Sunday, June 04, 2006

George and the Giant Fish

"Some fear that if gay marriage is legally recognized, the ceremonies might include ambiguously identified fish."

Four weeks ago, the President gave an interview to Das Bild, a conservative German newspaper that got attention because at the end he said that the best moment of his presidency was catching a fish in his privately-stocked lake in Crawford.  The choice surprised a lot of people since most photo ops of the President’s recreational time over the last two years have been of him mountain biking.  It also reminded many of one of the 2004 debates when the President couldn’t specifically answer a question about his biggest mistake as president.  For some reason, the White House liked the Das Bild interview enough anyway that they posted the English transcript on their website.

The fish story became briefly notorious because the original version had the President bragging about catching  a seven and a half pound “perch”.  The Daily Kos  picked up on the “perch” angle and pointed out that the largest fresh water perch caught in the United States was only about four and a half pounds.  There is a variety of perch, the Nile perch, that gets much bigger but this illegal fish immigrant is considered an ecological menace in the United States and the President’s lake in Crawford is stocked rather than dependent on natural sources.

If this seems reminiscent of the game farms where Dick Cheney goes to kill shockingly large numbers of birds, it’s probably not an accident.  In an interview at the beginning of his reign, er first term,  President Barsch explained in some detail that he had cross bred two bass strains to make for bigger bass that were easier to catch.  It may also remind some of another matter.  When George Bush owned the Texas Rangers, he happened to have three of the most prominent steroid suspects in baseball playing for him. Jose Canseco has already reeled himself in with his own book.  Rafael Palmeiro and Sammy Sosa also happened to be there.  Palmeiro was caught and suspended last year, though he continues to deny that he itentionallly took the performance enhancing drug.  Sosa testified for congress in surprisingly broken English at least compared to the level that was apparent back when he had more endorsements.  

I suspect both the President and the Vice-President have an odd take on Hemingway in which they do manly things in circumstances where failure is impossible whether that’s fishing in stocked lakes filled with fish bred to bite, giving press conferences to reporters like Jeff Gannon, or making public appearances with audiences stocked with supporters and culled of potential dissenters.  Is it an accident that their case for war was stocked like a game farm?

After the Daily Kos ran its perch facts, the White House published its transcript of the interview with the President’s catch now identified as a “Bass”.  Fwiw  Seven pound bass are fairly common and generally not considered a big deal, particularly if you happen to be Byron on the Bachelor.  The incident actually raises some interesting questions for me about what’s wrong with both the blogosphere and the conventional media.

When I decided to find out what the German word for “Bass” and “Perch” was, I got a reminder about biological diversity.  People in different parts of the world see different birds and fish and not surprisingly they sometimes don’t make the same distinctions within a species.  Personally, for instance, I’m not sure what makes a salmon a salmon, other than wild salmon is way more expensive than farmed.  The farmed salmon thing has resulted in groceries now identifying the kind of Salmon it sells with new precisions.  Where it used to all be just salmon, you now can get Coho, Chinook, Atlantic, etc., though farmed and stained-red never seems to be one of the choices.

There’s also an interesting scandal brewing that started with a North Carolina college professor whose class started doing genetic testing of grocery store fish only to discover that items like “Swordfish” were frequently something more common and less appealing.  By the time, you see something cut up into steaks or filets, dropped in Styrofoam, and wrapped in plastic I doubt that you or I can visually determine what kind of creature it started as/

After much looking, I discovered that the Germans use “Barsch” as their word for both bass and perch.  This seemed to exonerate the President from either lying about catching the largest perch in North America or using stem cells to create exceptionally big perch in his man-made lake.  Also,  the President has previously referred to stocking his lake with bass.  In any case, I did my best to find a clarification in the Daily Kos and didn’t happen to find one (that doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen) .  I also didn’t find any corrections among the ever vigilant right wing blogosphere.  After the White House put Bass in the transcript, discussion of the matter veered off of the National Geographic sidebar after a few detours to the question  of  why anyone would say 9/11 was the worst moment of his presidency then pair that with catching a fish in a stocked lake as the “best” moment, even as a joke?

Translation is a fascinating subject in and of itself.  One of the favorite internet stories about translating programs remains the one about a Russian translator that turned “The spirit is strong, but the flesh is weak” into “The vodka is good, but the meat is rotten.” Names for animal species within a language often reveal a culture’s relationship to nature.  Americans, for instance, can name a surprising number of distinct breeds of cats and dogs because we have a well-defined pet industry.  Chickens, which aren’t as common a pet, remain just chickens.  Anyway, I guess bass aren’t that common as a gamefish in Germany so bass, perch, and pike (all apparently relatives) didn’t get separate names.

I’m a little strange, but I sort of wonder why the inquiry stopped with “barsch”.  It seems that no blog asked the simpler question.  The ambiguity in German between perch and bass obviously explains what may have happened with Das Bild’s transcript.  No one seems to have brought up the fact that the interview was no doubt conducted in English since the president doesn’t speak German.  In other words, someone has a tape in which the President either said “bass” or “perch”, which remain two different words in English.  Why didn’t anyone ask to hear the original tape?

The blogosphere often complains about the way the more commercial media loves to sensationalize.  I’d say that the the interview with George W. Barsch and its aftermath reveals something about blogs.  We love to pick at bloopers and outrageous anecdotes or statements almost to the detriment of seeing or analyzing the bigger story.

If you read the whole Das Bild interview without the fish story and the President’s chatter about the World Cup, it’s revealing in many other ways.  There’s an ominous bit about Iran where he talks about prioritizing the diplomatic process though all options are on the table that just happens to be juxtaposed with his discussion of Iraq and why he believes in preemptive war.  He also spends a fair amount of time comparing himself to Washington and Lincoln in a way that is vaguely reminiscent of Bob Woodward’s descriptions of Richard Nixon talking to the portrats of Lincoln at the height of Watergate.  

Throughout the interview, there’s a fascinating mixture of the homey George Bush who talks about how great it is that the new German Chancellor Angela Merkel invited him to her house and the fact-proof ideologue who refers to his insistence on “optimism” and a professed belief that the war in Iraq is all but won.  

This is George the “Liberator”, the man who believes that democracy and the benefits of America can and should be spread by military invasion.  In the same interview he talks about the dangers of Radical Islam, but neglects to mention the dangers of radical Christianity.  He also points out that the president’s job is not to identify a preferred religion just four weeks before he endorsed an amendment to the Consitution banning gay marriage.  In other words, there’s more in that interview than fish.  

The White House may have posted it, but I’m not sure anyone is actually reading it and thinking about it much.  As I understand it, the bass don’t have separate words for “humans” and “fools”.



At 6/04/2006 12:20:00 PM, Blogger benny06 said...

I think the translation was lost; W had mentioned a bass, but the German Press called it a perch.

My point here is (and perhaps yours is too) that marriage is a loaded word, just as illegal immigrant is, and it's important that we frame these wedge issues carefully.

At 6/04/2006 12:23:00 PM, Blogger inkyhack said...

Great post. The fact that his favorite moment in his presidency is when he caught a genetically altered fish that was purposely dumbed down so he could catch it in a small private lake pretty much sums up everything I believe about the president.
Does this guy really try at anything?

At 6/04/2006 12:31:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

to be clear, the German interviewer translated it to "Barsch" which means perch, bass, or pike in German. They don't make a distinction between the 3 fish. We don't know what W actually said, because we don't have the tape.
I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt though and assume that he said "bass".

Actually, your point is deeper than mine, but I do agree with it. Language has some Kantian limitations in which it often reveals pre-conceptions by the existence of distinctions or lack of them in the words themselves.

first thanks for linking me on Teriyaki donuts. Yes, the whole specially bred bass that are easier to catch is pretty weird stuff. It's a better story than the bass vs. perch thing.


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