Friday, June 22, 2012

How Not to Talk About 'Government'

Doug Craig writes a blog, Climate of Change, on the website of the Redding Record Searchlight, highlighting what is the biggest single challenge facing us (and when I say ‘us’ in this case, I mean ‘humanity’ rather than ‘Californians’)—climate change.  One might think that when the stakes involved the future of our planet people might be able to find some common ground, but one would be, to say the least, quite mistaken.  The whitewash that will inevitably emerge from the conference now underway in Rio will be further confirmation, if such is needed, that we are a long way from taking meaningful steps to avert our onward march towards the planetary catastrophe that will be our lot if we fail to shake ourselves out of the mental stupor induced by having immersed ourselves for too long in a culture which demands few exercises—either moral, mental, or material—on the part of its members.

One of the issues that plagues the conversation about climate change also features in debates about rather less significant spheres of our politics (the ones which, inevitably, grab all the headlines).  That issue is how to talk about ‘Government’. 

I was reminded of this difficulty when reading one of Craig’s recent posts, a thoughtful piece about the culpability of corporations (their psychological profile, as it were, for the benefit of Mitt Romney and certain members of the Supreme Court) and the constructive role that they could play in combating climate change.

As a rule (though with notable exceptions), I find little that is edifying in the comments below blog posts, but mine wandering eyes strayed to a lengthy comment posted by someone called “Nick”.  It began as a garden variety rant: “Doug Craig continues to wag his finger sanctimoniously at ‘big oil’ and ‘big coal’, which no doubt have done immense environmental damage.  However one of the greatest single, and also least reported, environmental disasters of our times was not caused by either of these culprits”.  The culprit (the event in question being the degradation of the Aral Sea)?  You can probably guess.  “But now, because of policies enacted by a government, or successive governments...”, and the author of the comment described the catastrophe that befell the Sea.

While the rant didn’t cause me to re-consider my opinion of the majority of comments (the words ‘big oil’ and ‘big coal’ did not appear anywhere in the post), it did make me think about the line of logic (the descriptor is charitable, but for the sake of argument we can proceed with it) that “Nick” was pursuing.  First off, the comment didn’t have much to do with the wherewithal of corporations to act on the science rolling inexorably in on the subject of climate change.  And secondly, it used a mode of argumentation that just doesn’t make sense.

Limbering up my imagination, I’ll assume that the comment was designed to show that because one government, in one instance, had managed to foul up the ecology of an area, all governments are incompetent, all their efforts should be regarded with disdain, and therefore (this is even more of a leap, but my imagination is feeling sprightly this afternoon)...okay, I give up.

What this series of mental missteps stems from is in part a culture of political permissiveness which permits a priori ideological conceptions to trump the exercise of what the fictional Belgian detective Hercule Poirot called “those little grey cells”, and also the general tendency to view “Government” as a kind of monolith, all off its apparatuses acting in splendid and philosophically consistent concert. 

Just as it would be manifestly illogical to judge the actions of the modern Greek government by the machinations of King Priam of Troy, or the political contortions of California Governor Jerry Brown by the efforts of Padre Junipero Serra, it is more than a little stupid to condemn some as-yet-undetermined action by some-as-yet-unconsolidated body of governments on the basis of the destruction of the Aral Sea by the Soviet Union and its successor states.

People also need to think a little bit more critically about how government works.  ‘Government’ is a complicated thing, comprised of different branches, and each of these branches pursuing different ends by different means.  These are frequently contradictory: we send Peace Corps volunteers to empower ordinary citizens around the world while our military-industrial complex mandates that another—and more powerful—wing of our government gives nigh-unqualified support to some of the most brutal regimes out there. 

Taken at its broadest, the same aggregation of institutions which manage our national and state parks (‘Government’ here assumes a rather avuncular mien) also spies on our citizens, engages in a global arms trade that would be criminalised in a just world, and abuses both executive authority and legislative privilege.  Does it make sense to condemn the same ‘Government’ which provides services to the needy and education funds to society at large for assassinating its own citizens and locking citizens of other countries up without trial?  Would it be too much to ask for a little more precision here?

Take the frequently articulated Republican Party line of logic (again, we’ll be charitable with our terminology): that ‘Government’ is exploitative, abusive, freedom-stealing, socialistic, fascist, liberal, Islamofascist, secularist, anti-American, and un-democratic in everything that it does...except, of course, when ‘Government’ is operating at its most powerful, intrusive, and spectacularly-violent iteration—that is, the waging of war and the construction of an unchecked national security apparatus. 

Let ‘Government’ try to put together a grouping of regulations to rein in some excess in order to achieve an aim of planetary health and global good, and it is pilloried for over-extending itself.  Let it legislative (every bit as vigorously) to engineer some futuristic-Frankensteinian monstrosity called “Corporate Personhood” at the expense of the public good, and it is applauded for showing restraint and staying in its place in relation to the real powers that be.

Debate, by all means, and vigorously.  But exercise those little grey cells while doing so, and we might actually get somewhere...

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