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Dorfman writes: "When Donald Trump recently accused 'illegal immigrants' of wanting to 'pour into and infest our country,' there was an immediate outcry. After all, that verb, infest, had been used by the Nazis as a way of dehumanizing Jews and communists as rats, vermin, or insects that needed to be eradicated."

Immigration detention facility. photo: Getty)
Immigration detention facility. photo: Getty)

Human Zoos in the Age of Trump: Humans as 'Animals,' Then and Now

By Ariel Dorfman, TomDispatch

11 July 18


A recent study of insect life in protected nature reserves in Germany got the most modest attention in our busy Trumpian world. In the last 27 years, however, researchers found that flying insect populations there had dropped 76% seasonally and 82% in mid-summer (when insect numbers are at their peak). If you aren’t instantly struck by those figures, let me assure you that they are stunning enough to have been labeled an “insectageddon,” and much of what's happening may be attributable to the massive use of pesticides and the destruction of habitat that has turned so much of the planet into farmland and in the process “into a wildlife desert.” And much as most of us may not love insects, which make up about two-thirds of all life on this planet, keep in mind that they are crucial both as pollinators and prey for this world as we know it.

This fits painfully well with another phenomenon which has gotten more (but hardly enough) attention in recent years. It’s been termed “the sixth extinction,” an extermination event the likes of which may only have been experienced five other times in the history of life on this planet. As environmental reporter Elizabeth Kolbert has written, “It is estimated that one-third of all reef-building corals, a third of all fresh-water mollusks, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles, and a sixth of all birds are headed toward oblivion. The losses are occurring all over: in the South Pacific and in the North Atlantic, in the Arctic and the Sahel, in lakes and on islands, on mountaintops and in valleys. If you know how to look, you can probably find signs of the current extinction event in your own backyard.”

In other words, we are, it seems, in the midst of a great planetary die-off (before the full impact of global warming even hits) for which we may need the equivalent of a Paris climate accord simply to begin to save some of the habitats of quickly disappearing species. And these are not just happenstantial events. They are deeply, even integrally, related to human acts that future generations may look back upon as horrors of an almost unknown order, ones that make those of us now living responsible for what will be seen as almost unimaginable planetary crimes.

That is the very possibility that TomDispatch regular Ariel Dorfman considers today as he looks back on previous human acts that no one at the time thought particularly horrific, in particular “human zoos” -- the subject of his moving new novel, Darwin’s Ghosts -- which now seem like the most obvious of horrors to us. Tom

-Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch

Human Zoos in the Age of Trump
Humans as “Animals,” Then and Now

hen Donald Trump recently accused “illegal immigrants” of wanting to “pour into and infest our country,” there was an immediate outcry. After all, that verb, infest, had been used by the Nazis as a way of dehumanizing Jews and communists as rats, vermin, or insects that needed to be eradicated.

Nobody, however, should have been surprised. The president has a long history of excoriating people of color as animal-like. In 1989, for instance, reacting to the rape of a white woman in New York’s Central Park, he took out full-page ads in four of the city’s major papers (total cost: $85,000) calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty and decrying “roving bands of wild criminals roaming our streets.” He was, of course, referring to the five black and Latino youngsters accused of that crime for which they were convicted -- and, 10 years late, exonerated when a serial rapist and murderer finally confessed.

Trump never apologized for his rush to judgment or his hate-filled opinions, which eventually became the template for his attacks on immigrants during the 2016 election campaign and for his presidency. He has declared many times that some people aren’t actually human beings at all but animals, pointing, in particular, to MS-13 gang members. At a rally in Tennessee at the end of May, he doubled down on this sort of invective, goading a frenzied crowd to enthusiastically shout that word -- “Animals!” -- back. In that way, he made those present accomplices to his bigotry. Nor are his insults and racial tirades mere rhetorical flourishes. They’ve had quite real consequences. It’s enough to look at the cages where undocumented children separated from their families at or near the U.S.-Mexico border have been held as if they were indeed animals -- reporters and others regularly described one of those detention areas as being like a “zoo” or a “kennel” -- not to mention their parents who are also trapped behind wire barriers, even if arousing far less attention and protest.

A History of Caged Humans

All the president’s furious contemporary rants and rallies, along with those cages and detainee centers, have certainlybrought Nazism to mind for some, but it might be more illuminating to think of them as echoing an earlier moment in history when comparing dark-skinned humans to animals would hardly have caused a stir. It would have been considered part of normal discourse, in both Europe and the United States.

Indeed, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, millions of Europeans and Americans considered it perfectly natural to treat certain members of our species quite literally as if they were beasts. They were unfazed, so the historical record suggests, by the idea of seeing such “animals,” such oddities, displayed in literal zoo cages at boisterous public events. It may now be hard to believe, but our forebears once flocked in staggering numbers to “human zoos,” where thousands of natives kidnapped from Asia, Africa, and Latin America were exposed to scrutiny, curiosity, and derision, as well as, sometimes, undergoing scientific experimentation.

Today, such mindboggling violations of human rights have almost entirely vanished from public memory. I had only vaguely heard of human zoos myself, before I became obsessed with them when research for my latest novel, Darwin’s Ghosts, led me into the world of human menageries. I discovered that the phenomenon had been launched in the most modest of ways.

One hundred and seventy years ago -- 1848, a year of revolutions across the globe -- a Hamburg fishmonger, Claus Hagenbeck, decided to charge customers to take a peek at some Arctic seals swimming in a large tub in the backyard of his house. Soon enough, that first timid entrepreneurial step developed into a highly lucrative family business exhibiting wild animals, while feeding growing demands for wondrous beasts to populate circuses and fill the private collections of monarchs and other wealthy individuals.

In the end, animals were not enough. By the early 1870s, in conjunction with the Jardin d’Acclimatation in Paris and American impresarios like P.T. Barnum, the Hagenbeck family started dabbling in displaying “savages” from the farthest corners of the planet. The first victims of this desire to bring exemplars from the rest of humanity to viewers in the West were Laplanders, displayed in a setting meant to look like one of their villages. (A similar urge gave birth to the dioramas that soon began to flourish at museums of natural history.)

That first exhibition in Hamburg of “the little men and women” of Lapland proved so sensational -- tours were organized to Berlin, Leipzig, and other German cities -- that the desire to see more “primitive” humans soon became insatiable. Scavengers who had previously specialized in locating and bringing African and Asian wildlife to Europe and the United States were now instructed to be on the lookout for similarly exotic human wildlife. They should not be, it was quickly stipulated, so monstrous as to disgust audiences, but neither should they be so beautiful as to cease to be bizarre.

The Laplanders were followed by a multitude of indigenous inhabitants of the planet forcibly removed from their habitats: Eskimos, Cingalese, Kalmuks, Somalis, Ethiopians, Bedouins, Nubians from the Upper Nile, aboriginal Australians, Zulu warriors, Mapuche Indians, Andaman Islanders from the South Pacific, head-hunters from Borneo. The list went on and on, as those human zoos spread from Germany to France, England, Belgium, Spain, Italy, and the United States, all of which -- what a coincidence! -- just happened to be the globe’s imperial powers of that era.

Representatives of ethnic groups from all over the planet soon became an expectable feature of then-popular World’s Fair pavilions. Besides providing entertainment for the whole family -- they might be thought of as that moment’s equivalents of reality TV shows -- those exhibitions were proclaimed “educational” experiences by the enterprises cashing in on them. Such tableaus of “prehistoric” people offered a way for affluent visitors to gawk at and be amazed by the bizarre habits of the bizarre inhabitants of the faraway lands that their countries were incorporating with great violence into “civilization” via colonial dominion. In fact, that violence was such that some of the native populations on display, like diverse groups of Patagons from Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of Latin America, were already then on the verge of becoming extinct. One of the draws of seeing living specimens of those strange men, women, and children was to do so before their last remnants, along with their languages and their cultures, disappeared from the face of the Earth.

Even if you were among the millions of Americans and Europeans who couldn’t personally visit such folk displays, ethnic villages, and human zoos, you could still inexpensively and vicariously experience those exotic others. The images of the captives -- who, of course, had been photographed without their consent -- were commercialized on an industrial scale. The postcards upon which their faces and bodies were flaunted soon became an everyday feature of domestic life, one more way that the human zoo was normalized, whitewashed, and sent into the home with barely a thought about the horrors, the suffering being visited on those captives or how their children, husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, relatives, and friends, left behind, were dealing with the trauma of having their loved ones torn from their midst.

Nor were such acts repudiated by the most illustrious members of those “advanced” societies. Quite the opposite, many of the abductions had been financed by scientific institutions eager to discover how such specimens might fit into Darwin’s theory of evolution. Their research, in turn, was backed by government officials more than ready to show their respect and support for scholars looking into the origins of humanity. Were those Africans and South Americans entirely human or did they constitute missing links in the great chain of beings that became our species? Eminent naturalists and doctors debated just such matters, gave lectures on them, wrote treatises about them, and (in what then passed for scientific experimentation) poked at or into the bodies of those who had made the mistake of being born far from the so-called civilized world.

The Ota Bengas of Today

Today, of course, human zoos and the medical experiments on live human beings that went with them are inconceivable. The consciousness of humanity, enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the U.N. 70 years ago, has made such practices disgraceful and intolerable. Who today could stomach the fate of Ota Benga, a pygmy from the Congo who was housed with the primates at New York’s Bronx Zoo in 1906 and committed suicide a decade later when he realized that he would never be able to return to his native land? Who among us would bring their children to gape at “missing links” like Thai dwarfs, Amazonian Indians, or Sudanese villagers as if they were freaks of nature, not human beings?

Unfortunately, congratulations are not (yet) in order, given how often the same racist impulses resurface today, and not only in the president’s intemperate diatribes equating humans and animals (none of which have so far provoked indignation in most of his followers). A similar dehumanization of strangers with darker faces and skins appears to animate current anti-immigrant sentiments in many lands, a desire to escape “infestation” from abroad and maintain mythical versions of racial purity and national identity. Are we really that removed from the spectators who watched their fellow humans abused in zoo-like conditions a century or so ago without blinking or being disturbed?

In retrospect, what’s most sobering about the human zoos of an earlier time is how oblivious those who participated in such degrading spectacles were to the crimes being committed before their eyes. Many of them would have judged themselves decent, enlightened citizens, shining advocates of progress, science, and freedom. And yet, in Berlin in 1882, the police had to be called in to quell a riot by visitors to an exhibition of 11 Kaweshkar natives abducted from Tierra del Fuego. Thousands of customers, having imbibed copious gallons of beer, began to stone the hostages, demanding that they mate in public. Or consider the fate of two female Kaweshkar whose sexual organs, after they died in captivity, were carved from their dead bodies and sent to be examined by a prominent German researcher interested in discovering how such creatures might be distinct from European women.

So many decades later, it’s easy enough to condemn such offenses. More difficult and painful is to ask what injustices are happening now that we take to be as normal as human zoos (or the disempowerment of women and child slavery) were just a few generations ago. Is it the thoughtless annihilation of immeasurable species, the plundering of nature, the loss of wisdom stored for millennia by ethnic groups that are fast disappearing? Is it the punitive incarceration of millions, so many lives wasted? Is it our incredibly counterproductive “war on drugs” that unnecessarily ravages cities, nations, and lives? Or our inability to rid ourselves of the plague of nuclear proliferation, the brutality of widespread hunger, America’s endless wars, the detention centers for immigrants and their children in this country, the spectacle of undocumented minors shut up in cages and crying for their parents, or the overflowing refugee camps elsewhere in the world? And what of so many children displaced in their war-torn lands or incarcerated in poverty? Where is the indignation about them? Who marches to have them released from their structural captivity? And who even noticed the 10,000 children murdered or maimed in armed conflicts in 2017 alone, deaths invisible to us if you didn’t happen to catch a brief news item quickly forgotten?

In reality, those human zoos of the not-so-distant past pose a terrifying question for us: What everyday horrors of our world will our descendants look back on with disgust in the future? How, they will wonder, could their ancestors have been so blind as to condone such transgressions against humaneness and humanity?

Ariel Dorfman, an emeritus professor of literature at Duke and a TomDispatch regular, is the author of the play Death and the Maiden, a recent book of essays Homeland Security Ate My Speech: Messages From the End of the World, and a new novel, Darwin’s Ghosts. He lives with his wife in Durham, North Carolina, and in their native Chile.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power, John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II, and John Feffer's dystopian novel Splinterlands. your social media marketing partner


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+7 # Robbee 2018-07-11 18:52
with all due respect, dickhead acts, well, like a dick?

dickhead should be examined, afar, from behind a telescope, by evangelicals wearing hazmat suits?
+9 # economagic 2018-07-12 07:08
Robbee, you miss the point as usual. The problem is not JUST Dickhead--who is certainly a problem--but the 50 million or so dickheads who see nothing wrong with anything he says or does, at least not yet.

Standing back just a little farther it is humankind, a great many of whom have in the past century or so come to understand that we are all human beings, cousins with all the greatness and baseness that entails, while that many more are still stuck in the baseness and deny their kinship with the others.

Ariel Dorfman is one of the great humanistic writers of our time (of which there are quite a few), perhaps in part because his life was spared when a colleague filled in for him as Salvador Allende's top aide on September 11, 1973, when the Chilean armed forces and national police, supported by the CIA, stormed the presidential palace and murdered Allende (a socialist), ushering in a 20-year reign of terror. Since the end of the Pinochet era Chile has re-instituted nominal democracy but retained a hard-core capitalist economy--the purpose of the coup in the first place.
+3 # Rodion Raskolnikov 2018-07-12 20:32
econo -- yes, right about Dorfman. Wasn't he at Duke for a while where you are? I know he was close to Fred Jameson who is at Duke.
0 # economagic 2018-07-16 20:53
For some reason the message below failed to post:

"Right. I don't know Jameson; will look him up."

I'm on an un-merry-go-rou nd right now and haven't got back to Jameson. but I'm expecting that to clear partly before the end of the week. Are you familiar with William Darity, an economist at Duke who tends to follow Keynes rather than the "Keynesians," who follow Paul Samuelson, a significantly different approach.
+7 # jwb110 2018-07-11 19:47
The thing I find most interesting are the numbers of Jews that I know who voted for Trump. I was astounded but also knew that most of them were very prejudiced around the hispanic/latino population in the state that I live in. Also, none of them are native to that state.
Then it struck me, the hispanic/latino population here was just the Palestinians of the West. There doesn't seem to be too much difference in the way each country treats many races who were hear first. It looks to me as though Trump just took a page from Netanyahu's playbook.
The world has been turned on its head. The ideas which drove the first world countries toward a moderate and inclusive home population have been ejected. The world is now full of deniers. Holocaust deniers, Climate Change deniers, Deniers of the concept that a nation is at its strongest from outside attack when it populations are cohesive and the list goes on.
History tends to show that there is always a day of reckoning. Sad to say but the people who are responsible for all of this will probably never pay for their crime. For me that crime is the crime against the humanity of this Nation, all of this Nation.
+4 # chrisconno 2018-07-11 19:55
That is if our environment survives our avarice long enough that we could look back on the atrocities of self aggrandizement. I'm sure there were many atrocities before the Crusades, the Holy Inquisition, the Trail of Tears, Slavery, state sanctioned brutalizing of women, molesting of children, lynching of Blacks, and now Trumpians. Is it even possible for the human race to be decent to each other or other 'lesser' species? Our history says NO loud and clearly no matter how many self aggrandizing religions claim righteousness. We are doomed for extinction, its just unforgivably tragic that we elect to take all other life with us.
+8 # DonnaLynne 2018-07-11 21:55
Who would think separating children from their parents is right thing to do?

Amazing the nation lets him get away with this...
+3 # economagic 2018-07-12 18:58
At the moment, "the nation" is giving the regime hell for that abomination (and others), even as the regime is trying to charge the families for the DNA testing required to identify which kids go with which parents. Of course no such tests would have been necessary had the regime kept even rudimentary records. Most likely they did so with malice aforethought, although with this regime it could just as easily been incompetence. Or it could have been that they just didn't give a damn, which would be incompetence with NO forethought.
+9 # janie1893 2018-07-12 01:05
I am absolutely stunned by the number of people who think its okay to cage these poor refugee folks and take their children from them. It is astounding that modern American brains can even think that way.
Is there hope for civilization?
+3 # ericlipps 2018-07-12 05:54
I await the day Trump slips and, reverting to German, refers to Mexicans (or Muslims) as "untermenschen. "
+5 # Rodion Raskolnikov 2018-07-12 07:34
This is really good. White oligarchs have never really accepted the fact that non-white are fully human.

When Europeans first sailed out to other lands in the 1400s, they brought back to Europe people from Africa and the Americas and displayed them in cages to Europeans. They did not consider these people to be human beings.

In fact, the humanness of non-europeans was an important question and debate. The sides were best represented by the arguments of Jines de Sepulveda (the namesake of a major street in Los Angeles) who said non-europeans were not human. On the other side was Bartolome de las Casas, a priest who was on Columbus' 3rd voyage.

The issue was resolved (in theory) in 1537 by the Papal proclamation Sublimis Deus, which finally ruled that "the Indians are truly men and that they are not only capable of understanding the Catholic Faith but, according to our information, they desire exceedingly to receive it." This did not change the practice of slavery or dehumanization, only the theory.

White supremacy or Euro/American supremacy is still the dominant belief of the oligarchs of Europe and America. The follow the theory of "diffusionism"; that is spreading the enlightenment of Euro/America to the less developed peoples of the world. This is sometimes called "democracy" promotion.

Most working class people have given up white supremacy. But the oligarchs believe it as a religion. They are in a permanent war against the darker races.
+2 # longingfortruth 2018-07-12 11:41
I'm curious, what is the dominant belief of the oligarchs of Russia?

The oligarchs don't believe in white supremacy as a religion they just exploit it. The poor have been fed the myth of "whiteness" and it's supremacy to distract them from their exploitation. They have been brainwashed and sadly they are not alone.

Please use all your critical thinking skills when reading this comment section and heed Mark Ash's warning at the beginning of it.
+3 # economagic 2018-07-12 19:02
The "warning" at the beginning is from Tom Engelhardt. The article, by Ariel Dorfman, originally appeared on Tom's website, Tomdispatch.
+3 # Rodion Raskolnikov 2018-07-12 20:42
longing -- Russia is different from the US or western Europe. It was an empire that encompassed many ethnic groups and there is a lot of ethnocentrism. But it never had the kind of obsession with race that dominated western Europe. Russian oligarchy ended with the 1917 revolution. The billionaire class that emerged in the Yeltsin period are not really oligarchs.

I have to disagree about white supremacy. Ever read or study Cecil Rhodes? Or even Churchill. Those are the kind of people I"m thinking of, in addition to the early people like Sepulveda.

Which part of Mark Ash's warning is troubling you?
+6 # elkingo 2018-07-12 14:00
As a child in the 1940's, I saw "Esquimos" languishing in a mock indigenous setting, wearing furs in the heat, in Macy's New York, as part of a Christmas Display. A kind of living human diarama. Let me repeat the date: 1940's.
+1 # Wise woman 2018-07-14 13:32
Rodion, Dorfman is professor emeritus at Duke University as stated at the end of the article the contents of which are completely shocking to me. I remember as a child, being taken to the circus at Madison Square Garden in NYC. My mother happily took me down to the basement to see "the freaks." I was about 7 and was totally horrified and begged her to take me upstairs which we did after she satisfied her curiosity. I never went to the circus again as I was both revolted and frightened. This had to be sometime in the late 40s.

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