Friday, April 03, 2015

Going Clear, SeaWorld Style

Trainers and orcas perform at SeaWorld Orlando's G Pool,
the tank where Dawn Brancheau was killed.

An odd thing happened the other night at Seattle's Town Hall, during John Hargrove's appearance in support of his superb new expose, Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, and the Truth Beyond Blackfish.

Midway through the Q&A, a woman no one knew stood up and waved some papers and asked Hargrove if he had been arrested for domestic violence and assault against his sister. Hargrove made clear to everyone that this was a baldfaced falsehood. There were some boos, and the woman shrank away into the woodwork. 

Mind you, I am friends with some authors who attract controversy -- especially Rick Perlstein and Max Blumenthal -- and so of course there are always some kooks at their public speaking appearances, at least in Seattle. But they're usually of the black-helicopter variety, if you know what I mean. I'd never seen anyone try to smear an author in public with an unprovable and ugly accusation that had nothing to do with the subject at hand.

Well, let me correct that: I have seen this kind of intimidation by smear campaign previously. It's the kind of thing that everyone who has ever dealt with Scientology has had to confront, particularly when it comes to former members exposing their secrets.

And make no mistake: Hargrove has been scoring consistently against SeaWorld, particularly as he discusses the difficulties orca trainers face, embodied by the 2010 death of his colleague Dawn Brancheau at the hands of the largest orca in captivity, Tilikum, at SeaWorld Orlando. His appearance with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show was also a smash hit:

All the week I had been making jokes on Facebook comparing SeaWorld to Scientology -- a timely comparison, given the appearance of the documentary Going Clear on HBO. The film is in many ways just a distillation of Lawrence Wright's magisterial work of investigative journalism of the same title. "I'm becoming convinced that SeaWorld is the theme-park equivalent of Scientology: a cult that relies on abusive practices and intentional self-delusion/prevarication to sustain itself," I wrote. OK, I wasn't really joking.

And then on Monday night, there was that strange woman trying to smear him with an accusation that, even if true, has not a single freaking thing to do with the issue that Hargrove has been confronting -- namely, the abusive and coercive and ultimately inhumane practices in its treatment both of its captive killer whales as well as the people who have the jobs of handling and caring for them. 

Analogy confirmed. In spades.

And the craziest part is that the smear artists were just getting started.

The very next day, one of the more pestilent corners of the wingnutosphere posted a video showing a drunken John Hargrove harassing a friend on the phone with the repeated and thoughtless use of the N-word, delivered with a Texas twang. Within the day, even as one San Diego area bookstore canceled Hargrove's appearance, the video was then being promoted to various media outlets avidly by none other than Fred Jacobs, SeaWorld's chief communications officer.
SeaWorld spokesman Fred Jacobs said in [an] email that “we believe it is important that you see this video we received just this weekend from an internal whistleblower.”
“Anyone interviewing the “Blackfish” star should certainly be aware of it,” Jacobs said in the email. “We are offended by John’s behavior and language. The video is particularly reprehensible since John Hargrove is wearing a SeaWorld shirt. SeaWorld would have terminated Hargrove’s employment immediately had we known he engaged in this kind of behavior.”
Hargrove was appropriately embarrassed, as well he should have been. It's a video that shows him at his worst -- thoughtless, arrogant, ignorant, and mean. And his initial response -- "I remember parts of that night and drinking, and you can clearly tell we definitely had a lot to drink. But that video is taken completely out of context. There’s not a proper beginning or end" -- was inadequate.

But he's since been more forthcoming, more like the John Hargrove most of us who have met him know now. He told KPBS:
“I don’t think that it will for the people who truly know me ... It’s certainly offensive language and it should’ve never been used. I was so heavily intoxicated — I barely recall any of those events. Clearly, it’s not funny.”

Last night on Naomi Rose's Facebook page, Hargrove went into even greater detail:
First I will make clear I take full responsibility for my actions and I cringed when I watched the video from 5 years ago- a night I barely remember when it happened and even less of 5 years after the fact. There is no place EVER for the N word. This is a word tied with a horrific history that as a white person I cannot even fully understand the depth of pain this caused black people. I certainly regret my actions that night. I would not expect anyone to defend that conversation where I used the N word. I am extremely disappointed that my words could cause more pain to a minority group. Regardless if you are in a private home and drunk and think you are harmlessly being funny- this word should never be used.

Tonight at my book signing in LA, I had an exchange with an black man that will stay with me for the rest of my life. He was intelligent, articulate, and completely genuine. He began by saying that he and his friends have followed and supported me from the beginning I began to speak out and admired my courage by doing so. They believe in what we are all fighting for and have held me in high regard and respected me but when he saw the video he looked me straight in the eyes and said that it truly hurt him and wanted to hear directly from me what I had to say regarding that video and if I was willing to personally apologize to him. 

I was both impressed and humbed and felt even worse actually seeing a face of this young black man who respected me but had now been hurt by me. This was an amazing human being and without hesitation or making any excuses I sincerely apologized to him to his face and explained as I said earlier that even though I know it is NEVER acceptable to use this word that as a white man I don't pretend to ever be able to fully understand the pain this word has caused him personally or any other black person.

He had already bought my book and stayed to go through the line to have me sign his book. We shook hands and had a real and genuine understanding and forgiveness in the end. I was humbled and had so much respect for him in how he chose to conduct himself. I will never forget that exchange. He deserved my answers and my apology and he accepted them and chose to forgive me. And for that I am very grateful. That exchange was truly powerful and witnessed by a packed room in the book store.
As someone whose regular business entails confronting racism, there's nothing amusing about the video or Hargrove's participation in it. But as someone whose work also entails assessing evidence regarding whether someone is a serious racist, I have only one question: What, are you freaking kidding me?

This video was recorded five years ago. Hargrove is clearly intoxicated. He clearly thinks he is being amusing. The only other person who seems to think he's amusing is the person recording the thing, who we can all similarly presume to be the person who leaked the video of their onetime friend. Clearly the woman on the other end is not much amused, especially as Hargrove makes fun of her for dropping the N-bomb as well. 

This is ugly stuff, but I can also assure you that it is common, everyday stuff that a million thoughtless white Americans privately indulge every single day. It's also an extraordinarily transparent smear attempt with "gotcha" video, the kind that actually sheds little light on the issue of racism and its institutionalization, and in the end is a shallow distraction that does more to dilute a serious discussion of the underlying issues. It's certainly not the kind of talk that would attract the attention of organizations such as the SPLC or the ADL, which are dedicated to combating hate speech and racial extremism in its many manifestations, and are logically and necessarily focused on dealing with hatemongers who spew hate over the public airwaves to large audiences every day. This is small-time, petty racism that is meaningless unless it can somehow demonstrate that Hargrove is a practicing racist today (not likely) or that it reveals a character flaw that he has never outgrown.

Part of the story that Hargrove has to tell, in fact, is all about his personal growth and the immense changes in attitudes that he has undergone. At one time, Hargrove was the consummate Company Guy, happily shilling the SeaWorld official line about the killer whales in their care and dedicating his body and his physical well-being to a company that saw him and the whales as commodities, for years at low salaries made endurable by their idealism and the ego satisfaction that came with the job. He made fun of the dippy hippies who used to protest outside SeaWorld venues for the freedom of the animals in his care, including one of the oldest wild whales in captivity, the Northern Resident (A5 pod) Corky.

And then, like someone awakening from an abusive cult because the personal toll -- including the death toll of friends and colleagues -- began to mount, Hargrove grew up and out of the corporate cocoon he had placed himself in. To say that the Hargrove you see onstage today is nothing like the punk in the video is an understatement. In fact, it's also clear that this Hargrove -- the cocky, thoughtless racist -- is the Hargrove who also defended orca captivity to the hilt.

In the end, it reflects far more directly in a negative way on SeaWorld's culture, because the Hargrove in the video is the Ultimate SeaWorld Guy. And that same culture seems to think that smearing him with the video -- given that it has zero bearing on his knowledge of the company's orca-captivity programs -- will convince people that Hargrove has a credibilty problem.

No, it's the company that would trot out that kind of petty, crude, ham-handed smear that has a credibility problem (and note that they don't even have enough class or smarts to do it on the sly, letting their defenders in the wingnutosphere do the dirty work for them; no, their comms chief is the guy out there on the front line, openly circulating the smear). Especially because it reminds us all so closely of how Scientology, the ultimate fear-driven cult, has operated for years.

What Wright's book details exhaustively is how the church assiduously gathers information, especially lots of private information, on all of its members and recruits, especially through the ritual "audits" conducted by the church that are essentially tell-all confession sessions, and then exploits that information and their insecurities to drive them deeper into the cult, making it so that the threat of cutting them off from the cult is like cutting off their air. Tellingly, Hargrove's book describes a culture among SeaWorld employees that worked in similar ways.

And woe betide anyone who should fall from favor in the cult of Scientology. They would be subjected to all kinds of ritual humiliations, demotions and even abusive degradation. Again, not entirely dissimilar from SeaWorld.

Eventually, some would try to break away, but if they ever tried to reveal to the public the facts they had learned they would be confronted with the most ferocious personal attacks, in which literally nothing was out of bounds. Of course, they would first mine all the personal information revealed during the church's "audits," which then were used in attempts to blackmail their critics into silence. If that failed, the church often resorted to even more frightening personal attacks.

In the end, the phrase "going clear" is now a stand-in for anyone overwhelmed by Scientology's fraudulent spiritual nonsense, someone who believes in the church's overtly insane theology without question as an act of pure gullibility. The church itself is shrinking, but it's intensifying its hold on the believers it has remaining.

SeaWorld isn't as deeply deformed as Scientology, perhaps because its pseudo-religious components are limited, as is its reach. But it's become abundantly self-evident that SeaWorld's self-contained and rapidly collapsing bubble of badly constructed reality is approaching its final throes as well. And lashing out as it does so. 

It's an ugly sight, really. Much uglier than a stupid video.

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