Monday, January 26, 2015

The 'pounding jackboots of progressivism' and climate change

People who know me know that I periodically post on Twitter and Facebook on the topic of climate change. Some find this extremely irritating; most just ignore it.

I post on the topic because I am concerned about it, especially what it is doing to the lives of my children and my children's children, but also because I am especially fascinated with articles and blog posts that purport to show that climate change is a hoax, or is (almost) completely natural, or is nothing to worry about. I find that the techniques of writing and use of statistics in these articles provides a vivid window into how some people think about science, and how other people exploit the ways that people think about science to advance their own viewpoints.This fits into my professional interests in the quality of education, especially STEM education, and in how people think about systems and complexity.

So, on January 19, I posted a link on Facebook to an article on entitled "Global Warming: The Most Dishonest Year on Record." My comment was:
This is how it's done.

Obfuscation. Apparent objectivity. Denial.
Indeed, the article is an exemplar of the genre. It takes a scientific claim supportive of the view that are planet is warming due to human activities (primarily burning fossil fuels) and undermines it--not by arguing against the importance of the claim or whether it is in fact true, but by arguing against something else. Ideally, articles like this argue against several something elses, to give an overall impression that the original claim is suspect.  This particular article picks at the claim--made by some--that 2014 was the hottest year in recorded history. In truth, it's only the hottest year in the 135 years in which humans have kept track of global temperatures. The article goes on to cite "good evidence that the Earth has been warmer than it is today"--although, if you read carefully, you see that this isn't "good evidence" of that at all: it's anecdotal, or it's partial, or it's incomplete.

That is, if you read carefully. While the article claims that "scientists" have generated that "good evidence," the links that are provided are actually to other opinion pieces at pseudoscientific web sites like and The first of these cites "evidence" from a report published by the Science and Public Policy Institute and CO2 Science, both of which are linked to organizations such as ALEC and Frontiers for Freedom). The second interprets a Science article as suggesting that recent warming isn't particularly interesting from an historical perspective, when the article seems to say that "recent oceanic warming is happening at a historically unprecedented rate." The article also links to three posts on that are by the same author as the article, Robert Tracinski. Tracinski is at least consistent in denying that global warming is anything to worry about. (Linking to one's own work is certainly common, but that doesn't excuse it, especially when such links are characterized as providing further evidence.)

This, indeed, is how it's done.

But that's not actually what I want to write about. In response to my Facebook post, I got some comments. Several of those were supportive of my original intent, but some were dismissive. One of those was by my good friend, Harlan. On January 21, he posted a link to an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal entitled "Climate Reporting's Hot Mess." (The article is now behind a paywall.)

Harlan's comment:
 The author raises valid points. 

The author, Holman Jenkins, Jr.--a member of the Journal's editorial board--extended the main point in The Federalist article cited above that news reports about 2014 being the hottest year overstated the case by failing to mention the limitations of the data. The author was especially vexed by the fact that the differences between 2014, 2010, and 2005 are smaller than the margin of error of the measurements.

I don't quite get why it matters much which of those three years was really the hottest. All three of these years are part of a pretty obvious warming trend since 1980:

The column also includes the truly distracting claim that any actual global warming will likely stop when new battery technologies are developed to allow energy sources like wind and the sun to be used more efficiently. (That's an interesting if somewhat speculative claim, but what does THAT have to do with whether human emissions of CO2 are warming the climate and whether global temperature data demonstrate that?)

So, after reading the piece, I commented back to Harlan:
Sigh...upon reading the article, nothing of any interest. "Valid points," Harlan? Only if you are looking for reasons to doubt the scientific consensus. Which readers of the WSJ Business World might.
 Then, after re-reading the article, I posted another comment:
Oh, I revise that. Jenkins correctly points out that "the climate problem, if there’s a problem, likely won’t be solved by some supreme effort of global bureaucratic will." I agree with that!
Harlan, however, clearly didn't like my take on the article. He shot back:
Oh Craig *sigh*. Please. So typical. The pounding jackboots of progressivism will tolerate nor consider any opposing viewpoints. *sigh*.
Knowing Harlan, I figured there was a bit of hyperbole in this comment. So I wrote:
Harlan! I've got to believe you are kidding (at least a bit). "Pounding Jackboots"?
To which he promptly replied:
^well, not you of course. You're more like clacking stilettos.

Honestly, this made me laugh out loud! 

I'm quite taken with this image: clacking stilletos. It certainly conjures up a different image than "pounding jackboots"! Perhaps something like this:

Or this:

"The pounding jackboots of progressivism will tolerate nor consider any opposing viewpoints."
Even though Harlan graciously released me from this image with his "clacking stilletos" replacement, in the days since, I've been haunted by this image (not to mention the sound), but also by the claim, not actually retracted by Harlan, that I won't tolerate or consider any opposing viewpoints.

Let me deal with the image first.

Most of us can conjure up the sound of "pounding jackboots" from our memories, although for most of us it is a sound we have only heard in old documentaries and fictional movies like Indiana Jones:

What's interesting to me is how the image of pounding jackboots got associated with progressivism. My friend Harlan didn't make this association up. 

For some of us, "progressivism" brings with it pleasant associations of a better society, with improved technology, better social services, better (and more child-centered) schools, and civil rights for all.

But those are not the images that Harlan had in mind.
According to Wikipedia, jackboots
are connected to fascism, particularly Nazism, as they were issued by the Wehrmacht and SS as part of the World War II German uniform before Germany encountered leather shortages. When goose-stepping on pavement, the large columns of German soldiers in Marschstiefel ("marching boots") created a distinct rock-crushing sound which came to symbolize German conquest and occupation.
Due to the association with marching Nazi soldiers, the jackboot, and the image of pounding jackboots, have become firmly associated in the minds of many with totalitarianism, or an overreach of state authority. The Free Dictionary includes among its definitions of terror "the ability to instill intense fear", and give this usage example: "the terror of jackboots pounding down the street." Fraze.It gives 42 examples of the use of "jackboots" in recent online writing. Many of these are political in nature.

Michigan Congressman John Dingle is the first American politician in recent memory to use the word "jackboot" to refer to agents of the government, specifically the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. The National Rifle Association picked up on this, and in 1993 the NRA ran an advertisement entitled "What's the First Step to a Police State" which featured a close-up of jackboots as the dot at the bottom of a question mark:
This was followed two years later by an NRA fundraising letter that referred to "jack-booted government thugs" with "power to take away our constitutional rights, break in our doors, seize our guns, destroy our property, and even injure or kill us"--a letter which led the first President Bush to resign from the NRA, and which has been defended by some NRA supporters, although LaPierre did issue an apology: "If anyone thought the intention was to paint all federal law-enforcement officials with the same broad brush, I'm sorry, and I apologize."
The gun lobby isn't the only group using this image, which has been applied to a wide variety of people, and not only agents of the government. The phrase "jack-booted thug" has also been used recently to refer to people who think businesses in Arizona shouldn't be allowed to discriminate against gay customers, people who work in the supplements industry, Andrew Marr of the BBC, actor Hugh Jackman, Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, people who wear Birkenstocks and other campus leftists, those who were incensed by anti-gay comments made by Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson, John Boener and Karl Rove, and even mail carriers who deliver unwanted Pottery Barn catalogs--in addition to the more "usual suspects" like the Michigan State Police, the Beloit Wisconsin police chief, US Forest Service officers using dogs to search for drugs at a ski resort, the mayor of New York, the Internal Revenue Service, US Customs officers enforcing importation rules, , the Bureau of Land Management in Nevada, members of the Obama presidential campaign, people in Wisconsin who sought the recall of Governor Scott Walker, Environmental Protection Agency employees, the Israeli Army, Russian security workers, and lots of other people and organizations. 

The specific association of "jackboots" with progressives is hinted at by some of the above references, but it goes deeper. The 2008 book, The Nazi Paradigm, suggests that since the 1960s, "authoritarian rule" has been imposed in the US by "judicial and bureaucratic decree." The author, Mark Jarmuth, is especially worried about Hillary Clinton, whom he calls "America's first authoritarian leader" and as (citing Dick Morris!) the "instigator of the White House [secret] police."

Hillary, according to this book, is an authoritarian in the mold of Adolph Hitler. Jarmuth is especially concerned that Hillary might win her own term in the White House:
Should she prevail, this year or sometime in the future, feminists will characterize her win as progress in a nation where for far too long women have been second-class citizens. This would be a misconception, unless progress is found in the legacy of the Third Reich, whose own rise, some said, would help modernized Germany.
Hillary is like the Nazis?!?
Hillary may be our first female president, but her reign will hardly represent progress for our nation. Given her disdain for free speech, her Manichean mindset and her contempt for political foes, the Valley of Canaan will not be the destiny of a second Clinton presidency. If she wins the White House, Hillary will lead the country not into the promised land of progress...but further down the path to Auschwitz and deeper into the abyss of authoritarian rule."
The idea that the Nazis were leftists--socialists, even--has become a recurrent meme in recent years. For example, Michael at writes:
The socialist roots of Nazism doesn't require any digging; it's right there in the groups official title "The National Socialist German Workers Party."
Nazism means socialism, right? And socialism means collectivism, right? And socialism means nationalization, right?

Hmmm... It seems to me that this is a lot of semantic play that threatens to unmoor our memory of the Nazis from their actual behavior. This semantic play has resulted in a good deal of confusion. And due primarily to the efforts of American editor Richard Poe and British politician Daniel Hannan, the meme has received some recent attention, including a video that compares Obama to Mussolini.

The Nazis were not interested in nationalizing industry, but in creating a government-business alliance to fuel their war machine. Hitler himself distanced himself from common meanings of the words "national" and "socialist," even calling for "furtherance of private initiative and by the recognition of the rights of property."

The Nazis were fascists, first and foremost. Yes, they were oligarchical and authoritarian, but these aren't equivalent to left-wing, despite what some insist. Nazi policies were distinctly right-wing and not socialist. A good collection of articles related to this is here:

But all that is a huge distraction from the "pounding jackboots of progressivism" claim--isn't it?

It seems to me that "pounding jackboots" simply means the collective efforts of any group or party with which you disagree.  My friend Harlan is a lifelong Republican. Hence his conflation of "progressivism" with unyielding adherence to a group point of view. 

But why does he claim that I will not tolerate or consider any opposing viewpoints? 

Specifically, because I said that Jenkins' Journal opinion article didn't have anything of interest or valid points, unless someone is looking for a reason to doubt the scientific consensus. 

I personally don't have any reason to doubt the consensus.  Yes, I believe in the ongoing revision of science through a continual process of experiment and inquiry while seeking the truth about the world. But that doesn't mean I'll believe any old thing! And as Obama stated in his State of the Union address:
I’ve heard some folks try to dodge the evidence by saying they’re not scientists; that we don’t have enough information to act. Well, I’m not a scientist, either. But you know what  — I know a lot of really good scientists at NASA, and NOAA, and at our major universities. The best scientists in the world are all telling us that our activities are changing the climate, and if we do not act forcefully, we’ll continue to see rising oceans, longer, hotter heat waves, dangerous droughts and floods, and massive disruptions that can trigger greater migration, conflict, and hunger around the globe. The Pentagon says that climate change poses immediate risks to our national security. We should act like it.

In my view, Jenkins and Tracinski and Monckton and Watts and Lindzen and the whole host of others who work to spread uncertainty about the consensus (as well as just some uninformed bloviators like Trump and Inhofe) are simply working to push back the time when the world's population (including the United States) is going to have to confront its ongoing poisoning of our atmosphere and change its ways--perhaps drastically.  

Even the image of "pounding jackboots" is designed to have that pushing-back effect. My friend Harlan wants to discredit my position that human activities are warming the earth, and that this is going to cause enormous problems in the coming years, as nothing but adherence to an authoritarian, even totalitarian viewpoint, the purpose of which is to spread fear and terror, in order to...

In order to...

  • Spur people to demand action on reducing carbon emissions? (no)
  • Increase understanding among Americans of the science behind worries about global warming? (no)
  • Urge people to consider the various options that we actually face at the present moment and into the future? (no)
  • Suggest teaching children about systems and complexity using the best example we have: climate change? (no)
  • Take away people's freedoms. (yes, that's it!)
"Their goal is not to protect the American people, it is to control them," James Inhofe said. "They want top-down control, and carbon dioxide regulations will give this to them."
Thank you for understanding, Senator! 

I want to take away the freedom of Americans to spew CO2 with a free conscience! 

Of course, most of the people doing the denying and the pushing back and the obfuscation have no trouble taking from others: they tend to believe strongly in a so-called free market:
if you're a conservative who believes the world runs best when businesses operate in a "free market" with little government interference, then the chances are you don't think human-caused climate change represents a significant risk to human civilization.
But for some--maybe those with a troubled conscience, those who have a little tiny bit of sympathy for some aspects of progressivism--the only way they can justify this to themselves is to conjure images of jackboots.

Or stilletos. 

Whatever works. 


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