Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Former National Post & Toronto Star columnist, past vice president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. New posts: Mondays & Wednesdays.
Much can be said about Al Gore’s opinion piece published in yesterday’s New York Times. For the moment I’m going to focus on his use of the tobacco analogy. He writes:
Over the years, as the [climate change] science has become clearer and clearer, some industries and companies whose business plans are dependent on unrestrained pollution of the atmospheric commons have become ever more entrenched. They are ferociously fighting against the mildest regulation — just as tobacco companies blocked constraints on the marketing of cigarettes for four decades after science confirmed the link of cigarettes to diseases of the lung and the heart. [bold added]
This is the equivalent of someone with a criminal record calling people he doesn’t like a bunch of crooks. Why would anyone with a checkered past even go there? Why invite people to dismiss you as just a pot who’s calling a kettle black?
As I’ve mentioned previously, Gore’s family grew tobacco for years. Gore has boasted about his own experiences farming it. Most important of all, he accepted political donations from the tobacco industry over a ten-year period.
According to a 1996 New York Times article, Mr. Gore declared in a speech in North Carolina in 1988:
Throughout most of my life, I’ve raised tobacco…I want you to know that with my own hands, all of my life, I put it in the plant beds and transferred it. I’ve hoed it. I’ve chopped it. I’ve shredded it, spiked it, put it in the barn and stripped it and sold it.
While Gore finds it convenient these days to portray tobacco as the moral equivalent of the Great Satan, to anyone aware of his family history this rings grotesquely hollow. Six years after his own sister died of lung cancer, he himself was still accepting political campaign donations from “tobacco industry political action committees.” It took several years following her death for his family to walk away from the income they earned from this crop.
The reason this is important is because the tobacco analogy isn’t being deployed randomly or accidentally. It’s become a consistent part of Gore’s rhetorical arsenal. Last December, he tried the same trick. When asked about the lack of political action in the US on carbon-dioxide related matters, he compared “carbon polluters” to big tobacco and appeared to blame their lobbying and advertising activities for the lack of legislative progress.
There’s nothing high-minded about this sort of argument. It doesn’t require that you deal in real-world facts. It doesn’t involve taking responsibility, admitting mistakes, or rebooting with a fresh, new perspective. It’s all about smearing the other side, trying to link it in the public’s mind to an entirely unrelated social evil. Whether the comparison is fair or valid isn’t the point. The idea is to paint other people as bad guys, to pass the buck, to avoid confronting one’s own shortcomings. (A bracing discussion of Gore’s shortcomings appears here.)
In this case, though, it’s a risky move. Because whenever he hauls out the tobacco analogy I’m not in the least persuaded. Instead, I’m reminded that while he poses as an environmental savior, he’s really just a politician. While he says he’s anti-tobacco, he’s actually morally incoherent.