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    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

Thomas and theater; Muscle and power
June 17, 2010 - 7:44pm

I don't often read Cal Thomas's columns, but Mrs. R. does. I'm not sure why, unless it's to get her blood pressure up after a good night's sleep. Still, I'm occasionally glad she does. This morning was one of those occasions.

Thomas's piece, as published in the local Backboro paper, is typically petty, ignorant and mean. But, as is from time to time the case, it's also a useful lens -- this time into the minds of the climate change deniers. And his comments on political theater, and what makes it effective or in-, are pretty much on the money.

Theater first. Towards the end of the column, he notes that the establishing shot of the Oval Office telecast made Obama look small. "The scene appeared to dominate him." He comments on gestures (don't, if seated), and delivery ("his voice never seemed to change. There was no cadence, no variation of tone, no pausing for emphasis.") He's mostly right on all counts.

But more important than his theatrical criticism is that he (like many of his ilk) recognizes that what he's criticizing is, in fact, theater. And that what he writes and bloviates is theater. And that theater works best when it uses tropes already familiar to the audience. (When was the last time a truly inventive screenplay made money as a film? Face it, they don't sell. Most people don't like them.)

Consider Thomas's statement, "There's plenty of oil (and gas) to be ground under the earth, but the far-left greenies in pursuit of their cowardly new world will have none of it." He manages to accuse anyone who disagrees with him of unfairly denying Americans their necessary fuels, unthinking extremism, and cowardice all in a single sentence. The denialist and extremist accusations are ignorant and petty. It's the cowardice bit that's mean. But (certainly in the minds of his intended audience) effective.

Ever the tactician, Thomas goes on to say that "the way to lead us away from our dependence on foreign oil" isn't by leveraging the BP disaster, but by using "the threat of more terrorism as a motivator." Whether "the terrorists will get you" is more effective than "the climate will get you" is questionable, but he's right that theatrical images relating to war and strength can be very effective. Obama tried a little of that on Tuesday night ("battle plan" and the like), but he pretty much missed the mark. Which isn't surprising, given that those of us in the sustainability movement have been missing that same mark (often, giving it a wide berth) for years.

Think about that conjunction of "greenies" and "cowardly". Thomas, for all his faults, has a good grasp of popular American imagery. Sustainability, environmentalism, liberalism and intellectualism are all the territory of nerds. (You know that's true, in the popular mindset.) And nerds are weaklings. And weaklings are cowards. And cowardice is un-American. You don't need to do the math -- the images are familiar and the result is pre-ordained.

But sustainability and environmentalism don't have to be nerd territory. They could just as readily be associated with outdoorsmen, and outdoorsmen are (The Lumberjack Song aside), rugged and masculine. (Not sure how far I want to go with that "masculine" thing, of course. Still . . . ) Pioneers, cowboys, family farmers, hunters, fisherfolk, even lumberjacks and -jills. Daniel Boone. Davy Crockett. Lewis and Clark. Et al. (Lots of al.)

Thomas mentions George Washington (if only to ding Obama) in his column. George Washington heated Mount Vernon by burning biomass. If it was good enough for him . . .

And why are people who ride bikes less rugged than folks who drive cars (usually alone)? Which one's the weakling in that comparison? (And, by Thomas's own extension, the coward?) Even walking to the bus stop builds muscle mass better than backing our of your driveway.

What we need is a campaign which says (in subtler terms, I hope): Get off your lazy ass! Get some exercise! Pull your own weight! Get strong, and fit, and rugged. Is your country a winner or a whiner? And which one are you? Really? Then stop depending on fossil fuels, you lazy slob!

As it happens, even the US military is on our side. The Army and the Marine Corps are prototyping renewable power sources and small-scale smart grids. Why? Because they're nerds and cowards? Hardly. Because renewable power sources make them more independent of long supply lines. Renewable power sources empower our troops (or soon will).

Twenty-first century power sources to protect strong, rugged, (masculine,) independent, freedom-loving outdoorsy Americans. Not the (arguably) defensive repowering of America (as noble an aspiration as I think that to be), but the assertive empowering of America.

Now that's a message which almost writes its own public service announcement. With flags. And mountains. And eagles. And flags. And the National Guard (citizen soldiers, all). And amber waves of grain. And patriotic music. And flags.

And it's also a message around which Greenback -- if I can get the right people on board -- can build a student experience, and a student value set. Many of the ingredients are already in place. It's mostly a matter of flavoring. Or staging -- this being the theater, and all.

 

 

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