Thursday, November 16, 2006

80. Seal hunt is barbaric

One of my biology professors in college talked about the prejudice against insects. As an etymologist, he loved insects with an affection, that, by in large, I do not share. They are interesting, but my curiosity is limited to their ecological impact. What I did take to heart was the bias towards, as he described, "furry animals with big brown eyes." I do not doubt the bias exists, as evident from a very early age at birthdays and holidays with every teddy bear sold. Our affection for these mammals is almost universal, as dogs, not crickets, are man's best friend.

There is probably not an animal that exemplifies the prejudicial description of "furry animals with big brown eyes," more than baby seals. These animals are an endearing spectacle of snow white fur and large, distinct brown eyes. It is here where the almost universal affection for theses animals ends, at least from the perspective of Canadian fisherman who hunts these animals for their fur.

I am certain that over 90 percent of the population would react in absolute horror if they were to witness the clubbing of a baby seal to death. Further, the act is so harsh that it would traumatize most young children. In response to the outrage across the world, in which hundreds of thousands have protested this practice by boycotting Canadian seafood, the Canadian government has moved, not to end the act, but rather to prohibit the filming of it.

The hunt is described this way by The Humane Society of the United States, who has led this campaign:

Canada's annual seal hunt is the largest slaughter of marine mammals on the planet. This year the Canadian government allowed fishermen to club and shoot more than 330,000 seals in the North Atlantic-almost all of them babies as young as 12 days-just to earn a few extra bucks by selling seal skins. Last year, 98.5% of the seals killed were two months of age or younger, and veterinary reports indicate that many seals have been skinned while still conscious and able to feel pain.

Fisherman often use wooden clubs or shakapiks (large ice-pick-like clubs) to beat the animals to death, rather than shoot them, because they are paid $2.00 less for every bullet hole in the skin. And if they are shot, they are only shot once, and then left or dragged along to die. There is a small market for seal oil, but none for the meat. The seals are killed almost exclusively for their furs, with their carcasses discarded after skinning. Seal hunting is an off-season activity and is relatively economically irrelevant to the overall business of Canadian fisherman. This is widely accepted as a cruel and unnecessary act.

To participate in the fight against the killing of baby seals, consumers are encouraged not to patron restaurants that serve Canadian seafood and, of course, not to purchase clothing made of fur. Designers using this fur include Gucci and Versace. It is only through economic pressure that the Canadian government will be motivated to end or severely limit this practice.

It is an unfortunate fact that in nature animals must die for others to survive. However, the death of an animal usually occurs so that another can survive, not so the elites among us can wear their fur. Those that parade around in animal fur need to understand the often tragic and horrific circumstance in which that fur was obtained. From the perspective of animal lovers and those that appreciate nature, there hardly seems to be a more deplorable act than the brutal slaughter of unsuspecting baby seals.

Thursday, November 9, 2006

79. Democracy is tyranny, too

I must admit that I have some compassion for smokers. Although I have vehemently argued against the cigarette companies for their acts of irresponsible marketing and I find it remarkable that this dangerously unhealthy product endures such viability in our culture, I understand on an individual level that smoking is an addiction.

Voters this November were afforded the opportunity to remove smoking from all public places- an issue that easily passed. Certainly, from a health perspective, this was an easy decision. The decision was made easier by the somewhat underhanded attempt by the cigarette companies to add an amendment to the state constitution preserving the right to smoke is several venues. But I do have apprehension regarding the process, most notably, the use of majority rule to pass legislation and ratify constitutional amendments.

I have considerable concern for the use of the state constitution and Ohio voters in addressing these types of social issues. I believe that amendments to the state constitution should be reserved for the most creditable of social conditions. Ohio voters recall in 2004 when it was used to amend the constitution prohibiting gay marriage- something that was already illegal under Ohio law. This year an amendment was added raising the minimum wage. I agree wholeheartedly with the raising of the minimum wage, but I do not think that it should have been an amendment to the state constitution.

While smoking is not a civil right issue to the same degree as gay marriage; the tyranny of the majority, as I have written before, is capable of trampling the rights and privileges of others. If we are going to engage in using the Ohio constitution to accommodate the wishes of the majority, one has to be concerned at what point they, themselves, will be on the outside looking in. Certainly, smokers that voted against gay marriage now recognize the consequences of majority rule. Conceivably, there is an endless list of demographics that can be sorted through a democratic vote, such as making English the only acceptable language and defining ourselves as a Christian nation.

This issue is further exemplified in Cuyahoga County where voters turned out to support a tax on cigarettes to fund arts and culture. What does smoking have to do with art and culture, and what limit is there on taxing any activity that is performed by a minority of the population for the benefit of the majority? Why not tax the purchase of bubble gum? Taxes are usually levied on "sins," such as cigarettes and alcohol or luxury items- both which separate a minority from a majority who would rather have someone else support their endeavors.

The Sun Newspaper endorsed the issue, noting "...we're giving the nod to county Issue 18, an excise tax of 1.5 cents per cigarette for the sole reason that we are convinced a strong arts and culture community can only help spur badly needed economic development, attract businesses by raising the quality of life and avoid the stigma of being a city that doesn't support the arts."

The Plain Dealer also endorsed the issue, while admitting, "...we agree: This particular tax is not ideal, especially since it forces a shrinking minority to pick up the tab for supporting the arts."

There are two points to these endorsements; the first is my assertion that the majority is forcing a tax onto a minority population. The second is to ask why the entire community cannot be taxed to support art and culture- considering its benefit. The answer to my second point is that they tried, but in 2004 the county voted against a property tax proposal to finance art and economic developments. It seems that it is only a good idea when someone else pays for it. I also cannot resist the proposition that this tax is levied "per cigarette," as an unfair ploy to make the tax feel painless.

People will almost always vote in their best interest rather than on the principle of what is right or wrong. For example, how many smokers voted to ban smoking in public places? How many considered the effects of second hand smoke and made the rational decision to vote against their own interest? I would guess not many. And how many non-smokers voters decided against breathing fresh air or increasing the tax on cigarettes? Again, I would guess not many.

This idea of the tyranny of the majority was explored by Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy of America. He boldly states that if people are given power through equality, they will have a tendency to become weak through their dependency on the rule of the majority. He further comments, "I know of no country in which, generally speaking, there is less independence of mind, and true freedom of discussion, than in America."

Thursday, November 2, 2006

78. Green lawns are a luxury

The aesthetics of that, which we find pleasurable, range from classical music and photography to beautiful landscapes and fine art. In between are numerous cultural and economic differences and preferences. While no one has the right to decide for others what they find attractive, there is an argument that all aesthetics are a luxury. That is, they are a part of our disposable income which we pursue for little other reason than we find them personally appealing.

I contemplated this idea while cutting the grass for what I hope will be the final time of the year. I was noticing the wretched condition of our lawn, which coincided with the unexplainable desire to improve its condition. I reflected in depth about this subconscious longing, since I can find no practical reason to indulge in what many people may find aesthetically pleasing, namely "green grass."

We planted our own lawn about six years ago, which has gone through cycles of spirited growth, drought and the invasion of uninvited species of imposter grasses. We have sparsely maintained the traditional method of lawn care, that is, consistent watering and seasonal fertilization. Even then, rarely do I engage in this activity without noting to myself, in amusement, the sound bite I heard a couple years ago describing the seemingly inane human activity of spending money to fertilize and water the grass, only to create the chore of cutting it. It is not that I would not like to have a lush lawn, free of crabgrass and dead patches of turf; rather, it is that I have a hard time justifying it as a worthy cost of disposable income.

Certainly I understand that many people enjoy doing yard work, as I do myself. And as I mentioned in the introduction, I respect the right for everyone to appreciate whatever it is they find pleasing. However, I wonder if it is truly an appreciation that they are engaging in. Do people really consider why they appreciate a lush lawn? Is it aesthetically pleasing or is it a measure of tradition and expectation?

I think that people often do what they think they are supposed to do, an idea I will develop further in future writings as the "scripted life." Living the "scripted life" is a product of doing things that are either traditional or as a measure of expectations- without really considering why those things are being done. It is also a product of doing things without considering alternatives.

I have commented to my wife about some of the more obsessive people dedicated to lawn care that they will have nothing else to write on their tombstone other than, "Here lies John Smith, he had a great lawn." Recognizing it as an insensitive comment, my point is hopefully obvious. Everything we do, and everything we spend our money on, is at a cost of every other thing we could do with our time and money. I bet many people who want to have a nice lawn do so because they are "supposed" to have a nice lawn, rather than because of its intrinsic value. The cost of such a lawn can be expensive, considering the lengths some people will go to. Not only are some people will give up a large amount of time, they are willing to employ professional lawn companies and install sprinkler systems. To pay that price for "green grass," is, in my opinion, a woeful luxury. The idea is a slanted socioeconomic premise when one considers that many people cannot afford to purchase food or keep gas in the car, while, in juxtaposition, others throw money out into the lawn for the brief visual pleasure of a steady shade of green and the consistent shape of its vegetative blades. Further societal debate would include the wasteful implications of watering the yard when some parts of the world lack clean drinking water and the environmental aspect of overzealously throwing lawn clippings into our landfills.

"Green grass" is one of possibly many things we take for granted without considering the real reason why we find those things worthy as a part of our lives. It is might also be one of many things we do without considering alternatives. For example, would the time and money spent on its endeavor be better spent on philanthropic causes? Imagine, for a moment, if every homeowner in the country donated the money spent on their lawns to charity.

There seems to be a subconscious value placed on philosophy and ceremony, aesthetic and otherwise, which we often act on in life without considering its actual value, our real desires, possible alternatives or potential consequences. Is a little crabgrass, in lieu of say, cancer research, really so bad?