Last week, David Roberts wrote on Grist about why he had avoided commenting on the climate change report from Matt Nisbet. Those who have followed the accommodationism arguments will recognize that name. I think they’ll also recognize the social manipulation Roberts sees in this report and others like it.
Predictably, the attacks aimed at green groups drew outrage from their targets. Just as predictably, the outrage was used as evidence that S&N are brave truth-tellers, renegades, the “bad boys of environmentalism.” I don’t know if S&N planned it that way, but the strategy turned out to be pure media gold.
If S&N had come forward with nothing but a positive agenda for the future of clean energy, they likely would have been politely ignored by the mainstream media just like dozens of earnest green agenda-bearers before them. (Grist’s bookshelves sag under their weight.) But S&N capitalized on an insight that had been ignored by their forebears: nothing, but nothing, draws media interest like liberals bashing liberals. They enjoy conservatives punching hippies. They dig centrists punching hippies. But they looove ex-hippies punching hippies. A pair of greenies bravely exposing the corruption and dumbassery of all the other greenies? Crack rock.
It’s important to note that it’s not just Beltway reporters who love this stuff, though they love it the mostest. Ever since the perceived successes of Bill Clinton’s triangulation and the ascendency of the New Dems, the road to acceptance on the left has been paved with hippie punching. To be legit, one must signal to one’s peers that one is not like those liberals, the old-fashioned, soft-headed, bleeding-hearted, slogan-shouting kind. One is a Pragmatist, not a Partisan, a traveler on the Third Way, not on the old, boring Left Way, a hard-headed, practical sort, not some kind of dippy dreamer.
Similarly, there is nothing like a brawl among secularists to get people to sit up and pay attention. Sounds good, right? All press is good press and all that? Well, that depends on your goals.
The difficult thing is, they all face the same perverse incentive structure. The wonky stuff — and BTI cranks out some genuinely good wonkery — doesn’t get clicks. What gets attention (and thus keeps the appearance of influence alive) are the attacks on hippies doing it wrong. These incentives have led the Breakthrough crowd to meditate endlessly on the failings and failures of others pursuing similar goals by different means. In S&N’s increasingly baroque telling, the green groups and their partisan blogger defenders are omni-incompetent: spending money wrong, pursuing the wrong policies, dealing with the wrong people, framing wrong, arguing wrong, responding to their critics wrong, and almost single-handedly insuring that there is no progress on climate change.
Similarly, “New Atheists” have been tarred as omni-vituperative: they don’t merely disagree with people in strong terms, they destroy them, leaving them weeping husks with shredded reputations. And they scare away all the religious folk who would otherwise jump up to work with secularists. Or maybe not.
The effect has not been the dawning of a new day of post-partisan support for clean energy. Turns out demonstrating one’s moderate bona fides by punching hippies doesn’t actually bring any conservatives over. They’re as partisan about clean energy as they are about climate. Mostly, the result has been lots and lots of press attention on hippie errors, a subject upon which everyone with a keyboard is apparently an expert.
Exactly. I said it Thursday, but it bears repeating. “A gatekeeper’s job is to keep people out, not to let them in.” They don’t want you on their side. They do, however, like the results of the squabbling.
The ineffable but unmistakable property of a Breakthrough-esque foray into politics is that it makes douchecanoes of everyone it touches, like some sort of inverse King Midas. Its authors, the journalists who cover it, its critics — no one comes out looking good. I’ve paddled that douchecanoe myself, many times, and every time ended up feeling vaguely dirty. I can’t put my finger on the precise mechanics, but I’ve learned to recognize it.
So I decided, with a few lapses here and there, to stop responding. Life is too short to spend around things that bring out your inner douchecanoe. I’d rather write about ideas I’m excited about. That’s why I was going to let Nisbet’s report slide on by.
Isn’t it really about time all of us secularists did the same? Pay attention to what we want to pay attention to, pay attention to what we want others to pay attention to, and stop distracting them by punching each other, no matter how entertaining they find it. Expend our energy on them, not on each other.
We’re at the bottom of the pile now. What have we got to lose?