The book title Silent Spring has been taken now for almost 55 years. Were it still available, that phrase could aptly name a book about some muzzled, alternate present moment that many seem eager to foist on us. Rachel Carson’s seminal environmental science book dropped with anything but silence in 1962. It sparked outrage and threats from the chemical industry, who she accused of spreading disinformation, and anger from politicians she outed for swallowing lies they were fed without question.
No book had impacted our environmental consciousness like Carson’s did since Thoreau’s Walden over a century earlier. Alaska’s own Senator Ernest Gruening said to Carson at the time: “Every once in a while in the history of mankind, a book has appeared which has substantially altered the course of history.” Indeed, Silent Spring spurred a revolution that brought ecology to the masses and led to the founding of the EPA. Once pesticides (which she called biocides, since they kill more than pests) enter the biosphere, they kill bugs and then make their way up the food chain, harming birds, fish, and children. The book’s insights were nothing new to scientists, but it certainly was news to the public. She painted a clear, facts-based picture: to poison nature is to poison ourselves.
Few remember that Carson’s title was inspired by a John Keats poem called "La Belle Dame sans Merci" (French for The Beautiful Lady Without Mercy), which contains the lines "The sedge is wither'd from the lake, And no birds sing.” Her title captures both the literal possibility of future birdless springtimes and also implies more metaphorically dark days ahead for the natural world and ourselves.
Lately in America, Carsonesque silences resound, produced by the kinds of hubris she condemned. (Think mass casualty events among birds, fish, and marine invertebrates and accelerating species and language extinctions.) Now, Trump’s proposed budget would silence the EPA, doling it death by way of “a thousand cuts,” effectively, since axing it outright isn’t possible.
The runup to spring has been marked with other kinds of silences, too: the Trump administration removed the EPA webpage about climate change and forbade the National Park Service from tweeting anything after it posted photos showing the relative sizes of Trump and Obama’s inauguration crowds. Kids have been shot at schools and the President issues no comment. Trump withholds his tax returns. The White House withholds visitor lists (not to mention lists of visitors to the surrogate oval offices of his Tower and Mar-a-Lago). The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Politico, BuzzFeed, the BBC, and the Guardian get barred from press meetings at the White House, punishment for reporting facts the administration would prefer to muzzle. One of Trumps tweets said that people who burn the American flag should be stripped of their citizenship and jailed. Et cetera. Basic ingredients for a healthy democracy—freedom of the press, freedom of information, and freedom of speech—appear in the crosshairs. Instead of regarding them as his charge, Trump deems them enemies.
The country’s diminishing willingness—or ability, even?—to discuss and consider differing viewpoints blows fresh air on hot coals. Debate, empathy, and civil discourse seem slated for a new kind of endangered species list. We’ve entered the “post-truth” fake news era of “weaponized propaganda” where people are manipulated using AI technology to advance specific political agendas. The atmosphere across the country and around the world is exceptionally fraught.
The literary world, like so many other forums, has exploded with commentary, analysis, foreboding, and action. It’s always interesting to see who puts their money where their mouth is. Perhaps more interestingly, Palmer’s Fireside Books is putting their money up to encourage Alaskans to open their own mouths and speak.
They’ve staked a cash bounty for the best thousand-or-so-word answer(s) to questions about the “ethics of persuasion in the digital age.” $500 cash plus $500 worth of books is on the table, reward for “thoughtful, well-researched, forward-thinking essays that map out a new citizen-based ethic of communication, mapping the porous boundaries between weaponized propaganda and honest, authentic persuasion.” The deadline is May 31. The prize could go to one best entry, or end up divvied out to a pile of worthy winners selected by a panel of three judges.
The call for essays asks: “What is the line between persuasion and propaganda? What ethical issues apply to the act of persuasion? How do traditional lists of faulty reasoning (e.g. ad hominem attacks) apply to contemporary communication? What strategies can citizens use to neutralize harassment (such as hate speech) on social media platforms?”
When I talked to Fireside owner and poet David Cheezem about his contest, he said “I’m asking questions that I don’t know the answers to. These are essays that I don’t think I’m ready to write. I don’t have the answers. But there is definitely a problem with the way we communicate. We are dividing off into tribes and there’s a lot of confusion about what the line is between being persuasive and being part of some kind of psy-ops disinformation campaign.” He sounded open to a wide range of approaches.
The contest idea came out of a conversation between David and Dr. Herb Bischoff, not long after the bookstore’s 15th anniversary. “For me to donate fifteen years of my life to something, it’s got to be more than just a business,” said David. “There are certain things that it’s the job of a bookstore to do—one is to promote free speech and one is to promote intelligent speech, so [this contest] just seemed to fit into the job of bookselling.”
Between the nationwide Writers Resist movement, the Earth Day March for Science marches across the country this Saturday (cue the Science Not Silence signs), Terrain.org’s Letters to America series (which includes several Alaskans), and even our nascent Active Voice series at 49 Writers and projects like Fireside’s contest, this spring is not silent. Hopefully the din sounds more and more like a debate than a choir rehearsal. Even if doublethink fuels a whole new forever war, I’m glad one independent Alaska bookseller’s trying to parry shouting contests with an essay contest.
Get more info and an entry form at www.goodbooksbadcoffee.com.
Originally published in the Anchorage Press. Photo by Barbara Hood.