Campus News

Kennedy Lecture Fires Up Common Hour Audience

Story posted September 25, 2006

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Robert F. Kennedy Jr. spoke at the September 22, 2006, Common Hour.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. brought a packed Pickard Theater audience to its feet at the September 22, 2006, Common Hour, with a speech on the environment that swayed between preaching politics and just plain preaching.

He railed against President George W. Bush for "eviscerating 30 years of environmental laws," calling him "the worst environmental president in American history," and decried the complicit media for being lazy, ineffectual and too concerned with profit to pursue unpleasant or unpopular truths.

"We don't protect the environment for the birds or the fish, but for our own sake," he said. The earth's natural beauty is a common inspiration for the prophets of all religions; for Americans, it is our national identity, and the spiritual source of our most powerful art and literature.

"We don't know Michelangelo by reading his biography but by looking at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel," Kennedy said. "I don't believe nature is God, but God communicates with us most forcefully through his creation. And we have lost touch with the tides and the seasons that connect us with God."

Kennedy, a former assistant district attorney in New York City, began his environmental crusade as chief prosecuting attorney for Riverkeeper, an organization fighting to safeguard the ecological integrity of the Hudson River, its tributaries and the watershed of New York City. He has expanded that role as founder and president of Waterkeeper Alliance, an international advocacy organization of 156 local groups — including one in Casco Bay — dedicated to protecting water sources from polluters. He also serves as senior attorney for the Natural Resource Defense Council; clinical professor and supervising attorney at Pace University School of Law's Environmental Litigation Clinic; and is co-host of "Ring of Fire" on Air America Radio.

He is the author of three books — "Crimes Against Nature," the basis of his talk at Bowdoin; the children's book, "St. Francis of Assisi: A Life if Joy"; and "Judge Frank M. Johnson Jr.: A Biography" — and numerous newspaper and magazine articles that have been included in anthologies of America's Best Crime Writing, Best Political Writing and Best Science Writing.

Kennedy described the Bush administration's rollbacks of environmental laws as a "stealth attack on the environment, using Orwellian language" to obfuscate the truth. For example, a bill gutting the Clean Air Act is called "The Clear Skies Act"; expanding timber harvesting and road cutting in national forests is called the "Healthy Forests Act." Bush put a timber industry lobbyist in charge of the national forests, a mining lobbyist in charge of public lands and a utility lobbyist in charge of clean air; an attorney whose former job was advising companies of ways to evade pollution laws now heads the Superfund program.

According to Kennedy, the public tolerates this corporate takeover of government because it is largely ignorant. That, Kennedy said, is the result of media deregulation on the part of government and greed and consolidation on the part of the media themselves.

"Five multi-national corporations now own 14,000 radio stations, 5,000 TV stations and 80 percent of the newspapers," he said. "They've gotten rid of 80 percent of the investigative reporters and foreign news bureaus."

The news media now spend their resources "appealing to the prurient interests we all have in the reptilian parts of our brain for sex and celebrity gossip," he said. "We are the best-entertained and the worst-informed people in the world."

And that is contrary to a healthy democracy, he said. The founding fathers established public education and free media because they understood that a democracy run by the people and not by an aristocracy requires a well-educated and well-informed populace.

"If you were uneducated or uninformed, you were a threat to democracy because you would follow a tyrant," Kennedy said.

Kennedy cited alarming statistics about the percentage of soldiers who believe that Saddam Hussein bombed the World Trade Center, and the percentage of civilians who believe the United States actually found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

"I travel all over the country and speak to large groups of both Democrats and Republicans," he said. "There is no difference between people in red states and people in blue states. Eighty percent of Republicans are just Democrats who don't know what's going on."

Kennedy refuted the argument that pro-environment legislation is inherently anti-business and weakens the economy.

"All environmental laws were passed to support free-market capitalism," he said. "They are forcing corporations to pay the true cost of their business, which includes getting rid of their waste. There's a huge difference between free-market capitalism and corporate crony capitalism."

The Clinton administration had been prosecuting the country's 75 worst polluters, Kennedy said. When Bush was elected, after accepting $48 million from the corporations that own coal-burning power plants, he ordered the Justice Department to stop pursuing the prosecutions. Since taking office, Bush has accepted another $58 million in contributions. By the time his term ends, these companies will have flattened an area the size of Delaware to extract coal from the Appalachian Mountains.

"There is nothing wrong with corporations," Kennedy said. "They are a good thing. But they should not be running the country. Mussolini, who had an insider's view, said Fascism shouldn't be called 'Fascism'; it should be 'corporatism.'"

Kennedy's passion for the environment is intensely personal, as well as overtly political. He said his three sons have asthma, a disease that afflicts an ever-growing number of children because of increasing air pollution. The Bush administration abolished the New Source Review program of the Clean Air Act — in effect protecting the oldest and worst-polluting power plants from new pollution standards — Kennedy said, and "that ruling alone kills 18,000 people a year.

"In 19 states, it is unsafe to eat any freshwater fish because of the mercury from power plants," he said. "One-fifth of the lakes in the Adirondacks are sterilized from acid rain."

Being able to go fishing with his children and eat the fish they catch is not a trivial recreational pursuit in Kennedy's eyes. Sharing in the common wealth of America's natural resources is an ancient rite as well as a constitutional right, he said.

"It is a way for my children to be connected with 350 years of New York State history," he said. "Our lives will be richer if we live in a world with shad and stripers and the forests of the Northwest. Nature is the critical defining element of American culture."

"I look at the White House and think, How do they get so many draft-dodgers in one place?" he mused. "They don't understand what makes America worth fighting for and dying for. They don't understand the values that make America a beacon for the rest of the world.

"When I was a little boy, I went all over the world with my father, and we would be greeted by huge crowds," Kennedy said. "We were the best-loved nation in the world. Today, we are the most despised nation on earth. It took 276 years of disciplined leadership by both Republicans and Democrats to generate that good will, and in seven years, that reservoir of good will has been emptied. And that is the bitterest pill for me to swallow."

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