The Nation State and Borderlands

Ideas and HistoryI’ve recently finished Claire Jean Kim’s 2015 book Dangerous Crossings: an excellent analysis of three case studies of politically and culturally charged human–animal interactions. The studies are of efforts by animal activists to ban the selling of live animals in San Francisco’s markets; the Makah Nation’s attempt to assert their rights to resume whaling; and footballer Michael Vick’s criminal conviction for dog-fighting. Kim shows how animal advocates’ efforts to assert the rights and/or interests of animals in not being harmed ran into (or, more accurately, were already enmeshed in) the profoundly complex legacies of racial exploitation and prejudice, the various meanings of what it means to be (an) American, the assertion of moral power through politics and the courts, and the fundamental social norms (themselves determined by culture) of which animals are meant to be killed and which aren’t.

The book is valuable not only because of its close and sympathetic examination of these very contested and highly emotive issues but in the essays that frame the case studies. Kim observes that Nature has been viewed in the course of the American experiment in many different, and sometimes contradictory, ways. Throughout that time, race and degrees of “animality” have been constant, with white settlers viewing Native Americans, East Asians, and people of African descent hierarchically and taxonomically. The book reinforces what is turning out to be (at least so far) a central tenet of the Vegan America Project: veganism is never just about what you put in your body; animal welfare or rights can never be just about “the animals”; and there is no one thing that is “America.”

At first blush, Kim’s work would seem to discourage any notion that a move toward veganism—not killing animals for food or on behalf of culture of sport—is possible. She is careful not to dismiss out of hand the (overwhelmingly white) advocates who protested live markets, whale-hunting, and dog-fighting as politically naïve and culturally and racially insensitive—even though that may have been the outcome of aspects of their advocacy. She makes clear that the communities who felt under siege did not all agree as a body that they were being victimized and nor did they feel that those who expressed their outrage spoke for them. Indeed, she notes, in the live markets case, local politicians opportunistically used the issue to push for more power for themselves and to undermine rivals.

Kim observes that inserting the rights of animals themselves into the contest over whose rights were being (more) violated complicates these issues even more. She makes it clear that many of the victimized held speciesist assumptions about who was morally valuable in a manner that depended on as rigid a hierarchy as that which had been imposed on them by white people. She gives the reader several reasons to understand why that thinking and that rigidity might be so.

A particularly suggestive and valuable discussion in Kim’s book concerns invasive species—particularly around the live markets debate. She shows how during the long prosecution of their case against live markets, animal advocates switched from accusing the markets of being cruel to animals to suggesting these same animals posed a risk to California fauna by threatening non-native species with extinction, from disease or predation. In doing so, Kim demonstrates (to my mind very convincingly) that the advocates were not only reflecting a speciesism that they accused the perpetrators of but (perhaps unwittingly) perpetuating a notion of alien invaders that mapped how East Asians felt they’d been seen by white culture ever since they arrived on the West Coast of the United States. In addition, by aligning their arguments with environmentalists as opposed to ethicists, the advocates were expressing the profound ambivalence America as a whole has throughout its history felt about immigrants, “the enemy within,” and mongrelization of all kinds.

Kim suggests that efforts by conservationists to preserve native biota and repel invasive species is entrenched in deeply held notions of Nature and American Nature in particular as a kind of pristine place, protected from the chaos, mess, and hybridization of other countries, cities, and other races and cultures. As such, Nature is racialized, homogenized, and purified through the protection of the heroic environmentalist. Needless to say, it’s but a short step to the masculinization of this figure—whether it’s Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Theodore Roosevelt, etc. Not uncoincidentally, that figure is also a killer of animals—except that the killing is called “harvesting” and the animals who are “taken” are pests, vermin, and undesirables who are harming the land and/or disturbing or impinging on other animals that, appropriately, belong to genuine Americans, such as landowners, ranchers, and farmers.

It’s evident to me that we’re now in a moment in America that, on the one hand, seems shockingly new, and yet, if I read Kim correctly, is in fact as old as the country itself, and perhaps even older. President Trump wants to build a wall with Mexico to keep out “illegals.” It may be coincidental (if not quite accidental) that the building of the Wall will also disrupt the passage between countries of larger animals, such as wolves and coyotes—animals who, as with undesirable human aliens, have been hunted and rounded up as enemies of the state. As the animalization of the people-runners “coyotes” and their victims “cockroaches” attests, the boundaries as it were between human and nonhuman, desirable and non-desirable, blur. In both human and nonhuman cases, the Wall encourages the idea that the nation’s integrity is defined by not only who is kept in and who is kept out, but how valued that animal (once in) is in relation to the animal at the top of that food chain.

In this  contrast, cities are once again outside “the natural order of things”: they are places where races mix, citizens consort with aliens, rules are broken, and disorder upends hierarchy. These unnatural “sanctuaries” (note the human and the nonhuman connotations of such a word) must be pacified and brought under control, as an ecosystem is denuded of kudzu so that real nature, American life, might flourish.

Kim offers by way of conclusion a “multi-optic” vision that fosters perspective, connections, and organic solutions rather than a contest for whose oppression “wins.” She challenges the practicability and desirability of the singular, homogeneous, and uniform in approaching relationships in America (whether between humans, between humans and animals, or between humans and the natural world). Instead, she advocates for an acceptance of America as a hybrid concept and reality—indeed, as inherently a country of invasive species that, remarkably, have discovered co-existence and can thrive off that very tangled ecosystem that was never (and can never be) pristine or contained.