The typical animal rights activist is a female agnostic or atheist, unmarried with no children and six “companion animals,” “educated,” and living a resolutely urban life in the company of other activists on behalf of all sorts of causes, most of them left-wing. This bizarre specimen of contemporary humanity aspires to echo one day over the carcass of a carnivorous, speciesist culture the words that Tosca pronounced above the prostrate body of Scarpia: “E avanti a lui, tremava tutta Roma.”
Although the animal rights movement as a whole cannot, after a decade of strident militancy, claim great accomplishments beyond the curtailment of the use of animals in industrial testing, and while its ultimate goal of forcing the majoritarian culture to accept animal life as inherently equal with human life is unlikely to be achieved, its emergence as a focus of international attention is a phenomenon that ought not to be taken lightly. Animal rights, like feminism and popular environmentalism, represents the triumph of emotionalism over wisdom, of sentimentalism over reason, of fantasy over common sense. It is an attempt to reinvent the wheel by people who have failed to grasp the idea of circumference. It is a chaos of perversity, short-circuited thought, and unexamined assumptions, many of which produce hilarious examples of unsuspected homocentrism. (You’re not even human,” one outraged animal rightist wrote to the president of a company charged with cruelty to research animals.) It is also a not untypical constituent of that rainbow coalition of weird single-interest groups that have managed so often and in so many instances to co-opt the attentions of the so-called mainstream political parties, the result being that politicians and commentators today spend their time debating crackpot “philosophy” instead of those grave matters of state that in better times were the staple of political discourse: gunboats, diplomacy, and trade.
The animal rights movement, like so many other movements that afflict contemporary society, is a Frankenstein monster created by people who are themselves half Frankensteins. Professors Jasper and Nelkin discern its origins in the first animal protection bill introduced in the British Parliament in 1800, and in the subsequent founding of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1824. Before the century’s end, the SPCA had its counterparts in the United States where, as in Great Britain, the immediate cause of reformist sentiment was the observable maltreatment of carriage animals. The replacement of the horse by the automobile in the early years of the 20th century caused concern for the welfare of animals to subside in America until the 1950’s, when a number of new associations, among them the Humane Society of the United States, were formed to protest cruelty to animals used in medical research, as well as inhumane methods applied to the wholesale butchering of slaughterhouse animals. In the 1960’s, the radicalization of a significant minority of the animal protectionist movement produced the Fund for Animals, founded by Cleveland Amory in 1967. Even the FFA, however, is essentially a preservationist organization, concerned for the protection of endangered species such as the Gray Timberwolf. With the emergence of the animal rights theorists in the mid-70’s, sanity in the animal protectionist community went out the window, following immediately upon the vanishing heels of philosophy itself. Nineteen seventy-five saw the publication of Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals, which was rapidly accepted as the bible of the animal rights movement and has sold hundreds of thousands of copies. The creation of an “ideology” of animal liberation led to the eclipse of moderate organizations by fanatical ones like the Animal Liberation Front, which employs terrorist tactics to rescue lab animals, and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, whose co-founder, Ingrid Newkirk, is notorious for her complaint that, “Six million people died in concentration camps, but six billion broiler chickens will die this year in slaughterhouses,” as well as for the profound moral assertion that, “A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.” Animal rightists attack environmentalists for their concern with the welfare of species over the plight of individuals within the species, which Tom Regan—Professor of Philosophy at North Carolina State University and the author of The Case for Animal Rights—condemns as an example of “environmental fascism.” They oppose the ownership of pets, the keeping of animals in zoos, their use in circuses, rodeos, and other kinds of “exploitive” and “frivolous” human activity, and—of course—hunting. They are strict vegetarians, and call for laws prohibiting the consumption of meat by society at large. Many, if not most, of them find it easier to love an animal than another human being.
Nelkin and Jasper speculate that a necessary condition for the emergence of the animal rights movement is the extreme urbanization of modern society, in which the great majority of people, living at a remove from the natural world, are tempted to anthropomorphize animals and to sentimentalize animality itself. While urbanization is undoubtedly a factor, so complete an abandonment of reality must have its cause in some blight upon the human spirit more dreadful even than New York City. Animal rights freaks are said by investigating sociologists to be “educated,” a fact that prompts the question, “Educated in what?”
The modern world, as Flannery O’Connor showed again and again in her work, is both terrible and comic; it is also, as she clearly saw, pathetic. In a reference to what she called “do-it-yourself religion,” she put her finger squarely on the final cause of the terribly comic and the comically terrible. “We are all,” she wrote, “the Poor”; and we are becoming, in increasing numbers, the Freaks as well. What, after all, could be more freakish than a civilization resolved to turn its back on a four-thousand-year-old tradition capable of providing it with the truth it so desperately craves, in order to embrace the do-it-yourself cosmologies of an assortment of TV hosts and state university professors? And what more pathetic than human beings choosing animal love over human love, from fear of being made to face the truth that only human love reveals?
[The Animal Rights Crusade: The Growth of a Moral Protest, by James M. Jasper and Dorothy Nelkin (New York: The Free Press) 280 pp., $22.95]