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Crimes of Ego

[Review of Crimes Against Nature: How George W. Bush and His Corporate Pals Are Plundering the Country and Hijacking Our Democracy by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. (HarperCollins). Originally appeared in the New York Post, Oct. 17, 2004]

TWO years ago, celebrity environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. made himself a laughingstock from one end of Iowa to the other when he flew into that state to proclaim that large-scale hog farms are more of a threat to America than Osama bin Laden and his terrorists.

In one of the milder reactions, a Des Moines Register editorial called his comments "idiotic" and "ridiculous."

But the wayward scion learned nothing from that episode. His volume knob still stuck at 10, Kennedy has now delivered himself of a whole book about the "Crimes Against Nature" (always crimes, never the result of mere differences of opinion) by which today's high officials are leading us "back to the Dark Ages" on environmental policy.

His villains, a long list, include the "sleazy scoundrels" of the Bush regime, business execs with "reptilian hearts," "crooked scientists" whose research fails to confirm his own notions and sinister policy experts who dabble in "the occult art of cost-benefit analysis."

There's a rich market for Bush-bashing books these days, but Kennedy's jackhammer style leaves one yearning for Michael Moore's suavity, Molly Ivins' balance and Paul Krugman's lightness of touch. If you find it novel and illuminating to compare today's highly placed Texans with Hitler and Mussolini, then RFK Jr.'s your man.

For those with even a passing interest in public policy, the book affords the fun of a pratfall on every page, most of them occasioned by Kennedy's epic self-righteousness and astounding disregard for conventional accuracy.

Thus we learn that air pollution is a cause of Down's Syndrome, that "study after study" shows small family farmers to be "far more efficient" than battery raisers of chicken, eggs and pork and that "automakers already have the technology" to make SUVs and minivans get the mileage of passenger cars, but don't do it because, well, because they're mean.

And more: It seems there are "seven media giants that own or control virtually all of the United States' 2,000 TV stations, 11,000 radio stations and 11,000 newspapers and magazines," working hand in glove with the Bush White House (you know how CBS and the Times are always doing that). And did you know that the Bush people are secretly plotting to eliminate all federal environmental regulation within a year? Many of the "rollbacks" Kennedy cites, however, turn out to be refusals to expand the law, a rather different thing.

As for trade-offs at a time of $50/barrel oil ­-- between warm homes and optimal caribou habitat, between underground coal mining (better for the landscape) and surface mining (kills a lot fewer miners) ­-- Kennedy's usual practice is simply to ignore them. This helps in sustaining outrage, but does it really equip his readers to argue well for their cause? In a revealing turn of phrase, Kennedy complains his adversaries are allowed "to pretend that there is a genuine debate."

The man's lack of ironic self-awareness is a marvel. In his media-criticism chapter, he has the nerve to blast the press for its absorption with celebrity culture. Yet this book, like Kennedy's entire career, is nothing if not an artifact of that culture. It would never have been acquired by a major publisher, or sent out in quantity to bookstores, or reviewed in this newspaper today, if its author's name were Robert F. Snicklethwaite, Jr.