Maureen Mullarkey is a painter who writes on art and culture. Her essays have appeared in various publications, among them: The Nation, Crisis, Commonweal, Hudson Review, Arts, The New Criterion, First Things, The Weekly Standard, and The Magazine Antiques. She was a columnist for The New York Sun.
Fanaticism in matters of sacred art is an attitude that can lead to a decadence more sterile than the one we are now endeavoring to overcome.
Maurice Lavanoux, “The Authentic Tradition and Art,,” Liturgical Arts (1954)
This past Saturday I caught a late afternoon train into the city for the last night of One Faith, East and West, a collection of contemporary sacred art at NYU’s Catholic Center. This was the final stop after exhibition in Beijing and Moscow. The show closed with a talk by painter Clement Fuchs, “Hermeneutics of Continuity in Sacred Art.”
It was an inauspicious title. A bludgeoning word, hermeneutics works best on those who view art through a verbal filter and/or think they are responding to art when they are simply reacting to subject matter. Nevertheless, the problems of sacred art today matter to me. It was worth heading out into steady rain if only to spare myself wondering later if I had missed something by staying home.
Sr. Eliseea Papacioc, St. Nicholas.
Flyers listed the start of the event—lecture and reception—at 6 PM. I mistook that to mean the talk began at six, wine and cheese afterward. Since my train only runs once an hour on weekends, I could arrive either way too soon or a half hour late. I took the earlier train.
My timing proved as unlucky as the weather. Customary protocol—lecture first, drinks later—had been reversed. Fuchs’ talk would not begin until 7 PM. And the work on the walls was a letdown. With few exceptions, the show confirmed my growing assent to the Orthodox distinction between sacred art and mere secular art with religious subject matter. It illustrated, too, the distance between piety and genius.
While several names were familiar, only two artists merited a second look: Dony McManus, an Irish artist and something of an entrepreneur in sacred art circles; and Sr. Eliseea Papacioc, an Orthodox Romanian nun and iconographer living in rural Romania.
Dony McManus. Crucifixion (from Hendrik Terbrugghen, 1625).
McManus contributed an exquisite drawing of the corpus from Hendrik Terbrugghen’s Crucifixion with Virgin and St. John. I regret having only a jpg. of McManus’ drawing. You simply cannot see on screen the delicacy of his hand or fully grasp the intelligence and vitality of his translation into line of a tonal painting. (We are so accustomed to online images that it is easy to forget the physicality of an artwork, particularly that of a drawing.)
However fine, McManus’ drawing remains a copy of part of a painting from the Dutch Golden Age. It is a beautiful rendition of its model but what distinguishes it as sacred art? Neither subject matter nor an artist’s piety qualify art as sacred. Technique and touch applied to the rendering of a religious theme does not differ from what would be used to depict any moodily lit, anatomically correct figure in space. In formal terms, the drawing is an exercise in picture making (as is the Caravaggesque painting it borrows from.)
Hendrik Terbrugghen, Crucifixion with Virgin and St. John (c.1625). ©Metropolitan Museum, NYC.
That detracts not a jot from the loveliness of the artist’s hand, but it departs from the call to transcendent reality that is the purpose of sacred art, and which informs the heart of the icon tradition. Abstract qualities necessary to suggest religious mystery evaporate in verisimilitude. In the end, much of what Western tradition after the Romanesque and early fourteenth century takes as sacred art is really history painting, albeit of a religiously significant subject.
Here, Sr. Eliseea alone eclipses pious sentiment and rises to compelling sacred art. She is not a copyist, not merely replicating older work. Rather, she inhabits the icon tradition, infusing historic patterns with a quality of concentration, precision, and refinement distinctly her own. Think of it in musical terms. The process of writing an icon bears analogy to the way a modern musician might interpret an historic and venerable score. Yo Yo Ma, Arthur Russell, and Mstislav Rostropovic can each play Bach’s Cello Suites; yet each will sound different from the other when they do.
Sr. Eliseea Papacioc, St. Nicholas (detail).
It is said that to write an icon is like standing in prayer. Looking at her work, you trust the truth of Vladislav Andreyev’s words:
What we are trying to do in our icon writing, both on the board and in our souls, is . . . to grasp or become in touch in some way with the Logos.
No emotion is depicted on the icon board, only hieroglyphic formulas—principles—of depiction. There is no effort to convey the psychological reality esteemed in the Western portrait tradition. All emphasis in is on leading the viewer in continuous motion toward an ascendant reality outside time and history. Sr. Eliseea’s incantatory calligraphic inscriptions advance the icon’s aspiration toward the sacred—the Logos—in its iconological aspect. This is a symbolic realm, conformed to theology but not identical to it.
Sr. Eliseea Papacioc. St. Paul.
Guiding the selections for One Faith, East and West is the assumption that faith is primary in matters of artistic achievement in sacred art. Were that true, this would have been more than the unexceptional exhibit that it is. True, in Sr. Eliseea’s icons faith and talent are in communion with each other. But her gifts are distinct from her faith. Were she not in religious life, not an iconographer, whatever she turned her attention to would be extraordinary. She has an eye for the subtleties of surface quality and a remarkable hand.
Rouault once said that, with respect to sacred art, “one must begin by loving painting.” (Something quite different from loving the image of oneself as a Christian painter.) In commenting on the great periods of religious art in the past, Chagall remarked “. . . there were good and bad artists even then. The difference did not lie in their piety but in their painterly ability.”
Overall, there was not enough of interest to keep me hanging about the gallery for at least another hour. I ducked out into a downpour to an overpriced Italian restaurant close by. Pappardelle con ragù degli Appennini is, undeniably, a thing of beauty. And Montepulciano is good for wet feet.
I never made the lecture. It was not necessary. There was nothing talk could add to the testimony on the walls.
Every First Things reader should spend a few minutes with Matt Ridley's “The Climate Wars' Damage to Science,” in the current issue of Quadrant, Australia's leading monthly.
Neither the pope nor the encyclical are mentioned. Nevertheless, Ridley's article is supremely relevant to a full grasp of what Laudato Si signifies. His article is entirely concerned with the corruption of science by political agendas and the funding dependent on them. It is a clear-eyed examination of the intellectual bankruptcy of the species of ideologues who have the pope's ear, and on whose voice the moral credibility of the Church has been gambled.
Sure, we [science writers] occasionally take a swipe at pseudoscience—homeopathy, astrology, claims that genetically modified food causes cancer, and so on. But the great thing about science is that it’s self-correcting. The good drives out the bad, because experiments get replicated and hypotheses put to the test. So a really bad idea cannot survive long in science.
Or so I used to think. Now, thanks largely to climate science, I have changed my mind. It turns out bad ideas can persist in science for decades, and surrounded by myrmidons of furious defenders they can turn into intolerant dogmas.
Tofim Lysenko, Soviet agronomist (c. 1930s). Photo: HIP
Bad ideas—i.e. Lysenkoism—that garner political support monopolize the debate:
This is precisely what has happened with the climate debate and it is at risk of damaging the whole reputation of science. The “bad idea” in this case is not that climate changes, nor that human beings influence climate change; but that the impending change is sufficiently dangerous to require urgent policy responses. In the 1970s, when global temperatures were cooling, some scientists could not resist the lure of press attention by arguing that a new ice age was imminent. Others called this nonsense and the World Meteorological Organisation rightly refused to endorse the alarm. That’s science working as it should. In the 1980s, as temperatures began to rise again, some of the same scientists dusted off the greenhouse effect and began to argue that runaway warming was now likely.
At first, the science establishment reacted sceptically and a diversity of views was aired. It’s hard to recall now just how much you were allowed to question the claims in those days.
As recently as ten years ago it was still possible to warn against over-heating debate:
Since then, however, inch by inch, the huge green pressure groups have grown fat on a diet of constant but ever-changing alarm about the future. That these alarms—over population growth, pesticides, rain forests, acid rain, ozone holes, sperm counts, genetically modified crops—have often proved wildly exaggerated does not matter: the organisations that did the most exaggeration trousered the most money. In the case of climate, the alarm is always in the distant future, so can never be debunked.
These huge green multinationals, with budgets in the hundreds of millions of dollars, have now systematically infiltrated science, as well as industry and media, with the result that many high-profile climate scientists and the journalists who cover them have become one-sided cheerleaders for alarm, while a hit squad of increasingly vicious bloggers polices the debate to ensure that anybody who steps out of line is punished. They insist on stamping out all mention of the heresy that climate change might not be lethally dangerous.
Today’s climate science, as Ian Plimer points out in his chapter in The Facts, is based on a “pre-ordained conclusion, huge bodies of evidence are ignored and analytical procedures are treated as evidence”. [Climate Change: The Facts, published by Australia's Institute of Public Affairs] Funds are not available to investigate alternative theories. Those who express even the mildest doubts about dangerous climate change are ostracised, accused of being in the pay of fossil-fuel interests or starved of funds; those who take money from green pressure groups and make wildly exaggerated statements are showered with rewards and treated by the media as neutral.
The bulk of Ridley's essay is a menacing catalogue of scandals in which bad scientific practice is rewarded, evidence is ignored or funding threatened for research that raises questions about the pre-ordained conclusions of the climate change imams. Reasoned dissent is greeted as blasphemy.
Climate is a chaotic system with multiple influences. As Ridley notes, human behavior is only one of many. This makes predictions extremely hazardous. The very nature of science places scientists among the least reliable forecasters. But caution is an impediment to the gravy train climate science is driving. Careers and reputations are at stake. And the traditional rigors of scientific method inhibit the intellectual posturings of self-selected, fashionable elites.
Pride is in the saddle. The Vatican, anxious to be ranked among European public intellectuals, has aligned itself with the degradation of science and the silencing of debate.
Note: Matt Ridley is a prize-winning British journalist and member of the House of Lords. He earned degrees in zoology from Eton and Oxford. You can read Ridley's essay in its entirety online here.
Snared by the hot button issues of the day, we serve ourselves best by standing back a bit and reading, or rereading, previous texts that anchor the mind in the longue durée. Or at least release us from the pressures of the moment. Philip Larkin’s quip that sex began in 1963 applies to a great many things, including those myths and inclinations driving the ecclesial culture that produced Laudato Si. Herewith, a small bouquet for remembrance.
Comet of 1680. From a pamphlet by Simon Bornmeister (1681). Nurenberg.
Begin with Charles MacKay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, first published in 1841 and still in print. He introduces his chronicle of reigning hysterias and credulities, this way:
Popular delusions began so early, spread so widely, and have lasted so long, that instead of two or three volumes, fifty would scarcely suffice to detail their history. The present may be considered more of a miscellany of delusions than a history—a chapter only in the great and awful book of human folly which yet remains to be written.
Christianity reveals nothing about politics, economics, or atmospheric physics. Christopher Dawson, writing in 1934, stated words that still resonate. Keep them in mind as you read calls for the creation of global authorities, especially ones with enforcement powers on environmental matters:
[Christians] should remember that it is not the business of the Church to do the same things as the state—to build a Kingdom like the other Kingdoms of men, only better; nor to create a regime of earthly peace and justice. The Church exists to be the light of the world . . . .
That light derives from the promise of the Resurrection, a glory and a gift offered us as individuals, not as a class.
Jesuit scholar James V. Schall, in Religion Wealth and Poverty (1990) takes note of a reality that social justice warriors tend to forget. It is that the main source of poverty in the world is ideological:
The major causes of hunger are almost always related to the quality of the governmental regime and its theory about how mankind is to be organized where there is (or is not) hunger. Ideology, in fact, the main cause of hunger, along with . . . certain attitudes to work, reward, and order. The relation of religion and moral practice to wealth producing is much closer than re are normally willing to admit. Certain doctrines and beliefs will guarantee continuing poverty.
Theodore Schultz’s Nobel Prize lecture (1980) on “The Economics of Being Poor” clarifies Fr. Schall’s point:
Future historians will no doubt be puzzled by the extent to which economic incentives were impaired during recent decades. The dominant intellectual view is antagonistic to agricultural incentive, and the prevailing economic policies deprecate the function of producer incentives. For lack of incentives the unrealized economic potential in many low-income countries is large. . . . Interventions by governments are currently the major cause of the lack of optimum economic incentives.
Laudato Si arrives as a stalking horse for the upcoming United Nations Climate Conference in Paris and a promoter of its ideological bent. So listen again to Fr. Schall:
The Church has a great stake in not presenting itself as just another economic or political lobby. Unfortunately, it sometimes conceives its main purpose to concoct alternative policies, to be a sort of ecclesiastical “shadow cabinet,” waiting to explain how the world could be better run if it just voted for these practical policies.
Patrick Moore, co-founder of Greenpeace, explains his having left the organization because of its increasing abandonment—thirty years ago!—of scientific objectivity in favor of political agendas:
By around the mid-1980s, when I left Greenpeace, the public had accepted most of the reasonable things we had been fighting for: stop the bomb, save the whales, stop toxic waste dumping into the earth, water, and air. Some, like myself, realized the job of creating mass awareness of the importance of the environment had been accomplished and it was time to move on from confrontation to sustainable development, seeking solutions. But others seemed bent on lifelong confrontation, “up against the man” “smash capitalism” . . . .
In order to remain confrontational as society adopted all the reasonable demands, it was necessary for these anti-establishment lifers to adopt ever more extreme positions, eventually abandoning science and logic altogether in zero-tolerance policies.
That brings us back to Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds:
During the great plague of London, in 1665, the people listened with similar avidity to the predictions of quacks and fanatics. Defoe says, that at that time the people were more addicted to prophecies and astronomical conjurations, dreams, and old wives' tales than ever they were before or since. Almanacs, and their predictions, frightened them terribly. Even the year before the plague broke out, they were greatly alarmed by the comet which then appeared, and anticipated that famine, pestilence, or fire would follow. Enthusiasts, while yet the disease had made but little progress, ran about the streets, predicting that in a few days London would be destroyed.
A still more singular instance of the faith in predictions occurred in London in the year 1524. The city swarmed at that time with fortune-tellers and astrologers, who were consulted daily by people of every class in society on the secrets of futurity. As early as the month of June 1523, several of them concurred in predicting that, on the 1st day of February 1524, the waters of the Thames would swell to such a height as to overflow the whole city of London, and wash away ten thousand houses. The prophecy met implicit belief. It was reiterated with the utmost confidence month after month, until so much alarm was excited that many families packed up their goods, and removed into Kent and Essex. . . .
By the middle of January, at least twenty thousand persons had quitted the doomed city, leaving nothing but the bare walls of their homes to be swept away by the impending floods.
The flood never happened. But we are a credulous species. From comets to climate, we are forever trembling on the verge of Apocalypse. We must hurry to forestall it. And, in our anxiety, we risk great harm to ourselves and our neighbors.
I came away from last week’s Sacra Liturgia conference in New York on something of a high. It was exhilarating to see a large audience drawn to Mass in the Extraordinary Form. I had half expected the majority to be older, primarily the generation born into the traditional Latin Mass. But no. Here was an auditorium filled with seminarians and younger priests, joined by musicians, scholars, and lay catechists, united in belief that the beauty of the ancient liturgy—the splendid otherness of it—plays its own role in evangelization.
Raymond Cardinal Burke spoke in support of that conviction. In the Q and A after his formal address, he told an engaging story about his experience in Barcelona with members of the youth movement Juventutem. Finding the source of their own sanctification in the ancient liturgy, this quixotic little group arranged a Solemn Pontifical Mass for the street people—addicts, homeless, runaways—that they served.
What could possibly come of such an impractical, romantic gesture? Surely it would be wasted on its intended beneficiaries. To the cardinal’s surprise and delight, the improbable congregants were exalted by the experience. All who attended were deeply moved and grateful. Much kissing and embracing followed.
Was there any lasting influence to the surge of emotion the Mass generated? Were even one or two converted from the downward spiral that brought them to this pass? The cardinal did not say. A skeptic could argue that a neglected, needy congregation such as this would likely have responded the same way to a performance of Tosca or any musical event staged in their behalf.
Here on my desk is something for our skeptic.
Not long ago I plucked John Cowper Powys’ The Meaning of Culture (1929) from the town dump for no better reason than curiosity about a writer who once drew praise from Emma Goldman. Powy (1872-1963) was a little known British novelist and itinerant lecturer whose name survives by reflection from other names— e.g. Bertrand Russell, Will Durant—he met along the way.
It turned out to be a happy find. Powy, too sophisticated to remain a believer, was no stranger to Catholicism. His wife, a Catholic, refused him a divorce when he fell in love with another woman. In the main, this clergyman’s son held himself superior to dogmas of any stripe—religious, political or marital, the same.
Powy's commentary on the “complicated poetic casuistry of Catholicism” is tinged with nostalgia, almost regret. He writes as an outsider to Rome’s precepts, but—not unlike Claudel at Christmas Vespers—is susceptible to the solemn beauty of the liturgy:
The Church of Roma in her proud, complicated, organic growth—like a great rooted tree whose branches indiscriminately shelter apes, squirrels, crows, owls and doves—has offered to the wayfarer of life-awareness a no less rich, dark depository of occult experience.
Do not let that word occult nettle you. Magic works. Besides, the word is quite serviceable for a skeptic’s recognition that in some ineffable way the Latin liturgy and its “thrilling music”—Gregorian chant and classical polyphony, not today’s sacro-pop—yield something “far more spiritual than any aesthetic opium.” Powy describes that something as “a certain intellectual temper, or habitual artistry of the mind, an antiquum organum, polished smooth by long handling.”
Unconsenting to the Church’s “ancient poetic dogmas,” he acknowledges the “power of a sorcery” carried by its liturgy. He continues:
Like some magic table, upon which our bread and wine is served and our candles lit, the Church bears up the weight of man’s quotidian destiny; bears it, and has borne it so long that it seems a kind of violence to the good breeding of the soul to ask the uncomfortable question, how can so human a piece of furniture carry the burden of the universe?
Nine decades ago Powy asked the same question latent in the substrate of this year’s Sacra Liturgia conference:
Here indeed, in this difficult question of the relation between religion and culture, we find ourselves compelled to face what really is the most crucial point of our present-day human situation: the problem, namely, as to how far it is possible to retain for individual lives, in the midst of the breaking up of the old traditions, those over-tones and under-tones of character which the long discipline of the centuries, under the scaffolding of a unified faith, has so laboriously nourished.
The liturgy that drew deep imaginative sympathy from an unbeliever was the very one discarded and disdained in the decades following Vatican II. It is not unfair to say that Powy, in his own way and despite vaunted skepticism, participated more fully in the liturgy than glad-handing congregants at the dispirited, self-conscious “new” Mass that has already grown gray.
The dignity of the liturgy has suffered a great wound. It will take more than a generation to close it.
Decadence was brought about by . . . the surfeit of fine art and the love of the bizarre.
Chris Burden died last month, close to Caitlyn Jenner’s birth on Wikipedia. Timing is everything.
Burden gained world fame as a performance artist in the genre's heyday. Self-wounding was integral to the act. Two years before Bruce Jenner won an Olympic Gold Medal, Burden starred in his own crucifixion. In 1976, he had himself nailed, Christ-like, to the back of a Volkswagon in a performance piece called Trans-Fixed.
His body was his canvas, body parts his material. Throughout the Seventies, he crawled on glass, suffered electric shocks, starved himself, arranged to be shot, kicked down stairs, dropped from heights, and almost drowned. No athlete endured more pain than Burden. He could easily have taken for himself Jenner’s own comment on the agonies of training for the decathlon: “I've got the rest of my life to recover. Who cares how much it hurts.”
You see where this is going, don’t you?
Call him Bruce or call him Caitlyn, you cannot deny the pathos of the man. At the end of the day, are there any of us who have not toyed with one fool’s paradise or another? His is more public and spectacular than most. Still, Jenner himself earns mainly pity. So does his ex-wife of twenty-four years, abandoned to a culture that mistakes support for acquiescence. Leave this melancholy pair to their mirage.
Save scorn—store it up in spades—for Vanity Fair, a fancy dress peep show for the bored and witless. It trumpets a troubled man’s delusional lust for self-mutilation as a heroic epiphany, part fashion statement, part civil rights coup. No matter the falsity. Curdled realities sell copy.
The 2015 ESPY Awards are hooked to the same pop culture drip feed. On the trot to present the Arthur Ashe Courage Award to Caitlyn Jenner, they have played a trick on themselves. They conjured away the screaming fact that the transsexed, sixty-five year old ex-athlete has more in common these days with Emma Bovary than Arthur Ashe. All Caitlyn shares with the gracious Arthur Ashe is a Y chromosome. But Flaubertian irony is lost at the party.
William Merritt Chase. Keying Up - A Jester (1875). Pennsylvania Academy of Fine, Philadelphia
What fascinates me is the celebratory tenor of this parade into bedlam. Brass bands on the networks. Confetti everywhere. TV anchors appearing in full intellectual motley. They rear up like Lewis Carroll's Caterpillar to give us a sentimental education in pronoun protocol—inhaled, it seems, from the University of Wisconsin at Madison’s LBGT Resource Center:
You can’t always know what someone’s PGP [preferred gender pronoun] is by looking at them. Asking and correctly using someone’s personal pronoun is one of the most basic ways to show your respect for their gender identity.
When someone is referred to with the wrong pronoun, it can make them feel disrespected, invalidated, dismissed, alienated, or dysphoric (or, often, all of the above.)
Such delicacy over grammar. It belies the ruthless surgical and pharmaceutical assault that sexual reassignment—aka sexual affirmation or confirmation entails. Procedures slice, pluck, and segment a person into an imitation of the opposite sex. Anyone with the stamina to withstand the violence to their anatomy and endocrine system, together with customary facial modifications, should be able to cope with mere pronouns.
Transwomen are yoked to a life-long regime of vaginal dilation. That strikes me as significantly more alienating than having to hear an occasional “him” instead of “her.” Besides, we used to have a rhyme that came in handy against irksome language: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” (That one little verse trumps years of sensitivity training.)
Christine Jorgensen went the full monty in the 1960s. He was castrated and vaginoplacticized. As far as I've heard—not exceedingly far—Caitlyn still has the family jewels. Mainstream media greeted the unveiling of breast-augmented, Adam’s-apple-and-jaw-reduced, depilated, and hormone-saturated Caitlyn Jenner as if he were a long-awaited work of art. Which, in truth, he is. Glamorous in the 1970s, the aging Jenner has made himself glamorous again in a vulgar, fifteen-minute sort of way. He has become the apogee of performance art.
How long the performance can last is anyone’s guess. Time and gravity are ineluctable.
Polyclitus. Amazon in Combat (5th C. BC). Photo: Brooklyn Museum
Last thought: Once was a time young people read stories of mythical Amazons, warlike women who cut off a breast, better to draw a bow string in battle. Fearless, they conquered territories, founded cities, fought with Hercules. It was stirring stuff even for boys. Perhaps especially for boys. Today’s young read of—and are asked to applaud—men who maim themselves to seek their identity in pantyhose and synthetic cleavage.
Paul McHugh, former psychiatrist-in-chief at Johns Hopkins, pioneered in sex-reassignment surgery in the 1960s and subsequently disavowed it. He wrote last year:
“Sex change” is biologically impossible. People who undergo sex-reassignment surgery do not change from men to women or vice versa. Rather, they become feminized men or masculinized women. Claiming that this is civil-rights matter and encouraging surgical intervention is in reality to collaborate with and promote a mental disorder.
Is this what happens when regard for the virtues of warrior culture whittles down, splinter by generational splinter, to a surfeit of regard—intoxication, really—for art and artifice? Subjectivity goes rancid. And culture decomposes on the cutting room floor in a fetid puddle of feelings.
Anonymous Illustration. A Dahomey Amazon Warrior (19th C.). Smithsonian.
I raked a grave last evening.
It was twilight when I got there. Little time was left to work. It was just enough. The race against sunset and total darkness was a welcome distraction from the ache of tending a grave that had to be dug too soon. Ground was opened before the actuarial tables approved and assented to it.
I brought two rakes with me. The steel one is hardy, needed to scrape away pebbles and the imbedded straw of winter’s decay. A bamboo one has delicate tines, better to smooth the packaged top soil I carried along. My blend of grass and clover seed would take more readily if it were raked lightly into fresh dirt. A small-leafed, low-growing perennial, this mini-clover makes a good helpmate for ordinary turf grass. It fixes nitrogen in the soil, a favor to lawns left pretty much on their own. I was pleased with the mix, glad to be getting it down before an expected rain.
Anonymous. Illustration for All Saints' Day. Le Petite Journal, Paris, 9 November 1902.
Friends ask: Why do you bother? Is there no groundskeeper who can look after things? There should be a maintenance contract, you know. You really ought to have one.
Yes, I suppose so. But a modest little country cemetery is not up to offering the lawn services attached to the price of that peculiar piece of real estate: a burial plot. There is a groundskeeper. He lives on site in an old white frame house just beyond the Civil-War-era graves. Now and again, he rides a tractor mower around and is careful to put flags by the headstones of veterans. But that is the limit of his gardening.
I like it that way. A few towns over from mine, a sprawling, popular Catholic cemetery announces its landscape policy in tones better suited to leasing a safe deposit box:
For reasons of uniform beauty as well as safety and insurance concerns, only employees or licensed contractors with permits from cemetery management may cut, fertilize, and add chemicals to the landscape.
So wooden. Such an absurd curtsy to liability. And, as night follows day these days, environmentally exquisite. Please, no illicit daffodil bulbs; no unlicensed doses of Miracle-Grow.
Spare me the embrace of the managerial mind. Uniform beauty be damned. This is not Arlington, not a military cemetery honoring the collective bond of service that exacted its price. Each gravestone here is an emphatic marker of a singular death; each one declares the mortal dissolution of a distinct individual. Every grave holds a specific, dappled history, one that ended in its own particular suffering. Polite, homogenized uniformity would not keep faith with the separate griefs solemnized here on a road into town.
Alexandru Neacsu died four years ago. No headstone yet. Someone left a votive candle last autumn.
I can no more abandon a dead beloved to a licensed contractor than I could the living person. I resent the thought of a nameless, impersonal caretaker. The final consequence of a mechanical custodian is the forfeit of any dread of that inexorable slippage into the void signaled by a headstone. Besides, it is good to put your hands in dirt from time to time. It is the stuff we are made of; the stuff that one day reclaims us—an elemental memento mori superior to all others.
At every Mass we pray for the dead. Yet only a grudging second is allotted to them. Time is gone before we can summon more than a single name. How do we call for heaven's eye onto Grandpa Powey himself, toward Great Aunt Kitty, Uncle Jack, a dear sister-in-law, all those many others who once were close? No length of silence is left for them. We must hurry to get on with things. The dead we remember today—a quick phrase for an abstract category.
The dead are a write-off at morning Mass. Their names are a deflection from the unctuous litany of petitions drawn from last evening's news. How kindly of us to take note of distant victims of the universe's disinterest: the plane crash here, the hurricane there, a train derailment somewhere, earthquakes half a world away. By contrast, the dead at our own doorstep are too stern a bewilderment to linger over.
Little Giles, in my parish, wanted to be The Little Engine That Could. But he could not.
We purchase Mass cards, send names to the Purgatorial Society, enter the names of the deceased in perpetual enrollments. These are good and gracious things, precious in themselves. Too often, they are all that is available to us. But it is not our own knee that touches the ground to beg, “Forsake not the work of thine own hands, Lord.”
Hands. The labor of remembrance requires more than memory. Our hands want something to work. We need to know what to do with them, how to give them loving purpose. It matters to have something to touch, to stroke or knead. We crave anything that might transfigure memory into sweet solidity.
Writing of his life as a widower, Julian Barnes recalls rubbing oil on his wife’s back. She had had dry skin and could not reach around herself. Retrospective now, and in mourning, he rubs oil into the oak of her grave marker to keep it moist and protected against the weather. It is something.
There is still work to do for those we have loved. The effort does not end with death. Only the texture of it changes.
Manuel Alvarez Bravo. Visitation (1969). Banque d'images, ADAGP.
H. L. Mencken was fifty when he married Sara Haardt in 1930. After not quite five years of marriage, she died of meningitis. Five years later, Mencken wrote:
It is a literal fact that I still think of Sara every day of my life and almost every hour of the day. Whenever I see anything she would have liked, I find myself saying I’ll buy it and take it to her, and I am always thinking of things to tell her.
Four years into his own widowhood, Barnes, an admitted atheist, could still confess:
What those who haven’t crossed the tropic of grief often fail to understand: the fact that someone is dead may mean that they are not alive, but it doesn’t mean that they do not exist.
So I talk to her constantly. This feels as normal as it is necessary. . . . Outsiders might find this an eccentric, or “morbid,” or self-deceiving habit; but outsiders are by definition those who have not known grief. I externalize her easily and naturally because by now I have internalized her. The paradox of grief: if I have survived what is now four years of her absence, it is because I have had four years of her presence. And her active continuance disproves what I had earlier pessimistically asserted. Grief can, after all, in some ways, turn out to be a moral space.
• • • •
Oh, remember that you fashioned me from clay! Will you then bring me down to dust again? Did you not pour me out as milk, and thicken me like cheese? With skin and flesh you clothed me, with bones and sinews knit me together. Grace and favor you granted me, and providence has preserved my spirit. (Job 10)
Those old sayings stay with us for good reason. Our bones absorb them in childhood; we can never outgrow them. Later, as adults, we find ourselves forever surprised by the truth of them. No small part of our initial moral education is owed to Aesop. His bestiary brought warnings against all kinds of vanity, thick-headed mischief, and unkindness. His dictums came to us together with our first prayers.
Let us not fret here over his status as an historical figure or, as some surmise, a legendary one. What matters is that, writing three centuries before the author of Ecclesiastes, the creator of these tales remains our first catechist. Much on my mind recently have been two aphorisms we owe to the body of work identified as his: You are known by the company you keep and, alternately, Birds of a feather flock together.
Walter Crane. Title Page. The Baby's Own Aesop (1877). The Pierpont Morgan Library, NYC.
Antiquity did not shy from the reality—the necessity—of bringing judgment to bear on character. No dithering non-judgmentalism addled Graeco-Roman wits. A swift, irrevocable act of judgment is central to two familiar Aesop’s fables. In The Donkey and the Purchaser, a shrewd farmer knows immediately the character of the animal he has bought by its beeline to the laziest, least productive of his barnyard companions.
Moral: Man is known by the company he keeps.
In The Farmer and the Stork, a net spread over newly seeded ground traps a stork amid pilfering cranes and geese. The stork pleads for his life. He is, he insists, a worthy stork, a bird of excellent character and not to be confused with that riff-raff caught in the net. Besides, he had no idea those fellows were stealing seeds. But the farmer will have none of it. Sorry, stork.
Moral: Birds of a feather flock together.
Anonymous. Agricola et Ciconia, Translation by Hieronymous Osius (1574).
Appropriate to contemporary power struggles in the Vatican, with its factions and shifting alliances, the fables are a useful guide to the complexion of Francis’s tenure. The sanity of the ancient fabulist cuts through obfuscating decorums that grow by accretion, like a coral reef, around the papacy. In Aesop's day as in our own, men can be known by the company they keep. And Francis keeps close to two curious birds: Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodríquez Maradiaga and Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernández of Argentina.
Walter Crane. The Farmer & The Stork. Illustration in The Baby's Own Aesop (1877).
Vatican-watcher John Allen, writing on Crux, recently dubbed the cardinal a “vice-pope,” plausibly the second most powerful man in the Church:
He’s the leading symbol of an entire cohort of center-left churchmen who seemed marginalized not so long ago, but who today are clearly back in the game.
Among factors in that earlier marginalization were a tendency to malapropos statements plus an unwelcome whiff of anti-semitism. Allen reports that he likened criticism of the Church over the child abuse scandal to persecution under Nero, Diacletian, Hitler and Stalin. Moreover:
He went as far as to suggest that the American media’s obsession with the scandals was a way to distract attention from the Israel/Palestinian conflict, hinting that it reflected the influence of a Jewish lobby. . . .
In the years to come, there was whispering that Rodríguez’s rhetoric wasn’t matched by a command of policy details, including affairs in his own country.
Head of Caritas Internationalis, Maradiaga is on record insisting that the freedom to immigrate is a human right. He does not trouble to note that one nation’s moral obligation to permit emigration does not obligate any other nation to suspend its requirements for legal arrival by accommodating illegal entrants. With the absence of rule of law driving havoc in the cardinal’s own Honduras, it is unclear how the poor can be served for any length of time by suspending the bedrock of civil society elsewhere.
At a recent press conference in Rome, the cardinal was back in the news with Manichean denunciations of critics of Francis’s climate ambitions:
The ideology surrounding environmental issues is too tied to a capitalism that does not want to stop ruining the environment because they [sic] don’t want to give up their profits.
The pathetic fallacy inherent in ascribing a malevolent want to complex market systems is demagogic. Personification is a poeticism, not a means of critique. Applied here, it is as misleading as it is sentimental; it reveals the demonizing temper of old Soviet tracts. An ideological position that echoes leaflets from the October Revolution, the cardinal's dime store bolshevism reduces Christianity to a political movement that conforms to the dominant trend among left-leaning elites.
Capitalism’s imperfections are real. No one denies that; nor does anyone deny the validity of reasonable regulation. At the same time, the never-fully-free market has produced sustained growth in living standards for more people than any other system ever devised. It has taught nations that prosperity is not a zero-sum game. Even Thomas Piketty, the best-selling French economist touted by Maradiaga last year, has since walked back his now-famous prediction that capitalism will generate “unsustainable inequalities” in this century.
How else does the cardinal propose that nations organize mechanisms for the creation and distribution of those goods, services and opportunities for initiative that make possible the alleviation of poverty? Central planning? Five year plans? The Venezuelan model or the Cuban one? Maradiaga suggests no alternative to the capitalism he vilifies. But we can gauge the nature of that unspecified vision by looking at the aims of the Global Catholic Environmental Movement, of which Caritas Internationalis is a critical part. The movement seeks to insure that the climate does not warm more than 1.5° Celsius relative to pre-industrial levels.
Think through the implications of that to gain purchase on the quality of mind counseling the man elected to guide a Church consecrated to Truth. We are left to pray that more heedful and substantive advisers assert themselves.
Milo Winter. The Ass & His Driver. Illustration for The Aesop for Children (1919).
Then there is that other trusted adviser, Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernández of Argentina. A native of Buenos Aires and member of the pope’s inner circle, he worked closely with Jorge Bergolio drafting the then-archbishop’s major speeches and letters. Fernández was crucial to the composition of Francis’s Evangelii Gaudium and ghost-wrote the (now postponed) encyclical on climate change.
Postponement is the consequence of disapproval—on theological grounds—by Cardinal Gerhard Müller of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. Vatican scuttlebutt has it that the eco-encyclical will be downgraded, emerging simply as a statement. We will see. What matters at the moment are the archbishop’s dispositions and cast of mind.
Who is the theologian behind two papal encyclicals? One hint might be the book he wrote twenty years ago: Sáname Con Tu Boca: el Arte de Besar (Heal Me With Your Mouth: The Art of Kissing). The choice of nouns is telling. A kiss can have ritual significance. But the word mouth, a body part, conjures up other behaviors. It certainly did for the producers of an Argentinian television drama Esperanza Mia, the saga of a priest and nun secretly engaged in a love affair. The script called for display of Fernández's book and the reading of passages from it. Clearly, the archbishop is a versatile writer.
I do not know what year this photograph of Fernández was taken. All that is obvious is that it is a staged shot. It is impossible not to wonder what prompts a priest to pose for the camera in this attitude. Possibly it is an Argentine commonplace that loses—or gains—too much in translation. But the instant I saw it I thought of Mann's Death in Venice. Here is Gustave Aschenbach pining wistfully for Tadzio.
It is hard to know what to say. Let me leave the last word on this pair of papal intimates—Maradiaga and Fernández—to Aesop. In The Fox & The Toad, also called The Quack Frog, a well-tailored toad comes to town passing himself off as a learned physician and promising cures for ailments. A skeptical fox pipes up to ask, “How can we believe you if you cannot heal yourself of that ugly wrinkled skin?”
Arthur Rackham. The Quack Frog (1900).
Moral: Those who would mend others, should first mend themselves. Or, as we are more used to phrasing it: Physician, heal thyself.
Publicity is meaningless for an artist. If the pictures are good, it doesn’t matter who took them, and if the pictures are not good, it also doesn’t matter who took them.
Our point-and-shoot culture is awash in photographs. The reigning snapshot aesthetic has grown threadbare, exhausted by its own success. What began decades ago as a “Kodak moment” has metastasized into an infinity of banal images. The snapshot is modernity’s visual correlative to lives measured out in coffee spoons.
But there are other means of measurement. Lu Nan, China’s foremost documentary photographer, uses his camera to gauge the distance between the misery of the body—the transience and fragility of it—and our hopes for it. In these photos, the agony of existence burns with a lyricism and a reverence that sear the soul. Here is the mystery of man laid bare by poverty and illness. Even here on the margins of despair come sudden, brief illuminations of man's orientation toward the eternal.
Lu Nan. Mental Hospital, Sichuan, China (1990).
Born in Bejing in 1962, Lu Nan was fourteen when Mao’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution ended. Like others of his generation, he was raised to survive within a culture lethally antagonistic to religion. Yet the work of this non-religious man is infused with a rare sense of the holy. All of it, from Myanmar prisons to Tibetan homes, brings urgency to Jean Mouroux’s 1948 prophecy: “What is at stake in our civilization is whether man shall remain—or re-become—a sacred thing.” Res sacra, homo.
Lu Nan. Mental Patient.
Lu Nan’s great trilogy—three distinct portfolios totaling 225 photographs—took fifteen years to complete. The first set depicts patients in China’s mental hospitals; the third surveys the life of Tibetan peasants. The middle set (On the Road, 1992-98), about the prohibited devotions of Chinese Catholics, was dangerous to create. Like his subjects, he risked arrest and prosecution as he worked. In 2009, he spent three months photographing the inmates of Myanmar prisons.
Lu Nan. Prisoner Trying to Dress. Myanmar (2009).
He rejects assertions that he is interested only in the underprivileged and the marginal. He answers that he is interested in man, in the shared human predicament: “Human lives should not be labeled. Labels cover our eyes and make many things invisible to us.”
Lu Nan. Yunnan Province (1993). Miao tribe Catholics visiting the grave of a relative.
Protective of his private life, Lu Nan rarely attends public occasions, and often refuses to be photographed himself. He also has a habit of signing his works under different names and has been known to surrender his copyright claims on some works. Contrary to art's pretensions, and alert to the vanity of celebrity, he says he would be satisfied if his photographs were appreciated by five people in the next twenty five years. A member of the elite Magnum Photos, Lu Nan has earned far wider acknowledgment than that.
Note: Text that appears under the photographs below is Lu Nan's own identifying comment.
Lu Nan. Shaanxi Province (1992). Han Ying Fang, 71 years old, is a fifth generation Catholic in the family. During the Cultural Revolution, the Red Army raided each Catholic home, confiscating bibles and other religious references. If the order was not obeyed during a given period, they were severely punished at town meetings. At the time, Han Ying Fang's husband hid this crucifix in the ceiling, and it has survived to this day.
Lu Nan. Shaanxi Province (1995). Li Hu is 82 years old. He is a faithful believer. He made a coffin for himself five years ago. On the coffin is written: I BELIEVE IN THE RESURRECTION OF THE BODY. He says, “I believe in eternal life. this coffin is a hut for my rotten body, but my soul is offered to God.”
Lu Nan. Yunnan Province (1993). The funeral of a Tibetan Catholic girl, 4 years old, who had died of a sudden illness. This village is located in the heart of the mountains, and it takes two and a half days to reach the nearest hospital. Children with an illness cannot often get cured, and on average, one or two die very young each year.
Lu Wan. Shaanxi Province. Duan Yuxin, 82 years old, has been suffering mental illness for more than 60 years. She recites the rosary throughout the village day and night. From 1966 to 1976 when religion was not allowed, she was the only person who could publicly say the rosary. During that period, many church members spent nights with her on her bed saying the rosary together. Today, she is seen as an important member of the church and is treated with respect.
Lu Nan. Shaanxi Province (1992). In China, the number of the ordained is far smaller than the Catholic population. Sometimes a Father has to hear nearly a thousand confessions.Lu Nan. Shaanxi Province (1995). Mass is offered in a Catholic's home in a village with no local church. Mass in a family house is officially prohibited by the government. But “unofficial churches” take the risk.Lu Nan. Inner Mongolia (1992). Sister Maria, 70 years old, with an orphan she has adopted. The baby must have been a “Chaoshengzi,” the second child of a one-child-family policy. In this village, if a Chaoshengzi is found, the parents are fined 3000 Yuan. Those who have adopted a Chaoshengzi are also fined. Sister Maria helplessly hid the babies in a sheep barn, or left them in the care of distant families, but authorities still did come to investigate her upon catching a rumor. The Sister kept insisting that the babies had died, and she was finally released. Sister Maria is a Sister in laity [sic], and she looks after the villagers who are ill, baptizes villagers, and devotes herself to other religious activities voluntarily.
A few days before the last of the Vatican’s three climate workshops, the Italian parliament sped up the divorce process. The new law cuts the time Italians have to wait for a divorce: from three years to six months in uncontested cases; one year in contested ones. It was approved with a breathtaking vote of 398 for, 28 against (6 abstentions),
Until now, Italians in a hurry to decouple had to be clever. Resourceful mates could establish false residences in other EU countries, and file for divorce where strings were looser. (Romania, a favored spot.) Back home again, their round-about quickie would be recognized in accord with EU regulations. Now, Italy has extended that courtesy to the unresourceful as well.
Rorate Coeli translated Sandro Magister's blog comment on parliament's latest repudiation of Church teaching on divorce:
This, in a parliament crammed with Catholics; in a government where numerous ministers and the Prime Minster are Catholics and the proposer of the new law, Alessia Morani, a lawyer specializing in marriage law, defining herself as a “mature, democratic Catholic.”
Philip Pullella, writing for Reuters, quotes Church historian Alberto Melloni:
The Church really didn't even put up a fight this time because they realized that it was a lost cause and did not want to fall flat on its [sic] face with a useless act of heroism.
Useless act of heroism. Like submitting to crucifixion? Like walking to one’s own decapitation whispering Jesus’ name in anguish and terror? Like resisting the siren call of some imagined institutional triumph—a renewed Christendom—built, this time, on an environmentalist creed?
Climate march in Toronto. Photo: Milan Ilnycky, Toronto350.org.
What to do with an inconvenient cross? Closet it. Pragmatism is, arguably, a derivative of prudence, a virtue. Better to align with the ascendant orthodoxy of the day. Better still if alignment crystallizes in traditional religious language and the principled rhetoric of compassion for the poor.
Italy’s expedited divorce law speaks eloquently of the Church’s loss of credibility in sexual matters. Can the collapse of the Church’s power of moral suasion in sexual and marital matters be compensated for—if not downplayed altogether—by going Green? Does the climate summit staged by the Vatican, at papal invitation and under the seal of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, represent an ex oficio capitulation to the New Faith?
People's Climate March, NYC, September 21, 2014. An estimated 311,000 people participated.
Eco-spirituality is embraceable by all, no matter one’s sexual practices, marital entanglements, race, class, or gender preference. Franciscan in its seductive embrace of all things great and small, eco-piety discourages fertility in the name of future generations who will need room for themselves. It woos the Vatican into granting a platform to two of the world’s most influential promoters of population control: abortion evangelists Ki-ban Moon and Jeffrey Sachs.
Moon uses his position as UN Secretary-General to support abortion rights around the world and proselytize for more abortion facilities in conflict zones. Sachs, a global development guru at the UN, is the darling of that other world-improver George Soros. Fertility reduction is a holy cause. In “Bursting at the Seams,” his 2007 series of Reith Lectures, he insisted on the need to “stabilize fertility.”
Rebecca Oas, writing for LifeNews in 2013, discussed Sachs’ contribution to the U.N.’s “Sustainable Development Goals,” which go into effect this year. These goals recast earlier Millennium objectives and institute a global scheme that ties development aid to a nation’s commitment to reducing population. Ms. Oas described Sachs' statement of his priorities:
Sachs . . . spoke of “a world that has become very crowded” with people who are increasingly “trespassing on fundamental planetary boundaries.” He had in hand a report proposal of the president of the 67th General Assembly recommending ten broad goals that included “rapid voluntary reduction of fertility” in countries with total fertility rates above 3 children per woman (only Africa has fertility that high), and anywhere where fertility rates are above replacement level. [She adds that very few countries outside Africa have above replacement level fertility. But according to 2013 CBS report, the birth rate of Muslims, while declining, is 3.51.]
Sachs ran a global campaign to have abortion language included in the Millennium Development Goals when they were first developed and again at their five-year review. His effort was rejected.
Sachs expressed the hope his new ten goals would be taught in schools around the globe. He repeatedly compared them to the Ten Commandments.
Trespassing on planetary boundaries. Listen, and you can hear the ghost of Margaret Sanger crooning, “Well done.” Keep listening. From somewhere deep within the static comes an echo of Lebensraum. The National Socialists aspired to clear Eastern Europe of its human vermin. Today’s world-improvers would clear the globe.
The crowning document to emerge from the Vatican summit was co-prepared by Jeffrey Sachs.
Facebook cover photo. Available for uploading.
. . . the fraudulence of Silent Spring goes beyond mere cherry-picking or discredited data: Carson abused, twisted, and distorted many of the studies that she cited, in a brazen act of scientific dishonesty. So the real tragic irony of the millions of deaths to malaria in the past several decades is that the three central anti-DDT claims made by Carson and other activists are all false.
Robert Zubrin, Merchants of Despair
To only a few chemicals does man owe a great debt as to DDT.
National Academy of Sciences, 1970.
In a sober world, Earth Day would be stripped from the calendar. It is closer to a Day of Disrepute than the high holy day it has become. Its founder, Ira Einhorn, was a homicidal crackpot. Its patron saint, viewed in retrospect, was a muckraking technophobe who bent data to an activist mission. High intentions notwithstanding, Rachel Carson did untold damage to millions of the world’s poor.
She was a gifted writer who brought to her passionate assault on pesticides—most tragically, DDT—the moral urgency of a Puritan preacher. Robert H. Nelson, an economist formerly in the U.S. Department of the Interior, wrote of Carson’s Calvinism-without-God:
While superficially a work of popular science, Silent Spring was ultimately a religious treatise. It called on Americans to reform their ways, to renounce their false worship of the dominant secular religion of progress of 20th century America.
Published in 1962, Silent Spring came at just the right time. Through the 1950s, into the 60s, cataclysm was considered likely. Civil defense drills were a familiar routine. School children practiced crouching under their desks, arms around their heads, until the all-clear sounded. President Kennedy approved an initiative to install fallout shelters around the country. The population-destroying neutron bomb, developed in 1958, awaited testing in Nevada.
Nevil Shute’s convincing, post-apocalyptic novel On the Beach proved a popular triumph that lasted decades past its publication in 1957. Two years later came Stanley Kramer’s harrowing movie version. It chilled the generation that watched. Deluge was in the air. Eco-catastrophe was the next lap in the doomsday marathon of the Cold War era.
The Cold War waned. Apocalyptic imaginations sought intimations of calamity elsewhere. Nature writing with strong environmentalist leanings was widely read in the post-World War II era. It was a short walk from inheritors of nineteenth century nature cults—such as John Muir and Aldo Leopold—to an indictment of industrial civilization. The end of humanity was still in sight, if not from nuclear fallout, then from—in an over-heated quote that Carson threw against DDT—“diabolical means of insect control.”
In the terrible wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Carson rose to declare “the parallel between chemicals and radiation is exact and inescapable.” It was neither. Nevertheless, Silent Spring warns that genetic deterioration through chemical agents “is the menace of our time, the last and greatest danger to our civilization.”
Carson’s zealotry tipped into mendacity with momentous consequences. Even Mark Lytle’s sympathetic biography The Gentle Subversive admits:
Carson was not always neutral in her use of sources and . . . she was sometimes driven by moral fervor more than by scientific evidence. Indeed, her use of evidence was selective.
Her vilification of DDT and other pest-control chemicals in agriculture exceeded warranted criticism of spraying methods. She aimed further: to rid the world of betrayal by chemistry so that humanity could return to an imagined state of harmony with nature. But that golden age never existed; pre-industrial peoples modified their environments throughout history. Precluding the public health benefits of DDT has had a toxic legacy, the burden of it borne on the backs of developing nations.
The best way to observe Earth Day is to inquire into Carson’s disfiguring prose, eloquent in its misuse of science. At your fingertips is Robert Zubrin’s “The Truth About DDT and Silent Spring,” (The New Atlantis, September 27, 2012). Available online, it summarizes Zubrin’s arguments, developed in detail and fastidiously documented, in Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Cult of Antihumanism (2012).
Lola Alvarez Bravo. Homenaje (1949). Center for Creative Photography, Tucson.
Zubrin points beyond Carson’s health scares and failed apocalyptic prophecies to the ascent of Malthusian population control agendas within the environmental movement. [Jeffrey Sachs, invited to address the Vatican workshop this week on climate change, is a key evangelist for salvation by population control.] In sum:
As a literary work, it [Silent Spring] was a masterpiece, and as such, received rave reviews everywhere. Deeply moved by Carson’s poignant depiction of a lifeless future, millions of well-meaning people rallied to her banner. Virtually at a stroke, environmentalism grew from a narrow aristocratic cult into a crusading liberal mass movement.
While excellent literature, however, Silent Spring was very poor science. Carson claimed that DDT was threatening many avian species with imminent extinction. Her evidence for this, however, was anecdotal and unfounded. ... In terms of DDT specifically, in her chapter on cancer she reported that one expert “now gives DDT the definite rating of a ‘chemical carcinogen.’” These alarming assertions were false as well.
Zubrin examines in turn each of the false claims made by Carson herself and by the crusade launched after her death by Charles Wurster, co-founder of the Environmental Defense Fund. Wurster claimed that DDT in seawater threatened all higher marine life and possibly human life as well. Paul Ehrlich, frothing prophet of eco-doom, seized the claim and predicted the end of the oceans in 1979. Zubrin concludes:
For the record, 1979 has come and gone, and life in the world’s oceans has continued to flourish gloriously. But, as a result of the mendacity and actions of Carson, Ruckelshaus, Wurster, Ehrlich, and their allies, DDT has been banned, and hundreds of millions of people who might have lived to enjoy those oceans, to sail on them, fish in them, surf in them, or swim in them, to play on their beaches or write poems about their sunsets, are dead.
At the End of the World, the Sea Will Burn. Codex of Predis (1476). Royal Library, Turin.
Charles T. Rubin, in The Green Crusade (1994), compared some of Carson’s claims to the original studies she cites as sources. In analyzing the juxtapositions, he found a pattern of misrepresented studies or claims taken out of context in order to exaggerate the dangers of pesticides, making them “seem greater, more certain, or more unprecedented than the original source indicates.” Fear-mongering trumped data.
The Cato Institute published The False Crises of Rachel Carson: Silent Spring at Fifty (2012), a collection of carefully researched essays to mark the half-centennial of Carson’s parables of reckoning. It examines the science on which Silent Spring was built, together with the policy consequences of its alarms. Included is an insightful discussion of the pernicious repercussions of the “precautionary principle” spawned by Carson’s book. A strategy for coping with scientific uncertainty, the principle pushes the sensible axiom “better safe than sorry” to crippling, and illusory, zero-risk extremes.
Perhaps the kindest way to view Carson’s influence was stated by Gary Marchant, a professor of life sciences, emerging technologies, and environmental law at Arizona State University:
While Carson’s error [re: the precautionary principle] might be excused or at least understood, what cannot be forgiven or fathomed is the continued influence of her outdated zero-risk paradigm today. The unfortunate legacy of Silent Spring is the series of statutes that incorporated her premises.,,,
These statutes continue to foster an illusion that is resurgent in the rise of the precautionary principle and the growing chemophobia among consumers who flock toward “natural” and “organic” products they mistakenly believe are purer and safer than anything man-made. As Martin Lewis has written, the time has come “to recognize such thinking for the fantasy that it is. We must first relinquish our hopes for utopia if we really wish to save the earth.”
Entomologist J. Gordon Edwards, in “DDT: A Case Study in Scientific Fraud” (Journal of Physicians and Surgeons, Fall, 2004), offered this illustrative nugget:
On the first page of the book widely credited with launching the environmental movement as well as bringing about the ban on DDT, Rachel Carson wrote: “Dedicated to Dr. Albert Schweitzer, who said ‘Man has lost the capacity to foresee and forestall. He will end by destroying the earth.’
She surely knew that he was referring to atomic warfare, but she implied that he meant there were deadly hazards from chemicals such as DDT. Because I had already found a great many untruths in her book, I obtained a copy of Dr. Schweitzer’s autobiography to see whether he even mentioned DDT. He wrote: “How much labor and waste of time, these wicked insects do cause, but a ray of hope, in the use of DDT, is now held out to us.”
Edwards follows other critics in rejecting her “dramatically false” conclusions and clarifying the science on which they were based. Most interesting is his discussion of the effect of the DDT ban on science itself. He viewed the ban as a watershed in which science compromised itself by sacrificing disciplined scientific methodology to advocacy.
By now, in the the climate change debate, that compromise has metastasized into a canonical imperative.
Martin W. Lewis, referred to by Marchant, is a geographer currently teaching at Stanford, and author of Green Delusions: An Environmentalist Critique of Radical Environmentalism (Duke University Press, 1992.
William Rucklehaus, mentioned by Zubrin, was head of the newly formed (1971) Environmental Protection Agency. He overruled the scientific findings of the seven-month long EPA inquest which found no valid reason to ban DDT.