Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Racism by any other name

I recently saw the new film The Great Debaters, starring Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker, and several young African-American actors (including a young actor confusingly named Denzel Whitaker--no relation to either, I'm told). It was based on the true story of the debating team at Wiley College, an unheralded black school in Texas, which went undefeated and eventually gained the attention of the nation. Set in 1935, racial inequality was a central theme. The film included the aftermath of a horrible lynching.

Whenever I see such depictions I can’t help but draw the powerful parallels between such injustices toward humans and today’s ongoing injustices toward animals. It is so politically incorrect to show the slightest hint of racism today, and I thank goodness for humanity’s capacity for moral progress that we’ve made such huge strides in the past century with the emancipation of women and of “people of color.” Against this backdrop, the quest for animal rights is both exciting and frustrating. Exciting because there is such a movement afoot. Frustrating because so few embrace it, and frustrating that good, decent people have absolutely no clue to its moral legitimacy or urgency.

So profound is this moral blind-spot that it sometimes feels to me that I live in a world of zombies. A woman with a French accent who occasionally rides on my morning bus wore a new coat last week, with a fur collar. Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee appeared in the Washington Post playing in a jazz ensemble, and I thought “good on him.” The next day, he was pictured in camouflage and with shotgun over his shoulder, grinning as he returned from a hunting expedition where he had shot three pheasants. The folks next door stopped in the other day to give us a tin of cookies as a Christmas offering. You couldn’t ask for more amicable, helpful neighbors. They also love animals, feeding the deer and squirrels and drawing flocks of wild birds with their ever-filled feeders. As we hugged and shook hands in greeting, we asked what their plans for Xmas were. Barb said they had been invited to a friend’s place where—and at this point she leaned in with a hushed and confiding tone—they would visit the homes of several prominent niggers and burn crosses on their front lawns.

Of course, I made up that last bit. Barb and Paul are not in the least bit racist. What Barb really said was that their friends had invited them over to have roast lamb. For me, that was just as jarring, if less surprising, than if she really had admitted to terrorizing black Americans.

That decent, law-abiding and intelligent people are still buying fur, shooting animals and eating babies says much about humankind’s moral fickleness. The majority still finds it acceptable to treat animals as if they were so many blocks of wood. Or, to be more precise, they don’t find abject animal suffering acceptable, but they are either too ignorant or too complacent to do anything personal about it. To draw from a line in The Great Debaters, our task is to defy the tyranny of majority. That the masses think one thing doesn’t make it right.


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