When small confessions hide bigger crimes

A lot of politics is about sleight-of-hand -- look at this, not that. Sometimes this is done with obvious lies, like when a politician says unauthorized immigrants are rapists and murders, and lazy too, but somehow they're still stealing all "our" jobs.

Sometimes the sleight-of-hand is harder to see. Maybe it's not even done consciously. Sometimes the ruling class offers a small apology, a small admission of guilt, to distract from a bigger crime.

At the end of World War II the U.S. used nuclear weapons on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Since then, the least inhumane defenders of the established order have debated the need for these particular mass-murders.

Guilty hand-wringing here serves many purposes. By isolating the atomic bombings, attacks on civilians are framed as exceptional rather than normal. How many Americans know that conventional air raids on Japan are estimated to have killed anywhere from 200,000 to 780,000 civilians? Moreover, focusing on the spectacular use of nuclear weapons as the war was winding down allows politicians to argue that attacks on civilians are the terrible, regrettable price of winning wars. This justifies indiscriminate air strikes today. (All the efforts to justify attacks on civilians in WWII hide how massacring civilians did nothing to end the war -- Germany and Japan only surrendered once their conventional military forces were completely defeated.) Finally, using the atomic bombings as a perennial ethical exercise makes us limit our ethical judgment to just this one action, rather than the entire war or wars more generally.

Climate change is another example of a small confession obscuring the ceaseless perpetration of bigger crimes. The ruling class is owning up to the reality of climate change -- even if they collectivize blame to include "consumers" and their "western lifestyle" rather blaming the capitalist system's wasteful production for profit. And it's true that climate change is an urgent threat to humanity. But climate change is only one of many environmental catastrophes happening in parallel. These other catastrophes aren't amenable to "accords" with empty promises. These other catastrophes can't be commodified by capitalists selling new technologies that mitigate the rate of climate change -- or at least give the impression of mitigating climate change, so that the firms buying these new technologies can advertise to sympathetic customers. So it follows that in the 2020 U.S. presidential campaign very little is said about ocean acidification, the loss of coral reefs, shrinking wetlands, an unparalleled rate of extinction (140,000 a year!), destruction of rainforests, contamination of drinking water, air pollution, etc. Yet every Democratic candidate for the president talks about climate change as if their party, their system of exploitation, is capable of defending the environment.