Saturday, June 24, 2006

IWC update

Dr. Paul Spong, who I interviewed last summer, steadily filed reports all last week from the International Whaling Commission's annual meeting at St. Kitts and Nevis, where the Japanese, as expected, took control of the IWC's agenda for the first time.

Dr. Spong's June 17 report contained a disturbing tidbit of informationL
Very unfortunately, the US is giving signals that it is willing to make a deal with Japan, apparently without regard to the danger to whales that it involves. Though couched in terms of defending whales, today's US interventions included language like "compromise" and "the need to move forward", quite enough, as things turned out, for Japan to praise the US in its concluding remarks on the RMS issue. No one seems to know precisely what Japan and the US are hatching, but some kind of deal seems to be in the works, and it's certain to be bad for whales.

That ominous continued with what occurred the next day, when Japan rammed through its only victory of the meeting: approvals of the "St. Kitts Declaration," which opened the door for a return to industrial whaling under the aegeis of the IWC, as Spong explained in his June 18 report:
Something akin to pandemonium broke out at the St. Kitts meeting of the International Whaling Commission today, with pro-whaling delegates cheering and applauding even before Japan’s first victory was announced. The late afternoon vote was on the "St. Kitts Declaration", a document from the host nation originally described to Commissioners as a consensus- building device. It was first produced yesterday (after a long delay) with another slightly revised version coming out this morning. The Declaration is very clearly a proposal to take the IWC back to its 1946 beginnings, i.e. to solely concentrate its efforts on commercial whaling. Though the document was voted on as if it was a Resolution, it was not. Rather, it was a statement of opinion by 30 nations, 26 of which Japan has brought into the IWC under its votes-for-aid scheme. Be that as it may, the 33-32-1 result was truly a breakthrough for Japan's delegation, which had been defeated on every previous vote in the meeting. One can only imagine their relief, perhaps especially because two members of Japan's Diet had come to St. Kitts with the delegation.

A press release from the International Fund for Animal Welfare explored similarly the row over the "declaration," with the following reponse from IFAW officials:
"This amounts to a sneak attack on the IWC. After losing on every single proposal they brought to this meeting, the whaling countries and their supporters cooked up a non-binding statement, sprang it on the commission and pushed it to a vote. They want to kill whales, and they're willing to kill the Commission to do it. But this is no death blow, just a stinging flesh wound.

"We are gravely concerned, but not disheartened. The moratorium on commercial whaling remains and we may see further shifts in voting at this very meeting later this week. Whatever happens here in the coming days, we will continue working inside and outside the IWC to build a better world for animals and people and to protect whales for future generations to see."

As Spong's June 19 report makes clear, though, the Japanese victory carried little momentum, with an interesting attempt to crate a coalition between whale-watching organizations and whalers:
The report on whale watching brought mixed news. Impacts of whale watching vessels on several cetacean species have now been demonstrated, as have impacts from other vessel traffic. At the same time, there are huge economic benefits to whale watching, which is now growing at 45% annually in some small Pacific island communities. It is very clear that the economic benefits of whale watching far outweigh those of whaling. Not to be outdone, Iceland, Japan and St. Lucia stated that whaling and whale watching are not incompatible, and can exist side by side. How that could happen in practice is a little unclear, but the issue was not pursued.

This brings to mind a passage from Jim Nollman's excellent book The Charged Border: Where Whales and Humans Meet, which describes the growth of whale watching within the tourist industry, including Japan's [p. 110]:
As the brand-new road winding up to the whale-watching platform at Chichi-jima verifies, within Japan living whales now provide a viable commercial alternative to killing whales. Worldwide, whale watching probably earns as much money today as whaling ever did. A 1992 study disclosed that 3.4 million Americans and 4.4 million people worldwide partook that year, spending over $46 million on tickets and $225 million on related travel expenses, excluding food and lodging. While the industry generally promotes preservation, in a few places its actions flagrantly disregard that message. There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, of a Japanese entrepreneur who owns both a whale-watching boat and a whaling boat. If his whale-watching skipper sights pilots whales in the morning, there is a fair chance his whaling skipper will be dispatched in the afternoon.

The meeting closed inconclusively but ominously. Though the Japanese had only one real victory at the meeting -- despite their best efforts to stack the vote -- the situation long-term does not look promising. They will be in charge of setting the IWC agenda now, which means the assault on the whaling ban is about to begin.

And it appears the Bush administration will serve as a willing enabler. As Spong observed in his June 20 report:
The 58th meeting of the IWC came to an end with consensus (twice) at last. The next meeting is to be in Anchorage, Alaska, and the one after that in Yokohama, Japan. Possibly not coincidentally, the next Chair of the IWC is the US, and the Vice-Chair Japan.

Does this smell of something unpleasant for whales? Probably.

[Be sure to read Spong's wrapup report on the meeting, as well as a CBC interview with him.]

The possibility of a U.S. Japan alliance remains somewhat murky right now, but Carol J. Williams in the Los Angeles Times reports that U.S. officials are using the language of "compromise" and appear to view the "St. Kitts Declaration" as an acceptable framework:
"We've gotten to an impasse," Hogarth said, alluding to the polarization between opponents of commercial whaling and those supporting Japan, Norway and Iceland in the killing of more than 2,000 whales a year in the name of scientific research or tradition.

"What the United States wants to do is try to find a way to protect whales but at the same time recognize some harvest," he said, proposing a negotiated quota for hunting of whales no longer endangered in exchange for closing the "scientific whaling" loophole in the commercial ban. If Japan wants to hunt whales in the name of culture or science, those killings would come off its quota, he said.

... Hogarth said moratorium supporters wouldn't be "held hostage." But he said a spirit of compromise was needed to break the institutional gridlock.

He said he was keenly aware that the American public would never endorse commercial whaling, but he said the IWC impasse had rendered the body dysfunctional and unable to protect even endangered species.

As the story also explores, the Bush administration already has a questionable record when it comes to whales; its insistence on defending deep-sonar testing by the military and blasting noise from air guns used in oil exploration:
U.S. officials have been fighting efforts to address the effect on marine life of noise pollution, probably fearing it could have consequences for military sonar, said Joel Reynolds, a lawyer in charge of marine mammal protection for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

"There's a pattern of denying scientific fact for reasons of ideological perspective," Reynolds said of the Bush administration's environmental positions. "We've seen it with climate, on military sonar, on mercury, on seismic surveys. And it's a pattern that is really troubling because they are denying facts about problems that require action."

Reynolds described the administration as "the most anti-environmental this country has ever had" and blamed a tuned-out American public for taking for granted the whaling ban, which he called the "greatest conservation success of the 20th century."

Evidently, it may prove short-lived in the 21st century.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Morans indeed

I think I may have finally figured out who this guy was talking about.

Seems that Rick Moran at RightWingNuthouse is now claiming he "debunked" my work on fascism and mainstream conservatism back in this post.

Problem is, I responded rather pointedly, making clear that Moran didn't even scratch the surface of the subject. Moran never responded publicly (though we did have a brief and rancorouos e-mail exchange that went nowhere).

Moreover, as he makes clear again, he misses the entire point of my thesis. This is obvious when he says:
The author of a post skewering conservatives for name calling has approvingly linked to a post that refers to conservatives as fascists.

Actually, what Hume's Ghost at Unclaimed Territory links to is a series of posts, and what I say in that series specifically is this:
It seems clear to me that by any reasonable definition, George W. Bush is a corporatist, not a fascist. It seems unlikely, of course, that he or his family are the kinds of corporatists who would financially underwrite far-right organizations today, given that the discovery of such would doom any political legitimacy for the Bushes.

I later say this:
While the Bush regime is devotedly corporatist, it is only in the way it circulates and traffics in fascist memes and Newspeak that it resembles anything fascist. There is so far none of the strict and brutal authoritarianism or police-state tactics that also typify fascist regimes. Perhaps most telling at this stage of things is the extent to which it resorts to thuggery and street violence, or any of the other tactics of threatening intimidation that are associated with genuine fascism -- which so far is not to any great or really appreciable degree. That may, however, be changing.

Of course, the identifiable proto-fascist element in America -- the Patriot/militia movement and associated manifestations of right-wing extremism, especially anti-abortion extremists -- often favors such tactics. And unfortunately, the Bush campaign's apparent alliance with some of these thuggish elements in the Florida debacle indicates that, when push comes to shove, they may be precisely the kind of corporatists who wouldn't hesitate a moment to form an alliance with, and unleash the latent violence of, the Patriots and their ilk. When that occurs, real fascism will have arrived.

And finally, this:
In today's context, Nazism specifically and fascism generally are most often cited by partisans of both sides not with any reference to its actual content but merely as the essence of totalitarian evil itself. This is knee-jerk half-thought. Obviously, I don't agree that the mere reference to fascism, let alone a serious discussion of it, automatically renders a point moot. But a reflexive, ill-informed or inappropriate reference -- which describes the bulk of them -- should suffice to invalidate any argument.

Without question the worst offenders are those on the left. It began back in the 1960s, when antiwar radicals came to refer to anyone from the Establishment as "fascist," particularly if they were from the police. This bled over into the later view that identified fascism with a police state. The confusion is alive and well today with peace marchers who blithely identify Bush with Hitler and compare Republicans to Nazis. The purpose of these analogies is to shame conservatives, but they instead only give their accusers the appearance of shrill harpies willing to abuse the memory of the Holocaust for cheap political theater.

Most of all, such comparisons obscure the reality of what's taking place. The genuine proto-fascists -- namely, the anti-democratic extremists of the Patriot movement, and their thuggish cohorts among the 'Freeper' crowd -- are identified with mainstream conservatives instead of being distinguished from them. That in turn gives their coalescence a kind of cover instead of exposing it.

A strategically astute left would try to drive a wedge between the two factions by raising awareness of their growing intersection, particularly in the growing phenomenon of agitation against antiwar protests. Instead, we have a liberalism that thoughtlessly identifies the conservative movement of the early 21st century with mature fascism of the 1930s, thereby only revealing how little aware it is itself of the eternal and mutative nature of fascism, and how little it can recognize it in action today.

Moreover, as I went on later to explore in depth, mainstream conservatism is not fascist in the classic sense; what it has done, instead, is gradually adopt a series of appeals and memes that are classically fascist, but overall it lacks certain major traits, especially the violent thuggishness that really is the beating heart of fascism.

Note, also, that while Moran is grossly mischaracterizing what I wrote, he neglects to provide his readers any link to the work in question so that they may judge for themselves the accuracy of his charge. This kind of brain-dead dishonesty is something I've encountered before with right-wing bloggers, and again lays waste to the rosy-lensed notion that the blogosphere is "self-correcting."

But the most dishonest thing that Moran wrote in this post, really, doesn't directly relate to my work in that he isn't referencing it specifically. Nonetheless, it does relate:
And while "eliminationist" rhetoric is vile and disgusting, only certain types of polemicists use it – those without the intellectual gifts to form complete sentences or close their mouths when breathing.

He then goes on to characterize Ann Coulter's work -- one of the larger topics of the post -- as simply "vile 'jokes'," evidently to be distinguished from eliminationist rhetoric. It's clear, indeed, from his ardent admiration for Coulter's intellect (which in itself raises the question: What kind of intellect, exactly, relies on ugly sensationalism and gross factual distortion to make its point?) that he does not include Coulter among the mouth-breathers.

Actually, as I've demonstrated time and again, not only is Ann Coulter one of the leading progenitors of eliminationist rhetoric, the entire right-wing pundit class is infected with it, ranging from Fox News anchors to prominent right-wing radio talk-show hosts (and to their local imitators) to leading right-wing bloggers.

There is a whole segment of the right wing devoted to what Moran is doing here. While claiming to be all about "civility" as they gently denounce figures like Ann Coulter, they simultaneously defend them as "superior" intellects who have, sadly, stumbled a bit. (Meanwhile, of course, Michael Moore is fat.)

And eliminationist rhetoric? Whazzat? (Indeed, when you raise this specific argument with the "unhinged" Malkinite right, the response universally is a blank stare.)

The upshot, in the right-wing narrative, is that "uncivil" behavior is really only a problem on the left, though naturally there are a few outbreaks on the right that we can condemn even as we continue to support those responsible for the outbreaks. This is that Bizarro World mentality that Hume's Ghost was talking about in action.

Now, note that Moran is the brother of Terry Moran, the ABC News correspondent whose name keeps cropping up in Eric Boehlert's marvelous book Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush. Terry Moran operates in a similar fashion, with a bizarre double standard in which conservatives receive all the benefit of the doubt and "liberals" -- who, in reality, are simply non-conservatives -- none: Asking tough questions about the Bush administration's connections to the Enron scandal is inappropriate for the press because we've invaded Afghanistan (p. 234); Jeff Gannon's briefing-room contributions at the White House were "valuable and necessary," though coverage of questions about Gannon's credentials, as well as his past occupations, was unnecessary (p. 37). Perhaps most remarkably, Moran -- anchoring a discussion on ABC World News Tonight Sunday -- brushed off questions about the credibility of the Swift Boat Veterans and insisted, instead, on focusing on whether the charges were hurting John Kerry (p. 190).

I guess it must be a familial thing. Which finally explains that sign.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Orca chorale

I spent the past four days camping on the west side of San Juan Island, enjoying the warming weather and watching for killer whales. They had been no-shows on Thursday, and for most of Friday and Saturday that trend continued.

Camping next to us was a group of musicians who had come to the island that weekend as part of a symposium at Lime Kiln State Park on killer whales sponsored by the Whale Museum in Friday Harbor. The choral group, the City Cantabile Choir, was capping off the day by presenting a special requiem in honor of Luna, the young L-pod orca who was killed in a tragic accident this spring. The singers planned to gather in front of the lighthouse that evening and sing out to the whales.

This was the sixth year for the Orca Sing concert, and in past years the whales had come by during the performance, though not in 2005. It wasn't looking particularly promising that they would do so this year.

I had listened to the choir rehearsing that afternoon at the county park, and was struck by the immense beauty of the music. I decided I wanted to listen to them from the water, so at 7 I headed out in my kayak for the half-hour trip to Lime Kiln.

Just as I approached the lighthouse from the north, though, who should appear but a sizeable contingent of J pod, led by J1, or "Ruffles" as he's called (for the shape of his fin), possibly the most impressive (and certainly one of the most recognizable) of all the southern resident orcas. Ruffles is about 55 years old, near the upper limit of life expectancy for male orcas in the wild, so just seeing him each summer is considered a good sign. He's also immense and imposing.

I was fighting a northbound current, struggling just to get to the lighthouse, so simply staying in place so the whales could come by me took some work. Ruffles passed by far to my right, but others in the pod were swimming in the current closer to my kayak, so I did my best to stay in place while pulling out both my camera and my latest piece of equipment: a hydrophone I bought last month from Cetacean Research Technology.

I'd tested the hydrophone out previously but all I'd been able to listen to was boat noise. (Large ships, incidentally, produce tremendous amounts of noise underwater.) This was my first chance to listen killer whales.

No sooner had I dropped the mike into the water and slipped on the headphones than I was rewarded with a sound I'd heard before in recordings, but never in the wild: the rising and falling call of a killer whale, sounding distant and mysterious and haunting.

A few moments later, though, the calls came much clearer -- sharp, plaintive and distinct. Along with them came a series of buzzes and clicks, sounds I knew were the orcas' echolocation. (Some sample calls from J, K and L pods are available here.)

I scanned the waters and saw, shortly, that there were about six or seven whales moving past me about 150 yards away, mostly young males or females. They seemed to be moving in two clusters, three or four orcas in each group, and they were moving, it seemed, in a circle as they submerged and resurfaced around a large swell pattern in the strait's mildly roiling waters. They were lightly playing: rolling, making pectoral slaps, occasionally tail lobbing, and their contact with each other as they did almost looked like rubbing.

This was interesting, but even more interesting was what I was hearing through the hydrophone. Most orca calls sound like a rolling wave, rising and falling within a single call. I began hearing calls, though, that sounded more like a single note: a plaintive, almost melancholy note that lasted about a second and a half. And what was intriguing was that they came in succession: one note followed by another and another, slightly overlapping: one orca after another, in a series of four to six calls, all making the same note, like an undersea chorale. These were surrounded by the usual longer calls and the background buzzes and clicks.

Of course, I'm not really that experienced with orca calls -- especially not in a live setting -- and I expect that researchers hear this kind of thing all the time. Still, the raw experience felt as though I was being treated to a strange and haunting choral performance, and extended concert of sound.

I was so fascinated by all this that I just drifted with the whales, letting the current carry me back northward as I listened. When the whales began moving faster away, I stopped amd realized I had come almost parallel with the county park campsite where I was staying. Looking at my watch, I realized I'd never make even the tail end of the lighthouse concert, and I headed to shore. The next day, I apologized to Fred West, the conductor, for missing the show, but he seemed to understand, given the circumstances.

We saw more of Ruffles and his subpod that weekend; they came through late Sunday morning -- Fiona and I paddled out to see them, but they seemed to be passing by silently this time -- and again Monday in the early afternoon. They passed by, quickly, a ways from shore at the county park, so Fiona and I hopped in the car and headed down to see if we could get a look at them at the Lime Kiln lighthouse, and they did.

Watching them from shore in the clear light of day, moving efficiently past us as they drove out to the southern end of the island, it struck me that how we experience wild, mysterious creatures like killer whales has a lot to do with our own expectations of them.

You know -- we want to believe that the whales came by, for the first time in three days, to greet the singers on shore. We want to believe that they can somehow divine what we're doing and interact with it. And people experienced with orcas will tell you that these kinds of small coincidences, in fact, just keep mounting up with them: appearing or behaving in a striking way at a striking time. As though they can read our minds, or sing a chorale in imitation of one onshore.

Scientists know this is illogical, and in the end it's just another kind of anthropomorphism, projecting our own wishes onto a creature that in reality is perfectly neutral and oblivious to us. In our eagerness to embrace what we might share in common with these creatures, we too readily dispose of what makes them unique. We fail to respect the whales for their whaleness.

Still, none of that can change the reality of the actual experience and how it felt. It sounded like a chorus of angels, and I was blessed to hear them.