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Polar-ized Language: A True Life Story



Here is a conversation I had with a tourist guide in the country of Greenland.

I went to the Arctic Circle for some R & R and to learn about polar explorations. I fell in love with a pair of child's sealskin slippers. I was poised to buy them.

"You are from the United States, no?" she asked in her nicest ever tourist voice. "It is one country you cannot bring in the skin of the seal."

Seeing my confused look, she explained, "It is how you say, a populist law, only made in U.S." She paused to make sure there was no offense. "It is not fair law. We use every part of the seal and throw nothing away."

This reminded me of foot-long strips of seal meat I had seen drying from porches on tiny colorful family homes for Greenlandic winter consumption, and for their husky sledge dogs laying lazily around in the summer sun hiding in the rock crevices where we trekked. And I recalled the stench wafting from seal tanning factories on harbors of tiny settlements, where warm outerwear was produced, that left me with little appetite.

"It is the baby seals that the U.S. tries to protect." This from a fellow tourist, a Dane, chiming in on the conversation. I immediately remembered the PBS documentary.

The tour guide's gentle response is a question: "But in America you can take the knife to the Inuit not born, no?" Behind the kiosk, I see that she is actually pregnant. She says this and caresses her midriff.

Inuit. At a lecture I attended by and about Arctic people, I am reminded that Inuit is only another word for "human being." I wonder if Greenland is like other European countries, struggling to maintain replacement levels of population. One tiny settlement of 150 we visited boasted 27 elementary children, whom they claimed a cherished resource.

Her obvious reference to abortion rights left me dumbfounded. As a pro-life activist, didn't I come to the Arctic Circle to get away from debates like these?

I mumbled under my breath, "Don't go there with me."

"S'kuse me?" she says.

"I said I don't think that is right either. Killing babies of any sort, seal or human. It's just that in our country one has a choice to believe if a baby is human or not human." I realized how utterly ridiculous that sounded only after I said it.

"The baby seal is not human, yes? This is my choice to believe, no?" I really set myself up for that one. This young bright woman should be doing something other than selling souvenirs.

But the Dane once again comes to my rescue. "I think it is the clubbing of seals that the U.S. opposes." (Please God; don't let her ask me if clubbing a baby seal is less compassionate than scraping a human fetus from the womb with a curette.)

The conversation goes from bad to worse. "Ah . . . if we kill seals with the gun it would be, how do you say, political? Like the U.S. bomb in the war?" (Note to self: Vacation in Antarctica in '09.)

"Actually all of these killings are wrong." That would be me, the moralistic American.

"But some killings you can do. Because you can choose in America, no?"

I am slow on the uptake. I begin to understand the posters I see hanging on Greenland public buildings that say "Avoid Cultural Prejudice" and a magazine cover with two mocking Greenlandics in sealskin coats holding a young calf titled "Save the baby veal."

I slither away and begin writing in my head a sequel to The Ugly American, starring myself.

Disclaimer: The views presented in the Rehumanize Blog do not necessarily represent the views of all members, contributors, or donors. We exist to present a forum for discussion within the Consistent Life Ethic, to promote discourse and present an opportunity for peer review and dialogue.

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