Crisis and the Crossroads of History: The Need for a Radicalized Citizenry
“The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of great moral crises maintain their neutrality.” Dante Alighieri (1265-1321)
"To remain silent and indifferent is the greatest sin of all." Elie Wiesel
Martin Luther King said that if a person hasn’t found something to die for, he isn’t fit to live. He is suggesting two things: first, that do we gain meaning and purpose in life when we find and fight for a cause; second, that we have strong obligations to help others and therefore ought to embrace a cause. Ethics calls upon us not only to avoid doing harm to others, but to actively work to bring about the good, and therefore change social arrangements. The ethical life is inseparable from the political life.
A “cause” is a goal or principle one serves with passion and dedication. As a general value, a cause transcends the wants and interests of the individual who gives voice to it. Indeed, persons who champion causes often subsume or sacrifice their own life to that of a cause. Marx, Gandhi, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, and Dian Fossey immediately come to mind.
Despite the nobility of a cause, people often are suspicious if you advocate any value other than yourself, your country, or your favorite sports team. In a pathologically individualist, narcissistic, and greed-oriented society such as ours, those who champion rights and justice causes often are derided. Anyone who has stood on the street with a protest sign has been regaled with the cry, “Get a life!” -- as if real life were realized in being a worker and consumer rather than a concerned and engaged citizen. Political advocacy breaks with polite protocol, apolitical norms, and rigid boundaries between the personal and political. It threatens those who cling to prejudices of one kind or another, whether racist, sexist, elitist, homophobic, or speciesist.
The contempt for causes is evident in the vilification of progressive values as “PC,” as if struggles against racism, sexism, and classism were Nazi propaganda rather than legitimate justice issues. Such ridicule inspired the classic Elvis Costello song, where he asks indignantly, "What's so funny about peace, love, and understanding?"”
The depoliticization of everyday life is dramatically evident in academia, where young minds are trained to do research that is self-serving, abstract, apolitical, and largely meaningless to social problems and moral progress. Workers in research factories, specialists in fragmented knowledge, oblivious to the social and ecological crises that demand our attention, professors take their designated place in a one dimensional society that presents what “is” as what “ought” to be.
To help solidify the attack on rights and liberation movements, mass media frame activists as weirdoes, extremists, alarmists, and even terrorists -- when they consider their viewpoints at all. Journalists refer to animal rights and environmental activists as eco-terrorists, as if the corporate-constructed term were objective; conversely, the media portray the real terrorists who exploit animals and the earth as respectable business interests threatened by thugs and criminals.
The Ethical Life is a Political Life
Not all causes are good causes, of course, as fascism, totalitarianism, imperialism, genocide, racism, speciesism, and environmental destruction are causes that corporations, governments, and many people have affirmed in thought and action.
In fact, it’s the prevalence of bad causes that make it urgent that as many people as possible struggle for justice and ecology. As noted by Edmund Burke, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”
If we define “evil” as the willful exercise of violence, destruction, and domination, I think it is quite apparent that evil forces prevail over those that seek to establish peace, cooperation, democracy, and respect for life and the earth. The hegemony of Thanatos over Eros is manifest in rainforest destruction, species extinction, global warming, factory farming, genocide, military build-ups, nuclear proliferation, the G8, NAFTA, the WTO, ExxonMobil, Pat Robertson, Ann Coulter, and, of course: Bush, Rove, Rumsfeld, Cheney, Rice and their neo-con, Manifest Destiny agenda of “regime change” and spreading “democracy” to the world.
Burke is right. It’s not enough not to do harm, one has to actively work to bring about the good, which means struggling against forces that oppress and destroy life and the earth. Good intentions and good will mean nothing unless put into action.
Some think it is enough to be merely opposed to something: “I’m against discrimination! I hate racism! What kind of society allows poverty and homelessness!” Great, but what are you doing about it?! Progressive opinions are idle café chatter unless put into action.
Some think that they fulfill their civic duties obligations by writing a check to Amnesty International or Greenpeace. Others believe they’ve done enough by adopting a particular lifestyle. I once heard such a self-serving victim of bad faith argue: “Why should I join an animal rights group? I’m vegan! I’m already done my share!”
Becoming a vegan, in fact, is one of the most important things anyone can do to improve life on this planet. But it is only a necessary condition of the ethical-political life, and not a sufficient condition. It is still a fundamentally selfish and apolitical existence that doesn’t contribute enough to the planet. The ethical life requires that we put our own house in order, and that we become active in a cause and social movement.
The Animal Rights Cause
I want to speak a bit about my cause, which is animal rights. It is a peculiar type of cause in that many people do not see it as a legitimate or the best cause. They fail to appreciate that the enormity of animal suffering and death merits our fullest attention, and that activism is not a zero-sum game whereby helping animals we are not also helping humans. The fate of all species stands or falls together, and succor to animals benefits human beings in profound ways.
In my own personal evolution, I moved from being a carnivore to a vegan, and from a human rights activist to an animal rights activist. As a newly awakened vegetarian in the early 1980s, I was also becoming heavily involved with Central American and South African liberation issues. Although alert to the health impact of meat and dairy products, I had no clue about the innumerable barbaric ways human beings exploit animals. Even while researching the evils of juntas, death squads, genocide, fascism, and imperialism, my picture of humanity was still too rosy.
That changed in the midst of a second stunning epiphany when in 1987 I read Peter Singer’s book, Animal Liberation. Like so many other people, that book changed my life in an instant. I became ill from the emotional stress of learning about the exploitation of animals in factory farms, slaughterhouses, vivisection labs, and other human-manufactured hellholes.
Realizing that animals suffered far more than human beings in the quantity and quality of their suffering and death, and lack any means to assist themselves, I shifted from human rights to animal rights activism. Whereas most human beings have at least some rights, no animals have the most basic right to life and bodily integrity. When I studied the impact of meat production on world hunger and the environment, or how vivisection impedes medical progress, I realized that by helping the animals I would also be helping humans in the most productive way possible. I saw animal rights as the most radical, complete, and holistic form of activism.
Yet I also found my political commitments ridiculed far more than ever before, as animal rights provokes hostility from human supremacists who boost themselves by demeaning animals. I took heart in the words of Emile Zola: “The fate of animals is of greater importance to me than the fear of appearing ridiculous; it is indissolubly connected with the fate of men.”
The ridicule I received for defending animal rights was particularly harsh from the Radical and Left communities, who have uncritically assimilated the anthropocentric and speciesist ideologies of modern science, the Enlightenment, and Marxist Humanist traditions. I grew tired of their gross inconsistencies and hypocrisies. Too many times, I found myself at a table full of “radicals” denouncing capitalist exploitation, while devouring the tortured carcasses of cows, pigs, chickens, lamb, and other animals that suffered for their callous palette preferences. Although priding themselves on systemic critiques of global capitalism, Leftists fail to grasp the profound interconnections among human, animal, and earth liberation struggles.
I realized that the “radical” traditions in no way are a liberating philosophy or politics from the standpoint of animals and the environment. I saw Leftism as merely another form of Stalinism toward animals. The Left doesn’t grasp the deep roots of human power pathologies and would only replace capitalist anthropocentrism with socialist anthropocentrism. I came to the conclusion that a truly revolutionary social theory and movement will not just emancipate members of one species, but rather all species and the earth itself. I rejected the humanist cliché -- “We Are All One Race, the Human Race” – for a broader vision: “We Are One Community, The Biocommunity.”
Landing a position at UTEP in 1993, I started right off by teaching radical and controversial ideas. Unlike the vast majority of my professional colleagues in philosophy, I believe that teaching and research should be linked to activism and the urgent issues of the day. I believe that in a world of environmental ruination, species extinction, and predatory global capitalism, academics should not have the luxury to pursue abstract issues that are not related to social transformation and revolutionary change. Rather, academics ought to use their skills to understand, communicate, and change what is happening with global genocide and ecocide.
I taught all the “isms” – Marxism, anarchism, feminism, postmodernism, post-colonialism -- but I soon learned that the most radical thing I taught was animal rights. I reached two conclusions why this was so.
First, it alone demands a radical transformation in everyday life. After the Marxist or anarchist seminar, students can talk at the dinner table about revolution while dining on the bodies of tortured and murdered animals. After the animal rights seminar, they often find themselves staring at their plates, questioning their most basic behaviors.
Second, animal rights probes to the core problem in the crisis in our social and natural worlds, as it relates to our alienation from nature and values of domination. Animal rights calls into question ancient anthropocentric and speciesist worldviews whereby humans define themselves apart from other animals, define themselves as apart from and superior to them, and declare themselves to be Lords and Master of the wild earth. Animal rights challenges people to realize that power demands responsibility, that might is not right, and that an enlarged neo-cortex is no excuse to exploit other species and rape the earth. It describes the fundamental equality among all animals, human and nonhuman, such that they are sentient, have preferences and lives important to them, and out to be able to live those lives without interference.
The global Animal Liberation Movement is an abolitionist movement that demands the end to all forms of animal exploitation, not merely reducing suffering; like its 19th century predecessor, it demands the eradication of slavery, not better treatment of the slaves. Stolen from the wild, bred and raised in captivity, held in cages and chains against their will and without their consent, animals literally are slaves, and thereby integral elements of the contemporary capitalist slave economy.
Because the Animal Liberation Movement poses not only a philosophical threat to modern society, but also an economic threat, it has come under fierce attack by industries and the state. In the US, the ALF, along with the ELF, is considered the number one “domestic terrorist” threat – not because they are violent or threats to public safety, but because they are threats to the corporate bottom line. In the US and UK as well, the animal liberation movement is the target of draconian repression.
I have endured my own troubles for speaking up for animal rights over the years. In just the last summer, for example, I was removed from my position as department chair, denied promotion to full professor, pressured to testify before the Senate eco-terrorism hearings, and banned from the entire UK. But my tribulations are only a small part of the sustained assault on liberties, rights, dissent, and resistance of all kind in the post 9-11 world of wars on terrorism and the Patriot Act.
The Urgent Need for Mass Resistance
We are currently living amidst the invasion of Iraq debacle, the dismantling of the Constitution, class warfare on the middle and lower classes, unprecedented political corruption, and catastrophic ecological meltdown. In light of growing crises in all sectors, I have to ask:
Why is there not a revolution in this country right now? Why are people cruising the malls rather that rioting in the streets? The tyranny we face today is far greater than what the colonists suffered at the hands of the British, but the colonists fought back with sabotage, armed struggle, and revolutionary warfare. How has the most ignorant and incompetent president in US history gotten away with so much deception, lies, law-breaking, and corruption at home and abroad? Why aren’t Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rove, Rice, and the entire US government behind bars? Among other things, the Bush administration has:
* waged an illegal and devastating war against
Iraq on the basis of lies and false evidence, a war that has cost
the lives of 2, 300 US soldiers and a hundred thousand Iraqi civilians
* aggravated the problem of global terrorism they pledged to reduce
* defended torture tactics and used them in Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and clandestine torture camps throughout the world
* dismantled the Bill of Rights, unleashed the FBI and NSA on all political dissent, and created a surveillance society and police state without parallel in our history
* waged war against the lower and middle classes and social sector to pay for his war and tax breaks for the rich
* displayed shocking indifference to victims of Gulf coast hurricanes
* attacked science and secularism on behalf of Christian fundamentalism and the Far Right
* stood virtually alone in the world in his denial of global warming while attempting to silence dissenting scientific voices
* gave industries carte blanch to pollute and exploit the environment
How much more corruption, violence, repression, and exploitation is necessary before people wake up and begin to act? How many more species have to pass into oblivion? How many more rainforests have to fall? How much more must the planet heat up?
Ecological systems are collapsing rapidly and right before our eyes. We live in the unprecedented era of global warming and the sixth great extinction crisis on this planet, the last one being 65 million years ago in the age of the dinosaurs.
Why then are we not responding to these crises with appropriate concern and levels of struggle? Are Americans like the “good Germans” who went about their business in the midst of Nazi genocide?
The environmental crisis is inseparable from the political crisis, which is a crisis in democracy. It seems we reached the end of politics where citizens are consumers, critical thinking is overwhelmed by propaganda and mass media miasma, public concern is negated by private worry, and political action is nullified by mindless consumption of mass media and entertainment spectacles. Rather than a realm of rational and participatory debate, the political sphere has become a site of propaganda, manipulation, disinformation, and spectacle. Unlike in the ancient Greek polis, citizenship today means no more than being a taxpayer, a consumer, and a voter free to choose between two bland brands of corporate candidates.
We are in fact reaping the consequences of liberal democracy which is grounded in the pursuit of private good divorced from concepts of the social good and civic virtue. Public affairs are to be organized for private advantage, and (in Locke’s influential formulation) citizens consent to government only for mutual preservation of lives, property, and liberty. Rights are negative rights to be free from interference in the pursuit of private good, rather than positive rights to basic social goods such as work, housing, education, and a healthy environment. Whereas Aristotle saw human beings as political by nature, Locke and the liberal tradition viewed politics as an artificial convention necessary to safeguard private interests from clashing with one another. The liberal model of democracy -- along with the steady rise of state, media, and corporate power it promoted, and the rise of mass culture and a society of spectacles and entertainment -- spelled the demise of citizenship.
To be sure: there is resistance and organized protest against Bush, capitalism, and the exploitation of animals and the earth. For instance, 4 states and over 300 communities have passed measures declaring the Patriot Act unconstitutional. Cities and towns across the land are passing resolutions demanding that Congress impeach Bush and Cheney. From LA to New York, mass demonstrations against right wing immigration policies have erupted to demand rights and justice for immigrants and the disenfranchised.
But all of these struggles are too weak, and none directly challenge capitalism and its ecocidal logic. Working conditions for students and laborers is far worse in the US than in France, yet the exploited masses in the US passively bear their burden. The world responds to a whale trapped in the ice, but not the melting of ice and glaciers. The vast majority of people now oppose Bush’s war, but more in opinion than action. And there is still no major action on the most important issue of the day, which is global warming.
Who will rise to the challenge? Politicians are too corrupt, cowardly, and beholden to corporate money to act; they are part of the problem, not the solution. The media have long ago abandoned their responsibilities to inform. Themselves giant corporate powers, they uphold elitist agendas and respond to ratings and profit imperatives not public interest. Their business is entertainment not enlightenment. Mainstream organizations such as Greenpeace publicize much and accomplish little, absorbed in the task of collecting the money that fuels their bureaucratic machines. Organizations such as the United Nations Conference on the Environment commission research, hold conferences, release reports, and warn of catastrophe. But the media doesn’t cover it, the public doesn’t hear about it, and the Corporate Titans turn a deaf ear.
Let’s face facts: After decades of environmental struggles, we are nevertheless losing ground in the battle to preserve species, ecosystems, and wilderness. Increasingly, calls for moderation, compromise, and the slow march through institutions can be seen as treacherous and grotesquely inadequate. In the midst of predatory global capitalism and biological meltdown, “reasonableness” and “moderation” seem to be entirely unreasonable and immoderate, as “extreme” and “radical” actions appear simply as necessary and appropriate. To borrow a phrase from Martin Luther King, we need armies of “creative extremists” who are most intemperate in their struggle against injustice, exploitation, and destruction of the earth.
Politics as usual just won’t cut it anymore. We will always lose if we play by their rules rather than cast a pox on their house and invent new forms of struggle, new social movements, and new sensibilities. Causes require decisive and direct action: logging roads need to be blocked, driftnets need to be cut, and cages need to be emptied. But these are defensive actions; new movements must be built, ones that incorporate both social and ecological issues in multiracial and global alliances. Such approaches have been taken by Judi Bari and Earth First!, the environmental justice movement, the international Green movement, the Zapatistas, and alter-globalization struggles against transnational capitalism.
A new revolutionary politics will build on the achievements of democratic, libertarian socialist, and anarchist traditions. It will incorporate radical green, feminist, and indigenous struggles. It will merge animal, earth, and human standpoints in a total liberation struggle against global capitalism and domination of all kinds. Radical politics must reverse the growing power of the state, mass media, and corporations in order to promote egalitarianism and participatory democratization at all levels of society – economic, political, and cultural. It dismantles all asymmetrical power relations and structures of hierarchy, including that of humans over animals and the earth. It is impossible without the revitalization of citizenship and re-politicization of life, which begins with forms of education, communication, culture, and arts that anger, awaken, inspire, and empower people toward action and change.
We live in a dark time – the post-9/11 era and the so-called “war on terrorism.” Since Bush took office, we have seen the return of McCarthyism, the revival of COINTELPRO-type surveillance programs, the replacement of the Bill of Rights with the Patriot Act, the construction of a surveillance society, and the rise of a menacing police state.
This is undeniably a pivotal time in history, a crossroads for the future of life. Windows of opportunity are closing. The actions that human beings now collectively take or fail to take will determine whether the future is hopeful or bleak. While the result is horrible to contemplate, our species may not meet this challenge and thereby drive itself into the same oblivion into which it drove countless other species.
There is no economic or technological fix for the crises we confront, the only solution lies in radical change at all levels. Whether our cause is human, animal, or earth liberation, we should recognize that we are fighting for the same basic rights and principles and opposing common enemies that include global capitalism, state domination, and hierarchies of all kinds.
In today’s political climate where one can be charged with treason for questioning the war against Iraq, or hassled by the FBI as an ecoterrorist for opposing vivisection, it is easy to be intimidated and retreat from action. Those who try not to take a position and to remain “neutral” in fact throw their support to the status quo. For as Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel noted, “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
We can draw inspiration from courageous activists in the past, whether Frederick Douglass, Alice Paul, Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Chico Mendez, Dian Fossey, or Cesar Chavez. In times of doubt or fear it is always good to recall the words of Martin Luther King:
“Cowardice asks the question, 'Is it safe?' Expediency asks the question, 'Is it politic?' But conscience asks the question, 'Is it right?' And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular but because conscience tells one it is right.”
That time is now. It is time to take sides in defense of life and the earth. It’s time to draw a line in the sand. Time to say – ya basta! There is nothing more patriotic than revolt against tyranny. As Thomas Jefferson said, “Every generation needs a new revolution.”