The more I watch modern politics (and economics and the culture wars and science “debates”) the more it all reminds me of pro wrestling. You know how it goes. Tough match, back and forth, both the good guy (the “face”) and the bad guy (the “heel”) getting their licks in, and then at the decisive moment either the heel “accidentally” knocks the ref down or his manager distracts the ref or something. While the zebra is looking the other way, the black hat clocks the crowd favorite with a steel chair. Ref turns around. 1…2…3…and we have a new champion! Lather, rinse, repeat.
Which brings us to the breaking story surrounding The Heartland Institute and the revelation of all kinds of incriminating internal documents that, in a nutshell, prove that everything climate scientists have been saying about them is true. (If you haven’t already, please read Brian’s relentlessly detailed analysis on the hypocrisy of Heartland and its apologists. It’s as solid an exercise in editorial journalism as you’re likely to encounter this week.) Heartland is pure advocacy, unencumbered by ethics or, apparently, the capacity for shame. They lie, they cheat, and when the ref isn’t looking they hit science upside the head with a steel chair. Precisely none of this is surprising.
However, the current furor surrounds how this information came to light. As it turns out, Peter Gleick, a respected climate scientist, obtained the documents under false pretenses. So today, everyone from denialists to climate researchers to journalists to casual bystanders to Gleick himself are saying things like “his reputation is ruined” and “he has badly damaged his own cause.”
Well, maybe. But it’s interesting to me that at the same time everyone is decrying Gleick’s momentary lapse in judgment, the criminals who stole the private information behind the Climatic Research Unit email controversy (aka “Climategate”) remain heroes to the denialist cause.
Let’s be clear up front: I’m not applauding or condoning law breaking or unethical behavior by Dr. Gleick. However, I am noticing that we seem to be playing by two sets of rules here. It isn’t confined to climate, either. I know I’m abstracting a bit, but these days America seems to be divided into a couple of large camps. One the one side you have social conservatives, neocons, neoliberal financial elites and anti-science climate denialists. On the other side you have, well, everyone else. This doesn’t describe the landscape perfectly, but I think everybody understands what I’m talking about. This dynamic is probably a natural artifact of a two-party system that automatically herds strange bedfellows into either the red boudoir or the blue one.
One side plays by a decidedly utilitarian set of ethics: the ends justify the means. In the words of Al Davis, “just win, baby.” In the words of Vince Lombardi, “winning isn’t the main thing, it’s the only thing.” In the words of Mark Grace, “if you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.” At the Renaissance Faire one year half the crowd at the joust was assigned to each knight and the Black Knight’s supporters were encouraged to chant “cheat to win!” Gorilla Monsoon once described pro wrestling legend Bobby “The Brain” Heenan’s philosophy as “win if you can, lose if you must, but always cheat.” And so on – I think you get the idea.
In this spirit, one of America’s political factions, the Wall St. crowd, bribes the ref. The neocons bake the data to justify invasion of foreign countries. The social cons advocate for murder. The denialist crowd hacks private e-mail, then cherry picks and distorts what it finds to paint a drastically misleading picture of what climate scientists are doing. Then there’s the case of ACORN. It’s hard to find a dirtier, sorrier hit job against our poorest citizens in recent history. The man behind it, James O’Keefe, is truly one of the most profoundly vile human beings slithering our streets today. You’ve probably heard bits and snatches about this case in the popular media, and you need to understand that everything you heard is a lie. For a very good analysis of what actually went down, Paul Rosenberg’s review, embedded in a take on the Komen controversy, is essential.
No, I don’t think the other team is perfect. Team Blue has elements that I steer clear of daily. But we’re intelligent people, you and I, and intelligent people do not engage in false equivalence. If I drink myself drunk every night and my friend has one beer on boys night out every month, it is technically accurate to say “well, both of them drink.” It is also fundamentally dishonest. With one of our political teams, bad behavior is the operational rule while with the other it’s the exception.
The Heartland/Gleick case illustrates the point: he is today taking fire and lamenting that his reputation is in tatters because his actions were deemed unethical by his allies. Did the right turn on James O’Keefe? The Climategate hackers? The financial elites whose actions rocket-fueled the recession? How much time have the participants in GOP presidential debates devoted to criticizing the violent tactics of the anti-abortion movement?
Right. For better or worse, blue tent ideology insists on an ethics derived more from Kant than Mill. The means justify the ends. Though the world shall end, do the right thing. Better to be a good loser than a sore winner. It isn’t whether you win or lose, but how you play the game. And the side of that Ren Faire joust crowd assigned to cheer on the fair-haired hero knight? “Right makes might!”
If this were simply a philosophy issue we could kick back, mix up a pitcher of Margaritas and indulge our joy in debating ideas. But it isn’t just philosophy. O’Keefe’s hateful shenanigans materially damaged countless numbers of people so poor they’re looking up at Mitt Romney’s “safety net.” Neocon sleight-of-hand killed well over 100,000 innocent Iraqi civilians (and counting). Christian terrorists gunned down Dr. George Tiller in church (he’s hardly the only victim of social conservative thuggery – consider the attack on the Unitarian service in Knoxville, for instance) and the enforcers of the right receive ample validation for their actions in the movement’s propaganda wing: O’Reilly, Hannity, Savage and Limbaugh all seem popular with this crowd. And if you’re part of the “99%” you probably don’t need to be told about the impact American families feel as a result of the machinations of our new feudalist overlords.
When all is said and done, I think this is a very good day for American public discourse. For starters, it’s wonderful, after all these years, to hear the denialists condemning the dishonesty and ethical lapses that characterize the behavior of your Heartlands and your Climategate hackers. I mean, they may not mean to be doing that, but how else can we possibly read their complaints about Gleick? Unless what they’re saying is that, you know, it’s okay for us to cheat but unacceptable for you to do it. Because cheating is our thing, right? Tricky, that.
As for me, you might be asking by now if I approve of what Gleick did. Let me answer this way. I wish nobody played dirty. But when my nation is being trashed by the cynical successes of the heels, when people are being killed and lives destroyed, when our very environment is jeopardized by anti-intellectual hooliganism, I can certainly understand how a good guy’s frustrations might tempt him to clock the bad guy with a steel chair while the ref is distracted.
So maybe this is a good place for us all to sit back and ponder our ethics, hmmm?