Friday, July 27, 2007

Invasion of the floating paparazzi

Whale-watching is big business in the San Juan Islands of northwest Washington State, generating $10 million per year in revenues. And for good reason: three to four pods of the "Southern Resident Killer Whale" population roam the inland waters of Puget Sound and the Gulf Islands of British Columbia. Gray, humpback and minke whales also pass through the area on occasion.

Last weekend, with three friends, I had the amazing good fortune to watch from shore as more than thirty orcas of the "K" pod swam past the lighthouse at Lime Kiln Point on San Juan Island. Some came within twenty-five feet of the rocky Point and lingered for at least half an hour before they resumed their northerly course up Haro Strait, which separates the San Juans from Vancouver Island. Through the "Orcasound" hydrophone set up by observers, we could hear a din of orca cries and their staccato echolocations.

Though I'd seen orcas before, from shore and from the Washington State ferries, I'd never felt immersed in their culture until last Saturday. We felt surrounded by orcas as we watched them engage in breaching, fluke waving, pectoral slaps, rolling, tailobbing and spyhopping. They didn't just swim on by--they stopped and lingered. A couple orcas also engaged in obvious, um, mating "behavior" less than fifty feet from shore in the cove north of Lime Kiln Point (despite the close presence of a boat). All this was a first for me.

The pod was accompanied, as usual, by a fleet of recreational boats that could best be described as floating paparazzi. Several boats sped ahead of the orcas, dropped anchor in the middle of their obvious path and waited for the show to begin. Larger vessels crammed with whale-watchers loomed farther offshore. Small planes flew low overhead and circled for better views. The underwater engine noise from the flotilla of boats often overwhelmed the orca communications that we heard through the hydrophones.

The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor, on San Juan Island, estimates that a half million people patronize commercial whale-watching vessels each year in the archipelago, while another 3,000-8,000 watch orcas from private boats. The industry certainly contributes to the public's general knowledge of orcas and marine mammals, thereby increasing support for the preservation of endangered species. My impression is that the commercial operators are more careful about observing guidelines than the owners of smaller vessels.

And there's little doubt the orcas have become accustomed to the prolonged attention they receive, even though boaters routinely violate the ineffectual "Be Whale Wise" guidelines that have been developed. Still, the constant presence of humans and their machines seemed like low-level harassment to us. It's hard to believe that it has no effect on orca behavior, including hunting and socialization. These animals have a right to be free of human interference during at least a portion of their migrations through the San Juans.

In the absence of state or federal action, the San Juan County Council has been urged to adopt an ordinance that would be more effective at regulating human interaction with whales. Violations would be punishable by a fine of up to $750. It's unclear whether the County has the resources to enforce such an ordinance, but it would be better than nothing at all. In addition, the Council--or the state or federal governments--should designate certain areas to be "harrassment-free" zones, where humans are not permitted to approach orcas at all.

PHOTO #1: Orca adorned with kelp, seen from Lime Kiln Point, San Juan Island, Washington State. (All photos taken from shore.)

PHOTO #2: One of thirty orcas that swam past the Point over about three hours on July 21st.

PHOTO #2: Two orcas swim past a private boat that had leapfrogged ahead of their group and dropped anchor in a cove at Lime Kiln Point. In so doing the pilot violated the following "guidelines":

"KEEP CLEAR of the whales’ path. If whales are
approaching you, cautiously move out of the way."

"DO NOT APPROACH or position your vessel
closer than 100 metres/yards to any whale."

"STAY on the OFFSHORE side of the whales when they are traveling close to shore." [The boat was inshore as the orcas approached.]

The pilot could've easily complied with all these guidelines. But hey, I'm sure they got some great pictures. Kayakers are also numerous in these waters, but they can't keep up with the orcas for long and don't create noise pollution.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Film Review: Mike Moore's "Sicko"

"Who are we, and what has happened to our soul?"
Mike Moore, narrating Sicko

A couple days ago I saw Sicko, and left with a glimmer of hope that the debate about our scandalous and brutal system of health care might move to another level. How? By looking beyond the limited "solutions" proposed in places like D.C. and here in Oregon, where an increased cigarette tax—blocked by legislative Republicans (1)—would've provided coverage for all uninsured children in the state.
Meanwhile, the health-care crisis becomes more pronounced every year: only 60% of employees have health insurance through their jobs, compared to 69% in 2000 (2). And the coverage is less comprehensive as it grows more expensive. As Moore's interviewees appallingly reveal, insurance companies are relentless about applying policy exclusions to limit or deny coverage altogether.

The film also takes a close look at the myths about the purported failures of "socialized medicine" in places like Canada, Great Britain and France, then concludes with a foray into the Cuban health-care system. Moore's interviewees suggest that national health insurance in those countries is widely viewed as successful, and they look upon the U.S. system with horror. And those systems are not only less expensive: they produce better health outcomes, including such things as lower infant-mortality rates and longer life expectancies.

Moore argues that it's time to broaden the discussion to see what could be borrowed from these foreign models to create a system of universal care that's appropriate for the U.S. and our boundless (and often justified) suspicion of government programs. ("Appropriate for the U.S." would probably mean, of course, a "mixed" system of private and public payers rather than the simple "single payer" system that gets surprising support in polls.)

But Moore's film isn't about the uninsured, nor is it just about those who think they're adequately insured until the hospital and doctor bills start to fill their mailboxes. And it's not ultimately about alternative health-care systems in other countries, either. Its real focus is the same issue that's presented by the torture "debate:" "who are we," as Moore asks, and what do all these policy choices reveal about our national values? (3)

I've always defined politics as public morality, since policy choices always reflect personal and social values and, ultimately, moral decisions. Moore's films, including Fahrenheit 9/11, demonstrate how policy debates and decisions are distorted by a dysfunctional political process that is front-loaded in favor of narrow economic interests. And by a national media that is too lazy or ideologically conditioned to inform or redefine the debate.

The inevitable result, in health-care policy and everything else, comes at the expense of the democratic and utilitarian notion of the "greatest good for the greatest number."

Moore contrasts the contentious model of French politics, in which the "government fears the people," with the contemporary American model in which "people fear the government." If Americans make limited demands on their government and its corporate masters, Moore argues, then it's because of economic insecurity—the fear of losing their jobs and their health insurance, fear of being unable to pay the massive debts that they've incurred (often for health care). That gnawing anxiety has been amplified in the atmosphere of generalized fear that is one of the legacies of 9/11—a legacy that politicians from Bush to Cheney to Giuliani have been quick to exploit.

The result is a political climate in which the large majority of citizens seems demoralized, anxious, cynical and abstracted—and too jaded to even vote. This vacuum has reinforced the tendency of politicians of both parties to respond to those who finance their campaigns and, quite often, employ them after they leave office. In the absence of populist pressure from the disaffected majority, national and state governments are dominated by those who have a deep economic interest in the status quo (4). This dynamic results in policies that are patently absurd, producing the cruel, mechanistic and inhuman health-care system that Moore describes.

One other thing that shouldn't be overlooked in any review of Sicko, or any other Moore film: it's hilarious. Moore heaps well deserved, and unanswerable, ridicule on those who have created and perpetuated this absurdity. When I wasn't on the verge of tears or rage, I was often laughing uncontrollably.

Margaret Thatcher famously said:
"There is no such thing as society: there are individual men and women, and there are families." In that kind of world, there can only be individual, rather than collective, solutions. Even in this great American bastion of individualism, though, Moore points out that we've found collective solutions to individual problems by creating police and fire departments, schools, libraries, social security, Medicare and a postal system.

Everyone faces the risk of illness and death, so why not find a common solution to the need for health care? If John has to pay for Mary's medical procedures now, whether through taxes or health-insurance premiums, then Mary and the rest of us will pay for his later. If you spread the risks and share the costs, everyone ultimately benefits. The private system now in place simply excludes too many people and costs too much (due in part to the constant administrative pressure to exclude people). And it produces bad outcomes far too often.

Illness may be an individual problem, but we have a common interest in seeing that we all get the best available treatments for it. And it's the only approach that's morally defensible.

Sicko is an important film, as most critics seem to realize. See it, then come back and add your comments.


(1) Oregon law, as a result of the conservative "tax revolt" that has decimated the state's public sector, requires a 3/5 majority to approve any additional taxes. The Democrats enjoy a majority in both house of the legislature, for the first time in years, but they lack the necessary 60% to pass any tax. So the conservative program of "starving the beast" of government has resulted in denying basic health care coverage to thousands of uninsured Oregon children. Legislative Republicans, yielding to pressure from the beer and wine lobby, refused to raise a tax on alcoholic beverages that hasn't been adjusted for 30 years. And the pathetic corporate minimum tax of $10, which is actually paid by thousands of Oregon corporations, also remains unchanged after decades. "Who are we," indeed?

(2) And their premiums increased by 9.2% in just one year (2005).

(3) This is a familiar subject on this blog (as seen here and here) And also here, where I wrote (not long before Mitt Romney proposed "doubling" the size of Guantanamo rather than closing it):
Unfortunately, and to our national shame, it's an exaggeration to say that there's a "debate" at all: there's little evidence of any controversy outside the Beltway, raising profound questions about the state of U.S. political culture these days. If I had to guess, I'd say that the general attitude on the subject may be summarized by a phrase from an altogether different controversy: "don't ask, don't tell." The Administration, it would seem, is tacitly authorized to take whatever action George Bush deems suitable to protect the country...
(4) This analysis isn't new, of course, as Greens and the few remaining Naderites would hasten to add. The system of "legalized extortion and bribery," otherwise known as campaign finance, has been around for decades and has never been more entrenched than it is in 2007.

PHOTO: A demonstration in support of public services in Paris, 2005. The banner reads: "Privatizations: Stop! All together for public services."

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Blues Break: Etta Baker - "Mint Julep"

Etta Baker (1913-2006) of Morganton, North Carolina, plays "Mint Julep" in the Piedmont blues style also associated with Blind Willie McTell, Reverend Gary Davis, Blind Boy Fuller, John Cephas and (though he was from Mississippi) John Hurt. If there are any videos or films of her performances available, I couldn't find them online.

The Jukebox feature (audio only) at the Musicmaker Relief Foundation offers some outstanding blues selections, both historic and contemporary, including some MP3's of Baker's work.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Checking the rap sheets

Neal Boortz, on his nationally syndicated radio talk show, had the following exchange with a caller on July 5th:

BOORTZ: But in the case of Scooter Libby, Scooter Libby and Bill Clinton got sentenced and convicted for exactly the same crime. Can you -- now tell me, why is there so much outrage on the left that Scooter Libby isn't going to have to serve a 30-month jail term, and not a bit of outrage on the left that Bill Clinton didn't even get a 30-month jail term.

CALLER: I don't remember Bill Clinton actually being convicted for perjury.

BOORTZ: I'm sorry, he was.

CALLER: He was exonerated by a Republican Senate if I remember correctly.

BOORTZ: No sir, that's an impeachment. We're talking about a criminal trial, sir. The verdict was guilty. He was disbarred as a result of that verdict. He had his privileges to practice law before the Supreme Court of the United States revoked because of that verdict.

CALLER: Well, the bottom line --

BOORTZ: But you know, it's a crime that Scooter Libby isn't going to jail but quite OK that Bill Clinton didn't.


Scooter Libby was convicted of the exact same thing that Bill Clinton was convicted of. Bill Clinton got no jail time. That was fine. Scooter Libby now gets no jail time. That's not fine. Bill Clinton, liberal. Scooter Libby, presumed right wing.

Media Matters (among others) quickly challenged these patently false statements and Keith Olbermann gave Boortz his nightly "Worst Person in the World" award.

Still, there's still a widespread impression, fomented in certain right-wing quarters, that Clinton committed a perjury crime for which he was never held accountable. The implication is that partisan politics, including the inability of Senate Republicans to muster the 2/3 majority needed to convict Clinton in 1999, resulted in a legal travesty. Democrats who criticize Bush's commutation of Scooter Libby's 30-month jail sentence are therefore attacked, by Boortz and his colleagues, for the vilest form of hypocrisy.

Did Clinton, in fact, commit the crime of perjury?

The Oregon perjury statute is contains typical language describing the offense:
A person commits the crime of perjury if the person makes a false sworn statement in regard to a material issue, knowing it to be false. (ORS 162.065; my emphasis.)
A working definition of "material" evidence is:
...relevant and significant in a lawsuit, as in 'material evidence' as distinguished from totally irrelevant or of such minor importance that the court will either ignore it, rule it immaterial if objected to, or not allow lengthy testimony upon such a matter.

So a lie under oath is not "perjury" unless it relates to a "material issue" rather than a collateral matter, like Clinton's affair with Lewinsky.

Clinton's misrepresentations (i.e., lies) about his affair with Monica Lewinsky were certainly under oath, since they were made at a sworn deposition, but they weren't "material" in the context of the Paula Jones lawsuit. (Ironically, the federal rules of evidence wouldn't have allowed any questions about collateral matters like the Lewinsky affair prior to 1994, when Bill Clinton signed a revision of those rules into law. But his consensual sexual relationship with Lewinsky had little or no relevance to Jones' claims of sexual harassment that bordered on assault.)

Any reasonable jury, presented with all the material evidence in a perjury prosecution of Clinton, would enter a "not guilty" verdict in short order. The Lewinsky affair was so tangential and unrelated that the trial judge wouldn't have allowed Jones' lawyers to even inquire about it in front of a jury. The rules for asking questions at trial are far more strict than those that apply to out-of-court depositions.

From a strictly legal point of view, the perjury charge at Clinton's impeachment trial was a no-brainer (1). A politicized Senate still mustered 45 votes to convict (and 55 to acquit)--well short of the 67 needed to remove a president.

Clinton's lies were breathtakingly stupid and inexcusable, but they weren't a crime. He was trying to prevent public embarrassment to himself and his family rather than (like Libby) cover up a criminal conspiracy that amounted to treason. Clinton still had to pay a $90,000 fine for civil contempt of court for his misleading testimony, and his license to practice law in Arkansas was suspended for five years (1). The judge wrote that:
Simply put, the president's deposition testimony regarding whether he had ever been alone with Ms. (Monica) Lewinsky was intentionally false, and his statements regarding whether he had ever engaged in sexual relations with Ms. Lewinsky likewise were intentionally false . . . .
The same federal judge threw Paula Jones' civil case out of court before trial, but Clinton paid her an extravagant settlement just to make her go away (and to avoid the risks inherent in any appeal). He was never indicted for perjury or any other offense by Ken Starr, the zealous right-wing special prosecutor who investigated the Lewinsky matter, or anyone else.

The protracted obsession of the political and media classes with Bill Clinton's sex life, and his crude attempts to conceal it, seems utterly trivial after four disastrous years of war in Iraq. Yet the war crimes committed by Bush/Cheney aren't even on the radar screen of the House Judiciary Committee or virtually anyone else in official Washington, as noted on these pages, last week (3).

Those who denounce hypocrisy in Washington have been looking in the wrong places.

Meanwhile, Dubya is the only U.S. president who has ever been convicted of a crime. Not to be outdone, Dick Cheney was also convicted of two similar criminal offenses in Wyoming during his wild youth (4).


(1) Clinton was also charged with obstruction of justice based on the underlying perjury charge.

(2) Due to the Arkansas suspension, Clinton was also suspended automatically from practicing in the U.S. Supreme Court, where he had never argued a case.

(3) Senator Gordon Smith (R-Oregon) stated last December that Bush's policy in Iraq "may even be criminal," an accusation that would provide a legal basis for impeachment. Yet he refused to vote in opposition to the surge a few weeks later.

(4) A notion that quickly leads to total cognitive disconnect. At least one other VP accumulated a criminal record, but not before taking office. Spiro Agnew, Nixon's VP, was convicted of tax evasion and money laundering after he resigned from office in disgrace following a bribery investigation.

PHOTO: Impeachment trial of Bill Clinton in the Senate, 1999 (Wikipedia)

Blues Break: Mance Lipscomb - "Jack of Spades"

The great Mance Lipscomb (1895-1976) on slide guitar as it should be played: with a jackknife. Lipscomb, born in Navasota, Texas, was the son of a former slave and a mother who was part Choctaw. "Mance" is short for "emancipation."