Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

Custom Search

© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

When you’re hot…

I don’t mean to undermine or criticize anyone else’s religious beliefs, but it’s still a bit annoying when someone goes preaching right and left about how I and everyone else should be living more virtuously and making me feel guilty about my behavior. Especially when the person doing the preaching doesn’t seem much more virtuous than I do. And when he exhorts everyone else to stop sinning and live a simpler, more virtuous life, but he’s living in a big mansion, apparently earning plenty of money off his preaching activities. But enough about Al Gore.

Okay, that was kind of a cheap shot. But I am fascinated by the way some conservatives, who themselves have been accused mixing religion and politics, have been quick to accuse Gore and other environmentally concerned individuals of preaching a new religion. I alluded to this more than a year ago when I referenced Michael Crichton’s famous speech comparing the environmental movement to a religion. What we seem to have here, in the criticisms of Gore & co., is people for whom faith is frequently very important criticizing other people for having faith in something. But, in this case, they are actually right. Climate change is a scientific issue that can and should be debated on scientific merits and not on blind faith. Adopting the tactic of calling environmentalism a religion is a very smart tactic, as it rhetorically turns the tables on its adherents, allowing them to be criticized in the way that social conservatives sometimes are. A similar turnabout has also been tried in the question of creationism (or intelligent design or whatever it’s called) versus evolution by trying to repackage creationism as science, or a scientific theory, rather than a faith-based belief system.

Criticisms of Gore also evoke another tried-and-true rhetorical tactic: combating the message by tarring the messenger. Sure, there seems to be a bit of hypocrisy in the fact that Gore’s lifestyle (typical for a political figure of his stature) doesn’t quite jive with his save-the-planet message. But he would be a fool to adopt an 18th-century lifestyle and still try to accomplish anything in the political arena. And therein lies the problem of a message that, let’s face it, is not cost free to the developed world’s economies and, ultimately, implies some rolling back of western economic development. And, just as evangelical leaders who preach their own brand of personal morality come in for extra examination and ridicule when they are shown to have not practiced what they have preached, so will Gore and other prominent spokespeople on climate change. Even better than the carbon footprint of Gore’s Nashville mansion, however, are some of the things that Hollywood types come up with. One of my favorite stories about the Academy Awards ceremony was the one about the famously lavish goodie bags for attendees, which included vouchers for carbon offsets so that the bearers could continue their modern lifestyles unchanged and guilt-free. But—and here’s the important point—does hypocrisy have any bearing on whether what any of these people say about climate is true? Of course not.

I’ll tell you what does annoy me about the whole Gore-at-the-Oscars thing. (And then I’ll try to move on because, after all, the Oscars are so last month.) I thought it was bad when everyone kept referring to An Inconvenient Truth as “Al Gore’s movie,” but since the Academy Awards it has gotten worse. I can’t count how many times I have heard reporters and commentators refer to “Al Gore’s Oscar” or how “Al Gore won an Oscar.” It’s an easy mistake. He did go up on stage and take the statuette in his hand, and he did thank everyone. This during a ceremony where people who actually do win Oscars get no chance to say anything on stage if their collaborator takes more than 15 seconds saying her thank-yous first. Jay Leno even got a good joke out of it, quipping that “poor Al Gore” had his Oscar taken away the next day by the Supreme Court.

But the fact remains that Al Gore, while the sole and exclusive focus of the documentary, was not its producer or director. He was not the actual recipient of the Oscar. The fact that everyone thinks he was tells us tons about why his, I mean, the movie won. The award was simply not for the quality of the filmmaking. It was for the film’s subject and message. As a documentary, the film was not so much a historical or social examination or a work of journalism but, rather, a concert film. Director Davis Guggenheim and producer Laurie David undertook their project as uncritically as, say, Jonathan Demme did when filming Talking Heads for Stop Making Sense. Or, as I suggested a fortnight ago, since the film’s subject was not a musician or comedian, the film essentially qualifies as an infomercial. Not that there’s anything wrong with a good infomercial. But maybe I’m confused, but I always thought that the Academy Awards, at least in theory, were for artistic achievement. Such an award certainly gives plenty of ammunition to those conservatives who decry the Oscars as a thinly veiled forum for exclusively liberal causes. Their argument would get further fuel from the fact that Melissa Etheridge’s innocuous “I Need to Wake Up” won the Oscar for Best song. While certainly more melodic than last year’s winner (“It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp”), it’s hard to argue that it was really better than the three songs from Dreamgirls or Randy Newman’s “Our Town” from Cars.

Now it’s hard to get too upset by any of this. All kinds of Oscars are given out for all kinds of reasons that don’t have anything to do with pure artistic quality. Veteran actors get awards for not-so-memorable movies to make up for past slights, and costume designers (for example) sometimes get awards because people just really liked the movie they worked on. This sort of thing explains why lots of us don’t take the Oscars seriously as a benchmark of artistic film quality but still watch to see what fool thing happens next.

But the debate over global warming (and contrary to some, there is a debate going on) also raises some journalistic questions. I am a pretty faithful listener of National Public Radio’s On the Media, and a few times the hosts have broached a worrying question to various journalism academics and reporters. The question goes something like this: is the public always served better by journalism which gives equal time to two sides of a public debate or should journalistic coverage signal when the debate is effectively settled and one side is no longer worth listening to? The two examples that are always put forth with this question are intelligent design and global warming. I get nervous when people (especially journalists) start suggesting that certain points of view are no longer worth listening to or giving a forum to. I don’t know much about intelligent design, except that it is commonly described as a way of trying to get religious creationism taught in public schools. Personally, I think evolution is pretty much overwhelmingly accepted by most people (we’ve all seen the dinosaur bones), and school curriculums should reflect that fact. But I get uncomfortable when people start saying that intelligent design should not be allowed to be mentioned in schools at all. After all, there was once a time when the “fact” that the sun revolved around the earth was settled science. In the early 1600s, Galileo’s agreement with Copernican theory must have seemed every bit as unlikely as intelligent design does today. That doesn’t mean that I think it will eventually be validated, just that I want to be careful about censoring it. The best antidote to a scientific debate is to do more research and inquiry, not to suppress ideas that seem to be wrong.

Climate change is another kettle of fish. While not many people dispute that the earth’s atmosphere is in a warming trend, there is actually plenty of debate about how fast and immutable the trend is—and to what extent human activity is a factor or can be a factor in reversing it. Strangely, there seems to be a movement among people, most visibly exemplified by Gore and the people who voted him “his” Oscar, to reduce the debate(s) on climate change to the sort of you’re-either-with-us-or-against-us rhetoric that President Bush became known for in the war on terrorism. People in this camp (and some journalists) frequently say that “all scientists now agree” that global warming is happening and is man-made. Last month Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman wrote, “Let’s just say that global warming deniers are now on a par with Holocaust deniers, though one denies the past and the other denies the present and future.” If a statement like that doesn’t seem intended to chill debate on a major issue, I don’t know what does. Frankly, if expert opinion is unanimous, then columnists and actors shouldn’t have to work so hard to convince me that their view is true. Skeptics like to point out that many of the cited scientists rely on government funding for studying climate change and that there might be at least a subconscious disincentive to proclaim their work as less than totally urgent. And just last month a man named Henk Tennekesis, who was forced into early retirement as director of research at the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute for not following climate change orthodoxy, had an opinion piece in the reliably liberal Irish Times pointing out all kinds of problems he saw in computer model climate projections and, in particular, excoriating Al Gore for alarmism.

Obviously, I don’t know who is right and wrong in all this, and I won’t pretend that I do. But I do know that a real debate is going on, even if one side is trying to enforce the view that it is not. But it’s easy to understand why they would want to. When you’re trying to save the world, it’s annoying to have to spend precious time justifying your position. And by creating an atmosphere of crisis, it is easier to pressure politicians into taking action. Just ask George W. Bush. But although the Bush administration may have worried a bunch of congressmen into authorizing a war that they would later regret, I think it is safe to say that Bush will never win an Oscar.

-S.L., 15 March 2007

If you would like to respond to this commentary or to anything else on this web site, please send a message to Messages sent to this address will be considered for publishing on the Feedback Page without attribution. (That means your name, email address or anything else that might identify you won’t be included.) Messages published will be at my discretion and subject to editing. But I promise not to leave something out just because it’s unflattering.

If you would like to send me a message but not have it considered for publishing, you can send it to

Commentaries Archive