February 12, 2012
Slaving and whaling dominated New England shipping prior to the Civil War. When the slave trade became illegal in 1808, fewer profits rolled into Yankee coffers. As slave-trade revenues decreased, abolitionist fervor in New England increased. To take up the financial slack, the whaling trade expanded for a while. But with the rise of petroleum products, whaling soon faded, too.
But according to PETA, both these storied maritime enterprises remain alive and intertwined in modern-day California. This is the claim they tried making in a San Diego court against SeaWorld. PETA recently filed a lawsuit claiming that SeaWorld is engaging in interspecies slavery by holding five killer whales captive. PETA appears to hold that these orcas are endowed by their Creator with the same inalienable rights S/He/It granted to humans.
At first glance, one might be tempted to ignore the litigants who filed on behalf of the would-be plaintiffs as mere kooks. And at first glance, a judge dismissed the case. But I think such a dismissal is premature.
Consider the implications if other species were accorded the same legal status as humans. Of the SeaWorld Five, one (Tilikum) killed his trainer two years ago. At the time, she was let off with a mere transfer from SeaWorld Orlando to the San Diego facility because she was supposed to be an “animal.” But if the court had determined that orcas have the same status as human beings, Tilikum would have to stand trial for murder. If convicted and sentenced to death, a large (and aquatic) gas chamber would need to be built.
If animals are determined to have the same legal status as humans, it will be necessary for law enforcement to track down the grizzly bears who occasionally kill hapless wilderness campers. Coyotes will no longer be able to hunt cats without fear of prosecution. Dogs shall have to take responsibility for their own messes in public parks. Canines and felines alike will become legally responsible for their offspring.
But seriously, calling animals “slaves” cheapens the terrible truth about modern human slavery. There are real reasons why the United Nations has consecrated December 2 as the “International Day for the Abolition of Slavery” and why Anti-Slavery International, a charity founded in 1839, still has much to do.
Traditional slavery is alive and well in Africa and parts of the Arab World. While doubtless a shock to Black Muslims and others, the sad truth is that such groups as the Haratin continue to labor in chains—figuratively or literally—as bonded labor or outright slaves. Weak or compliant governments make eradicating the practice very difficult.
On a much larger scale—reaching into major American cities—is sexual slavery. Where surviving traditional slavery generally continues primarily among people of black African descent, sexual slavery is colorblind. It can also be coed, as Western soldiers in Afghanistan encountering bacha bazi have discovered. Although lacking the colorful appurtenances of wooden ships and iron shackles, modern human trafficking can equal the Middle Passage in horror.
There is a third sort of slavery, especially rampant here in Los Angeles: the marginally or even unpaid foreign worker (often brought here specifically for the purpose) working in sweatshops to produce cheap goods. Not only Latin Americans but East Asians (in many ways more vulnerable) are recruited en masse and brought here under false pretenses. Such workers can be deported at any time should they prove restive.
There is also the slavery of the unborn. Since Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court has maintained that the unborn child, previously endowed with human rights, is the absolute property of its mother, who has power of life and death over him—as Roman law once gave the paterfamilias control over his family. But once the child is born, the state assumes most of the control.
Governments and individuals seem reluctant to tackle modern slavery for dubious reasons such as political correctness, shame, profit, or irreligious dogma. Faced with this litany of evil, I urge PETA to turn their energy toward relieving the plight of human slaves worldwide. During the Middle Ages, the two orders of Mercedarians and Trinitarians vowed themselves to substitute for slaves held by the Moors. Perhaps PETA members might do the same.
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