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17.12.05

Cultural Theory Hits the Big Time

Neither of them mention Mary Douglas or the grid-group typology explicitly, but both George Will and Amanda Marcotte end up making Cultural Theory arguments in their recent exchange over drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Will starts us off by admitting what I accused drilling proponents of believing back in 2001 (albeit with an added dose of "he started it!"):

... For some people, environmentalism is collectivism in drag. Such people use environmental causes and rhetoric not to change the political climate for the purpose of environmental improvement. Rather, for them, changing the society's politics is the end, and environmental policies are mere means to that end.

... If geologists were to decide that there were only three thimbles of oil beneath area 1002, there would still be something to be said for going down to get them, just to prove that this nation cannot be forever paralyzed by people wielding environmentalism as a cover for collectivism.


Marcotte replies:

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that Will-style conservatives dislike enviromentalism just because of this "collectivism" that he takes a piss on. Natural beauty doesn't have a price tag on it. National parks, blue skies, fucking rows of pansies by the sidewalk--these small pleasures belong to everyone, and, as I've mentioned a time or two before, nothing tees off conservative class warriors like the idea that the rabble should have even a moment's access to things like pleasure that should be reserved solely for the upper classes. Generally speaking, I've pointed this out in regards to conservative advocacy for legislating the bedroom--laws against sodomy and birth control function to partition off sexual pleasure as something that can only be indulged in if you're rich enough to have the cops look the other way. I think the anti-enviromentalism you see emanating from the Bushie-style class warriors is part of this same mentality.


There are two interesting things to note here, though. First is that both Will and Marcotte want to cast their enemy as Hierarchist. While "collectivist" is an egalitarian-sounding word, Will makes it clear that to him, collectivism is all about rule by a statist elite. Marcotte's view of the enemy is crystal clear in the passage I quoted. This goes some way toward supporting the contention, by Richard Ellis and others, that American politics is basically a low-grid battle between Individualists and Egalitarians. The two factions strategically either ally with Hierarchy (to put their preferences into coercive law) or demonize the other as having assimilated to Hierarchy (and hence being anti-freedom).

The other interesting thing is the way both writers portray their opponents (and to some extent Will portrays himself) as disingenuous. To fight over ANWR for political reasons, they assume, means that the substance of the question must be irrelevant. Oil and environmental policy are merely means to the end of restructuring the political climate, not issues worth tackling for their own sake.

This proxy battle thesis is certainly consistent with Cultural Theory, and indeed Will's argument might have come straight from one of the more polemical sections of Risk and Culture had ANWR been an issue in 1982. Nevertheless, Marcotte hints at a more subtle version of the theory, which resembles what the Yale Cultural Cognition team calls "The Wildavsky Heuristic." In the theory of the Wildavsky Heuristic, Egalitarians (for example) would advocate protecting ANWR not just because doing so is collectivistic or advances collectivism in society as a whole (as the simple proxy battle theory would have it) or because they have objectively analyzed the consequences of drilling and weighed up the costs and benefits (as a naive rationalism would have it). Rather, they use Egalitarianism as a heuristic for picking the best policy on an issue. Egalitarians want to keep ANWR closed because that's the Egalitarian or collectivist style of management, and they prefer the Egalitarian or collectivist style of management on this issue because they think that style of management will lead to the best results for society with respect to this issue.

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