A Convenient Excuse

By WEN STEPHENSON  |  November 5, 2012

In short, I'm freed of an insidious form of self-censorship, based on a deeply misguided self-image all too common among mainstream media types, in which journalists, including "serious" opinion journalists, are supposed to remain detached and above the fray — not to say cynically aloof and perpetually bemused — in order to be taken seriously. Once you've become an advocate, once you've taken an unambiguous moral stand, so the thinking goes, your intellectual honesty is compromised.

Well, I'm sorry, but that's just bullshit.

When I became a journalist, I didn't check my conscience, my citizenship, or my humanity at the door. Nor, when I became an advocate and activist, did I sacrifice my intellectual honesty. If anything, I salvaged it.

It's time to end the self-censorship and get over the idea that journalists are somehow above the fray. You're not above the fray. If you're a human being, you're in the fray whether you like it or not — because on this one, we really are all in it together. And by downplaying or ignoring the severity of the climate crisis — or by simply failing to understand it — you're abdicating your responsibility to your fellow human beings.

What it all comes down to, then, is this: Whichside are you on?

If you're on the side of your fellow human beings — and of your own children and grandchildren — then it's time for you to level with the public about the severity, scale, and urgency of the crisis we face.

Bill McKibben recently told me something that hit home: we need to start asking hard questions not only of the climate denialists and obstructionists, but of our friends and allies. For example, he said, we need to ask our universities, such as Harvard (Bill's alma mater and mine) — institutions that have contributed so much to our understanding of climate change — why they invest any portion of their endowments in the fossil fuel industry, the very industry that is standing in the way of climate action and foreclosing our future? Growing numbers of students at Harvard, Brandeis, Tufts, Amherst, and dozens of other schools, are beginning to ask just that — as part of an emerging campus divestment movement —and they deserve your attention.

We also need to ask far tougher questions of progressive political leaders, like Elizabeth Warren and Barack Obama, who accept climate science and make various encouraging gestures, but nevertheless fail to spell out how seriously they take the climate crisis — and exactly what they propose we do about it.

Such silence, and near silence, is no longer acceptable. To use a phrase from the heroic struggle for AIDS awareness in the '80s and '90s: silence equals death. For countless millions of people, climate silence equals death.

In other great moral crises — the civil rights struggle, the Vietnam War, the long fight against apartheid, and many others — journalists have had to confront their conscience. So here are my hard questions for all of you, the very same questions I ask myself:

As individuals of conscience, where will you stand? If you don't have what it takes to level with the public about the situation we're in, and what it requires, then what are you doing in this business? Why are you a journalist? How do you get out of bed in the morning and look at yourself in the mirror? How do you look your own children or grandchildren — any children — in the eyes?

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