Guys Named JoeDecember 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.