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.
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.
Propaganda posters are a fascinating genre in their own right. Early Soviet posters are graphically compelling, and among my favorite works of art. It is a topic to come back to on a later date. But let me just touch on it for the moment in response to readers who emailed to comment on the reproductions in the previous post.
The earliest, ranging from 1918 to 1929, were heady with exhilaration for the fledgling workers' state, and the aspirations of Bolshevik internationalism. The monarchy had been toppled, tsarist Russia disintegrated, and the air was thick with revolutionary fervor. It is palpable in the posters of that first decade.
Soviet art began to flourish on posters in the months following the revolution. Initially, the Soviet agencies relied on publishing proclamations. Illustrations accompanied some of them, but there was little worth remembering. Midway through 1918, things began to change. The Red Army, founded by Leon Trotsky in April of that year, became a generous patron of graphic artists. Some of the finest work of that first decade was ordered by the military and dealt with military themes. Social motifs, such as literacy and health care, carried the same militant charge.
Later, in The Revolution Betrayed, Trotsky described the young workers' state:
[It] had a seething mass basis and a perspective of world revolution; it had no fear of experiments, searchings, the struggle of schools, for it understood that only in this way could a new cultural epoch be prepared. The popular masses were still quivering in every fiber, and were thinking aloud for the first time in a thousand years. All the best youthful forces of art were touched to the quick.
The poster was an ideal medium for reaching a population that was largely illiterate and suffering the after shocks of civil war. Few could read; paper and printing presses was in short supply. Posters were vivid, inspirational, the graphics fully intelligible apart from text.
Soviet art degenerated during the rise of Stalinism into the stock commonplaces of socialist realism. But that early generation of poster art remains stirring apart from politics. It radiates a certain martial beauty, estimable as art no less than as historical record.
The true believer is apt to see himself as one of the chosen, the salt of the earth, the light of the world, a prince disguised in meekness, who is destined to inherit this earth and the kingdom of heaven, too. He who is not of his faith is evil; he who will not listen will perish.
Eric Hoffer, The True Believer
A great many of our attitudes and principles which we adopt as Christian are nothing but products of our subjection to the world.
Jacques Ellul, False Presence of the Kingdom
Marxism thought itself to have progressed from Utopia to science. Environmentalism makes a corresponding claim for itself.
Dimitri Stakhevich Moor. Have You Volunteered? Poster, 1929.
In his 1981 foreword to The Captive Mind, written some thirty years earlier, Czeslaw Milosz observed that the West, no less than Eastern Europe still in the Soviet bloc, was burdened with ideological pressures to conform. But he cited one essential distinction between them: “The difference is that in the West one may resist such pressure without being held guilty of a mortal sin.”
Some thirty four years later, that distinction is close to disappearing. Growing mightily all the while is the cult of environmentalism, a burgeoning state religion summarized in the catechism of sustainable development. It is the ascendant idol of our time, as magnetic—and totalizing—as the Leninist-Stalinist doctrines were to Milosz’ contemporaries. What the poet referred to as “the magic influence of the new faith,” is replicated among ourselves with a new, seemingly benign, identity.
Orthodox environmentalism is about very much more than saving giraffes or cleaning up the Hudson. The faith we are asked to embrace is the holy cause of building a new social order—a just, sustainable, and harmonious global society—by means of messianic environmentalism. We are pressed on all sides to shun skepticism and align ourselves with the ectopian gospel.
A populist pope, Peronist by culture and inclination, is preparing to lend magisterial heft to the Green creed. In the minds of the faithful, assent will become a quasi-infallible demand. Cached in theological language designed to legitimize a premature, scientifically unsettled judgment, a politicized—essentially materialist—agenda will assume the mantle of God’s will. False knowledge, already given sanctuary in academia and the press, will receive immunity to criticism on high moral grounds. Agnosticism toward the diktats of climate-change evangelists will be further marginalized. Its tincture of depravity will deepen. Catholics will find themselves pressed to enlist on God's side in the cosmic war against demon unbelief.
Francis' encyclical will arrive as a call to conversion.
Conversion here is key. Redemption is of ultimate significance, too urgent to be left to the reasoning mind and the risks of frank, unfettered argument. It is far, far too pivotal to wait for the raw data on which conviction rests. Empirical results might not come soon enough. Or at all. The only thing that can save is a prompt change of heart and habit: pre-emptive metanoia.
A.R. Golenkina. The Torch of the Third International Inflames the Whole World. Porcelain Plate, 1922.
On November 10, 2014, Václav Klaus, president of the Czech Republic from 2003 to 2013, spoke in London at an event commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall. Standpoint published his address under the title “Communism's Comeback?” Klaus lamented a post-Communist lessening of democratic and economic freedoms in his homeland:
It was caused partly by the victory of social democracy in our country and partly by the importing of the European economic system, with its over-regulation, high taxation and redistribution, welfare state, and fascination with all kinds of anti-market measures, connected nowadays mostly with environmentalism, with its anti-democratic social ideology which successfully hides its real substance while pretending to care about nature, the environment and our Blue Planet. We may be oversensitive in this respect because of our long Communist experience but we see many similar phenomena, tendencies, ambitions and arguments around us today.
Gustav Klutsis. Let Us Fulfill the Plan of the Great Project. Poster, 1930. Russian State Museum, Moscow.
There is little need to wait for the climate encyclical to know which way this trolley is headed. On its website, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences announces an April 28th conference: Protect the Earth, Dignify Humanity: the Moral Dimensions of Climate Change and Sustainable Humanity. Its mission statement is steeped in the received wisdom that enchants today's collective mind. Discernible within the Academy's rhetoric, buoyant with exalted intention, is the will to dominion that drives the global environmental movement:
The goal of this workshop is to raise awareness and build a consensus that the values of sustainable development cohere with values of the leading religious traditions, with a special focus on the most vulnerable; to elevate the debate on the moral dimensions of protecting the environment in advance of the papal encyclical; and to help build a global movement across all religions for sustainable development and climate change throughout 2015 and beyond.
John Heartfield. Capitalism Robs You of the Last Piece of Bread (1932). Museum für Gestaltung, Zurich.
The Vatican's slouch toward salvation-by-ecology did not begin with Pope Francis. Daniel Stone, writing in National Geographic in 2013 stated that one lasting legacy of Benedict XVI, dubbed the “Green Pope,” was how he steered the global debate over climate change: ” . . . the pontiff has made environmental awareness a key tenant of his tenure.” In Caritas in Veritate (2009), Benedict signaled his hope for a “world political authority.” This global political body—a Brussels universalized and sacralized—would dictate procedures governing multiple global issues, environmental among them.
World political authority. It is a chilling phrase, one that runs counter to Christian understanding of the limits of politics. It is also an odd one, coming from as astute and subtle a theologian as Benedict. The mission of the Church is to keep man mindful that he has another life to live. When the Church maneuvers to be counted a player among the principalities and powers, the subversion of Christian truth and charity has begun. The true object of Green globalism is not human needs, but those of the planet. The culture of death wears many guises. Among them are the anti-humanist assumptions of environmentalism.
Yesterday's Gospel reading (John 6: 28-29) hovers over this discussion:
Then they said unto him: What shall we do, that we might work the works of God?
Jesus answered and said unto them, This is the work of God: that you believe in him whom he hath sent.
All the rest, with its time-bound, tragic burdens, is the work of man. And men of good will, in their God-given freedom, differ in definitions of the common good and in means to achieve it. Turning stones into bread is not a work for the Pontifical Academy.
Trufim Lysenko speaking at the Kremlin, 1935.
Remember the Lysenko affair. It was the twentieth century's most notorious instance of the scandal—and tragedy—of politically correct science. By stacking the deck in favor of a manufactured “consensus” over the still-contested issue of man-made global warming, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences risks comparison with the ideologically driven postures of the Academy of Agricultural Sciences in the Soviet Union during the Stalin era.
You might not like the comparison. But it merits consideration.
It has been some time since I gave thought to the day my soon-to-be husband and I bought our wedding rings. But the spectacle over RFRA—all the panting hysteria of a predatory media and toadying politicians aided by timorous clergy—brings it back with great clarity. And even greater poignancy.
Our wedding date was set. It was time to pick a ring. But where to look for one? How to shop? The two of us were young, broke, and scrappy. It would be some years yet before we could afford to pay retail. Besides, my intended was a combative shopper, born to hondel. He did not believe in fixed prices. There were only asking prices begging to be negotiated.
We started in Manhattan’s diamond district in the west Forties. No diamonds were on our shopping list. But 47th Street was a place to haggle, draw swords, dicker away until the doomed asking price dropped in exhaustion. His ring was easy. A plain gold band was all. It was mine that took hunting for. I wanted something chaste and spare, low keyed but rich with symbolism. No glitz. Modest but not severe. It had to be unembellished but eloquent—a sort of Grail for my ring finger.
I had no idea what my adjectives might look like in the concrete. So we trooped from stall to stall in the Exchange scouting for . . . what, exactly? Then, finally, there it was. In the showcase of an older jeweler, forearm tattooed with his identification number from a concentration camp, were simple gold bands embossed with phrases from the Tanakh. They were cut in the identical ancient block script familiar to Jesus of Nazareth, who grew in wisdom and study of Torah.
James Tissot. Jesus Teaching in the Synagogue (c. 1897). Ann Ronan Picture Library, London.
The graphic beauty of the Hebrew characters—heightened by our inability to read them—seemed a visible link to Him in Whom we would marry. One square letter followed another, spacing calculated to encircle the band with no marked beginning or end. The indissolubility of marriage seemed imprinted in the very design. Add the romance of indecipherability. This was my ring!
Next came the contest over cost. The groom-to-be went into gladiatorial mode. The seller was good at the game. It was a lengthy, spirited match. Eventually the two settled on a price. All that was left was to decide on the phrase from a sheet of suggested lines. My heart set on a passage from the Book of Ruth that reads in full:
Ruth said: “Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee; for whither thou goest I will go, where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people and thy God my God.
Only the central portion (“whither thou goest . . .”) could fit around the ring but the entire antiphon is implicit in the fragment. Ruth’s pledge to Naomi is the purest and most stirring statement of friendship I have ever known. I ached to claim it for myself and wear it for the rest of my life.
Marriage. Illustration from the Maciejowski Bible (13th C). Pierpont Morgan Library, New York City.
Was one of us Jewish? The jeweler wanted to know. Was either of us leaving another religion to become Jewish? No, we were not. Well then, he was sorry but he would not give us that particular quotation. The point was non-negotiable.
The rebuff was a sore let-down but we did not press. We deferred to his prohibition because, in some unspoken way, we understood. The story of Ruth is one of conversion that affirms the Jewish nation. It testifies to peoplehood. The intensity of this man’s concern to honor the sacred core of the text moved us. Here was a man who had suffered the unspeakable for no other reason than he was part of the people Ruth pledged herself to.
There was grace in his refusal. Had he granted me the words I craved, he would, in conscience, have violated the grandeur of them. Ruth’s commitment was not simply to another person but to a covenanted community bound together since the call of Abraham. Her words were his inheritance; he was not free to extend them to us.
Disappointed, I settled for words from the Song of Songs: “I found him whom my soul loveth.” Over the years, my second choice proved to be the better one. The ring is dearer to me than anything else I possess. But I did not feel that then.
• • • •
What innocents we were. It never entered our minds to challenge the denial. We took for granted the man’s moral right to refuse us; any legal issue, then, was irrelevant. But by today’s lights, we gave in too readily. We could have raised a stink. Demanded our rights as consumers. Bullied the vendor with accusations of anti-Christian bigotry. We did not have to submit to the discomfort of being told we were ineligible for what we desired.
“Something there is that does not love a wall, / That wants it down.” Pace Frost, not every barrier should be cleared away. Not everything is permeable. A nation cannot survive without borders; no culture endures without limits. Walls provide a bulwark against chaos and dissolution. That day in the Diamond Exchange, we stumbled against the very wall a man had clung to in the camps. It was the same one that had kept Jewry from disappearing centuries before modern nation states existed.
Had we been noisy enough, I might have gotten the thing I wanted at the time. But at what price to the commonweal?
Anonymous engraving. Riot in Saint-Omer, 1780s (Incitement over a lightening rod placed atop a house.)
How to discern which walls, like dikes, have to be maintained, and which left to crumble? Aggressive shows of grievance are meant to deflect discernment, not advance it. The nervous response of the five Roman Catholic bishops of Indiana cooperated with the machinery of deflection by rushing forward with anodyne assertions of the dignity of all people, all genders, as if that were in the balance. It was not. The bishops were anxious to appease malcontents whose agenda trumped conscience and the rule of law. If the bishops could not attend to the specific content of the bill—which provided standing in court for anyone substantially burdened by demands counter to their religious beliefs —better to have kept quiet.
The way to protect religious liberty is not to bleat for it but to expose the distortions, conjectural ploys, and rabble-rousing used against it. It requires tooth. By contrast, the bishops’ bridge-over-troubled-waters approach signaled to RFRA antagonists that self-serving outbursts really do work. It cooperated with bootlicking politicians in ceding ground that was never in play. Reassurance misapplied is a sentimental concession to demagoguery.
For all the anecdotes recorded in the Passion chronicle, there seems a lacuna at the heart of it. Something goes missing. Something in the text lacks explication. The politics of it are plain enough. But is there not a rupture in the psychology of the crowd, an unaccountable fickleness? Why the discontinuity between Jesus’ reception into Jerusalem and the calls to crucify him days later? Were the Jews that mercurial and unstable?
Anonymous. Fresco (14th C). Basilica of San Abbondio, Como.
Romano Guardini anticipated the question and answered it in The Lord. A magisterial reflection on the Gospel story, the book revivifies our grasp of Jesus within the contours of his time. One chapter, “The Trial,” abolishes all thought of a breach in the behavior of the multitude. In Guardini’s retelling, those who spread their clothes under his feet and, in Luke’s words, “came early in the morning to him in the temple, for to hear him” were not the same ones who cried “Crucify him:”
Pilate is skeptical but sensitive—possibly also superstitious. He feels the mystery, fears supernatural power, and would like to free the accused. He counts upon the masses to demand Jesus’ release. There is a man in prison who has been really seditious—and in addition committed murder. His name is also Jesus, Jesus Bar-abbas.
Pilate: Whom shall I give free, Jesus the Bar-abbas, or the Jesus called Messiah? But the Procurator has reckoned falsely. The crowd outside is no real cross-section of the masses composed in the main of serious, hard-working, long-suffering, honest men and women, but mob, plebs. The High Council has seen to that, and its agitators are busily and successfully spreading ‘public opinion’ among them. So they yell: Bar-abbas!
Pilate tries to placate them: “What then am I to do with Jesus who is called Christ?”
All: “Let him be crucified.”
It is a stunning passage. So convincing. Why did we not see it before? Through Guardini's words we understand the complexity of pressures on Pilate. And we recognize that mob. It is the poison fruit of a political machine, one as old as politics itself. It lives among us. We meet it in the news, in our own streets.
Flash points change; sources of ignition differ with time and place. But from Sennacherib’s day to our own, the mob is the same: angry and relentless. From the banks of the Tigris to Crown Heights in 1991 or Ferguson last summer, resentments smolder, poised to catch fire. The Pharisees and scribes of Jesus’ day operated no differently than today’s party apparatchiks. Agitators, zealots, militants, monomaniacs, young Turks, influence peddlers, race-baiters, community organizers—plus ça change . . .
Guardini presents Pilate as a man who understood mob psychology as we do: The mob will not be satisfied until it inflicts pain. Blood must flow. Send an innocent to the flogging post, if only to quiet things down.
One might suppose that Pilate was simply without conscience. But this would not explain his behavior during Jesus' trial. Had he really lacked integrity, he could have directed the trial or have let it direct itself so that the sentence against Jesus would have been inflicted as against a dangerous agitator. Actually, he does nothing of the sort. He insists upon the defender's innocence—repeatedly, to the end—and then, fully conscious of the illegality of the decision, pronounces the sentence of death, and what a death! We are likely to overlook the contradiction, or to explain it away with Pilate's ‘weakness.' This is insufficient. The procurator is sucked into the depths of “the powers of darkness,” into a confusion so dark and deep that he is no longer sensible of the gruesome and ignominious folly he is committing.
Guardini passes on to Calvary by reminding his readers that they should not retreat “before the horrors recounted here, but should read them through, will all the concentration of his heart, remembering that they were suffered for him.”