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28 April 1999

Our current howler (part II): Not getting warmer

Synopsis: Zelnick’s critique of Earth had us boiling mad--until we took a look at Gore’s text.

Gore: A Political Life
Bob Zelnick, Regnery Publishing, 1999

Earth in the Balance
Al Gore, Houghton Mifflin, 1992

The analysts wanted a real critique of Earth, after reading Ben Wattenberg’s fumbling effort (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/27/99), and since Wattenberg’s piece had referred to Bob Zelnick, they went out and bought Zelnick’s book. Indeed, we had interviewed with Zelnick when he was writing his book, and we happen to find him an exceedingly nice fellow. The analysts, therefore, were peeved with Gore when they fell on this passage from Zelnick:

ZELNICK: Gore then devotes an entire chapter to “dysfunctional civilization.” He cites with little critical comment the view of the fanatical “deep ecologists” who see humanity as the “pathogens” infecting Earth with an AIDS-type virus, global warming being the Earth’s “fever.”

You can imagine how angry the analysts were, reading about Gore’s silly outlook. Why, maybe Ben Wattenberg had been right all along, comparing the Unabomber to Gore! But, while the analysts muttered and shook their fists, we craftily decided to see what Gore said, and we found this passage in the one part of Earth where Gore talks about Deep Ecology:

GORE: One increasingly prominent group known as Deep Ecologists makes what I believe is the deep mistake of defining our relationship to the earth using the metaphor of disease.

Say what? Gore continued apace:

GORE: The obvious problem with this metaphor is that it defines human beings as inherently and contagiously destructive, the deadly carriers of a plague upon the earth. And the internal logic of the metaphor points toward only one possible cure: eliminate people from the face of the earth.

After saying that their metaphor has led Deep Ecologists to “advocate a kind of war on the human race,” Gore says:

GORE: Beyond its moral unacceptability, another problem with this metaphor is its inability to explain--in a way that is either accurate or believable--who we are and how we can create solutions for the crisis it describes.

Gore goes on to accuse Deep Ecologists of carrying out “a modern version of the Cartesian denouement of a philosophical divorce between human beings and the earth,” the very philosophical posture Gore has described as accounting for our dysfunctional environmental instincts. Gore says it’s a “fundamental misperception” on the part of the Deep E’s, one that is “dangerously wrong.”

Gore writes for slightly more than two pages about the views of Deep Ecologists; in that time, he calls them “dangerously wrong,” deeply mistaken” and “morally unacceptable.” He says their view is based on a “fundamental misperception” that is “unable to explain” our ecological problems. It is hard to imagine how someone could read this passage and fail to see Gore’s point of view. But Zelnick’s strange account of Gore-on-Deep E is just the beginning of this chapter’s problems, in which Zelnick’s summaries frequently fly in the face of what Earth quite plainly says.

Zelnick’s account of Gore on Deep Ecology is part of his summary of what the book says. When he starts his actual critique of the book, one of his immediate complaints is that Earth in the Balance is “shabby in its ignorance of economics.” In short order, Zelnick says this:

ZELNICK: Surveying Gore policy recommendations in the Yale Law Journal, economist Robert W. Hahn called them “an incredible laundry list which could easily result in central planners selecting environmentally and politically correct products and technologies. It is nothing less than environmental socialism.” While Gore recommends photovoltaic cells, wind-generated energy, and the like, he fails to test these ideas against the reality of cost-effectiveness and the economic law of supply and demand. Indeed, an understanding of a market economy seems completely beyond his appreciation.

Again the analysts were shaking their fists, furious at Gore’s failings. But we found Earth’s passage on photovoltaics, and showed them again what Gore said:

GORE: The most promising of these decentralized [electricity generation] techniques is the generation of electrical current from the rays of the sun through photovoltaic cells...But this technology is still in its infancy, and what is required--as part of the proposed SEI--is a global effort to accelerate the development of cost-effective photovoltaic cells.

Man! And imagine how the analysts howled when they saw this, in the very same paragraph:

GORE: If, indeed, cost-effective forms of photovoltaic technology can be demonstrated, public demand may quickly sweep away the political and organizational roadblocks and in the process create the prospect of enormous profits for those entrepeneurs who quickly adapt photovoltaic technology to new uses.

That comment about “enormous profits” seemed to comprehend a market economy. Indeed, it’s Zelnick who seems uncomprehending about Gore’s economic outlook. Earlier, writing about ecological devastation in the Aral Sea, Zelnick penned this complaint:

ZELNICK: On the other hand, [Gore’s] visit to the Aral Sea should have alerted him to the record of a powerful centralized government bureaucracy appropriating to itself the role of supreme environmental arbiter.

There! Take that! The analysts roiled. But here’s what Gore had said:

GORE: [R]eligious conservatives might be surprised to find that many deeply committed environmentalists have become, if anything, even more hostile to overarching statism than they are. The most serious examples of environmental degradation in the world today are tragedies that were created or actively encouraged by governments...And it is no accident that the very worst environmental tragedies were created by communist governments, in which the power of the state completely overwhelms the capabilities of the individual steward. Chernobyl, the Aral Sea, the Yangtze River, the “black town” of Copsa Mica in Romania--these and many other disasters testify to the severe environmental threats posed by statist governments.

Parts of Zelnick’s treatment of Earth are remarkable for their misstatement of Gore’s plain text. Other parts are equally remarkable for their ability to raise silly side issues. For example, Zelnick devotes an entire paragraph to the prevalence of horse manure in city streets before the invention of the automobile. And he tells us that “at least one Bacon scholar has criticized Gore for grossly distorting the views of Sir Francis.” But reread the discussion of Deep Ecology and answer a question about Zelnick. How are we to trust the scientific conclusions of an author who so grossly misrepresents a plain text? The discussion of Earth which is sure to come will be beyond the scientific horizon of almost all readers; readers will have to trust the good faith of those who evaluate Gore’s grasp of science. As such, it will be up to the press corps to insist that its members struggle to bring the obscure within reach. Our question: Is the press corps prepared to speak up in protest, when pundits treat texts as Zelnick has done? Is the press corps prepared to regard it as news when major writers do this to plain texts?

Partial answer: On the back of Gore: A Political Life, Ken Bode says this:

BODE: It is always better to find out all we can about a presidential candidate before he is elected...Mr. Gore has been on the political scene in Washington for most of his life, most recently in 8 years of stage-managed events at the White House. We need to know more, much more. Bob Zelnick starts that examination. Gore acolytes will not appreciate all they find here.

Neither would Ken Bode, we’d have to assume--if he would actually read Zelnick’s treatment of Earth, and compare it to Gore’s simple text.

Tomorrow: Tucker Carlson couldn’t find a quote that was silly enough. So he made one a little bit better.

Bodacious: The unintended irony of Bode’s closing sentence is obvious, but we enjoyed his “eight years” remark too. At the time Bode wrote his blurb for Zelnick’s book, Gore had been vice president for six years tops. Bode goes ahead and describes Years 7 and 8, and--in the press corps’ standard Goth style--he describes them in a dark, gloomy fashion.