As some of you may remember, I'm a law student at the University of Virginia. It's an extraordinary place to be and full of opportunities for intellectual enrichment. The Miller Center for Public Affairs offers a steady stream of amazing speakers. The law school's clubs and organizations bring interesting speakers to the campus weekly.
One group, more than any other, consistently brings prestigious speakers to the law school. Next week, for example, they will host Paul Clement, the Solicitor General of the United States. Last week, they hosted three Federal judges from the DC Circuit (the Supreme Court's mini-me), Judges Ginsburg, Griffith and Kavanaugh. I'm speaking, of course, about The Federalist Society.
So what have I been doing? Well, I've been attending their events and brainstorming methods of combating their pervasive and corrosive influence.
This diary gets long and complicated, but I hope you'll flip to read the whole thing.
This particular chapter of the Federalist Society is especially empowered by their proximity to Washington DC. I've been regularly impressed by the stature of their right-wing guests.
In the past month or so, I've been thinking about the implications of the extraordinary reach of the Federalist Society. It was founded in 1982 at Yale Law School and the University of Chicago, where none other than Antonin Scalia helped to get the group started. Today, you can't spit to your right without hitting several famous members. Sam Alito, Clarence Thomas, Orrin Hatch, Ted Olson, Ken Starr, Michael Chertoff - and over half of the Federal Judiciary are or have been members of the group.
The Federalist Society is funded by several of the major "usual suspects". Scaife, Olin, and Koch are all prominent on the donor's list.
After a bit of reflection, I realized why. These right wing organizations came to realize 25 years ago that they could never push America far enough to the right - not through the electoral process, anyway. Instead, by concentrating a relatively small amount of money in the right place, they could leverage the change they desire.
What better place to focus than on law schools? Law students grow up to be powerful attorneys, judges, legislators and bureaucrats. They find themselves in position to pass legislation and make common law, administrative law and black letter law. And the process is underway. For less than $20 million dollars, the right wing has bought a branch of our government: the Judiciary.
And similar to what the Christianist guerrillas have been doing across the country in terms of running for and voting in blocs to take over school boards, the Federalist Society has arisen beneath all of our radars.
So I'm really tilting at windmills here, but hey, that's what I do. Every now and then, even foolish idealists like me find ways to dent the borg.
And that's what happened a couple of weeks ago when the Federalist Society invited Myron Ebell, anti-global warming profitgandist from the Competitive Enterprise Institute, to speak at our school.
I found out about the event the day before. I printed up 60 flyers and posted them around the law school and the main university. I recruited other organizers to help me pack the room. And I stopped by the law school's newspaper, the LawWeekly, to let them know that I was trying to organize a large response; one that would result in Mr. Ebell learning that The University of Virginia community will not be taken for suckers.
Unfortunately, all of my efforts went pretty much for naught. Only about 30 people showed up to the speech and while most seemed to be "good guys", 30 was a real disappointment when I had hoped for 300. But a reporter from the LawWeekly managed to make it (this becomes important later).
So, I attended and asked some pointed questions that caused some students to laugh at Mr. Ebell. It was a small victory. Here's a snippet of a previous blogpost regarding the event:
"Mr. Ebell, I’m sorry, but I feel like I walked in on you in bed with my wife and you just spent the last two hours asking me if I was going to believe you or my lying eyes." The crowd (and remember, this was a Federalist Society event) chortled.
"I mean, heat waves killed hundreds or thousands in Europe and Chicago. Coral reefs are dying off. Bark beetles are devastating forests they’ve never been found in before because the temperatures were to cold to sustain them. I don’t have to go through it all, you’ve heard it all before... data point after data point after data point says global warming is a problem."
"Further, Exxon-Mobil recently admitted to spending $16 million dollars to cloud the science - to propagandize against global warming. And your firm, the supposedly non-partisan Competitive Enterprise Institute was one of the greatest recipients."
"Which leads me to my next point - your claim of non-partisanship. I’ve heard Senator Inhofe, Richard Pombo, Tom delay when he was there and many others mis-state the science, often while quoting your organization. But I’m looking at your web-page right now, and I see story after story that supposedly debunks Al Gore. Why haven’t you ever had anything bad to say about a Republican? Because to a simple guy like me, well, when I look at the big picture, it looks as if you folks care less about the truth than you do about furthering a pro-business agenda."
Ebell responded. "Oh my gosh, I welcome your examination of my motives, but we are a very small operation. When you compare our resources to NRDC, Sierra Club and Greenpeace’s, well, we just can’t afford to chase down every inaccuracy and we really need to focus..."
I interrupted: "You mean, Exxon/Mobil doesn’t have enough money to get their message out?" (More laughter.)
"Well, I don’t know..."
Me again: "Didn’t they just break every record for quarterly profit by any company, ever, in any quarter, ever?"
"Uhm, yeah, they may have..."
"One more thing: if what you are trying to say is that it's just little ol' you and the whole world's teamed up against you, couldn't it be because the whole world is right and you're wrong?" chuckles...
Ebell ignored my challenges and continued with his canned rhetoric:
"Well, it is good that you ask these questions and I think you should be. But you know, cold kills a lot more people than heat, so while we may have the heat waves, humans are adapting at living in heat much better. Not too many people are moving to Minnesota or North Dakota, but Phoenix is booming."
I couldn’t take it, "Wait a minute - are you standing next to my bed in my bedroom asking me how you could possibly be sleeping with my wife while wearing those ridiculous underwear?" More laughs.
Since I had gone to such lengths to make this Federalist Society event "special", and since it didn't work out as I had hoped, I decided to make one more effort to leave a lasting impression upon the Federalist Society: I asked the Law Weekly if they'd be willing to print a column I'd write about the event. They agreed, but they told me that the Federalist Society had asked that they be given the opportunity to have a letter printed in the same issue that mine appeared in. As far as I was concerned, that was even better for me - any time I can get an even match with a wingnut, I'm confident I've got the chops to make the better case.
So, I submitted this (and forwarded it to the guy that wrote the response for the Federalist Society, Jeff Miller):
In Praise of Incivility
On March 27, Myron Ebell, as a guest of the Federalist Society, spoke to UVA Law students in his capacity as a professional global warming skeptic for the Competitive Enterprise Institute. I attended the event and listened patiently as Mr. Ebell parried questions of fact and policy that challenged his views. When I was afforded the chance to ask a question I said, "I feel like I just endured two hours of a man lying in bed with my wife asking me, ‘Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?’ I mean, coral reefs are dying off, heat waves are killing hundreds in Europe and warm-weather pests are invading habitat in a hotter Alaska that they were never able to survive previously. Furthermore, ExxonMobil recently admitted that they spent over $16 million to propagandize against the global warming threat, and your organization was one of the top recipients...". The exchange continued, and at some points during our exchange, some students openly laughed at Ebell. That was a good thing, and it fortified my faith in my Law School peers.
The truth is that each and every one of us should question the Federalist Society’s judgment and demand that they set higher standards for the guests they invite to Thomas Jefferson’s University in the future. Inviting a known propagandist – a purveyor of agendized fictions – to our school should be universally condemned.
Mr. Ebell began his discussion with an explanation of how the global warming alarmist’s agenda would stand in the way of the world’s poor obtaining electricity. I didn’t hear what he said next, because my mind was immediately consumed with visions of O.J. Simpson telling us that domestic violence shelters are a bad idea because they don’t leave chocolates on the pillows.
His presentation continued as a rote recitation of the tripe global warming profitgandists generally employ. He cherry-picked science, highlighted irrelevant bookkeeping errors in Al Gore’s movie, talked a lot about uncertainty, and attempted to sell the idea that 10,000 peer reviewed scientific and economic papers are worthless—that we shouldn’t change a thing. He even made the startling assertion that global warming is going to "green the planet" — that we will see an explosion of biodiversity as CO2 combines with warmer temperatures to create a really wonderful greenhouse effect!
I hope I’ve demonstrated the mendacity and rudderless morality of this character, because the point of this essay is that civility should not always be UVA’s most treasured virtue. It is not necessary or desirable to lend liars and cheats thecredibility they require to ply their ignominious trade. Sometimes we, as scholars and truth-seekers, should have the dignity and self-respect to call a snake oil salesman a snake oil salesman. We would not entertain David Duke and his despicable ideas, so why should we lower our expectations for global warming propagandists?
So yes, sometimes incivility is demanded of polite society. When you are being lied to, and you know you are being lied to, and the person lying to you knows that you know he is lying to you...well, at those times, basic human dignity demands that you, with appropriate restraint, stand up for the truth. Calling a liar a liar is not uncivil—in fact, it’s the only civilized thing to do.
Jeff Miller's response:
In Defense of Community Respect
I would like to have a debate on the appropriate political response to global warming. In the past, the Law Weekly has run thought-provoking pieces from students who take the issue seriously. Mr. Ebell’s appearance at the invitation of the Federalist Society was concerned with this very topic: How should the federal government react to climate change? Does the threat merit a statist crusade in response? What are the implications of the Kyoto Protocol, both from a domestic legal perspective and from an international empirical perspective?
Unfortunately, this column must take up a concern considerably less important to the future of our country and one that I had thought long settled: What is the appropriate way to deal with the opinions of those you disagree with at the University of Virginia School of Law?
I was asked by Mr. Stark to write in response to his thesis that civility is unnecessary when dealing with "liars and propagandists," by which he expressly means Mr. Ebell, but which I fear is a group that would likely extend to just about anyone who disagrees with his individual political inclinations.
I imagine Mr. Stark’s problem with our guest is that his think tank, CEI, has received grant money from ExxonMobil. It’s a peculiar fixation, given that CEI opposed expansive government response to global warming long before this funding began (by about four years) and has continued to do so since the same funding ceased. It’s also interesting that, in a political debate charged with possibly billions of dollars at stake (in research grants, environmental NGO funding, and in the wealth redistribution effects of any carbon market), that the two million given to CEI over seven years should cause Mr. Stark such duress.
But this isn’t really about Mr. Ebell’s qualifications. Others have challenged them before in these very pages and did so using the civil tone of public debate that prevails here at UVA. Mr. Stark seems to take issue that the norms that govern behavior in a setting like UVA—where students understand that living in a community of trust also means living in a community of respect — even exist.
For someone who insists that everyone (and by "everyone" he apparently does not count atmospheric and climate scientists such as MIT’s Richard Lindzen and UVA’s Pat Michaels) is with him on the warming issue, it is unfortunate that Mr. Stark feels the best manner of representing this consensus is with the tactic of He Who Screams Loudest is Most Heard. Most heard, perhaps, but certainly not the one taken most seriously. It is a strategy I hope does not spread, lest the reasoned discourse that has so far filled our halls be replaced with a contemptuous din.
It is my experience in two years at Virginia Law that pride, dignity, and manners compel us to treat guests of the Law School with whom we disagree with respect; if not out of respect for the guest themselves, then at least out of consideration for our fellow law students. This is Mr. Jefferson’s University, and it is difficult to imagine him subscribing to Mr. Stark’s methodology.
I do not intend to give instruction to the student body of this school — to 99 percent of this paper’s readers, this has been a waste of your time and the Law Weekly’s more deserving literary real estate. You know these things already. But perhaps a defense of civility is a reminder we need, lest we find ourselves embroiled in ACS versus Fed-Soc snap fights à la West Side Story in Slaughter Hall (which, come to think of it, might be pretty sweet).
So yeah, pretty much what I expected, and fine as far as it goes... A real bold title, huh? Boy, he really went out on a limb there... Anyway, what wasn't fine is this (pdf). Flip to page 5. There, you'll find that between our dueling articles, the staff of the LawWeekly decided it was appropriate to place the most unflattering picture of Al Gore they could find. I'm fairly certain they got it from LittleGreenFootballs. You'll also find a "news" article laid out around the text block reserved for our "duel". Written by Samson Hobte, it includes the following:
The mannerly Federalist Society members who arranged the event were given a head’s up on the potential for a verbal brawl a day before. First-year law student and left-wing agitator Mike Stark turned up at the group’s office, freshly-printed flyers in hand, to notify members of his efforts to boost attendance at the event.
But the boisterous throw-down that Stark pined for didn’t exactly materialize. Some 30 students ended up at the Tuesday afternoon event. (Stark grumbled about lack of notice, telling the Law Weekly that the Federalist Society kept the date of the rescheduled event quiet until shortly before it was slated. Federalist Society Vice President Jeff Miller pointed out that the event had been noted in two SBA events emails, including one that went out a week prior.)
OK, point by point:
- "mannerly Federalist Society members" - now was this news, or opinion? and was it meant to contrast with anyone else's behavior? Because I've looked through his article over and over again and have been unable to find any mention of anyone being rude... could that be because nobody was rude? hmmm.... I wonder why a professional journalist would want to leave a distorted impression of the events that transpired...
- "left-wing agitator" - oh boy!! no bias here, huh? I'm surprised Mr. Habte didn't go on to misspell my name... I mean, "S T A R K" is only a few simple letters from "S T A L I N"...
- "boisterous throw-down that Stark pined for" - oh, I get it. ha-ha! Samson made a funny!! Hoo-hoo... boy, that was witty!! Except that my goal did not involve any kind of boisterousness at all - and Samson knew as much
- "Stark grumbled": yup... there it is... we knew it was coming - the "mannerly" vs. the "grumbled". Nice Habte - two paragraphs and four personal hits on my character...
I'm leaving aside the factual inaccuracies of Sammy's slant... I won't criticize him for reporting that I showed up at the federalist society's offices with flyers in hand, even though I didn't.
Instead, I'll criticize the biased hack for totally making shit up that he knew to be untrue. You see, I showed up in the LawWeekly's offices, "flyers in hand", to tell them what I was trying to plan. Far from "grumbling" about lack of notice after a disappointing turnout, is this: the only time I spoke with anyone about turn-out was when I told Sammy that I wasn't sure how things were gonna work out - that I had high hopes, but since I had just seen the flyers that day, I couldn't really say if the numbers I was hoping for were going to show up. That all I could do was post my own flyers and hope... And yeah, it was a conversation - not a complaint or anything that could be remotely characterized as "grumbling".
Folks, I put this diary together because I feel like I need to let you know what happens when liberals, armed with nothing but idealism and decent intentions, try to make a difference. Whether its large marches or small time activism like confronting the Federalist Society at your school, the media has the right-wing's back. And there isn't much we can do about it, except to fight back with the tools we have.
One of those tools is google. I learned that Samson Habte led the Terps for Kerry when he was at the University of Maryland, but, uhm, they sucked. Samson said it was all about indifference. Maybe that's how he got to be so cynical.
Because look where he shows up right after the elections! Here's a snippet:
On Dec. 12, 2003, Maryland businessman Raymond Starkes III gave $2,000 to the campaign of Rep. Bennie Thompson (search), D-Miss. That same day, Starkes' son -- a college student more than 1,000 miles away at the University of Miami -- also made a $2,000 donation to Thompson's campaign.
Similarly, businessman Alan Meltzer gave $2,000 to Rep. Peter Deutsch (search), D-Fla., on Sept. 18, 2003, the same day his son and daughter, both college students, made identical $2,000 donations to Deutsch's campaign.
And Bates College student Trent Lierman gave $2,000 to presidential hopeful Howard Dean (search), whose national finance chairman was Trent's father, Terry Lierman (search), the recently elected chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party.
Those college donors were not alone: A review of the latest Federal Election Commission filings showed that dozens of contributors who listed their occupations as "student" gave $1,000 or more to a campaign in the 2004 cycle. In many of those cases, parents of the student donor had also given $1,000 or more to the same campaigns as their children.
The story goes on to talk about a common coincidence found in campaign finance filings - that kids often give large donations to the same politicians that receive money from their parents - on the same day and in the maximum amount allowed by law. But to read his article, you wouldn't think it ever happened with a Republican.
So what can you do to help?
Well, you can call (434.924.3070) or write to the Law Weekly - firstname.lastname@example.org - and tell them that Samson needs a tighter leash if he is to continue in his role as Associate News Editor; alternatively, it may be appropriate to return him to his role as columnist. In that capacity, innuendo, opinion and even fictional narratives are welcome, so he may feel more at home.
In the end, I'm aware that by attacking the right wing's strongest institutions, I'm inviting an unholy backlash. I can deal with it. I can even deal with it when it comes from the press. But I'll be damned if I'm gonna take a dive.
To those of you that made it this far, thanks. To those of you that made it this far and wrote and/or called, thanks doubly. If anything comes of this, I'll update you appropriately.