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The Dreaded Comparison: Human and Animal Slavery
by Marjorie Spiegel
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Buck Fever
Review by Martin Rowe

As our idioms reveal, animals are ambivalent presences in Western minds. We can be as wise as an owl and hawk-eyed, yet we can also be bird-brained and as silly as a goose. We can be as strong and as dumb as an ox; by turns we can be as sly as a fox and hare-brained, asinine and doe-eyed, lion-hearted and a chicken. Within these terms, of course, exists a hierarchy of those animals that humans respect and those they don't. But there is always, it seems, a quantifiable difference between "them" and "us". To be compared to an animal -- even though biologically we are all animals -- is still an insult: for while people can always be "humane," animals are only ever "animals" -- forever "bestial," and "beastly," and "brutish."

These ideas lie at the center of Marjorie Spiegel's extraordinary book, The Dreaded Comparison, now thoroughly revised and updated in a new edition. Still no longer than a monograph, The Dreaded Comparison nevertheless packs a huge punch, helped by judiciously chosen quotations and stunningly juxtaposed illustrations that bring home most forcefully the comparison that dare not speak its name: that African slaves in the United States before the Civil War were considered no more than animals, and that the ideologies of slavery that kept these human beings as property continue to be used with non-human animals today.

This comparison -- between the conditions of slaves and the conditions of animals in factory farms, as victims of the hunt, and in laboratories -- may not seem particularly surprising. After all, as Spiegel documents, slaves in the antebellum United States were considered literally sub-human. Slaves were dangerous, breeding animals who were never happier than when toiling in the fields; idle, they were shiftless drunkards. The women were sexual temptresses, the men potential rapists of white women. The slaves' passage to -- and work in -- America were held to be part of a civilizing process that would raise them, sometimes through Christianity, to the level of almost-personhood as almost white. African slaves were domestic servants bred for their labor and bought for their bodies. There were "nigger dogs" trained to hunt the coons and the bucks (those animal terms for black males) when they escaped. And such bestialization is not a thing of the past: The Dreaded Comparison recalls instances from more recent times. Among them is, first, the infamous Tuskegee study, where African-American males with syphilis were deliberately misdiagnosed, if they were diagnosed at all, and then offered no treatment so that (white) doctors could see how the disease took its toll. Secondly, there was Howard Beach, Queens, where in the mid-'80s three black males were hounded by a white mob through the streets -- and one of the three was killed on the highway. The man whose car hit the young man reported that he hadn't stopped or reported the incident because he thought he had hit "an animal." Mayor Ed Koch was quoted in the New York Times as saying that "the survivors were chased like animals through the streets."

Of course, this type of thinking does not only extend to slaves or African Americans. It extends to Jews, who were rounded up by the Nazis into cattle-cars and sent to the camps because they were considered less-than-human viral infections in the Aryan body politic. It extends to women who have been thought of as bitches, foxy ladies, vixens, bats, old cows, and less-than-male (i.e. fully human) for centuries. But, and this is Spiegel's dreaded kicker, this comparison extends to non-human animals -- who continue to be beaten, abused, tortured, confined, hunted, and made the play and work thing of those in power.

Now there will be those of you reading this who will be formulating arguments as to why we should continue to exploit animals: that we need animals in order to provide us with food, skin, entertainment, and labor; that many animals wouldn't be alive unless they were in our company -- indeed, they are happier with us than they would be in the wild; that we protect them against their own worse natures; that animals feel no pain or less pain because they don't know the meaning of "pain"; that animals enjoy the thrill of the chase...

Well, as Spiegel's book catalogues, all these arguments were used to justify slavery. Specious, and speciesist, arguments continue to lurk within human consciousness about what it is and is not permissible to do to animals. We consider that making elephants stand on their hind legs and perform in circuses is something acceptable while putting on black-face and singing "Mammy" is not: why is one more demeaning, unnatural, and more of a caricature than the other? We consider that putting animals in cages is an acceptable act of conservation while the thought that in 1906 the New York Zoological Society displayed an African Pygmy named Ota Benga in a cage with chimpanzees fills us with horror.

We are staggered that slavecarriers accepted the huge mortality rate for their slaves in the passage to America as a kind of natural wastage, but unworried that animals continue to be shipped to slaughter in conditions that leave a percentage suffocated and or terrified to death on arrival. And we are content to believe in vivisection's central contradiction: "On the one hand," to quote Spiegel, "it is said that the animals are so unlike us that they are not worthy of our consideration. On the other hand, vivisectors claim that animals are so like us that they are essential to research." It is sometimes said by those who support vivisection that it is precisely because of Mengele's experiments on human beings at Auschwitz that animals need to be used; that unless we cut up animals, we will cut up ourselves. But vivisection on Jews and vivisection on animals took place literally side by side at Auschwitz, and Auschwitz didn't stop Tuskegee.

A recent Wall Street Journal op-ed piece complained that animal rightists were destroying African economies by denying (white) hunters the chance to kill endangered species -- what the Journal piece called "resources" -- and give the money to black people. It was, ran the piece, a classic example of people caring more for animals than for people. Yet, while thinking about that, consider this report from the Los Angeles Times quoted in The Dreaded Comparison: "Two men on a drunken hunting trip failed to find any deer and instead cold-bloodedly murdered a deaf black man, yesterday as he walked along a railroad track in Chico."

Spiegel's book makes abundantly clear that those with an instrumentalist view of the world and creation don't much care where or on whom they exercise their power. They will use all the arguments, all the subterfuge (including false distinctions among the living beings abused), and all the lies in their means to use that power as long as they can get away with it. As The Dreaded Comparison reveals, with remarkable concision, it is not so much the case that we need to "raise" animals to a condition of being human or that we should "lower" ourselves by recognizing that we are all brutes to each other. It is that we should recognize the abuse of power wherever it is and whoever it is upon, unmask it, and stop it. If one thing is resoundingly clear from Spiegel's invaluable contribution to this debate, it is that abuse, torture, and cruelty cannot stand the spotlight.


Martin Rowe is the editor of Satya: A Magazine of Vegetarianism, Environmentalism, and Animal Advocacy. He lives in New York City, NY.
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