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Do Some Circus and Zoo Animals Dream of Freedom and Revenge Against Their Masters? One Author Says Yes

Translating the revolutionary consciousness of voiceless animals is no more silly than doing the same for human beings.

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Hribal does not merely make his finned and four-legged insurrectionists speak his political language. He has them stand in for all of their caged brethren, the vast majority of whom never tried to escape their confines or stomp a keeper. In this way, again, he is no different from many historians of human beings.

In 1988 the literary theorist Gayatri Spivak published an essay criticizing a new movement among scholars of South Asia known as “subaltern studies.” The movement was an attempt to replace colonialist histories of the subcontinent with “history from below,” an enterprise that had been under way among left-wing historians in Great Britain and the United States since the 1960s. What Spivak found in this new approach to South Asian history I find in the “new social history” of the United States: a widespread but largely unconscious effort to place explicitly political and collectivist ideas in the minds of historical subjects who left no record of their thoughts. Spivak argued that the objective of university academics to “establish true knowledge of the subaltern and its consciousness” was essentially a new form of imperialism —an attempt to remake the world in the image of oneself. 

Try this for an exercise: Open any book written in the last 40 years on African-American history, women’s history, or labor history and count the number of times Hribal’s terms describing the consciousness of animals are used to describe the consciousness of people. Then look for evidence that the people themselves used those terms. Most often, you will find the self-appointed leaders of the “oppressed” and “exploited”—abolitionists, feminists, union leaders, civil rights leaders, and political radicals—standing in for their constituents and speaking the language that left-wing historians want to hear.

It is not a defense of slavery, segregation, the denial of rights to women, or poverty to acknowledge the fact that, according to the available evidence, only a tiny portion of their alleged victims clearly thought of themselves that way. Few historians mention that a majority of the ex-slaves who were interviewed held positive views of their days on the plantation (including those who were interviewed by African Americans) or, more important, that more than 99 percent of American slaves left not a single record of their thoughts. The implication of Spivak’s argument, which was applied to similar treatments of Indian peasants, is that to claim a status for all slaves as “victimized” or “oppressed” is to homogenize the attitudes, behaviors, and cultures of millions of people and to make them one’s sock puppet. Similarly, the total African-American participation in the organized civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s equaled roughly 1 percent of the total African-American population of the time. We also know that many African Americans, most notably black nationalists, attacked civil rights leaders for being sell-out “Uncle Toms” and cultural assimilationists. Yet in our textbooks Martin Luther King Jr. is presented as the voice of all 20 million black people alive during his lifetime.

The most egregious political ventriloquism can be found in U.S. labor history, where the socialists and social democrats who took control of some unions are used by historians to present the American working class as having a long tradition of collectivist aspirations. My 2001 book on Jimmy Hoffa, Out of the Jungle, was the first to note that anti-socialist, strictly bread-and-butter unions like the Teamsters dwarfed the combined membership of the socialist-led unions beloved by New Left labor historians.

And the views of how many women have been represented by feminist discourse since its origins in the 19th century? Jason Hribal does to dolphins what Hillary Clinton is doing to the women of Afghanistan, but with a far more consequential intention than the razing of Sea World. Clinton and a large swath of feminists are justifying the military occupation of Afghanistan by claiming that Afghan women are current or potential “victims” of Sharia law and the Taliban. Yet only a small fraction of Afghan women have been asked in polls whether they agree with this assessment of their own lives; a majority who have been asked endorse Sharia law, and a significant percentage even endorse the return to power of the Taliban. If we liberate the women of Afghanistan, we will do so against the wishes of many of the liberated.

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