. But many citizens – dare I say most of them – lack the science and math needed to track along in one of those threads. Either that or they just don’t invest that heavily in the argument. Still, they vote, and the people they elect set policy, so I might be frustrated with their intellectual slothfulness but they damned sure matter, don’t they? Which means that we have to craft messages that resonate with them.

Does this mean we should “lie” to them? That isn’t what Chris was arguing. Instead, he was suggesting a standard persuasive rhetorical strategy: start with what they understand, then move them toward what they don’t.

Even if he had advocated lying, do you think I care about allegations of dishonesty coming from climate denialists and FOX News junkies? The ethos over there says “hey, dammit, you can’t lie to people – that’s OUR schtick!” These are the people who have built 30 years of incredible political success on lying as boldly and as frequently as possible. I guess what I’m saying to that crowd is shut the fuck up – no matter what anybody says or does, you have no moral or ethical grounds from which to open your mouths.

In the end, this is really nothing more than an applied instance of the old Kant vs. Mill philosophical debate – do the ends justify the means or vice versa? Do we do the right thing, though the world should end, as Kant would suggest, or do we pursue the greatest good for the greatest number of people by whatever means are necessary? Some here are clearly, loudly, emphatically utilitarian. Others feel that progressives can’t ultimately win using the tactics that created this mess in the first place.

And some of us watch the debate with a good measure of conflict in our souls. We think about it, we test the implications, we agonize over it, all because we appreciate the complexities of politics and culture and we understand the human, emotional and spiritual costs as well as we do the collective, physical, economic ones.

Thanks to Brian for so much hard work on climate. Thanks to Otherwise and Lex for pounding the table and demanding that we do something. Thanks to Chris for pointing a bright light on how these disagreements weigh on the climate issue.

Yes, we disagree. And we do so in good faith. You’re invited to join us.

PS: I have one more prediction. Those denialist sites won’t link to this post. Bet the farm on it.


  • Liberals believe conservatives to be evil, but effective “take no prisoners” types, willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done, even if by nefarious means. I find this all too amusing, since conservatives have virtually the same arguments about liberals. I have often thought, Bill Maher’s complaints about Democrats not being tough enough is almost the same as the Tea Party about Republicans.

    Your argument about whether the ends justify the means, since the world is at stake, rings hollow. The “greatest good for the greatest number of people by whatever means necessary” philosophy has led to millions upon millions of dead in various socialist utopias. The killing fields of the world are replete with such thinking. One of the quotes I like by Oliver Cromwell (although if you know anything of Cromwell, he would never apply this logic to himself):
    “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ! Think it possible you may be mistaken!”

    I ask you to always, think it possible you may be mistaken. This is something all of us should keep in the back of our mind. While we think we are right, think it possible we may be mistaken. Stick to the fair and honest arguments, let others be demagogues.

  • I think the right thing to say is that the weird weather we’re seeing now is a taste of the climate disruption to expect in future. (Which is “here, just not evenly (globally or temporally) distributed yet” – WG)

    It’s not proving the presence (or absence) of a trend, it’s illustrating it; whereas Fox et al imply that it’s proof.
    So: “Science tells us the trend is real, and today we see weather that illustrates it.”

    Tobis put it better, a few years back, so you might ask him.

  • Yes, the right does make the same arguments. They also argue that whites are the real victims of racism. As the comedian Colin Farrell has noted, people tend to give themselves positive attributes that are the exact opposite of the truth, “I never spread gossip,” “I hate office politics,” “I love hard work.” Right wing politicians tend to project on the left things that are the exact opposite of true.

    Look, I dont think they are mostly evil. I am on record as saying I think Rush and Palin are actually sincere. They believe that nonsense. I do believe, and theres research to support it, that they are profoundly stupid. Or as Ollie really said, “I beseech thee, consider the possibility I am right.”

    I also believe that at some level, liberals like losing. It absolves us of having to do the hard work. Instead, we can hold up our hands and say, “we tried to tell them….” I’d rather we tried a little harder, and in language they might understand.

  • Posts like this are the reason I keep coming back to S&R. Well reasoned and thought provoking.

  • My first time here based on a recommendation from a friend. Thank the (Deity of your choice) for you guys. I’ve just come from another exasperating experience on the Washington Post comment boards – a minority of thoughtful folks among a sea of trolls and idiots. I don’t mind people who disagree with me, just like to sense they’re actually thinking. I’ll be back.

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  • Pingback: We’ve been framed: on climate disruption, women’s rights, the economy, religion, party politics and damned near everything | Scholars and Rogues

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