File photo

The hand over their mouths

The Kavanaugh controversy has unleashed a tsunami of memories—the tearful revelations of a college friend, the baby-faced preppie neighbor who beat his girlfriend, the employer who used unwanted sexual attention to silence his female colleagues—stories of physical and emotional violence expressed by voices choked with fear and humiliation, robbed of their natural confidence, reduced to a whisper.

Violence and intimidation take many forms, but contempt seems to be a common denominator: the contempt of abusers for their victims, of the entrenched for anyone who challenges their entitlement. Sometimes it suggests the animal relationship of predator and prey, or an atavistic reflex, a dying generation refusing to share power with a new demographic, in a new paradigm.

And sometimes it’s institutional revenge. As the confirmation saga unfolded last week, I encountered a story from “another part of the forest” in the experience of Elizabeth Southerland, a 30-year veteran of the EPA who served as director of the science and technology in the Office of Water.  On the day she retired in early 2017, she issued a farewell statement to her EPA colleagues in which she criticized then-director Scott Pruitt’s disregard for science, environmental justice and legal process in the roll-back of a number of regulations, calling it “the triumph of myth over truth.”

When her statement went public, the EPA launched a smear campaign; emails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that the effort was orchestrated explicitly to punish her. The smear, which made false claims about Southerland’s retirement benefits, was in her view designed to inflame public opinion against all federal employees while diverting attention from the environmental and procedural problems she had exposed. In particular, she has described the eight years of meticulous research that went into formulation of a rule to forbid coal companies from dumping toxic waste into waterways, a rule indefinitely suspended at the request of the coal industry without legally mandated review or any discussion with the EPA’s science staff. Under new director Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, the trend continues. 

Now another prominent woman scientist seems to be in the crosshairs. Dr. Ruth Etzel, a highly regarded pediatrician and epidemiologist, led the EPA’s Office of Children’s Health Protection until she was abruptly placed on administrative leave on September 26 and ordered to surrender her badge, keys and cell phone. Colleagues say this is an unprecedented move against a high-ranking official who the agency insists is not a subject of disciplinary action. Public health officials are warning that powerful industries are pushing to stifle, weaken, or even abolish the children’s health office for working to reduce children’s exposure to lead, mercury and toxic agricultural pesticides.

I am not equating regulatory rollbacks with rape. But I can’t help seeing a pattern: contempt for science and for the law, contempt for women, children, immigrants and people of color—contempt for the earth itself—are all located on a continuum of predatory injustice based on astounding arrogance and a corrosive, all-corrupting “winner takes all” mentality.



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