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EDITORIAL MISCHIEF


Saturday October 19, 2013

Every now and then, the editors of The Wall Street Journal take flight to remind us of the meaning of the word casuistry. One such day was Oct. 1, the lead editorial jumped all over the latest IPCC report (a massive consensus document on climate change compiled from the work of more than a thousand scientists and policymakers from around the globe) because the report seemed to modulate its expectations of future warming. Here’s a couple of my favorite sentences from the editorial: “If emitting CO2 into the atmosphere causes global warming, why hasn’t the globe been warming?” and then, “Translation: Temperatures have been flat for 15 years…”

Except that they haven’t. The World Meteorological Association documents that the first decade of the new millennium was the warmest on record, breaking the record established by the previous decade, which in turn broke the record that was established during the one prior. The trend continues as every year seems to be in the top ten warmest.

Most sophistry builds upon something that looks factual, and denialists have seized on distortions introduced by the extremely hot year of 1998, where warming was supercharged by one of the strongest El Ninos in 200,000 years. The 1998 record  skewed subsequent trend lines. It was so warm that 1998 wasn’t bumped from the number one spot until 2005 (which in turn was displaced by 2010). Some flattening!

Focusing on temperature obscures the derivative impacts of global warming. For instance, the editors neglect to mention that the same report significantly revised upwards its estimates of sea level rise.  They also might have asked themselves: why, if the report implies global warming has halted, its assessment would be raising estimates of sea level rise.

There’s barely a sentence in the editorial that holds up under scrutiny. In the Orwellian world of the editorial it’s the climate scientists who are “bullies,” which is stammer-inducing when one thinks of the vitriol visited on Michael Mann, a leading climate scientist who has been hounded and even physically threatened by deniers for sticking to his assertion that recent temperatures have risen so fast recently that a graph of the record looks like a hockey stick. As attorney general of Virginia, Ken Cuccinelli (now candidate for governor) pursued a Joe McCarthy-like campaign of intimidation of Mann that basically drove the distinguished scientist out of the state.

Of course, none of this is news to anyone who knows anything the role of the deniers in forestalling action on climate change. The enduring question is why? I’ve no doubt the editors are smart. They know that cherry-picking is a bogus form of argument. I’m sure they can see the economic damage of out-of-season extreme storms, droughts, wildfires, floods, and other byproducts of changing climate. My guess is that this obstinate blindness is something visceral rather than intellectual: with an acute dislike of the other side feeding on a combination of ideology and economic self-interest. 

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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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