Leaving its trademark trail of outrage, People for the Ethical Treatment of
Animals has been touring a national exhibit asking "Are Animals the New
Slaves?" The outdoor display, in the words of the New Haven Register,
consists of "photographs of people, mostly black Americans, being tortured,
sold and killed, next to photographs of animals, including cattle and sheep,
being tortured, sold and killed."
Pictures of Jews in concentration camps with numbers tattooed on their arms
are juxtaposed with monkeys subjected to medical experiments, tattooed
likewise. Children working their lives away in 19th-century factories are
seen next to pigs and chickens exploited in present-day factory farms.
So, naturally, outrage ensues. When the exhibit came to a Connecticut street
corner one day in early August, the New Haven Register editorialized, "If
you care about animals more than people, the comparison may seem apt....
There is little common ground for agreement if PETA sees the slaughter of
livestock for food as the same as the lynching of blacks or the
millions of people in Europe."
Passers-by apparently agreed. The head of the state chapter of the NAACP
showed up on the scene, said "black people are being pimped," and told
organizers to take down the exhibit. A brother shouted in the face of a PETA
volunteer "You can't compare me to a freaking cow!"
Two years ago, the Anti-Defamation League was likewise livid when a PETA
display drew parallels between mass animal slaughter and the Holocaust
(including the uncomfortable fact that the design of Auschwitz was based on
the Chicago slaughterhouse system), though Isaac Bashevis Singer had long
ago made the same observation with no fear of inappropriate equivalencies.
The exhibit has now been pulled and PETA is "evaluating feedback."
Is PETA right?
Before pondering that, let us turn to the entity that is currently crafting
the most incisive, devastating media critique of our cultural moment
currently on view, one almost too painful to watch. I refer, of course, to
Carl's Jr. -- or, more precisely, to Carl's Jr.'s ad agency, Mendelsohn Zien.
Last July, the Santa Barbara News-Press asked Carl's Jr. CEO Andrew Puzder
about complaints concerning his company's "edgy" ads -- including "soft-porn
images of a sexy babe gyrating on a mechanical bull or Paris Hilton washing
a Bentley while barely dressed" -- and his company's current campaign
encouraging viewers to think of animals as too dumb to live ("There's only one thing chickens are good for"). Puzder's reply, that the ads are "not
intended to insult or demean anybody," would not seem to merit response, but
it's worth noting that these ads are all of a piece and in fact insult and
demean one more group beyond the obvious: The 18-to-34-year-old male
demographic they're aimed at. They all send an unmistakable message: We know
what level to reach you on. Women and animals are here for your pleasure.
PETA got it wrong in New Haven in only one respect: Animals are not "the new
slaves." They're the first ones. They're the ones who got the worst a
dominator culture had to offer, and the worst has lately gotten much worse,
as a quick tour through a Confined Animal Feeding Operation will demonstrate
to anyone in possession of two or three of his senses and lacking a vested interest in the company's quarterly profit statement.
The larger lesson of Darwin (there are no superior species, only differently
adapted ones) has not yet sunk in; instead, we are still ruled in every way
that matters by the medieval Great Chain of Being, on which we placed
ourselves one rung below the angels and far above all other manner of
beaste, most low, foule and uncleane. When a black man in New Haven sees
images of his ancestors and a cow side by side, equally mistreated and
commodified, he is conditioned to see only the comparative sullying of his
godliness, not the cruelty that is the lot of sentient beings who have no
rights. He fears he will be cast down by the implication that the lot of the
oppressed should be raised up.
Historically, he is not alone. That was the deepest fear of his ancestors'
owners in the ante-bellum South. It was the fear of men confronted by
women's suffrage. It was the fear of our founding fathers, the white male
land owners who, in drafting the Constitution, struggled to find a way to
exclude the rabble from too much participation in the democratic experiment,
the better to keep the levers in the hands of the right sort of people while
giving the others just enough by way of social rewards to keep them
Changing those paradigms were (and are) hard fights, but the animal rights
movement is fighting 10,000 years of cultural conditioning (memo to the
18-to-34-year-old male demographic: it's like The Matrix, dudes) and the
tendency of the disenfranchised, in the words of Howard Zinn, to fall upon
each other "with such vehemence and violence as to obscure their common
position as sharers of leftovers in a very wealthy country."
Thus the good people of New Haven recoil, the NAACP shouts at PETA, and the
pundits trot out safe, predictable outrage, using generations of
conditioning to studiously miss the point. It's a fight amongst ourselves on
a deeper level than usual. It misses not only the fact of our increasing disenfranchisement but the dysfunctional ways in which the
disproportionately distributed wealth is produced by a system that is
impoverishing the Earth and our ethical sense alike. One of that system's
most fundamental control measures persuades people that in their visceral
rejection of the truth PETA is laying down, they are standing up for their
dignity and humanity, when, in reality, they are defending a system in which
commonality of suffering is not on the agenda, the members of only a single
species have any right to life, liberty and freedom from harm, a chicken is
of value only as a sandwich, and the idea that a chicken might be of value
to the chicken is an idea that must not be thought.
Andrew Christie is an environmental activist in San Luis Obispo, CA.