new lies / old lies / whose lies
Friday, June 20, 1997
A Site by Any Other Name
In which the real operator of this site ponders the ironies inherent in a short, slightly pejorative, plural noun.
"So Tommy, no one's lied in 1997 yet?"
- Brian Bradley
Hi there. It's me, the actual operator of this site, stepping from the shadows to post an article under my actual name. It was partly Mr. Bradley's message, which he sent to Perfect Tommy, who is really me, that shamed me into writing this. Tommy and the Web Walker have never shirked from churning out copy for the site, but it's occasionally taxed my time to the limit to do the editing and linking and whatnot, such that updates have been somewhat (ahem) infrequent of late. For that, my apologies.
But there's something else that prompted me to action. As any parent knows, nothing is more likely to make a child want to play with a toy than to have another child try to take it away. Given the generally negative connotation associated with the act of lying, you wouldn't think this site's domain name would be particularly desireable, but apparently it is, at least to some guy in Cleveland named George Rafter, since he's having his lawyers send me nasty letters about trademark infringement in an effort to make me give it to him.
In that the legal arguments he's making seem completely bogus, I'm not particularly worried about losing an infringement suit. Unfortunately, though, under a really spineless policy of Network Solutions, Inc., the company that issues most domain names, a trademark owner who is willing to claim infringement can get your domain name taken away without having to show that any infringement has actually occurred, or is likely to occur. So this site may not be here for much longer.
The whole experience has been educational, at least. I never realized before how powerful a tool the Internet is when someone is trying to use your ignorance of your rights as a weapon against you. More about that in another article, maybe. And these events have also allowed the Web Walker to remark recently, "Now I feel like a bleeding edge web master. I personally know someone in a domain name war."
In any event, if it turns out that I won't be able to operate under this domain name much longer, I wanted a chance to explain why I created the site in the first place. Hence the following...
The realization dawned on me slowly. There was never a moment when I suddenly knew that everything I knew was a lie. Instead, I found myself gradually moving from speculation, to suspicion, to inclination, to conviction.
But it's true (that everything I know is a lie). At least, it's true more often than not, which is as true as anything gets these days.
The whales were a big part of it. I sail, and have had the rare privilege to sail alongside gray whales as they migrate along the coast hereabouts. And yes, I'm sort of a touchy feely guy, but in spite of that, there was definitely something going on during those times, something outside the ordinary. I've read other people's attempts to describe it; one diver who talked about getting that "someone is looking over my shoulder" feeling at 45 feet, turned around, and found himself staring into the eye of an adult gray.
He was overwhelmed, he said, by the feeling that this was not some unreasoning animal staring at him. He wasn't just being looked at; he was being considered, and by a mind that gave away nothing to naked apes in the synapse department.
I've felt that same feeling while sailing alongside migrating grays, and I'm convinced that it's based in reality, not my imagination. By whatever moral calculus one might argue a distinction between casually killing lots of people (which we call genocide) and casually killing lots of animals or plants (which we call commerce), casually killing lots of gray whales is wrong, wrong, wrong.
That's the way I see it. YMMV. Whatever. That's not the point.
The point is what happened to me as a result of a paper I wrote about Greenpeace for a poli sci class a number of years ago. The paper contrasted the methods of several different environmental activist groups, pointing out how moral conviction and grass-roots support were less reliable predictors of success for such groups than such things as good legal tactics and a facility for distortion.
The research I did for that paper went a long way toward ruining my faith in humanity. At the beginning of the process, despite the Machiavellian thesis, I still thought of the Greenpeaceniks as basically Good People. Sure, as an organization they lied and cut deals and spent a lot of their juice on self-promotion, but it was for the cause. They were out there saving whales, and if they had to break a few rules to do that, more power to them.
Today I get depressed just thinking about how naive I was. You remember when those three gray whales got trapped behind the pack ice by an early freeze in Alaska? And the media circus that followed? The way millions of us sat staring into our TVs while the whales' breathing hole got smaller and smaller?
Then the Russians (actually, they were still Soviets then) showed up with an icebreaker and saved the day. Greenpeace was there, natch (lots of cameras, remember?) and at one point the L.A. Times ran a story in which someone asked the Greenpeace spokesshirt if it wasn't ironic that the Soviets were going to such effort to save these two California gray whales (one of the three had died by that time), when the same country killed 180 grays each summer in the waters off Eastern Siberia. Greenpeace had protested against that hunt just a few years before, claiming that it was commercial in nature, and hence in violation of the International Whaling Commission's commercial-whaling ban.
I still have the clipping with the Greenpeacer's response: "'The Soviets gave up commercial whaling as of July, 1987,' [Assistant Media Director Andrew] Davis noted. 'The whaling they do is subsistance farming for their native people, just like is allowed for [Alaska's] Inuit people.'"
Which is nothing more or less than a crock of shit. The Soviet (Russian, now) gray whale hunt takes in about 50 times as much whale meat as the native Chukotkans ever ate historically. The whales' bodies are not eaten by people; they're ground up to feed the captive minks, foxes, and sables on Siberian fur farms, with the furs then being exported to the West to help Russia's balance of trade. At the time I was writing my paper the Soviets denied all this, but the truth was easily deducible from published IWC data. Still, who reads IWC data? With Greenpeace chiming in on the Soviets' side, the fur-farm story was dead. The papers dropped it.
Chalk one up for the media-manipulators at Greenpeace, who not only took the heat off the Soviet whalers but managed to work in a plug for "Breatkthrough," a fundraising album recorded by people like the Grateful Dead, U2 and Sting that was just then being released in the Soviet Union, with all proceeds going to those plucky environmentalists. It seems the Soviet government, normally hostile to the importation of Western music, had made a special deal with their new friends at Greenpeace, and the pop-starved Soviet citizens snapped the record up, to the tune of some 3 million copies. (It was later released worldwide as "Rainbow Warriors," and according to Greenpeace has brought the organization more than $8 million.)
These days the Russians have essentially admitted to the whole fur-farming-gray-whale connection, but the annual gray whale hunt goes on, a tribute both to the staying power of a good lie and to the scant attention paid to things like dusty, 1,000-page IWC reports. And I'll never trust Greenpeace again. If you really want to help whales, I'd suggest you give your money to someone else.
Everyone has uncommon knowledge in some field or other; besides obsessively researched school papers, work is a common source for such inside information. The trick is to realize that all the lies, big and little, that you know about because of your job are in fact representative of the same sorts of lies that exist everywhere else.
Anyone who's worked in the fast-food industry, for example, knows the kinds of gross things that teenage employees do to the food in the back room. It's such a deliciously guilty pleasure to watch the patrons actually eating it afterward. And yet billions of unsuspecting victims continue to belly up to the trough, happily ingesting mucus/insects/snot/urine/whatever. Why? Because they're just too damn trusting.
Or take cops. I worked my way through school as a student employee in the Community Safety department, which meant working with the campus police, who, in spite of their park-ranger-esque uniforms, were expected to wear real guns and shoot real bullets into real people, and had the basic mindset that goes with that territory.
One of the things I learned was that (surprise!) the people who enforce the rules don't necessarily have to follow them themselves. Like if a cop is doing some weaving on his way home from a bar, and gets pulled over, he's probably got a better than even chance of continuing under his own power without having to take a breathalyzer or walk a straight line, to say nothing of having to hire a "Top Gun DUI Lawyer."
Or if you get in a firefight with the police and have the bad luck to actually nail one of them, your chances of surviving the experience are reduced depressingly close to zero, even if you throw down your weapon and do exactly what you're told. If there are 15 badges there, 15 reports will say that you never stopped firing until you were hit, and that the ambulance couldn't get there until it was too late to save you (which shouldn't be terribly surprising, in that the ambulance wasn't called until you'd finished bleeding to death).
I was a late-comer to the O.J.-is-guilty camp. I never thought it particularly likely that he was innocent, but the defense arguments about planted evidence seemed emminently credible to me. I was also one of the few white people of my acquaintance who didn't view the Rodney King beating as an abberation.
I'm not saying cops are bad; not by a long shot. In my experience the vast majority of cops are neither particularly good nor bad. They're just people. But because of the unique circumstances of their job, they (and to a lesser extent, the civilian flunkies who work with them) know some things that lots of other people don't.
Junk food and cops and whales are just examples. The big picture that has gradually emerged for me is that just about everything I think I believe in, if examined closely enough, turns out to be largely a matter of myth. The real world runs much deeper than my abstracted perception of it. Linguistic models of reality are not just simplifications; they're caricatures, crude stick figures, echoes of shadows of garbled recollections of hearsay.
Hence this site.
So, to answer Mr. Bradley's question, there have been plenty of lies so far in 1997, and prospects seem excellent for a bumper crop as we move through the rest of the year. With luck, you might even be able to read some of them here.
Thanks for asking. :-)
new lies / old lies / whose lies
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