Tuesday, September 11, 2007
Ahh, the joys of California politics. Given the vast distances and huge population of this state, partisans for various causes find that reason expressed through oratory, a foundation of democracy, must be replaced with garish and manipulative emotional appeals. Consider a group calling itself "Californians for Fire Safety." This organization paid for an ad in a recent issue of the San Jose Mercury News that featured the horrifying image of houses on fire, explained by the following vague threat: "…[S]ome politicians in Sacramento have proposed a sweeping ban of flame retardants that help prevent fires -- and keep our homes and families safe." Those awful politicians! Why don't they keep our homes and families safe? What do they have against the suburbs? Won't somebody think of the children? Every time I see this kind of crude pitch, I get suspicious. And I'm not alone. A number of bloggers (most notably Surf Putah) have concluded that this ad is, at minimum, misleading.
To begin, "Californians for Fire Safety" are not Californians at all. According to a biophysical chemist named Arlene Blum (who is writing for an admittedly left-leaning website called California Progress Report) these "Californians" represent out-of-state chemical companies who help produce flame retardants that have been outlawed in children's clothes because of their carcinogenic properties. The companies who produce these chemicals are now fearful that legislation pending in the California assembly (AB 706) will outlaw their products in furniture as well, so they're raising the alarm that new retardants designed to replace the outdated chemicals will torch houses and kill people.
Truthfully, I have no idea whether the chemicals sold by "Californians for Fire Safety" are toxic or not. I have no expertise to evaluate the claims and counterclaims by industry insiders and scientists. But I do study persuasion with some experience, and I smell something unsavory about this ad. Yes, a huge picture of burning houses will grab the attention of the average newspaper reader (or recipient of a mass-mailed flyer or auto-dialed message or statewide television spot…). But this ad should more directly state its terms. Who does the group represent? What bill is at stake? What is wrong with the unnamed chemical alternatives? What precisely are we to tell our state legislators? I imagine that the producers of this pitch expect frightened Californians to call Sacramento and say, "Ban fire retardants? Are you crazy?" -- as if AB 706 fails to offer a responsible alternative to the materials being sold by these chemical companies. And I'm fearful that some Californians will fall for this lame appeal.
I plan to learn more about this issue. And I may indeed conclude that today's flame retardants, despite the cancer-causing risks they may bring, might be better than the alternatives, and that California should allow their use. But I don't anticipate that outcome. Any group of companies that would label themselves "Californians for Fire Safety" and employ these sorts of fear-mongering tactics does not inspire my trust.