In the Critics this week

Neil Morrisey's childhood, 20th century folk music, and civil war reprobates.

In the Critics section of this week's New Statesman, Rob Young traces the utopian visions conjured by folk music in the 20th century; Felicity Cloake discovers that English winemakers are "making great strides"; Helen Lewis-Hasteley wonders whether there's such a thing as "English cuisine", and concludes that though our dishes are prone to absorbing foreign influences, "when you can walk along a high street in even a smallish English town and a small peri-peri, cinnamon and garlic alongside the salty tang of fish and chips, who would have it any other way?"

In Film, Ryan Gilbey watches Duncan Jones' Source Code, and appreciates its sense of "underlying futility": "the visions of violence and destruction can't help but seem definitive". However, "few films" have "generated so little excitement from that old stand-by, the ticking bomb". Rachel Cooke watches celebrity documentary Neil Morrissey: Care Home Kid on BBC2, confessing from the off her "allergy" to the sub-genre ("the narcissism and self-pity is enough to make the skin itch"). This particular one, though, is "extremely moving". On the radio, Antonia Quirke listens to the various on-air tributes to Elizabeth Taylor, and finds the BBC's coverage strangely rife with mentions of "tributes that we never quite got to hear". Heat FM, conversely, had captured "Elton John" and "similar exotica" paying their respects. American radio was "headier", and World Service oddly reserved.

In Books, Leo Robson considers Philip Hensher's King of the Badgers, and Monica Ali's Untold Story as two examples of "condition of England" novels. Hensher is praised for "his steady head" ("his greatest attribute after his energy and fluency"), whilst Ali's mishandling of the "relationship between recorded fact, outright fabrication and plausible invention" has consequences for this novel's "identity and scrutability". David Crystal admires Melvyn Bragg's taking of opportunity to fruitfully display his "breadth of encounter" in a review of Bragg's The Books of Books: the Radical Impact of the King James Bible (1611-2011). Amanda Craig notes the charm of Katherine Swift's writing in her homage to gardening, "the most emotionally involving of all the arts". The Morville Year combines "observation of nature, creative day-dreaming and scholarly musing". Jonathan Beckman thinks John Stubbs' Reprobates: the Cavaliers of the English Civil War an "outstanding achievement". His success "lies not simply in working these dramatic life stories into the larger political and religious conflicts in England" but in "show[ing] that the circumstances of poetic production are an indispensable adjunct to appreciation". "Stubbs", writes Beckman, "has rescued the Cavalier's literary reputation and tempered the most scornful excoriations of their moral character".

Vernon Bogdanor wonders why there is no definitive biography of Churchill ("that may seem like an odd question to ask"), whilst Alexandra Harris, this week's Critic at large, examines the writers' trend of attempting to narrate the story of England by exploring the histories of particular, and personal, slices of land.

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Donald Trump wants to terminate the Environmental Protection Agency - can he?

"Epa, Epa, Eeeepaaaaa" – Grampa Simpson.

 

There have been countless jokes about US President Donald Trump’s aversion to academic work, with many comparing him to an infant. The Daily Show created a browser extension aptly named “Make Trump Tweets Eight Again” that converts the font of Potus’ tweets to crayon scrawlings. Indeed, it is absurd that – even without the childish font – one particular bill that was introduced within the first month of Trump taking office looked just as puerile. Proposed by Matt Gaetz, a Republican who had been in Congress for barely a month, “H.R. 861” was only one sentence long:

“The Environmental Protection Agency shall terminate on December 31, 2018”.

If this seems like a stunt, that is because Gaetz is unlikely to actually achieve his stated aim. Drafting such a short bill without any co-sponsors – and leaving it to a novice Congressman to present – is hardly the best strategy to ensure a bill will pass. 

Still, Republicans' distrust for environmental protections is well-known - long-running cartoon show The Simpsons even did a send up of the Epa where the agency had its own private army. So what else makes H.R. 861 implausible?

Well, the 10-word-long statement neglects to address the fact that many federal environmental laws assume the existence of or defer to the Epa. In the event that the Epa was abolished, all of these laws – from the 1946 Atomic Energy Act to the 2016 Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act – would need to be amended. Preferably, a way of doing this would be included in the bill itself.

Additionally, for the bill to be accepted in the Senate there would have to be eight Democratic senators who agreed with its premise. This is an awkward demand when not even all Republicans back Trump. The man Trum appointed to the helm of the Epa, Scott Pruitt, is particularly divisive because of his long opposition to the agency. Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine said that she was hostile to the appointment of a man who was “so manifestly opposed to the mission of the agency” that he had sued the Epa 14 times. Polls from 2016 and 2017 suggests that most Americans would be also be opposed to the agency’s termination.

But if Trump is incapable of entirely eliminating the Epa, he has other ways of rendering it futile. In January, Potus banned the Epa and National Park Services from “providing updates on social media or to reporters”, and this Friday, Trump plans to “switch off” the government’s largest citizen-linked data site – the Epa’s Open Data Web Service. This is vital not just for storing and displaying information on climate change, but also as an accessible way of civilians viewing details of local environmental changes – such as chemical spills. Given the administration’s recent announcement of his intention to repeal existing safeguards, such as those to stabilise the climate and protect the environment, defunding this public data tool is possibly an attempt to decrease awareness of Trump’s forthcoming actions.

There was also a recent update to the webpage of the Epa's Office of Science and Technology, which saw all references to “science-based” work removed, in favour of an emphasis on “national economically and technologically achievable standards”. 

Trump’s reshuffle of the Epa's priorities puts the onus on economic activity at the expense of public health and environmental safety. Pruitt, who is also eager to #MakeAmericaGreatAgain, spoke in an interview of his desire to “exit” the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. He was led to this conclusion because of his belief that the agreement means “contracting our economy to serve and really satisfy Europe, and China, and India”.

 

Rather than outright closure of the Epa, its influence and funding are being leached away. H.R. 861 might be a subtle version of one of Potus’ Twitter taunts – empty and outrageous – but it is by no means the only way to drastically alter the Epa’s landscape. With Pruitt as Epa Administrator, the organisation may become a caricature of itself – as in The Simpsons Movie. Let us hope that the #resistance movements started by “Rogue” Epa and National Parks social media accounts are able to stave off the vultures until there is “Hope” once more.

 

Anjuli R. K. Shere is a 2016/17 Wellcome Scholar and science intern at the New Statesman

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