Politics & Policy

Ignorance Is Strength, Dissent Is Treason

Robert Kennedy goes Orwell.

At last weekend’s Live Earth concert in New Jersey, Robert Kennedy, Jr., a spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), charged ExxonMobil and Southern Company with treason, declaring:

The most important thing you can do is to get involved in the political process and get rid of all of these rotten politicians that we have in Washington D.C.—who are nothing more than corporate toadies for companies like Exxon and Southern Company. These villainous companies that consistently put their private financial interest ahead of American interest and ahead of the interest of all of humanity. This is treason and we need to start treating them now as traitors.

The usual punishment for treason is death.

On Neil Cavuto’s show Common Sense, Kennedy insisted that he was accusing of treason only the two corporations he mentioned by name. But that won’t wash. Anyone who collaborates with traitors is also traitorous. Collaborator is just another word for coalition partner. And in Washington, D.C., all politics is coalition politics. Kennedy implicitly accused many individuals and organizations of treason.

Just imagine how Kennedy would conduct a hearing if he ever ends up running a committee of the House or Senate: “Are you now or have you ever been associated with the energy-producing sector of this economy?”

Kennedy’s outburst is just a green variant of what George Orwell, in his famous anti-totalitarian novel, 1984, called “doublespeak.” Big Brother taught that:

War is Peace.

Ignorance is Strength.

Freedom is Slavery.

“Dissent is Treason” would fit in well in that litany — and that is what Kennedy is essentially saying. A similar Orwellian inversion preached these days by global warming catastrophists is: Balance is Bias. This is the claim that journalists mislead the public by interviewing global-warming skeptics or reporting their views, because the skeptics are on a par with Flat Earthers and Holocaust deniers. This is manifestly self-serving, the objective being to ensure that the public hears from only one-side — the Kennedy-Al Gore side.

Kennedy’s doublespeak is New Left politics recycled. Recall that the New Left began by calling itself a college-campus “free speech movement.” However, their M.O. was to shout down opposing speakers, disrupt classrooms, occupy buildings, and in other ways intimidate and silence those who disagreed with them. When those radical students later became tenured professors, they instituted the politically correct speech codes that stifle intellectual diversity on campuses today.

Kennedy in effect demands a nationwide speech code for global warming. Such disdain for the First Amendment could tempt some to call him a traitor — turnabout being fair play in politics — but that would be wrong.

The Constitution defines the crime very narrowly: “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort” (Art III, Sec. 3, emphasis added).

Kennedy is trying to silence his political adversaries by driving the marketplace (politically incorrect energy companies) out of the marketplace of ideas. That may be disloyal to the spirit of the Constitution, but it is not treason. To be guilty of treason, for example, Kennedy would have to become an “American Taliban,” pledge allegiance to Bin Laden, or give aid and comfort to Al Qaeda.

For the same reason, Kennedy’s charge of treason against ExxonMobil and Southern Company is absurd calumny.

However, it would be a mistake to write off Kennedy’s rant as mere bombast or rhetorical excess. It is more likely a window into his belief system. Calling your political opponents traitors makes perfect sense if you see yourself as a combatant in a war. And many eco-activists do seem to view the global warming crusade as a holy war to save the planet, our democracy, even our very souls. Thus, they naturally regard their opponents as villains and traitors.

Yet there is also another, more prosaic explanation. When you cannot sell climate Armageddon and Kyoto on the merits of the case, go ad hominem. Call the other guy a polluter, a corporate toady, a tobacco scientist. Stigmatize policy differences so that nobody dares disagree with you in public. After endlessly ramping up the polemic, you are left with nothing else but to allege treason. When Doctor Johnson said, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel,” this is precisely the sort of tactic he had in mind.

Marlo Lewis is a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

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