August 20, 2005

Shall I Compare Thee to a Freaking Cow?

Common Dreams published an essay by Andrew Christie yesterday about the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) pointing out that exploitation and abuse of animals is akin to slavery, child labor, and concentration camps and why people are so outraged by such an obvious comparison.
... 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 antebellum 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 controllable.

Changing those paradigms were (and are) hard fights, but the animal rights movement is fighting 10,000 years of cultural conditioning 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.
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