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Issue #1569      17 October 2012

Culture & Life

An inconvenient politician

I used to work (in my 9-5 job) with a young woman who was active in various political struggles in Sydney. The anti-Apartheid campaign against the Springboks’ tour was one she was very active in, I remember. She had a habit that drove me up the wall: while at work she listened to talk-back radio.

Al Gore

When I asked her why she chose to endure that non-stop tirade of ignorance, racism and general malevolence she said it was because for the rest of her time she mixed with left-wing people who were generally well-informed about current events. The only way she could get a feel for what average citizens felt (or were brainwashed into thinking) was to listen to talk-back.

It made sense, but wasn’t any easier to endure for all that. However, for much the same reason, I used to subscribe to an Australian internet site for a right-wing political party that thought campaigns in defence of the environment were a Communist plot. They would have nothing to do with such notions as global warming which they wrote off as insignificant, claimed it was caused by sunspot activity (and certainly not by human activity), and cherry-picked little bits of scientific evidence to support their counter-claim that in fact the Earth is getting cooler, even entering a new Ice Age!

Morbidly fascinating as their material was, I eventually became bored with their constant parade of foolishness and obfuscation, and unsubscribed. One can only wallow in that kind of stupidity for so long before it becomes unbearable.

But mostly, I was put off by their smug assurance that although the overwhelming majority of scientists globally considered greenhouse gases and global warming as the number one threat to the future of the planet, this was somehow balanced by the views of a tiny minority who claimed to be unconvinced.

It was an almost identical position to that taken by those few scientists who refused to accept that smoking could be linked to lung cancer and other diseases. Former US Vice-President Al Gore touched on this topic in his book An Inconvenient Truth. Gore’s sister Nancy took up smoking at age 13 and later died prematurely of lung cancer. In his book, Gore wrote: “During the 1960s, even after the Surgeon General’s report made it abundantly clear that smoking can cause lung cancer, the tobacco companies were working overtime to encourage Americans not to believe the science – to create doubts about whether there was any real cause for concern. And a lot of people who might otherwise have absorbed the terrible truth about smoking and health were tempted to take it less seriously than they should have. After all, if there were still such serious doubts, then maybe the jury was still out. Maybe the science wasn’t definitive.

“So for almost 40 years after the landmark Surgeon General’s report linking smoking to lung cancer, emphysema and other diseases in the United States, more Americans continued to die from smoking-related causes than were killed during World War II.

“The clever and deceitful approach the tobacco companies used to confuse people about what the science really demonstrated added up to a model for the campaign that many oil and coal companies are using today to confuse people about what the science of global warming is really telling us. They exaggerate minor uncertainties in order to pretend that the big conclusions are not a matter of consensus ...

“Yet the fact that some important details are still to be fully understood in no way changes the reality of the problem. Just as it was immoral for the tobacco companies to use that tactic [using misleading caveats to convince people that the connection between cigarettes and cancer is a big lie] in the decades following the mid-1960s, it’s equally immoral now for the oil and coal companies to do the same thing where global warming is concerned.”

No wonder Al Gore found himself on the receiving end of a massive campaign to discredit him and especially his policies. He was even lampooned on The Simpsons. His copiously-illustrated book – rather like a PowerPoint presentation in print form – should be a tool in every progressive’s backpack. Its photographic evidence of shrinking Polar icecaps, disappearing glaciers, melting permafrost causing entire forests to fall over, should sound alarm bells for all but the terminally obtuse.

And yet, even among many of the Left, Al Gore is not taken seriously. Perhaps because he was once part of the US Establishment. But people change. Look at that other Establishment figure Malcolm Fraser. As the American playwright Clifford Odets put it in Waiting For Lefty, “You believe in theories when they happen to you.”

Al Gore, of course, was the chief target of the infamous “stolen election” of 2000. It was to keep Gore out of the White House that so many voters were thrown off the rolls in the key state of Florida (where George W Bush’s brother Jeb was conveniently Governor). In his very first week in office as President, George W Bush reversed a campaign pledge to regulate CO2 emissions. It wasn’t long before the Bush-Cheney White House abandoned Bush’s pre-election rhetoric about global warming altogether, announcing that, in Bush’s opinion, global warming wasn’t a problem at all.

Despite his experiences of the murkier side of capitalism – in the US elections, in the corporate attempts to discredit science over smoking and over climate change and to discredit him personally – Al Gore, needless to say, still has faith in capitalism, even as he rails against “bad apples” like the tobacco, coal and oil companies. He can’t help it – it’s the way he was brought up. But as ever more reactionary sectors of capitalism become ascendant, and ever more blatantly thumb their noses at the democratic principles they claim to uphold, more and more people across the social spectrum will be heard raising their voices in protest and opposition. It is the working class’s task to give that opposition direction and leadership.  

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