Australian Books

Genocidal thoughts

13 November 2014

3:00 PM

13 November 2014

3:00 PM

It takes a certain type of courage for a writer to complete a book and then admit that he does not really know what the conflict it describes is about. But Vincent, a vaguely leftish journalist, is willing to do so, although he adds an important caveat: ‘It sure as hell isn’t about whales’.

And therein lies the key. In this authoritative, strangely entertaining book, Vincent examines the peculiar Australian obsession with opposing Japanese whaling in the Southern Ocean, and in particular looks at the half-comical, half-dangerous Sea Shepherd organisation. He comes from a range of angles, and even sits through days of International Whaling Commission court hearings. Somewhere along the line, he believes, the theatre and the ideology took over from the issue of conservation, and the whales became pawns in a larger game.

As part of his research, Vincent shipped out on a Sea Shepherd vessel, the Steve Irwin – an undertaking not without its dangers, given that he grew up on a farm and likes his meat. Militant veganism is generally a requirement in the organisation, although there is some variety amongst the crew. Some of them seem like decent people genuinely concerned for the whales; others seem like deep-Green nutjobs, ranting about how superior whales are to humans and how people are essentially parasites on the planet. Indeed, the whole mentality seems to be underpinned by misanthropy and self-loathing, as well as a Manichean view of heroes and villains.

Leading it all is Paul Watson, whose own misanthropy comes with a big dose of megalomania. His own background is a quagmire of shifting stories and awful poetry, with a trail of legal actions and arrest warrants. He calls himself ‘captain’ but even this is fake: the title is self-awarded, says Vincent. Many of the Sea Shepherd people are in thrall to him but Vincent is less enthusiastic, noting that Watson, when talking to the media, is happy to simply make stuff up (his manifesto contains advice on how to do it).

In fact, there is a huge amount of ends-justify-means hypocrisy to Sea Shepherd. It says that its actions are non-violent but that hardly makes sense given its practice of ramming other ships. There is no secret to it: the names and flags of ships that have been damaged or sunk are painted on the side of the Steve, and you can buy a fundraiser shirt which lists them. Some Sea Shepherd vessels have been modified expressly for ramming. One of their targets was sunk at harbour with explosives.

Watson says they are not acting illegally but merely enforcing the law. Vincent is dubious, noting that Sea Shepherd is extremely selective about which laws they point to. On the larger picture, the claim that Japanese are whaling in Australian waters is pretty tenuous. Yes, Australia claims the area, but only a few countries accept it and the assertion would probably not survive a legal challenge. And even if the claim was solid it might not apply to migratory whales, although this does not stop Bob Brown, in his new role as Sea Shepherd mouthpiece, referring to them as ‘our whales’.

Worse, much of the rhetoric of Sea Shepherd has an unmistakeable racist tone, often calling on WW2 ghosts. Vincent notes that Iceland, which by some counts kills more whales than Japan, escapes vilification, and there are other countries that engage in small-scale whaling as well (including, interestingly, Indonesia).

The level of cultural attack on the Japanese leads Vincent to visit the country to get the other side of the story. Even though the Southern Ocean whaling is conducted on a ‘research’ loophole in the rules of the IWC, the meat is sold (although there is emerging competition from cheaper whale meat from Iceland). Vincent gives it a try, finding that it tastes like ox-tongue. These days, it is mainly eaten only by older people but Vincent finds widespread support for whaling across the generations. Actually, the broad view is not so much pro-whaling as anti-anti-whaling. Even though the industry survives only through government subsidies, it has become a point of national pride. Simply put, the Japanese government and people do not wish to be pushed around by a bunch of people they see as loony pirates.

Vincent notes that a few times the Japanese government has quietly indicated a desire to get out of the business, only to see Sea Shepherd ramp up the hyperbole. The conclusion is fairly obvious: Sea Shepherd is not part of the solution but part of the problem. And the final irony is that the impact of whaling in the Southern Ocean is minimal. The IWC estimates the number of whales there as over a half-million; the Japanese quota of kills, less than a thousand, makes no practical difference. True, the process of whaling is ugly, bloody and unnecessary, but hysterical claims of whale genocide are merely silly.

Ah, the ‘G’ word. It has an emotional resonance all its own, as human-rights lawyer and celebrity Geoffrey Robertson notes. In An Inconvenient Genocide, he points out that the term was originally coined with the awful fate of the Armenians in mind: slaughtered and force-marched to death in 1915 by forces of the Ottoman Empire.

Robertson uses that case to discuss how the term and legal principles have evolved, along the way reviewing the evidence of the Armenian genocide. While the Turkish government has always aggressively denied that it happened (at least as official policy), the weight of documents and records of experience is compelling, even if the final number of dead – maybe a million, maybe many more – is unknown.

Robertson avoids his trademark snottiness most of the time, although it is not always clear where he is heading, especially when he complains about other countries not attacking Turkey over the issue. He appears to want the Turkish government to at least accept the facts of the event, and to hand over the ‘iconic’ Mount Ararat to Armenia as a sort of consolation prize. Such symbolic actions might go some way to correct the historical record but if Robertson thinks that it will stop the current crop of political thugs and dictators from committing G-level atrocities he is sadly mistaken. It would be interesting to know what the people running the Islamic State would make of this book; one cannot help but think it would give them a laugh.

This is not to say that wrongs should not be acknowledged, nor that a spade should not be called a spade. The value of An Inconvenient Genocide is that it does this.

It is, however, unlikely to do more.

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