DECEMBER 28, 2020
I BECAME INVESTED IN the project of Industrial-Strength Denial in its early pages, when Barbara Freese relates the instances of climate change denial she encountered as an assistant attorney general in Minnesota and, later, an advocate for climate protection policies. “What is wrong with these people?” she often wondered, while noticing that most of them weren’t evil or irrational. They were, in fact, rather ordinary.
Freese looked to history for insight and found shocking precedents of denial. There is, for example, radium companies’ insistence that their product was benign, even when confronted with rotting bones, anemia, and climbing death rates. Extreme denials are not rare. The mind has a gymnastic ability to evade damning evidence.
Beginning with the slave trade and culminating in climate change denial, Industrial-Strength Denial examines eight historical travesties and the denialism that propped them up. Freese draws on research from various fields of study, including social psychology and institutional analysis, to shed light on the “moral and cognitive blinders” that enable ordinary humans to inhabit counterfactual realities. Excepting climate denial, she also recounts how these “blinders” were eventually overcome by an inspirational cast of individuals, including activists, lawyers, journalists, writers, and ultimately government regulators.
Denials can be devastating, Freese suggests, but all is not lost. It’s a hopeful premise, especially as Freese situates her study as a perspective on the “post-truth” era, in which “the perception of objective reality that was once widely shared across society has been fractured.” Perhaps if we could understand how companies like General Motors rationalized the use of lead (whose toxicity has been established since antiquity) in gasoline; or how the financial industry turned a blind eye to the housing bubble (the mortgage fraud and subprime products that created the 2008 global financial crisis) — perhaps, then, we could begin to comprehend the times in which we live.
For Freese, corporate denial is the worst culprit, making a “corrosive impact” on the population’s grasp of objective reality. A good example is the two-decade dispute over chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), chemicals used in products ranging from refrigerants to hairspray, which began in the early 1970s. When it became clear that these compounds were depleting the ozone layer, the industry harnessed the anticommunist sentiment of the Cold War to cast scientists, experts, and regulators as enemies of capitalism and the free market. A similar strain of anti-regulatory libertarian rhetoric fueled the tobacco industry’s denial of smoking’s health effects and addictive properties. Laurence Tisch, CEO of the firm that owned Lorillard Tobacco Company, went so far as to characterize regulatory efforts as “McCarthyism,” while the Tobacco Institute accused the Environmental Protection Agency of promoting “political correctness over sound science,” an argument that Trump has recycled to challenge the use of masks during the pandemic. The tobacco industry also strengthened the affiliation between scientific denial and the libertarian right by funding anti-regulatory think tanks. Industrial-Strength Denial assembles a powerful litany of evidence that calls for, in Freese’s words, a more “muscular government” that respects science and implements strong regulatory laws for the public good.
I’m persuaded by her research but not by this part of the argument. Nor am I convinced that a history of corporate denial accounts for today’s polarized climate. The drawbacks of her laser focus on corporations are most apparent in her studies of the slave trade and climate denial. Freese is right to point out that the slave trade demonstrates what “an organized and lucrative industry is capable of rationalizing,” but she fails to account for the fact that the denial of slaves’ personhood was kept up not just by corporations, but also by individuals of the populace. Slavery may have been corporate-backed, but corporate ideology alone does not explain why whole European and American populations tolerated it. It doesn’t account, either, for the persistence of antiblack racism more than 150 years after abolition, the manifestations of which have been particularly visible over the past year.
Corporate denial is also insufficient to account for climate denial, which was backed by the fossil fuel industry but later became denial on a populist scale. Freese seems uninterested in this part, and frequently references the public as a singularity: “Part of the legacy of tobacco industry denial,” she writes, for instance, “is the toxic residue of a broader science denial in the body politic, like a tarry buildup of cynicism preventing democracy from functioning as it needs to.” Reading Freese’s many references to “the body politic,” a reader gets the impression that corporate denial affects each member of society in a uniform way. The problem, of course, is that the public is not homogeneous.
She comes closer to popular sociology in her discussion of the 2008 financial crisis, when she writes that the Great Recession “eroded social trust in government (especially on the right), in business (especially on the left), and in U.S. institutions generally.” However, rather than exploring this partisan divide, she proceeds to close her chapter on the financial industry, opting instead to comment on the importance of government regulation.
Freese encourages readers to elect politicians who are “willing to pass strong laws” based on scientific reality and to change social norms by “using the many tools our pluralistic society provides.” The uncomfortable truth, however, is that a “muscular” governmental response fails to account for individual agency. At its worst, it makes possible the perception of a revolving door between experts and politicians — in effect, the perception of a technocracy — which could exacerbate scientific denial and aggravate voter polarization. Freese’s proposal will only provide populists with ammunition against the left, as forceful corporate regulation and climate protection policies will inevitably be framed as the Democrats’ elitist attempts against the interest of “the people.”
Since the early days of Trump’s presidency, it has been clear that insisting on facts to dismantle populist denial only encourages “alternative” beliefs. To cite a famous exchange from the day after Trump’s inauguration in 2017, NBC News’s Chuck Todd was criticizing Sean Spicer, the administration’s first press secretary, for exaggerating the inaugural crowd size. Such falsehoods, Todd insisted to Trump’s former counselor Kellyanne Conway, undermine the credibility of the White House. “Don’t be so overly dramatic about it, Chuck,” said Conway. “Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that.”
“Alternative facts are not facts. They’re falsehoods,” Todd scoffed.
For a moment, it seemed as if he would have the upper hand, until Conway spun the argument into a narrative of victimhood: “Maybe this is me as a pollster, Chuck, and you know data well. I don’t think you can prove those numbers one way or the other. There’s no way to really quantify crowds. We all know that. You can laugh at me all you want.” The damage had been done. Conway proceeded to claim that his condescension was in fact “very representative of the way we’re treated by the press.” By differentiating “us” from “the press,” Conway cast the Trump administration as an authentic and independent representative of “the people.” In her formulation, “we” the people are the victims of the liberal press’s weaponization of dubious facts against the Trump administration, whose “alternative” version of reality is just as valid.
To tackle populist denial, we must begin to see populism not as pathology but, as Freese herself acknowledged when she began this project, as ordinary people with legitimate worries. Industrial-Strength Denial is an exhaustive chronicle of white-collar true crime, but its fixation on corporate regulation occludes insights into post-truth politics. When denials are perpetuated in the name of the people, the people might just want to have a say in the denial, too. And who’s to deny them that desire?