"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 29 September 1997. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Smile, You Son of a Bitch


[so i guess this week has been pretty hum drum for me]

Worried about sexual predators?

Sure you are! Credit card

predators? Absolutely!

Cyberpredators? Scourge of the

'90s! Many humans aren't really

humans at all; they're scary

predators - legal predators,

juvenile predators, drug

predators. The only predators we

don't have to worry about, it

turns out, are predators. You

know - sharks, wolves,

scorpions, lions and tigers and

bears. Unlike civilization's

hunters, nature's can really be

quite charming.


Sharks, says a Time cover story,

are "skillful" and "stealthy,"

even fairly good family-values

types. Wolves exercise a

"top-down management" system in

the forest, and have gotten a

bad rap from "accumulated

European prejudice," says

Defenders of Wildlife President

Rodger Schlickeisen. Alligators,

stormtroopers of the

Everglades, got a boost last

year when a gator found in

the Presidio's Mountain Lake

briefly became San Francisco's

most popular minor celebrity

since Puck the bike messenger

(rumors that the oddly

charismatic reptile actually was

Puck proved baseless).


[just watched the new shows, cooked in for a change and enjoyed the fog from my back porch]

There was a time when animals

weren't deemed worthy of PR

makeovers. Pity for the dodo

failed to touch the flinty

bosoms of Dutch and Portuguese

sailors, who saw the ungainly

bird as a contemptible misfit at

best, and at worst as a

waddling, troubling sign that

the universe might not be

governed by a rational God.


The story of the dodo is a poor

model of resource stewardship.

When humans reintroduce grey

wolves into national forests,

legislate the preservation of

shark fisheries, or debate the

ethics of eradicating smallpox,

we're trying to deal squarely

with Nature. Other than

extremist ranchers and the

zealots at the Society of Shark

Fear, everybody agrees that

maintaining biodiversity is a

worthy goal.


[very meditative huh? fitting seeing that that's what i'm going to do all weekend]

But do we have to feel good

about it?


Natural selection is reason

enough to preserve even the

scariest predators (indeed,

natural selection indicates that

the most effective predators are

the most worthy of preserving).

Human hearts being the soft

organs they are, though, we're

convinced that the only Nature

worth saving is a warm and

cuddly Nature, a happy-faced

Nature. So along come fanciful

stories like the one about the

"Monogamous Whale" (not true, as

it happens), the "Noble Wolf"

(the German name for which is

"Adolf"), and a Washington Post

headline, "Feminism Noted Among

Gorillas" (You go, Koko!). Among

the most mentally unstable

members of society - cat lovers

- the line between man and beast

disappears entirely: Leeza

Gibbons' gabfest recently

featured a mothering expert

advising parents to massage

infants "the way you'd pet your



Anthropomorphism, you may have

learned in high school biology,

is bad science. But when Merlin

Tuttle's book America's

Neighborhood Bats makes the case

for the goodness of winged

rodents, there's a religious

game afoot, too - assigning

moral purpose to a universe

ruled by icy moral neutrality.

Nature doesn't give two fucks in

a rat's ass what we do to

animals, any more than it wept

over the extinction of the

dinosaurs. We're the ones who

care about animals. Don't let

the dopey eyes fool you - given

the chance, that cow would kill

you and everyone you love.


[i'm going with my best friend from college - funny that we live in the same city and never see each other]

This is what makes getting

people to warm up to sharks seem

like a hopeless cause. You've

heard the song - squaliformes

are more threatened by us than

we are by them; our fear of

their H. R. Gigerish mouths is

not supported by the statistics,

blah, blah, blah. In this

scenario, poor Jaws, with its

mechanical shark and all-too-

fleshy Richard Dreyfuss, is

always to blame for our loathing

of sharks. And while Jaws is a

wonderfully crafted thriller,

does anybody believe we needed

Steven Spielberg to make us

afraid of sharks? Dateline NBC

recently sent a reporter to swim

with a school of tiger sharks in

full frenzy over a giant roll of

fish parts (wittily called a

"chumsickle"). We were invited

to take comfort in knowing that

the sharks preferred the bait to

the reporter (with the obvious

qualification that when the

chumsickle runs out, it's time

to get out of Dodge). But if the

dizzying swirl of stark-raving

mad beasts around a helpless

piece of meat - even on a

17-inch screen - didn't fill you

with horror and nausea, you're

not human.


OK, but we are human, and we

like things warm and cuddly - so

what's the big deal? Maybe none

- though we should note that, in

two million years of human

existence, only dogs and (to a

lesser extent) cats have come

through for us when we really

needed warmth and cuddliness.


[getting mushy today you say? well, yes, this morning i wrote my first love letter to chris]

But what you can do to animals,

you can do to people. Just as

wartime propaganda demands

dehumanization of the enemy, so

the integrity of the global

economy requires rehumanizing of

America's innumerable villains.

The vodka-swilling, bear-hugging

Russians never made very good

enemies anyway, and have proven

easy to bring into the fold (it

doesn't hurt that they ape the

American Way with shameless

abandon). But even more feared

enemies can be spun. Yasser

Arafat, pudgy, perpetually

outmatched and bearing a strong

resemblance to fifth Beatle

Ringo Starr, now seems such a

pitiable, almost likeable,

figure that it's hard even to

remember his 1970s incarnation

as Feared Terrorist Warlord.


Such a makeover can prove

problematic in a complex

situation (like when the "peace

process" goes sour - Madeleine

Albright's refusal to greet

Arafat with a de rigueur

mideastern hug indicates Arabs

are still Untouchables, if no

longer Non-humans). Watching the

rise of militancy in

Afghanistan, who would believe

that when they fought the

Russkies for us in the 1980s,

these same militants had their

images buffed and polished (most

famously by Sylvester Stallone,

who's undergoing some reimaging

himself) until they shined?


[for anyone who is actually reading these, any ideas for a birthday present to a guy who has everything? i'm thinking, what were the most memorable presents you ever received?see you monday..er, i guess tuesday to you.]

And if you don't play the game,

you're in real trouble. Fidel

Castro, whose enemies are both

real and homicidal, can't afford

to rub up against America's

shin, and he (or at least, his

country) pays the price for that

obstinacy every day. In all the

talk about the Long Boom, about

how we're now immune to natural

selection, you never hear that

Survival of the Cutest is a

questionable evolutionary model

(particularly for those of us

who fall into the

less-than-attractive quadrant of

the scattergram). The only thing

that keeps any (non-insect)

species from becoming extinct is

the whim of humans. For animals,

the choice is clear: Get cute,

or get lost. And in a community

that increasingly belongs to the

best smilers, yes-men and Uncle

Toms, the rest of us may face

the same choice.

courtesy of BarTel D'Arcy

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