Why didn’t “Laudato Si” include more good news about the environment? That’s what David Brooks, an Op-Ed columnist at The New York Times, wants to know. In his Tuesday column—“Fracking and the Franciscans,” an alliterative crime he probably is not responsible for—Brooks calls the encyclical “surprisingly disappointing” and full of “1970s-style doom-mongering about technological civilization.” (My America colleague Nathan Schneider points out that another Times columnist, Ross Douthat, is also unenthusiastic about the pope’s call for climate justice.)
“You would never know from the encyclical that we are living through the greatest reduction in poverty in human history,” Brooks writes, as if it’s simply bad manners to examine how this reduction in poverty has been achieved. We can surmise from his past columns that Brooks would not be happy if we reduced poverty by redistributing wealth and doing away with the incentive to work. Raising the global standard of living through environmental destruction—producing cheap, throwaway goods; building homes in areas that guarantee the waste of electricity and water; employing people in factories that spew toxins, and requiring long commutes by car—is at least as problematic. The ends don’t wipe away the means.
“You would never know that in many parts of the world, like the United States, the rivers and skies are getting cleaner,” he says of the encyclical. Well, then. If “Laudato Si” had come out four months ago, Brooks wouldn’t have needed to write a response at all. He could have simply disproved global warming by posing with a snowball, easily obtainable in New York at the time. Some rivers in America are getting cleaner; therefore the earth can’t be getting dirtier.
Brooks also disapproves of the pope’s “overdrawn” language—in particular, “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.” That’s a little too blunt for the opinion pages of The New York Times. It’s almost as distasteful as the president of the United States uttering a racial slur in discussing our fixation with racial slurs. Couldn’t the pope have just said, “The earth, our home, could use a visit from the cleaning lady”?
Pope Francis would not make a good New York Times columnist, or centrist politician, in the United States. The gatekeepers of respectable discourse, such as Brooks, demand reassurances that the ruling class has our best interests at heart. Incremental, even imperceptible, solutions to global problems will get us by. Too much negativity can lead to protest marches, which is bad for business confidence. Rather than issue encyclicals for all to read, the pope might have expressed his concerns about environmental destruction in “quiet rooms,” as Mitt Romney once suggested is the proper forum to discuss wealth distribution.
As Francis will discover when he visits the United States this fall, bluntness does not play well among establishment journalists and politicians. It’s impolite, for example, to wonder aloud whether there’s something wrong with our attitude toward guns, even after something like the mass shooting of congregants at an African-American church in South Carolina last week. “At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries,” said President Obama about massacres by men with guns, in yet another example of his “politicizing” a tragedy. Why didn’t he talk about that one time in South Africa when, according to Breitbart Big Government, “a parishoner stopped a mass shooting by a black nationalist group” by firing a revolver? Why not point out that for every 34 criminal gun homicides in the U.S., there is one “justifiable” killing in self-defense? There’s a clean river for you.
Because of the Charleston massacre, the Confederate flag is finally losing respectability, since being associated with current white supremacists is a little more troubling than being associated with long-dead ones. But for decades, the moderate, non-divisive attitude toward the flag was to respect those who just wanted to “respect” Southern heritage. So South Carolina compromised by flying the Confederate flag next to, not in front of, its state Capitol. If you were an African-American citizen of that state, you could simply turn your head from the dirty river and look at the pretty building. (South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley this week called for the flag to be removed from Capitol grounds altogether.)
No, there’s something not quite American about negativity. Earlier this week, Rick Perry objected when Fox News host Chris Wallace said, as if it were a bad thing, that 21 percent of Texans lacked health insurance when Perry was governor. “That’s not how we keep score,” Perry said. “I think it’s a fallacy to say access to health care is about insurance.” It’s true that people without health insurance can go to the emergency room if they’re desperate enough, and then worry whether and how much they’re going to be billed for treatment. By that score, access to health care was no problem in Texas.
There’s life even in a dirty river. The pope will get better publicity on op-ed pages if he lightens up and acknowledges that if you can’t stop progress, you might as well be a bit happier about it.