Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Ignorance powers the climate change debate

The recent furore over Cate Blanchett appearing in an ad [video] supporting climate change has highlighted the strong current of anti-intellectualism that is driving the carbon pricing debate. The opposition has shown itself all too keen to pander to Australia's inherent cultural cringe to brand celebrities, economists, and scientists who support a carbon price as elitist and out of touch. It is interesting to note that it was Blanchett that garnered all of the criticism and not Michael Caton, an actor more associated with "ordinary Australians" through his roles in "The Castle" and "Packed to the Rafters". The reason for this is to play into the narrative that the opposition is trying to build around an "elitism" that is supposedly at the heart of carbon pricing.

This characterisation of the debate as an "us and them" rather than a debate about ideas is a hallmark of the tea-party style politics that have become such a feature of the rhetoric of the right. This dichotomy between "us" the ordinary citizen and "them" the intellectual elitist is the very building block of the astroturfing "movements" that are built up by powerful interests who are happy to stand behind and manipulate these so-called people's movements to further their own corporate interests. The involvement of Koch Industries in undermining climate science and engineering the "debate" both by manipulating the right-wing media and by funding the Tea Party in America is well documented but in Australia we are only just beginning to see the rise of a similar model of politics.

Combined with the new activism of large corporate interests in the mining industry, the rhetoric by the opposition and its News Ltd. cheerleaders is straying dangerously close to that of the Tea Party - building the dynamic of "us and them" that is so characteristic of tea-party politics.

The Government has not helped itself in this regard. Its inability to disassociate itself from the "elitism" narrative, built in some part by the intellectual Kevin Rudd, has fed into the anti-intellectual narrative. This was highlighted almost comically in the debate over the Resource Super Profits Tax (RSPT) on mining. The miners ad depicted an "ordinary" mine-worker talking to "ordinary Australians" about issues to which they could relate. Compare that with the Government's ad set in a lecture theatre, the very epitome of "academic elitism". Feeding this narrative that has carefully been built up by the opposition and its powerful allies effectively devastated the government's reforms.

The opposition effectively builds this anti-intellectual narrative with its simplistic sloganeering and cheap politics. Distilling every argument down to its simplistic "us and them" dichotomy, eschewing debate. It is combined with careful dog-whistling to the extreme right to assure them that whatever policies they do actually put forward are always done with a wink and a nod to the extremes.

This unhelpful narrative undermines the whole public policy process, but then it is the opposition's goal to reduce every debate to sloganeering. The opposition doesn't even try to engage in the policy debate, barely selling their own alternative "direct action" plan as it is their intention to merely frame any debate regardless of its content into an "us vs. them" slanging match. This charactisation of the debate away from actual policy to the "us and them" rhetoric enables the seemingly hypocritical attack on Blanchett for her wealth and elite status while praising the even more wealthy Gina Rinehart. The narrative paints Rinehart as the "down to earth mine worker" and Blanchett as the "elitist intellectual".

The building of the anti-intellectual narrative is what has leads to the more unhinged types resorting to making death threats and engaging in campaigns of bullying against scientists doing their research. Even though those that build the narrative would seek to deny the connection.

The dangerous narrative is of little concern to the activist corporate interests. It is important to them that debates are reduced to dichotomies of "us and them" as it makes it easier for them to mobilise astroturf anti-intellectual movements against those which would seek to limit their power. It enables them to excuse their own hypocrisy, shut down debate and mobilise their astroturf campaigns with their cries of "out of touch elite". Anti-intellectualism is a powerful force which tea party politics has harnessed both here and in the US and it has been ruthlessly exploited by the new right.