John Hanger–Right off the Rack

The following captures a likely dialogue between myself, Wendy Lynne Lee, and Kevin Heatley, both of Shale Justice. The event is democratic gubernatorial candidate, John Hanger’s, visit to a Shale Justice sponsored meeting at Bloomsburg University on September 3rd organized by Shale Justice Executive Committee member, John Trallo. The piece may be very fruitfully read in correspondence with the amazingly mangled announcement of the event in Marcellus Drilling News (Shale Justice Coalition Plans to Gate-Crash John Hanger Appearance | Marcellus Drilling News), and the excellent analysis of both the MDN total botch and the Hanger event itself by Dory Hippauf (HANGER AND THE UGLY CHOICES | Shale Justice).

Heatley’s essay appears as primary text in bold, and mine appears in the quotation marks, italicized and in blue.

Another evening event in Shale Gas country. Instead of relaxing on the deck watching the dragonflies of late summer buzz across the pond, I am traveling to another community event.

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Despite my better judgment, I feel compelled to behave like an engaged citizen. Another character flaw I struggle to overcome.

Another evening in Shale Gas country—instead of heading home from school to sneaker-up and go run hills, I am dashing about psychotically to secure treats, get a classroom door open, move desks, and make coffee for another community event for the movement to ban fracking. I don’t have time for “better judgment.” Right now I am just struggling to overcome fatigue and select fancy soda.

Tonight’s outing involves a Q&A session with former DEP director, professional lawyer, and gubernatorial hopeful, Mr. John Hanger.  John (I always use first names as I enjoy the false sense of familiarity that political figures project, even when they have no idea who the hell you are) has graciously agreed, at the request of the subversive Shale Justice Coalition, to travel to Bloomsburg and discuss his candidacy. The public meeting is attended by approximately 20 people, including an undercover gas operative (Slim Jim grease in breast pocket – dead giveaway).

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Tonight’s outing involves arranging a classroom, some fruit salad, carrot sticks, upscale chips, and glass bottled sparkling beverages to maximize the “civil” of civil exchange between a gubernatorial candidate and voters who will assuredly not vote for him—a candidate who might be commended for being willing to walk into the fire of polite but determined opposition—except for that his entire presentation was an exercise in the scorched earth rhetoric of “I don’t suck as much as the other guy even though I will let the gas companies screw you” bracketed by two distinctive appeals to emotional extortion. I, however, will call Mr. Hanger “Mr. Hanger” because the familiarity implied by first name address leaves me feeling a little skeezy, and because he played a bit of fake deferral to me as “Professor Lee.” Two can play that game.

John has dressed in legal casualwear – white shirt, dark slacks, polished black loafers and a full democratic-blue tie. I take note of that, not because I intend to judge him based on appearance, but because I know that the vast majority of voters will make their final choice of elected leader based upon a complete and thorough intellectual analysis of camera presence. Think Kennedy versus Nixon. As a slight man, in his late fifties with a nasal tone to his speech, I am hoping John has some kick-ass platform positions.

Didn’t notice much other than the Democratic-Party-Blue tie—interesting choice for a guy who, in response to my question about why he opposed the 115-81 Democratic Committee vote for a six year moratorium on fracking, answered by way of classic deflection—the “Red Herring” that none of us agree with everything our parties stand for, so there “nothin’ to see here folks” about his refusal to endorse a major party platform. Except, of course, that there is. Because the moratorium would fundamentally alter the way Pennsylvania deals with an industry that’s poisoning our water, destroying our air quality, converting our communities into fractious war zones, selling off our public lands and their endangered inhabitants, and turning a country side once called the land of a thousand shades of green into an industrialized dead-zone a single shade of gray (and not the sexy adderondackskind), his position matters very much indeed. And Mr. Hanger’s right off the rack industry-sharpened lines is the wrong one.

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John starts with some background history; 29 years working on energy issues as a lawyer, community activist, and regulator. He tells of a transformative event – the death of three people in Philly who were too poor to afford safe heating and burned to death in a fire while using candles. This is disturbing to everyone in the room and I can see that one of the attendees is anxiously seeking the missing Slim Jims as comfort food.  John has done a good job of demonstrating compassion during the lead-in segment. This is not to imply it is not genuine, merely that it is good public relations building.

Mr. Hanger moves very quickly to soften up his audience for his “Call me Mr. Regulator, yeah some people are gonna get hurt, but hey we all drive cars” industry pitch with just the right strategy of emotional manipulation—a family that burns to death moving him to take action to “stop that kind of thing.” Good for Mr. Hanger. Or not. However disturbing the story might be to the audience and to “Mr. Slim Jim,” it’s apparent street-cred. social justice gold for Mr. Hanger turns out to be just one of his tinny-tools for pitting some pretty vulnerable folks against others, namely folks who can’t afford to heat their houses (and end up using candles) against folks who, um, can’t afford to heat their houses (and end up driving tanker trucks for the gas). In effect his argument is “The only way to make sure folks can heat their houses is to make sure they’ve got access to cheap fuel, and if that means some other folks are gonna have to get really hurt, well, we’ve all got to suck that up.” Except of course we don’t all suck that up. And all the industry folks are sucking up is money ready to off-shore or spend-up elsewhere. After all, why would they spend their moola in an industrialized shit-hole?

But John makes a tactical error early on – gauging his audience as potentially hostile to his lack of support for a moratorium on unconventional gas drilling, a moratorium supported by his own political party, he assumes a defensive posture. For the next 45 minutes he uses classic logical fallacies in an attempt to “explain” his resistance to a moratorium. First is the use of the false equivalency, a technique whereby different choices are presented as fundamentally “the same”. John emphasizes repeatedly during his presentation that all energy comes with negative impacts. Dead bats with windmills, dead rivers with coal, and dead aquifers with natural gas (my observation, not his). In essence, John implies that all our energy choices are going to screw someone somewhere and that the solution is to try and screw the least number of people and then compensate them if possible. WOW, now that is a positive motivational message for the masses, especially if you want to start a riot.

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Mr. Hanger miscalculates the savvy of his audience early on. Besides deploying logical fallacy as an instrument to extort consent, he also promotes a campaign platform that is fashioned entirely out of negative claims that are either distorted in their presentation or just false on the facts:

  1. Coal and oil are really bad. Natural gas extraction is less bad. So natural gas extraction is actually good.
  2. The Corbett administration is really bad. I, John Hanger am less bad. So I, John Hanger, am actually good.
  3. Climate change is really bad. Methane emissions and leaks—measured in a funky short-sighted way—makes it less bad that Co2. So methane emissions and leaks are actually good.

The trouble with this approach is that (a) our frack-savvy Shale Justice-n-Friends audience can see right through it—and did, and (b) as an election platform, it leaves rather a lot to be desired—like positive claims about what a candidate is going to do. Mr. Hanger’s platform, as far as I can see is this: “Vote for me! I’m the guy who will try to get some regulations that will poison you less! Dirty your air less! Destroy your communities less! Have you suffer cancer less! Yeah! Or less!” But of course “regulation” is nothing but code for “minimal control over the rate, speed, mind-blowing severity, and permanence of harm.” So that “less” is pretty cold comfort. Indeed, dying in a house fire because you were using candles to survive a Winter night is frickin awful. But burning down the whole damn house called earth so that a few folks can live in gigantic well-heated houses wherever they damn-well want off the shale—that’s just insane. Mr. Hanger may well have convinced himself that a platform that shills it up for the Good Old Boys of  Anadarko is good for the poor folks he patronizes, but the rest of us know better.

Throughout the rest of his presentation John then works under another logical fallacy – the false dichotomy. This is the “either/or” proposition where a limited number of options are given in an attempt to narrow the choices and direct the decision of the target audience. John uses this technique both to justify his support for unconventional gas, “gas is bad but coal is worse” and for his own candidacy “the other candidates are worse than me”. What is particularly puzzling is John’s repeated contrasting of his positions with those of Tom Corbett. As Corbett’s approval rating is just slightly higher than Jerry Sandusky, it seems meaningless to create a comparison. John might as well have contrasted his candidacy with that of a corpse.

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Indeed. Comparing oneself to Tom Corbett as a campaign strategy is kind of like insisting that because you didn’t personally, say, turn over Anne Frank to the NAZIs, you deserve to be the next German Chancellor. Nope.

While John knew his audience would not appreciate his lack of support for the party moratorium platform, he must not have realized the intellectual rigor with which they would respond to his rationalizations. When presented with contrasting evidence and his use of logical fallacies, he became defensive. While the meeting was congenial and respectful, John’s discomfort and inability to directly address key issues was apparent.

Mr. Hanger would have been better off had he brought some helpful interference-thugs. At least then, one of them could have texted to the Slim Jim industry mole that things were getting too hot and too smart for their candidate and faked some exit strategy. Instead, Hanger not only went on defense, but in so doing doubled down on the “I’m not the guy who’s gonna tell ya that people aren’t going to get hurt and that their aren’t going to be costs.” The trouble was that he never really countered with any of the benefits. In fact, even Mr. Hanger contests some of the wilder inflated job claims—so who is making out here? Why shouldn’t we all just see this as wholesale concession thinly veiled by a weak-ass promise to help us out when we get cancer, or lose our wells, or our kid gets asthma? And that is all, of course, a lie. John hanger can’t cure cancer, de-toxify a contaminated well, or fix a sick kid’s lungs. 

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Of particular concern was John’s use of the shared culpability argument – the idea that, since we all use energy to exist we are all responsible for the devastation incurred from nuclear power, coal extraction, and oil & gas drilling. What is conveniently ignored in that rationale is that we do not all consume at the same level.  Some of us are more culpable than others.

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And the corporate transnationals and political elite that offer us no viable choices but death by axe or death by hanging, are the most culpable of all. 

“Shared Culpability.” As if my occasionally less than stellar kitty-box cleaning was comparable to Michael Vick’s penchant for dog-fighting. As if my driving a Honda FIT was comparable to some gas executive’s purchase of a fleet of stretch HUMMERS. As if my somewhat lazy ‘tude about turning my compost was comparable to dumping frack waste. Seriously.

By the end of the evening I am willing to give John the benefit of the doubt.

Benefit of the doubt? Not so much. Though I highly esteem my colleague in anti-fracking action, Kevin Heatley, I’m afraid that Mr. Hanger precluded this option at both the beginning—and especially the end—of his performance for Shale Justice. Let me put this as forthrightly and compassionately as possible—no easy marriage: I wholly appreciate and empathize with Mr. Hanger’s loss of his son. I cannot even fathom the pain and anguish this must have caused, and the suffering he must surely still endure. I would be smashed to bits the size of grains of sand. But having said that, to raise this death—to effectively deploy it—as a strategy for making oneself electable, the best candidate in virtue of being the least noxious and the grieving father is deplorable. Mr. Hanger should be ashamed—and I hope he never uses this smarmy tactic ever ever again. For his own sake. I was embarrassed for him. I cannot support a candidate that willfully ignores the precautionary principle either, but even more I cannot support a candidate who willfully exploits the death of his child for political gain.

While I cannot support  a candidate that willfully ignores the precautionary principle, a concept that demands we hold back on further natural gas extraction until the science is clear, I can acknowledge his support for renewable energy and social justice to be both honest and noble efforts. However, John then, in apparent desperation, struggling to salvage the room, brings up a personal tragedy that his family experienced last year. This was extremely inappropriate and bordered on manipulation. Politicians would be well advised to keep pictures of the kids, the wife, or wives, the hubby, and the lovable Pug, at home. My vote will not be based upon how much you love your family or how much they love you. It will be based upon the potential impact of your policies. We already have enough incompetent but good family men and women in office.

And I can only interpret Mr. Hanger’s applause for renewables as posturing and pandering until he becomes a lot more courageous about ending fossil fuel extraction and takes seriously the real harms that he only pretends to care about. Or—perhaps he does care. But it’s no better a surmise because then we must conclude he’s not that bright—and I do think Mr. hanger is bright. Bright enough to position himself between the gas industry and the citizens they are in knowing, calculative fashion harming with “regulation.” Such citizens may be “refugees,” but, well, beware the educated embattled engaged refugee. We have formed a movement.

So, I offer a big thank you to all the known enemies of the State at Shale Justice for getting John to come up to Bloomsburg and speak to the disenfranchised overburdened who live on the shale.  And I would also like to thank John Hanger for being one of the only candidates willing to engage an audience of future refugees. But let the two major parties be advised – shale gas is a game changer, just not in the way the industry claims. The illusion of choice based upon the old two party paradigm is disappearing. Ignore the seismic groundswell of opposition and you will never collect your royalties.

Kevin’s right. Shale gas is a game changer. A party system that has always been a sham is exposed all the more so for its internal corruptions and corporatist self-aggrandizing objectives. But the real change in the game is not about parties or industries. It’s, as Kevin says, about the seismic groundswell of resistance that knows neither party nor state nor country borders. All it knows is shale. That is to say, it knows everything that is represented by the potential destruction of this last bastion of fossil fuel extraction—and because that is called climate change, it knows that game-over is about far more than royalties.

Kevin Heatley & Wendy Lynne Lee

1 Comment on John Hanger–Right off the Rack

  1. This shows that we need someone stronger to face an Industry , which considers poisoning most of us and the land an acceptable sacrifice for the rich to become richer….and it is not John Hanger. Better Regs will not a safe PA. create…

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