Many people complain that it's getting harder to tell right from wrong, truth from fiction, and reality from illusion in our society. Nowhere is this confusion of values more apparent than in the manipulation of our perceptions of and by conservative and commercial "public-interest" groups.
Since the 1960s, when America saw an unprecedented growth in grassroots, democratic, public-interest organizations such as the ACLU, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and the NAACP, commercial and conservative interests have been seeking ways to reclaim the moral high ground, or if not possible, to at least dilute the impact of these progressive organizations.
As an initial attempt, commercial interests came up with the idea of creating in-house front groups to counter those grassroots organizations which arose to combat industrial threats. These corporate constructs were ridiculed and dismissed as "astroturf" groups in recognition of their artificial nature. But corporate and special interests have come a long way since then.
First, industry groups and conservatives tapped their substantial financial advantage and the media's money-as-access attitude to monopolize the public dialogue on issues. Perhaps more importantly, since honest identification of the parties behind the message might negate or weaken that message, they concocted public-interest names that appeared progressive and grassroots. The task then, became one of marketing, and not simply of message.
As a result, and in the tradition of "trickle-down economics," "wise-use," and "getting big government out of our lives," the tobacco cartel monopolized the dialogue in those states considering restrictive legislation or higher cigarette taxes, camouflaged behind such names as "(Colorado) Citizens Against Tax Abuse and Government Waste" and "Minnesota Coalition of Responsible Retailers." Through such deceptions and the sheer and unchallenged volume of its messages, the tobacco industry was able to overcome significant initial public sentiment and defeat these proposals.
More recently the pharmaceutical industry, hidden behind the names "Citizens for Better Medicare" and "Senior Coalition", attempted to provoke a reflex among many older citizens to call their elected representatives and unwittingly support the industry's concealed agenda.
In the absence of publicly financed campaigns or restrictions on soft money contributions, astroturf organizations now not only present themselves as merely concerned citizens participating in the public debate, but do so with a new marketing sophistication. For example, two of the primary and original issues concerning the group Physicians for Social Responsibility were nuclear disarmament and the de-alerting of nuclear weapons. To combat PSR, which is a true grassroots organization championing a diversity of issues with chapters and members nationwide, the nuclear power industry decided to help construct a competing group, crudely cloned as Doctors for Disaster Preparedness.
Once created, a "spokesperson" for the DDP traveled the country, giving news conferences and issuing press releases disputing industry-threatening realities such as global-warming and the dangers of nuclear energy. Media, assuming that the DDP's junk science was backed by the weight and authority of a large, established, and legitimate organization, gave equal weight and "balance" to these positions. The true agenda of DDP, at its core this one individual, only becomes clear when the relationship to PSR, in both name and aim, is considered.
The American Civil Liberties Union is perhaps the only organization that can be counted on to defend the force and relevance of the Constitution against the constant barrage of attempts to weaken or marginalize it. The same can unfortunately not always be said of our elected officials or even our courts. Pat Robertson, TV evangelist and right-wing politician, envied the stature of the ACLU while resenting its actions and positions that were often in conflict with his own philosophies and goals. So he created a grassroots-sounding public-interest organization, the American Center for Law and Justice, recently in the news representing abortion opponents in court, to represent the legal rights of the religiously conservative. The name appropriation becomes apparent when we consider the initials ACLU, and then Robertson's ACLJ. But the ACLJ, despite Web sites, newsletters and the like, remains essentially Robertson and his chief counsel.
Those who would devalue grassroots organizations include cynical politicians who place their own agendas above honesty or integrity. During the Clarence Thomas hearings the Bush administration, disappointed by the lack of support from legitimate mainstream civil-rights organizations, encouraged and exploited in-name-only organizations created primarily to endorse Thomas' nomination. Today, one would be hard pressed to locate such groups as the Committee for the Betterment of Poor People (compare to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), as telephone listings or mentions on the internet subsequent to the hearings appear nonexistent.
A certain cynicism and questionable ethic emerges in all these deceptions and name appropriations. There is an obvious attempt to mislead and misdirect on the part of these conservative and industry groups, similar to the sleight-of-hand used by magicians. Unfortunately, the majority of citizens are unaware they are being subjected to an illusion. Gradually, in a society much in need of honesty and integrity, cynicism and the acceptance of a self-serving, situational ethic grows.
Harv Teitelbaum is a graduate student studying Environmental Leadership/Ecopsychology at Naropa University.
Copyright 2000 The Daily Camera