Thursday, September 29, 2005

Nobody Asked Me, But . . . (9/29/05)


The gridlock from Hell. Watching traffic crawl at a snail's pace on Interstate highway I-45 heading north from Houston to escape Hurricane Katrina, one could hardly avoid thinking of Westchester's flawed and untested evacuation plan. Officials in Texas were quick to blame the unforgivable gridlock conditions on evacuation by panicky people who did not live in threatened low-lying areas. Haven't emergency planners in Texas heard of the "worst-case scenario"?

Westchester County's emergency planning brochure states: "In most instances, only people living in specific ERPAs (Emergency Response Planning Areas) would be told to evacuate." How self-deluding can county government be? One doesn't have to be an expert in mass psychology to know that the moment a nuclear emergency is declared, everybody within the designated 10-mile radius of Indian Point--and beyond--will be on the road. The gridlock we witnessed on the broad expressways of East Texas will be nothing compared to the chaos on Westchester's narrow spiderweb of a road network. One lesson from Katrina: Keep your automobiles' gas tanks topped off at all times.

You can forget about all escape roads leading away from Indian Point becoming single-direction roads. Westchester's evacuation plan calls for buses chartered by the county to head toward Indian Point to evacuate from local schools those children for whom there will not be space in school buses. Under the evacuation plan, some schools will allow parents to pick up their children from school before they are taken to a School Reception Center. Imagine the pandemonium this will present, hindering the ability of school buses to reach schools. And what records will be kept of such extractions under helter-skelter conditions? The immediate review of evacuation plans by the county and individual school districts should have the highest priority.

Don't ask, don't tell. "The March of the Penguins," a documentary film, has become a surprise success, already outgrossing Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" at the box office. The film records how Antarctic penguins walk--or rather waddle--to traditional breeding grounds over 70 miles of icy terrain in temperatures of 80 below. Here the females, having taken months to produce a single egg, keep it off the ice by placing it on top of their feet, while the males head back to the sea to fatten up. Upon returning, the males are entrusted with keeping the chick warm, and the females return to the sea to gorge on food they share with the hatched chicks.

According to Jonathan Miller's recent story in The New York Times, conservative groups have praised the film's depiction of the birds' triumph over a harsh climate and environment as an argument against evolutionary theory. Andrew Coffin, reviewing the film in World Magazine, a popular Christian weekly, claimed "it makes a strong case for intelligent design." The American distributors of the film denied it had any social, cultural or political content. Conservative columnist George Will also demurred, writing in the Washington Post, disclaimed any such connection, maintaining, "The penguins are made for that behavior in the first place. What made them? Adaptive evolution. They have been 'designed' for all that rigor--meaning they have been shaped by adapting to many millennia of nature's harshness."

Other conservatives hailed the film as a tribute to traditional values. Michael Medved, film critic and conservative radio host, called the film "the motion picture this summer that most passionately affirms traditional norms like monogamy, sacrifice and child rearing." Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, told a meeting of young conservatives in Washington last month to check out the movie because it shows "penguins are the really ideal example of monogamy."

Ornithologists familiar with penguin habits had a good laugh, pointing out that the waddling birds are hardly examples of monogamy. Penguins like those shown in the film are only committed to each other for a year and then go through the same routine the next breeding season with a different partner. Surely such short-term connections is not the monogamy the conservatives are celebrating. An article in the April 1999 issue of The Auk, monthly journal of the American Ornithological Association, reported that "emperor penguins (Aptenodytes fosteri) have much lower mate fidelity than do smaller species of penguins, despite their high rates of survival."

Wait, it gets even more embarrassing for conservative moralists. It so happens that penguins are sometimes gay. Wendell and Cass, two penguins at the New York Aquarium in Coney Island were in a same-sex relationship for years. At the Central Park Zoo, two male penguins named Roy and Silo even foster-parented an egg together. "They got all excited when we gave them an egg," according to Rob Gramzay, senior keeper for polar birds. The egg came from a young, inexperienced penguin couple and was given to Roy and Silo. "And they did a really great job of taking care of the chick and feeding it." Not to put too much of an anthropomorphic spin on this, but the famous gay penguin couple later split up when Silo turned bisexual and found a female love interest.

At a zoo in Germany conditions are even more complicated: Zoo keepers at the Bremerhaven Zoo were puzzled that their Humboldt penguins, an endangered species, had failed to breed. Tests revealed three of the five pairs were all male. The zoo's solution was to import four female penguins from Sweden. In case the Bremerhaven Zoo's penguins exhibit no interest in the females, the zoo has also imported two new male penguins. "So the ladies don't miss out altogether," said Bremerhaven Zoo director, Ms. Heike Kueck.

"All hat and no cattle." President Lyndon B. Johnson's favorite expression for arriviste Texans aptly describes George W. Bush, now that the neighboring rancher who grazed his cattle on the presidential "ranch" has withdrawn them. Mr. Bush likes to portray himself as the "Cowboy President," but he hasn't always had a folksy image. In 1978, in an election campaign the President doesn't talk about much, the 32-year-old son of the future Vice President and President ran against Texas Democrat Kent R. Hance in the 19th congressional district. Bush had plenty of money, but he also had a shrewd and adept opponent. Hance depicted him as an Ivy League interloper, an overeducated elitist carpetbagger who didn't know Texas.

At a candidates forum early in the campaign, Bush blurted out enthusiastically, "Today is the first time I've ever been on a real farm." This didn't sit well with an audience of wheat and cotton farmers. And his decision to show himself jogging around a track in a TV commercial only underscored how out of touch he was with the district he hoped to represent. Hardly anybody jogged on the high plains of West Texas.

During the campaign, Hance compared candidate Bush's attendance at exclusive eastern schools (Andover, Yale and Harvard) with his own plebeian academic history (Dimmit, Texas, High School, Texas Tech and the University of Texas Law School). Native Texan easily defeated George W. Bush. Later, noting his opponent's subsequent swift rise in politics, Hance, who switched parties in 1985 after voting for the Reagan tax cuts in 1981, remarked that one lesson George W. Bush took from his defeat was "he wasn't ever going to be out-Christianed or out-good-old-boyed again."


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