The Casual Blog

Tag: slavery

The worst idea in history: animals and us

Canada geese at Shelley Lake near sunrise

I’m recovering just fine from my neck surgery, and the weather turned nicer, too.  For a couple of days, it felt like spring, though after that, it cooled off.  In the pleasant interval, I took my camera out to see the birds at Jordan Lake, and also stopped in to check on the bald eagles nesting at Shelley Lake.  These are some of the pictures I took.  

Spending some time with the animals, or even just standing by the water hoping they’ll show up, is very therapeutic.  Walt Whitman got it right in his famous poem; being with them is moving and soothing.  When I get out around sunrise or sunset, I’m always a little surprised when there are few or no other people looking at them, but not sorry.

Great blue herons at Jordan Lake near sunset

Apropos, there was a lively short essay in the NY Times this week on something I’ve hoped others were thinking about:  the disconnect between what we know about animals and how we treat animals.  Crispin Sartwell, a philosophy professor at Dickinson College, wrote that western philosophy has labored mightily to establish that humans are different from and superior to animals, and failed.  Perhaps this is starting to be noticed.     

Everyone who stayed awake through high-school biology learned that homo sapiens are animals, with close physical similarities to many other animals.  But most of us still think of ourselves as not actually animals, but rather, better than animals.  

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As Sartwell notes, we’ve also been taught to regard humans as distinctive and superior on account of their consciousness, reasoning abilities, and moral systems. Comparisons of humans and other animals generally focused on the things humans did best, such as human language, rather than areas where animals outperformed us, such as sight, hearing, smell, strength, speed, endurance, and memory.  Where animals showed sophistication in their communications and culture, we learned to avoid thinking about it.  

The essential lesson pounded into all of us was that human intellectual qualities justified treating other animals as mere objects to be dominated and exploited.  This idea is so familiar and deeply entrenched that it is hard to see it clearly as an idea subject to discussion.  

Bald eagle at Jordan Lake

In my student days at Oberlin College, we used to debate the extent to which ideas could affect human history.  We were thinking about whether the philosophies of canonic thinkers like Aristotle, Locke, or Marx were primary drivers of cultural change.  

We didn’t even think to consider the effects of the idea that humans are separate from, and far superior to, animals.  The idea has no known author and no supporting reasoning.  If examined with any seriousness, it falls apart as nonsense.  Yet, as Sartwell suggests, it is almost certainly the most important idea in human history. 

Sartwell raises the issue of how thinking of humans as fundamentally superior to other animals relates to other hierarchies. To justify slavery, colonialism, or other violent oppression, the groups to be dominated are characterized as beastly, wild, savage, brutal, fierce, primitive, uncivilized, inhuman, and so on — in short, “like animals.”    

Even today, discrimination follows this same basic pattern in addressing people with African ancesters, other disfavored nationalties, women, religious minorities, and LGBTQ people.  That is, these groups are defined as something less than fully human, and therefore not entitled to the highest degree of privilege. 

The hierarchies that stem from treating animals as inferior have caused enormous harm to the humans who are denied full human status.  Slavery is a dramatic example from our past, but there are many others that are very much still with us, like suppressing the votes of minorities, lower pay for women, and violence against LBGTQ people.  

As Sartwell notes, this hierarchical, exploitative way of thinking divides us both from each other and from nature.  Indeed, it has led to an existential crisis for nature.  A couple of articles this week highlighted aspects of this.

According to a new study, about one third of freshwater fish species are threatened with extinction.  Climate change, habitat loss, and pollution caused by humans accounts for much of this dire threat.  Meanwhile due to these same factors, the populations of large animals (mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and fish) have fallen by 68 percent since 1970.  More than two-thirds of these animals.  Gone.  Since 1970.  Holy camoly!

Part of our unfolding catastrophe has to do with our view that animals are so inferior that they can properly be treated as food.  A new piece by Jenny Splitter in Vox sums up some of what’s happening.    Meat production through factory farming — that is, raising and slaughtering billions of animals each year — accounts for more than 14 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, and also for vast losses of habitat for wild animals.  This food system is raising the threat of extinction for thousands of species.  

Our meat-based food system is not only deeply immoral, but unsustainable.  To continue along this path likely means ecological and human disaster.  Splitter’s piece notes that we may get help from technology, like lab grown meat, and from requiring more responsible farming practices.  But cutting back on eating meat and moving toward a plant-based diet is something we as a species will have to do eventually.  And we as individuals can do it now. 

If you are either on board with plant-based eating or interested in experimenting, or even if not, I recommend trying Guasaca Arepa on Hillsborough Street.  They have some outdoor picnic tables, where I ate my first ever arepa this week.  It’s a Columbian speciality that involves putting various fillings in a sort of cornmeal cake.  Guasaca has many fillings on offer, but I tried the vegan.  Though a bit messy, it was delicious!   

Pied-billed grebe at Shelley Lake near sunrise

Good grad school news, reading Coates and considering our racism, and some butterflies

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Gabe got into grad school! Whew! We’ve all been waiting anxiously to hear from Parsons School of Design, and thank goodness, the news was good. As is his wont, Gabe had considered the issue of grad school carefully, and had worked on his application carefully, and ended up getting the application in rather late. But it worked!

The Parsons program may be done either online or in the classrooms in New York, and Gabe is leaning towards doing the first semester online from here in Raleigh. This would avoid the stress of a last-minute apartment hunt, and would also allow him to work on his promising new relationship. Is this a good idea? The question is not an easy one. For motivated, self-directed learners, on-line can work. These past few months, both he and I have been studying photography and design subjects on-line (e.g. Lynda, Udemy, and free YouTube videos), and learning a lot.
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Considering how important education is, it’s remarkable how little we know about what works and what doesn’t. This week I listened to a couple of podcasts from This American Life on the educational effects of desegregation and resegregation, which were bracing. I wasn’t surprised to learn that desegregation improves the educational outcomes of minorities, but I didn’t know that since the mid-80s, our schools have been increasingly segregated. This is another indicator that we haven’t worked all the way through our problems with racial distinctions.

I’ve been reading Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. It’s currently high on the best seller list, which ordinarily means I’m not in the target market, but this was a big exception. It is a black man’s jeremiad on what slavery really means for our country’s past and present. I’ve found it painful and difficult, but also helpful in understanding our bizarre situation with respect to “race.” I use quotes because evidence is accumulating that race is a social, rather than a biological, construct. Coates argues that it was created to justify oppression, and I believe he’s right.
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The legacy of our long history of slavery is unquestionably still with us. As recently as two weeks ago, there was a rally near here in support of the Confederate battle flag. And every day black people are stopped for “driving while black.” Coates makes us understand that those who are stopped believe that the police might well kill them without justification, and if they do, they might well get away with murder. Recent headlines corroborate his view.

We’ve come a long way in my life time in addressing the massive injustice of slavery and racism, but it’s taken a long time, and we’re not done yet. It saddens and shames me to admit it, but as a child in the 60s, I was taught that Negroes were inferior. Not bad, mind you, but lesser. Everyone I knew, good people and bad, thought that and taught that. I remember at first thinking it strange that little children, who called all white adults Mr. and Mrs., all called our black elementary school janitor by his first name. He was Preston. Preston was a sweet, kindly man, but I’m guessing he would have preferred Mr.
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Getting that early, deep, wrong imprinting straightened out has been a long journey for me. Along the way getting to know some great black people was critical, but so was literature and film. Reading Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and Richard Wright helped. William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner definitely helped. Life on the Run, by Alice Gorman, opened my eyes. Karl Hart’s recent book, High Price, did as well. Hollywood had helped, at times – Amistad, Twelve Years a Slave. Watching the PBS series Eyes on the Prize about the Civil Rights movement helped. And Coates, with his hot burning anger, is helping me, too. I recommend his book.

Some evidence that we’re at least trying to sort this out: the end of Jefferson-Jackson dinners. The Times reported this week that although these dinners have been a traditional fund-raising bonanza, the Democrats are quietly dropping the association to these unrepentant racist, slave-owning presidents. Jefferson has gotten a huge pass from subsequent generations based on his ability to turn a soaring, inspiring phrase (“all men are created equal”), but it looks like he’s finally being held accountable for the things he did to hundreds of humans that were horribly wrong. That’s good.

This is the time of year for butterflies, and I spent some time in the area parks this weekend looking for them. I took the photos here at Raulston Arboretum on Friday after work. Back home, when I got the images onto my laptop, I realized that some of them had been knocked around a bit by life. I considered repairing some of the damage to their wings with the Lightroom healing tool, but decided I liked seeing them as individuals.
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Diving out of Wrightsville — the good, the bad, and the ugly

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We had a dive trip this weekend out of Wrightsville Beach with Aquatic Safaris. We were scheduled to go to two wrecks on Saturday afternoon, the Hyde and Markham, but rough seas prevented that. Plan B was the Liberty Ship, which sits just three miles offshore. Things were bumpy with some current, and I found my heart rate and breathing increasing as I went down the anchor line. There were still a few leftover thoughts of my near death experience of a few weeks back.
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Visibility was quite bad – perhaps 5-10 feet. We followed a line laid out by the mate. There wasn’t much we could see besides the line. It was nice to be diving again, but this was not pleasant diving. The second dive was similar. There were several divers taking a wreck diving course who laid out lines, and we got their lines confused with the mate’s line at one point. We finally figured it out and made it back to the anchor line and the boat.
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Saturday night we stayed in Wilmington with Sally’s sister, Anne, and went to Cichetti, an Italian restaurant. We had a nice meal and a lively conversation. We discussed Shakespeare’s concept of evil, Greek playwrights, and youthful experimenting with psychedelics and pot.

We also talked some about slavery, which I’ve been reading about in a new history of the pre-civil war and civil war period called Ecstatic Nation by Brenda Wineappple. The book brings vivid life to the 1850s when there were slave states and free states, and it was by no means clear which would ultimately prevail. It require real imagination to understand the pro-slavery viewpoint. Wineapple is certainly not pro-slavery, but she gives a sense of the incredible intensity and complexity of the struggle.
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Early Sunday morning the skies were clear and calm, and the seas were calm as well. We left the marina about 7:30 a.m. and made it to the wreck of the John D. Gill in about an hour and half. The Gill was a tanker sunk by a German u-boat in WWII. Visibility was pretty good – perhap 50 feet. We saw several barracuda and thousands of small silvery fish, and we also spotted two large flounder.
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For the last dive, we went to the Hyde, a wreck that still look like a ship, though with lots of things growing on it and lots of fish around it. Visibility was less good – maybe 30-40 feet – but the wreck itself was interesting, and we could see thousands of little fish, along with many barracuda. One sand tiger shark passed close by.
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Reading the Confessions of Nat Turner

One of the rewarding things about travel is the flip side of downtime:   having substantial chunks of time to read.   Once I’ve made it to my gate and found a spot to stow my roll, I look forward to the part of the journey when there is nothing physical that needs to be done, no problems that immediately need to be solved, and no talking that is strictly necessary.  For lovers of books, it’s an oasis.  And reading makes the time valuable.  I really don’t know how non-readers can stand airplanes.

During our travels over the holidays, I managed to finish William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner, which gave a shot in the arm to my sometimes shaky faith in the importance of the novel.  Sally read the book long ago and kept it, and it has sat on our various bookshelves as long as we’ve been together (27+ now!).  During all that time, I had no idea it was such a great book.  It turns out Sally always thought it was a great book, but we never got around to discussing it.

The book is based on an actual person (Turner), a slave who led a bloody revolt in Virginia in 1831.  Styron explains in “afterword” essay that the historical record of Turner is slim, and that he consciously made a character different in important respects from what he believed about the historical Turner.  (The real Turner was apparently a psychotic religious fanatic, whereas Styron’s is a religiously inspired poetic and practical genius.)  Styron’s aim was to illuminate slavery and race relations during that period, and his own.  He succeeded brilliantly in bringing to light multiple dimensions and paradoxes of the Peculiar Institution.

It is certainly a beautiful book in its details and its sweep, but also a deeply painful.  There is, of course, the sickening cruelty of some individual slave owners.  (The narrator Turner concedes that there was a wide range of behavior among slave owners, and some of them were thoughtful and relatively kind.)  There is the pain of Turner and millions of others who endured forced servitude.  There’s also the deep pain is that our forefathers with knowledge and intent supported and defended slavery for generations.  The anti-black racism that continues to plague us is proof that this legacy is still with us.

The book is a powerful example of how a work of fiction can bring to light certain truths that cannot be illuminated any other way.  History in its conventional form is distrustful of imagination, which means that undocumented feelings and behaviors can be completely lost.  But combining historical research with imagination and literary skill, as Styron did, opens doors to the past.

Styron’s essay recounts the strange history of the book itself, which was initially a critical and popular success.  It then became the target of fierce attack by a number of prominent black scholars.   By Styron’s account (which is obviously self-interested), most of the attacks missed the larger points of his work.  In any case, the attacks effectively marginalized the book by discouraging the attention of black readers.  It is a sad irony that this great book that could easily have been an inspiration for more great historical and imaginative work and another bridge over a racial divide became a point of division.

Revisiting Lincoln

   I finally made it to the end of A Lincoln, by Ronald White, and I’m about halfway through Lincoln by David Herbert Donald.  It seems like a good time  to think more about Lincoln.  He’s near the heart of the American civil religion  (along with Washington, the Constitution, and the flag).  And like us with our times of many troubles (wars, financial crisis, global warming, extinction of many species, etc.), he faced enormous challenges. In 1860, the year of he was elected president, slavery looked like a problem that that had no imagineable tolerable solution.  In 1865 it was (at least in legal terms) over.  

    It’s hard to spend time with a Lincoln biography without feeling awed and inspired.   We used to teach our fifth graders a few bumper sticker-size Lincoln facts, which have been lodged in my head since I was a kid.  The log cabin.  The rail splitter.  The love of reading and learning.  The frontier lawyer.  Honest Abe.  Political opponent of slavery.  Savior of the union.   The kid’s version is simplified, of course, but the bumper stickers aren’t seriously misleading.

    Yet many of his contemporaries thought him an uncouth backwoods fellow.  Apparently he had a high, annoying voice, dressed poorly, and was considered more-than-usually ugly.  His early career was a checkered effort to make ends meet in frontier towns, and he experienced job loss, unemployment, bankruptcy, and uncertain prospects.  He was reasonably successful as a lawyer, but he didn’t make a lot of money.   As a new president, he was in way over his head, and he made many costly mistakes.  He had views on race and other subjects that seem today retrograde.  He was not a saint.

   Even so, he continues to inspire us.  His willingness to confront long odds and to reach for the best and highest are still moving.  He was a man of many virtues.  There are two that I take as as exemplary — honesty and intellectual curiosity.

    Lincoln made sure that the individuals he dealt with were fairly treated even when it was to his disadvantage.  I believe his reputation for exceptional honesty was a critical factor to his success.  He won authority because people believed he was honest, that he was not corrupt, and that he would do what he believed in good faith was the right thing.  

   Lincoln was also unusual in his passion for  learning.  As a boy growing up on homestead in the frontier, Linconln got almost no formal schooling.  He attended school for less than 12 months over his lifetime. How did he get so smart?  Simple: he read omniverously.  (Apparently he did most of it out loud, which must have been annoying at times.)  He believed it was possible to transform himself, to become better.  His story reminds us of how much a single human can achieve.