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General News    H3'ed 7/10/18

Tomgram: Ariel Dorfman, The Cages of the Trump Era (That We Don't See)

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A recent study of insect life in protected nature reserves in Germany got the most modest attention in our busy Trumpian world. In the last 27 years, however, researchers found that flying insect populations there had dropped 76% seasonally and 82% in mid-summer (when insect numbers are at their peak). If you aren't instantly struck by those figures, let me assure you that they are stunning enough to have been labeled an "insectageddon," and much of what's happening may be attributable to the massive use of pesticides and the destruction of habitat that has turned so much of the planet into farmland and in the process "into a wildlife desert." And much as most of us may not love insects, which make up about two-thirds of all life on this planet, keep in mind that they are crucial both as pollinators and prey for this world as we know it.

This fits painfully well with another phenomenon which has gotten more (but hardly enough) attention in recent years. It's been termed "the sixth extinction," an extermination event the likes of which may only have been experienced five other times in the history of life on this planet. As environmental reporter Elizabeth Kolbert has written, "It is estimated that one-third of all reef-building corals, a third of all fresh-water mollusks, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles, and a sixth of all birds are headed toward oblivion. The losses are occurring all over: in the South Pacific and in the North Atlantic, in the Arctic and the Sahel, in lakes and on islands, on mountaintops and in valleys. If you know how to look, you can probably find signs of the current extinction event in your own backyard."

In other words, we are, it seems, in the midst of a great planetary die-off (before the full impact of global warming even hits) for which we may need the equivalent of a Paris climate accord simply to begin to save some of the habitats of quickly disappearing species. And these are not just happenstantial events. They are deeply, even integrally, related to human acts that future generations may look back upon as horrors of an almost unknown order, ones that make those of us now living responsible for what will be seen as almost unimaginable planetary crimes.

That is the very possibility that TomDispatchregular Ariel Dorfman considers today as he looks back on previous human acts that no one at the time thought particularly horrific, in particular "human zoos" -- the subject of his moving new novel, Darwin's Ghosts -- which now seem like the most obvious of horrors to us. Tom

Human Zoos in the Age of Trump
Humans as "Animals," Then and Now
By Ariel Dorfman

When Donald Trump recently accused "illegal immigrants" of wanting to "pour into and infest our country," there was an immediate outcry. After all, that verb, infest, had been used by the Nazis as a way of dehumanizing Jews and communists as rats, vermin, or insects that needed to be eradicated.

Nobody, however, should have been surprised. The president has a long history of excoriating people of color as animal-like. In 1989, for instance, reacting to the rape of a white woman in New York's Central Park, he took out full-page ads in four of the city's major papers (total cost: $85,000) calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty and decrying "roving bands of wild criminals roaming our streets." He was, of course, referring to the five black and Latino youngsters accused of that crime for which they were convicted -- and, 10 years late, exonerated when a serial rapist and murderer finally confessed.

Trump never apologized for his rush to judgment or his hate-filled opinions, which eventually became the template for his attacks on immigrants during the 2016 election campaign and for his presidency. He has declared many times that some people aren't actually human beings at all but animals, pointing, in particular, to MS-13 gang members. At a rally in Tennessee at the end of May, he doubled down on this sort of invective, goading a frenzied crowd to enthusiastically shout that word -- "Animals!" -- back. In that way, he made those present accomplices to his bigotry. Nor are his insults and racial tirades mere rhetorical flourishes. They've had quite real consequences. It's enough to look at the cages where undocumented children separated from their families at or near the U.S.-Mexico border have been held as if they were indeed animals -- reporters and others regularly described one of those detention areas as being like a "zoo" or a "kennel" -- not to mention their parents who are also trapped behind wire barriers, even if arousing far less attention and protest.

A History of Caged Humans

All the president's furious contemporary rants and rallies, along with those cages and detainee centers, have certainly brought Nazism to mind for some, but it might be more illuminating to think of them as echoing an earlier moment in history when comparing dark-skinned humans to animals would hardly have caused a stir. It would have been considered part of normal discourse, in both Europe and the United States.

Indeed, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, millions of Europeans and Americans considered it perfectly natural to treat certain members of our species quite literally as if they were beasts. They were unfazed, so the historical record suggests, by the idea of seeing such "animals," such oddities, displayed in literal zoo cages at boisterous public events. It may now be hard to believe, but our forebears once flocked in staggering numbers to "human zoos," where thousands of natives kidnapped from Asia, Africa, and Latin America were exposed to scrutiny, curiosity, and derision, as well as, sometimes, undergoing scientific experimentation.

Today, such mindboggling violations of human rights have almost entirely vanished from public memory. I had only vaguely heard of human zoos myself, before I became obsessed with them when research for my latest novel, Darwin's Ghosts, led me into the world of human menageries. I discovered that the phenomenon had been launched in the most modest of ways.

One hundred and seventy years ago -- 1848, a year of revolutions across the globe -- a Hamburg fishmonger, Claus Hagenbeck, decided to charge customers to take a peek at some Arctic seals swimming in a large tub in the backyard of his house. Soon enough, that first timid entrepreneurial step developed into a highly lucrative family business exhibiting wild animals, while feeding growing demands for wondrous beasts to populate circuses and fill the private collections of monarchs and other wealthy individuals.

In the end, animals were not enough. By the early 1870s, in conjunction with the Jardin d'Acclimatation in Paris and American impresarios like P.T. Barnum, the Hagenbeck family started dabbling in displaying "savages" from the farthest corners of the planet. The first victims of this desire to bring exemplars from the rest of humanity to viewers in the West were Laplanders, displayed in a setting meant to look like one of their villages. (A similar urge gave birth to the dioramas that soon began to flourish at museums of natural history.)

That first exhibition in Hamburg of "the little men and women" of Lapland proved so sensational -- tours were organized to Berlin, Leipzig, and other German cities -- that the desire to see more "primitive" humans soon became insatiable. Scavengers who had previously specialized in locating and bringing African and Asian wildlife to Europe and the United States were now instructed to be on the lookout for similarly exotic human wildlife. They should not be, it was quickly stipulated, so monstrous as to disgust audiences, but neither should they be so beautiful as to cease to be bizarre.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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