Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Two Conservatives Find Fallibility

In a forum at Princeton University's McCosh Hall entitled "Higher Education and the Intellectual Culture: Is Reform Possible?", columnist George Will and Robert George, director of the James Madison Program, presented themselves as tough- and fair-minded intellectuals in a sea of liberal academic group-think and political correctness. Universities, said George, should be encouraging thought rather than shutting it down. Conservative students, he alleged, express their views in term papers at the risk of being penalized with a lower grade by liberal professors.

George praised those who speak out against the majority view, even the supermajority view, mentioning climate change on several occasions. "Someone who questions your view is your friend", he said, recounting his one-on-ones with Cornel West. In the best encounters among intellectuals of different viewpoints, "the need to win an argument dissipates. When that happens, we're in business, we're on the right track."

Both spoke highly of, in John Stuart Mills' words, being "willing to entertain reasons why we might be wrong." George Will, who in personal appearances softens his hard-edged intellect with a ready, self-deprecating sense of humor, referenced a book he had written, "read by dozens, half of whom are in this room today", in which he wrote about the "spirit that you're not too sure you're right."

This idealized image of intellects in the pursuit of truth, humbled by an awareness of human fallibility, is appealing, but could not contrast more with the world George Will inhabits, where terse, mocking dismissal of opposing views is the norm. Read a George Will column such as this polemic against liberals, and you will see no evidence of readiness to be wrong. Dismissing the overwhelming scientific consensus on human-caused climate change, Will portrays himself as an Einstein fending off Nazi conformists. There is precious little in Will's writing style that encourages reflection, exploration, open-mindedness, and humility.

One thing George Will excels at is tossing out memorable phrases, like "the manufacture of synthetic indignation", or a "saving multiplicity of factions." The latter refers to James Madison's apparent promotion of "a varied means to buy property", which could be taken to mean we should encourage great wealth and great poverty in order to avoid the tyranny of middle class conformity.

If George Will and Robert George were truly serious about considering their own fallibility, and not just that of academia, they could begin by exploring where their arguments lead. In a surprising number of cases, they lead to letting people off the hook. Conservative arguments can be boiled down to this: "Don't let liberals make you feel bad." Don't worry about the collective impact of our lifestyles on global climate. It's all a hoax. Don't worry about the plight of the poor. They deserve it. Don't worry about trying to make government work well. It's dysfunctional by definition. Don't worry about regulating markets. They'll take care of themselves. Don't worry about species other than our own. They don't matter. And are you fabulously wealthy and want to feel good about paying a lower tax rate than your secretary? Congratulations. We have recast you as a champion of economic diversity.

Hovering over these two prominent conservatives, as they lectured academia on the importance of fighting against group think, was the conformity exhibited by conservative leaders in refusing to acknowledge human-caused climate change, and the propaganda techniques used by one of Will's employers, Fox News. For instance, leading up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Fox News cleverly switched to images of Saddam Hussein brandishing a rifle when opponents of the Iraq invasion spoke. Image overwhelmed whatever words were being spoken. Similarly, a "Green Tyranny" logo hung in the background while Fox host John Stossel pretended to have an open-minded discussion of climate science. Having invested so much of his reputation in denial of human-caused climate change, what would be the consequences for George Will's career if he were to change his view? Is a pundit who is hired to fill a certain ideological slot and dependably feed red meat to an expectant audience really free to reflect and reconsider?

Will and George spoke repeatedly of the dangers of tyranny. To guard against these dangers, we must promote and sustain divergent views. This raises the question: At what point do we know enough about a potential threat to take unified action as a nation? As the paths of commercial jets began to diverge from their established routes on 9/11, at what point should those charged with defending the nation have considered further debate foolhardy and taken decisive action, given the potential consequences?

And when, as atmospheric CO2 concentrations have diverged radically from established patterns and headed with tremendous speed into territory humanity has never before witnessed, do we see danger not in group-think but in a lack of group action?

Diversity of opinion is an admirable goal. We should be on guard against conformist thinking. But what Will and George are offering, in the guise of intellectual rigor, is an easy way out, a sugar-coated way of avoiding tough issues and thorny questions of shared responsibility for collective consequence.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Climate March, Start to Finish

If you weren't able to make it to the Climate March, or only got to see the portion of it you were a part of, click below for a showing and telling of the whole progression, all four hours worth, as it passed down 42nd Street. Included are its many themes, a compilation of the most memorable slogans and chants, and serendipitous visual interactions between the march banners and the commercial billboard mega-images that served as a visual frame for the marchers. Having long ago realized that human-caused destabilization of the planet was the overarching issue of our times, I was deeply moved by its spirit, its sounds, diversity, and sheer scale.
(Click on that little "read more" below, then click on "Home" when you've had your fill.)

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Joining the March for Climate

On Sunday, Sept. 21, beginning at 11:30, people from all across the country will gather at Columbus Circle in New York for what's being billed as "the largest climate march in history." I've never taken part in a march, but I'll go to this one, and I encourage everyone else to head to the Dinky that morning with plenty of time to spare.

The most troubling thing about climate destabilization is that so little is being done to slow it down. The worst sorts of problems, whether at the level of the individual or global, are those that languish and deepen for lack of action. Once a problem is acknowledged and the first few significant steps are taken to solve it, there is an immediate sense of relief.

For instance, there was no lack of scary pronouncements on the world’s prospects at a meeting of Princeton's chapter of the Citizens' Climate Lobby this past weekend. Yet, there's comfort in participating in a national organization working patiently for positive, bipartisan action.

At this month’s meeting, we gathered in a Princeton living room to hear via speaker phone from retired Rear Admiral Len Hering. It felt reminiscent of President Roosevelt's fireside chats during WWII. During his career in the Navy, Hering led a successful effort to reduce the Navy's energy consumption by 40%. I felt some kinship, having reduced our home energy consumption by a similar amount without sacrificing comfort.

Hering sees a clear and present risk to the world his three grandchildren will inherit, and says "we're not having the adult conversation needed." He described how a 12 year drought in Syria and the resulting social and political instability had opened the door for radical elements like ISIS. Dramatic sea level rise this century, combined with storm surges, will create millions of refugees, further destabilizing governments around the world.

These grim prognoses will be far less depressing the moment we take action and shift course. Staying with the status quo may feel safe, yet it is creating huge risks. Climate destabilization, collectively created, is a shared enemy. Action to slow it will be a unifying force, and that action must come at all levels, from the global down to the individual.

The march is timed to precede the U.N. Climate Summit later in the month. Details on how to participate in the march (e.g. no wooden sticks for banners!) can be found at PeoplesClimate.org.

Note: Below are a book and links recommended by Rear Admiral Len Hering.

A Peace to End All Peace by David Fromkin

Other reports mentioned:

Climate Change, Migration, and Conflict

Center for Naval Analysis

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Soft Core of Hard-Core Conservatism

The brand of conservatism practiced by Republican leaders is generally thought to be hard-edged. It offers a harsh critique of government, characterizing it as indulgent, wasteful, and to be largely dismantled. The assessment of any Democratic president is unremittingly dour. A conservative is tough on crime, or at least blue collar crime, advocating severe consequences for breaking the law.

Liberals by comparison are usually portrayed as softies--soft on Communism, soft on crime. Their hearts bleed, their positions shift. They are wracked by guilt, constantly coming up with new things to worry about--the plight of the poor, global warming, polar bears, spotted owls. They seem to be making excuses for people, often portraying them as victims of circumstance. That would be the stereotype.

A conservative argues instead that people are wholly responsible for their fates, that success or failure is a product not of circumstance or opportunity but of character, initiative and determination. Poverty implies laziness. Drug addiction is due to a lack of will power. It's easy to think, then, that a conservative point of view places high standards and high expectations on the self.

And yet the core of hard-core conservatism is in fact very soft. Behind that facade of toughness is an ideology that largely lets people off the hook. The critique of government and the Democratic Party is so fervently pursued that no room remains for self-critique, for reflection. Conservatism is hard on others, soft on self. The legacy of the George W. Bush era--the Iraq War, expanded debt, the financial meltdown--begs for reflection and reappraisal, but prompted instead an even more extreme and defiant version of conservatism to emerge.

The soft core of conservatism allows the individual to take a pass on any number of issues. Climate change doesn't exist, and if it does, it's not our fault, and if it is our fault, we can't do anything about it. At every step in that logic, the individual and the nation are excused from taking action. The belief that government is destined to fail excuses a conservative from trying to make it work. Rather than taking on the tough issue of how to balance government revenue and expenses, a conservative maintains the illusion that tax cuts pay for themselves. The complex abstractions of statistics can be avoided by basing one's views on one's own limited experience. A conservative need not question beliefs, nor care about the poor, nor care about the impact of our lifestyles on future generations and the natural world that sustains us.

These are some serious perks. They excuse the individual from a responsibility to study, to understand, to reflect, to reappraise, to empathize, or to consider one's impact on others. And they go a long way in explaining the popularity of conservatism in its current manifestation. They indulge and satisfy like a chocolate whose hard shell obscures a soft, seductive center.