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Autumn 1996
   
The Immorality of Environmentalism
David Gelernter
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There is no such thing on the political scene as an “anti-environmentalist,” no cogent intellectual position by that name. Conservatives rarely challenge Greens on moral grounds. While environmentalists stake out moral claims, conservatives grumble about costs, growth, and property rights.

Why? Do environmentalists self-evidently command the higher moral ground? You might argue to the contrary that, although loving nature and protecting it are good things in themselves, environmentalists are guilty of writing prescriptions with no regard for the patient’s prior state of health. Environmentalism is a spiritual disaster (you might argue) because as a society we have a penchant for passivity, which the Greens have turned into a full-blown crisis. Take a country that has achieved its dearest goals—the “good life” within reach of every man, woman, and child; American power and ideals ascendant all over the world—but has yet to come up with any new ones. Superimpose the Environmentalist Credo—careful, hands off, don’t touch!—and voilà: passivity so monumental that when a major highway collapses in a big city, the public dithers for 22 years before replacing it.

You might further argue that environmentalism’s moral underpinnings are questionable. Passionate environmentalists reject the proposition that love of nature is ennobling because loving nature is good for human dignity and happiness. They flirt instead with a worldview in which human beings are a species on a par with every other, and nature is to be protected not because you damage other people’s happiness when you destroy it wantonly but because nature itself has rights to assert against man. The Smithsonian, for example, posted a label in its Museum of Natural History apologizing for a display in which “humans are treated as more important than other mammals.” Environmentalists who hold that opinion ought to be frank about it, and the rest of us ought to tell them that it is unacceptable and, in fact, morally grotesque.

Former generations were wrong, some Greens believe, to have seen nature as a battleground where man fought for survival. They were wrong to see nature as Tennyson did, “red in tooth and claw.” They ought to have realized that, when you get to know her, nature is adorable. Love of nature is a deep and honorable vein in the American character, but some of today’s Greens don’t seem like nature lovers at all. They seem more like cultivators of foppish sentimentality. The historian Robert Darnton quotes a fan letter to Rousseau from an admirer of La Nouvelle Héloïse: “Oh! is not virtue beautiful!” A perfect motto for the Natural Resources Defense Council. Self-righteousness is no crime, but it is dishonest to deny that we owe our victory over nature—the victory that allows us to see the natural world as benign instead of terrifying—to the ingenuity of scientists and technologists and the wealth created by industrial capitalism.

My goal, however, isn’t to win any debates for the anti-environmentalist position. I only want to make clear that there is an anti-environmentalist position, with arguments and moral claims that are at least as compelling as the other side’s. Today’s unequal debate over the environment, made out by the Right’s dereliction to be an argument between money and principle, is important also as one part of a bigger picture. Conservative politicians consistently, unaccountably, fail to address moral problems in moral terms. In this respect they have failed the American people, and the costs are staggering.

On a ferry to New Jersey early this century, the young Robert Moses laid out for Frances Perkins (later FDR’s secretary of labor) a vision of Manhattan’s West Side transformed. Moses saw an ugly patch of city and thought it ought to be beautiful and useful instead. Those railroad tracks ought to be hidden, the mudflats turned into parks, a highway laid out beside the river, clubs and marinas and restaurants put up, along with bicycle paths and tennis courts. In later years he carried out his big plans: Manhattan’s West Side became the setting for a dazzling display of activity by an active, driven generation. We have chosen the same West Side of Manhattan as a setting for our own equally dazzling display of passivity. In 1974 the West Side Highway collapsed. State and federal officials approved a plan for the permanent replacement in August 1994. During the intervening 20 years environmental objections stymied all activity; the rebuilding of the West Side Highway began at last this spring.

The contrast between Moses’ age and our own makes a telling background to a characteristic modern story about environmentalism and its costs.

The kangaroo rat, a member of the Endangered Species List (the highest honor to which a rodent can aspire), is a controversial creature. In 1993 devastating wildfires around Los Angeles destroyed 29 homes in Riverside County. Homeowners and some journalists (including John Stossel of ABC) believed that these particular 29 succumbed because the owners had been forbidden to plow firebreaks around their houses. “This high-jumping rodent,” the Los Angeles Times explained of the kangaroo rat, “makes its shallow burrows in sandy soils, rendering it vulnerable to plowing or disking.” So residents were ordered to create firebreaks not by plowing or disking but only by mowing.

The fires came and homes burned, and the General Accounting Office was called in to investigate. The rat wasn’t to blame, it concluded; these particular firestorms “moved with such ferocity that clearing hundreds of feet of ground would not have helped.” A few journalists remained skeptical: the GAO, after all, is “the accounting firm for the organization that passed the [Endangered Species] law,” Stossel noted. He stood by his original conclusion, that rat preservation was implicated in the disaster.

Biologist Michael E. Soule responded to the likes of Stossel in the Los Angeles Times. Every species ought to be maintained in its natural habitat, Soule believes, “even if a few human beings may have to forgo some profits.”

In disasters like the 1993 firestorm, environmentalism is not to blame. “Hubris and greed compel us to build on steep slopes, in fire-prone habitats and in flood plains.”

What are the basic issues in this dispute? Maybe the 1993 firestorms were so fierce that proper firebreaks wouldn’t have stopped them; let’s suppose they were. But common sense—and (implicitly) the report itself—suggests that dugout firebreaks prevent some fires. How do we weigh the claims of the kangaroo rat to a quiet life in its favorite habitat against the claims of people who want to dig?

Some Americans see it as a strict moral obligation to maintain every species in its natural habitat, a moral obligation sufficiently important and unarguable to impose on the whole population by force. What are their grounds for this sweeping assertion? They are rarely spelled out, but I think most environmentalists would agree with Vice President Gore’s claim in his Earth in the Balance that nature has “inherent” value and that mankind has spiritual duties to nature.

Many other Americans cannot see this maintenance-of-every-species as a moral obligation of any kind. I can’t myself. If kangaroo rats are in danger of dying out, I figure, let it be illegal to kill them needlessly. (Of course, a sensible person might just as well argue that if rats of any kind are dying out, the faster the better.) For scientific purposes, suppose we scoop up a bunch of kangaroo rats and establish a permanent breeding colony at a laboratory someplace.

But suppose now that I own the last lot on which kangaroo rats are happy, and I am trying to decide whether I have a moral obligation not to plow a firebreak. If I plow, let’s say I will inconvenience 500 kangaroo rats and they will wander off and die; and those 500 are the last 500 in the wild, so I will have eradicated the species in nature. Why should that be a crime? Why should it even be wrong?

Not because it is wrong to kill animals. I could have ordered 500 live chickens from a catalog and turned them into soup the moment they arrived. But those rats were the last of their kind in the wild; maybe it is wrong to kill them because we tolerate no permanent changes to the environment. But we do tolerate such changes all the time—we pump oil out of the ground and burn it, cut canals, blast through mountains. Perhaps this case is different because it shuts down a particular gene pool? But it doesn’t; I’m assuming we have taken the trouble to establish a kangaroo-rat colony in a laboratory, so the genes live on. (Environmentalists do insist that species must survive in the wild; mere survival is no good. Thus, an environmental group complained recently, on the occasion of Newt Gingrich’s visit to the Atlanta Zoo, that zoos are “the only places you’ll see many of those animals” if the Endangered Species Act is changed.) Maybe it ought to be a crime to force animals to live under less than ideal conditions—in a lab, say, instead of someone’s front lawn. But of course, many farm animals might choose to go free if we put it to a vote, and there are dogs whose happiness would be considerably improved if they were given the run of the living room. All civilized people abhor cruelty to animals; but most accept that animals (like people) might have to put up with imperfect living arrangements.

Let’s suppose, however, that we were indeed about to lose the kangaroo-rat gene pool for all time. It might not always be possible to perpetuate a species in the lab. Do we have a moral duty to ensure that every gene pool last forever? I can’t imagine why we should. We have no objection to the human gene pool’s being diminished when people fail to reproduce. And species die out in nature all the time—only a tiny fraction of all species remain alive today. You might argue that “good stewardship” requires that we preserve every species we can: the kangaroo-rat genome might be a bioengineering gold mine someday. This is a strange argument coming from environmentalists, but up to a point it is absolutely valid: we should indeed refrain from killing endangered creatures needlessly, and make every effort to establish them in a lab; it is a mistake to sell science short. Yet beyond those reasonable and prudent steps, what right can a minority have to ordain a policy of “save everything, just in case!” and pass the costs on to the rest of us? Imposing significant real costs on real people on account of conceivable social benefits of some undetermined type at some undetermined time is a piece of arrogance that environmentalists can manage, but the rest of us mostly can’t.

Perhaps, though, the crime in doing away with the kangaroo rat is that its disappearance would make certain people unhappy. After all, most people are willing to forbid activities that cause widespread, serious unhappiness. But the “widespread” and “serious” are important; otherwise, we get tangled up in petty tyranny. Today’s free market in pornography, for example, causes many people serious unhappiness. But as a nation we no longer see those people’s aggregate unhappiness, however deep and sincere, as substantial enough to justify prohibition.

Environmentalists might argue that allowing the kangaroo rat to disappear would cause widespread, serious unhappiness, but I don’t believe that claim. If the kangaroo rat were to vanish this afternoon, hardly anyone would know the difference. I don’t doubt that some environmentalists do get spiritual nourishment from the kangaroo rat, but some people deriving some value from a slice of nature has never been sufficient grounds for declaring that slice off limits to the rightful owners. I may have a maple in my front yard that all my neighbors admire, but I can chop it down if I want to. It might be rotten of me, but it’s no crime. And if I chopped it down for cause—to make my house safer, let’s say—my neighbors are likely to understand.

So here we are at the nub. It would be criminal for you to plow that firebreak, the environmentalist is forced to argue in the end, because you have a duty to nature. Because nature has “intrinsic” value, as Vice President Gore puts it. And here we stand, the environmentalists and we anti-environmentalists, on opposite sides of a philosophical Grand Canyon.

Because, of course, you reject “duties to nature” when you reject paganism. Kindness to animals, it is true, is a strong moral imperative in the Judeo-Christian tradition. In Judaism the thread starts in the Bible—the Ten Commandments, for example, explicitly direct that animals as well as people are to rest on the Sabbath. It is confirmed in the Talmud; in one instance among many, a famous passage in Berakhot lays down that a man is not to eat until he has fed his animals. It continues in the rabbinic literature down to the present day. But at the same time, the moral universe of Judaism and Christianity centers unequivocally on man. Human beings have rights and moral duties—kindness to animals being one. Animals have neither. The duty of kindness to animals is a duty owed not to nature but to God, a morally crucial distinction.

Judaism and Christianity have a radical agenda; they may not live up to it in practice, but their goals are clear. They deem every human life to be sacred. At the same time, they wipe the slate clean of nature gods, nature spirits, any and all “duties to nature.” (Paganism has traditionally been stronger in Germany than in any other Western culture, and perhaps that is why environmentalism is so strong in modern Germany. In any case, the “pure and holy Rhine” of the German lyric poets is incompatible with Christianity.) In the Judeo-Christian view man is emphatically not part of nature. Human life has an entirely different value from animal life, and protecting and preserving human life is a moral duty that sweeps away all “duties” to nature whatsoever—that sweeps away the very idea of “duties to nature.”

If (for example) we can protect human life or improve it by using animals for medical research, then in this view we are not simply permitted; we are obligated to do that research. This man- and God-centered view of the universe has other implications we may not like to discuss. If we choose to terminate a chicken for the sole reason that we want to eat chicken and not soy mush, although we have plenty of soy mush on hand, we are permitted to do it. We are permitted to kill a cow for no better reason than disinclination to wear plastic shoes. We are permitted to plow up the kangaroo rat’s habitat merely (merely?) to protect our homes from fire. If you decide to eat no meat or give up leather or defer to the kangaroo rat, some people will praise your decision and others condemn it. In any case it’s your own affair. But in no circumstances can we permit you to impose that decision on anyone else.

The environmentalists can’t accept this; how can the imposition of virtue, they want to know, be bad? Isn’t the state supposed to impose virtue? Or at least to promote it? Maybe preserving the kangaroo rat overdoes it a tad, but virtue is a good thing, and you can only praise a nation that goes overboard in that direction. The problem is, forcing your fellow man to accommodate the interests of every endangered species on the block is no instance of excessive virtue. It isn’t virtuous at all. It’s depraved. A rich, idle misanthrope who cares more for his dogs than the neighbor’s children is a study in moral degradation. So is a rich, idle nation that forces men to defer to rats.

A morally serious conservative movement and Republican Party would stand up and argue this anti-Green position—instead of allowing people to believe that the only grounds for objecting to the environmentalist agenda is that regulation costs too much.

A person might object in substance to environmentalist laws like the Endangered Species Act; he might also object to the process by which we got the law in the first place.

Maintaining the kangaroo rat in its natural habitat is no kind of recognized moral obligation in the Judeo-Christian or American moral traditions on which our laws are based. As a nation we do take on new moral duties from time to time—normally, though, in the wake of nationwide discussion and some sort of rough consensus. In this case there was no serious discussion and there is no consensus.

When the Endangered Species Act passed the Senate unanimously in 1973, it became illegal to “take” endangered species—to hunt and kill them. The law was extended later to prohibit “harming” endangered species also, but it was a 1984 federal court ruling that classified “habitat modification” as a form of “harming” and therefore, where protected species were concerned, a federal crime. The court order itself was a fait accompli, but conservative leaders might have used it as an occasion for a nationwide debate on our obligations to endangered species and, for that matter, on the meaning of democracy in an age of “activist” (what other eras would have called “tyrannical”) judges. But they didn’t and, so far as one can tell, don’t ever plan to.

The complacency of conservative leaders is even more alarming when you consider that, if we put off the debate long enough, the outcome will be a forgone conclusion. Relentless indoctrination in the schools will have eliminated any chance of a serious discussion.

My own young boys came home from school not long ago singing hymns to recycling they had learned from a “folksinger” at an assembly. That recycling is a policy choice and not a revelation from God, that it has benefits and also costs and might be a good idea sometimes and bad others—such ideas are utterly foreign and in some cases literally incomprehensible to younger teachers. The real battle over environmentalism is being fought in the classroom, and it’s a rout.

We anti-environmentalists don’t object only to some important Green laws and to the process by which they were put in place. We don’t like the Greens’ attitude either; it tends to be ill-considered and self-righteous. Soule, in his Los Angeles Times piece, helps explain.

Endangered species must be protected in their natural habitats, he believes, “even if a few human beings may have to forgo some profits.” The forgoing of profits is clearly no big deal to an environmentalist.

Does the American public agree? Suppose the profits to be forgone amount to a small businessman’s whole income. Suppose they belong to a wealthy businessman—now in his seventies, let’s say, who was born poor and struggled his whole life to build a company. Is it right to zero out his earnings on behalf of the kangaroo rat? Or any other rat? Or does Soule mean, when he speaks of some profits, that our businessmen will be allowed to keep a proportion of their earnings no matter what the Endangered Species Law decrees? How much? Six percent? Two? Who decides? Might any of the profits to be forgone belong to a businessman who was born rich and had it easy—but employs a hundred people who make a decent living from his enterprise and will be out of a job when we tell him that, henceforth, he will have to forgo his profits? But let’s assume the worst: 100 percent of those tainted profits go to rich, pampered, greedy, Republican white males who never crack a smile or feel anyone else’s pain. What business is it of Soule’s? Many Americans, I suspect, would advise him to forgo his own profits and quit right there.

If the environmentalist attack on “profits” seems to be based less on reason than emotional antipathy, the antipathy seems ill-considered too. Only rich countries can afford “duties to nature.” Industrially backward communist Russia and Eastern Europe fouled the environment monumentally. Primitive societies (of the type some environmentalists admire for their reverence for nature) didn’t toy with rats; they had sense enough to realize that wolves, given that they kill valuable animals, are to be got rid of, not fussed over. No society has ever before had the luxury of indulging a passion as marginal and frivolous as the one underlying the Endangered Species Act.

Our basic problem, according to Soule, is that “hubris and greed compel us to build on steep slopes, in fire-prone habitats and in flood plains.” You might say, by the same token, that “hubris and greed” compelled the Israelis to plant orange groves in the desert—a rotten location (ecologically speaking) for orange groves. Los Angeles itself is in a silly place for a taco shop, let alone a city: too hot, insufficient water, the avalanche-prone San Gabriel mountains next door. Manhattan took colossal hubris—a great city on a small island, cut off from food and water?

Nevertheless, Vice President Gore agrees that hubris is a big problem: we have “fallen victim,” he writes, “to a kind of technological hubris.”

Hubris is important: it is the coupling pin that connects our world to the America of (let’s say) 1940. What environmentalists see as hubris—the human drive to build where conditions are bad and the building is tough—1940 tended to see as the essential human enterprise, inspiring and noble.

Of the many eras of intense building in New York City, the 1930s and early 1940s were a particularly dramatic time. The roads and bridges of those years still shape the city. The Gowanus Expressway, the Belt and Henry Hudson parkways, the West Side Highway, and East River Drive are products largely of the thirties (spilling over into the early forties). The city’s first airport, North Beach (later La Guardia), was begun in 1937. The George Washington Bridge opened in 1931, followed by the monumental Triborough Bridge in 1936, the Henry Hudson Parkway in 1936, the Marine Parkway in 1937, and the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge in 1939. The Lincoln Tunnel opened in 1937 and the Queens-Midtown Tunnel in 1940.

New York was exceptional because of its nearly unstoppable parks commissioner, Robert Moses. But all across the country, the 1930s transformed the American landscape. On the opposite coast, the Oakland Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate were finished in 1937. Boulder Dam (called “Hoover” when it was begun, “Boulder” when it opened under a Democratic administration, and “Hoover” again with the Republicans back in control of Congress in 1947) was the highest in the world when it opened in 1936. The Grand Coulee Dam, opened in 1941, generated more power than any other. And so on.

The building boom reflected a very different national culture from ours, a culture not distinctive to the thirties—it goes back centuries—but vividly expressed in those years. When we hear the word “landscape,” we are apt to think first of nature. When Stuart Davis used the term (Swing Landscape, 1938), he meant a sprawling collection of chimneys and bridges and oil derricks rendered with electric sparkle in lovely greens, oranges, reds, and lilacs. In the 1930s (and earlier), a stretch of waterfront no longer in a state of nature was said to be “improved.” The American environment we care about is the natural one; the thirties cared most for the man-made environment. That disagreement speaks to a profound difference in worldview.

The press likes to draw a dichotomy between nature-loving environmentalists and their nature-hating opponents, but that is malicious nonsense; there is no such dichotomy. A person can love nature and detest a good deal of the environmentalist agenda at the same time. People in 1940 would never have stood for an Endangered Species Act, but the era didn’t lack for nature lovers. Nature shouldered aside by the rude, burgeoning city is a familiar thirties lament. In the 1920s Georgia O’Keefe scattered floral still lifes among her urban scenes at the Stieglitz gallery, where she showed her work: “I will make even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers.” In 1940 the president had a long history of conservationist interests and came from a notably conservationist family. The Roosevelt administration established new national parks and forests; the Civilian Conservation Corps tended forests and built wildlife shelters. At the 1939 New York World’s Fair, the electrical engineer who designed the spectacular fountain-and-fireworks, music-and-gas-jets sound-and-light show had to be called out of retirement on Nantucket, where he had been raising wind-adapted trees for coastal planting. This crack technician, at least, would have been puttering around his plants had he not been called upon to design one of the age’s greatest high-tech extravaganzas.

But of course, our own attitude toward nature differs radically from what was typical in the 1930s, regardless of the thirties’ fond regard for flowers and forests. Ironic distance is our own particular specialty, yet it fails us utterly where nature is concerned. “How can you disregard the Atlantic Ocean, the Grand Canyon, and Niagara Falls?” asks Delmore Schwartz on behalf of Randall Jarrell, attempting to summarize Jarrell’s views. “Poetry,” he answers, “has the overwhelming reality of these natural phenomena, and it is certainly far more interesting.” (Nature might be awe-inspiring and all that, but compared to man-made objects like bridges and poems, it might be a trifle boring also.) The essay dates from 1953 but would have been perfectly at home in the 1930s, when Schwartz first made his mark. “He who claims that man cannot improve on nature,” writes Gerald Wendt, science director at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, “. . . forgets that steel, concrete and glass are all unnatural products.” In 1928 Yeats had expressed his famous preference, should he die and be re-embodied, for the enameled gold birds of Byzantium over any mere fluff-headed natural-born specimen. The 1930s loved nature but approached it with a certain detachment.

There is an “environment” that obsessed the America of that time, that awakened the same energy and spirit that nature awakens in us—and that was the man-made environment. It was a brisk, businesslike era; and yet it had a spiritual, almost mystical belief in the transcendent beauty and importance of the act of building.

That belief resounds (the way medieval Christianity does in a reliquary or altarpiece) in Lewis Hine’s photograph of an engineer sighting through a theodolite, perched high on an unfinished skyscraper: in shirtsleeves and a dusty fedora and the barest smile, he has the presence of a Sforza on horseback. He practically lights up the city with hubris, no question. It resounds in Margaret Bourke-White’s famous photograph of Fort Peck Dam under construction in Montana, Life magazine’s first cover: concrete abutments loom like man-made mountains over two tiny figures in the foreground. It is there in Hugh Ferriss’s drawing of the Perisphere under construction at the World’s Fair, thrust forward within rendered space so the top of the sphere is clipped off, pressed flat as if viewed through a long telephoto lens, done in charcoal like most of his drawings but seeming to exude light as if it were silver. It is there in a Federal Writers’ Project description of Raymond Hood’s RCA Building: of its “great knife-like prow and cliff-like side.” New York’s tall buildings, says the New York Times, “are the expression of American daring and American contempt for limits.” Of American hubris!—how could you say it more clearly? They are lifted skyward “by a demoniac energy” that is “characteristically American.” Like any spiritual belief, it is hard to account for rationally, but it is there, and it is unmistakable.

Our modern obsession with nature’s landscape and the thirties’ with its own man-made landscape have radically different implications. The thirties’ passion for building aroused (and, of course, reflected) large-scale national activity. Our passion for nature makes us passive. The man-made environment was in their power to create. As for us, we cannot make the slightest contribution to nature’s achievements; we are mere fusspot curators. The energy we used to invest in making things better we have decided to spend, instead, on keeping them the same.

In New York City some public toilets were installed by a French company on a trial basis in July 1992. The public was duly grateful. Then the toilets were hauled away again, and the city still hasn’t figured out under what circumstances it would allow them to be reinstated. The problem has to do with access for people in wheelchairs: do some toilets have to be accessible, or must all toilets? Again in New York, a mentally ill man was finally carted off to a psychiatric hospital after menacing residents in an Upper West Side neighborhood for years. He escaped, was arrested, and was brought back to the hospital—soon after which, a state judge ordered the hospital to release him three months after the original incarceration date, not hold him for six months, as psychiatrists wished. However you choose to interpret these facts, the facts themselves are plain. We are a passive society: not a little passive but very, very passive, unable to take care even of our basic needs for protection from the criminally insane and for a place to go to the bathroom. The 1930s would have found us, in this respect, funny and pathetic.

“Action is our slogan,” writes the World’s Fair’s science director. “Not for us, as for our ancestors, to bear adversity with fortitude, to await our reward in the next world. If the world is awry we can change it.” The thirties’ passion not to stand back passively but to grapple with problems, build solutions, and let that hubris roll inspired a mural at the World’s Fair. It shows “an electrician, gazing defiantly at bolts of lightning,” the goal being to depict “man’s desire to control and direct nature.”

Control and direct indeed! we say indignantly.

Only a fool would choose to put America’s clock back to 1940. But today’s pundit community lights into “nostalgia merchants” (as the First Lady calls them) with an intensity that is thought-provoking and revealing. A recent Guggenheim Museum catalog epitomizes the conventional attitude: the curator apologizes for an exhibit that might be regarded as “an act of nostalgia.” Horrors. “If America were such a picture-postcard of familial bliss in 1955,” Frank Rich announces in the New York Times, “there would have been no reason to create Disneyland.”  Only a darned unhappy society could have dreamed up such a fancy amusement park!

Why do they protest so much? Nostalgia is a given of the human condition. Problem is, we “nostalgia merchants” are hitting too close to the emotional bull’s-eye for comfort, aren’t we, Mr. Rich? Mrs. Clinton?

Conservative thinkers increasingly tend to believe that the nation’s problems are moral and spiritual. “Only a moral reformation,” Irving Kristol wrote last year, “can counter the demoralization produced jointly by the welfare state and the counterculture.” Yet conservative politicians rarely speak in clear moral terms about any issue except abortion. You could argue that this refusal to address moral problems in moral terms has been more important than any other force in the shaping of modern America. It goes back to the late 1960s: in one of the most astonishing, least analyzed, least understood big events of American history, the “establishment” chose to fold its hands instead of defend itself against an angry but shallow onslaught. U.S. culture rolled over, turned upside-down; the moral universe circa 1965 found virtually no defenders. Was it really indefensible? Are we a happier, better nation today?

There couldn’t be a clearer sign of upside-down morals than a law favoring rats over humans. But our morals in this country are so thoroughly upside-down that our unusual posture no longer even registers. Plain citizens are passionate for racial equality while the government and the schools and big business demand prejudice and (insofar as they can) compel it. But Republicans dither over making an issue of “affirmative action.” Brave souls in the real world plead for Shakespeare, while the universities (with a few honorable exceptions) snicker and revel in their position as our main bastions of anti-intellectualism. Republicans rarely mention the issue. Parents beg for decent schooling in the basics, and the schools respond with self-esteem exercises, recycling songs, and empty fun-and-games with computers.

On a mid-April Sunday I strolled with my family through Corona Park in Queens, where I had come to give a talk at a museum. It was the first hot day of the year; the park was full of children on bicycles and Rollerblades, teenagers necking, adults lounging. A day when the sun is hot but the trees are mostly still bare doesn’t seem quite real, and people were groggy, faintly suspicious.

Still, it was pleasant, relaxed, and (for a busy park) almost peaceful. So why did Corona Park feel so much like a Third-World country? Not because of the Spanish you heard everywhere. Rather, because of the garbage tumbling over the lawns and collecting round the rims of the empty pools—plastic forks, milk cartons, soda bottles, empty bags. Because of street signs askew and bald spots in the unkempt lawns. Because of boom-box music, not painfully loud (this was a friendly crowd) but too loud to ignore. Because of children and parents who seemed to dress exactly the same way and look round with the same casual indifference. Corona Park, in short, was a slovenly place, and despite the sunshine there was something awfully sad about it.

Inside the museum I was the last of three artists on the program; five minutes into the presentation, we had already heard about McCarthyism’s important role in the first speaker’s work. How we treasure this minor national humiliation four decades later! In short, there was no hubris on display this particular Sunday—rather, self-loathing, outside the museum and inside. Outside, it was casual and benign, people shrugging off garbage. Inside, it was nasty.

In both places you saw a country at sea, rich and careless enough to order its citizens to reorganize their lives, drop their big plans, and spend billions in deference to their “duties to nature;” lacking the will to sweep up the trash in the park.

 

 

 
Critics of the Greens can’t just grumble about costs. They must make the moral case for a far nobler ideal than man the steward--man the creator.
City Journal Autumn 1996.
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