Saturday, August 29, 2015

As it Happens, Hope is Fungible

I saw the decade end
Thinking the world could change
In the blink of an eye

As most are already aware, I am a cynical person. Cynical to the point of pessimism. I just can't look at the way my species has mis-managed its opportunity, and even today, with so much knowledge available, is still unwilling to take even  the most obvious steps to protect itself and its habitat. How 'intelligent' is a species, really, when it can't look just ten or twenty years into the future and make concrete plans to preserve even the most basic necessities as food and clean water?

What makes it worse is that we were all witness to a moment of profound hope, of the most sweeping change in longstanding policy madness, a moment when the world changed in the space of one hundred days. And yet in hindsight of mere decades we can see how the hope for something as simple as peaceful coexistence never had a chance of taking root. That even when we surprised ourselves by our own clear vision of humans as community, as a species inhabiting a planet, not some collection of tribal entities, we turn away from that vision, almost as if the possibility of the possibility frightens us.

The first East Germans crossed the border from Hungary to Austria in August of 1989. On November 9th, the checkpoints from East Berlin were opened. Do you remember? Did you sit, transfixed by the images on the television news, watching in head-shaking disbelief as everything we understood about our world and how it was arranged, everything we had lived for our entire lives, changed into something we never even dreamed was possible? And all without guns, without war, without fighting and killing. Everything changed because there was something utterly, fundamentally wrong with the system as it stood, and finally that system could no longer sustain itself based on the self-evident madness of its basic premise.

Do you remember the faces? Not just the faces of the kids dancing together, East and West, on top of that wall that November night at the end of the decade, but the faces on your friends and co-workers that day? The thought that, maybe, just maybe, there WAS a different path for humans to walk.

Of course, there wasn't. Our species isn't capable, apparently, of that kind of self-salvation. Our own greed and fear and hatred and ideology will prevent it. We will destroy ourselves, paradoxically because it is a path that feels safer than the alternative. It is a path that indulges our worst beliefs, both in ourselves and in those we view as 'others'.

So yeah, I'm cynical, to the point of pessimistic. But the next time you look at some mundane political event and tell me that it means I should feel hopeful, think back to that one brilliant moment in our entire lifetimes when the world shifted on its axis, that moment when we truly had reason to feel hopeful, and watch how we squandered it all in our mad rush back to the madness that humans seem to crave.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Biden His Time?

Will he? Won't he? Should he?
As speculation about a Joe Biden Democratic primary campaign heats up, it's a little hard to parse what it means, and how he perceives the playing field and where he fits into it. I certainly think he's got an electability problem, in the same way Bernie Sanders does - albeit for somewhat different reasons.  He's a lifetime professional pol, a longtime Democratic legislator, a government insider with a lifetime of public service. In public life his history is a compelling story, but his tendency to say off the wall and sometimes off color things has given him a reputation for a kind of professional un-trustworthiness that would haunt his campaign.

I suspect he would position himself ideologically between Clinton and Sanders, offering a more liberal yet still 'mainstream' option. He would pull votes from Ms. Clinton - probably less so from Sanders, whose political base is the left wing of the party. Since it's hard to imagine someone running from Sanders' left, he'll keep the support he has - he's just unlikely to be able to expand it. Certainly Biden would benefit from those Americans who are uncomfortable with a woman in the Oval Office - we are, among other things, a fairly misogynist nation, and Biden would be the choice for Democrats who fall into that category.

He'd essentially be offering an extension to the Obama administration, just as Bush the Elder offered another term for the Reagan White House. Those who understand how much Obama remarkably got done in the face of the worst obstruction in decades would find that desirable, while those who are uncomfortable Obama's foreign policy, his support for the intelligence community, his war on whistle-blowers and his relentless pursuit of bipartisan solutions might be less pleased with the thought.

At the end of the day, I suspect he'll decide not to run. He can't win, and he'll only weaken the Clinton brand - she'll still be the nominee, but she'll arrive at the position after a more divisive, expensive primary season. If he does end up running, however, it leaves open an intriguing question - who would Barak Obama end up endorsing?

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Stuck Between the Dentist and the Deep Blue Sea

This is a monumental fuckup. A meaningless
Monumental fuckup....
So, just from a starting point, we can agree that Walter Palmer is a pathetic loser, a man with no male genitalia, a criminal mastermind and a sociopathic killer of the first order. Or maybe not. Maybe the question is more nuanced and complicated than the knee-jerk reaction is giving it credit for. I know, the very thought that maybe Cecil's killer might have been anything but some historical combination of Adolf Hitler and Ted Bundy makes you uncomfortable, but perhaps there is something to be learned by thinking through the lessons of this event in deeper detail.

The questions are there, whether we choose to engage with them or not. Why do people hunt these magnificent animals? Why do African governments provide permitted hunting in their countries?  Did Walter Palmer break the law? If he didn't break the law, was what he did ok? And what about that 40 hour stalk after the initial shooting? Wasn't that the worst thing ever?

I'm not sure I can answer every one of those questions, but the grey areas so massively outnumber the black and white conclusions I've seen on the internet that I've got to try. Let's start with our friend the dentist. The man everyone knows is the second coming of Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein. It seems pretty clear that he did some things that are either illegal or at least outside the realm of legitimate African big game hunting. So if we start from the premise that this guy - or his guide, or both - cut corners in order to get a trophy Lion, then the whole conversation is pointless. He's a bad guy, a criminal, and what he did has nothing to tell us about legal hunting in Africa.

At the end of the day,  hunting is one of those things - like abortions and pickup trucks - that are value neutral. If you don't think they are good, or right, that's perfectly fine. Don't participate. But standing up and declaring that anyone that disagrees with you is evil and should be shunned, or worse, makes you just another extremist, no different than the Westboro Baptist Church.

You don't have to love hunting, or be interested in hunting, or even be slightly positive about hunting. You just have to understand a genuine fact, even if you find it distasteful or outside of your belief system. The hunters care deeply about the conservation of the species - they WANT to be able to hunt them again in the future. If you deny that, you are dishonest and closed-minded. Why do I make such a big point of this argument? Because there are so many 'true believers' on the internet who cannot integrate their worldview with reality. Which is funny - their policy positions are legitimate, but they become ludicrous and illegitimate as soon as they deny reality.

Two things remain true regardless of the level of spittle flecked ideological denial. First, the primary threats to large African species are habitat loss and poaching. Particularly poaching. Elephant ivory, Rhino horn, Bear liver - these are things that have ridiculous value on the global market, and there are local people with modern weapons - AKs, even RPGs - that will slaughter large numbers to generate as much near-term revenue as possible. And second, licensed, permitted, regulated hunting is designed from the ground up to preserve the species and conserve the ecosystem. The animals that can be hunted are old and outside the growth of the herd, and those same regulations prevent the taking of young breeding populations.

Finally, let's address the aftermath of the hunt. The dentist only wounded the lion, and then spent two days following the wounded animal, until he could finally track him down and finish him off. Isn't this proof of his cold-hearted brutality? Actually, no. Remember, sometimes surgeons mess up. Sometimes Serena Williams misses a shot. Hunting is hard, and while hunters are generally very good about taking good, clean shots, the tiniest error or change in environmental conditions can cause your shot to go awry. That's always been part of the the reality of the hunter, and hunting 101 speaks to this very question before all others. Take a good shot, and never, NEVER let a wounded animal go off to die alone. A cruel, self-interested hunter might shrug his shoulders and say, 'oh well, we missed that one, fuck him, let's start over and try again'. That simply NEVER happens. Hunters dig in and track their targets, and sometimes, when those targets are Cape Buffalo or something similarly dangerous, this is the most frightening part of the hunt. Let me know when you're prepared to go into a dense forest to follow a wounded Grizzly Bear. I'll be six paces behind you.