Question Authority

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Fellow Democrats,

I can no longer say with certainty if I owned or wore a Question Authority button as a teen, but they were ubiquitous in my crowd.

It was not until much later, when I became a librarian and an author, that I understood that this phrase represented not simply adolescent defiance but an essential critical reading practice.

For librarians the first six letters of “authority” are crucial; the “who says?” of the punk teen is also a fundamental question in cataloging. Catalogers call the title page of a book (or the equivalent in other media) the “statement of responsibility.” Who has put their name and reputation behind this text? It is also essential to critical reading. Asking on what authority a statement is made is a crucial part of evaluating that statement.

That is a surprisingly controversial point. Judging the merits of the speaker rather than the merits of the statement is known as the ad hominem fallacy, but there is not a clean line dividing those things. Texts have authors, and authors have histories. It would be wrong to dismiss a new book by Charles Murray because he is balding or because he is a white man, but is it wrong to dismiss it because his past books have been widely denounced for everything from math errors to blatant racism? How many bad checks do you need to write before they post your picture at 7-11?

Let’s look at two specific authorities who have been regularly invoked in the last couple of years of Culver City politics.

Chris Elmendorf is a law professor at UC Davis. His BA is in Economics from Oberlin and his JD is from Yale. He is the author or co-author of dozens of peer-reviewed articles and conference papers on a range of topics including voting rights, voter behavior, and environmental protection. He is also one of the leading experts on California land-use law, and it was in this role that then-Council Member Alex Fisch informally sought his advice, a move which local conservatives have determinedly tried to make appear sinister.

Michael Shellenberger has a BA in Peace and Global Studies from Earlham College and a MA in Anthropology from UC Santa Cruz. His first book: Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility, was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2007. It argues that concerns about consumption, climate, and the environment are overblown, and that those that do exist can be addressed through technology and economic incentives, rather than regulation. His second: Apocalypse Never, published by Harper Collins in 2020, extended this position towards climate skepticism. Rather than a full-fledged climate denier, he was a merchant of doubt: yes, climate change may be happening, but it’s not as bad as people say, there’s no need to change our society, and we can maintain and even increase our consumption by switching to safe and clean nuclear power. This was in 2020, twenty-five years after the IPCC determined human activity was the major factor in climate change and thirteen years after the IPCC and Al Gore shared the Nobel Peace Prize for determining the catastrophic scale of climate change and helping raise awareness. It was rapturously received in right-wing media, including Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, the National Review, and Reason, and thoroughly debunked in Yale Climate Connections and the LA Review of Books. Shellenberger published a piece promoting this book in Forbes, who deleted it after the Climate Feedback project found it riddled with errors. It was subsequently republished by Brietbart, Quillette, and The Daily Wire.

I became aware of Shellenberger when local conservatives began brandishing his 2021 book San Fran-Sicko: How Progressives Ruin Cities, a denunciation of that city’s approach to housing and social services. Although it was immediately and definitively trashed by the New York Times and the Atlantic, Council Member Göran Eriksson bought and distributed copies, including one to Tevis Barnes, head of the City’s Housing Department. To the extent that the new Council’s cruelty-first approach to homelessness has an intellectual foundation, this is it.

Shellenberger’s journey into the MAGA-verse has continued with a failed campaign for California Governor as part of the attempted recall of Gavin Newsom, appearances on podcasts hosted by Joe Rogan, Jordan Peterson, and Glenn Beck, and being one of the “journalists” selected by Elon Musk to comb Twitter’s internal communications for evidence of suppression of conservative posters

This is the source on whose authority Council Members Eriksson, O’Brien, and Vera are gambling the lives of our unhoused neighbors. Those of you present at our January 18 meeting unanimously adopted a resolution in opposition, and this position was shared by a huge majority of the speakers at the January 23 City Council meeting. The conservative Council majority was unswayed, but this item needs to come before the Council for a second reading, almost certainly at their next scheduled meeting on February 13. Be there!