May 01, 2011

Punching "New Atheists"

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?


D. C. said...

Expend our energy on them, not on each other.

It certainly works for Republicans: tribe first, everything else a distant second.

We're at the bottom of the pile now. What have we got to lose?

Our integrity?

Yes, winning matters. I just worry about looking in the mirror some day and seeing Vince Lombardi.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Yes, we could always lose our integrity. However, I don't see a greater risk of that from turning our energy toward our goals than from turning it against each other.

D. C. said...

Not trying to justify family feuds. Just the usual caution about going too far the other direction.

Shari said...

Oh heavens. (er, sorry :-)

Yes, please do stop punching each other. Some of us religious folk do like dialogue with atheists who have better things to do than, er, punch people. And most people learn pretty early on that tearing someone else down doesn't make them look better.

It just makes them look like someone with too much insecurity to win without tearing others down.

It's just a perspective from someone who's part of a church where a lot of infighting advances nothing, in fact, feeds the status quo. Caveat - I've not been following all the issues though. I have a hard time following discussion of meta-discussions :-). Sometimes I confess to having a hell of a time following regular discussions! So I could be wrong about that...

Greg Laden said...


Stephanie Zvan said...

Shari, there are real issues at stake, but you're dead on about infighting. Politics would be much, much better in these situations.

Greg, thanks. And I would encourage anyone interested in the topic to read your post.

Shari said...

:-) I'm more than convinced there are serious issues at stake - I don't imagine you spending this much time on the topic otherwise.

Which is what I find depressing - how much good can you do in forwarding any cause if you have to spend this much energy on defending a position from others (supposedly from) within your ranks?

We differ on the position of faith, but I doubt you'd be defending yours without integrity intact :-)

Interesting dialogue, in any case - I'd not have believed how convoluted atheism is!

Shari said...

Greg - I did find your article very useful in getting up to speed on the situation. Thank you for posting the link. :-)

Because Steph is a friend, I am generally pretty intrigued by what topics occupy her posting. She is a sensible face of atheism and I am grateful for that - were she of the emotional, ranting-and-raving sort, I'd respect her ideas quite a bit less. I personally find the emotional rantings and ravings of the far religious right to be a pain in the @ss and I can't respect them either.

But when our pastor - a sensible, educated, and devout guy talks about the issues behind the emotional ravings on the right, I finally understand where the mania started. I then can decide where I stand. The sound and fury makes that a lot less possible.

Thanks to both of you - Greg and Steph, for helping me understand what the dialogue is about :-)