A whale of a demagogue


I was channel surfing recently (no mean feat on a Verizon FIOS system), and paused briefly on Animal Planet’s Whale Wars. I was instantly riveted…but not because of what the show is ostensibly about.

Briefly, it’s a cinema verité recounting of the struggle between environmental radicals and the Japanese whaling fleet in the Southern Ocean. The self-styled “sea shepherds” aren’t letter-writing activists. They’re true amateur anarchists who favor “direct action,” placing themselves in danger to save whales from the Japanese whom they believe are illegally killing whales.

For their part, the Japanese are clearly hiding behind a combination of doubleplusgood international agreements (which allow a limited catch of whales for “research”) and lax enforcement of environmental policies by other governments. At $1M per whale and a permitted catch in the thousands, this is a big business and the research claim is patently bogus.

It makes for a great plot for a reality show. But while all the critical reviews of the show have focused on the action, the question of who’s right and who’s wrong in this struggle (the producers clearly favor the environmentalists) is less gripping for me than watching a cult leader in action.

The real centerpiece of the show is Captain Paul Watson (always referred to as “Captain”). This is a man who has pissed off his home country of Canada and lead them to criticize him individually like nobody I’ve ever seen (here and here). Imagine a national government calling you out like this! He co-founded Greenpeace (something he writes extensively about with apparent pride), yet was drummed out for being, apparently, uncontrollable.

But the real drama in Whale Wars — and something I think was unintentionally documented in the video — is how Watson creates, develops and promotes his cult of direct action. In short, we’re watching a Jim Jones or maybe a Hitler at work.

Watson clearly uses people as grist for his “mission.” A cook damages a propeller on the helicopter. Watson then publicly asks him to illegally board one of the Japanese vessels to “make up for the helicopter.” After 36 hours being held as a prisoner on the Japanese boat, the cook is returned to the welcome of the entire crew. The camera catches Watson at the moment the cook is back on board saying that he won’t go down on deck to welcome the cook back…instead one of the staff “priests” Watson has on board should bring the poor Aussie up to see him on the bridge. Upon being lead to see Watson, the cook is immediately placed on sat phone with the media in order to extract maximum press value from the incident. Not once do we hear Watson commend the cook for his foolish bravery.

To up the ante, later Watson proposes an all-female team to board a Japanese vessel. This goes awry, and in the process one woman shatters her pelvis. Ladies, how’d you like to have a shattered pelvis on a boat in Antarctica weeks from port with your only company being zealots on a mission? Not once do we see Watson demonstrating any concern for the woman. Only for the “mission.” We do, however, see him pissed off at the amateurs’ ineptness in carrying out his plans.

Watson, in true cult style, is also isolated from the volunteer crew — the raw meat — by a layer of officers on the boat who transmit both his orders and his message. They reveal themselves to be sycophants of the worst type, and when the original doctor on board raises questions about the dangers of boarding parties, he is quickly purged for a more pliant medic.

Are you fascinated yet? I am telling you, this TV show isn’t about whales. It’s Introduction to the Psychology of Cults 101. It demonstrates how in the crucible of a complex environmental issue a charismatic leader can, using classic techniques of isolation (what’s more isolated than a boat at sea for three months?) shape, implore, shame and motivate people into doing his bidding. Chat ’em up, get ’em to do what you want, no matter how dangerous, call the press, dock the boat, send ’em home and do it again next year.

For me, the proof of all this is on the Sea Shepherd website. I noticed that on the show every time Watson was shown in his cabin, he was on a computer. After reading the website, I am convinced that he’s writing and posting much of the news on the site himself. And the site is really a paean to Watson, penned by Watson, who always refers to himself in the third person.

I am reading Ian Kershaw’s massive Hitler: A Biography, in which Kershaw documents exactly how Hitler — unable to have normal relationships with anyone save his mother — uses people in the most expedient, opportunistic way possible to achieve his ideological objectives. And, on a much smaller scale (but maybe just as dangerously?), that’s how Watson uses the people on his boat.

I’ve never seen a more fascinating television show…it isn’t about whales at all. It’s about a whale of a demagogue.






4 responses to “A whale of a demagogue”

  1. P. Avatar

    Great read, summing up the thoughts I had exactly about this leftist cult-esque group.
    The show in general displays fundamentalist religious hierarchical structure in a modern atheist environmentalist age.
    It has the High Priest old man with the white beard, the lower priests who are the go between for the cult leader High Priest and his unquestioning devoted minions, and God embodied in the whale plight which one’s life is put in second place to and which one must be willing to die for.

    Their aim to stop whaling is seemingly doomed before they have even started as their own incompetence keeps them busy cleaning up their constant stream of mistakes.

    1. Alex Neihaus Avatar
      Alex Neihaus

      Glad you liked the post!

      I remained riveted by “Whale Wars” for the next few seasons, but grew increasingly bored with their increasingly Keystone Cops-like “missions.” And Captain Watson’s demagoguery became, well, predictable. At the end of the day it’s questionable what Sea Shepherds have achieved. At first the Japanese cancelled the 2014 hunt. But the hunt just moved elsewhere.

  2. Alex Neihaus Avatar
    Alex Neihaus

    Thanks for commenting. I have to say that I am less interested in the politics of the whaling dispute than I am in the manipulation and apparently cynical exploitation of the volunteers on the “Steve Irwin.”

    In the US — as a lead-up to the launch of a new series next week — Animal Planet has been re-running the last season. I’ve been scanning these…and I wouldn’t change a word of my original post about Watson, the Sea Shepherds and “Whale Wars.”

  3. W.Jackson Avatar

    The beauty of Whale Wars is it allows donors to actually see what they’ve been supporting. For years the only measure of the Sea Shepherds were their press releases and propaganda…now we see Paul Watson and his organization for what they really are…social misfit who convince others to fund their lifestyle. The Japanese whaling industry couldn’t have cast and written a better series to make THEM look good.

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