The Humanity in Detachment

Since we first evolved the ability of cognitive thought, humanity has been on a quest to understand itself, our desires as much as our shortcomings shaping the cannon of what is modern psychology, the study of the human mind. Psychology, for the most part, exists to explain to us what goes wrong in the mind, what chemical imbalance leads to mental – and possibly moral – degeneration. Explaining away abnormal behavior with medical reasoning alleviates the fear surrounding the behavior, removing the illness from the realm of the unknown. But what do we do when there is no medical way to explain away the atrocious behavior of some, no way to adequately say that a few weekly meetings and a prescription pad could have prevented the internal imbalances of an individual from translating into outer pain and suffering? In short, what do we do when there is no medical proof that someone is simply crazy?


A Human Being Died That Night is an attempt to answer these questions by narrowing the psychological argument and analyzing  the perpetrators of political violence as reflections of an abnormal social environment rather than scientific case studies of abnormal brain function. In other words, South African psychologist Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela is not interested in placing a label such as “antisocial” (a legitimate psychological condition best illustrated by Hannibal Lecter) on people like Eugene de Kock and other of South Africa’s apartheid political culprits. What Pumla uses her expertise for in writing this memoir is to analyze social environment – specifically skewed social environment – and how it relates to the psychological condition. She discusses the act of “psychological splitting” as a way of explaining repugnant behavior in this context, as well as an essential tool for those who actively participate in healing. 



In her first meeting with Eugene de Kock at Pretoria Central Prison, Pumla sees a man seemingly broken by the gravity of his past actions. He refers to his guilt over his part in the death of three black policemen and his personal apology to their wives. Pumla reveals that with tears in his eyes and a breaking voice that de Kock reveals, “”I wish I could do much more than say I’m sorry. I wish there was a way of bringing their bodies back alive. I wish I could say ‘here are your husbands’… but unfortunately… I have to live with it”” (32). At this expression of what appears to be genuine remorse, the words of a truly conflicted man torn apart by his deplorable past, Pumla reaches out to touch his shaking hand, a natural, human to human gesture used to comfort anyone who is suffering. But realizing who she has just touched, Pumla draws back, wondering if her gesturehad“actually crossed the line from compassion, which maintains a measure of distance, to actually identifying with de Kock” (33). A few weeks later, at a public hearing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, de Kock, who was brought in for testimony, asks to speak to Pumla, in which he tells her: “That was my trigger hand you touched” (39). 


In this simple phrase, de Kock floods Pumla with “so many confusing and contradictory messages” (39). Is this the statement of a leper, an acknowledgement of the compassion shown, a thanking for being treated as a human despite being undeserving of such compassion? Or is de Kock truly a Hannibal Lecter, flaunting such a statement as a provocation, taunting Pumla’s weakness in pretending to see through him? At this point, Pumla cannot make it out any better than the rest of us and attributes the statement, either way it was intended, as a form of “psychological splitting.” Pumla comes to the conclusion that whether the “trigger hand” statement was from the heart of a metaphoric leper or a Hannibal Lecter, it expresses an extreme sense of anxiety in de Kock over her act of touching him. She states: “his way of communicating his anxiety about my gesture was to ‘split off’ thehandfrom the rest of his body, to excise the part that did the killing, as if the ‘trigger hand’ had gone off on a killing rampage by itself” (41). Pumla calls psychological splitting of this sort a desperate attempt by a perpetrator of evil deeds to separate themselves from the deeds, removing their humanity from the action. Despite her own anguish over her relationship to de Kock thus far, Pumla uses her own humanity to see his struggle, that he is clearly “a person broken into bits struggling to achieve some sense of wholeness” (41). 


The act of psychological splitting in this context conjures images of monsters, people who have found disturbing ways to rationalize their own horrific deeds – or perhaps just find a way to live with them – by separating themselves from the humanity of their victims. De Kock’s hand does not contain his soul, therefore it can take the blame while his soul remains clean. To create a separation from another human being in any context may seem deplorable, but in the context of tragedy, this form of separation is as essential for agents of compassion as it is for agents of death. Paramedics, for example, cannot allow themselves to be shaken by direct contact with those clinging to their thread of life if they are to be effective at saving lives. My mother is a nurse and therefore has seen endless pain and death over her career as an agent of compassion. She has told me that inorderto help someone, you cannot allow yourself to become emotionally invested in their fate. The goal is to help them, but if a nurse were to beak down in tears over the deteriorating condition of a patient they have connected with, how effective can he or she be at treating the others? Furthermore, when one is in a position of administering medical aid, what good are their tears to someone in anguish? In this sense, splitting of the psychological self is essential in order to reach positive goals. Emotional investment in the life of another human being eventually leads to sorrow. We can cry for our ailing family members by their hospital beds because the medical staff treating them does not. 



Pumla herself finds she must learn the ability that medical professionals have mastered as she listens to the testimonies of victims appearing before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. She recounts an incident in which Mrs. Khutwane shares her traumatic sexual assault by a white soldier in the back of an army truck. Pumla is deeply affected by this story as it stirs in her memories of her own near-rape two decades prior, an incident she was luckily able to escape from before such a revulsion could occur, but none the less an incident of extreme  trauma in her own life. Pumla states that in hearing Mrs. Khutwane’s testimony, “I reexperienced my own trauma in that near tragedy…. the shame of helplessness, and the humiliation all seem like a painful stab deepinside.The feeling was so intense that I choked with tears” (91). Pumla says she had to be soothed by a touch from a fellow committee member to bring her back to her senses, leading her to ask herself, “how could I fulfill my role on the TRC if I allowed myself to be affected by victims’ testimonies” (92). In this context, learning the art of “psychological splitting” is not an act of heartlessness but an absolute necessity for the mental well being of the facilitator. Pumla and the other committee members could not possibly aid the victims of apartheid era atrocities, could not possibly bear to hear the testimony of the perpetrators as well as the victims, if they allowed themselves to be partial. “Any demonstration of emotion was interpreted as bias,” Pulma states. “Many of us who served on the TRC…continue to struggle with closure, in part because we had to deny our own emotions in order to contain the pain of the victims who appeared before us” (94). 



The act of psychological splitting serves agents of compassion as aptly as it serves agents of death and destruction, for to truly help the victims of human rights violations requires as much detachment as it does to commit acts of atrocious violence. Those with the ability to aid the suffering have as much excess of humanity as those who inflict pain lack humanity in the instant they violate the sanctity of human life. For those like paramedics, nurses, or facilitators of human rights committees, learning to detach is not an inhuman act but an act of self preservation and recognition of the fact that what the suffering need from them is strength, not tears. In Pumla’s case, and the other members of the TRC, detachment was nearly impossible, for the facilitators were themselves victims of apartheid’s pain, the same pain inflicted by men like Eugene de Kock, who, despite a thousand heartfelt apologies and expressions of remorse, stands as a testament of the haunting reality that a human being died the night he took each life that stains his soul….. and that human being was himself. 



Myths and Modesty: the truth about victim blaming and female sexuality under patriarchy

By Emily D. Irvine, 6-23-13400079_479945938714474_254038652_n

Women like sex. We truly do, and I certainly hope that by this point in modern human history, the fact that women like sex is not a shocking revelation. Do men want sex more than women? I firmly doubt it. Women are, however, capable of functioning for longer periods of time without getting some. This is because men have a literal “release valve,” a physical need that leads to discomfort and a serious case of the man crankies if not met. The need for women is apparently more “mysterious” as the female orgasm is apparently such an elusive thing brought on by a specific combination of seeming inconsistent factors. Sex for woman allows for a physical release that is entirely internal and is therefore less tangible, leading thousands of years of human history to devalue the sexual experience for women, to even say sexual pleasure does not or should not exist for the female. The lack of understanding about the female sexual experience has led to countless cultures who completely devalue women and see them as completely un-sexual beings. A sexual being is one that has and enjoys sex, an organism made to feel pleasure from sexual encounters and that requires sex for emotional and physiological reasons, not simply for procreative purposes. Men have always been seen as sexual beings. Women are seen as sexual objects.

Various ways of dealing with female sexuality across the globe are truly abhorrent. Female genital mutilation is practiced in much of Africa, a practice by which at the onset of puberty, a girl’s clitoris is forcibly cut off, leading her future sexual escapades to result in zero pleasure and significant pain. Realizing that the clitoris is the source of female sexual pleasure, the cultures that practice this barbaric ritual do so because in their minds, it will keep a woman faithful to her husband as she will glean no pleasure from sex and thus not seek it elsewhere. Sexual pleasure makes women a threat. It gives them agency and desire and many cultures simply cannot deal with having women exhibit power and agency. Across the Muslim world, women are denied even the most basic of human rights. Women in Saudi Arabia are forbidden to drive as teaching them would inspire them to leave their husbands.  Women are forced to cover their entire bodies in order to prevent men from “lusting” after them. And let us never forget Malala Yousafzai, who survived a gunshot to the head for declaring that she and other girls in Pakistan should be educated, not a direct sexual repression, but an example of extreme gender repression practiced by men so insecure that the thought of educated women threatens their masculinity to the point of violence. This is also a culture of extreme victim blaming, as women who are sexually assaulted are put on trial for indecency while their attackers walk free.  Rape is not considered a crime in Islamic countries because if it was, it is believed that women who seduce men and commit adultery with them would simply claim rape when caught and then the man would be unfairly punished.  Take for example, Atefah Rajabi Sahaaleh, a 16 year old Iranian who was brutally raped and then put on trial. She was then hanged by her government for “crimes against chastity.”


In America, we have no gender relations problems. Here, women are never faced with unwanted advances from men, women are never blamed for the actions of men, women are never told to wear more clothing or reap the consequences, and women assuredly make as much money as men. Feminism has won.

If you cannot detect my sarcasm, please leave.


I spend a significant amount of my time browsing for thoughtful articles on the state of gender relations in America and beyond in this, the modern era. Generally, I walk away from my computer angry. But what I find is that in the last decade, women here have absolutely had enough. We are sick to death of the vicim blaming that occurs here, we are sick to death of being told our wardrobe is to blame for the asshole behavior of strange men we encounter, we are sick to death of antiquated “jokes” about our “rightful place,” and we are sick to death of not being adequately represented in the media. However, the best part about this is many to most men are just as sick of it.


That said, on occasion, I happen upon blogs, articles, even Facebook posts, that present a bizarre counterpoint…. the notion of female responsibility in relation to the bad behavior of men. Often, this viewpoint resides in those of a religious persuasion. As I grew up in the Christian church, I am no stranger to phrases such as, “don’t cause your brother in Christ to stumble,” and “ if you commit sin in your head, you have already committed it in your heart.” And let’s not forget about praying for the all powerful “hedge of protection” around our struggling brothers and sisters in the Spirit.

Allow me to clarify that I bear absolutely no animosity to Christians and this jesting is done with a touch of fondness. In fact, my family and the majority of my dearest friends are Christians, and I too consider myself of a protestant persuasion. That is to say, I do genuinely believe that all religions are simply mankind’s way of understanding the mystery of God, which is a mystery far too great to be contained in one theology, however I personally find sense and meaning though much of Christian theology. Some of it, I find inspiring and beautiful to the point of tears, some of it I find bloody good storytelling, and some of it, I find just plain insane. One area of Christian culture I will never tolerate is the woman-blaming, Eve-shaming, nothing is Adam’s fault, patriarchal nonsense that litters the churches, Bible studies, and blog space of America.


One example of this appears in the seemingly innocent and thought provoking post, “Can You Be A Lady Without Being Modest” by the sister blog team More Like Momma. In this post, it is argued that women who dress immodestly are A) committing adultery WITH the men they cause to lust after them as stated in the book of Matthew, and B) that women who dress immodestly have no right to ask to be respected by men or by other women. But most interestingly, the entire blog (I would assume inadvertently) presents men as thoughtless idiots completely unable to control themselves, and most importantly, they are not asked to. The responsibility falls entirely on women to never allow men to think naughty, nasty things.

The majority of these poster’s argument is based on Matthew 5:28, which states, “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” The blog author states:

I didn’t use to really think anything of this verse, as it seems to only address guys.  But do you notice that it says he has committed adultery with her?  Would you commit adultery with that grandpa you pass on the street, or the teenage boy who bags your groceries?  I didn’t think so.  So why do we as women think it is ok for us to dress in a way that invites them go there with us in their minds?

One of my biggest issues with Christian culture, in which I was raised, is the absolute truth to which they/we cling to English translations of the Bible. I majored in English literature and read many novels of non-English origins. During our study of translated novels, my professors took great care to share their own translation alterations where they felt the translator dropped the ball. Translations are so subjective as languages have a colloquial complexity lost on non-native speakers. The Bible, for all of its strengths, when written in English is one of the most poorly written, grammatical messes in the English language. To hinge an argument on a single preposition in this context is just plain stupid. The version quoted in this blog is the NIV, one of the least accurate translations available (according to the subjective opinion of some), but none the less, one of the most popular. The Message Bible, written to put the Bible into distinctly modern language while preserving the conversational context translates the verse much differently:

“You know the next commandment pretty well, too: ‘Don’t go to bed with another’s spouse.’ But don’t think you’ve preserved your virtue simply by staying out of bed. Your heart can be corrupted by lust even quicker than your body. Those leering looks you think nobody notices—they also corrupt.”

Clearly, this translator chose to represent this message of Jesus’s as being distinctly about personal responsibility. If you look at someone and think impurely, it’s your own problem and deal with it personally. I am no expert in Ancient Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic and hence I cannot say which version is more accurate, and so here, the argument stops. The point is, translations are subjective and therefore unreliable when it comes down to minute details. “With” means nothing to me in this blogger’s argument.

Perhaps my least favorite paragraph in this blog is this:

Because we have such a deep desire to be seen as beautiful we are often willing to sacrifice the purity of the men around us on the altar of our own beauty.  Women will flippantly say that it’s the guys problem not theirs, all the while selfishly enjoying the attention their clothing choices gain them.  But it’s not just the guy’s purity we are compromising when we ignore God’s way in the area of modesty, it is our own.

I am going to “flippantly” say exactly what she has an issue with me “flippantly” saying: No, another human being’s internal issues about my body are NOT my problem. But here is why I am going to say this: it is not because I am an arrogant whore who enjoys being the object of male attention (which is somehow “selfish” in her argument.) It is not because I don’t give a crap about the internal struggles of anyone around me. Are you ready for this? The reason I call complete and total bullshit on the argument that I have no right to allow MY clothing to distract, control, and seduce men unfairly is this: I don’t think men are that helpless, that weak, or that stupid. Did you get that? I refuse to accept this line of thinking because I KNOW men are better than this nonsense.


Here is another point to ponder. Why is this argument so one sided? Why is there no discussion about immodestly dressed men? I work in a campground on a lake. I see shirtless men all day long. And guess what, I’m married, and I am and will always be a faithful wife. But that does not mean that when a bronzed, chiseled, Adonis of a man walks through the door that I do not look him up and down and appreciate the fine human specimen that he is. What I do not do is chat him up in a way that conveys I’m interested in any part of him beyond casual conversation. What I do not do is behave in a way that makes him feel like an object and therefore uncomfortable. What I do not do is take him outside and have sex with him by force. What I do is smile and treat him like any other human being.

So according to the popular argument laid out by the bloggers of More Like Momma, I am an adulteress. However, I am not an adulteress for the crime of my clothing in this scenario, rather I am just like any man who happens to go weak at the knees over a non-conservative hemline. Why then aren’t men with oh so fabulous abs being asked to put a damn shirt on? It has also been said that a good suit on a man is equivalent to lingerie to us ladies (and it’s true, by the way.) So clearly, men need to be wearing oversized T-shirts and sweatpants because women just can’t handle the immodesty without sinning in their brains. So, get on that blog, More Like Momma. Or are you that not-so-rare breed of female misogynist that has SUCH a way of getting under my skin?


I mentioned that I think better of men than to believe they have zero self control and that therefore it is up to women to “protect” their fragile, horny, constitutions. I stand by it. Yes, there are scores of men out there, whole cultures of them, to which this notion absolutely applies. But these men have been socialized this way over generations to the detriment of their own societies. It is so easy to blame women: we have been royally screwed from the onset of human history. It’s easy to just keep on blaming Eve. But the truth of the matter is that while Eve was a dumbass, so was Adam, and from their story, I do not get that women need to take the blame for the sins of men. What I get from that story is that when you blame others for your mistakes, whether you are male or female,  you get your ass kicked out of Paradise. As the Bible goes, it’s a fairly gender neutral story…. more or less. I know many, many men who are not in fact assholes, men who believe to their core in the equality of women and who treat us as equals. I know many, many men who know how to appreciate a pretty girl dressed in any attire without allowing their hormones to turn them into an animal. I know many of these men, and I married one of them. To him my heart is faithful, regardless of what well dressed or barely dressed thing crosses my path.


I began this post by asserting that women like sex. We do. That’s why we have it. To assume that only men struggle with issues of respecting the opposite sex is just plain stupid. To assume that only women see sex as an emotional experience is as stupid as assuming that women always see sex as an emotional experience. Making this discussion one sided not only puts an insane level of misplaced guilt on women but it assumes the absolute worst of men, making them out to be out of control sex fiends. Personally, I think we need to seriously reframe this argument. How about instead of blaming each other, we instead realize that we are ALL sexual beings. Men and women are equally obsessed with sex. We are also equally aroused by what we deem a fine specimen of our preferred gender regardless of how it’s dressed. How about instead of teaching our girls to bear the weight of men’s problems as well as their own, we instead teach both girls and boys that they WILL find themselves sexually aroused by each other and what they need to learn is how to deal with these emotions appropriately both internally and externally. It is not OK to objectify each other, to disrespect each other, or to blame another (or something as stupid as another’s clothing) for our thoughts and actions.

it is utterly asinine to use any logic to assert that women need to dress “modestly” to keep the minds of men “pure.” This is the same appallingly skewed logic that leads to female genital mutilation and executing rape victims. It may seem like a gigantic leap, but it isn’t and those who don’t recognize the connection need to look long and hard at the society their backwards perceptions are creating.  When we teach girls that they are responsible for the actions of boys, we are sewing the seeds of the out of control victim blaming cultures that dominate a inappropriate percentage of our world. We are teaching boys that they are not responsible for their sexual misconduct and we are teaching girls to feel guilty about being sexually assaulted  We do a great disservice to men by perpetuating an erroneous stereotype that they are incapable of self control. We do an even greater disservice to women by blaming the world’s problems on their clothing.

Marriage Equality in a (Surprisingly) Moderate Society: Reframing the Gay Marriage debate to show that Christians are not the Enemy

Our lives are shaped and defined by frames. As much as we may try to break the metaphorical molds that shape us, try as we might to continue to redefine our social boundaries with varying degrees of success, we are still all a product of cultural frame tales, the social narrative within a national narrative that gauges the merit of our society against the merits of others.

Perhaps the most highly prized of American qualities is that of universal equality. We have framed our national narrative around this notion, that we are all free and equal in relation to each other. Though such a phrasing exists in the most fundamental document defining our nation, Jefferson’s notion that “all men are created equal” has itself been redefined in the two and half centuries that have transpired since the time of his writing. “All men” has been expanded to include men of color and women, groups that have been historically excluded. Though racism and sexism have not been universally abolished and likely never will be in entirety due to the ever vigilant presence of extremists, the groups affected by them have, at the very least, universal protection under the law in our modern era. In the realm of marriage equality, the hot button topic a generation ago was interracial marriage, the controversiality of which is absurd to the average, rational citizen of the 21st century. We forget such a union has be legal for less than 50 years.

The gay marriage debate has reached such a pinnacle in the last few years that it is, in all likelihood at its peak and we will soon hear the end of it on a legal level. That is to say, soon the United States will likely join the short list of nations – Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, and Sweden- that allow same sex marriage without restriction. On a global scale, treatment of same sex marriage at the government level varies from outright acceptance to public execution. Even in the United States, you can find groups of individuals who have framed gay rights as everything from a human rights issue to a degenerate social plague. Gays are either just like you and me or they are out to molest your children. They enrich our communities as they destroy the sanctity of marriage and the entire fabric of society. With so many different frames of reference, who is “right” and how did so many cultural narratives arise on one issue? The short answer, as this humble blogger sees it, is 1) religion has played a huge part on both sides of this issue, and 2) on a related note, some Americans have in part confused their country’s original frame, the historical point of reference in determining our rights as citizens.

As far as the media is concerned, there is no one who opposes same sex marriage who does so on any grounds other than religious. Whether this is an accurate representation of American opinion is  hard to say: The Gallup polls on the issue divide the data by age and political affiliation, not religion. What the polls tell us is if you are young and liberal, you likely support same sex marriage, while being old and conservative likely indicates an opposition. Such a generalization is the representation our media upholds. Those damn atheist liberals and their socialist agendas are constantly at odds with those Bible-thumping conservatives busy defining a legitimate rape.  Such is the narrative if one spends an evening flipping between Fox, CNN, and MSNBC. There are two sides and we all fit in one or the other, pitchforks in hand to destroy the other.

But how accurate is this really? How many of us, liberal or conservative, truly hate our friends and family who checked the “opposite” box on their voter registration form? Has democracy really filled us all with such an inflated sense of the divine inspiration of our own opinions that we are truly so intolerant of someone who doesn’t bring a reusable shopping bag to the grocery store? Is everyone with a recycling bin a secular tree hugger, and all people with religious inclinations judgmental homophobes?

I personally really dislike any person or news source that bashes any religion. I respect all faiths, and I am not exactly irreligious myself. That said, there are members of the “religious right” (whatever that means) who have lent a strong voice in opposition to same sex marriage. It is true that for the very first time, more Americans favor marriage equality than oppose it, but the numbers are still only 53% in favor. Meanwhile, over 75% of the country identifies as Christian (Protestant and Catholic combined). Clearly, Christians find themselves on both sides of the political aisle, representing a vast spectrum of political opinions even within the same religion. There are mild, moderate, and fanatical people of a religious persuasion, the mild saying the fanatical give everyone a bad name and the fanatical saying the mild to moderate are not really Christians at all (as if that is their place to decide). But regardless of persuasion, by sheer numbers Christians have more political influence in America than any other group of people. Lately, they have been solely blamed for opposition to same sex marriage, but the numbers suggest they likely have an equal influence on both sides of the aisle… and vote accordingly.

I live my life surrounded by Christians, and I myself fall largely in the “mild” category of a Protestant-leaning persuasion. My friends, family, co-workers, inhabitants of my small and isolated hometown, almost all fall somewhere on the spectrum from mild to moderate to fanatical, and theological diversity and disagreements included, I love them all and truly see the best in them all. That said, even if I feel the media has unfairly framed Christians as solely the enemy (rather than potential champions) of the pro-same sex marriage debate, I have seen, as most of us have, the complications and often skewed worldview that can arise in the inhabitants of an isolated environment.

There are many Christians who maintain that gay marriage is unbiblical and that America is a Christian nation founded on Christian principals. The unbiblical argument is a separate debate only appropriate for discussion outside of the realm of politics. The “Christian nation” framework, however, is partly erroneous. Yes, America is predominantly a Christian nation by demographics. To get technical, this is due to our Founding Fathers’ and first colonists’ European origins, and the largely European origins of the majority of our first immigrants. Our second wave of mass immigration brought and continues to bring immigrants from Latin America, where Catholicism acquired a stronghold during the Spanish conquests. Due to the simple fact that conquerers from Protestant England got here first, and our proximity to Mexico, to which conquers from Catholic Spain arrived first, all of North America is predominantly Christian. Had a Hindu India acquired a top-notch Navy simultaneously with a strong desire to discover New Worlds, we may be having a very different conversation. Religions are only as wide spread as the conquering technology that has backed them.

Though they came from Protestant England, America’s Founding Fathers saw the dangers of the union of government and religion. They saw religious freedom as the most fundamental human right. For this reason, they made a conscious decision to weave the separation of Church and State into the framework of American society. Both would forever be protected from each other. All citizens of this new nation would be free to worship whatever and however they chose with no fear of retribution. All churches, synagogues, mosques, and cathedrals would be welcome and exempt from taxes, provided they retained their own neutrality toward the campaigns of elected officials. The government also was to remain religiously neutral. This was the vision. It’s a good one, and we should all defend it mightily.

I have nothing against liberals or conservatives and generally feel various commenters on both sides have compelling arguments as often as asinine ones. Bill O’Reilly has said plenty of the later (arguably more so than the former), however, on March 26th, as the Supreme Court began the Prop 8 hearings, O’Reilly made a statement that was completely accurate:

“The compelling argument is on the side of homosexuals. ‘We are Americans. We just want to be treated like everybody else.’ That is a compelling argument. And to deny that, you’ve got to have a very strong argument on the other side. And the other side hasn’t been able to do anything but thump the bible.”

Though he made sure to follow up this statement by asserting that he is not a champion of gay rights but has “no strong feelings on either side” and wishes the issue to be left to the states to decide, O’Reilly’s acknowledgment that gay marriage opponents have run out of arguments is hardly contestable. If religion is the only argument, then what are we arguing about exactly? If there is no hard evidence to suggest that gays are causing a social detriment, that they rape and pillage when left to their own devices, then what exactly is there to debate on a political level? Religion, our Founding Fathers made sure of, has no place in government. And vice versa.

To further see why this debate is, quite frankly, un-American, one only needs to make a few gay friends. I have several, some Christian, some atheist, some agnostic, some short, some tall, all Americans, all fantastic people, all wanting to be treated with dignity and respect, and all quite sure that Lady Gaga is correct and they were in fact born this way. All people are free to interpret their religions in whatever makes sense to them personally. The only restriction is that they do not let their interpretation infringe on the rights of others. Religion is personal, deeply personal, and to some people it is exclusionary and provisional, to others it is open, welcoming, and a source of comfort and understanding. Religion is many things to many people, but what religion simply is not is a basis for social policy. Many (arguably most) religious people understand this.

To close the gay marriage argument, American society needs to begin working toward reframing it. Rather than seeing gay marriage as something supported by liberals, opposed by conservatives, and condemned by all Christians in an exclusively Christian nation, perhaps it is time that we instead all take a step back, look to our metaphorical right and left and then at ourselves and realize our societal molds are as wrong as our perceptions. Most of us, quite frankly, are moderates, both politically and religiously, and as such, none of us are really as far from each other on this or any issue as we perceive. Sure, the extremes will always exist, but if the rest of us can instead acknowledge that diversity has never been a bad thing, that disagreement never needs to destroy friendships any more than it destroys the fabric of society, then maybe we wont get so hot and bothered over issues that simply come down to matters of universal equality, not theological debates. Gays are not a threat to society any more than religious freedom is. Both have shaped a country that was founded on a principal that stipulates no one has to agree on anything but their fundamental right to respectfully disagree under a government that protects the equality of all.

Courage and Politics: Portrayals of Humanity in Ben Affleck’s “Argo”

*Warning: The following is an analysis of the film Argo, NOT a review. Therefore, it contains many important spoilers.*

“ You can’t build cover stories around a movie that doesn’t exist….You need a script, you need a producer. You need somebody who’s a somebody to put their name on it. Somebody respectable. With credits. Who you can trust with classified information. Who will produce a fake movie. For free.” 


Since the invention of the film industry, movies have been used to tell our history. The “Hollywoodizing” of the events in our past has become a way to remember it, to relearn lessons in the realm of popular entertainment. Often, films retelling historical events reflect a contemporary global climate, showing us that historical conflicts can repeat themselves (or perhaps were never resolved in the first place,) offering a new form of narrative for an old tale. 


Such is the case with Ben Affleck’s critically acclaimed film Argo, the recently declassified true story of a fake movie.

The Iranian hostage crisis remains a testament of both international cooperation and international frustration. A group of Iranian students, reflecting the frustration of the supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini, stormed the American Embassy in Tehran in November of 1979, furious over the admittance of the overthrown Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to the United States. The people of Iran wanted the Shah returned and tried for his reign of abhorrent human rights violations. The U.S. was giving him medical treatment for his terminal cancer. Frustration rose in Tehran, frustration that was justified, but misplaced. The American Embassy was breached, the diplomats inside held hostage for 444 days. In the initial chaos, six American Embassy employeesescaped through the exit of the consulate. They sought refuge in the home of Ken Taylor, the Canadian Ambassador to Iran. Taylor’s home served as their hideout for nearly three months of uncertainty. Then one day, they returned home, a glimmer of good news that came while over fifty Americans remained hostages in Tehran. Canada got all the credit, our neighbors to the north risking much, including the severing of trust with Iran, forgoing their own neutrality to ensure the safe return of six American citizens. Though the banners waved across the country that read “Thank You, Canada,” in the year 1980 were more than justified, there was far more to the story that was part of an elaborate classified mission by the CIA. Canada’s help was invaluable, the work of their embassy and their Ambassador himself being huge pieces of the puzzle that got the six diplomats out of Iran. But there were other pieces to the huge puzzle, a puzzle that was immediately locked away in a CIA vault.Fearingretaliation against the remaining hostages in Tehran, the world was not allowed to know that the United States was involved. Canada kept our secret. They accepted sole credit with our thanks.  


The Canadian Caper. The Hollywood Option. Argo. Declassified by President Clinton in 1997.



Affleck’s film takes the necessary creative license to make this story fit the Hollywood tradition of elaborate retellings of history, but the core of the story is incredibly accurate, and reminds us that conflict between us and the Middle East is not a recent development. Though this is in part a story of conflict, it also a story of cooperation and shared humanity. Affleck does not portray the Iranian people as heartless villains, but as frustrated humans, people like us who believe with every fiber of their being that America has wronged them. It is true, by giving the exiled Shah refuge, we allowed him to escape execution for his crimes. At the same time, what were we supposed to do? The man was already dying. Affleck portrays the situation as it was: complicated, unstable, and without a clear right answer. If the U.S. returned the Shah as the students demanded, we would be negotiating with terrorists. If we attempted to save our diplomats, they would be killed. If the students killed them first, we would storm Tehran, a force to be reckoned with. It was a stalemate. No one could feasibly make a move. 




“Exfils are like abortions. You don’t want to need one, but when you do, you don’t do it yourself.” 

Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez and Brian Cranston as Jack O’Donnell


In the film, the U.S. State Department debates whether or not to attempt rescue of the six immediately following the incident or to focus on the embassy hostages. “The whole world is watching the embassy. That makes them far safer than the six on the street.” CIA agent Tony Mendez proposes an exfiltration through the airport in Tehran, with he and the six escaped diplomats being members of a Canadian film crew looking for exotic locations for the upcoming sci-fi film Argo. Mendez establishes a fake studio in Hollywood with the help of make-up artist John Chambers and producer Robert Sidell. A press conference and scene reading are held to make it authentic. Storyboards are created. Canada issues passports for Mendez and all six diplomats. 

“If I’m doing a fake movie, it’s going to be a fake hit!”

John Goodman as make-up artist John Chambers and Allan Arkin as producer Robert Sidell


Though creating a cover story around a fake movie seems far fetched, even described in the film as “the best bad idea we have, by far,” Affleck shows us the universal appeal of film and fantasy, how the most popular form of escapism lends itself to breaching cultural boundaries. Mendez and his fictitious Canadian film crew are detained during a tense navigation of Mehrabad airport. Joseph Stafford, a consulate employee who speaks Farsi, pulls out the crew’s fake story boards and begins elaborately explaining the plot of their film to the Revolutionary Guards, who become visibly excited over their story of a group of inter-space heroes overthrowing an alien king. Though the group’s identity is still verified, their fictitious Hollywood office receiving the one phone call they were set up to take, the fantasy story cover proves effective at breaching a cultural gap.The Iranian guards are given the story boards as a gift and excitedly examine them as the “Canadians” are allowed to board a plane to Zürich. Movies reach everyone. Our mutual enjoyment of fantasy is one of the greatest links that holds humanity together. Governments, religion, ideology, and politics all divide us. Movies unite us. 



“Of course I speak Farsi. I wish to make a movie in Iran!”


The inclusion of the Canadian ambassador’s Iranian housekeeper, Sahar,  further strengthens the humanity of the Iranian people as whole. Regardless of the country in question, the majority of people are not radical revolutionaries, but merely working class people whose goal in life is to live peacefully and find a means of supporting themselves. Sahar is questioned at the gate of the ambassador’s home, asked how long his guests have been staying with him, and told that those who stay silent are guilty in the eyes of God. Sahar unfalteringly states that the guests arrived two days prior, despite their presence in the house exceeding two months. The ambassador and his wife do not reveal the identity of their guests to Sahar. They do not take her into their confidence and become nervous when it becomes clear she has figured out who the guests are.But even thoughsheisnotshowntrust, Sahar is not a revolutionary, and it becomes clear that she sees the escaped Americans as innocent and she does not wish to see innocent people die. We forget about Sahar and the great personal risk there is to her in concealing the truth to her countrymen. To protect its own diplomats, the Canadian embassy is vacated the same day Mendez takes the Americans through the airport. They Americans rejoice as their flight attendant announces they have cleared Iranian airspace. Then we again see Sahar, her passport in hand, stamped at the border as she has been told, “You have been granted entry to the Republic of Iraq.” Sahar becomes one of the saddest casualties of this story. Her decision to keep silent saved the lives of many, but non of whom were from her country, and in fact her courage forces her to leave her home and forge a new life in a foreign place. She is perhaps the most courageous character in the film. People like Tony Mendez and Ken Taylor assuredly  risked theirlives to help, but they did so with the aid and backing of their governments, and though it certainly was not their goal to win awards, they both did. Sahar’s actions came with no recognition and at great personal loss. Hers is the greatest form of courage, and the core of true humanity. In the end, if this humble Iranian woman had not kept silent, the mission would have failed and failed badly, making her seemingly minor role as essential as the Canadian passports issued to the fleeing Americans. 



“Everyone in this house is a friend of Iran.” 


Intense moments of humanity are highlighted in other areas of the story. In the initial Embassy take over, the six who end up escaping had been in the process of issuing Visa applications to a room full of Iranian citizens. They realize that all of these Iranians will be killed as traitors when the embassy is breached. The six diplomats resolve to go out a back exit, but they issue a command “Iranian’s first” and usher all of the citizens out the door to safety before they escape themselves. Further in the story, CIA agent Tony Mendez receives orders that the rescue mission has been called off, orders that come the evening before he is scheduled to take the six through the airport. He spends the night conflicted between following orders and following through. He calls his supervisor Jack O’Donnell and states “Someone is responsible when things happen. I’m responsible forthesepeople. I’m taking them through.” Though fictitious, this incident paints Tony Mendez as a humanitarian, not a pawn of his government who blindly follows orders. 


Much like Mohsin Hamid’s controversial novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Firoozeh Dumas’ memoir Funny in Farsi, Ben Affleck’s Argo is a brilliant attempt to reflect shared humanity. Argo does not present an “us against them” mentality in portraying this story, rather shows us that all governments make mistakes and peaceful, innocent civilians should not be held responsible. It is easy to blame entire nations for the actions of their governments, which is exactly what the Iranian revolutionaries who stormed the American embassy (a minute percentage of the population reflecting the views of the new government) tried to do. As humans, Americans are guilty of this too. Hamid writes of subconscious discrimination, American fear of men of Middle Eastern descent due to events like this one, and of course the September 11th attacks, a fear that makes us human, though strains our relationships with people from other nations. Dumas, an Iranian American who immigrated as a child only a few years before the hostage crises tells of the discrimination her family faced in the aftermath, her father losing his job and unable to find a new one. Often times, fear and hatred makes us human as much as compassion and courage, all sides of our character necessary to shape and navigate a culturally and politically complex world. In Argo, we learn than placing blame is ineffective and irrelevant. What matters is protecting each other against our own better interest. Real heroes are those who see that their humanitarian responsibilities are not confinedtotheir own governments, people like Tony Mendez, Ken Taylor, and Sahar, people from three nations who came together to rescue the innocent, not caring which country they were from or what wrongs any of their governments committed, for courage is not motivated by politics.

A Somewhat Pessimistic View on Optimism

I’m not generally this negative. But, sometimes this type of retrospection is necessary. In any case, this blog was written for a class, therefore it comes from being assigned a prompt, not an organic mental musing. It’s pessimistic tone might have something to do with the fact that I was sick all weekend and therefore had a very stressful catch up Tuesday. I’ll try to write something more upbeat next time. 🙂


Optimism, it seems, is for the young. And by that I do not necessarily mean that the young are intrinsically optimistic by nature. True, there is a natural optimism that comes with youth, a sort of sanguinity that survives only in the absence of jaded experience. But optimism in a cultural, social, or even a deeply personal sense, is an emotion felt by the old for the young. As an exiting generation looks back upon the world they shaped, they look to younger generations and can be optimistic of one of two possibilities: the old can hope they successfully built a future for the young, or perchance, the old can hope the young are capable of repairing the damage caused by their elders. 

In the final pages of An Artist of the Floating World, Masuji Ono stands on The Bridge of Hesitation and observes some nameless members of the younger generation just coming to power, power in business, or perhaps politics, but none the less people who have reached the age at which their actions from henceforth may haunt them in their old age. Ono remarks that these young people are “full of optimism and enthusiasm (205),” and that one young man, “was laughing in a particularity cheerful manner, with something of the open innocence of a child (206).” But these young people are not children, though nor have they, it appears, done anything yet that can be criticized. These vague figures of youth represent a generation, not individuals. They are not characters but part of a larger, ambiguous concept. From where Ono stands, he sees that his actions at their age potentially had a profound impact on the future of these people. Have he and hisgeneration  ruined their chances of a bright future? Or have they provided the youth with some valuable lessons to learn from? Perhaps both, perhaps neither. Ono, it seems, is optimistic, optimistic that the next generation will be ok: “Our nation, it seems, whatever mistakes it may have made in the past, has now another chance to make a better go of things. One can only wish these young people well (206).” In this closing statement, Ono makes the successes and failures of a nation a constant continuum.  The actions of each past and present generation are directly influenced by and for each other, lessons are learned and society continues, we can only hope, toward something better. But do we ever really learn? Or does each new generation simply commit the same errors in a different package? 


I am reminded of a song. The anthem “O Children,” by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds has a few darkly ambiguous things to say about the relationship between entering and exiting generations. Meant to be a song sung by the old to the young, the third verse alone drives in the message hard:


O children

Forgive us now for what we’ve done

It started out as a bit of fun

Here, take these before we run away

The keys to the gulag


This heavily loaded (and WWII related) imagery suggests an older generation will hand the young the metaphorical keys to the complex and possibly atrociously broken systems of society and simply hope they do better with them. But keys mean power, and if history has taught us anything, a lust for power seems intrinsically human. And so, history arguably hasn’t taught us much of anything. Nick Cave states as much, essentially revealing the sobering possibility that human kind has all the answers it needs. We’ve learned these lessons one thousand times over. Yet it seems we are incapable of adequately sharing them between generations. 


O children

We have the answer to all your fears

It’s short, it’s simple, it’s crystal clear

It’s round about and it’s somewhere here

Lost amongst our winnings


But what does all of this say about Masuji Ono, a Japanese propaganda artist standing upon The Bridge of Hesitation five years after the end of the war that defined his generation in every possible sense? Enter Ichiro, a member of the first generation growing up in post-war Japan, grandson of our narrator. In the first interaction between Ono and Ichiro, Ono has just gifted his grandson with art supplies, which he seems to have dabbled with, but abandoned in the interest of pretending to be a cowboy. Ono chides his grandson for this, telling him it’s better to be a samurai. Realizing the effect losing his temper has had, Ono quickly corrects himself and tells Ichiro: “I shouldn’t have interrupted. Of course you can be anyone you like. Even a cowboy. You must forgive your Oji-san. He was forgetting for a moment” (30). A few lines later, Ono examines Ichiro’s unfinished drawing and exclaims, “Very impressive, Ichiro… But you could be better if you wanted (31).” This exchange shows that Ono, the old generation, has an obsessive desire to make Ichiro, the young generation, exactly like himself, assuredly because it is all he knows. But he checks himself, realizing that Ichiro will grow up to shape a different world, therefore his grandfather’s worldview, politics, even social skills are of little use to Ichiro. This is especially difficult to comprehend coming from a novel that deals with a culture that holds elders in such high esteem. It seems that with the loss of the war, western individualism swept the East like the tired metaphor that is the mounted cowboy. Ono’s generation can only quietly watch as they straddle a bridge between two cultures, even in their very own families. 

I do not believe that Kazuo Ishiguro means to state that the old have nothing to teach the young. Contrarily, I think in An Artist of the Floating World, he illustrates that the old have much to teach, but in many cases, it is an issue of “Do not repeat my mistakes,” and unfortunately, the lesson is rarely learned. The Allied Powers of WWII can look back and feel proud that they stopped a massive force of unspeakable evil. But the United States can look back and also see great shame in their treatment of Japanese Americans. Generations are defined by such actions. Have we learned from them? In a decade or two, what will the twenty-somethings of today blame our parents and grandparents for? But a far scarier question is what will we be blamed for as we are the ones standing upon the bridge eternally optimistic that the blamers will do better? Better yet, where has blaming the players of the past gotten us? Crack open a history book, or any numberof  great political novels from any country in the world and the clear and sobering answer is more of the same. 

Whale Wars: Direct Action vs. Diplomacy in the Southern Ocean

By Emily D. Irvine: 1-18-13

I have always been drawn to topics of controversy. Not because I enjoy the controversial, nor because I feel a compelling need to incite social rebellion or verbal battles. Simply put, subjects that are “controversial” are merely subjects that have the potential to spark the most valuable conversation. Controversy arises because there are two sides of humanity with compelling arguments for and against a cause.

In the realm of environmentally motivated controversy, perhaps one of the organizations gaining rapid word wide attention is the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Founded by Captain Paul Watson, who is also a co-founder of Greenpeace, Sea Shepherd’s aim is the vigilante style enforcement of conservation laws involving the world’s oceans. They are best know to cable subscribers for Animal Planet’s Whale Wars, scheduled to air its fifth season this summer. As I type this, the film footage for season five is underway. Watson and his volunteer Sea Shepherds have reached the Southern Ocean on four separate vessels. Each episode of their show opens with the same montage and narration:

“A war rages in the far reaches of planet earth. Antarctica’s pristine waters run red with blood. The Sea Shepherds are the soldiers who wage this war. They’re led into battle by Captain Paul Watson. Their enemy is a group of Japanese fishermen whose chosen catch is whales. The Sea Shepherds say the whalers are violating an international ban on commercial whaling. The whalers say they are legally killing whales for scientific research. Both claim to have the law on their side. These are their battles. This is their war.”


The Sea Shepherd vessel the Steve Irwin engages the Japanese harpoon ship the Yusshin Maru No. 2

Such a compelling and straight forward opening, driven home by the disturbing images captured by helicopter pilot Chris Altman in season two of a minke whale meeting a gruesome death at the end of Japanese harpoon, has become a hit with viewers. However, because of their direct action tactics, controversy has followed Sea Shepherd wherever they go. Whaling is a multi million dollar endeavor, and any interference with commerce is the fastest way to make powerful enemies. That said, those who make powerful enemies often do so in pursuit of a greater good and at great personal risk. In this annual war that rages in the Southern Ocean, we must ask ourselves which is more criminal: direct action, which is merely a soft term for harassment and vandalism, or the inhumane slaughter of endangered species in the name of research, the validity of which is up for debate?

(Warning: The following video is the graphic raw footage captured from a Sea Shepherd helicopter. It depicts the slow death of a minke whale at the end of a harpoon ship. This video, quite honestly, puts me in tears. It depicts one of the most inhumane ways an animal can be killed. As disturbing as it is, I feel it is important to understand the cruelty that occurs in the corners of the globe most of us will never see.) 

Humans have been whaling for centuries. The Inuits of Alaska and Siberia harvested bowhead and grey whales, and continue to do so, for the great nourishment and resources to be gleaned from such a massive animal in so hostile an environment. Two or three whales could quite easily feed an Eskimo village for a winter and bones were made into useful tools, intestines made into raincoats, and blubber used to grease hunting knifes and light fires. In the 17th Century, European civilizations developed boats and harpoons with the capability to transform whaling from small scale rural hunts into a commercial endeavor. Into the 20th Century, whales were hunted for the oil found in their brains and bodies to grease heavy machinery and light lamps, for their bones to make corsets, and for their meat. The sperm whale, one of the most valuable species due to its massive oil filled head, earned a reputation as a fierce opponent for whaling vessels, with large males violently defending their pods from the ships that slaughtered them. Herman Melville immortalized the sperm whale in his most famous novel as a fearsome metaphor for all that vexes humanity, a symbolic force man cannot contain despite his most valiant efforts. Unfortunately, the fierceness of the likes of Moby Dick have been no match for man. Across species, commercial whaling has left our oceans with only 5-10% of original great whale populations.


A pod of sperm whales

In 1982, we as species began to realize our own ignorance and vicious impact on our oceans and the International Whaling Commission placed a moratorium on commercial whaling, though under the IWC, whaling is still allowed for purposes of scientific research and all whale’s killed for research must not be wasted. As the IWC is itself a voluntary organization whose power lies only in universally agreed upon diplomacy and cooperation, enforcing this moratorium is all but impossible. Furthermore, worded into it is a loophole, a loophole that has been seized by the nation of Japan.

The Institute of Cetacean Research is a Japanese organization that has been whaling in the whale sanctuary of the Southern Ocean for over three decades. A quick browse through their website reveals their intentions to study population, diet, and migration of whales with an explicit ultimate goal of bringing commercial whaling back on a sustainable level. The goal sounds reasonable on paper, but the results and consequences must be analyzed and considered. The ICR’s research on population and migration has accomplished nothing but proving that there are minke, fin, and humpback whales in the seas around Antarctica in the Southern Hemisphere’s summer months, something easily learned without fatal studies, but proved by the meat that ends up in Japanese fish markets after the hunt. Their studies on diet have proven that these animals eat krill, something long discovered. They have discovered the top speed of fleeing minke whales. They’re fast, but not fast enough to outrun a harpoon ship. Useful information for commerce, but not for conservation.

It is true that we know little about whales when compared to other mammals, but what we do know is their populations are dangerously low and some species, such a the sperm and blue whale (the largest animal to ever inhabit our planet) could very well be beyond saving. What we do know is that whales form complex social structures that rival our own. We know they communicate, and we know they grieve when one of their own is lost. We know that killing them is cruel and inhumane and though the ICR claims it is accomplished in under two minutes – as if this is acceptable – there are numerous instances of whales taking up to and hour to die with a harpoon piercing into their vital organs. As a mammal, a whale’s neurological system is as advanced as our own. What they feel at the end of a harpoon is precisely what you and I would. And we know that they are intelligent.

Sea Shepherd provides a very short, concise explanation of their views of whale intelligence on their website. The Japanese claim whales are not intelligent animals because their brains to body ratio is significantly lower than ours. Such a claim 1) relies on the erroneous assumption that brain to body ratio is the only measure of intelligence, and 2) places the intelligence of whales on a human scale, which makes no sense as they are not human. Sea Shepherd’s Captain Paul Watson states that his personal measure of the intelligence of a living being is its ability to live in harmony with the natural world. Though not a scientific means of measuring intelligence, Watson’s criteria is on to something. Sea Shepherd states:

 “Captain Watson was not only saying that intelligence is relative, but that intelligence cannot be placed into categories defined by humans. Whales are highly social beings and they have a complex form of communication with each other which can only be defined as language. We simply do not understand what those large brains have evolved for, but indeed large brains they have, and large brains suggest that there is a reason and a use for this development.”

What is apparent is that humans are much more comfortable killing an animal that they can deem unintelligent, as if intelligence signifies value and as if an unintelligent animal is less capable of feeling pain and suffering. Whales are intelligent, but more significantly, they are important, important to the oceans we have already nearly exhausted, important players in a healthy marine ecosystem, and most importantly, whales are not a sustainable resource should we desire our oceans to thrive.


Captain Paul Watson at the helm of the Steve Irwin

 Captain Paul Watson believes that humans are the least important players in a healthy planet, famously stating that worms are more important than us, for he very rightly states that we, as a species cannot survive without worms, though they can quite easily survive without us. Watson has dedicated his life to protecting our oceans by any means necessary, stating

 “If the life in our oceans is diminished, humanity is diminished and if the oceans die, humanity will die; for we cannot survive on this planet with a dead ocean.”

Watson’s fight against the destruction of our oceans involves direct action. The Sea Shepherd’s fight against Japanese whaling the Antarctic involves throwing bottles of butyric acid, a foul smelling substance that the Sea Shepherds claim is “about as toxic as orange juice,” and nothing more than a “rotten butter bomb.” They hurl the bottles onto the decks of the whalers harpoon vessels to make them unlivable due to the rancid odor. They also aim for the deck of the whalers’ factory vessel to taint any whale meat on deck. Other Sea Shepherd tactics involve shooting bottles of red paint through a spud gun aimed at the “RESEARCH” sign of the whaling vessels with the obvious slaughter symbology as Sea Shepherd believes the research done to be a front for the commercial benefits of whale meat. The Sea Shepherds also deploy prop fouling ropes under the Japanese ships to disable them in the water, often without success but with the intention of intimidating the Japanese fleet and distracting them from whaling. Though these tactics could certainly be called vandalism, Sea Shepherd never seeks to do harm to people in their engagements and claim they never have, something the Japanese dispute but have never provided any evidence to the contrary. The main goal of the Sea Shepherds is always to make it impossible for the Japanese to whale or make it impossible for them to benefit from whaling. Watson’s primary tactic is to position one of his ships directly behind the factory vessel of the whaling fleet, a truly non-violent tactic that makes it impossible for the harpoon ships to transfer a whale for processing.

Whale Wars makes for compelling television. The high seas harassment of a menacing whaling fleet by a group of vigilantes flying the Jolly Roger is hard to ignore. The danger involved is plenty real, the Southern Ocean is inhospitable and remote, the Sea Shepherd crew inexperienced volunteers and as such Whale Wars quite comfortably sits in the realm of true reality television, very much like Discovery Channel’s own Deadliest Catch but where the catch is condemned and far more majestic than the humble Alaskan king crab. This was Watson’s very pitch to Animal Planet. A communications major, Captain Watson is a master at media manipulation. He uses every incident to his advantage and understands the complexity of 21st Century media culture, stating, “if it’s not on television, it’s not happening.” It is clear that the story the world gets is exactly the story Watson wants us to get. Though Watson is also quite transparent in his intentions to manipulate the media and use it as a tool to his advantage. He feels he has nothing to hide. He has never claimed his crew’s actions are peaceful, only that they are non-violent, a fine line they proudly straddle. Watson does not believe in protesting but in action. There is plenty of film evidence to the Sea Shepherd’s tactics, bottles thrown and props fouled. There is also plenty of film evidence of one of the Japanese ships deliberately ramming a carbon fiber Sea Shepherd stealth vessel with six aboard. The sinking of the Ady Gil was the highlight of the 2010 Sea Shepherd campaign in the Southern Ocean, causing an international incident. But if governments won’t do anything to enforce the stipulations of the IWC and Antarctic Treaty in the Southern Ocean, they will do nothing to support the vigilantes who do. The sinking of the Ady Gil was deemed the fault of both parties, a claim that could easily be argued as true, but is also a convenient way for the governments of the world to wash their hands of the issue.


The destruction of the Ady Gil

 On the Japanese side of things, one can find small sympathy. A government organization, the Institute of Cetacean Research funds the Japanese whaling and regardless of its intentions, it brings in big money. The whalers’ livelihood is at stake and their defense of that and exasperation at Sea Shepherd is completely understandable on a human level. But the livelihood of poachers of all sorts is at stake when anyone, law enforcement or vigilante, intervenes. We feel no sympathy or compassion toward ivory poachers or the merchants of tiger pelts. Why then is Japan allowed so much legal wiggle room in their equally damaging exploitation of an equally endangered species?


A pod of minke whales freely swimming in the Southern Ocean

 The bottom line is our political boundaries have made our oceans extremely vulnerable. Though nations have made invisible lines of control in the waters off their shores, international waters, despite assumedly international regulations, are truly the metaphoric Wild West. The Southern Ocean, though for now still the most untouched place on the planet, has no governing authority. No humans have ever inhabited the Antarctic continent. Some countries, such as Australia and New Zealand, have made claims and invisible boundaries to stretches of Antarctic waters, but the international recognition of these claims exists on a “Oh yeah? Who says?” basis. Military presence is banned in the Southern Ocean aside from research and search and rescue purposes. Therefore, laws exists to protect it that cannot legally be defended by any nation.


Sea Shepherd’s latest stealth vessel the Gojira (recently renamed the Brigitte Bardot) engages the Japanese Yusshin Maru harpoon ship.

 The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has branches in many countries. Its ships have different port authorities and its crews are international volunteers. They represent the only way conservation efforts can be upheld in the Southern Ocean, people of passion whose passion does not stop at the borders designated by their passports. Their actions may be direct, though non-violent, mildly destructive, but not deadly, controversial, but not careless. The world may watch and have trouble forming a fully positive opinion on their actions, but the fact remains that the Sea Shepherds are the ones in the Southern Ocean preventing the slaughter of whales. The rest of us our sitting on our couches watching Animal Planet.

The bottom line in this matter is whaling of any sort, be it for research of commerce, has no business in the 21st Century. The cruelty necessary to kill a whale is reason enough to move on as a species and instead work to repair the damage we have done to an extraordinary planet. Whale populations have been devastated by centuries of irresponsibility. I rarely visit the coast without boarding a whale watching ship and to see whales in their element, to see how trusting they are of human presence, how gently they move and how closely they stay to their own is to see how easy it is to kill them. A whale hunt from a 21st Century vessel fitted with an explosive harpoon is no hunt at all but a cowardly act against an animal defenseless against modern technology, a technology that remains as cruel now as it was at the highlight of European commercial whaling. It is this generation’s responsibility to ensure that the damage is reversed, that whales are not lost forever due to our species’ carelessness. The potential loss of some species is a dark reality this century may see. It is for this reason that I support Sea Shepherd’s efforts. They may be vigilantes and vandals, but they are the only ones successfully inhibiting whaling in the Southern Ocean. Diplomacy does not work in international waters. But whales belong to no nation. They do not know our boundaries. Their protection falls into the hands of the passionate, those who see that we must save our oceans to ensure our own survival.


A blue whale, the largest animal to ever live on planet earth, and a species we are likely to lose without more aggressive conservation efforts.