Blogs > Liberty and Power > A Question of Context

Nov 8, 2004 3:19 pm

A Question of Context

I know I am starting my contributions to “Liberty and Power” unpropitiously by quoting Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., but I can’t resist. He’s making a point--unconsciously, but still emphatically--that I’ve been looking for a way to make myself. It has to do with historical context, and the knowledge and use of history.

Speaking in Madison, Wisconsin, the day after the election, Kennedy blamed his party’s defeat on America’s (conservative?!) press, referred to the winning party as “bad” people who have “stolen our country,” and called President Bush “_the_ worst environmental president that we've had in American history."

Of course, the author of the volume judiciously entitled "Crimes Against Nature: How George W. Bush and His Corporate Pals Are Plundering the Country and Hijacking Our Democracy" is merely a rich, no-longer-young man who has never had a decent job. So who cares what he says? Well, there are two reasons to do so.

(A) Kennedy was widely regarded as a leading candidate for head of environmental affairs in a Kerry administration. So electing Kerry might well have meant electing Kennedy as well. I know, electing Bush means electing Such and Such and So and So, people for whom I, like you, have varying degrees of respect. But as Boss Jim W. Gettys says in “Citizen Kane,” “We’re talking now about what _you_ are.” We’re talking now about what the Democrats’ idea of a responsible thinker seems to be. Apparently, their definition is pretty generous.

(B) The idea that Bush has been “the worst environmental president” was a common topic for the Kerry-Edwards campaign. It’s not just Kennedy who thinks so. It’s the general opinion of the Democratic leadership.

Is it true?

This is not a matter of “values.” It’s a matter of fact. And the facts are against the Democratic allegations.

You may be an “environmentalist,” or you may be “a ruthless exploiter of our natural heritage,” but if you have any respect for historical fact you cannot regard Bush’s tinkering with environmental standards, his tepid desire to drill for oil in a remote part of Alaska, and his feeling (shared with Senator Kerry) that there is something wrong with the Kyoto protocol as anything that could conceivably make him ashamed when he checks into those apartments in Valhalla reserved for former presidents of the United States.

Consider the testing of nuclear bombs in the atmosphere, a gross assault on the environment that continued throughout the Truman and Eisenhower regimes, and most of the Kennedy regime.

Consider the mass demolition of American cities--urban “renewal”-- conducted under Eisenhower, Johnson, and Nixon. Just knock it down, boys; and replace it with a Swedish modern welfare office--if anything.

Consider the depredations of the federal superhighway program, initiated under Eisenhower and continuing through all future regimes. Ike didn’t worry about putting a six-lane highway through the family burial plot, the neighboring “wetland,” or the last resort of the Southeastern Spotted Toad. Whatever the environmental obstacles might be, the highway went through.

Consider all the dams, canals, power projects, irrigation schemes, drainage zones, national “scenic” roads, army posts, federal prisons, and concentration camps for Japanese Americans constructed in this country during the Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt regimes. Was there any concern at the time about the destruction of historic landscapes and shrines to virgin nature? There was some concern--but it did not avail with the federal government. The projects were completed.

When I was a kid--about the same time that Mr. Kennedy was a kid--all the downtown buildings in the county seat were black with smoke deposits from coal-burning locomotives. And this was as nothing when compared to what you saw in the big cities, in the Lake Michigan suburbs, and along the Ohio. No president, or presidential candidate, showed the least concern. Undoubtedly, Kennedy doesn’t realize this, since he grew up in more exclusive climes.

Who carved the Panama Canal? Under whose regime did a faulty work of civil engineering flood the Imperial Valley and create the Salton Sea? Under whose regime were the virgin forests of the Old Northwest destroyed and smoky industrial cities erected in their place, with the delighted encouragement of the federal government? In whose presidency were federal lands appropriated for the construction of the Wabash and Erie Canal, a virtually useless 468-mile scar across the landscape of Indiana, a hole in which hundreds of immigrant workmen died? The answer is, the presidencies of Monroe, Adams, Jackson, Van Buren, Harrison, Tyler, Polk . . . You can complete the list yourself.

In the 1830s, every single tree in my native land--Henrietta Township, Jackson County, Michigan--was burned or logged off. In succeeding years, every single watercourse was confined within manmade limits, every “wetland” that could possibly be cultivated was drained, and the world’s largest prison was built on the newly created farmland just across the agriculturally polluted Portage River. There was no hint of presidential intervention in this case.
Nor did any president intervene when the state of Iowa was converted from a lush, wild, treeless prairie--possibly the least deciduous state in the union--to its current condition as a paradise of corn and hogs and forest trees.

But let’s take it back to the beginning. Do you think that President Washington was trying to save the environment when he plotted a canal to connect the Potomac with the Ohio, and open the West to millions of settlers?

The point is not that these events were good or bad. The point is that it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to find a president of the United States who has had a _better_ record of preserving “the environment” than Bush. The larger point is that people like Mr. Kennedy use “history” not as a way of providing factual context and meaningful perspective, but as a way of ignoring and annulling both.

We live in a time in which every election, however close, is regarded as “historic,” in which even the most recent issues (e.g., gay marriage) are regarded as crucial to the entire American tradition, and in which political personalities are assessed without the faintest regard for historical context or historical fact. This is a dismally anti-intellectual trend, made even more dismal by the fact that the Democratic Party, which is alleged to be the party of the intellectuals, participates in it so fully.

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More Comments:

Jonathan Dresner - 11/8/2004

You beat me to it, David. And you said it better than I would have. Thanks.

David Lion Salmanson - 11/8/2004

Since even the most generous historians don't date someting called "environmentalism" until at least the time of Muir and most claim it doesn't exist until the 50s or 60s (usually the Glen Canyon battle is considered the beginning), Bush can really only be compared to Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush I, and Clinton. (Incidentally, Eisenhower opposed the Highway Bill provisions that allowed the Interstates to go through cities.) Each of those presidents systemically extended environmental protection into larger and larger areas. Bush is the first to attempt to roll back such protections and he does it by a) not enforcing laws on the books, and b) rewriting regulations and standards to legislate without legislation (not only Democrats do that y'know). Bush has opened more wilderness to development, his logging plan is a complete joke, and he hasn't exactly been hands-off in terms of the growing eminent domain crisis. The incentives for builders and impediments on environmental protection have accelerated sprawl, and kiss goodbye any federal mass transit funding (while tax write-offs for SUVs continue and roads continue to get a free ride tax-wise). Sure it is overhyped rhetoric to call him "the worst," but as this last election proved, Americans are suckers for overhyped rhetoric, can you blame the Dems for trying?