Thursday, July 24, 2008

How animal rights advocates should handle PETA

Following up on my post about the PETA situation (namely, that they're an ambiguous ally, at best, to supporters of animal rights):

I'd like to make a few suggestions on how those who don't like a lot of what that organization does (but also don't want to write off 2 million potential AR supporters merely because they're mistaken about PETA's efficacy at achieving their goals) ought to engage the situation. I've just read Saul Alinsky's infamous Rules for Radicals, so naturally I'm quite inspired with ideas. It occurs to me that the same sorts of practices that an advocacy group must use to engage and change systems they oppose can be used by members of a movement to engage and change advocacy groups within that movement. I don't expect this post will be met with adulation from all AR advocates opposed to PETA, but, hey, it's my blog.

PETA's major strategy for large-scale efforts has been to gather as much media attention as possible about specific topics. They choose specific targets and hit them repeatedly until they agree to negotiate some gains—typically not entirely significant ones. The point is that PETA works, as any advocacy group should, through pressure. What AR advocates ought to do with PETA is to also pick a specific target and apply continuous pressure until the group either admits their error or halts the practice.

This is the real world we live in. We can't shut our eyes and pretend that PETA, if vegans just ignore it, will stop being "the" animal rights organization. We can't pretend that they aren't the largest, most well-known group out there and that they are what the average person associates with animal rights. We cannot imagine that, magically, PETA's members are going to stop supporting them. Some vegans and AR advocates suggest we ought to simply write them off, start a new grassroots vegan abolitionist movement that is diametrically opposed to PETA's "new welfarism." I am highly sympathetic to this position, but I'm afraid it reeks of the factionalism that historically tears every broad-based leftist movement apart. We should not all go join PETA, to be sure, and we need not support them either, but our position toward them should be one of constant and positive criticism. We can, through the same pressuring efforts that this abolitionist movement would use to end the exploitation of animals, simultaneously pressure PETA to drift ever abolition-ward. Even if they are never "our" organization, they can become ever less an impediment to true animal rights, and in many cases, an actual expedient.

Here's how:
  1. Assume good intentions from individuals associated with PETA unless they prove otherwise. If we are to convince anyone that they are mistaken, we must assume that they want the right thing in the end, even if they're wrong about how to get there. And in my experience, this is almost always the case. I can't speak for everyone, but all PETA members and supporters I've ever talked to about this issue have fully agreed with me on what the ultimate goal is. They even fully agree that the strategies and methods I support (extensive vegan activism and campaigning for the actual halting of exploitative practices rather than modifications to them) will achieve it. The only thing they disagree on is whether or not PETA ought to also be doing the sorts of things it has become infamous for in the meantime. I have met PETA members who are highly critical of PETA's national tactics. PETA is not a monolith.
  2. Apply continuous pressure to specific issues. I read (and often even enjoy) the PETA Files blog. I also leave comments every occasion I see them congratulating animal exploiters or calling for vegetarianism rather than veganism and I have a minute to write one. To me, these are the two biggest mistakes PETA makes, and so I make an effort to call them out every time I can. I don't know what the blog's readership is, and it doesn't matter—this isn't an attempt to convince outsiders, but an attempt to engage people at, in, or sympathetic to PETA already. I want PETA members who read the blog to also read, every time their group gives an award to someone for their choice of veal or their method of slaughter, a criticism of the practice. I want the bloggers themselves to feel the need to justify every misuse of the word vegetarian and every "victory." This isn't because I'm a pedantic ass, it's because blogs are a discursive medium that ask for two-way interaction.
  3. When discussing PETA with people entirely unsympathetic to animal rights (or already hostile to PETA) only highlight the problems if you can explain the solution. Since the mainstream views PETA as "the" animal rights organization, and PETA members as the prototypical AR activists, there is something of a fine line to tread here. We must make it clear that PETA has problems. We don't want to make it seem as if we're bickering over trivial issues, or that PETA's sizable (and largely agreeable to our ends) membership are all fools, or that (god forbid) we're just jealous of their success, such as it is. I encourage AR people to frame PETA's difficulties as regrettable and avoidable, as though we really wish we could be on the same page with these things, and that maybe PETA can come around. Now, for me, this is the honest truth. I do feel a certain pang of regret that I can't approve of everything the group does. I want to be able to like PETA, because they have such potential and such support. For others, this may be putting things far more diplomatically than they would otherwise, but I think it is the smart strategic move to make. If, as I suggest, we want to use pressure to shift PETA's policies in line with our own, we have to leave that door open in the minds of both PETA supporters and critics—and ourselves.
  4. Don't lie. This is not entryism. This is not covert action. Those of us in the abolitionist core of the animal rights movement are overtly attempting to make more and more people see things our way. One element of this is vegan outreach. One element of this is pressure on PETA. This is the direct corollary of 3 above: we can leave the door open to future alliance with reformed PETA members without stepping through it before we're ready.
In summary, true AR advocates who hope to grow our ranks should see a flawed PETA as an opportunity, not an obstacle. Some PETA members may "convert" and leave. We may get the attention of those in positions of power within the organization. We can't know the future. But we can rest assured that PETA will be around for a long time, and we have to find a way of dealing with them that goes beyond ignoring them and hoping to be heard in their shadow, because the people we're trying to reach will always hear PETA's voice first.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The PETA situation

I've got a bit of a problem. See, I can't help but pay attention to PETA. As the most recognizable and infamous animal advocacy group, PETA has an obligation to advocate for animals, one would think. And as someone who is very concerned about animal rights—concerned enough to be vegan—I feel it is my duty to keep up on such things. So I've posted about PETA here and on The Red Scare many times before, but I wanted to make a post where I fully laid out my case, both for and against them.


I am generally impressed with actual PETA members, employees, and volunteers on a personal level. I mean, it is clear that, as individuals, the majority of PETA supporters do genuinely care about animals and want to see the best case scenario play out in the end. They're committed enough that I've never really come across a "closeted" PETA member—they're generally out and proud, and visibility never hurt a cause. It takes some fortitude to stand up for animals in the social climate of the world today, and to declare oneself a member of a group that many laypersons actually think sponsors radical animal-rights terrorists (!) is at least a measure of one's devotion.

PETA's web presence is comprehensive and fairly useful content-wise. They have pages and pages of information about animal cruelty, and the sites are updated frequently. I've heard anecdotally that PETA's website alone has greatly influenced several people to become interested in animal issues, along with their video collection. I even enjoy reading the PETA Files blog, even though I don't always agree with everything they post there.

PETA's core message is a good one. Their stated motto, that "animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, use for entertainment, or abuse in any way" is absolutely correct. PETA has notoriety and occasionally highlights issues of importance, and even runs many campaigns that directly target the use of animals and call for the abolition thereof.


PETA can't bring itself to say vegan. OK, fine, if you poke around for long enough on their site, you'll find the word here and there. But go to a food-related PETA demonstration and what will you see? "Go vegetarian." "Go veg." "Get a free vegetarian starter kit." Look at their main site pages, where you'll see stories about vegans with headlines referring to vegetarianism instead. A blog post about vegan athlete Carl Lewis refers to him as vegetarian. The example of Oprah's very public vegan experiment encourages readers to "go vegetarian." Even the vegetarian starter kit mentioned above is actually a vegan starter kit, deliberately mislabeled.

But isn't veganism just a type of vegetarianism? Well, no. The words have lives of their own, and it is an unavoidable fact that "vegetarian" means "eats eggs and dairy (and to some idiots, fish)." It is logically incoherent to say that you believe in animal rights, such as the basic right not to be property, while consuming animal products that require animals to be property. Combined with the fact that even free-range, cage-free, organic eggs and dairy are complicit in the torture and slaughter of animals for meat (a fact PETA's own sites proclaim), it is simply absurd to claim to be opposed to the abuse of animals while encouraging vegetarianism. Vegetarianism directly contributes to the use and abuse of animals. Veganism does not, except in unavoidable ways. An animal rights organization need not require its members be vegan, but veganism has to be the official position of the organization if it claims to be in favor of substantive animal rights at all.

Right now, PETA Files has a post about a "Vegetarianism in a Nutshell" podcast episode, with a link to "the impact of vegetarianism"...on a "" site, the actual name of which is "veganism.asp." It's total doublethink. Veganism is not vegetarianism.

Related to PETA's avoidance of actually asking people to stop exploiting animals is their routine celebration, promotion, and award-giving to animal exploiters. PETA proclaims victory when KFC Canada starts only using chickens that were gassed to death after their shortened, tortured lives. PETA gives awards to Wolfgang Puck for choosing less cruelly raised veal. They make animal exploiters feel better about getting signed off on by "the animal rights organization." PETA runs Sexiest Vegetarian contests when, as we see above, vegetarians exploit animals.

PETA's campaigns are often narrowly-focused and advance trivial issues of welfare improvement at the expense of the actual exploitation involved. While their "I'd rather go naked than wear fur" campaign clearly targets the use of fur animals entirely, they then go on to protest the treatment of chickens in fast food chains that must use chickens even to exist. It's not that the treatment of these chickens is not abhorrent, it is. But the real problem is the use of chickens in the first place. There is no practical "endgame" to a protest at a KFC short of a multibillion-dollar corporation actually shutting down entirely. "Winning" cages an inch wider is not a meaningful victory for animal rights any more than convincing a wife-beater to use an open palm rather than a closed fist is a great victory against domestic violence. It is a PR boon for the exploiting corporations, however, who can now sell PETA-approved slaughter to their customers and increase profit.

Finally, PETA undeniably uses sexist imagery in some of its campaigns. I've waffled on this, and ultimately I come down on the side that I don't mind their naked activities. I don't mind using the body as an attention-grabber and a form of protest. I think the World Naked Bike Ride is groovy. I think Spencer Tunick's glacier photos for Greenpeace are rad. So it's not that PETA "uses" naked women (and men) that is sexist. I don't even think some of the most commonly cited examples—the women with beef cut diagrams drawn on them, the women in cellophane as meat, and the pregnant woman in a cage like a sow—are actually sexist. They are satire; we're meant to think, "Ugh, treating a woman that way is sick." That's the whole point. Whether they effectively carry over to thoughts of animal treatment is another story.

But PETA does have sexist undertones to several campaigns. For one thing, they don't shy away from not using mere nudity, but specifically female sexuality as their hook. They encourage people to think of their female models as "bikini babes" and "hot chicks," in contexts that have nothing to do with comparisons to animals. There is a big difference between saying, "Hey, we're naked because animal rights are important enough for us to throw caution and shame to the wind," and saying, "Hey, come ogle some sexy broads! (also, go 'veg')." Their notorious "Fur trim. Unattractive." ad didn't exactly promote a positive female body image, either.


So PETA is a mixed bag for me. I have no real hope that they will ever embrace genuine vegan outreach and abolitionist campaigning, but they are—for better or worse—the face of animal rights activism to the general public. I can't help but think of many individuals involved with PETA as allies, even as their organization uses its platform to indirectly aid those who we mutually oppose. But such is the inevitable result when a radical group achieves some level of mainstream success. Once you start to taste victory, victory soon becomes more important than values. PETA is willing to ask for things it doesn't want simply because it can win them, and that's unfortunate. So I'll continue to think of the PETA folks as misguided comrades, and keep asking for the things I actually want... even if I never get them.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Daniel Dennett on religion

I happened to come across this brief interview with philosopher Daniel Dennett, and I found his answer to a question on the relationship between science and religion to be so exactly congruent with my own beliefs that I am compelled to quote it here.
The problem with any proposed detente in which science and religion are ceded separate bailiwicks or "magisteria" is that, as some wag has put it, this amounts to rendering unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which Caesar says God can have. The most recent attempt, by Gould, has not found much favor among the religious precisely because he proposes to leave them so little. Of course, I’m certainly not suggesting that he should have left them more.

There are no factual assertions that religion can reasonably claim as its own, off limits to science. Many who readily grant this have not considered its implications. It means, for instance, that there are no factual assertions about the origin of the universe or its future trajectory, or about historical events (floods, the parting of seas, burning bushes, etc.), about the goal or purpose of life, or about the existence of an afterlife and so on, that are off limits to science. After all, assertions about the purpose or function of organs, the lack of purpose or function of, say, pebbles or galaxies, and assertions about the physical impossibility of psychokinesis, clairvoyance, poltergeists, trance channeling, etc. are all within the purview of science; so are the parallel assertions that strike closer to the traditionally exempt dogmas of long-established religions. You can’t consistently accept that expert scientific testimony can convict a charlatan of faking miracle cures and then deny that the same testimony counts just as conclusively—"beyond a reasonable doubt"—against any factual claims of violations of physical law to be found in the Bible or other religious texts or traditions.

What does that leave for religion to talk about? Moral injunctions and declarations of love (and hate, unfortunately), and other ceremonial speech acts. The moral codes of all the major religions are a treasury of ethical wisdom, agreeing on core precepts, and disagreeing on others that are intuitively less compelling, both to those who honor them and those who don’t. The very fact that we agree that there are moral limits that trump any claim of religious freedom—we wouldn’t accept a religion that engaged in human sacrifice or slavery, for instance—shows that we do not cede to religion, to any religion, the final authority on moral injunctions.

Centuries of ethical research and reflection, by philosophers, political theorists, economists, and other secular thinkers have not yet achieved a consensus on any Grand Unified Theory of ethics, but there is a broad, stable consensus on how to conduct such an inquiry, how to resolve ethical quandaries, and how to deal with as-yet unresolved differences. Religion plays a major role as a source of possible injunctions and precepts, and as a rallying point for public appeal and organization, but it does not set the ground rules of ethical agreement and disagreement, and hence cannot claim ethics or morality as its particular province.

That leaves ceremonial speech acts as religion’s surviving domain. These play a huge role in stabilizing the attitudes and policies of those who participate in them, but the trouble is that ceremony without power does not appear to be a stable arrangement—and appearances here are all important. Once a monarch is stripped of all political power, as in Great Britain, the traditions and trappings tend to lose some of their psychological force, so that their sole surviving function—focusing the solidarity of the citizenry—is somewhat undercut. Whether or not to abolish the monarchy becomes an ever less momentous decision, rather like whether or not to celebrate a national holiday always on a Monday, instead of on its traditional calendar date. Recognizing this threat of erosion, religious people will seldom acknowledge in public that their God has been reduced to something like a figurehead, a mere constitutional monarch, even while their practices and decisions presuppose that this is so.

It is seldom remarked (though often observed in private, I daresay) that many, many people who profess belief in God do not really act the way people who believed in God would act; they act the way people would act who believed in believing in God. That is, they manifestly think that believing in God is—would be—a good thing, a state of mind to be encouraged, by example if possible, so they defend belief-in-God with whatever rhetorical and political tools they can muster. They ask for God’s help, but do not risk anything on receiving it, for instance. They thank God for their blessings, but, following the principle that God helps those who help themselves, they proceed with the major decisions of their lives as if they were going it alone.

Those few individuals who clearly do act as if they believed in God, really believed in God, are in striking contrast: the Christian Scientists who opt for divine intervention over medical attention, for instance, or those who give all their goods to one church or another in expectation of the Apocalypse, or those who eagerly seek martyrdom.

Not wanting the contrast to be so stark, the believers in belief-in-God respond with the doctrine that it is a sin (or at least a doctrinal error) to count on God’s existence to have any particular effect. This has the nice effect of making the behavior of a believer in belief-in-God and the behavior of a believer in God so similar as to be all but indistinguishable.

Once nothing follows from a belief in God that doesn’t equally follow from the presumably weaker creed that it would be good if I believed in God—a doctrine that is readily available to the atheist, after all—religion has been so laundered of content that it is quite possibly consistent with science. Peter de Vries, a genuine believer in God and probably the funniest writer on religion ever, has his hyper-liberal Reverend Mackerel (in his book The Mackerel Plaza) preach the following line: "It is the final proof of God’s omnipotence that he need not exist in order to save us."

The Reverend Mackerel’s God can co-exist peacefully with science. So can Santa Claus, who need not exist in order to make our yuletide season more jolly.

Friday, July 4, 2008

America's holiday

Today is Independence Day, a day that celebrates our declaration of freedom from the King of Great Britain's authority.

In 1776, the United States began to take the first steps towards liberal democracy, a political system in which (it is claimed) decisions that affect the citizens are made by representatives held accountable to the citizens themselves. The experiment was never intended to actually give power to the people, of course. Most of the framers of the Constitution had such great contempt for the decision-making competency of the common man that they did everything they could to concentrate power in the hands of the wealthy landowners without just coming out and saying so. This isn't even mentioning the issue of slavery, both the chattel slavery of black men and women and the social slavery of white women.

Even with these significant caveats, the liberal democracy established by the revolutionaries of that time has grown and matured. It is far from perfect. The process of electing our leaders has evolved into an independent being, dependent far more on corporate money than on the consent of the governed. Our business-minded masters are free to do as they please for as many years as they can get away with it, before they must spend some months pandering to the people that might reelect them. But the idea of our democracy is still a good one, one worth strengthening and defending in ways well beyond the narrow focus of the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution.

The first tentative step in expanding the scope of the democratic experiment was taken through the New Deal, which essentially established for the first time in the United States a system of social democracy. To the Declaration's liberty the New Deal added some measure of solidarity. We began to recognize that it is not enough to be free from arbitrary rule, that if we are a society bound together by geography and history, each of us owes our lives and well being to the actions of every other. We owe it to them, and they to us, the opportunity to make it through hard times that none should have to endure alone.

As with the political freedom of the liberal democracy, the social democratic experiment has both grown and eroded since it was established. The basic provisions of universal education, health care, and pensions are in the modern United States a farce, beholden as our elections are to the interests of businesses in lowering costs and raising prices. And as with the liberal democracy, the social democracy must be strengthened to live up to the idea behind it, rather than to the practice it has become.

The only way to build upon our liberal and social democracies is to add equality to the values of liberty and solidarity we stand for. We must have economic democracy as well. Most everyone believes that we are competent to elect our political leaders... but we demure away from the idea that we ought to elect our bosses. We think that decisions that affect a town, or a state, or the nation as a whole should be made by that town, that state, or the nation as a whole... except when those decisions involve our economy. We believe that all people should be equal in the eyes of the law, but we allow a fraction of the population to claim the bulk of our resources, and have far greater access to the pursuit of happiness our Declaration of Independene proclaimed. Their claim is justified not by their having done more to earn their share, but because they had access to the means of producing that great wealth, and were able to buy the effort of others to make it. Rather than owning the product of their labor, these others have to turn it over to their economic betters to dole out as they see fit: which is always as little as possible.

It should come as no surprise that this class of parasites and their great ideology of capitalism, this class who claim great wealth and prosperity by taking from the effort of others, is precisely the same group that prohibits our liberal and social democracies from meeting their promise. Private ownership of capital insures that profits make the rich far richer while making the poor only slightly less poor, if at all. A labor market that relies on the threat of unemployment as a stick to keep the exploited from simply leaving to find better opportunities ensures that the cycle continues. These same forces are also behind the need to continuously expand our markets, which requires global presence, interference, and often warfare to "spread democracy," which merely means "areas we can do business in."

Capitalism must end for true democracy—liberal, social, and economic—to have any hope of being more than a footnote in the histories of our future. The United States, and indeed the world, deserves better than this.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

From the "How People Find Me" files

Some Google searches that have led people to my blogs lately:
  • nude women on harleys
  • prostitution in little
  • proper way to eat chicken
  • r rated ninja turtles
  • gay hairstyles
  • first response commercial woman
  • who is commercial woman

I think those last two must be from the same person...