Jewish World Review June 4, 1999 /20 Sivan, 5759
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Well, actually, that depends on how you look at it.
The controversy was over a whale hunt conducted by the Makah, a Native American tribe (their first in 70 years). The Makah have been given an exemption from the ban on commercial whaling as a native tribe seeking to maintain its cultural traditions.
The event drew crowds of animal-rights and environmentalist protesters and provoked a flood of angry letters, e-mails and phone calls to papers and radio stations. There were references to the "murder" of the six-year-old gray whale and assertions that killing it was no different from killing a six-year-old human child. But added to this standard animal-rights rhetoric were startling diatribes directed at the "savages" responsible for the kill.
Several letter-writers spoke of their new "hatred for Native Americans." Some ridiculed the Makah as drunken, lazy fools. Two women wrote that "we should also be able to take their land if they can take our whales." Some expressed a desire to hunt Indians, though one hopes they didn't mean it literally.
The anti-whaling protesters agreed that racism had reared its ugly head in the outcry against the hunt. But some of them suggested that the Makah were asking for it: "When there's such an emotional issue at stake," Will Anderson of the Progressive Animal Welfare Society was quoted as saying, "it pushes people to the edge."
The irony is compounded by the fact that environmentalists have long viewed Native Americans as a symbol of harmony with nature and reverence for the Earth, virtues that the rapacious, individualistic white man lacks. But it seems Native Americans are only good as long as they conform to affluent white people's fantasy. Indeed, this romanticized image may partly explain the vehemence of the invective: as an English poet said, heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned.
A number of letters reflected this theme: "I truly thought the Indian cultures are better than this." "I thought Native Americans respected animals." When confronted with the killing of an actual animal -- a whale, no less -- the argument that the dead whale would be treated as an "honored guest of the village" didn't go over very well.
Meanwhile, the case for the whale hunt is based on a lot of the same sentimental romanticism. Opponents rightly noted the paradox that the hunt relied on modern technology: helicopters to spot the whales, a power boat to pull the hunters' canoe out to sea and back, a .50 caliber rifle to shoot the whale after it was wounded with a harpoon. So much for tribal tradition.
I don't think killing the whale was an "atrocity" any worse than killing the cows and pigs we eat for dinner. (In nature, gray whales can serve as dinner for the killer whale, the hero of Free Willy.) But the glorification of ancestral traditions -- as long as they are non-European -- in the name of "diversity" is just as mindless as animal-rights fanaticism.
Native American customs included plenty of cruelty toward humans as well as animals. One can wonder how those who deplore "ethnocentrism" would respond if a tribe wanted to revive the custom of torturing an enemy to death and eating his heart. Of course, there was plenty of barbarism in European and American history as well. But it's hard to disagree with letter-writers critical of the hunt who pointed out that we do not reaffirm our traditions by burning a witch -- or, indeed, by killing Native Americans.
Animal worship vs. ancestor worship: we ought to have better
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