America is by no means the only country where the notion of the superiority of white human beings and white culture thrived. The hegemony of Western powers for the better part of recorded history assured that the other races and other peoples of the world came to be regarded as primitive, in need of religious conversion by our superior selves, as well as education in all matters related to what we determined to be civilized customs and behavior. Measured by the yardstick of our own standards, we were indeed superior, and it was a very long time before we came to acknowledge that our standards were not the only ones, nor necessarily the best. I think it indisputable that such attitudes are still prevalent today. To dream that we are in a "post-racist" society simply because we have elected a black President is to ignore the vast undercurrents of unacknowledged racism that persist to this day. It is not merely the racist yahoos who scrawl swastikas on the walls of synagogues and ignite crosses on suburban lawns who inherit those bad old habits.
These thoughts were prompted by another episode in the American Experience series that I watched on PBS the other night. Minik: The Lost Eskimo provided a particularly harrowing example of such arrogant ignorance and exploitation of other, non-white peoples. It's the story of the American Arctic explorer, Robert Peary, who made a number of attempts to be the first to reach the North Pole and made, finally, a dubious claim to have succeeded in that effort. There seems to be ample evidence that his claim was actually faked. It was after one of these attempts, however, and under clearly false pretenses, that he brought back a small group of Eskimos from their native environment to be "studied" at New York's Museum of Natural History. Among them was the young boy, Minik, whose father was the first of the group to die in what amounted to the kind of captivity to which we subject animals in the zoo. The grieving boy was led through a pantomime "burial" ritual for his father, whose organs were in actuality preserved for scientific study, and whose bones were taken to create a museum exhibit--a shameless act that Minik discovered only later in life.
It comes as no surprise that the remainder of the "study" group died in rapid succession after Minik's father's death. That Minik survived adolescence was thanks to the care and devotion of one kind, conscientious man who must have realized some debt to these stolen people. He lived for long enough to return to his native land as a young man, only to find that he could no longer adapt to the society of his birth, and returned to the United States to die in isolation and poverty.
Impossible to react to this story other than with outrage. That sense of entitlement to play God with the lives of our fellow human beings has regrettably not yet vanished from the earth. That sense that other men and women are somehow lesser than ourselves and need our help to teach them how to live their lives and conduct their affairs still guides--with our tacit permission--the actions of too many of our leaders. We may have moved beyond colonialism, but its heritage persists. Needless to say, it's equally true that inhuman behavior is not the exclusive province of those of us who inherit from the Western tradition, and that it's appropriate to oppose it with all means in our power wherever it appears. There are perhaps too few of us who have the courage and tenacity of a Nicholas D. Kristof of the New York Times, who takes up the pen to do battle with injustice of all kinds, whether the abuse and exploitation of woman and children in the Far East, or genocide on the African continent. His column in today's New York Times is a reminder of a vigilance for which we should all be grateful. That the actor George Clooney should be choosing, despite the danger to himself, to accompany Kristof on his latest investigative trip to the area around the Chad-Sudan border, is further reminder that the American Experience has its light side as well as its dark, and that the work of such a man represents this light side at its best.