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In Defense of Raising Alarms


Thursday April 24, 2014

A good alternative to a bracing cold shower as a way of raising your heart beat in the morning is to read any review, oped, or editorial about environment in the Wall Street Journal. Today’s digitalis was served up by James Hoffman in his review of A Climate of Crisis by Patrick Allitt. I’ll reserve judgment of the book, but the review offers the standard WSJ stew of casuistry, cherry-picking, misinformation and distortions that has long been the Journal’s signature when it comes to environment.

For instance, Huffman credits authors like Rachel Carson, Paul Ehrlich and Barry Commoner with rousing the public to demand the landmark environmental legislation of the ‘60s and early ‘70s (give a nod to Richard Nixon – much of the credit for today's cleaner air, water, and protected species trace to legislation he signed), but then has this gem: “Even so, environmentalists continued to cry wolf, and we’re undeterred when their doom-saying forecasts of global famine and ecological ruin failed to materialize.”

In what way was Silent Spring crying wolf? To find an example of a nation that didn’t heed the warnings of the environmentalists of that era, Mr. Huffman need only travel to China, where pesticides did kill off most birdlife, where pollution has so fouled the air and water that in vast stretches of the country the water is unfit even for industry, the land is too poisoned for farming and air pollution makes the cities unlivable.

And then there’s this: “And numerous Northwest communities were devastated in the 1990s by a 90% cut in public-land timber harvests, which crippled the timber industry to save the Northern Spotted Owl.” Really? At the point at which the Spotted Owl issue boiled up, the only remaining large tracts of old growth Pacific Northwest forests were on public land as virtually all old growth on private land had already been cut. So much for Wise Use. Moreover, over the years, automation threw more loggers out of work than environmental restrictions (which were a convenient whipping boy for owners who would gladly cut the payroll if a machine could do a man’s work). With old growth gone the logging industry was destined to shrink drastically anyway as the real money lay in extracting the giant, ancient trees.

If private owners had acted responsibly and the Forest Service not acted as errand boys for the loggers over many decades, the Endangered Species Act would not have come into play as a last resort. Would Huffman have preferred that all old growth be available for logging?

I’ll give Huffman some credit. Unlike virtually any other writer that appears in the Journal’s editorial pages, he sounds as though he does think environment needs protecting. He thinks the courts are the place to work out environmental disputes (which reminds me of Michael Kinsley’s pithy line about the libertarian preference for courts over regulation: “Why do something once when you can do it many times”). Courts need laws, however, and when has Congress enacted any legislation without a sense of urgency?

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Short Take

[Mild spoiler alert: the book is a fictionalized exploration of a girl who falls under the spell of a Manson-like cult. We all know how that story unfolded. In this Short Take I’ll be offering my reactions to the protagonist, Evie Boyd.]

 

The Girls offers as bleak a view of the amorality of American youth as I have ever encountered. In a review of my first book, I was called “Intolerably apocalyptic,” but I can’t hold a candle to Ms. Cline. The book is a novelistic attempt to try and understand how some of the privileged young women of the late 1960s could commit unspeakable acts while under the sway of a Manson-like psychopath. 

 Thus we meet Evie Boyd, a fourteen year-old growing up amid relative affluence in Petaluma California. She’s directionless, with no apparent passions, self-conscious about her looks, emotionally needy, alienated from her parents (who get divorced), but possessed of a tough inner core and a rebellious streak. She’s enthralled when she encounters Suzanne, a wild, charismatic 19 year-old who seems to be a composite of Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houton, and Evie is honored when Suzanne pays her some attention. Events bring her to the cult’s squalid ranch, and for some weeks, Evie maintains a dual life, throwing herself into the life of the cult, while returning home enough not to galvanize her mother, who is pre-occupied with a rebound relationship with Frank, an entrepreneur who comes across as a hustler with a heart of gold.

Evie is so smitten by Suzanne that she doesn’t notice as the cult spirals down from talk of love and freedom to episodes of paranoia, back-biting and revenge. Along the way, Evie has her first sexual adventures, and enters sufficiently into the spirit of the cult that she brings them to the house of the family next door (which they descrate), even though she has known the family all her life and has no score to settle. Later, Evie talks her way into joining Suzanne as she and others set off to inflict mayhem on a Dennis Wilson-like figure, but Suzanne kicks her out of the car before they begin a horrific rampage.

Did Suzanne do this to protect Evie from what she knew was about to happen, or because she felt that Evie wasn’t a murderer and would become a liability? That’s left unanswered, but the bloodbath that Evie missed is so depraved – including the slashing apart of a toddler – that no human with a soul could find that earlier gesture redemptive … except for our Evie, who still feels the tug of Suzanne’s power, even after she learns every gory detail of Suzanne’s actions.

It’s several months between the time of the murders and when the cult is finally caught. During this time, Evie keeps her mouth shut about what happens and meekly allows herself to be shipped off to boarding school to resume her comfortable existence, though as a wreck, not a spirited teenager.

That’s when I decided Evie was a worthless human being. Sure, she was terrified that the cult would come after her, and there’s some honor on not squealing, but Evie had to know that the cult would likely kill again, and that made her an enabler of whatever they did subsequently.

The book interweaves the present and the past and so we learn how these events haunted Evie’s life. But there’s no redemptive moment, no act where she summons the courage to do the right thing, or rises above her own self-absorption. Even in the present, when the psychopath-in-the-making son of a friend and his underage, impressionable girlfriend crash at her digs, she can only summon a half-hearted (and failed) attempt to save the girl from following the path that so grievously sidetracked her own life.

All the men in the book are either pathetic or pigs of various shapes and forms – except for a premed student named Tom, who sees the cult for what it is, but who Evie rejects as a dork. Towards the end of the book, Evie ticks off a long list of subsequent experiences with awful men that could summon in her the hatred to commit horrendous crimes, seeming to imply that with the right mix of events, she too might have become a Suzanne, and, by implication, so could enormous numbers of other young women.

My first reaction was to call “Bullshit!” Were all young women potential Suzannes, we would have seen endless repeats of the Manson horrors in the nearly 50 years since the events. Instead, those murders still stand as a touchstone of horror because nothing since has eclipsed their mindless violence.

The Manson cult was at the far far end of the normal curve during truly abnormal times. In just the two years leading up to the murders, we had the huge escalation of a senseless war, the explosion of the anti-war movement and counter-culture, a breakdown of generational trust, my generation’s first experiences with powerful, mind-altering drugs, and a sexual revolution. In a country of more than 200 million people, that roiling stew of disruptive forces bubbled to the surface about 20 broken souls, deranged by drugs and in the thrall of a false prophet.

On reflection, however, maybe Ms. Clein was making a different point. All we have to think of are the teenage executioners of Pol Pot’s Cambodia or the child soldiers of Africa to recognize that the capacity for evil lies latent in the young. And, while in fiction we want our protagonists to find redemption or transcend their flaws perhaps Evie’s failure to rise to the occasion was making the point that a civilization that keeps our murderous impulses in check is not innate, but something external that has to be actively inculcated and supported. That’s something to keep in mind amid the current insanity of gun violence, and as more dark clouds gather on the horizon.



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