Values in 21st Century Conservation and Politics

Stuart Lowrie

Sunday, June 19, 2005 – 

“My faith has been the driving thing of my life. I think it is important that people who are perceived as liberals not be afraid of talking about moral and community values.” – Marian Wright Edelman, founder of Children’s Defense Fund

[Gong] Please hold silence after the bell so all may enjoy the start of worship

Prelude

Opening Words “On Values”

As I have contemplated this topic, I’ve been challenged over and over by the intrinsic vagueness of the concept of values. So, I offer here a few quotes that have, like the blind men describing the elephant, helped me see different qualities of that idea: values.

“All media exist to invest our lives with artificial perceptions and arbitrary values” from Marshall McLuhan

From the Dalai Llama:

“Open your arms to change, but don’t let go of your values.”

OR

“Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil.” From C.S. Lewis.

“Nothing makes it easier to resist temptation than a proper bringing-up, a sound set of values – and witnesses.” From Franklin P. Jones.

Gloria Steinem got to the heart of the matter when she said:

“We can tell our values by looking at our checkbook stubs.”

*Opening Hymn Hymn # 65 – The Sweet June Days

Good Morning and Welcome to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the South Fork and our June 19th Sunday Service.

For those of you new to our congregation, you may sign the guest book on the table in the back by the street entrance to the sanctuary. If you give us a legible name and address, we’ll send you a few months of our newsletter so that you can learn more about the life of this congregation and join us for events that interest you.

We hope that all will stay after for our coffee hour and fellowship immediately following the service. This period of time will, however, be quite truncated as we will move quickly into our Annual Meeting today after the service is over.

Again, welcome to all on this fine June morning!

These sweet June Days have felt alternately like the humid Dog Days of August and the crisp fall days of October.

Still, June is a sweet month, with celebrations abounding and the disappointments of a cool soggy east end Spring finally dropping behind us.

For our culture, it is the month of marriages and wedding celebrations; it is also the month in 1969 when a small band of homosexuals, cross dressers and the transgendered dared to fight back against police at the Stonewall Bar on Christopher Street in NYC setting the stage for gay liberation that still echoes and grows around the world. After 24 years together, a shared mortgage and two children, my partner Ken Dorph and I will finally get married in Canada next week; you can be sure that we’ll be poignantly aware of the remarkable intersection of tradition and liberation this June as we say our marriage vows and sign our marriage license.

Today, many of us celebrate Father’s Day which apparently had its origins in Spokane, Washington, when Sonora Smart Dodd, inspired by a Mother’s Day sermon, decided to promote a special day that would honor her father, William Jackson Smart, who had raised her and her five siblings after the death of their mother. She held the first Father’s Day celebration on the 19th of June 1910, on the birthday of her father. The idea caught on and by 1924, even President Calvin Coolidge supported the idea of a national Father’s Day after being petitioned by Dodd.

It took another thirty years for a Joint Resolution of Congress to give federal recognition to Father’s Day. And it was not until 1972, that President Richard Nixon signed federal legislation officially setting the third Sunday of June as the national observance of Father’s Day.

Also in June, we observe the Summer Solstice, a central pivot of our calendar year. The moment of the solstice arrives this year at 2:46 AM Eastern DST, on Tuesday, June 21st. At that moment, the sun reaches its farthest northerly position in the sky, appearing directly overhead of the Tropic of Cancer. Each day that follows the Summer Solstice will be a bit shorter than the one before it in the northern hemisphere of our planet. At the north pole, the sun will have reached its maximum height in the polar sky, about 23 degrees above the horizon. And, across the northern hemisphere, we can at last say that Summer has begun.

Lighting the Chalice

Flame of fire, spark of the universe

That warmed our ancestral hearth

Agent of life and death,

Symbol of truth and freedom.

We strive to understand ourselves

And our earthly home.

Congregational Reading

# 466 – Religion

Sharing of Joys, Sorrows and Concerns

Please be mindful of time so that all who may wish to speak might do so.

Words for All Ages – Stuart Lowrie

Offering, Helping Hand Fund and Offertory

Announcements of the Life of the Congregation

Reading

The words of John F Kennedy:

“We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.”

Musical Response

A Time of Prayer and Meditation – Words of Meditation

From Margaret Meade:

If we are to achieve a richer culture, rich in contrasting values, we must recognize the whole gamut of human potentialities, and so weave a less arbitrary social fabric, one in which each diverse gift will find a fitting place.”

Silence

Hymn: #170, We are a Gentle Angry People, verses 2 and 5 only

Presentation: “Values in 21st Century Conservation and Politics”

These words come from the preface to Thomas Frank’s 2004 book, “What’s the Matter With Kansas?”

“From the air-conditioned heights of a suburban office complex this [time in the history of our country] may look like a new age of reason, with Web sites singing each to each, with a mall down the way that every week has miraculously anticipated our subtly shifting tastes, with a global economy whose rich rewards just keep flowing, and with a long parade of rust free Infiniti’s purring down the streets of beautifully manicured planned communities. But on closer inspection the country seems more like a panorama of madness and delusion worthy of Hieronymous Bosch: of sturdy blue-collar patriots reciting the Pledge of Allegiance while they strangle their own life chances; of small farmers proudly voting themselves off the land; of devoted family men carefully seeing to it that their children will never be able to afford college or proper health care; of working-class guys in Midwestern cities cheering as they deliver up a landslide for a candidate whose policies will end their way of life, will transform their region into a “rust belt”, will strike people like them a blow from which they will never recover.”

Like many of you, I emerged from the ashes of the presidential election of 2004 angered, confused and alienated by what I had seen and read. Despite the fact that a majority of Americans questioned the wisdom of the war in Iraq, considered the economy to be in trouble, and disagreed with the right wing on most social issues, Bush was re-elected.

So, naturally, I asked a political consultant friend of mine, who had just helped me win a couple of major Long Island conservation ballot campaigns in that same election, to tell me what had happened. He suggested that I read Frank’s brilliant and frightening book.

So I did. And, for any of you that have still not read this volume, be sure that you do before the mid-term elections of 2006 get too much closer. In it Frank forcefully articulates the concept of a “working class” backlash against liberal targets – many of which don’t exist, except in the minds of “true backlash believers.” Among other ideas, Frank expounds on what he calls the “latte liberal”: conservatives have successfully created a stereotype of the wealthy, elite, liberal, intellectual, East Coast latte-drinking, Ivy league know-it-all to blame for anything that they dislike in politics or business.

The stereotype needs very little modification to include any objectionable outcome: “liberal, elitist activist East Coast intellectual judges” for example – and gains in “believability” through constant repetition on Fox News and other similarly objective media outlets. Reality is not reality any longer – perception is reality. And backlash politics is all about perception and not at all about reality.

As Frank puts it,

“In its implacable bitterness Kansas holds up a mirror to the rest of us. If this is the place where America goes looking for its national soul, then this is where America finds that its soul, after stewing in the primal resentments of the backlash, has gone all sour and wrong. If Kansas is the concentrated essence of normality, then here is where we can see the deranged gradually become normal, where we look into that handsome, confident, reassuring, all-American face – class president, quarterback, Rhodes scholar, bond trader, builder of industry – and realize that we are staring into the eyes of a lunatic.”

Where there is the negative stereotype to serve as a whipping boy for every imagined or real transgression, there is also a vision of the way people in Kansas are supposed to be: “part of one big authentic family, basking in the easy solidarity of patriotism, hard work and the universal ability to sow soybeans in a field.”

Neither perception has much merit in the real world. It’s really much more complex. Nevertheless, we do ourselves a great disservice to imagine that this “backlash vision” of America and its parallel view of liberal elite east coast intellectual latte drinkers that corrupt America is a mere annoyance without the power to alter our future.

In this backlash world, it is easy to see how big government, liberal establishment, the homosexual agenda and abortion all end up painted with the same brush. Any government control is by its very nature evil and totalitarian – part of the trilateral commission’s goal to control the world. But opposing big government means opposing taxes, it means supporting big business and a capitalist mythology that ignores the excesses of Enron and Worldcom (but those can all be safely blamed on the liberal east coast intellectual elite latte drinking Ivy-league parasites …) The opportunities for mischief boggle the mind. And so, in the incredible topsy-turvy world of 21st century politics in America, we see the working class voting AGAINST its own economic interests.

Frank’s very readable book tells us the story of the changes through the political fortunes and lives of notable conservatives in Kansas. And he points a finger of culpability at the wealthy Koch Industries. The founder of the dynasty, Fred Koch, was a charter member of the John Birch Society. His billionaire son founded the libertarian Cato Institute. Koch money supported the presidential campaigns of George W. Bush … But Koch Industries has spent massive amounts of money sustaining the infrastructure of conservative communications. More about that in a moment.

What Frank’s book didn’t do was explain exactly how a libertarian state, with left-leaning populist antecedents became so viciously conservative in less than a generation. It’s hard to imagine someone as liberal as Bob Dole getting elected to office there now. Still, what was the magic ingredient present here (and seemingly in all those red states) that turned the brains of ordinary thoughtful people into mush?

On the heels of reading “What’s the Matter with Kansas” I ran into another interesting paper called, “The Death of Environmentalism”. As an environmentalist for the last 11 years (more than 35, if you count my world view more than my employment), I was surprised to learn that the movement with which I most strongly identified and into which I have poured my life for the last 11 years was dead. Why hadn’t anyone told me before?

I quickly pulled the paper off the internet and read it immediately. What I found there was beyond sobering.

This paper, by two reputable fundraising and polling consultants associated with many environmental causes and organizations, was first distributed in September, 2004, at a meeting of the Environmental Grantmakers Association, major donors to the conservation world. As such, it could be seen in a “self-serving” light with the subtext being, “Fund our initiative instead”. Both authors are part of a “breakthrough” approach to conservation called “the New Apollo Project”, that has yet to “break through”.

Despite strident criticisms, there is much to ponder here. Taken as part of a larger political picture, the situation that Shellenberger and Nordhaus describe for conservation early in the 21st Century, has many parallels in the failure of other, traditionally “liberal”, causes. In particular, their paper has strong echoes of “What’s the Matter with Kansas”, Frank’s book published at about the same time.

To build their paper, Shellenberger and Nordhaus interviewed 28 of the country’s leading environmentalists and progressives. They distilled the essence of these conversations, filtered it through their own perspectives and launched the present paper. It’s worth noting that several of those interviewed to create this paper have since criticized the questions asked and have disowned the results as narrow and distorted.

Approach:

Using the continuing failure of the environmental movement to obtain any meaningful US concessions to mitigate “global warming” through reduced greenhouse gas emissions, Shellenberger and Nordhaus build a blistering critique of the state of environmentalism in general.

Points Made:

Even the harshest critics have conceded that Shellenberger and Nordhaus make several valid points (even as they admit that, these same environmental voices are quick to point out that Shellenberger and Nordhaus’s observations are not “new” and that “my organization has already started to address these very criticisms” – these might be read as disingenuous comments at best).

Herewith some of the points made and accepted:

The current environmental movement has NOT adequately motivated public concerns and VALUES to make a significant difference in legislative outcomes. Put another way, politicians have not been forced to confront the need for basic changes in the way we deal with our environment, especially with respect to greenhouse gas emissions.

The failure to motivate the public on environmental issues is related to a common set of failings which afflict the “liberal” agenda and social progressives in general – they point to polling results that show a national edging away from environmentalism (eg. “Pollution is necessary to preserve jobs” agreeing in 1992 – 17%, agreeing in 2004 – 29%.)

The right-wing/conservative movement has energized its faithful through the savvy marketing of values first, issues second. Environmentalists have tried to push issues and technical “fixes”, devoid of any linkage to the values of their constituents – this has allowed their efforts to be successfully excoriated as “special interests” by the conservative right.

The environmental movement has failed to effectively join forces with other progressive concerns (workers rights – unions, liberal religious communities, basic health care needs) in a way that helps link all together as part of a more powerful coalition pushing a comprehensive vision for the environmentally sustainable future.

Often, environmentalists propose “solutions” to environmental problems as though politics didn’t matter. Why shoot for a particular technological fix if it’s a political loser?

Environmentalism is dead because it could never match the right’s power to narrate a compelling vision of America’s future.

Environmentalism is essentially “progressive” politics and that fixing the progressive or “liberal” political approach is also needed if we are to gain traction for environmental values and issues.

Environmentalists have failed to make a compelling positive economic argument to underpin their arguments for policy changes.

The Nordhaus & Shellenberger dissection of environmentalism and Frank’s narrative on what ails Kansas all come together in the manifestation of the “backlash” stereotype. Environmentalism fails because it has not inoculated itself against the charge of being another “special interest” of the liberal, intellectual, elite, east coast, latte drinking power structure of this country.

In a fair and thoughtful world where dialogue and good will prevail, the facts of an issue should drive us towards the correct solution. So, for example, we could agree that poisoning our sole source of drinking water – the aquifer under our feet, is a bad idea and we should take steps to prevent and reverse that damage. The scientific perspective is to experimentally verify what levels of pollutants represent real dangers to us and to say that we now have to meet these pollution standards to assure public health and safety. If we know that 5 micrograms of mercury per liter of drinking water is safe but more than that negatively affects your health, then we ask industry and government to clean up our drinking water supplies to that standard. Industry and government review the data, agree, and comply.

In the world we have now entered, that approach – here’s the issue, here are the facts – would get you railroaded out of the dialogue as a “special interest”. You’d be tarred and feathered as a liberal, elite, east coast latte drinker, and even the “facts” that you believe are on your side, would be discounted and challenged as the biased evidence of the special interest. Just think about the continuing effort surfacing around the country (especially in Kansas) to purge evolution from our science curriculum. Biologists know that the theory of evolution is as reliable and well-verified as Newton’s theory of gravity. Who disputes gravity? And who disputes evolution?

Shellenberger and Nordhaus hit on another answer, though, to the problem of why a majority of us believe one set of things yet vote another way: values. The approach taken by the right wing conservatives leads from a premise of shared values. Their language about issues implies their underlying values and they are not afraid to talk about all kinds of values as they relate to various issues that confront us. And they are not afraid to talk about the sources of those values: a poisoned version of Judeo-Christian theology that leaves out love in favor of control, punishment and discipline.

At that point in my reading, I shared my thoughts with a pollster that I use for my professional work – together with media consultants and environmental organizations – our polling data have helped us secure over $1.5 billion dollars for conservation on Long Island over the last 9 years. So I trusted his opinion.

He sent me his own paper and suggested that I GOOGLE George Lakoff for more background thoughts on values versus issues.

George Lakoff is a UC Berkeley professor of linguistics and cognitive science. In 2000 Lakoff and seven other faculty members from Berkeley and UC Davis joined together to found the Rockridge Institute, one of the few progressive think tanks in existence in the U.S. The institute offers its expertise and research on a nonpartisan basis to help progressives understand how best to get their messages across. The Richard & Rhoda Goldman Distinguished Professor in the College of Letters & Science, Lakoff is the author of “Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think,” first published in 1997 and reissued in 2002, as well as several other books on how language affects our lives.

George Lakoff said in an interview in 2004, ” … within traditional liberalism you have a history of rational thought that was born out of the Enlightenment: all meanings should be literal, and everything should follow logically. So if you just tell people the facts, that should be enough – the truth shall set you free. All people are fully rational, so if you tell them the truth, they should reach the right conclusions. That, of course, has been a disaster.”

When the facts of the matter no longer matter, we’re in dangerous waters … The truth won’t set you free. Reality is not reality. Perception is reality.

What’s happened here that enables conservatives to drive their minority agenda so effectively?

George Lakoff sums it up in his comments about the failure of the Democratic Party:

“Right now the Democratic Party is into marketing. They pick a number of issues like prescription drugs and Social Security and ask which ones sell best across the spectrum, and they run on those issues. They have no moral perspective, no general values, no identity. People vote their identity, they don’t just vote on the issues, and Democrats don’t understand that.”

People vote on the basis of their values.

What does that mean, exactly?

First, though, what do I mean by “values”?

“A principle, standard, or quality considered worthwhile or desirable:”

In America, standard values or “qualities considered worthwhile or desirable” would certainly include: fairness and a “level playing field”, hard work, democratic traditions; rights of the individual, wisdom of our founding fathers, patriotism, personal safety, personal responsibility, among many others that you could name in a heartbeat, I’m sure.

These values form our identity as a country, and to a profound extent, they form and influence our identity as individuals. They don’t all carry the same weight, of course, but form a collective core of values from which each of us reacts to the world and the issues with which the world confronts us.

Lakoff goes on to explain that conservatives DO understand the importance of values and the importance of choosing language that embodies values when talking about issues:

“Conservatives have spent decades defining their ideas, carefully choosing the language with which to present them, and building an infrastructure to communicate them”, says Lakoff.” According to New York Times Magazine, quoting Paul Weyrich, who started the Heritage Foundation, they have 1,500 conservative radio talk show hosts [around the country]. They have a huge, very good operation, and they understand their own moral system. They understand what unites conservatives, and they understand how to talk about it, and they are constantly updating their research on how best to express their ideas.

“They have a guy named Frank Luntz, [a very sought-after Republican Pollster] who puts out a 500-page manual every year that goes issue by issue on what the logic of the position is from the Republican side, what the other guys’ logic is, how to attack it, and what language to use. So they stay on message.

The work has paid off: by dictating the terms of national debate, conservatives have put progressives firmly on the defensive. In the words of Lakoff: “Conservatives, especially conservative think tanks, have framed virtually every issue from their perspective. They have put a huge amount of money into creating the language for their worldview and getting it out there. Progressives have done virtually nothing. They don’t understand what it is they have to be doing.”

Lakoff says that: “the progressive worldview is modeled on a nurturant parent family. Briefly, it assumes that the world is basically good and can be made better and that one must work toward that. Children are born good; parents can make them better. Nurturing involves empathy, and the responsibility to take care of oneself and others for whom we are responsible. On a larger scale, specific issues and policies follow, such as governmental protection in form of a social safety net and government regulation, universal education (to ensure competence, fairness), civil liberties and equal treatment (fairness and freedom), accountability (derived from trust), public service (from responsibility), open government (from open communication), and the promotion of an economy that benefits all and functions to promote these values, which are traditional progressive values in American politics.

The conservative worldview, the strict father model, assumes that the world is dangerous and difficult and that children are born bad and must be made good. The strict father is the moral authority who supports and defends the family, tells his wife what to do, and teaches his kids right from wrong. The only way to do that is through painful discipline – physical punishment that by adulthood will become internal discipline. The good people are the disciplined people. Once grown, the self-reliant, disciplined children are on their own. Those children who remain dependent (who were spoiled, overly willful, or recalcitrant) should be forced to undergo further discipline or be cut free with no support to face the discipline of the outside world.

This is a pretty stark reading of how progressives and conservatives differ, but I’m sure that it resonates for most of us.

Finally, it also helps explain how lower class and middle class Kansas voters can oppose abortion, gay rights, health care and social security and support the death penalty, lower taxes, less government and the Patriot Act.

The effectiveness of the conservative agenda at linking these values to their specific issues and policies delivers the electoral majority by getting people to vote against their own economic interests when they vote in favor of the larger picture of values and principles that they share.

People vote their values.

If we believe that the main thrusts of Frank, Norhaus and Shellenberger and Lakoff are pretty much on target, then, we’re left with a few key questions (drawn in part from an excellent editorial in Grist Magazine of January 13, 2005):

  • What can progressives do to connect with the “kitchen-table issues” of ordinary folk?
  • What should progressives have as their “vision” and how can we communicate it effectively? Imagine if Martin Luther King had given a speech entitled, “I Have a Nightmare”. That’s essentially what environmentalists and other progressives have been doing for 25 years.
  • How can we work harder, better, smarter with other “progressive” allies and partners to achieve that vision?
  • (as a subquestion of 1., above) How can progressives and the environmental movement expand its membership and engage participation beyond the usual racial and socioeconomic profile?

Looking back at the list of faults that Shellenberger and Nordaus lobbed at the environmental movement, there are plenty of directions that can be taken to reclaim the high road.

  • Market our shared values first, mold them on to issues second
  • effectively join forces with other progressive concerns (workers rights – unions, liberal religious communities, basic health care needs) in a way that helps link all together as part of a more powerful coalition
  • narrate a compelling vision of America’s future
  • make a compelling positive economic argument to underpin arguments for policy changes
  • fearlessly talk as progressives about community and moral values

Let’s come back to that values thing again. I defined values as “A principle, standard, or quality considered worthwhile or desirable”. Shared values would be principles, standards or qualities considered worthwhile and desirable by many diverse people.

Look in front of me – here are seven principles that we all affirm, by our association as Unitarian Universalists. These are our values. Our shared values. And, I dare say, that these values, in one form or another, are shared by a majority of Americans. In these shared values, these principles, there must exist the power to unlock the grip of fear and dread upon our nation. We know this is true because, from similar principles and values, the well-disciplined conservative agenda has risen to control by linking its issues to these values.

Despite the near-monopoly that conservatives seem to have on framing discussions about values and issues in our time, we need to remember, ultimately, the majority of Americans disapprove of the current international policies and economic directions taken by our conservative leaders.

As progressives in a land increasingly hostile to liberal dissent, our challenge is to join together and to shape the way we talk about issues through the lens of our values and principles. We can build the case for, as Lakoff puts it, leadership styled after a nurturing parent as opposed to the current leadership style of a stern and disciplinarian parent. We know we can and we know we must.

May it be so.

*Closing Hymn – Hymn # 6 “Just As Long As I Have Breath”

*Extinguishing the Chalice

We extinguish this flame but not

the light of truth

The warmth of community,

Or the fire of commitment.

These we carry in our hearts until

we are together again

*Closing Words “On Values” Reprise

The values by which we are to survive are not rules for just and unjust conduct, but are those deeper illuminations in whose light justice and injustice, good and evil, means and ends are seen in fearful sharpness of outline.”

Jacob Bronowski

Postlude

“Tomorrow” – From the musical “Annie”

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