Czar Wars

WEEK IN REVIEW / by Evan Lerner /

As a TV pundit takes down one of President Obama’s green “czars,” the US figures out how to pay its way back to the Moon and beyond, plus a nerd-rock band declares “Science is Real.”

Illustration: Mike Pick

Last Saturday at midnight, President Obama’s freshly minted “green jobs czar,” Van Jones, became the first casualty in an all-out attack on the administration’s science policy team. Jones had been the subject of a media campaign that questioned his “radical” roots, specifically his participation in a petition that suggested former President George W. Bush allowed the 9/11 attacks to happen. Not wanting to be a “distraction” from Obama’s more pressing problems, Jones resigned from his post. 

Leading the charge against Jones was Fox News golden boy Glenn Beck. In calling Jones out as a conspiracy theorist, Beck launched into his own theory of a secret socialist government takeover, centered on Obama’s team of advisers colloquially known as “czars.” There’s the possibility that Beck’s singling out Jones amongst these “czars” is payback. After Beck called Obama a “racist” with “a deep-seated hatred of white people,” the advocacy group Color of Change, which Jones co-founded, organized a campaign that led to a mass exodus of Beck’s advertisers. 

But while Beck’s targeting of Jones may have had a personal element, Josh Harkinson at Mother Jones points out its deeper roots. Jones’ longtime engagement in issues of race and class are obviously threatening to the Becks of the world; combine those with an environmental mission and you get what Phil Kerpen calls, incredibly, “the watermelon hypothesis.” Kerpen, the policy director of Americans for Prosperity, an advocacy group opposed to climate and health-care reform, says that the environmental movement is green on the outside, but red—as in communist—on the inside.

We’ve already seen similar attempts to impugn the environmental credibility of John Holdren, Obama’s top science adviser. This includes John Tierney’s, which made portentous references to Holdren’s mentor Paul Ehrlich and the specter of population-controlling regulation handed down from on high.

Now that the GOP is out of power, this is how the Republican War on Science is going to be waged. And as Beck said on his Twitter feed, “Van Jones is the tip of the Iceburg [sic].” We already know he’s not the best speller from watching his show, but Twitter provides some insight into his next targets: Cass Sunstein, Carol Browner, and Mark Lloyd.

More telling than the targeting of these three “czars” is Beck’s instructions to his “Watch Dogs.” In addition to exhorting them to “FIND EVERYING YOU CAN” (caps are, of course, in the original), Beck cautions: “Do not link before burning everything to disc.”

For those who don’t speak crazy, let me translate: There is a hidden agenda here that these dangerous autocrats will destroy evidence of if they suspect righteous citizens are on the case. But from the beginning, the fixation on the word “czar” betrays the real intent of Beck’s strategy: positioning people with expert knowledge as enemies of freedom and the common man. This is classic conspiratorial thinking. 

The practice of calling executive employees with long, wonky titles “czars” has been around since the Nixon administration (as Rachel Maddow and our own Ed Brayton ably demonstrate). But if you’re like Sean Hannity, deploying a narrative that describes Jones, Sunstein, and others as officials in a nefarious shadow government serves your worldview, so you establish that conclusion and proceed backwards to any evidence that supports it.

In the end, it all comes back to one’s stance toward the generation of knowledge. Obama’s governing style is deliberative and grounded in practical empiricism, which is why we were one of the first science magazines to endorse him. It’s telling that Beck’s talking point is that Obama’s reliance on experts is evidence of his incompetence, rather than his desire to find the right answers instead of merely expedient ones.

Back to school

The furor surrounding the “czars” is similar to the one surrounding Obama’s speech to the nation’s students, which he made on Tuesday. That is to say, this was a routine presidential activity turned into a political football by couching it as a socialism-inducing conspiracy theory.

The same applies to Obama’s push for expanding AmeriCorps and civil service in general, which he’s been recently promoting with a public service announcement. Here, the conspiracy is that this call for an army of teenage do-gooders is really the first step in establishing an American SS.   

The truly dangerous thing about these conspiracy theories is that they put politicians and columnists in a position of attacking non-existent boogeymen while the details of things that are actually happening fade into the background. For example, one thing that stood out in both Obama’s speech and PSA was the invocation of the Moon landing. It makes sense, considering the recent 40 anniversary and the high-profile mission to fix Hubble. But while mankind’s mission to the moon makes for an inspirational talking point or television spot, it doesn’t seem to have inspired the action necessary to get us back there. 

The action in question is mostly about funding, and as the Augustine Commission reported earlier this week, it will take roughly $30 billion over the next 10 years to do any kind of meaningful human space exploration. Directed to come up with possible funding and development scenarios by the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the independent investigatory panel began by noting that NASA’s existing goals are untenable under its current budget. 

Recognizing this, the commission suggested several “paths” for US space exploration, which involve lowering goals, increasing budgets, or some combination of the two. One of the more intriguing possibilities involved heavily relying on the private space industry to get the necessary equipment into orbit. Who says science is anti-capitalist? 

The sound of science

The next time Obama wants to get through to the kids about the importance of fancy book-learnin’, he might consider installing John Linnell and John Flansburg as co-czars of edutainment. At the helm of the longtime nerd-rock band They Might Be Giants, the two Johns have recently been focusing on children’s music. Their new album, Here Comes Science, was released on Tuesday. 

Featuring tracks like “Science is Real,” “My Brother the Ape,” and “I am a Paleontologist,” the album is deeply immersed in simple admiration for science and the gathering of knowledge. And “Meet the Elements” may have the most profound bridge in children’s music history: “You and I are complicated, but we’re made of elements.” 

Here Comes Science also may be the first music album to be peer-reviewed. The final song is “Why Does the Sun Really Shine?,” a follow-up to “Why Does the Sun Shine?,” a 1959 folk tune they famously covered. The new track corrects some factual errors TMBG’s scientist fans pointed out; the original chorus, “The sun is a mass of incandescent gas,” becomes “The sun is a miasma of incandescent plasma.” When it comes to science education, that’s leading by example.

Originally published September 11, 2009

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