Wherein I finally get it all out
I realize we have long since passed the point of blog parody, with the number of words written about Revkin’s article now exceeding the number of words in the article itself by many orders of magnitude. But I gots more to say — a big ol’ rant I’ve wanted to get out for a long while.
It seems in retrospect that much of the umbrage the article caused was due to the fact that people misunderstood its main thrust, mainly because it was sloppily written. It fairly begged for misinterpretation.
What Revkin was trying to do is aptly summarized in his comment on RealClimate:
The orthodoxy described on TV, in movie theaters, enviro campaigns etc is that AGW is a realtime crisis that is momentous and huge and terrifying, but can be solved with existing technologies. … AGW is still mainly portrayed (outside of your rarefied circles) as a problem to be fixed (a raging fire to put out), not a risk to be cut.
Revkin thinks the public only hears from two groups: denialists and people who frame climate change as a huge, immediate crisis that can be solved, rather than an ongoing, long-term risk we need to adjust to. Fair enough. I have my quibbles with that, but put them aside.
The key to the way the article was actually interpreted lies in the first paragraph: "Amid the shouting lately about whether global warming is a human-caused catastrophe or a hoax, some usually staid climate scientists in the usually invisible middle are speaking up."
Amid the shouting, a middle.
I want to say just a little about why people, particularly progressives, familiar with recent political debate in this country react to this framing with (perhaps hair-trigger) outrage. It’s a huge topic about which much has been written. I’ll just wave my hands in the general direction.
A little pop history. The ’60s counter-culture revolution was deeply, deeply galvanizing for many people. Not so much for the hippies themselves, mind you — the Boomers transitioned fairly seamlessly into toothless feel-good bromides, middle management, and unrepentant consumerism. No, the real legacy of the 60s/early 70s was to freak out conservatives on a primal, lizard-brain level (see: Nixon, Richard M. and descendants). A "culture war" was born, broke the surface with the Reagan Revolution, and continues unabated. The ideological messages were simple: socialism is evil, any use of government on behalf of public welfare amounts to socialism, markets rule, aggressive militarism rules, sex is evil, God rules, and above all — the central governing principle, the North Star, the lodestone — beware the dirty hippies.
Beware the dirty hippies. They’re immature and irresponsible. They’re utopians and dreamers. They meddle with lives and hate Christian values and blame America first and root for terrorists. They want free sex and legalized drugs and mandatory abortion. They want to eat your babies. They heart Satan.
This enormous backlash against revolutionary leftism continued growing and gaining strength long after revolutionary leftism petered out as a political force of any real influence. The narratives and habits of mind bequeathed us by the culture war are with us still, despite the long-ago disappearance of one combatant. It’s shadowboxing on a nationwide scale, and it shows no signs of abating.
Any number of examples could be cited. The same dynamic plays out on virtually every issue: there’s the virulent far-right position, funded by deep-pocketed reactionaries and pushed by talk radio, an enormous network of mutually reinforcing conservative pundits in every major media outlet, an entire cable news network (three now, really), and numerous powerful politicians in leadership positions in every branch of government. Then there’s the avowedly liberal position, represented by some obscure professor or a guy in the comment section of a blog or a random placard at a protest. Then there’s the “centrist” position, which is the far-right position with the edges rubbed off.
How does one establish oneself as a “centrist”? Why, by bashing the dirty hippies. After all, if you bash the virulent reactionaries, you’re criticizing “real Americans” and the heartland and the baby Jesus. Everybody positions themselves by way of their distance from the — at this point largely mythical — dirty hippie. There’s no faster route to media exposure for someone on the left that to spend every minute of the day criticizing other people on the left. Mickey Kaus. Joe Klein. Richard Cohen. Joe Lieberman. The list goes on and on.
Nowhere has this dynamic been more clear and more utterly at odds with reality than around the Iraq War. Before the war, there were people who supported war — both the militarist right and the "liberal hawks" — and people who opposed war without the U.N.’s imprimatur, i.e., the bulk of the country. The former were "serious" people; the latter were dirty hippies.
Well. We see how the war has gone. It’s a cataclysmic disaster by every conceivable metric. The serious people were wrong about everything. Literally everything. The dirty hippies — the great masses of the public and the very few public figures (Feingold, Gore, Kucinich) who stood with them — were right. The war went horribly wrong for just the reasons they said it would.
So what’s the dynamic now amidst the Beltway chattering classes? Where’s the center? Why, it’s still in the exact same place! The people who advocated for war, and who advocate for more war, and who were wrong about everything, are still the "serious" people. The people who advocated against this fiasco, and are advocating for ending it, and who were right about everything, are still the dirty hippies who never show up on cable news or in major media op-eds. Expeditious withdrawal is a fringe leftist position, despite being supported by a clear majority of the country.
In other words, the "center" has become utterly detached from facts, substance, or majority opinion. It’s an insular, self-sustaining myth, all about the vanity and egos of powerful people in the Beltway clusterfuck. It’s about them, their self-flattery, their exclusive club, not Iraq. For a truly parodic example of this dynamic and its incredible staying power, check out Joe Klein’s blog post, wherein he informs us that OK, the dirty hippies were right about Iraq, but they still sound silly and their opponents are still more "serious." One can only marvel.
To get back to the topic at hand: The last thing the global warming debate needs is for this kind of dynamic to develop. Really. If for no other reason than my head would explode.
Though I know in the end it isn’t, it’s easy to mistake Revkin’s article for a concerted attempt to establish such a dynamic.
You’ve got one "side" that’s wrong about everything, willfully dishonest, openly in hock to corporate interests, and disdained by every real expert in the area, but nonetheless still taken seriously and quoted frequently in the mainstream media. And then there’s the "other side," which has been right about everything but is, in the judgment of the self-appointed hall monitors of public dialogue, too shrill about the whole thing, and thus "extremist."
Then there’s the "middle," established by wannabe media stars. It means: same substantive positions as the dirty hippies but not a dirty hippie! One establishes oneself as part of this middle, as always, by criticizing … no, not the avowed, repeated liars … but the dirty hippies. You become the media’s favorite creature: the liberal who hates liberals, or the green who hates greens, or the person who’s right about stuff who hates other people who are right about stuff but who care more than is acceptable in "serious" circles.
It’s a big vanity play, a garish, self-involved, decadent distraction. Meanwhile, this debate over too much action vs. too little action vs. just the right action takes place in a context of no action at all. And the people who recognize this madness, who are putting themselves out there, struggling to get some kind of political momentum started, what’s their reward? What do they get for their efforts?
They get branded dirty hippies, so we can have a new club of self-appointed centrists. Feh.