This evening I saw Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speak at Seattle’s Paramount theater, thanks to Foolproof‘s excellent “American Voices” program.
The guy is pretty amazing. For one thing — and I’m not sure why this is the first thing that struck me — he looks like a Kennedy! It’s a little strange, like some PBS documentary or Discovery channel special come to life. And he speaks like a Kennedy too, obviously erudite but completely at ease with the kind of aspirational, inspirational rhetoric for which his father and uncle were known.
It’s one of the more substantive one-hour public talks I’ve ever seen. His pleasantries lasted about 30 seconds (with a quick shout-out to local eco-hero Rep. Jay Inslee), and he was off and running full tilt — few personal anecdotes or attempts at humor, no sugar, just fiber. That style might not be everybody’s cup of tea, but I love it. There was no slack.
The basic theme of the talk was less environmental stuff than corporate power. Here are a few random notes and reflections, off the top of my head, in no particular order (all this stuff will, of course, be familiar to those who have seen him speak or read his book):
- Here’s a paraphrase: When government controls business, it’s communism. When business controls government, it’s fascism. We walk the narrow center line of democratic capitalism, keeping vigilant against overreach by either side, and that requires a vigorous independent press and an informed citizenry. We are drifting, Kennedy says, toward fascism, largely because the press isn’t doing its job.
- Kennedy pounded the free-market point repeatedly, saying he no longer calls himself an environmentalist, but a “free-marketeer.” A genuinely free market, he says, would be the best thing that could happen for the environment. As it is, corporations offload the cost of their waste onto us, by spewing it into the commons — our air and water. If businesses had to build the cost of waste disposal into the price of their product, there would be a hell of a lot less waste. “Find me a polluter and I’ll find you a subsidy.”
- Kennedy is no deep ecologist. We protect nature, he says, for our own sake, not for the sake of the birds and fish. I’m sure this ruffled the feathers of a few greens in the crowd, but I couldn’t agree more, both substantively and politically.
- On the other hand, he did make a point of stressing the value of wilderness, both its formative role in the American character and its import to all the world’s religious traditions as a place where God speaks to us with the most clarity and grace. I must admit that I have little to no personal fondness for wilderness, but his words on the subject were moving.
- In the body of his talk, he mentioned global warming only once, and even then briefly, in passing. He stuck to the traditional green triad: air, water, and wilderness. There are different ways to interpret this, not all of them charitable, but I view it as a strategic political decision, and an astute one at that. I have serious doubts about the efficacy of global warming as a motivator for folks outside the committed green community.
- He said that when he gives speeches in red parts of the country, audiences are just as outraged, because they value the environment just as much. He thinks there is no big values divide between red and blue areas — the divide, he says, is in information. Folks in red states get their info either from talk radio or cable news, and both sources suck. They aren’t getting the info they need. This may be true, but I think it’s both a bit optimistic and a political non-starter. You can’t win people over by telling them they’re ignorant, even if they are.
- On two rather esoteric subjects he displayed great erudition, at great length (some folks were shifting in their seats, but I was lapping it up). The first was religious tradition and the second was law regarding the commons, which he traced back to Roman times.
- He was absolutely ruthless toward the Bush administration. He made it very clear that while the some 400 rollbacks of environmental regulations and laws are terrible, perhaps even worse is the seeding of key environmental enforcement positions in Interior, Agriculture, EPA, and parts of Justice with lobbyists from the very industries that despise the laws meant to be enforced (Griles, Holmstead, et al.). As a result, the laws and regulations aren’t enforced. He said that while the Bushies pose as the administration of values, if you watch their walk rather than their talk, you quickly see they value only one thing: corporate profit-taking. Kennedy even called Bush a bastard during the Q&A. Suffice to say, it’s unlikely he’ll ever run for office, which is too bad.
- During the Q&A, someone asked him what we have to do to fix the media and the government (world peace was not mentioned). He said his top priorities would be campaign finance reform and the return of the fairness doctrine. (Note that the two reforms most necessary to protect the environment are not themselves technically environmental — directly relevant to this discussion.)
- Also in Q&A, he got Bjorn Lomborg’s name wrong, twice. However, he redeemed himself by clueing me in to the term “biostitutes,” for scientists who whore themselves out to industry.
- Also in Q&A, a woman asked a long, rambling, conflicted question about Christie Todd Whitman — she seemed okay as governor of NJ, but then this, but then that, blah blah — to which Kennedy replied with a reaming of Whitman the likes of which I’ve never seen. She “stunk” as governor, he said, and she stunk at EPA, where even her friends called her a “wind dummy.” Ouch.
- I’m still a little conflicted about his response to the inevitable “what can I do?” question. On the one hand, he said that all those “10 ways to be a green consumer” guides are industry’s best friend, since they a) convince you pollution is your fault, and b) distract you from the real, i.e. legislative, battles. On this, I quite agree. He went on to say that the best thing an enviro can do is join an environmental group, and he particularly singled out the NRDC and the Sierra Club. His point was that we need legislative changes, and they’re the only ones up in D.C. battling for those changes, and virtually the only thing they’ve got going for them is their large membership rolls. Now, there’s been a lot of talk lately about how the big enviro groups are old, rusty, ineffective, outdated, etc. And I’m sympathetic to it — I do think we need fresh thinking and perhaps fresh organizations. But Kennedy made the best defense I’ve heard of the big establishment green groups.
- The man’s a brilliant speaker. I wish he would run for office. See him if you can.
A good introduction to Kennedy’s basic schtick is this piece, which he originally wrote for Rolling Stone