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Pope Francis in the Lion's Den


Tuesday September 22, 2015


Pope Francis will be the first leader of the Catholic Church to address a joint session of Congress.  Take out the name “Francis”, and that sentence would be the subject of universal rejoicing among Catholics. Instead we get this: “[The Pope ought to] leave science to the scientists,” from former Senator and Presidential candidate Rick Santorum, or this “when the Pope chooses to act and talk like a leftist politician, he can be expected to be treated like one,” from Representative Paul Gosar of Arizona who intends to boycott the session.

Santurum, Gosar, and many other Catholic Republicans are in a snit because Francis intends to use this opportunity to spread the message of the threat of climate change that he laid out in his encyclical Laudate Si’ earlier this summer. This has led a number of Republicans, who loudly invoke religious authority when thundering on the evils of abortion or same sex marriage, to suddenly become passionate advocates of the separation of church and state. Beyond the amusing theater of politicians trying to pick and choose which Church doctrines they like – “Cafeteria Catholics,” as former Republican representative Bob Inglis calls them – there is the important question of what impact the Pope might have. 

If he’s hoping to change minds, he has got his work cut out for him. In most of the world’s nations, Pope Francis’ acceptance of the reality of evolution and the threat posed by climate change seems nothing more than common sense. When he addresses the Republican-controlled Congress, however, he will be in a chamber where common sense (along with consistency, logic and a sense of proportion) must be checked at the door. A political party that can dismiss as a hoax or conspiracy the overwhelming consensus of the world’s scientists with expertise in climate is not suddenly going to change its position because a Pope says that he thinks the threat is real.

In the longer run, however, the Pope’s address marks the end of climate denialism as a viable political position. I suspect that many of the politicians venting against the Pope recognize this. It’s clear by now that many of the politicians and organizations that oppose action on climate change have long known that it is real threat, but have used the levers of political power and propaganda to protect profits or funding. Reporting by InsideClimate News revealed that Exxon’s own studies confirmed the threat in the 1970s (indeed one study estimated that a doubling of CO2 would raise global temperatures by 2-3 degrees Celsius, very much in line with current estimates). Exxon, of course, has gone on to fund many of the organizations that spread disinformation about global warming.

Were the Pope only speaking to Congress, politicians might continue to bluster about hoaxes and liberal conspiracies, but the Pope’s message is going out to a billion Catholics around the world, and it is coming from the leader of a faith known for conservative positions on many social issues. As it stands, recent polling done by Pew Research Center suggests that Catholics are in line with Americans on awareness of global warming, but that only 24% of Republican Catholics think it is a serious problem. 
Expect that number to rise as the millions of people the Pope is trying to reach come to their own conclusions by simply looking around their world. In the Arctic, they can see that their world is warming catastrophically, and not cooling as recently trumpeted by the deniers (a claim based on cherry-picking data on variations in seasonal sea ice). In the Mediterranean regions of the world, they can see that droughts are more persistent; in the mountains they can watch glaciers retreat and snow packs thin; and everywhere people can see that once-in-a-100-year weather extremes are coming in packs. These observations confirm the Pope’s message and contradict the denier’s view that everything is fine.
        

Changes in public opinion will put pressure on politicians, but I suspect that what will really tip the political balance will be the growing economic clout of alternative energy. Solar, wind, fuel cells, battery and other energy storage devices are beginning to go viral, and a basic metric for politicians is job creation, particularly in an economy where household incomes have stalled for decades. The growth of renewables offers politicians a way to embrace action on climate change without ever admitting that they were wrong. 
        

So, rather than forcing change, the Pope’s encyclical and his address to a joint session of Congress mark a major inflection point in the protracted and agonizing struggle to address global warming. No one event will bring about change, but the combination of moral suasion by major religions; the undeniable changes in the world around us; the palpable costs of climate disruption; and the emergence of alternative energy as an economic engine of growth, suggest that the deniers’ rear guard actions are collapsing and that the world is mobilizing. The question remains: is it too late?
 

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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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