Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Why is conservatism unable to come to grips with climate change? Part one.

Denialism is primarily a disease of social conservatives. The recent decline in those professing belief in the science is well-known, but what has been less well-emphasized is that almost all of change is a result of a dramatic fall among conservatives:

Four out of ten conservatives who believed in climate change in 2008 no longer do, despite the fact that 2009 was the second-warmest year on record, and the Oughts the hottest decade. Conservatives were equally split on the reality of climate change in 2008, but the worm has turned. It may be useful to consider the forces which seem to have given conservatism a violent shove away from the physical realities of our world.

One of the most important things about this political dichotomy is that it reflects politics as it is practiced in our country today; it reflects the political outlook honed by the Bush administration, which heaped scorn on the "reality-based community." It is a politics that is committed to contesting every point, however trivial, attacking every proposition, no matter how commonsensical, and used a hate-filled vocabulary organized around conspiracy at the back of which are crude dog-whistle messages that the other side is not like us.

I know that it seems like an eternity we've been living with these politics, but in fact, it's only been a few years. Swiftboating, first used to target John Kerry, came on the scene in 2003. In hindsight, it was a foretaste of the strategy conservatives would used to target Obama (Kenyan! Socialist! William Ayers!) and healthcare reform (death panels! socialist!) as well as climate change.

What is characteristic about these attacks is that, like the show trials of Trotskyites, they barely pretend to address the facts of the issue. Often, they seem almost defiantly sloppy. They offer not arguments to convince the skeptical, but thinly-veiled excuses to believe what the subject has always believed about "them." The believers must no on some level that they are being asked to participate in a political lie; not many of Sarah Palin's listeners can actually have believed that the government was planning to set up "death panels" to try the elderly or infirm. But they believed that bad people were up to no good; and by cheering and repeating this obvious lie, they were serving their tribe in good stead. In the 21st century, people are not just passive recipients of bias information; propaganda has gone viral; our self-serving narratives emerge from the cloud.

Denialism is comfortable to conservatives because they have gradually acclaimated themselves to the practice of making the facts bend to the ideology; of embracing whatever narrative gives aid and comfort to the tribe, regardless of how far-fetched it is. This dynamic has been assisted greatly by the internet. No longer does a conspiracy theorist have to air their views in mixed company when they are less than fully formed and hardened in place.

No longer must one push and prod the facts as presented by newspapers or TV to extract those elements which support the conspiracy theory. In the harsh light of 2010, the idea of "spinning" the news is as much an antique as a manual typewriter. The power of the internet and friendly outlets like Fox is that they create their own facts, almost their own world. The facts created are immediately affirmed by like-minded individuals, and arguments are disseminated to those less capable of sophistry under their own steam.

Once, an ideological fugue like this could only exist where there was an entire state apparatus to support it, as in a totalitarian state. Today that's not necessary: the screaming crowds, the nasty slander cumulating in show trials, the censorship of dangerous criticism (whilst tolerating voices that make the other side appear absurd) -- all these things can be created within the right-wing echo chamber (and have their more modest and more primitive equivalents on the far left). And unlike totalitarians, they do not require any coercive force to keep the drones inside the lie: they stay within the circle of their own accord; it's where they feel most comfortable. After all, outside are dangerous people that hate us, that want to seduce us with lies and ruin us . . .

I realize this post has become less about the why, and more about the how, but the how is important too. Because despite my less-than-affectionate perspective on conservatives, they are not the only ones responsible for the present state of affairs. We are all at fault; we have all allowed our public discourse to make truth subject to ideology. The media have gone right along with it; the transition of news organizations from the gatekeepers of facts to the purveyors of branded political and social commentary has made them partners in this degradation. The public, by eagerly consuming partisan rhetoric, and letting themselves become caught up in who was winning the day, winning the issue, winning the race, are also pushing our society along this path to total disconnection with objective truth.

But why climate change? Why did global warming became, along with healthcare, the major lighting rod for conservative mythmaking? After all, if anyone ought to understand that preserving our environment for our children and the generations to come is a moral imperative, it's a conservative. If anyone should understand that radical change to an environment that has sustained us for ten thousand years of human civilization is likely to do severe harm, it's a conservative. If anyone should respect the opinions of the vast majority of working scientists and national and international scientific federations, it's those authority-loving conservatives.

I'll explore the reasons in part two.

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