(Cross-posted at Daily Kos)
The mark of the most backwards and destructive governments in history has been their suppression of science, reason and intellectuals in favor of paranoid conspiracy theories.
So listen to likely GOP presidential frontrunner Rick Perry: “There are a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects.”
You may have become so used to hearing such comments from right wing political rabble rousers and phone-hacking media outlets that they don’t shock you anymore. If so, think about this: a man who could conceivably become president is proposing to lead a witch hunt against scientists for the crime of seeking the truth. In memory of the victims of past mass hysterias, let’s call it The Climate Libel.
When times are bad, sometimes the people choose a leader like FDR, with the positive vision to pull them out of the rut into a better world. And sometimes, in desperation, they choose a leader like the guys FDR had to defeat.
Scapegoating is a tried and true political tactic almost as old as civilization itself. After a natural disaster, the ancient Greeks would drive a beggar, crook or disabled person into exile in order to purify the city. Scapegoating since has ranged from the Salem Witch Trials to Southern lynch mobs to the McCarthy era to the bloodbaths of Nazi Germany, Cambodia, Yugoslavia, and Rwanda.
Many of these cases have a few characteristics in common. It’s important to note these in order to anticipate the pattern and be ready to defend our scientists if they are indeed the next class to be thrown to the wolves so as to rile up the masses and distract everyone from what’s really going on.
1. Sponsors – Witch hunts typically start with a motive and powerful and/or wealthy backers. Often, political leaders use scapegoating as the cheapest and ugliest way to gain a mass following. Mao Zedong started the Cultural Revolution and its bloody mass war on intellectuals in order to win an internal party struggle. The current wave is notable for the financial interests involved — the documented fact that Koch Industries (and originally, Exxon-Mobil) set up and funded today’s network of climate denial websites, NGOS and academics-for-hire. And then the Kochs funded Tea Party groups like Americans for Prosperity and Freedomworks, which they have infused with climate conspiracy rhetoric.
2. Targets – The next essential ingredient is a group you can bully. The Nazis chose Jews, gays, disabled people — groups they could abuse and exploit with impunity. The Khmer Rouge, following Mao’s Cultural Revolution pattern, chose intellectuals — an understandable choice, since the well-educated arouse public jealousy for their cognitive skills and elite status and are most likely to defend themselves only with abstruse papers that the masses can’t understand anyway. Clearly, intellectuals, specifically climate scientists, are being chosen as public enemy #1 again.
3. Conspiracy theories – Rather than simply targeting these groups, the ringleaders typically concoct extensive conspiracy theories about them, from the wild stories of witnesses at the Salem witch trials to the Protocls of the Elders of Zion to the alleged communist conspiracies of the McCarthy Era. The mobs may not be sufficiently riled up unless you make them believe the most dastardly fantasies about their targets, that they want to rape your women, steal your money and control the world. (Often the most powerful conspiracy theories come from proponents projecting their own fantasies of power onto their targets.)
The most effective crafter of climate change conspiracy theories, not surprisingly, was an accomplished fiction writer, Michael Crichton, with his bestselling though scurrilous 2004 novel, State of Fear. He spread the myth that climate change is all a hoax perpetrated by greedy scientists and evil environmentalists — a myth that, owing much to his efforts, persists.
4. Disseminators – These conspiracy theories of course need media outlets to get them to the masses. In other countries, that may be the Propaganda Ministry. In the US, that usually means mass media figures who increase their popularity by funneling people’s frustrations into hatred and resentment of chosen scapegoats. That’s been the case from the anti-Semitic Father Coughlin in the 1930s to Rush Limbaugh and Fox News today. The way in which these bloviators twisted a bunch of harmless emails into something they had the nerve to call “climategate” tells you all you need to know.
5. Demagogic leaders – Even when all the other factors are present, you won’t have a true mass scapegoating until a leader steps in to advance the cause. It’s difficult to even think about any of the witch hunts and massacres I’ve mentioned without also remembering their infamous leaders. This is precisely why Perry’s embrace of the Climate Libel is so ominous. It has the potential to turn this simmering mania into an outright mass hysteria.
6. Mobilized masses – The final ingredient is the followers themselves. No mass scapegoating succeeds until the mobs themselves get into the act. That is ultimately the whole point, as in any movement – to have the flock demonstrating their dedication through action. Unfortunately, in the kinds of movements we’re talking about here, the actions in question tend to be extremely perverse and even deadly.
Sadly, we’ve seen that proven only weeks ago in Oslo, where a sociopath used climate denial rhetoric, among other right wing propaganda, to justify the cold blooded murder of scores of people, most of them kids. How long before someone here in the US uses the Climate Libel to justify attacking innocent scientists or others?
We have been lucky in the US for a few decades at least, as the country has generally trended toward greater tolerance and rationality. But we need to keep our eyes open to the possibility that such a trend may be ending, and a New Dark Ages – where intellectuals are sacrificed, one way or another, to the combined force of elite money and mob anger – could be on the way.
We need to be alert to that danger and commit ourselves to fight it with the kind of energy and determination that will take us to every doorstep in the nation, so we can spread another kind of message, reminding Americans who we are and what we truly stand for.
No more witch trials. No more conspiracy theories. No more scapegoats. Just truth, reason, openness and tolerance. That’s the answer to the threat Rick Perry and the other climate deniers pose to America’s greatest traditions.