I am fascinated by the power of story to sell or derail an idea. Sometimes I think of storytelling, that ancient and most connecting of arts, like The Force in “Star Wars.” Story can be used for good or for evil. Even with good intentions, it tends to be used as mindless entertainment, or for selling products or launching a mission-driven campaign. A fine example of the Dark Side of Story is found in the documentary, “Merchants of Doubt,” which jumps off from the 2010 book of the same name by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway.
These are the players who sow doubt in the public’s mind about the credibility or consensus of the scientific community around a specific topic. They do this to stall or scuttle environmental and health regulations. They started with tobacco, then moved on to toxic chemicals like flame retardants, and now are using the same proven techniques on climate change. The film employs imagery in creative ways. A sleight-of-hand magician demonstrates misdirection and murky banks of hidden files signify the “playbook” of confusion and lies. Archival footage of experts is intercut with contemporary interviews of the same people, to dramatize the passage of decades, the sweep of lives dedicated either to scientific study or to its obfuscation.
Of the several quite disturbing masters of misdirection, one stands out as particularly skilled (read: evil). Marc Morano has had a varied career, including a stint as Senator Inhofe’s (“Global warming is a hoax”) communications director. During that time, he leaked personal emails of leading climate scientists to denier websites so their followers could flood scientists’ inboxes with hate mail and threats. Now he operates a denier website called ClimateDepot.com. In his present-day interview, he’s downright gleeful about his work. He speaks of it as a game, as being fun to personally attack, ridicule and discredit scientists. He speaks not just openly, but boastfully, about the goal of confusing the public and delaying any action. As he says, “We win if nothing happens.”
Some of the subjects, as Dr. Oreskes points out, have ideological reasons for their tactics, such as the former Cold War foot soldiers who abhor any government regulation—even on behalf of the Commons or future generations—believing it tilts into Socialism. At least those men stand for something, but Morano seems to be value-free. By all appearances, he takes delight in bullying decent, sincere people—just to watch them squirm. He was so glib and smug on screen; I just wanted to reach in there and throttle him. It was all I could do not to shout and throw things. This one guy is stealing the future from our children and grandchildren and he thinks it’s a game.
Can you think of a more selfish, evil waste of a life? Talk about crimes against humanity!
Oh my. This sort of ranting is not my usual tone. What is going on here?
As former Republican congressman from South Carolina, Bob Inglis, observes towards the end of the film, climate change is not only a scientific issue. It’s an issue of the heart. He knows this firsthand, because when he carefully considered the evidence and came out publicly in defense of the science, he was slaughtered in his next election. He very thoughtfully and compassionately considers why people are so hostile and resistant to the reality of climate change. He rightly sees it as a white-knuckled defense of their way of life, which people feel is under attack. They will do whatever it takes to defend that, because the unknown is just too unbearable.
It is wrenching for me to face the truth of this, to watch these guys intentionally mislead and confuse the public on an issue of such dire importance. As Dr. Oreskes affirms, the truth did finally come out about smoking and the tobacco companies were eventually held accountable and punished. But it took 50 years, and we simply do not have that much time to turn the tide on climate change.
Films like this jolt me out of my own illusions. I can sit here in my little bubble and tell myself we’ve reached a tipping point, that people are finally seeing all these economic, social, environmental and cultural breakdowns are related. And they are ready to embrace a better way to live, one that more closely aligns with the idealistic intent behind our country, rather than the oil- and blood-soaked messy reality. A nation of interdependence, of freedom and happiness, of compassion for the downtrodden.
I learned in this film that the former Commie-fighters who now resist any and all environmental policy have a pet name for green activists. They call us “watermelons,” because we are green on the outside, but red on the inside. Catchy. The irony is that as climate change hurls ever more powerful storms at us, as it brings more flooding, droughts and wildfires, there is ever greater reliance on government intervention, not less. The National Guard, first responders, FEMA, Forest Service, firefighters, water rationing, and more—these are not in the distant future. This is happening right now around our country.
Ideologues may abhor prevention but they seem rather fond of rescue when trapped on the roofs of houses by rising flood waters, or evacuated ahead of a blazing fire. Oh, that’s right. Those things don’t happen to them. It’s usually poor people of color or blue-collar workers barely making ends meet, not highly paid lobbyists funded by the oil industry.
Part of the call in “Merchants of Doubt” is for journalists to become better educated on both the real science of climate change and the tactics of the obfuscators, whatever their motivations, ideological or sociopathic. The idea is to encourage them to stop giving airtime to these liars, to stop doing that meaningless “point-counterpoint” of putting two “experts” side by side on a screen to “debate the issues.” The problem with that is, one of those experts is a climate scientist with decades of research and the other, a glib salesman with a degree in government who took a few economics classes and now works for a “think tank” funded by ExxonMobil and the Koch Brothers.
In an interview with Michael Moore, the journalist Chris Hedges makes the point that Americans are “in the throes of a giddy intoxication with illusion.” He goes on to say that this is what happens things get bad. People become more and more disconnected from reality. As he puts it:
“The American Dream was always a myth, but the possibility of advancement in America was real. And dreams were something that you attained, or you sought to attain, you strove towards. Illusions are different. Illusions you live within. And I think we are a society that’s lost the capacity to dream, and lives in a vast illusion.”
We have the opportunity to rescue the American Dream from the doldrums of slogan and cliché. It functions best as an ideal. There may be resistance to this, because ideals call for personal integrity, sometimes painful growth, and broadening of perspective when our assumptions are challenged. When systems are in flux or collapsing altogether, as we have seen over the last several years. Ideals demand sacrifice and change. They may not be attainable, but they serve an important function: to hold us to a higher standard of selflessness, compassion for others, diligence, dedication, flexibility and humility. Ideals encourage us to reach out and engage others, especially those who are different from us, and to ask hard questions about the ways we are living.
I’m not making it sound very appealing, am I? The truth is, on the path to ambitious ideals, there is plenty of room for joy, for fun and amusement (as distinct from escapist entertainment). When I am sincerely connected with the world around me, with my neighbors, my family, my community, and the natural world, I feel great contentment, peace, and gratitude.
I keep coming back to this question: Who owns the story? In a very real sense, we all do. We all own and are constantly revising and retelling the story of the American Dream. The problems arise when we allow others to tell the stories for us, when we unquestioningly give over that power to others. By retreating into a bubble of illusion and fantasy and placing our trust in the loudest guy in the room, we abdicate personal responsibility. But the thing about stories? Stories create the future. Whatever stories we tell, even inadvertently by giving these charlatans the floor, that’s the future we are handing over to our children. Much as it breaks my heart and pisses me off to know these guys are out there relishing the damage they do every day, I can’t let that stop me. I’m here to tap into what’s real and tell a vastly different story.