Published October 1, 2022
The whole aim of politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.
—H. L. Mencken, In Defense of Women (1918)
An email from Uber popped into my inbox the other day. It was headed: “Choosing to go green shouldn’t cost extra.” That gnomic statement was followed by this explication: “Uber Green: more sustainable, same price as Uber X.” Uber Green, as you will perhaps have gathered, is just Uber, the ride-share company, but with electric cars and hybrids—whose use of energy is officially supposed to be “more sustainable,” environmentally speaking, than that of purely petroleum-driven vehicles. Up until the day before yesterday, it was the company’s profitability—last year was its first in the black since its foundation in 2009—that it was worried about sustaining. Now it’s joining a host of other newly enlightened corporations by seeking to assuage the consciences of the worried woke, afraid that their car journeys will contribute to the planetary apocalypse that supposedly lies just over the horizon.
How satisfying, then, it must be for these conscientious ones to think that such an infinitesimal saving of carbon by their Uber rides won’t even cost them any extra! But if choosing to go green shouldn’t cost extra, it generally does. Uber has obviously taken a leaf out of the government’s book by reassuring customers who want to believe it that the normal and normally inescapable trade-offs of environmental virtue don’t apply to them. Thus the “Inflation Reduction Act” recently passed by Congress—now less often referred to by that name than by its climate provisions—cost American taxpayers yet unborn $360 billion extra, plus interest, for going green. But the official government line, repeated even by the erstwhile administration critic Larry Summers in an interview with Bari Weiss, is that the money will be repaid by savings in the price of energy on the great day, which surely cannot be far off now, when fossil fuels are replaced by vast acres of solar farms and windmills.
As for the climate, on whose behalf all this money is ostensibly being spent, Bjørn Lomborg writes in The Wall Street Journal that “The Inflation Reduction Act Does Little to Reduce Climate Change.” He might equally have written that the Climate Change Reduction Act Does Little to Reduce Inflation. Either way, I think he’s missing the point, don’t you? The act, whatever it’s called, whether it’s a gesture to the climate-change fanatics or to ordinary folk who are worried about inflation, is still a gesture, a public-relations exercise, albeit a costly one, just as much as Uber Green is. The one thing we know it will do is take on hundreds of billions of dollars in new government debt, added to the trillions already taken on since 2020.
Another thing it does is remind us, by its appeal to the media’s long-running climate-change narrative, that the power of the media lies much more in what it doesn’t say than in what it does. Forget for the moment the saga of Hunter Biden’s laptop, the news of which might easily have changed the result of the 2020 presidential election and saved all those billions in new debt but for a discreet call to Mark Zuckerberg from the fbi suggesting that he “should be on high alert” against the interference of “Russian propaganda” in the election campaign then reaching its critical stage—a warning which Mr. Zuckerberg understood to refer to the laptop story and the Biden family corruption it revealed. Or would have revealed if he hadn’t taken the warning to heart and played down or suppressed the story on Facebook.
But the suppression of news that doesn’t fit the media narrative is usually much more subtle than this. At a time when, for example, the British political parties were congratulating themselves on depriving voters of an alternative to such radical environmentalist measures as “Net Zero” carbon emissions by 2050, you would have sought in vain in the media for a word of alarm about the inevitable “energy crisis” that such measures would eventually produce and that is now upon the country, along with the rest of Europe. Boris Johnson, whom I last wrote about in these pages in the spring (see “World-shaking events” in The New Criterion of March 2022), has now become one of the kingdom’s six living ex–prime ministers at least in part because he believed not only that it shouldn’t cost extra to go green but also that it wouldn’t cost extra. That, surely, was the intended message when he misquoted Kermit the Frog to the United Nations General Assembly last year to the effect that “it’s easy, being green.”
If at around the same time he had been reading the Letters columns of The Daily Telegraph, the paper for which he used to write during his career as a journalist, he would have been under no such illusions. Day after day, week after week in those pages, and months before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which is now getting most of the blame for it, today’s “energy crisis” was foreshadowed as ordinary people bewailed their inability to pay their increased fuel bills. And that was before the latest round of price increases, which will make it even more difficult for all but the well-to-do to keep warm this winter. Turns out that it’s easy being green only if you do it as Uber does, with merely symbolic gestures. Yet even now, when the energy crisis has become unignorable, Mr. Johnson has left office urging his fellow countrymen not to give up on green energy. And from all over the British media, from the Telegraph to The Guardian, voices have been raised urging people not to blame Net Zero when they’re bankrupt and freezing this winter. Ed Davey, now the leader of the Liberal Democrats but formerly energy secretary in the coalition government of 2010–15, announced to the Telegraph on the eve of the Tories’ election of a new leader that “I’m very proud that you’re looking at the person who basically stopped the fracking industry in this country.” Moreover, he told the Telegraph “his party would run on an anti-fracking platform against the Conservatives in by-elections and at the next general election if the next Tory leader tried to resume the drilling as prime minister.”
That Tory leader and Mr. Johnson’s successor as prime minister will be Liz—apparently no one ever calls her Elizabeth—Truss, who has suggested that she might be willing to lift the moratorium on fracking, even as she has yet to disown the Net Zero plan. Even so, Mr. Davey appears to think it an electoral winner to campaign against increasing the supply and thus lowering the price of gas. He might as well have announced that the Lib Dems will henceforth scorn to accept the votes of anyone outside their own voter base of green progressives rich enough or fanatical enough not to care about a doubling of energy prices, the life of the planet being at stake and all, but perhaps there are more of such people in Britain than I imagine. Like Uber but perhaps without the cynicism, they cling to a belief that “choosing to go green shouldn’t cost extra.”
In Britain the exclusive attachment to “renewables” is beginning to look like the country’s blind belief in the virtue of its ramshackle National Health Service, which is now also in a state of collapse, as faithfully recorded every day on the Letters page of the Telegraph. Both beliefs are seemingly impervious to the unhappy experience that might have taught a less superstitious nation to try something different. But to the Left in Britain, as in America, the green ideology seems to be a sort of addiction, since they struggle so mightily to rationalize their and their country’s need for it, and their own refusal to get off it.
Here’s another reason why the whole country appears to be stuck in a moral and intellectual rut that it can’t get out of. The implied corollary of “it’s easy, being green” is that “it’s perverse, and perhaps wicked, not being green.” If there’s no cost to doing the right thing, why, apart from sheer malice, would anyone do otherwise? Once you’ve put yourself on the side of the good guys, it becomes unthinkable to abandon it for those you have spent your life representing as bad guys.
Thus, too, decades of reporting on prospective environmental disasters many years into the future must have blinded many in the media to economic disasters that their countermeasures are producing in the here and now. Even when these immediate crises are upon them, many politicians and media folk can’t see them, or their own part in creating them. That, at least, is the generous interpretation of their obtuseness. The not-so-generous one is that the hypothetical future disasters are deliberately exaggerated in order to make the present-day disasters more acceptable and voters more willing to stay the environmentalist course, as Boris Johnson has urged them to do.
Here is one of many ways we have lately learned that the power of the media is less in their carefully crafted narratives, designed to further a particular political party or point of view, than it is in their power to create, by giving attention to some things at the expense of others, a disproportionate sense of concern about dangers and difficulties ahead, even among those who never pay attention to the media. Thus the media’s alarmism about climate change has been much less successful at creating such alarm among ordinary people than their lack of alarm about unaffordable energy prices has been at lulling those people into a false sense of security—at least until the price rises actually take effect. Surely, it must be supposed, somebody from among the intelligentsia, the class of “experts” revered by the media, would have sounded the alarm by now if there were anything to worry about.
But nobody did until the disaster was upon them—and not many of the favored media elite even then. They had and have too much invested in the rival narrative about something much worse to worry over decades from now than a mere energy crisis today. Accordingly, as that crisis begins to intensify, so too must their stress on the apallingness, the horrificity, of the environmental Armageddon to come. What is a real and not-hypothetical disaster to much of the middle class and below but was little more than a nuisance to the ruling class and their media allies has to be seen only in terms of the apocalypse that the suffering of the lower orders today might yet enable them to survive. Ah, the beauty of perspective, particularly if you yourself are well protected from the merely real and present pain of those who can’t afford to heat their homes.
As it happened, the sudden alarm over the newly perceived energy crisis in Britain coincided with revelations of a similar dynamic that took place during the lockdown of 2020–21. “Little by little the truth of lockdown is being admitted,” wrote Jonathan Sumption for the (London) Sunday Times at the end of August: “it was a disaster.” Lord Sumption, a former Supreme Court justice, was one of the few saying such things early on in the pandemic, but others in both Britain and the United States are now beginning to come forward as well—some of whom had been among the most enthusiastic lockdowners. Josh Shapiro, the attorney general of Pennsylvania who is now running for governor, was one of the most zealous of these. “Publicly,” Reason reports, “Shapiro encouraged Pennsylvanians to report their neighbors for violating those lockdowns. Professionally, he went to state and federal courts (as was his duty as attorney general) to assert [Governor Tom] Wolf’s authority to issue those shutdown orders. Now that he’s running for governor, however, Shapiro says that he was privately against it all.”
It’s all part of the rich comedy of American political life, to be sure, but when the media, instead of reporting on that comedy, lends itself to the propaganda effort of the state by exaggerating the dangers that only the state is supposed to be able to save us from, we are well on our way to a much more serious danger than anything that either the climate or viruses can throw at us: that of a tyrannical one-party state. Lockdown provided a glimpse of what that tyranny would look like, and so had to be justified in the most extravagant terms by the media, backed up by a bevy of experts whose identification of themselves with “Science,” excited in many, perhaps a majority in America as in Britain, a terror of certain death lurking just outside our front doors. The danger of the virus had to be exaggerated beyond all reason in order to mask the much more real dangers—in untreated illnesses of other kinds, in unopened schools and uneconomic businesses, in lonely lives and lost livelihoods as well as authoritarian government—of the measures taken to combat it.
The same dynamic has been at work in the exaggeration of the dangers of police shootings of unarmed black men to justify hobbling the police and furthering the other destructive goals and objectives of Black Lives Matter and Antifa. Likewise, the media have all but universally accepted the Democrats’ linguistic legerdemain in elevating the Capitol riot of January 6, 2021, to the level of an “insurrection”—in order, of course, to justify the continued persecution and legal jeopardy both of Donald Trump and of those who supported his claims of a “stolen” election.
Once you see what the post-Rutenbergian media are up to in cases like these, you begin to see it everywhere, and soon it becomes the new normal. Only seven years ago it would have been unthinkable for a president of the United States to declare publicly that his chief political rival and his supporters “represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic . . . the very soul of this country.”
And here, in my view [said President Biden], is what is true: MAGA Republicans do not respect the Constitution. They do not believe in the rule of law. They do not recognize the will of the people. They refuse to accept the results of a free election. And they’re working right now, as I speak, in state after state to give power to decide elections in America to partisans and cronies, empowering election deniers to undermine democracy itself.
And all this represents something of a retreat from a few days earlier when he called the creed of these same maga extremists “semi-fascism.”
Here, in my view, is what is true. Mr. Biden doesn’t really believe any of this. He just needs an excuse, already provided for him by the extreme rhetoric of years of the media’s anti-Trumpism, for his own suspension of the rule of law and his employment of the Justice Department and fbi to seek, by any means and under any pretext necessary, a criminal prosecution and, with it, the total discrediting of a former president. Such an outrage on our constitutional democracy can only be justified, if it can be justified, by making Mr. Trump and those who support him out to be an even greater outrage. The king over the water in Mar-a-Lago must appear to be so extreme in his “threat to democracy” that Mr. Biden’s own quite unprecedented extremism may appear to be justified by the comparison.
That’s the way the media rolls, anyway. And now it’s the way good old Uncle Sam rolls too.
Mr. Bowman is well known for his writing on honor, including his book, Honor: A History and “Whatever Happened to Honor,” originally delivered as one of the prestigious Bradley Lectures at the American Enterprise Institute in 2002, and republished (under the title “The Lost Sense of Honor”) in The Public Interest.
John Martin, The Deluge, 1834, Oil on canvas, Paul Mellon Collection, Yale Center for British Art.