by Jack Downey

In 1964, Richard Hofstadter published a rather enduring essay in Harper’s Magazine that succeeded, if nothing else, in accomplishing what most (egomaniacal) writers only fantasize about: he coined a new phrase that had legs, and has proved a valuable addition to our intellectual lexicon.1 “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” investigated the social psychology behind the contemporary rise of the anti-intellectual “Radical Right,” and witnessed profound similarities between his allegedly secular subjects – although the distinction is not as clean as he seems to hope (especially in his treatment of anti-Catholicism) – and Christian millenarianism:

I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind…2 The distinguishing thing about the paranoid style is not that its exponents see conspiracies or plots here and there in history, but that they regards a “vast” or “gigantic” conspiracy as the motive force in historical events.  History is a conspiracy, set in motion by demonic forces of almost transcendent power, and what is felt to be needed to defeat it is not the usual methods of political give-and-take, but an all-out crusade.  The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of this conspiracy in apocalyptic terms—he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values.  He is always manning the barricades of civilization.  He constantly lives at a turning point: it is now or never in organizing resistance to conspiracy.3

In Hofstadter’s typology, the secular paranoid – like his religious counterpart – does nothing by halves, and interprets phenomena through a lens of epic bifurcation.  The matters in which he is engaged in are absolutely critical, not just to himself, but on a universal scale.  From this perspective, the salient “principle” at stake and the subject of unjust persecution is not simply oneself, but a larger, transcendent ideal.4 Recent commitments to a kinder, gentler political discourse aside, as human rights advocate and New York City attorney Scott Horton noted in 2007 (and as a pre-emptive strike against accusations that I’m claiming any originality whatsoever for appropriating Hoftstadter), the paranoid style is alive and well in our collective imagination and rhetoric. Visceral self-righteous indignation is par for the course, although this is not the same as saying it is inherently unwarranted or inappropriate.

In late November, Right Wing Watch – an organ of People For the American Way – sounded the alarm that a “who’s who of Religious Right leaders” had spawned a 12-part film series (the book is on its way), the dramatically-titled Resisting the Green Dragon – produced by the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, “which seeks to expose how the environmental movement is out to control the world and destroy Christianity.”  The Cornwall Alliance rather immodestly touts itself as “one of the most prominent voices in America and internationally on issues of religion and the environment.”  By the next day, some antagonistic “radical” blogs seem to have bought into Cornwall’s own hype, and started describing it as an aristocracy of “prominent religious leaders” – which I’m sure made Cornwall’s day.

Happily for the progressive conspiracy-minded, ThinkProgress investigator Lee Fang wrote a feature article on the Cornwall Alliance back in June which reveals potentially substantial ties between Cornwall and Big Oil & Coal.  So… according to the Cornwall Alliance, they’re a collective of eminently reputable scientists and intellectuals, exposing a sinister international plot to establish a totalitarian world government and eliminate human freedom; according to critics, Cornwall is itself the conspiracy – an influential front organization peddling snake oil, and pushing the agenda of unrenewable energy and Christian fundamentalism, an agenda which is becoming increasingly mainline.

It would be melodramatic to allege that Resisting the Green Dragon has made that much of a splash.  On the other hand, it did receive a plug from Glenn Beck back in October, when Cornwall Alliance founder Dr. E. Calvin Beisner and WallBuilders president David Barton appeared on his show (October 15, 2010) to warn of the grave dangers posed by the Tides Foundation and The Story of Stuff, entities which might appear relatively benign to the average human… which is, of course, exactly where their treachery lies.  Most of the critical reviews of the series are highly polemical, and simply based on the publicly-accessible, high production value (which is to say, it looks like an Animoto video with some CGI add-ins) trailer.

Unfortunately, the main body of the series itself isn’t nearly as cinematic as the condensed promo leads one to believe; no dramatic soundtrack or animated dragons with flames in the background.  Essentially it’s a collection of taped lectures given to a catatonic-looking audience of about a dozen or so (try as they might to crop out the empty seats). Resisting the Green Dragon is a long, long six hours; not for the faint of heart.

The actual meat and potatoes of the series is predicated on a number of rather hefty presuppositions that might not be obvious to all viewers.  Here’s a few of the ones that stuck out throughout the twelve lectures:

  • Environmentalism is a unified international movement.
  • Environmentalists promote a single, global government. It might be the United Nations.
  • The film Avatar is a crypto-environmentalist con, meant to lure normal people into the contemporary manifestation of primordial evil that is the Green Dragon.
  • The Green Dragon is a real thing (and they’re not talking about the cannabis-based alcohol, apparently of the same name; or, for that matter, the farmer’s market in Lancaster County, PA).
  • Al Gore is a totalitarian.
  • Paganism, atheism, deep ecology, pantheism, panentheism (thought of as a sort of gateway drug for backsliding soon-to-be-environmentalist Christians), and animism are all interchangeable spiritual orientations.
  • Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of the U.S. Episcopal Church, is a panentheist.
  • Anthropogenic climate change theories are based on pure pseudo-science.
  • Environmentalism is fundamentally misanthropic… in the sense that Nietzsche claims Christianity is misanthropic in The Antichrist – i.e., it is an ideology that is steeped in a deep antagonism towards human life.
  • Environmentalists want to suppress human freedom.  Recycling, reusable shopping bags, and vehicle emissions regulations are only the beginning.
  • Environmentalism has infected the highest branches of American government.
  • Doomsday environmentalist prophecies are inherently false because God promised to take care of us.  See Genesis 9:11 if you take allegations of rising sea levels seriously.
  • Christian stewardship of the earth does not require that we trade in the safety and comfort of our sweet SUVs for the wimpy horsepower of compact hybrids.
  • Environmentalists support the socio-economic status quo, and are antagonistic towards upward social mobility.  We know this because they don’t want to give starving Africans access to electricity or medicine.

Now, it’s true that a fair number of the claims made throughout Resisting the Green Dragon are right on the money and hold water in the face of closer scrutiny.  Yes, many environmentalists do try to “target” children.  Many environmentalists do consider pollution and climate change to be global issues.  Many environmentalists aren’t evangelical Christians.  Al Gore is a fascist… oh wait.  No, not that one.  (Well, maybe.  I don’t know. Possibly the most humorous part of the video is that Al Gore is targeted – along with James Cameron, of all people – as Public Enemy #1…  I mean, it’s not like he’s some vegetarian or anything.)

Most of the major claims that the participants make in the series would be disputed by environmentalists, for example, that they support a totalitarian worldwide government, that global warming is a myth, that they favor eugenics…  Al Gore is a radical environmentalist… that kind of thing.  One pretty consistent, somewhat astounding, error that persists throughout Resisting the Green Dragon is the conflation of different ideologies or communities, in order to present “environmentalism” as a rising if not already dominant worldview.

So we’re stuck with “deeply problematic” (decorum prohibits translation) conclusions, like that all environmentalists support the concept of an international military dictatorship.  Oddly enough, this assertion is made in the very first lecture in the series, by Dr. E. Calvin Beisner – who possibly seems the eeriest of all the participants because a) he is the eeriest, or b) he gets the most face-time of the lot – the same lecture in which he implies that Dave Foreman and Earth First! are contemporary analogues for, well, Satan.

But who exactly is the “who’s who” at the core of Resisting the Green Dragon?  Besides Beisner, there’s Dr. David Legates, a University of Delaware climatologist who is apparently ignoring his governor’s request that he not identify himself publicly with the institution out of fear of embarrassment for… the state of Delaware. Also appearing is Dr. Vishal Mangalwadi (all but one of the nine main speakers have a doctorate in something), who’s own website touts him as simultaneously “disturbing and controversial” (fair enough), as well as “on the order of Tocqueville and Solzhenitsyn and Augustine” (somewhat less convincing).

Apparently, because he was born and raised in India, Cornwall considers Mangalwadi uniquely qualified to critique the environmentalist propaganda flick Avatar – since the title is derived from a Sanskrit word, you see.  Tom Minnery, from Focus on the Family, makes a cameo to slam the recently-dead, former Stanford University biologist, advisor to seven presidential administrations, and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Stephen Schneider.  Dr. Charmaine Yoest, of Americans United for Life, thinks outside the box in her talk, “The Green Face of the Pro-Death Agenda,” which is largely based on a director’s cut of the 2004 brain drain The Butterfly Effect that ends with Ashton Kutcher’s self-abortion.  (Unfortunately, she seems to think it was an 80’s movie, an excusable mistake considering most people I know who saw the movie tried to forget it as soon as they saw it.)

Dr. James Tonkowich, former president of the Institute on Religion & Democracy and an ordained minister in the schismatic – (cough) I mean “renewal” – Presbyterian Church in America, is far and away the least scary of all the featured speakers.  He actually advocates recycling and acknowledges global warming, unwittingly contradicting some of his predecessors in the series.  He’s also the least smug and condescending.  He’s an out-of-the-closet conservationist.  He’s not a Joni Mitchell fan.  Oh, and he thinks that a primate of the worldwide Anglican Communion is a heretic.

Participants in the Resisting the Green Dragon series are, not surprisingly, unapologetically anthropocentric, although they betray a fairly deep internal disagreement over what constitutes responsible Christian “dominion” and “stewardship.”  At least thematically-speaking, a number of their criticisms of environmentalists are the very same ones that would typically be used against themselves: lack of respect for rational thought, questionable science, narcissism, an apparently hilarious but practically toxic social agenda.

Potentially duplicitous ties between the Cornwall Alliance and corporate fossil fuel behemoths aside, the individual speakers featured in the series do seem to be true blue.  They’re also clients.  By design it would seem, Resisting the Green Dragon is virtually impossible to take seriously without it evoking some sort of visceral emotive response.  At least for the first little bit.  Then things start to drag on, and on.  Did I mention it’s six hours long?  It feels like more.

In the end, while it could (very easily) be argued that the participants do exhibit more than a few characteristics of Hofstadter’s paranoiac, the same can be said for some alarmist critics, who decried the series as symptomatic of fanaticism’s triumph over mainstream American religion. (One could make an argument that such a thing has occurred, just not on the basis of this series.)  After the first five minutes, you’ll wish it was that interesting.

Jack Downey is an activist and doctoral candidate in Theology at Fordham University.  His dissertation investigates modern asceticism and the Catholic Worker movement.  Previous writing has appeared in Tricycle Magazine: The Buddhist Review.

1  Cf. Richard Hofstadter.  The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays (New York: Vintage Books, 2008).

2 Hofstadter (2008), 3.

3 Hofstadter (2008), 29-30.

4 Hofstadter (1996), 3.