What drives a smart man like Charles Krauthammer to betray his own intelligence?
The pen may be mightier than the sword, but neither are effective if you just wave them about aimlessly
On my endless excursions around the US media, I ran across Charles Krauthammer’s Washington Post (WAPO) article “The myth of ‘settled science’”. With its half-truths, distortions and cheap, distasteful references to ‘whoring’, it’s what you might expect of your average, run of the mill, right wing demagogue. Trouble is, Krauthammer hardly fits that bill – and that is what’s really puzzling me. (If you don’t know who Krauthammer is, read on; he’s a serious player (or was) on the US stage).
Plenty of pundits got stuck in after the item appeared, so if you want to familiarize yourself with the nitty-gritty, here’s a few pointers (in no particular order): first up –fellow WAPO editorial writer Stephen Stromberg (Krauthammer misleads on global warming), who runs through the catalogue of Krauthammer’s scientific errors with commendable accuracy.
Hot on Stromberg’s heels comes Time senior editor Jeffrey Kluger. Under the apt headline “Unfrozen Caveman Pundit Debates Climate Change”, he quotes Krauthammer’s opening gambit in order to point out its manipulative inaccuracy: “…those scientists who pretend to know exactly what [CO2 emissions] will cause in 20, 30 or 50 years are white-coated propagandists.”
As Kluger rightly asserts, “The biggest problem with this point is that those white-coated propagandists are white-coated strawmen—people who, for all practical purposes, don’t exist… virtually no legitimate climate scientists ever claim to know exactly what will happen in 20 or 30 or 50 years”. Of course they don’t; how is it Krauthammer doesn’t know this, or is his argument just a charade?
Meanwhile, over at Salon.com, assistant editor Lindsay Abrams was rather taken by ‘hockey stick’ Michael Mann’s Livescience rebuttal. Mike sensibly declined to take the article seriously, remarking instead that Krauthammer had regurgitated “a veritable laundry list of shopworn talking points, so predictable now in climate change denialist lore that one can make a drinking game out of it”. And that’s exactly what Mike proceeded to do, much to Abram’s amusement.
Speaking of predictability, the pundits leaping to defend Krauthammer were notable for what they had in common; opening statements so full of spin they might constitute a health hazard for those of a frail disposition. Several, including Foxnewsinsider and Fox News’ Howard Kurtz (Heating up: Climate change advocates try to silence Krauthammer), and SFGate’s Debra J. Saunders (Climate change consensus, no dissent allowed) jumped on the same bandwagon, while egregious smear artist Marc Morano apparently couldn’t be bothered to actually write anything himself, taking instead the handy shortcut of linking to Kurtz.
All the defenders of Krauthammer’s faith used the same line of attack – a gross misrepresentation of a petition organised by Hill Heat’s Brad Johnson, which called on the Washington Post to “stop publishing climate lies”. As predictable as Krauthammer’s litany of climate change denial clichés, those attempting to defend him spun this call for accuracy as an attempt to ‘silence’ critics of climate change science. (It’s a common theme, this persecution complex the right-wing ideologues seem to have developed – everything is an attempt to infringe their rights, suppress their views, censor or do something equally unfair to them. It seems unfortunate that this whining is indistinguishable from habitual self-pity – although in reality it’s just a ploy).
And no round-up of torrid abuse of the first amendment would be complete if I didn’t mention Heartland’s despicable fossil fool James Taylor, whose perpetual dissembling deserves a mention of its own. “Global warming alarmists are howling in outrage as Charles Krauthammer followed up a surgical takedown of global warming alarmism in his Washington Post column last Thursday with a similarly brilliant appearance on Fox News’ O’Reilly Factor last night,” he gushes in his latest Forbes article. “For all the alarmists’ collective outrage, they have yet to identify a single error in what Krauthammer wrote and said”.
Oh really? Taylor should change the broken record; he would surely gain more traction if he could explain to us all quite how he gets his posts through from the alternative universe he’s living in. What an idiot.
Enough background already. I have to return to the puzzle that is Charles Krauthammer, because as I said at the start, he’s no ordinary climate change grunt. I did a quick recap of his biography, and believe it or not, I couldn’t help but admire the man’s achievements, his otherwise impeccable credentials. His Wiki entry lists them, including the MD he got from a hospital bed while recovering from serious illness; his Pulitzer prize; the admiration for his work from both right and left (he has frequently taken positions consistent with intellectual rigour rather than the easier ideological option of staying ‘on message’); his formidable influence spanning several administrations; giving the name to the Reagan Doctrine, and so on. Should I ever meet the man, out of respect for his accomplishments I’d surely have to spend a lot more time listening than talking.
This is a man whose body of work is as worthy of respect as his climate change denial is contemptible, not because I disagree with him, but because it’s so badly done, so shoddy and ill-informed. How can a man so clearly in command of his own intelligence betray it because he hates Obama, or because his free-market ideology brooks no federal interference, not even when we’re destabilising the climate at a shocking rate? How can he mount arguments so specious, so dependent on regurgitated cliché? Is he so tired, so weary, that he can no longer bring to bear the formidable insight, the acute analysis and intelligence that marks out his place in history?
According to an American colleague who works closely with US media, many editors are shunning the furore that Krauthammer’s piece has generated; I suspect they are as astonished by this terrible fall from intellectual grace as I am, but out of respect don’t want to spit on the man’s rhetorical grave. Neither do I; my writing this sad lament is not intended to employ Krauthammer as fodder for the shabby debate we’re saddled with, but to ask how he could do it – to betray a lifetime of worthy work and the integrity that was so consistently displayed when he was at his best, instead of the caricature he’s become.
It is profoundly disturbing that a man as smart, as accomplished and as experienced as Krauthammer is so invested in this crude campaign to discredit climate science, he is prepared to churn out tissue-thin propaganda like his Washington Post diatribe. There is a name for such a bad investment, defended so rigorously and with such distain for accuracy; it is extremism, and it should shame Krauthammer to find he’s riding the same bandwagon as Palin, Inhofe, the Republican extremists and tea party fanatics. After a lifetime of work I want to admire, often displaying an integrity so absent from much of US politics, I truly regret that Charles Krauthammer has aligned himself with the fossil fools, for it’s a sad footnote to an otherwise admirable career.