Friday 17 July 2015

SMARTS Update:On Slavery And Our SMART World

Isn't it weird? Here we are, well into the 21st Century-- the SMARTS century-- and everybody's talking about slavery, even the Pope.

One of the things I learned while researching SMARTS is that old ideas, especially bad ones, rarely die. They just huddle on the margins, waiting for someone to find a new use for them. An apologist with a good line and a nice platform can do wonders with just about any rotten notion. Which brings me to slavery.  A vile, so-called institution that goes back as far as humans can remember, slavery clearly has staying power.  If you want to wade through the Old Testament, you'll find rules in Leviticus about how slaves are to be treated-- for example, slaves must be allowed to go home to their families on Jubilee Years. (Jubilee Years occur every fiftieth year.).  Does the Bible condemn slavery as wrong? Not so's you'd notice. Instead, it sometimes suggests that slavery isn't so bad, and that freedom can kill, unless a miracle occurs. Take the story of Hagar and Ishmael. Hagar, a slave, was forced to bear Abraham's first son, Ishmael, because Abraham's wife Sarah was barren.  But then Sarah miraculously got pregnant and gave birth to Isaac. Sarah eventually demanded that Hagar and Ishmael be kicked out  of the Abraham family so that her own son, the second born, would inherit everything.   Out they went, into the desert, no food, no water, and came close to dying until another miracle occurred and Hagar's son Ishmael went on to found a great nation of 12 princes. Another example:it is the religious duty of every Jew to remember and celebrate each year our escape from slavery in Egypt, the result of 11 miracles by my count. But as the Exodus story explains, freedom turned out to be so hard that while Moses was up on the mountain getting instructions on how free people should live, those waiting below worshiped a golden calf and begged to be freed from freedom.

Slavery was outlawed throughout the British Empire (with the exception of the territories of the East India Company, Ceylon, etc.) in 1833. Slavery in the US was outlawed in 1860, which begat the Civil War, which begat the Jim Crow form of slavery that flourished for 100 years more, justified by the coincidental rise of the so-called science of eugenics. It purported to show that blacks are intellectually inferior to whites and therefore ought to ride at the back of the bus and be kept out of nice hotels and be cheated of ordinary wages and be hung from trees if they objected, or even if it seemed as if they might object. Slavery and the loony science of eugenics were also favored by Nazi Germany. Slavery permitted the Reich to screw economic value out of those deemed to be eugenical threats to Aryans until they were too exhausted to work. At which point they were slaughtered. And even in death their hair and fat and tooth fillings were put to use.  Slavery was finally outlawed everywhere with the United Nations declaration of human rights at the end of WWII. And yet slavery remains. China uses prisoners as slaves.  So does North Korea.  ISIS brags that it has brought slavery back with the caliphate. Boko Haram is pleased to say they sell women and children for cash.

The Pope says we are all slaves to the greed of unrestrained capitalism.

The first time I understood that slavery still exists in the West, I was researching a story in Brazil. It was the early 1990s. I was working on a book about the environmental movement which was then focused on saving the Amazon rainforest.  Chico Mendes, a rubbertapper, had been held up to the world as a rainforest defender by organizations like the Sierra Club International. Prizes were given in Mendes's name after he was killed in the dying days of the Brazilian military dictatorship (which lasted from 1965 to 1989).   The saving-the-rainforest story turned out to be twisty and chimerical, but the misery of rubbertappers was real enough. Rubbertappers then, and probably still, were very poor folk who earned just enough from tree tapping to stay alive but were perpetually in debt to the companies they sold their rubber to. The companies gave them the supplies they needed to put in another year's work in exchange for what they'd collected. They could never get ahead or break free. One woman I interviewed, a former  member of the Maoist underground which fought against the Brazilian military dictatorship, had been sent to organize the rubbertappers in the early 1970s. ( Maoist doctrine in those days exhorted revolutionaries to go to the countryside and surround the cities.) What she found when she finally met up with a few rubbertappers in the rainforest was appalling: they were almost all illiterate; they were half starved; they suffered from all kinds of untreated diseases; and they were, like Greece, drowning in debt. The rubbertappers were enslaved. Like the cane cutters in the Brazilian northeast, like the Greeks this week.

And, as I would later learn, like Brazilian coffee plantation workers at the turn of the 20th Century.

That came up the next time I went to Brazil, in 2012.  By then, the book I had written about the environmental movement had been translated into Portuguese and published there. Coincidental with the release of its second edition, I had been invited to Sao Paulo to speak to a group of alumnae from a national military college. I went with trepidation.  Maybe they wouldn't be happy with what I'd published? I'm somewhat to the left and a lot green, and the military down there, I knew, detested both. On the other hand, Brazil was a new country politically. The long-suppressed leftists who had been forced into exile or underground during the dictatorship, had been in power for years. Lula da Silva, a metalworker, trade unionist, and leader of the Workers' Party had been elected as president  in 2003. His former assistant, Dilma Rousseff, had been elected president in 2010. In government, their Workers Party and its allies had created an infrastructure of support for the poor. Literacy was up, poverty was down. There were still favelas (shanty towns) everywhere, but social justice was no longer a dangerous idea to be snuffed out.

The alumnae I spoke to turned out to be strange group. Once political insiders, they were now on the fringe. One man was introduced as the grandson of Brazil's last Emperor.  His family had been exiled to France until the government of Brazil decided he presented no threat. He certainly looked safe enough. An old fellow, small, and completely unremarkable, he wore a dark and baggy cardigan and scuffed shoes. Yet he descried the evils of the Brazilian government's policy of land reform with a certain aristocratic zest. Others bemoaned the military's loss of power, obsessing over what they saw as the criminal corruption endemic to the government of the people, for the people. Lula had stolen billions while in office, they charged, and they had their theories about how. No one was safe in their homes. Democracy was the problem. Why? As one man who would drive me around town the next day explained, the average IQ in Brazil is only 85.

"We can't be ruled by these people,"  he'd thundered.

This man had also been invited to speak at the event and was held in high regard. He was introduced as the nephew of the renowned Brazilian artist, Candido Portinari, who was famously a Communist, a Senator, an exile, and a nationalist. Candido Portinari had helped invent a Brazilian visual vocabulary  to supplant the vision imported from Europe.  Some of his murals grace the United Nations building in New York.

While he drove me to a private museum to view works of Portinari's contemporaries, Portinari's nephew declared himself to be the opposite of his uncle-- a fascist.

"My daughter says I'm a Nazi," he told me.

I'm Jewish, I said, putting my hand on the door handle, ready to jump out. He reassured me that he isn't the kind of fascist who kept Jews  as slaves and sent them to slaughter. His proof? He had a friend who had once served in the Mossad.

I figured he must have been from a wealthy family. Not so, he said. His grandparents had immigrated to Brazil from Italy at the turn of the last century and had worked on a coffee plantation. Candido Portinari had been born on that plantation and some of his paintings explored that life.  I told him about my own grandparents who had come to western Canada as homesteaders, and how hard life had been for them. On the other hand, they had gone on to prosper and contribute to Canadian democracy. The coffee plantation workers lived like the rubbertappers, he said. Worked till they dropped.

 Omigod, I said. Like slaves. Terrible.

Slavery's not so bad, said Portinari's nephew.

For months, I couldn't get that terrible phrase out of my head so I recognized the idea immediately when it came up again while I was researching SMARTS. To my surprise, a version of the notion that slavery isn't so bad was the excuse given by senior scientists of important scientific institutions for holding intelligent animals in labs and zoos. They didn't actually use those words. They put it this way: it was better that very intelligent primates and elephants and cetaceans should live their lives in zoos (or labs) than that they be returned to habitats destroyed by humans where they would surely die. 

Recently, the nonHuman Rights Project dragged that notion into the courts and put it on trial.The Project made a successful habeas corpus application in New York City, demanding that those doing experiments on two chimpanzees --Leo and Hercules-- in a biomedical facility at Stony Brook University be forced to demonstrate their right to do so.  As Stephen Wise, the lawyer for the apes, asserted, chimpanzees have their own form of intelligence. They have a strong capacity to reason and they have complex social lives. They have a right to autonomy. He produced supporting affidavits from experts on primate behavior including Sue Savage-Rumbaugh (who, oddly,  had laid claim to bonobos formerly in her 'care'  at Georgia State University and at the Iowa Primate Learning Sanctuary). His argument: holding Leo and Hercules in a lab for research is slavery by another name.

As Wise said in a recent blog post, during the legal battle he heard next to nothing from the scientists at Stony Brook.  But  after his application succeeded, one of them gave an interview to David Grimm for the online edition of Science, the preeminent general science publication in the US.  Susan Larson, an anatomist "working with the chimps"  at Stony Brook, explained that Leo and Hercules were born in a research center in New Iberia, Louisiana, and had been "on loan"  to Stony Brook for six years.  She explained that she and her colleagues use them to study bipedalism ( walking on two feet). They have studied 17 species of primates, including 11 chimpanzees, "to help us understand how early hominids like Lucy moved around." They do three kinds of  studies. One involves daubing the chimps with non toxic paint which permits their movements to be tracked with a camera; another involves recording the forces generated as the apes walk over force plates;  in the third method, electromyography, "fine-wire electrodes inserted into the muscles tell us how they contribute to the motion we're studying. We don't do anything with these chimpanzees that we haven't done on ourselves."

The interviewer asked: why not do these tests in sanctuaries?

Larson might have responded: because then they wouldn't be sanctuaries, they'd be outdoor labs. Instead, she answered:   " You need to be able to collect many samples of the same behavior. Animals in zoos and sanctuaries are notoriously unwilling to do what we want them to. Hercules and Leo do everything for a cherry or a bit of juice."

In other words, they have been coerced into cooperating out of sheer boredom. As to their living conditions, she asserted they were just swell. Leo and Hercules live in the equivalent of three moderate sized, interconnected rooms where they can climb around on hammocks and ropes and tear up magazines for amusement. " We try to make their day-to-day lives as interesting as possible. We don't want them to feel threatened or frightened: otherwise we wouldn't get reliable results."

Surprise, surprise, Larson is no fan of the movement to treat chimpanzees as legal persons. It's a sham, she told Science online. " If anyone treats them like people, it's us. We don't treat them like prisoners; we only work with them when they're willing. But we have to be cognizant that these are chimpanzees--not people. They can't provide for themselves; they need human care and protection...." 

Sound familiar?

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