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PETA and the Politics of Putting Things in Perspective

Animal Whites

by TIM WISE

Although I have long supported the vast majority of the goals set forth by the animal rights movement, I have to admit that, on a personal level, the animal rights activists I’ve encountered almost never fail to come off as insufferable jerks. The smug moral certitude with which so many carry their agenda forth, has, for me at least, often overshadowed the righteousness of that agenda on face value. I wish it weren’t so, but it is.

First, there was the campus animal rights crusader at my college, who, in the midst of our struggle to gain divestment from companies that were bolstering apartheid in South Africa, made several remarks to the effect that "every day was apartheid day" for chickens, and that what the school should really do was stop selling meat.

Then there was the young woman who came to Tulane Law School, and upon learning that she would have to complete a pro bono legal assistance requirement in order to graduate, said that was fine, but–and this is a direct quote as told to me by a friend who was present at the time she said it–"I don’t want to work for people. I want to work for animals."

The misanthropy that seems to inform and motivate such comments, and literally hundreds more I could mention, guarantees that the otherwise valid principles upon which animal rights positions are often grounded will remain unexamined, and unrecognized in policy.

It is for reasons such as this that I have long wondered what is more important to the animal rights movement: actually ending animal experimentation, and other blatant cruelties, or being able to preen about as moral superiors who gain self-esteem by looking down their noses at others: be they meat-eaters or wearers of leather shoes? After all, it’s pretty hard to build a movement for animal liberation–which has to be led by people, seeing as how animals can’t do it themselves–if you’re castigating most of the potential foot-soldiers as willing participants in genocide.

I mean, what other than a deep-seated hatred for humanity (or a strategic incompetence so profound as to boggle the mind) would lead someone to say, as Ingrid Newkirk, Director of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has, that she opposes having children, because "having a purebred human baby is like having a purebred dog; it’s nothing but vanity, human vanity."

Nice going Ingrid: why don’t you deliberately alienate pretty much every parent in the world, and for that matter, anyone who is someone’s child (hint: that means everyone), since I’ve yet to meet too many people who appreciate being told they were bred for vanity like some Bichon Frise at the Westminster Kennel Club.

Oh, and while we’re not caring about how many people we offend–since, after all, "human beings are cruel," in the words of Newkirk (a true but rather typically one-dimensional characterization)–let’s really go off the deep end and launch a photo exhibit entitled "Are Animals the New Slaves?" which compares factory farming to the lynching of black people. This, quick on the heels of PETA’s prior publicity effort: the notorious "Holocaust on your plate" campaign, which just a few months ago compared cruelty to farm animals with the extermination of millions of Jews, Romany and others at the hands of the Nazis.

This kind of absurdity would make for a really good segment on the Daily Show, if it weren’t so tragically serious. The very legitimate goal of stopping the immense horror of factory farming–which horror should be able to stand on its own as an unacceptable cruelty, in need of immediate action–gets conflated with the extermination of millions of people in two separate Holocausts (that of the Middle Passage and that in Europe), thereby ensuring that damn near everyone who hears the analogy will conclude that PETA is either completely insensitive, at best, or bull-goose-loony, at worst: no offense meant to geese, by the way.

The "New Slaves" exhibition, currently making its way around 42 cities over a 10-week period has drawn outrage, understandably, from African Americans. And, typically, representatives of the blindingly white, middle class and affluent animal rights establishment, show no signs of understanding whence the anger emanates.

To wit, Dawn Carr, PETA’s Director of Special Projects, who has admitted that lots of folks are upset about her group "comparing black people to animals," but who, in PETA’s defense, doesn’t deny that that is what PETA is doing, but rather insists it’s OK, because the exhibit also compares factory farming to other injustices, "like denying women the vote or using child labor." In other words, don’t worry black people: you’re not the only ones we’re comparing to animals!

Whereas Newkirk was reluctantly forced to apologize for the "Holocaust on your plate" campaign (but even then only did so "for the pain caused," not for the venality of the comparison made therein), PETA appears unwilling to apologize for the slavery and lynching exhibit. And even the apology for the pain caused by the Holocaust comparison seems disingenuous when you consider that elsewhere, Newkirk has essentially said that anyone who isn’t a vegan is worse than Nazis, as with her quip that "Even the Nazis didn’t eat the objects of their derision."

Now I’m sure there will be some animal liberationists who read this and who think that since animals are sentient beings too, and since they have the right not to be exploited for human benefit (positions with which I don’t disagree), that comparisons with the Holocaust, or lynching are perfectly fair. To think otherwise, they might argue, is to engage in an anthropocentric favoring of Homo sapiens over other species.

But of course, whether they admit it or not, most all believers in animal rights do recognize a moral and practical difference between people and animals: after all, virtually none would suggest that if you run over a squirrel when driving drunk, that you should be prosecuted for vehicular homicide, the way you would be if you ran over a small child. The only basis for a distinction in these cases is, at root, recognition of a fundamental difference between a child and a squirrel.

And whereas most all sane persons see the problem with, say, French kissing one’s three-year old, Ingrid Newkirk recently suggested that there would be nothing wrong with tonguing your dog, so long as the dog seemed to be liking it, so, draw your own conclusions.

Oh, and not to put too fine a point on it, but if the folks at PETA really think that factory farming and eating the products of factory farming are literally the equivalent to human genocide, then, to be consistent, they would have to argue for the criminal prosecution of all meat-eaters, and War Crimes Tribunals for anyone even remotely connected to the process. After all, if you consume a factory-farmed chicken, you are, by this logic, implicated in mass murder, the same way many whites were in the lynching of blacks, by purchasing the amputated body parts of the latest victims of white rage.

To draw any distinction at all–and to not support criminal incarceration of meat-eaters the way one would for a cannibal the likes of Jeffrey Dahmer, indeed, draws that distinction–is to admit, whether openly or not, that there is a difference between a cow and a person. That difference may be quite a bit smaller than we realize, and that difference certainly doesn’t justify cruelty to the cow–and it may indeed be so small that we really should opt for vegetarianism–but it is a difference nonetheless.

That PETA can’t understand what it means for a black person to be compared to an animal, given a history of having been thought of in exactly those terms, isn’t the least bit shocking. After all, the movement is perhaps the whitest of all progressive or radical movements on the planet, for reasons owing to the privilege one must possess in order to focus on animal rights as opposed to, say, surviving oneself from institutional oppression.

Perhaps if animal liberationists weren’t so thoroughly white and middle-class, and so removed from the harsh realities of both the class system and white supremacy, they would be able to find more sympathy from the folks of color who rightly castigate them for their most recent outrage.

Perhaps if PETA activists had ever demonstrated a commitment to fighting racism and the ongoing cruelty that humans face every day, they would find more sympathy from those who, for reasons that are understandable given their own lives, view animal rights activism as the equivalent of fiddling while Rome burns, rather than as a struggle for greater compassion for all.

But then again, if the animal rights movement wasn’t so white and so rich, it would never have thought to make such specious and obviously offensive analogies in the first place.

TIM WISE is the author of two new books: White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son (Soft Skull Press, 2005), and Affirmative Action: Racial Preference in Black and White (Routledge: 2005). He can be reached at: timjwise@msn.comHate mail, while neither appreciated nor desired, will be graded for form, content and grammar.