I took a field trip today, during the lunchtime break of the PowerShift conference in Washington DC - which brought together 12,000 global warming activists - and took a taxi over to the OMNI hotel, where 9,000 equally passionate activists were also meeting, at the Conservative Political Action Conference.
And let me report to my friends at PowerShift: The conservative movement is not feeling defeated by the election of President Obama. They are energized, mobilized, angry, and ready to, as they said, "take the country back."
The young and older gathered there were jumping out of their seats, in standing ovations, for keynoters like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter, who had some choice words to share about those of us fighting global warming.
Niger Ennis - a stirring black man from the Congress for Racial Equality, whose father walked with Martin Luther King - said that "environmental wackos," financed by "powerful millionaire socialists," are conspiring with "an energy industry leader" - a "treasonous organization" that is supporting a cap-and-trade carbon tax, to force high energy costs "on the backs of you and me and the poor."
"In reality, many of these groups really hate America," Ennis said. "Today's environmental extremists - and their corporate political slaves - use the environment to deprive poor Americans of the ability to achieve Martin Luther King's dream. They must be swept into the ash heap of history."
Myron Ebell, from the libertarian Competitive Enterprise Institute, said that among the conspirators to institute "government control of our energy use," are five major environmental lobbies, plus "BP America, Conoco-Phillips, Shell, Duke" and five other big energy corporations.
And journalist Ann McElhinney, who with husband Phelim McAleer is about to release a film on "the true cost of global warming hysteria," asked rhetorically, "who are" these environmental radicals? She answered: "they're elites - very, very rich. And the richer they get, the more idiotic their ideas become."
"They think poverty is a culture that needs to be conserved," she said. They think there are "too many people" in the world. And since they're not going to get rid of themselves, who do they have in mind? "They're going to get rid of average people like my husband and I," their film quotes a Midwestern wife saying. And, she adds, they also plan to sacrifice those children in Africa.
"They care more about fish eggs than they do about humans," said Patrick Moore, a one-time Greenpeace organizer who now criticizes the group, in their film.
Now, I did not attend CPAC to gather tidbits to cause you to hate and fear them more. I did it for three reasons:
FIRST, those of us who support President Obama need to know that we face a formidable political opposition, many of whose leaders use anger and hate to mobilize their followers to destroy us. That may not be a surprise - but many of us have grown oddly complacent since November, treating Obama like our salvation, rather than a leader who needs our active and determined support.
SECOND - more important - we need to take a deep breath, and set aside the hateful words directed toward us, either by demagogues or those manipulated by them. We need to recognize that some of us have hateful words for them as well - and that some of our own leaders stoke our anger, using similar techniques.
THIRD - most important - we must engage with them. Let them express their hate, freely. Then, let them express their fear, their insecurity, their feelings that they are not being heard. Because these activists, for the most part, are not narrow selfish interest groups, or insincere apologists for Bush. I can't say the same of Ann Coulter and other manipulators there, but among the attendees, their fear is genuine. They feel they are under attack. We must hear and understand their fear.
And finally, FOURTH, after letting them get their anger and fear off their chests, we must keep listening and let them express their truth. Because when we hear their truth, we will begin to find our common ground, with a surprising number of them.
The biggest social and environmental victories that I have been involved with have come when we looked past the hate and anger in our adversaries, and found the truth they felt and were trying to express.
When our group achieved victories that saved ancient forests in Canada, protected indigenous peoples in Malaysia, recycled billions of computers, electronics, and packages in California, and united corporations and activists against genocide in Darfur, we did it by bringing together adversaries: a religious right activist CEO and grassroots environmentalists. The scion of a conservative family whose members had co-founded the Heritage Foundation, and recycling advocates. Top brand executives and grassroots human rights advocates. Electronics CEOs and rainforest rabble rousers. These powerful marriages birthed outcomes that could not have been achieved by either "side" alone.
There is a tendency - at CPAC, even at PowerShift - to want to oversimplify our issues, and demonize our adversaries, to paint them in black and white, good versus evil only. Yes, it's important to develop a clear message, and simplification is a necessary part of this.
But when explaining our cause, we must never pretend to our supporters, or ourselves, that our policy objectives or the people fighting them are as simple as our sound bites present them. Whether on the left, right, or center, activists need to speak with integrity, and trust that their supporters can understand complexity. Most of them can.
That is essential to victory. We must never be afraid of the truth. And we must never be satisfied with an oversimplification, however necessary for bumper stickers. Because if all our favorite policies were adopted today, most of our problems would still exist tomorrow. We don't know all the answers we need, yet. Neither do our adversaries. By engaging with them, we will learn what we need to do next.
Ann Coulter aside, our true enemies, for the most part, are not the conservatives, the corporations, the red states, even the coal companies. Our enemies, overwhelmingly, are systemic in nature. Our solutions, too, are systemic. And those solutions can be founded on principles that draw many interest groups together - on the left, right, and center.
This is not a call to naiveté. We cannot move forward in ignorance of the powerful political interests who want to defeat or even destroy us. Yes, we need to defeat them. But we can only defeat them if we understand them, and deal with those underlying concerns that we can meet.
To discover those, and the higher-level solutions we can only find together, we need to engage with them. Let them spend their layers of hate, anger, and fear. Once we have heard them out, we can then begin to get to their truth. Learn from it. Let it inform our truth, and let ours inform theirs.
Then, we will be able to achieve our objectives in ways that calm the fears and meet the needs of many of our adversaries. Our enemies will grow fewer, our friends more numerous. And then, with our larger network of friends, we will solve these problems.
I know: it's frightening, and unclear, to sit down with those who we demonize, or who demonize us. There is a simple clarity in defining our enemy, homogenizing it, and battling it to destruction. But that fight never ends. President Bush did not understand that. President Obama does. I've seen it happen, time and again: when a courageous few among bitter adversaries engage together, wisely and safely, they discover ways to move forward, despite themselves. They achieve ends together they never could apart. We need that, on a global scale, now.
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