My sweetheart loves to fly fish. He never keeps the fish, just tenderly tips them back into the sea. So he’s plugged into various fishing networks, some devoted to survival of species that are imperiled by human impact. He’s the one who turned me onto Twyla Roscovich’s quite remarkable film, Salmon Confidential. The film painstakingly lays out the way those who are supposed to protect Canada’s health and commonwealth have allowed fish farms—feed lots for fish—to contaminate wild salmon habitat with gruesome and terrible diseases, creating health risks for fish and other species, destroying a traditional source of food and culture for First Nations people, and affecting the livelihood of commercial fishers too. The massive decline in Fraser River salmon coincides with the licensing of fish farms directly along salmon migration routes; the species of salmon that have flourished and even expanded have no fish farms on their migratory paths.
Ecojustice Canada (joined by the Union of BC Indian Chiefs) filed a lawsuit against the Ministry of Fisheries and Oceans a few weeks ago, challenging them with allowing Marine Harvest (the world’s largest producer of farmed salmon, licensed by governments) to introduce diseased fish into Canadian waters.
The fish farm footage is disgusting: heaps of dead fish succumbing to rapidly spreading viruses first introduced from fish feed lots in northern Europe (since the farms grow mainly Atlantic salmon, they imported their eggs as seed-stock, and with them, several viruses). The scientists who study wild salmon migrations began to look into fish-farm contamination when despite record numbers of salmon heading upstream in recent seasons, few spawned; indeed, many died trying, as hearts weakened by viruses either could not sustain the arduous journey to spawning-waters, or arrived too weak to spawn. The scientists show us heaps of dead fish, each full of eggs. They also find the viruses (along with open sores, deformities, and discolorations) in supermarket and sushi-bar fish. And they point out that when someone buys one of these fish and rinses it off before cooking, the viruses are being introduced into the water.
Roscovich’s film is about Canada. One possibility illuminated in the film is that Canadian farmed salmon may be banned from import into the U.S. and elsewhere. But I don’t think wild fish observe international border checkpoints—do you?
After we watched the film together, my partner shook his head and asked, “How can they do that? How can they live with themselves?” He was referring to the public officials who suppressed early studies documenting how the fish farms were allowed to impinge directly on the well-documented migration routes for wild salmon and who denied public access to government studies documenting the presence of salmon leukemia on the fish farms; and to the officials who insisted the fish farms presented no hazard even after research had made the danger abundantly clear.
I’d been asking myself that question over and over in other contexts: I wrote here last week in “The Chilling Effect” about the public officials who damage freedom of expression and have “have sunk so far into their own cover-story that they are able to assert without blushing that this isn’t censorship, just realism.” And a few days later in “The Big Squeeze,” about several different stories “which seem to me versions of the same story about whose power shapes public and private cultural policy…[about] the privatization of public space and social goods and the public sector’s role in that.”
After “The Chilling Effect” appeared, my friend and colleague Dudley Cocke (of the wonderful Roadside Theater in Appalachia) posted a comment thanking me and saying that “How to wake up when sleepwalking has been one of your great abiding themes.”
Sometimes I think it’s my only theme. This is the thing that obsesses me: In Salmon Confidential, footage documenting many positive tests for exotic viruses is followed by testimony from a fish pathologist at the Ministry of Agriculture who denies the presence of viruses imported from Europe. I gaze into his onscreen face. He does not look well-rested. If he has children—or even friends—I cannot imagine he invites them to chow down on a steaming platter of infectious salmon anemia (ISA) virus. There is some calculation being performed behind his eyes, an equation in which the economic interests of fish farmers counts for more than the health of the environment and the living things it supports.
Is this not the same calculation that values placating David Koch and his ilk more than the sacred right to freedom of expression and the critical importance of a vibrant, informed public dialogue? Is this not the same calculation that says the preferred decorum of the privileged ought to count for more than the right of all community members to public space and other public goods?
I do not think the people who make these calculations (or simply enforce the bottom line on behalf of higher-ups) are intentional malefactors. Instead, as my friend Dudley says, I think they are sleepwalking, having been lulled and coerced into a trance of solidarity with the policymakers who employ them. Often, the scene is set in terms of larger and longer-term considerations: help Canada keep its acquaculture industry robust and down the road, we’ll all be better off and better able to adjust for these little problems. Help keep public TV on the air; we might have to swallow something nasty now, but at least we get to eat.
These are the lapses that add up to the dominance of evil, as Abraham Joshua Heschel expressed so clearly:
Indifference to evil is more insidious than evil itself; it is more universal, more contagious, more dangerous. A silent justification, it makes possible an evil erupting as an exception becoming the rule and being in turn accepted.
None of us can address every instance of such indifference, but we have the tools to call attention to those that come directly to our notice. People can change: whistle-blowers are former sleepwalkers with a deep desire to awaken others. To help awaken the sleepwalkers, we have to make a racket. Anyone can help turn up the volume with a few clicks: forward Salmon Confidential or this blog and the others I mentioned above. The truth has a way of rising and shining.
In one of my two new books, The Culture of Possibility: Art, Artists & The Future, I talk about Sam Cooke’s song “A Change is Gonna Come.”
“A Change is Gonna Come” was released in 1964. A trip to the deep South in 2013 will still reveal racism, of course—so will a trip around the block, wherever the block happens to be. But if Sam Cooke (who was killed in December, 1964) were to retrace his steps today, he would be astounded to see the many interracial couples and families, the multicolored workplaces and schoolrooms, the degree to which the general perception of possibility between the races has changed. One of the precipitating incidents that led Cooke to write this song was his band being turned away from a whites-only motel in Shreveport, Louisiana, in 1963. Shreveport’s first African American mayor, Cedric Glover, was elected in 2006, after serving on the Shreveport City Council and in the Louisiana House of Representatives, and re-elected in 2010—unthinkable possibilities, it is safe to assume, to the people who denied Sam Cooke a bed for the night….
When they hear the song’s title (or even an allusion to it), many millions of people can also hear this music in their heads. They can repeat the words or approximate the tune. But what Cooke’s song really evokes is the complicated mix of frustration, desire, and hope of fulfillment that signifies humanity’s long journey between oppression and equality, still incomplete. In a little over three minutes, it elicits a remarkable range of somatic, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual associations. It doesn’t so much tell a story as allow us to experience that story unfolding within our own bodies and imaginations. Recognizing
and understanding that power is what this book is about.
And also pretty much everything else I’ve ever written. Here’s a sublime version by Aretha Franklin.