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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Friday, April 25, 2014

"Poor animal" & Mansfield Park: The Striking Parallels Between The Mansfield Case in 1772 England & The Nonhuman Rights Project in 2014 New York

[Added May 28, 2015: Since writing the below post, there's been some big developments, so after you read my post, check out both of these links for the latest in Steve Wise's quixotic question for justice for nonhuman animals:

Jane Austen would be cheering him on]

Purely by chance, the revival this week of discussion in Janeites and Austen-L about the slavery subtext of Mansfield Park coincides with a real life, modern, intentional echoing of the 1772 Somerset case (aka the Mansfield case, because decided by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Mansfield aka William Murray) involving the dawn of legal rights for another class of oppressed individuals.

To wit, it is my privilege to report to you today the fruition of longstanding efforts by my good friend, Steve Wise, THE world's leading animal rights lawyer, and how his quest relates to the theme of servitude and denial of natural rights in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park.

That Steve is the world’s leading animal rights lawyer probably sounds like the gross exaggeration of a partial friend, but when you read this article which will be the cover story of this coming Sunday NY Times Magazine....
…and watch this mini-documentary…
…and go to this Facebook page…. will see that i am just being factual about my buddy. And he is my buddy, as it so happens, because of the slavery subtext of Mansfield Park, so in a sense, Jane Austen introduced us!

Steve and I became friends in July 2006, because he had just published a nonfiction book called Though the Heavens May Fall a few months earlier.... which he recounted the fascinating, dramatic history of the Somerset/Mansfield case, which, as we’ve been discussing here, was the first great judicial decision that declared slavery illegal on English soil, even though, hypocritically, it did not ban slavery in the English colonies! But it was the beginning of the end of that mass slavery, even though the slave trade didn’t end till 1808, and the actual colonial slavery didn’t end till decades later still. The abolitionists, led by the charismatic Clarkson and many others, never flagged in their high goal.

Anyway, I reached out to Steve personally because I was in the summer of 2006 first intensively researching the slavery subtext of MP. After reading Margaret Kirkham’s speculation (in her way-ahead-of-its-time book, Jane Austen, Feminism & Fiction) that the title “MANSFIELD Park” was chosen by JA because of that 1772 case, I naturally wanted to learn more about the circumstances of the case, and Steve’s was the best book among those I found on the topic. And then I noticed in the jacket flap that Steve just happened to live 15 minutes away from me in Broward County, Florida, so I found his phone number, reached out, and we became great ftf friends, and still are!

Anyway, that’s all background to my post today. As the above linked NY Times Magazine article indicates, Steve is now an overnight sensation after 20 years of hard work creating the Nonhuman Rights Project....
…and he has all along been acutely aware of the history behind his forward-thinking quest for certain nonhuman animals (such as cetaceans, higher primates, and elephants) to be granted legal personhood.

Although Steve is not a Janeite (I’ve been working on him since 2006, and he has recently begun to read Pride & Prejudice, so there’s hope for him still!), his approach is very Austenian in its profound grasp of the decisive importance of subjective point of view in determining perception of “reality”.

I.e., just as, in 1772, it seemed “obvious” to most white Europeans that enslavement of black Africans in American colonies was one normal and appropriate foundation for the English economy, so too does it seem “obvious” today to most human beings that the complete denial of rights to sentient highly evolved nonhuman animals is not a problem, as long as those animals are not subject to extreme physical abuse.

Steve recognizes that he is looking for a massive paradigm shift in moral thinking, a leap perhaps even bigger than the one that took a major step forward in 1772 in England, which caught JA’s eye.

And how exactly does this relate to Jane Austen’s novels? Discussions in these groups about abolitionism in JA’s era often turn to questions of what seemed normal and moral to ordinary people of that time, in terms of whether slavery was a profound evil that needed to be eliminated.

I firmly agree with Diane Reynolds that it is inconceivable that Jane Austen thought slavery was a good thing, or even a necessary evil—that would make her a kind of split personality sociopath, who could be extremely sensitive to the rights of people in one context, and yet oblivious to their rights in others. That’s not the Jane Austen I know.

What I do believe is that JA was appalled at colonial slavery, and its genocidal horrors, but she was also outraged at the way that women’s legal and moral rights were for the most part utterly ignored and trivialized in her society. That she was outraged at the latter does NOT mean that she equated the magnitude of the evil between the systematic but lower grade abuse of millions of Englishwomen in everyday life, and the murderous exploitation of millions of African slaves on plantations. She knew the difference, but her particular cause was women’s rights, and she knew it was a worthy one, especially because there were not many public figures advocating for freeing women from their insidiously invisible form of servitude to men.

Steve at one point in one of his interviews was asked why animal rights are so important in a world where so many human rights are still being trampled in many parts of the world. And his answer is that he is appalled at those human rights abuses, but there are already many advocates for those human victims, but there has never been an effective, motivated, well organized, legally sophisticated campaign in human history to defend the rights of nonhuman animals, and that is HIS chosen task.

And back to Jane Austen for another round---as Patricia Rozema so brilliantly put it after she made her groundbreaking version of Mansfield Park in 1999, this novel is above all a multifaceted meditation of every shade and nuance of servitude in human social relations, in particular the hypocrisy of those like Sir Thomas Bertram, who pride themselves on their moral rectitude and superiority, even as they are rotten to the moral core under the surface.

And, in that regard, I have long believed that Fanny Price is in part a representation of  the biracial Dido Elizabeth Belle (who by the way is the subject of a new independent film, Belle), the great niece of Lord Mansfield depicted in this famous Zoffany painting along with her cousin, a woman whom JA met and talked to at Godmersham…..
..and that Lord Mansfield was therefore represented by Sir Thomas Bertram. This illustrates that even the man who was capable of doing good on a mass scale (although, as Steve’s book recounts, Lord Mansfield waffled for a long time before rendering that decision), was also in his personal life a kind of hypocrite who did not fully embrace the implications of his own, famous legal decision. I.e., he treated his white great niece differently than his biracial great niece. And that is quintessential Austen ironical territory, the rationalizations that people make to justify moral inconsistencies in their own behavior and attitudes.

And finally, apropos animal rights, we all know that JA, having grown up in the countryside, was well acquainted with all manner of domesticated animals, and she often compared women to beasts of burden, most notably her beloved niece, Anna Austen Lefroy, whom she famously referred to as a “poor animal” because she was pregnant for the second time in as many years since getting married.

I believe that JA would have been a supporter of my friend’s project, had it been in process during her lifetime. The sad truth of human history is that these moral paradigm shifts seem to always be long overdue and painful. It has taken two centuries for many of the changes regarding women’s rights, that JA clearly yearned for, to be significantly implemented. And even in 2014, there is still a LONG way to go before we reach true gender equality.

I sure hope Steve does not have to wait 2 centuries for his great dream to become real.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode onTwitter

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