Archive for December 8th, 2009

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Terminal Stupidity

December 8, 2009

I’m sorry. I have to post this. It’s so monumentally stupid that I can hardly contain my eyeballs. What is it? Why, it’s Sarah Palin’s latest hiccup, published by the Washington Post.

UPDATE: Apparently the Post is getting a drubbing for running the piece.

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Guys Named Joe

December 8, 2009

Cross-posted at the Center for American Progress’s WonkRoom:

When elected officials like Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) cry “scientific fascism” about the scientists at the University of East Anglia Climatic Research Unit — and then define the fascism as “intimidation in the scientific community of people who wish to be contrary what the convention wisdom is” — this as much demonstrates how laughably weak Sensenbrenner’s understanding of basic political concepts is as it impugns his credibility as an interpreter of what the scientists were actually discussing.

Oh, sure, the East Anglia scientists were irredeemably engaged in the deplorable practice of weeding out bad science. They threatened to do so by disregarding weak articles, by rejecting journals which, in their estimation, were publishing pieces driven more by political considerations than by scientific considerations. That’s downright fascistic. How dare they!

It is by now an expectable comedy to hear shouting heads like Glenn Beck, Fox Business Network anchor David Asman, and others cry “fascist” and compare environmental progressives and climate scientists with Hitler and Stalin, but it is somewhat more surprising to see similar such claims coming from the otherwise more sedate halls of Congress. Of course, we’ve seen it all before. In this hyperbolic age, the chorus accompanies virtually all political matters, reaching its illogical extreme in screeds such as this one on Andrew Breitbart’s BigGovernment.com:

  • The Progressive movement owns the Klan.
  • The Progressive Movement owns Nazi Eugenics.
  • The Neo-Progressive Movement owns Global Warming.

Sensenbrenner’s comments on the CRU hack cannot be understood independently of this political context. This is particularly true in the climate arena, where one’s political affiliations more or less signal where one stands on the science. An attack on climate science is an attack on progressivism, or so the story goes.

As a philosopher, I am at pains to understand how cries of fascism ever gain any traction when coupled with references to the political left. The thesis that progressives are somehow fascist has all the complexity of the “Guys Named Joe” hypothesis: the specious observation that because some very bad people in world history have been named Joe, that therefore most other guys named Joe are also bad.

At heart progressivism is a left-leaning political orientation, privileging equality over inequality, seeking to give voice to the weak by recognizing personhood, and aiming to advance autonomy by reducing vulnerability, among other things. These are core progressive principles, rooted in the writings of theorists as diverse as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Stuart Mill, and Immanuel Kant, among many others.

If progressivism is embodied by sensitivities to injustice, fascism is the very opposite of this. It is almost unilaterally agreed that fascism is a phenomenon of the right wing. It stresses rule by the few, encourages force over diplomacy, draws strength by belittling the weak, and in the end is an ideology of control. Truth is, political theory is remarkably ill-equipped to offer a clear definition of fascism, but these are its widely-recognized contours.

Fascism, Communism, Liberalism, Conservativism, Progressivism — these are conceptual categories, distinguished by what they accept and reject. They’re not pejorative name-tags to be affixed on an offending party. If Hitler calls himself a socialist, this does not make him a socialist. If Stalin called himself a progressive, this does not make him a progressive. If Glenn Beck finds a bath of communist red in the collected artwork adorning buildings commissioned by the 20th century’s most renowned capitalist, this does not make Rockefeller a communist, and it does not make it the case that capitalism is communism.

Politicians, apparently, need little be bothered by political theory, just as they need little be bothered by science. There’s nothing fascistic about rejecting bad arguments. There’s nothing particularly progressive about it either. That’s just how science works, sometimes with all of the nooks and wrinkles revealed in the e-mails. To hurl epithets at the climate scientists as if they are part of a conceptually-confused political cabal is a distortion of the highest order. It certainly doesn’t add clarity to an already muddy political discourse.

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Two More Down

December 8, 2009

Vodpod videos no longer available.

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Big Foot

December 8, 2009

Fox News and other media outlets (like CNN, ABC, and CBS) have predictably pulled one of the most intimidating pop-guns in television news’s dwindling misdirection arsenal: the enormous carbon footprint generated by Copenhagen. It’s a clever ruse, aimed not to audit the supposed auditors, but to demonstrate the internal hypocrisy of an allegedly self-righteous community of bark eaters and dirt lickers. But it is only that — a ruse.

Among other things, the mathematics doesn’t work out. If you really want to calculate the carbon footprint of this particular conference, then it would be important to factor out inevitable emissions. According to Fox, organizers “will also reportedly lay 900 kilometers of computer cable and 50,000 square miles of carpet, along with more than 200,000 meals to be served and 200,000 cups of coffee” — as if those cups of coffee and meals would go uneaten in a world without Copenhagen. True, those meals would not be eaten by those selfsame conference participants, but some other meals would be eaten. Apart from the transportation costs, many of the other carbon emissions are a wash.

That’s not even the problem with this angle.

The problem is that this conception of the good environmentalist as someone who lives in a teepee and eats bean sprouts is little more than a flimsy caricature. Sure, being good to the earth requires some modification to behavior. Sure, it would be better from a carbon emissions standpoint to ride one’s bike to Copenhagen rather than to take a jet here. Sure, if it were possible to recreate in full, three-dimensional, virtual reality a conference center equipped with the face-to-face capabilities of 34,000 people all interested in climate change, all uniquely intersecting at COP15, it would be much better to run the conference through the intertubes. But it’s not.

I am currently sitting on a couch surrounded by several party delegates from Uruguay, a cluster of Turkish environmental activists, and some VIPs of an affiliation I cannot discern because the writing on their name badges is so tiny.

What then to make of the footprint?

Well, it’s big, to be sure. But since the UNFCCC is itself actively engaged in the identification of the footprint, and also in efforts to reduce the footprint, it is clear that the organizers are self-conscious about its impacts. And yet, many people here still feel the need to convene the conference. How could they do such a thing?

There is nothing about environmentalism that proposes that one must forgo all of the trappings of modern civilization, or that commerce and governance must stop, much as the cartoonists at Fox would have you believe. Rather, the central mandate of any environmental ethics, and particularly of a civilization that takes climate change seriously, requires primarily that we think through and justify our actions before engaging in them. Sometimes this will involve finding better ways of doing what we need to do; other times, it may involve sucking it up and paying the price. COP is an important event because it brings together so many people with a huge range of backgrounds, points of focus, and areas of influence. It couldn’t be done any other way.

Now if you’ll excuse me, a news reporter has pulled up a chair to ask me about my area of specialization. I doubt that would happen in Sim Earth.