Notes on the Extinctions at the Top of the World

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Between bouts of ducking and covering under my second-grade desk in case the Russians dropped an atom bomb on our classroom, I spent a lot of time studying geography. Not because my teacher emphasized matters geographical, but because she had a thing about homework. And not in a good way.

On the first day of class she handed out the first assignment and I did the obvious thing. I forgot about it. She didn’t forget, though, and the next morning, while the other kids were enjoying recess, I got invited to sit at my desk and complete the work. I passed the time staring at islands on the big world map next to the blackboard. On the third day I owed two homeworks, both of which would have to be turned in before I could head out to recess. Come April, I owed a hundred-and-some homeworks and all possibility of recess had forever receded below the horizon. If my family hadn’t moved to another city, I’d still be in second grade, puzzling over the Rorschach shapes of faraway islands.

Svalbard has the most polar bears of anywhere in the world — more even than Churchill, Manitoba, where bears sashay down Main Street eating people’s dogs.

There are a lot of islands in the world, and I came out of that experience with a geographical bucket list of almost bottomless capacity. It was, looking back, a list based on shape and remoteness instead of anything particular my seven-year-old self knew about any of the islands. Which is how my seven-year-old self wound up sending me to Svalbard more than half a century later, still thinking the place should be called Spitzbergen, the way it used to be.

The two things that I knew about Svalbard were that it is very far north, farther north, even, than Siberia, as far north as the northernmost reaches of Greenland; and that Svalbard had the most polar bears of anywhere in the world — more even than Churchill, Manitoba, where bears sashay down Main Street eating people’s dogs. Also, my seven-year-old self wanted to be there in the winter for the true Svalbard experience, and to see the Northern lights.

Longyearbyen, the capital of Svalbard, is the former silver medalist for the title of northernmost civilian place on the planet. In the ’90s it got defaulted up to northernmost when the model Soviet city 50 miles west and a dozen or so closer to the pole was disqualified on account of going out of business. My wife and I lodged in a room in Longyearbyen, in barracks that housed coal miners before the miners rioted over their poor living conditions. Longyearbyen seemed an apt enough name for somewhere to be stuck on a yearlong contract digging coal. No wonder the miners rioted. It took a while for me to find out that the town was named after John Munro Longyear, the Michigan timber baron who began the mining operations in 1906.

It looked like a rundown middle-school gym, if middle-school gyms came plastered with posters of heroic Red Army soldiers from the Great Patriotic War, tarted up with gold CCCP’s on red backgrounds.

People who didn’t riot were the inhabitants of the Soviet model city. According to the young Russian who showed us around, it had been a very desirable place to be, Soviet-Unionwise. It’s called Pyramiden and people waited years to be assigned there. Like Longyearbyen, Pyramiden was a coal-mining town. We boated over one day to check it out.

There was a big, brass, snow-blown bust of Lenin welcoming us to the Sports Palace. The Palace had a basketball court and a tawdry little music room and an even tawdrier niche fitted out with shelves that some wag had designated as a library. It looked like a rundown middle-school gym in a community that had experienced a property-tax revolt, if middle-school gyms came plastered with posters of heroic Red Army soldiers from the Great Patriotic War, tarted up with gold CCCP’s on red backgrounds. There was also a sinister sounding building called the Tulip Hotel, which, since we weren’t Soviet royalty off on a junket, we weren’t allowed inside of. “Everything here was free,” beamed the Russian who showed us around. He was too young to know better.

Free included a bleak apartment in the men’s building, if you were a guy. In the ladies’, if you weren’t. There were rumors of a secret tunnel connecting the two which were hard to credit since both buildings were constructed several feet off the ground because of permafrost. Still, if you could manage to hook up with a coal miner of the opposite sex you hit the jackpot because married people got upgraded to a couple’s apartment. There must have been a limited number of those apartments, though, or people would have been allowed to meet out in the open rather than having to sneak around in tunnels.

Free also, of course, included all the labor those miners put in. And the food, the food was free, too. Evidence about what kind of food you can get for free lurks in the abandoned institutional kitchen. Mostly it seemed to have been canned peas stirred in huge electric-powered tubs that reminded me of the first-generation washing machines you see in photographs from the Depression. Free industrial peas at the end of working all day in the mines — no wonder the vodka was free, too. The vodka is still there. You can purchase a shot at the northernmost bar in the world. One taste, and you realize why it hasn’t migrated to a more competitive locale. And why it had to be free.

“Everything here was free,” beamed the Russian who showed us around. He was too young to know better.

High class people. Doctors. Lawyers. Folks with political pull pulled strings to get sent to a place farther north than Siberia so they could work in mines all day and eat cafeteria peas at night and hook up in tunnels like horny junior-high kids and shoot down vodka that would have etched the chrome off the fancy ZiL limousines the nomenklatura were chauffeured around in back home. A few miles away, Norwegian miners were rioting because they didn’t like the rooms they were given, but these poor schnooks thought they were living in paradise. There may have been Northern lights somewhere, but I wouldn’t know. It turns out the Northern lights are easier to see when it isn’t snowing all the time.

Also, I should have given a bit more thought to that business about seeing polar bears. Even my seven-year-old brain could have put it together. Bears. Winter. Hibernation. But I wasn’t any more analytical when I planned the trip than I’d been about not turning in my homework.

Or the bear thing may have had something to do with the fact that polar bears are dying out. All the right people say so. The pack ice is melting and bears all over the Arctic are falling into the water and starving to death, so if you live in Churchill, keep a close eye on your pets. There are a lot of hungry bears wading ashore. But people in Svalbard didn’t seem to be worried about polar bears dying out. They were worried about being eaten by bears. On Svalbard, you’re required by law to carry a high-powered rifle when you step outside of town.

Longyearbyen has a university, the Harvard of the Arctic, according to the Toronto Star, where you can study oceanography, but I wouldn’t. Studying oceanography involves SCUBA diving, and there are plenty of fine programs at places more equatorial than the Barents Sea. They have a nice museum at the university, though, a museum that focuses on geology and, this being Svalbard, the glaciers that sit on top of the geology. It was while I was reading about those glaciers that I came across this:

For the past four to five thousand years the Earth has been subject to a marked cooling, which gradually has created better conditions for the growth of glaciers and permafrost. Five thousand years ago the average temperature in Svalbard was around 4 degrees warmer than today. Then, one would probably have had to climb 200-400m up in the mountains in order to find permafrost, and many of today’s glaciers would not then have existed. The largest glaciers would have existed in a much reduced size. Many of Svalbard’s glaciers, therefore, are less than three to four thousand years old.

They were worried about being eaten by bears. On Svalbard, you’re required by law to carry a high-powered rifle when you step outside of town.

Svalbard has gotten a lot of attention over the past few months for being the ground zero of global warming. Maybe, even, a bit above zero, sometimes. Degrees on Svalbard have shot up quicker than degrees anywhere else on earth, which got me to wondering about those polar bears. Polar bears have been floating around in the Arctic for something like 200,000 years. Even if Svalbard is warming up today, what were they floating on 5,000 years ago? The sign didn’t say, so I had to look it up on my own. And discovered that there are two schools of thought on the bear situation.

The first is the one you’ve already heard. The other is that the bear population has exploded in recent years, mainly because of an international ban on polar bear hunting. When I tried to look up the exact numbers, I found some in the articles that thought there were more bears than ever. Twenty-five thousand, and climbing. Thirty-thousand, with populations of bears well established in dozens of locations throughout the polar region. The articles that thought the bears were dying out talked about pack ice. Less pack ice than ever. You can drive to the North Pole in your bass boat, if you want to.

Now I’m not a polar bear scientist and I’m not qualified to judge the quality of those articles, but it did seem to me that one side was willing to commit to real numbers and the other, well, the other weaseled out of addressing the question.




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The New Solar Isn’t Shining Bright

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While the fracking revolution chugs along nicely, the so-called renewable energy continues to disappoint everyone but the environmentalist ideologues who spawned it. A recent article brings the whole, sorry green energy mess to mind.

I refer to the “new, improved” high-tech design for solar power, the “solar-thermal” technology. Unlike the traditional solar power facility, which involves enormous numbers of solar panels converting sunlight directly into electricity, a solar-thermal facility uses a huge array of mirrors to focus sunlight on the top of a tower, which holds a boiler. The focused sunlight makes the water in the boiler turn to steam, which then turns a turbine to create power. That is, it uses the usual boiler-turbine arrangement, but the heat is supplied by sunlight, rather than coal, natural gas, or nuclear fission.

This “exciting” new technology — as new as maybe Archimedes — attracted the interest of Google, which invested with NRG Energy to have BrightSource Energy build a large solar-thermal plant in the California part of the Mojave Desert. This plant (the Ivanpah plant) cost $2.2 billion to construct and was projected to produce more than a million megawatt-hours of power annually.

You couldn’t dream this up — a non-fossil fuel technology that requires four hours of fossil-fuel burning, every day, just to get started.

Well, it was completed well over a year ago, and it produces only 40% of the promised power. Yes, 170,000 mirrors targeting solar rays at a boiler are nowhere near as efficient as they were planned to be. Welcome to the world of unintended consequences!

There have been several unforeseen problems with the new wonder technology. First, there are equipment maintenance issues, from leaking tubes to excessive turbine vibrations, which nobody suspected ahead of time.

Second, the turbines require far more steam to run efficiently than was initially calculated. The original idea was that getting the plant ramped up in the morning — remember, the sun doesn’t shine at night! — would require running a natural-gas heater for about an hour. But turns out that they have to run the heater for four hours! Yes, you couldn’t dream this up — a non-fossil fuel technology that requires four hours of fossil-fuel burning, every day, just to get started. A wonder technology, indeed.

Third — and it is astounding that the Google Wunda-Boys never google-searched this — there is less sunlight onsite than was originally guesstimated. Amazingly, there are many cloudy days, even in the desert!

The article goes on to report that the Ivanpah facility is not the only one to prove a disappointment. A similar plant built in Arizona by the Spanish firm Abengoa is delivering only half the original estimated amount of power.

No doubt these projects had some kind of direct or indirect federal subsidies — “brilliant” projects guaranteed by your tax money. Solar sucks up huge tax resources, even though it produces less than 1% of American electric power. What a colossal and pathetic joke on all of us.

The article ends by noting something I pointed out in these pages a year and a half ago: this new google-icious power technology kills birds by literally scorching them. The air around the tower is heated to about 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, so when a hapless bird flies by, the bird is burned to death. The plant kills about 3,500 birds a year in this way.

There have been fracking plants shut down by the federal government under the suspicion of killing one lousy bird. But then, you see, fracking — economically and geopolitically a godsend to this country — isn’t considered a “Green” technology.




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The Moonwalk & The Fish That Got Away

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I just watched an aquatic episode of Monster Quest on the History Channel. It reminded me of how I, like 600 or 700 million Chinese, missed the first walk on the moon. Yes, “Monster Quest.” Let he who has never sinned cast the first stone! And, yes, I know, that show has painted itself into a corner. It will pretty much have to produce a live sasquatch, or at least the carcass of one soon, or go off the air. But, don't worry, eventually this, my story, is going to turn into a fishing story, and also into a sex story.

The documentary examined a possible giant grouper attack on a child in Florida. It included good underwater footage of several Goliath groupers at close range. In the old days, some Goliath groupers were weighed in at over 500 pounds. Big fish! No need to lie if you hooked one of those.

I was about 26 and I was spending a whole summer on a small Mexican island off the Caribbean coast. I had only one purpose: to enact repeatedly a typical, recurrent fantasy of my French youth. I was there to spear sea creatures during the day and to cook and eat them during the warm tropical night. That was it. France is far to the north of most of North America, if you look at a map attentively. Paris, where I was raised, is even north of Montreal. It's also far from the ocean, but city people in France have deeply-anchored thalassotropism, an unreasoned attraction to the sea. Many spend summer at the seaside, where they learn to swim well. Even way back then, some people, like me, learned in their early teens to be comfortable underwater and to spear fish. French boys especially fantasized about tropical seas in the days when travel was expensive and it seemed there was little chance you would ever go there. Their dreams were purposeful and competent. They wanted to do something about them if the occasion arose, by some miracle. Well, the miracle happened for me. I emigrated to California, next door to Mexico.

In Mexico, I spent most daylight hours in the clear, clear sea, free-diving. That means up and down and up and down, holding your breath — no effeminate breathing apparatus (no scuba). With good training, under favorable conditions, if you are in shape, you can do that for hours on end. I never got bored, because I wasn't there for the sights; I was spearing fish right and left and I was also catching rock lobsters. (That's the red lobster with small claws, also called “spiny lobster.”) I don't wish to explain how I was catching the lobsters; I have a persistent fear of the Mexican constabulary, and I don't know what's the statute of limitation. The water was so much more transparent and so much warmer than the English Channel, where I had learned, that it was almost like moving to another planet.

For French spear-fishermen of that era, one kind of fish had legendary and mythical status: groupers. There were none in the Channel, and none in the Atlantic at those latitudes. There were only a few in the Mediterranean. Groupers were said to be elusive, secretive, and almost impossible to spear. Diving magazines reproduced endlessly the same photograph of the same champion of France posing with the same two foot-long grouper. I could not imagine, then, any change in my life's circumstances that would bring me within distance of such a trophy. To complete the picture, groupers were said to be excellent eating fish — not a small detail for the French, then or now.

The water was so much more transparent and so much warmer than the Channel that it was almost like moving to another planet.

Fast-forwarding my life story: that summer, I was right there on prime grouper territory. Once I had caught my three rock lobsters or my small barracuda for dinner, I would explore the reef cavities slowly, deliberately. I discovered that there were many groupers around but that they hid inside deep holes in the daytime. I devised a method to draw some of them out (the stupid ones, no doubt) where I could take a clear shot at them with my modest-sized rubber band spear gun. (I am sorry but I will not reveal the method until I am on my deathbed; it's like my secret chanterelles patch.)

Well, fishing is a lot like sex: If you try it four or five times a day and if you enjoy it, plus you have stamina, you can only become better at it. So I caught groupers worth catching several times and early on in my stay. And yes, the flesh was delicious, surprisingly refined in flavor and with a firm texture.

Meanwhile, the forthcoming American expedition to the moon had been the subject of a barrage of news, quasi-news, and speculations even in that remote part of Mexico. The night before the event, the locals were buying beer, and the few gringo tourists were right behind them. Some old women were even preparing Christmas tamales, way out of season. It was obvious there was not going to be any work done the next day, the planned date for the moonwalk.

We did not have access to a TV but my American girlfriend and I were going to join the festivities around a transistor radio with several other Americans. We were going to listen to commentators give the blow-by-blow. Incidentally, Mexican commentators of anything are better, more lively, more animated than their American counterparts. But grouper was on my mind. So, earlier than usual on the morning of the landing, I went into the water, close to town, with the modest objective of just doing a little exploration for later. Almost right away, I spotted a flat reef of old, smooth coral, shaped like a table, with many good-size perforations on its top.

Fishing is a lot like sex: If you try it four or five times a day and if you enjoy it, plus you have stamina, you can only become better at it.

Soon, the sun was at such an angle that I could see inside each hole right from the surface. I noticed something moving inside a hole and thought it might be a darting lobster. I dived down to investigate and immediately realized I was looking at the marbled skin of a large grouper with its head right under the opening. The atavistic assassin's reflex took over. Coolly, I told myself I would never have a better chance to shoot a large grouper in the head, where it counts, and at close range. One fatal shot, drag it to the surface, hang it on a string, and bring it home in plenty of time for the moon landing.

I shot as planned, right in the skull, and pulled on the line connecting the gun to the shaft in the fish, to bring it to the surface. There was resistance. I went down to investigate and found that the grouper was not dead, that it had inflated its body and braced itself inside the hole with its spiny dorsal fin. I dived about 15 or 20 times, and I was unable to budge it at all. Finally, I located a horizontal hole under the flat surface of the reef from which I could gain access to the struggling fish from a different angle.

I wrestled with the grouper for more than two hours, becoming prey to what economists know as the “sunk cost fallacy.” I had already invested so much time in that fish, I couldn't really let it go. In addition, one of my precious few shafts was embedded in its head and I would have to abandon it too.

Finally, the fish gave up or expired; it stopped resisting. I reached into the hole and grabbed it by the eye cavities, thumb in one eye, index finger in the other. I floated the fish up to the surface with no trouble and walked to town in the hot sun carrying on my shoulder a grouper the size of which I would not have even dared imagine ten years earlier, when I was still only a French spear-fisherman. I cannot tell you exactly how big that fish was, because there was no opportunity to weigh it, or even to measure it. Besides, fishermen are routinely accused of lying about measurements — because so many do, in fact, lie. I can say, however, that the next day, it fed eight young adults easily.

One fatal shot, drag it to the surface, hang it on a string, and bring it home in plenty of time for the moon landing.

By the time I arrived, the lunar show was over, the two guys had taken their little walk on the moon, everyone assured me, and the celebration was well under way. My girlfriend was miffed, but when she saw the grouper, she kind of understood my glee, although she was not a diver, and not even a woman of the sea. (She was just intelligent, and very hot!) At any rate, the moonwalk has always had a slight sense of unreality for me, because I did not watch it or even hear a description of the event in real time. As I mentioned, I am a little like the red Chinese who found out for sure only many years later. You might say, I was absent from an important instance of the 20th century because I was following my underwater bliss.

There is a sequel to this story. The brain learns things it does not even know it knows. Every good fisherman will tell you he does not understand all his successes. So, the moonwalk fish subtly encouraged me to keep looking for grouper.

I explored a big pile of boulders, in shallow water, right across the narrow beach from the concrete cubicle where I lived. The top boulders almost broke the surface at low tide; the white sand on which they rested may have been 25 feet down, not much for an experienced free-diver with good, recent local training. Soon, I found a narrow space at the base of the boulders. With lots of air in my lungs, I did not hesitate to crawl inside. I ended up underneath the pile of rocks with just the tips of my flippers emerging.

I wasn't worried about wounding myself against the rocks, because I was wearing a light wetsuit. (I always wear a wetsuit when diving, even and especially in warm water. Warm water has coral. Any contact with most corals will inflict a thousand small cuts that will not heal if you submerge yourself in the salty sea repeatedly. And if you perspire even a little in the tropical night, the cuts hurt like hell.) I let my eyes become accustomed to the darkness and discovered a black, glistening surface a couple of feet away from my face that did not look like rock.

I was absent from an important instance of the 20th century because I was following my underwater bliss.

I came up for air and went down again to the same spot, through the narrow passage, which gave me exactly the same orientation to the light. The mysterious surface had changed color. After a dozen times going up and down and into the hole, my face suddenly confronted another face, right at the bottom. The other face had big thick lips and globular eyes. In spite of that striking description, it took my brain a few seconds to register what I was seeing, because of its sheer size. The face was several times larger than mine. The hole was nearly filled by a giant grouper.

That the fish did not scoot at my approach was not surprising. First, the narrow passage in which I had crawled may have been the only exit route. Second, large groupers have few predators. They are well known to hole up when in doubt, so much so that shooting them is sometimes akin to murder.

When I understood what was so close to me, my heart did not beat faster. I felt very calm and collected. I dived repeatedly to reassure myself that I was not dreaming. Several times I saw the characteristic lips and the round eyes; I observed that the dark skin was shiny; I saw parts of fins bigger than my legs.

Grouper are well known to hole up when in doubt, so much so that shooting them is sometimes akin to murder.

Remember that I had my little spear gun with me. Spearing the giant point-blank would have been child's play. Yet, I did not press the trigger. I wasn't afraid just then but something in my unconscious mind stopped me. I can't begin to say how big the grouper was because I never saw the whole thing. It was bigger than me. It might have been the biggest grouper anyone had ever speared. Certainly, it would have been the biggest grouper a French-born person had ever caught free-diving — or at any rate, any Parisian.

I went up and down for an hour, thinking, calculating from what angle to shoot, and then how to retrieve it out of its hole. As I was in shallow water, it seemed feasible. There was a very good chance I would be able to drag the fish out swimming backward in the narrow passage, if it were dead.

Soon, it became like solving an engineering problem. I got out of the water and walked back to my place to have lunch and do some more thinking. I was confident the giant would be there when I returned. I thought the boulders were its permanent dwelling.

But back at the grouper's cave, after 45 minutes or so, my disposition had changed slightly. I took yet another look at the fish. It dawned on me then that there was some real danger in attacking at close quarters, from a narrow space where I could not turn around, an animal bigger than myself, with sharp teeth, that could breathe in water. Then, another part of my brain began to feel that something was wrong about eating such a magnificent and, no doubt, old creature. Then, I told myself that having spent so much time in such close proximity with such a big grouper was enough of a trophy for a Paris boy. Besides, my hot girlfriend had been waiting for me with her imagination running on high rpm. She had, torrid, unspeakable plans for the rest of my afternoon. I abandoned the endeavor and went home with a light heart.

Many years later, the giant grouper that I spared, not speared, visits me in my dreams, but only when I am in a good mood, or when I am subconsciously plotting a small vacation to an exotic place. Fishermen will want to know if I ever felt fisherman's regrets over that huge catch I did not catch. The answer is that I do feel regrets, but I am sure I would have felt fisherman's remorse if I had taken the giant grouper and butchered it in the sun. There is a subtle issue of choice between two unequal ills here. Remorse will follow you forever although you can pretend you have forgotten its cause or causes. Regrets are, in principle, temporary. The goal you did not reach, the apple you did not pick may fall in your lap at any time before you check out for good; you never know. Even the one with whom you were pointlessly in lust when you were a junior in high school might go for you at the 20-year reunion. It's not what it could have been but still!

Postscript: Yes, I was diving alone. It's supposed to be dangerous. I am not recommending that divers who use scuba do the same. I am not even recommending the practice to other free-divers. It was just the right thing for me, at that time. The safe alternative is to have a diving companion who is a short fat woman who thrashes noisily in the water and swims too clumsily to escape anything.




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The Lady and the Tigers

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Tippi Hedren is the actress whose intelligence illuminated Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. Now, 52 years later, Hedren is still an illuminating person — as shown by her powerful performance at a hearing managed by the board of asses who are in charge of California’s “bullet train.”

The train — which does not exist and may never exist — is the biggest (putative) construction project in American history, and perhaps the biggest boondoggle, a reduction ad absurdum of “planning for the environment,” “planning for energy conservation,” and all the rest of it. Its cost estimates are 600% higher than the voters thought they were mandating, and this is one reason the majority of voters now wish they hadn’t listened to propaganda for the project. They agreed to build a railroad that would deliver passengers from Los Angeles to San Francisco in a time substantially less than three hours. It’s now clear that there’s no possibility this can happen, or anything close to it, no matter where the rail line is put. But no one knows where it will be put. The managers of the project, the California High Speed Rail Authority, insensately determined to carry on despite the many kinds of fools they are making of themselves, are still deciding which communities they’re going to unleash their bulldozers on.

Another assumption is that it’s efficient to destroy a series of towns in the pursuit of what is in fact slow-speed rail.

They have to hold public hearings about this. Unfortunately, they don’t have to listen to what they hear at them, and they don’t. The latest hearing involved outraged residents of several Southern California towns that may be devastated by the train. One of them is Acton, where Hedren operates an animal-rescue preserve that caters to big cats. So Hedren showed up at the hearing.

Dan Richard, chairman of the Authority, used the occasion to pontificate: “What we’re building here, by the way, in high-speed rail, is the most efficient way to deal with our transportation needs of the future." “By the way?” The rhetoric is almost as condescending as the statement itself, which assumes that its audience is stupid enough to believe it’s efficient to spend at least $100 billion to propel a few hundred people a day to a destination they could have reached more quickly and cheaply by air. Another assumption is that it’s efficient to destroy a series of towns in the pursuit of what is in fact slow-speed rail.

Hedren, 85, identified the problem with people who make statements like that: "You don't listen, you don't care. . . . You are going to take this beautiful little town of Acton . . . and you are going to destroy it with this train." Then she mentioned the lions and tigers she cares for (but has no illusions about). "I am more afraid of you," she told the planners.




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The Age of Plaster

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Last month’s Word Watch characterized the current era as the Age of Small Minds. A comment was made about that column, an interesting comment too. It was a critique of efforts to distinguish one “age” from another. I responded as best I could, but the truth is, it’s hard to resist naming Ages — as hard as it was for H.L. Mencken to resist naming Belts: you know, the Bible Belt, the Infant Damnation Belt, and so on.

My current idea about the current age is that it should be called, at least in its literary dimension, the Age of Plaster. By “plaster” I mean the kind of stuff that people slather onto a sentence, just any old way, so that the sentence will sort of warm the heart, convey an impression, avert criticism, earn a paycheck, earn a doctorate, or, as the plasterers say, whatever.

The idea is to cover the sentence with the stickiest, gooeyist phrases you’ve heard in the past 24 hours, preferably phrases you’ve heard 24 times during that time. This shows that the plaster will wear well. A good plasterer can get through a whole day — seven days, 365 days, 10,000 days — without having to think about what he’s doing. It’s all routine, and it’s all the same.

A search of Google News returns 16,900,000 citations for legendary. Now there’s a hunk of plaster that will stick to anything.

Instead of stating, simply and clearly, that you called Helen to ask for her advice, you can dredge your wet bucket of words and say that you reached out to Helen to get her input. You don’t need to worry about the fact that getting input is a generic term for what happens with computers, a term not applicable to human beings and not capable of distinguishing between begging for advice, asking for an opinion, drumming your fingers while you pretend to listen, and demanding a complete report by Monday. But why bother to figure out the difference, when input will get you through the sentence?

And why worry about that jarring noise one hears when a banal computer term is coupled with an expression that, until 2014, suggested intense emotional need? Until then, people who were crossed in love reached out to their friends for solace. Communities devastated by natural disasters reached out in desperation for the assistance of others. People who had lost their jobs reached out to their families and friends. You can almost see those hands reaching out. So is that how you reached out for Helen’s input?

A few years ago, I toured the Michigan state capitol. The guide pointed to the beautiful copper chandeliers, elaborate constructions with their lights hanging from effigies of the state’s heraldic animals, the elk and moose. “See those things?” she said. “When they restored the building, they discovered that basically, the chandeliers were hanging from nothing. It was all just lathe and plaster.”

Many a rhetorical elk and moose depends from the plaster ceilings of 2015. Probably there isn’t a day in the Michigan capitol when bureaucrats fail to inform the public that their newly invented infringements on liberty are motivated by an abundance of caution; that without the latest rules and regulations, who knows how many families in this state might have been put in harm’s way?And if these coats of plaster aren’t enough to cover the lathe and support the copper fauna, the bureaucrats will undoubtedly add, If we can save just one life . . . ?

Are there military weapons that are not lethal? No, there are not.

Or we can save just one job — the speechwriter’s. Or the news writer’s. It sounds impossible, but people are actually paid to write newspaper stories about the legacy of Michael Brown. Or about that closely related subject, the many legendary aspects of our world. A search of Google News returns 16,900,000 citations for legendary. Now there’s a hunk of plaster that will stick to anything. High school volleyball seasons are legendary; local sheriffs are legendary, with legendary careers; a retiring chemistry prof is legendary; an obscure 18th-century doctor is legendary. I like Joan Rivers as well as the next person, maybe better; but tell me, what legends are actually told about that legendary performer?

Here’s another kind of news story (AFP, May 14): “Kiev — Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has appointed John McCain, a hawkish US senator who has pressed Washington to send lethal weapons to war-torn Ukraine, as his advisor, his administration said.” As Han Solo once exclaimed, “You said a mouthful, Chewie.” Senator McCain is a hawk, and Ukraine has something like a war going on, and I don’t like either of those things; in fact, I detest Senator McCain. But that’s not a promising way for a news story to begin. The key is “lethal weapons.” Are there military weapons that are not lethal? No, there are not. Lethal weapons is verbal plaster, a way of tarting up a news story until it can double as a partisan attack.

To accomplish the purpose, the words don’t have to make sense. War-torn: what does it mean? Was America “war-torn” from 1861 to 1865? Certainly, if you lived in Virginia. If you lived in Maine, maybe not. But war-torn sounds so definite, doesn’t it? So much like settled science. Being torn is bad; being war-torn must be twice as bad, indeed evil. And imagine the evil of sending lethal weapons to a place that is already war-torn! Horrible to contemplate.

Well, there are plaster saints — of the which McCain is one — and there are plaster arguments. I hope I’m not required to choose between the two.

Most of the verbal plaster that’s now being slung comes out of the political bucket. It’s politics that creates presidential speeches that contain not a single memorable line, just lumps of flattery flung at every demographic group and lobby the speechwriter can think of. It’s politics that creates press conferences so clogged with plaster that nobody cares what was said; everybody just discusses the means that were used not to say anything. This doesn’t mean that words were finally dispensed with. One wishes that they were, and that the press agents resorted to mere gestures. That would be more than enough. Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler’s film director, was asked how she cut the Nazis’ long-winded speeches down to only a few seconds. “Oh,“ she said, “there’s nothing hard about that. With a political speech, all you need is the beginning and the end, and just something in between.”

But politics isn’t the only source of verbal plaster. The ultimate source is the social assumption, no doubt inspired by our non-educational system, that words — their meanings, their histories, their emotional associations, their logical implications — are of no importance when compared to something, almost anything, else.

You can tell when people think that words are important: it’s when they try to use them accurately, even when accuracy isn’t required.

What does it mean to say that your thoughts and prayers go out to the family of the latest victim of senseless violence? Are the people who say this actually praying? Are they actually thinking? And according to what definition is a murder or riot actually senseless? There wasn’t any motive? There was, but no one can understand it? What? What do these people mean? Do they even know whether the victim had a family? Or cared about it? If they themselves really cared about any of this, they wouldn’t be using these hackneyed phrases.

To cite another example: what does it mean to say that the outcome was negative, or I had a positive reaction to her proposal, or he had a really negative attitude? If the people who use such words cared about conveying a specific meaning, wouldn’t they think for a tenth of a second about the words available to express it? A positive reaction: is thata good reaction, or a favorable one, or a pleasant one, or an enthusiastic one, or a mildly approving one, or what, exactly? If they cared about words and their meanings, why would they let negative take the place of bad, unfavorable, damaging, disastrous, fatal, slightly unfortunate . . . again, every word that’s available to convey a thought? Such people are not trying to cover up their true feelings (as opposed, I guess, to false feelings). They don’t regard their feelings as important enough to define. They want to talk, but without disrupting their intellectual snooze.

You can tell when people think that words are important: it’s when they try to use them accurately, even when accuracy isn’t required. Chelsea Clinton is unlikely to lose her job at the Clinton Foundation, no matter what she says. So, on purely financial principles, why shouldn’t she tell the world, as she did on April 23, that the Foundation is hard at work on many issues, “whether that’s around women and girls”? Huh? What is that, and how is it around? And Andy Levy isn’t likely to lose his job on Red Eye because he, like most other people in the media, said squash when he should have said quash. The difference is that Levy immediately corrected himself, thus demonstrating that he cares more about the meaning of words than about the sound of his own voice, even though it’s the voice that earns the paycheck. Let this event, Levy’s Self-Correction, be recorded, together with its date: April 24, 2015. It was a victory of mind over plaster.

Not all of Levy’s friends at Fox deserve to be seen in this positive light. Jenna Lee, one of the many blonde young ladies who give the network its distinctive tang, was burbling on May 8 about the Kennedy family when she strove for a supreme verbal effect and emitted, “These figures are so icon.” She got her effect, but it seems kind of negative to me. How much do you care about words if you use icon as an adjective?

It was another Foxite, Andrea Tantaros, who fell to discussing a female sports referee (April 9) and observed, “She’s knows how to ref, which she does know how to ref.” It has long been common, among people who are not paid for the words they use — in fact, among illiterate people — to employ which as a universal substitute for and, but, although, because, and any other connective you can think of. But Tantaros is paid — apparently to apply such verbal plaster. Rand Paul, noted for his large quantity of words, is also a pretty good plasterer. On April 7, he told Sean Hannity — he who introduces every other sentence with the word now, with no interest in discovering any other way of plastering over his own lapses of continuity — “If you raise defense spending, which I think we do need defense spending . . . .” Bill Clinton was puzzled by the meaning of is; Rand Paul is unclear about the meaning of which. I prefer Paul, but hell, he’s making it hard.

Political blather . . . how about religious blather? Yes, the clergy have been master plasterers for a long time. But now the Bible is filling up with the gray sticky stuff.

The New Revised Standard Version (Oxford University Press) is the Bible translation mercilessly pushed by modernist clergy. The damned thing is everywhere — in the liturgy, in Bible studies, in college courses, and I assume (gruesome thought) in deathbed devotions. The NRSV is a terrible translation, flat, pretentious, and sometimes remarkably inaccurate. I was recently reminded of that while I was looking up the Bible episode in which a man is consumed by worms because he took God’s glory to himself.

These are as nothing, compared with a political correctness so asinine that even a male cannot be called a man, even when the Bible calls him that.

He’s Herod Agrippa, and it happens in the twelfth chapter of Acts. Herod says something in public and the admiring crowd exclaims, as at some utterance of a US president, “The voice of a god, and not of a man!” That’s how Acts 12:22 has been translated in the past, and the meaning is perfectly clear in the original. If you’re wondering about the original of “man,” it’s “anthropou,” the genitive of “anthropos.” The word means “man,” plainly and simply. It’s impossible to find a passage in the Bible that is easier to translate.

Unluckily, the translation I seized from the bookcase was the NRSV. And how does this much lauded work of scholarship translate the passage? It manages to render it as, “The voice of a god, and not of a mortal!”

To repeat: “Anthropos” means “man.” It does not mean “male.” It does not mean anything about mortality, one way or another. But let’s get to the most important question: what crowd would say a thing like that? What person would say a thing like that?

Not Thomas Jefferson, who did not hold it self-evident that all mortals are created equal. Not Abraham Lincoln, who did not say that the field of Gettysburg had been consecrated by the blood of brave mortals. Not Edna St. Vincent Millay, who did not write a sequence of poems called Epitaph for the Race of Mortals. They didn’t say it that way, and they wouldn’t have said it that way, because saying it that way would have made them look as if they didn’t give a damn about the words they used.

But to the august Bible translators, the meanings of words, their emotional associations, their dramatic proprieties and plausibilities — these are as nothing, compared with a political correctness so asinine that even a male cannot be called a man, even when the Bible calls him that. The assumption is that once political correctness is secured, any kind of verbal plaster will be good enough to cover the gap between Acts 12:21 and Acts 12:23.

This the kind of thing that makes real liberals shudder. And what can be next? Mortal and Supermortal? “A mortal’s reach should exceed his/her grasp, / Or what’s a heaven for?” “Ecce homo: behold the mortal”? Very probably. They’re all just words. Just something you spread on a wall.




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Mister Huggins Goes to Washington

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I am the mother of a black cat. Though it may be a little silly, I suppose it’s still politically correct for me to call myself Mister Huggins’ mother. I’ve been informed, by animal rights activist friends, that considering myself his owner is now frowned upon. Though anybody who’s ever lived with a cat would tell you that Mister Huggins actually owns me.

Ten years ago I started feeding a little stray tuxedo female, and was overjoyed that in my care she went from being skinny and woebegone to happily chubby. I thought she was too young to bear a litter, as she was still practically a kitten herself. But I came home from work one sizzling September afternoon to find her sitting on my patio, looking totally astonished and surrounded by four tiny furballs.

Kittens having kittens! Sounds like a social problem. It is undoubtedly yet another progressive cause waiting to be born.

I took the lot of them in from the heat. Relieved of her maternal burden, as soon as the litter was weaned, the mother ran away. Believe it or not, my leftist pals bemoaned the capitalist callousness that had caused this tragedy and commended me on my sense of social responsibility. Actually, I’m pretty sure you can believe it.

Black cats, pit bulls, and dolphins can’t vote, although some dolphins are undoubtedly smart enough to do a better job of it than many humans.

The boy kitten who looked like his mother was immediately adopted by one of my MoveOn friends. She warned me that I’d better keep the other boy, because — being solid black — in the cruel world he would face a lifetime of discrimination. I’m not making that up either.

Hoping to spare him stigma, I gave him his very un-sinister name. Mister Huggins has grown up, like his sisters, to be a very civilized and affectionate cat. Altogether I have four cats and a dog, and we are a very happy blended family.

Another friend, battling on the front lines of the animal rights crusade, regularly sends me sad stories about the plight of dolphins, wild burros, pit bulls, bowl-confined goldfish and — of course — black cats. Nearly all the organizations from which these dirges originate want donations. And, of course, legislation is always urgently needed.

Must we fear that this craze will reach the manic proportions of many other progressive causes? I think we can rest assured that it won’t. Black cats, pit bulls, and dolphins can’t vote, although some dolphins are undoubtedly smart enough to do a better job of it than many humans.

Actually, perusing the pitiful offerings of the last nationwide election, I was tempted to run Mister Huggins as a candidate for Congress. Hollywood would surely immortalize him: Mister Huggins Goes to Washington!

I think he’d actually bring in some fresh ideas. But, alas, that’s only a pipe dream. Not only because he isn’t human, but because he’d surely buck all those big-government hucksters and become a libertarian. Nobody owns a cat. Mister Huggins has a mind of his own.




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Paul Harvey and the Penguins of Patagonia

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A few weeks ago, Dee Boersma, professor of penguins from the University of Washington, announced that she’d figured out why baby penguins at a place called Punta Tombo in Argentina are dying at a greater rate than they used to.

I’m a sucker for charismatic megafauna, especially when penguins are involved, and that got my attention. The conscientious way penguins stand guard outside their burrows shows them to be better parents than I ever was. Heck, it makes them better parents than Bill Cosby. They swim longer distances in the ocean than Diana Nyad and they’re cuter than Sally Fields and Holly Hunter added together.

Professor Boersma has spent a lot of her career trying to figure out why so many of their babies are dying. Finally, after a decade of effort, she gathered her conclusions, rechecked her facts, and courageously identified climate change as the culprit. It turns out that it rains more in Patagonia than it used to, penguin chicks get wet, and, without their waterproof adult feathers, they shiver themselves to death.

Bad things happening to penguins are, it seems, a leading indicator of bad things about to happen to you.

Since Punta Tombo is the biggest-deal penguin colony in Argentina and climate change is an even bigger deal everywhere else, the news reverberated around the world and back again, like the boom from Mount Krakatoa. Within hours, it had rung church bells as far away as the New York Times,the Los Angeles Times, the Voice of America, the Voice of Russia, the Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, Good Morning America, Bird-Watching Daily, and, undoubtedly, any number of other sanctuaries of learning that I’m not invited into.

As charismatic as penguins are, you may not have thought you’d have to care about their chicks in Patagonia, but you should. Bad things happening to penguins are, it seems, a leading indicator of bad things about to happen to you. And it’s not just rain that’s about to happen. Nowadays, penguins have to swim farther out to sea to find food than they used to. Nobody exactly says this, but the implication hangs in the air like an ash cloud over the Sunda Islands that it has something to do with overfishing in the South Atlantic.

I have no doubt that Ms Boersma knows penguins, that she has accounted for every dead chick with the greatest of care, that she is telling the truth about what she observed, and that she is the leading expert on penguins in general and the penguins of Punta Tombo in particular.

In fact, she is such an expert that she has achieved one of the few immortal indicators of expertness that it is in humans’ poor power to give. The beat-up old trailer she lived in for 30 years while she counted dead penguin chicks isn’t at Punta Tombo anymore. Like Abraham Lincoln’s stove-pipe hat, it now belongs to the ages and is safely lodged in a museum. Which goes to show just how expert she really is. Still, there may be more to this dying-penguin business than we’ve been told. I was at Punta Tombo ten days before the news about the baby penguins got loose and, well, as Paul Harvey used to say, there is a rest to this story.

In the first place, for whatever reason it is that penguins have to swim farther out to sea to find food than they used to, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t have much to do with overfishing. These are Magellanic penguins, mostly; what Magellanic penguins eat is krill; and nobody fishes for krill.

As far as anybody knows, even Japanese sushi fishermen don’t fish for krill. But, since the Japanese do sometimes fish for minke, fin, and humpback whales . . . and minke, fin, and humpback whales eat lots of krill . . . every whale that winds up in a Japanese meat market for scientific purposes is one less whale out there depleting the krill supply. A lot of fish eat krill, too, and if the seas are as overfished as we’ve been told, you’d think there’d be so much extra krill floating around the South Atlantic that penguins could just lap it up from the shore. My guess is that the fact they can’t has more to do with the population dynamics of penguins than with anything we humans have done.

And the penguins at Punta Tombo have a pretty dynamic population. If Ms. Boersma’s count is anywhere near correct, something like a million of them spend the summer jostling together on two miles of beach. Penguins are everywhere at Punta Tombo. They stand in ranks, crowded together shoulder to shoulder like spectators at the Rose Parade. Penguins nestle under every bush, and there are lots of bushes. Families of penguins live in every hole, and there are more holes at Punta Tombo than there are in Mr. Obama’s explanations.

Penguins shade themselves beneath the boardwalks that would keep them separate from tourists, except for the other penguins that hop up onto the boardwalks and stroll along, causing knots of humans to stand politely aside and wait for them to pass. At Punta Tombo, penguins have the right-of-way. Sometimes the penguins don’t pass but mill around conducting penguin business while tourists wait for their turn to use the boardwalks, and tour guides fidget about schedules.

Families of penguins live in every hole, and there are more holes at Punta Tombo than there are in Mr. Obama’s explanations.

All along the beach penguins plop into the ocean. Shoals of penguins already in the ocean porpoise through the waves and then pop back onshore, when they can find a vacant place to pop onto. For sheer crowdedness, Punta Tombo is the Daytona Beach of the penguin world, and, since every female penguin lays two eggs, the colony becomes a lot more crowded as the eggs begin to hatch. If all the chicks survived, that would come to two million penguins’ worth of food the colony would go through during chick-raising season. Even with chicks dying, it’s hard to imagine there could be a krill left within hundreds of miles of the place. But there was in the past. Things aren’t what they used to be. Ms. Boersma is pretty clear on that point.

What the articles about dead-penguin-chicks-as-leading-indicators-of-bad-things-about-to-happen-to-you don’t delve into too deeply when they tell us that things aren’t what they used to be, is that things really aren’t what they used to be. Despite all the penguins at Punta Tombo, 50 or 60 years ago the place was a working ranch and there weren’t any penguins at all. Somewhere along the way the ranch turned into a nature reserve, penguins started popping out of the water, digging holes, building nests, raising families, ambling along boardwalks, swimming out to sea, inviting more penguins to come join them — and, in a twinkling of geological time, what used to be a ranch had changed into the largest penguin colony in Argentina.

Which suggests to me that, even if every single chick from this year’s hatching gets rained to death, there will still be a million more penguins at Punta Tombo than there were when I was in kindergarten and the only thing I knew about penguins was when Miss Ridley showed us pictures of them. This must mean something. Maybe, even, about the weather.




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Ludicrous Leporidae Laws Lead to Legal Legerdemain

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When the Feds announced the sequester plan, I was quite afraid that essential federal employees would be furloughed like mere private sector employees.

Fortunately, my fears proved unfounded. Oh, sure, D.C. announced that a few thousand air traffic controllers and law enforcement officers were forced to stay home, but really essential services are safe. I present to you: the Federal Bunny Inspectors. Better known as the US Department of Agriculture.

You thought the USDA's main function was to pay farmers not to grow anything and to advertise food stamp enrollment in Mexico, didn't you? Because you’re a narrow-minded libertarian. If so, hah! Prepare to stand corrected, little miscreants.

Enter Marty Hahne, an illusionist based in Ozark, Montana. Now, Montana is a place where small businesses aren't doing too badly, considering that unemployment in the state is 5.5%, way below the national 7.6%. So obviously, this place needs more regulation.

What is Montana's most common disaster? Every resident can attest that it is the meth-addled, toothless junkie driving a three-ton truck.

That is probably why the USDA sent Hahne an 8-page message, starting with the delicious salutation "Dear Members of Our Regulated Community." You can't make this stuff up. It brings back the nostalgia of the famous "Hello happy taxpayers" line that Droopy the dog uttered in Tex Avery's cartoons.

But this is not a joke. The letter demands that Hahne write a disaster plan for the rabbit he uses in his show. We learn that the rabbit falls under a regulation dreamed up by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service under the pretense of implementing the Animal Welfare Act. Said regulation was promulgated last year, but somehow, sadly, Hahne missed it. As a result of his oversight, he has until July 29 to write his plan. He and his wife must then get training to implement the written plan and submit the plan to the USDA inspectors.The goal is to make sure that the rabbit is safe in case of a disaster.

But what is Montana's most common disaster? Every resident can attest that it is the meth-addled, toothless junkie driving a three-ton truck. I suggest, therefore, that Hahne write a document explaining that if he and his rabbit are run over by an addict, his wife could slide the rabbit under the USDA's office door for inspection. Training would be provided by regularly rehearsing the procedure, using roadkill.

However, if Hahne wants to save himself this trouble, there is an obvious solution, reportedly confirmed by a USDA inspector: conclude his show with a demonstration of a boa eating the (humanely killed) rabbit. The USDA would then consider the rabbit as a feed animal and drop its ridiculous requirements.

Other magicians have already decided to (gasp!) use stuffed animals to avoid the whole nuisance.

Let's hope that these workarounds don't gain ground. I'd hate to see our most industrious civil servants deprived of disappearing rabbits. They would then be forced to invent even more intrusive, counterproductive, obnoxious regulations in order to justify their own existence and expand their bureaucratic empires.




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Predators for the Extermination of Tragic Animals

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A recent article in a British newspaper is a cause for reflection, about both the content and the source.

The story reports the news that the “animal rights” organization which styles itself “People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals” (PETA) last year killed nearly 90% of the 1,600 lost or abandoned dogs and cats turned over to its Virginia headquarters’ animal “shelter.”

To be precise, of the 1,110 kitty cats and 733 puppy dogs handed over to its tender care, 1,045 of the cats and 602 of the dogs were slaughtered. Only two of the hapless cats and three of the distressed dogs were reclaimed by their owners. Twenty-two of the cats and 106 of the dogs were sent to another shelter (the story doesn’t tell us what subsequently happened to them). The fates of 34 of the cats and 7 of the dogs were classified as “miscellaneous.”

In fact, since 1998, PETA has liquidated 29,398 pets. The organization’s “shelter” was more like an extermination camp.

These facts were unearthed and brought to light by the Center for Consumer Freedom, a group that represents restaurant owners who are doubtless angry at all the PETA ads showing famous female celebrities posing naked in order to convince people not to eat meat or wear fur. This is called payback, and as we used to say in my youth, payback is a bitch (who may therefore be “put to sleep” if PETA gets hold of her).

The PETAphiles were not amused at the unfavorable information being released. They appear to believe that only they have the right to unattractive news about groups they hate. In justification of their actions relative to the innocent animals formerly in their care, a PETA spokeman averred, “We have a small division that does hand-on work with animals, and most of the animals we take in are society’s rejects: aggressive, on death’s door, or somehow unadoptable.”

Yes, all those killer kitties — ferocious felines attacking hapless hominids! We can all attest to the growing menace. And the animals “on death’s door” . . . let’s just kick the pesky pets though it!

The PETA mouthpiece petulantly added that, “CCF’s goal is to damage PETA by misrepresenting the situation and the number of unwanted and suffering animals PETA euthanizes because of injury, illness, age, aggression, and other problems, because their guardians requested it, or because no good homes exist for them.”

“Euthanize”: isn’t that the ultimate euphemism? And why is it ethical to slaughter injured or sick animals, rather than attempt to cure them, or keep them alive even if they are old, or find other “guardians” or homes for them?

The truth — revealed by that term, “guardian” (as opposed to the more common term “owner”) — is that many of the hard core of the PETA activists are hard-line animal rights activists, who conceptualize a pet as a free soul in slavery. From that perspective, if Fluffy or Fido cannot self-actualize in full Kantian autonomy by itself, and is to be the lifelong pet owned by some miserable human, then death may be preferable . . . death is more noble than forcing it to live a life of degraded bondage to a hideous human. To these activists, there should be no pets at all. You can create a no-pet society either by eliminating the institution of pethood or, failing that, by eliminating the pets.

Also interesting is the source. Notice that the information about the actions of this American PETA chapter was published in a British newspaper, not in the American mainstream media. PETA is an organization within the penumbra of the PC protection machine (AKA the MSM), so naturally no critical information is to be divulged.




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Do Bears Shoot in the Woods?

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