The Epiphanies of Dr. Steven Best: Interview with Claudette Vaughn of Vegan Voice, Fall 2004
Part I: The Way of Change
Claudette Vaughn: On an internet site advertising a video about your views on direct action, I read that “Best discusses the epiphanies which uprooted his life and spawned his dedication and life-long commitment to animal liberation.” Please talk about your epiphanies here Steve.
Steve Best: As with biological and social evolution, personal evolution transpires through two different paces. First, there is the slow time of gradual change where, little by little, transformation unfolds. Then there is the sudden time of rapid change – the flash of recognition, the blinding insight – where in an instant the mind shifts from one paradigm to another and suddenly views the world in a radically different way. The epiphany can result from the pressure building from gradual changes or it can come unprovoked like a lightning bolt. The transformative point can occur in lofty places like a temple or meditation room, but it probably happens more often in the mundane space of everyday life, while waiting at a traffic light or walking through a subway turnstile.
My own epiphany, the one that led me down the path of veganism and ultimately to a position of animal consciousness, happened 25 years ago in a White Castle fast food restaurant (talk about profane spaces!) in Chicago as I was biting into a double cheeseburger. As I usually ordered just a single cheeseburger, the double was so excessive, so over the top, so absolutely dripping with gore and vile, that I was completely nauseated. For the first time in my carnivorous life I made a concrete connection between the processed slop in my hands and the bones, tissues, muscles, tendons, blood, and life of an animal. With no prior knowledge of vegetarian issues – no contact with any book, video, speaker, or person of this persuasion – I threw the burger out in utter revulsion. I stumbled around in a dietary no man’s land for two months, not knowing what to eat, until I met some vegetarians who assured me of the value of my uninvited intuition and pointed me in the right direction.
CV: What followed?
SB: As a newly awakened vegetarian in the early 1980s, I was also becoming a dedicated human rights activist 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 and the world 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 what I was learning about the exploitation of animals in factory farms, slaughterhouses, vivisection labs, and other human-manufactured hellholes.
Once I recovered from the shock, I exuviated into a very different person. Realizing that animals suffered far more than human beings in the quantity and quality of their pain, suffering, and death, 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, 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.
CV: So what does all this mean for education and change?
SB: Sometimes when we think we have failed to reach someone, we have in fact planted a transformative seed that will sprout in time, perhaps in striking fashion. And sometimes we can have an instantaneous and dramatic impact on people we are trying to reach with our message of health, ethics, justice, and ecology. In the course of a film viewing, lecture, or conversation, they can undergo a turning of the conceptual kaleidoscope to have instant recognition of the toxic nature of meat and dairy products, the injustice of animal exploitation, and even the insanity of the global meat culture that bar none is the greatest threat to the planet. If you look at the evolution of activists like Henry Spira and Eddie Lama, you see that each gravitated from human to animal rights through an epiphany. In both cases, interestingly, their transformation was precipitated by an unwanted relationship with a cat. In these and countless other cases, we see that animals can be our teachers as well as our healers. They have a way of prying open a closed heart.
Part II: Welfarism, Rights, and the Future of the Movement
CV: Have we lost our way in the movement? I mean, has the resistance once seen from the animal liberation movement worldwide collapsed in your view?
SB: No. Quite the contrary. The animal advocacy movement – which includes the different and often conflicting welfare, rights, and liberation tendencies -- is growing stronger all the time. Important victories are being won. For instance, in the US:
• Circuses are being banned in cities across
the nation as the plight of elephants in zoos has become a national
• Humane education programs are taking root in schools and teaching children compassion and respect for animals and the earth
• Boulder, West Hollywood, Berkeley, and other cities have changed the legal definition of animal companion “owners” to “guardians,” which helps to dismantle exploitative views of animals
• 37 states have made animal cruelty a felony crime
• Two thirds of all medical schools have eliminated the use of animals to train doctors
• The first reforms are being made in the treatment of animals in factory farms and slaughterhouses
• Voters are using state ballot initiatives to ban cruelties such as steel-jawed traps, bear baiting, cockfighting, and pig gestation crates
• In September 2004, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law a bill outlawing the cruel force-feeding of ducks and geese to produce foie gras
• Animal rights and the law seminars are now taught at over two dozen universities such as Harvard, as law schools are training new cadres of lawyers with specialties in animal law
• Introduction to Philosophy or Ethics textbooks now routinely feature chapters on animal rights issues
• A 2003 Gallup Poll found that 96% of Americans believe animals deserve some protection from abuse and 25% say that animals deserve “the exact same rights as people to be free from harm and exploitation”
Exciting new tactics are being used with great effectiveness by animal welfare and animal rights activists. Steve Hindi, for example, has led the way in using mobile education squads similar to his Tiger Truck—a huge van fitted with digital video screens on all sides, electronic message boards, and amplified sound, showing graphic images of animal abuse. Hindi skillfully uses undercover video footage to expose the lies of animal exploiters and to educate the public about animal cruelty. With their first two films, The Witness and Peaceable Kingdom, Jenny Stein and James LaVeck are transforming tends of thousands of lives in the US around the world. Wayne Pacelle and the Humane Society of the United States have pioneered important new legal tactics that bypass corrupt national and state legislatures and bring votes concerning animal welfare directly to the people through the open referendum ballot.
Similar progress can be found in other countries. In Spain, ever more people now – 96% in Catalonia -- reject bullfighting as barbaric and call for its abolition. This is really a significant marker of change because bullfighting has been an essential part of Mediterranean cultures and identities for centuries. Moreover, in 2002, Germany became the first European nation to inscribe animal rights into its national constitution. Meanwhile, cognitive ethology – the science of animal emotions and intelligence – is revolutionizing human understanding of animal complexity, hopefully driving the last nail into the coffin of Cartesianism, the philosophy that defines animals as mere automatons or machines.
CV: And what about the direct action movements?
SB: Direct action approaches are growing stronger too. The ALF is alive and well and operating with intensity in over twenty countries. The SHAC movement in the UK and US represents a sign of new strength and a quantum leap in tactical sophistication. In February 2004, UK activists shut down the plan to build a primate research lab in Cambridge, and in July 2004 they forced a second major contractor out of plans to build a new biomedical research facility at Oxford University. The arrest of the “SHAC7” activists in the US on May 26, 2004 is a strong sign of SHAC’s effectiveness; the federal indictment of these activists shows that animal exploitation industries and the state recognize SHAC for what it is -- a serious and growing threat to their economic interests. Despite the intense amount of political repression unleashed on animal liberation activists in the US, UK, and elsewhere, the ALF and the SHAC movement are as aggressive as ever, arguably more so. We should be feel empowered in the fact that there is nothing any state can do to stop the animal liberation movement.
CV: Not much is ever written about the deadening weight of new welfarism as the ultimate act of betrayal for animals. Would you care to speak on the subject of why welfarist reforms can never lead to liberation for ‘food’ animals?
SB: Because welfare reforms are not intended to liberate animals from any kind of exploitation, but rather only to reduce their suffering. You cannot achieve an objective that is never yours in the first place. Moreover, welfarism never contests the basic premises of speciesism which promote human superiority over nonhuman animals and it never challenges the status of animals as mere commodities and property objects. Welfarism is a speciesist, hierarchical framework. It wasn’t the framework that advanced the liberation of US slaves in the 19th century and it won’t propel the liberation of animals either.
I agree with much of what Gary Francione has to say against the “new welfarists” – that is, welfarists who misleadingly couch their reform policies in the abolitionist language of rights – but I think he overstates his case. It is by no means wrong or a betrayal of abolitionism to seek immediate relief of suffering for farmed or laboratory animals, especially when that suffering is so dire and abolition is a distant possibility. The problem is not reforms themselves, but rather reforms detached from the larger goal of abolition, means in search of the right end. PETA, for instance, has waged a long campaign against fast-food chains to force them to pressure their suppliers to improve the conditions for farmed animals. This is a reform measure. But, look, they also get to the root of the problem by promoting veganism and humane education, and they emphatically push the abolitionist message that “animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, or be entertained by.”
So I think Francione’s critique of PETA misses the mark, and that sometimes he constructs a false binary between reform and abolition or doesn’t see how fine this line can be. Consider the successful 2002 campaign to ban pig gestation crates in Florida: on the one hand, this was an abolitionist drive to end a specific practice, the use of gestation crates; on the other hand, however, it was reformist since it was not challenging factory farming altogether. But Francione’s work is valuable for showing how rights and welfare discourses often get conflated, thereby weakening the struggle for equality, and how welfarism can never lead animals to true freedom. It is imperative that we do not confuse welfarism with rights and that we maintain a strong and coherent abolitionist vision, philosophy, and tactical approach.
CV: There appears to be a disproportionate amount of people who see themselves as ‘animal rights activists’ and yet support animal abuse industry experts like Temple Grandin in creating machinery that will see an animal to their death more efficiently (hence euphemistically ‘more humanely’). Can you comment?
SB: These again are the “new welfarists” in Francione’s terms, those who speak with forked-tongues, talking about rights which imply abolition of exploitation as they labor for welfare policies that only reduce some of the suffering within the institutions of human supremacism. They are trying to be realists because they know the abolition of factory farms is a long-term goal, and they are trying to offer the animals immediate relief. They understand how truly horrific animal suffering is in the factory farms and slaughterhouses. They know that once farmed animals like pigs and cattle enter the gates where allegedly they will be stunned and knocked unconscious -- the mandate of “humane killing” laws -- their suffering is far from over. Rather, all too many are inadequately stunned and are boiled or dismembered while still alive and conscious, to say nothing of the savage beatings stressed out and dehumanized slaughterhouse workers inflict on them with lead pipes, knives, and other implements of torture. (This is all spelled out in gruesome detail in Gail Eisnitz’s book, Slaughterhouse, which truly is the most distressing document I have ever read of human sadism toward animals.)
Obviously “humane killing” is an oxymoron because there is nothing “humane” about treating a fellow being like property or a thing and violating an animal’s fundamental right to bodily integrity and self-possession of a life. But the phrase is illuminating because of the very pretentiousness of speciesists in the industry to be acting in some lofty, noble, and commendable way. I think many “new welfarists” understand this. Given the context I just described, one should be able to sympathize with the goal to achieve “humane killing” as an immediate and short-range objective. The situation is so appalling that something needs to be done right now, and not a year, a decade, or a century later.
The problem with welfare demands is that, at best, you get what you ask for, and you are not in a good position to ask for more. Say the welfare advocates win this battle and “humane killing” laws are passed and enforced (it is quite another struggle to enforce animal protection laws once they are passed). The activists, industries, and politicians are all happy. And many consumers will be happy, their conscience eased when they can believe that the animals they are eating did not die a bad or unjust death. Temple Grandin may help alleviate animal suffering, but basically she is a pawn for animal exploiters seeking to legitimate their bloody profits. The meat has a “Temple Grandin” seal of approval. But say activists then demand the abolition of factory farming in favor of “free-range” farming (which they see as a realistic goal in a world not likely to see universal veganism). Their energy, resources, credibility, and bargaining power might be used up. But if they struggle for the abolition of factory farming from the start, they have a clear and uncompromising vision that cannot be diluted through minimal reforms. If you get what you ask for, this would be getting a lot. But then again: when would that objective be reached? In 2010? 2025? 3000? How do we turn our backs to the brutalization of animals in the slaughterhouses as we focus on the long term goal rather than their immediate suffering?
You see the dilemma here. I think activists ought to persist in what they already are doing – working on both the production and consumption end of the equation. One could bomb all the factory farms and slaughterhouses in the world without scratching the human demand for meat and dairy products. Vegan outreach and education is the most radical strategy, in the literal sense that it gets to the root (“radic”) of the problem, which is the uncompassionate and ignorant preference for a carnivorous rather than vegan diet and lifestyle. But as this lengthy education process unfolds – and as, sadly, more, not less, animals are killed each year for food despite every education effort -- we also need to stop the torture animals undergo after the alleged stunning process, and we need to end factory farming.
CV: Even when we fulfill our minimum obligations not to cause pain to non-human animals, we do not have the right to kill them. I would not have the right to kill you, however painlessly, if I liked the taste of your flesh.
SB: As you imply, there are really two different ethics important to animal rights: an ethics of non-harming and an ethics of not-killing. That they are different issues is clear when one realizes it is still wrong to take a being’s life against its will if one does so without causing pain or suffering. On a utilitarian, welfare-oriented calculus, it could be permissible to use or take an animal’s life so long as one minimized or prevented causing any suffering. If factory farms kept animals on continuous morphine drips or genetically engineered them so that they were not sentient, this would do nothing to minimize the wrong of exploiting and killing them. (It is difficult to imagine, anyway, that they would not still experience psychological pain if they could not feel physical pain within conditions of intensive confinement.) While certainly interdependent, the wrong of exploiting or taking a life is independent of the wrong of causing suffering, because a being’s needs, preferences, desires, and rich socio-natural life is denied and stolen away.
Peter Singer is aware of the problem and distinction here (see his book Practical Ethics), and draws a conclusion true animal rights proponents would strongly reject. On Singer’s utilitarian premises, it is ideal not to kill animals at all, but it is not necessarily wrong to kill an animal (specifically, for him, one with a low-level of self-awareness) so long as one does it painlessly and replaces it with another animal to maintain the total sentience continuum. Those of us who believe that farmed animals such as chickens and cattle are unique and complex individuals, and certainly those who have companion animals, will worry about which animals are classified as psychologically primitive and will find the idea that one life is replaceable by another repugnant. The greater problem is that such a view voiced by Singer arguably promotes the speciesist belief that (at least some or many) animals are undifferentiated, disposable, and ready-at-hand for humans to use.
The hypothetical of killing without causing pain is not just a philosopher’s exercise. It may become more important sooner than we think, as the science-industry complex rushes recklessly into the Brave New World of cloning, xenotransplantation, and genetic engineering. There is even grim talk of creating headless animal bodies or torso-sacks that are nothing but bundles of harvestable organs. But the basic fact remains: sentient or not, animals’ lives have been taken from them and that they have been reduced from ends-in-themselves to a mere means to someone else’s end. Because this exploitation -- painless or not -- is justified by reference to the fact that animals are not members of the human species, and are in some sense “inferior” to humans, it is indeed still speciesism.
CV: Should the movement go back to the drawing board and create whole campaigns based around speciesism – because the person-on-the-street doesn’t even have a clue what that term means yet, and animal activists still don't distinguish to any great degree a difference between new welfarism and right?
SB: If there is still a broad lack of awareness about the meaning and ethical relevance of speciesism, then I would say, yes, we have hardly succeeded in a key education mission of the animal rights movement and we need to do much more along these lines. Now that you mention it, I don’t see the concept discussed much, certainly not in the advertising campaigns of animal advocacy groups, perhaps because the term is a somewhat clumsy neologism. In their recent “Holocaust on Your Plate” campaign, for instance, PETA uses the human/animal holocaust analogy rather than the racism/sexism/speciesism analogy. The holocaust analogy certainly is more controversial and emotionally charged, and to my mind a good one for the movement to continue to explore for its ability to expose the plight of farmed animals. But the concept of speciesism might indeed be a good ad campaign. The term’s value is that it invokes legitimate parallels to racism and sexism, and can tap into disagreement with those kinds of discrimination.
CV: What are these parallels?
SB: There is a common structure to racism, sexism, and speciesism, a shared logic of ideology and power. First, a dualism is deployed that creates an unbridgeable gulf between one group and another (whites/people of color, men/women, human/animal). Second, since these rigid distinctions are motivated and far from innocent, they are used to establish a hierarchy where the alleged “superior” group (whites, men, human) are situated above the supposed “inferior” group (people of color, women, animals). The initial binary opposition provides the conceptual structure for the theory of hierarchy which then informs the practice of domination with all its exploitative and violent effects. Finally, racism, sexism, and speciesism are all alike in that they are fallacies whereby arbitrary, biased, and prejudiced reasons are given to defend the indefensible practice of transforming differences into hierarchies rooted in discrimination, domination, and violence.
CV: Would a focus on speciesism help prevent the blurring of lines between rights and welfare by the “new welfarists”?
SB: Not necessarily. Not as much as an insistence that activists consistently and coherently identify their moral paradigms, be it welfare or rights, and not confuse the two. The larger question is this: is speciesism a genuine rights or abolitionist issue, or is it compatible with welfarism? Clearly, welfarists are speciesist because they do not challenge the fundamental issue which is not the suffering of animals but rather the moral inequality between humans and animals. If you can get welfarists to see the wrong of speciesism, and not just suffering, you may be able to move them into a rights position. But new welfarists criticize speciesism and think they are advocating animal rights, so the challenge there is not to get them to renounce speciesism but realize that the abolitionist logic of the concept is inconsistent with the reforms they advocate.
CV: Do you think calling for “transparency” in animal experimentation – whereby universities and private laboratories are forced to disclose what animal research they conduct (without necessarily saying where or by whom) – is a small step toward obtaining the necessary information to refuting animal experiments? Or will it legitimate animal experimentation further as a kind of extension of welfarism?
SB: First, I doubt that the vivisection industry would ever acquiesce to such demands given the sad fact that so much research today is commodified and therefore done for greed, not altruism, for corporate profit, not the public good. Given the huge economic incentives at stake, a fiercely competitive research environment, and the resulting conditions secrecy (consider the public/private conflicts in the race to decode the Human Genome Project), I doubt scientists and experimenters are willingly going to divulge the nature of their work. Moreover, economic reasons aside, researchers have a strong interest to hide from the public the horrifying reality of what they inflict on animals.
But should the biomedical research industry be forced out of their clandestine state and be compelled to provide a plausible rationale for their research, I believe that some of the worst of their medieval tortures would end. When in 1976 Henry Spira exposed the sadistic experiments the American Museum of Natural History in New York was doing – mutilating cats to observe the effects on their sexual behavior – the public outcry forced an end to those experiments. Similar, when the public viewed the tapes of primate research conducted at the University of Pennsylvania head injury clinic, obtained in a 1984 ALF raid, the backlash closed the lab down. So much unnecessary, repetitive, unjustifiable, and outright sadistic and insane “research” is done by the vivisection industry that if they were compelled to state and defend what they were doing to government and the public alike, quite possibly much of it would end.
This is not meaningless for those animals subjected to the worst practices such as blinding, burning, or isolation experiments. At the same time, however, these are only reforms that if implemented would enhance the vivisection industry’s aura of credibility and thereby impair the movement toward a total end of vivisection. Demands for these kinds of reforms are basically a variation on the “3 R’s” (refine, reduce, replace) of animal welfare the industry falsely claims to follow, with the addition that researchers make their so-called “internal” reviews available for public scrutiny. Such demands do nothing to challenge the basic scientific and ethical problems inherent in using animals as research models. Nor by themselves do calls for accountability further the goal of moving toward alternative models of research, in fact, they can hinder it. Calling scientists – the powerful shamans of capitalist culture – to public accountability is a major step toward real change, but this process must not begin or end there. We must also undo the linkage between corporate sponsorship and scientific research, end the powerful influence the biomedical lobby has on the political system, train scientists in value thinking and ethics as we educate laypeople about science, promote substantive public debate about vivisection and animal rights, and move aggressively toward developing alternatives to animal experimentation.
CV: Can an uncompromised rights theory be achieved in a patriarchal society whose very existence centers on "property rights" for its livelihood - hence the property status of nonhumans?
SB: Is the problem with patriarchy or capitalism? Or both? Although many feminist analyses reveal how the origins of patriarchy and speciesism in distant history are deeply interrelated, I think the more important and direct issue here is capitalism not patriarchy. Let’s not forget that the very discourse of rights, as it emerged in England, France, and the US in the late eighteenth century, was a product of elite white males. We should avoid the “genetic fallacy” which argues that something is bad or wrong because of its origins. The fact that rights emerged from a white male bourgeois matrix hardly discredits the discourse, rather it was a huge historical advance over monarchy, aristocracy, and the ancien regime. The concept of rights, in fact, was so powerful, so inflammatory, that it has fueled every justice and equality struggle since its inception, including the movements for the rights of women, people of color, and animals. Of course, some feminists argue that rights discourse is male-biased and they reject it for an alternative “ethics of care” framework, but I don’t view this as the best approach for at least two reasons. First, unlike the “ethics of care,” the language of rights is common coinage and resonates strongly in the moral consciousness of all who hear it. Second, I don’t see how one can institutionalize or formalize an “ethics of care” in legal systems, whereas this is easy with the notion of rights.
The immediate problem for our own historical context lies far more directly with capitalism. Rights theory emerged not to grant all people equality and universal rights, but rather to advance the property interests of the modern elite and bourgeoisie. Hence, John Locke’s eighteenth century notion of rights as first and foremost the right to own and accumulate private property was very influential in the US and elsewhere and provided a key philosophical and legal foundation for capitalist social relations and colonialism. But the confluence of property rights and the ancient ideology of speciesism meant that animals formally and officially become human property. Thus, they are someone’s to “own” and no one else has the right to interfere with their “property.” This is clearly the case when the state criminalizes strikes against fur farms, vivisection labs, and the like, as the actions are judged as attacks on property and not as ethical responses to suffering. Of course, animals have been defined as property at least since the Romans, who also declared women and children property. But while women and children were liberated from this status over time, animals remain bound to property law and hence retain their objectified status as slaves for human beings.
I have no trouble with the concept of property so long as it applies to one’s private possessions, ethically and legitimately earned. Even in a viable socialist society, I imagine there would be some concept of private possessions or property, such that one’s own home, for instance, would not be collectivized at the will of the state. The problem, however, occurs when property rights law allows an individual or corporation to gain ownership and monopoly control over resources like utilities and media that directly affect public interests and should be subject to democratic regulation. Moreover, there is obviously another difficulty when living beings – human or nonhuman – are defined as property and therefore fall to someone’s illicit “ownership.”
While animal welfarism simply acquiesces to the objectification of animals as property, the animal rights and (direct action) animal liberation movements challenge it head-on. The ALF, for instance, de-commodifies animals by removing them from their cages and adopting them to loving homes. Their ultimate target is not so much a physical building but rather the conceptual framework of speciesism. Or consider the campaign of In Defense of Animals that seeks to re-define human beings as “guardians” not “owners” of animals. They have accordingly revised the legal language in US cities such as Boulder, Colorado and Hollywood, Florida. It may seem a small semantic victory, but I see it as a significant inroad to transforming the Western/capitalist ideology of animals as property. The ultimate goal is to abolish the property status of animals, such that no vivisector, breeder, fur farmer, or other exploiter can “own” an animal anymore than they can own a human. The law needs to catch up with rapidly changing developments in ethical consciousness.
But the main obstacle is economic, not philosophical. Just as there was a huge economic benefit and value of human slaves in the US during the 19th century, providing the basis for widespread opposition to abolitionism (including among the so-called Founding Fathers, many of whom owned slaves), so there is a massive profit source today in animal slavery and powerful economic interests in maintaining this legal structure. This must change. Slavery remains the burning moral issue in capitalism, but this time the focus is breaking the chains on the nonhuman animal slaves. Given the powerful economic interests involved, I have strong doubts that we can bring about this change through persuasion or legal means alone. Power is indifferent to abstract appeals to morality and justice; power only responds to a counter-power. Only when the cause of animal rights is translated into a commanding mass movement – one with both underground and aboveground armies -- will the cause of animal liberation be won.
CV: So, despite the contributions of welfare campaigns and reforms, you are saying that welfarism ultimately is the wrong philosophy and tactical approach.
SB: Yes. Malcolm X’s critical distinction between “house Negroes” and “field Negroes” is very illuminating in this context. Malcolm frequently denounced mainstream civil rights activists (NAACP, etc.) as “house negroes” who loved and supported their masters for the crumbs of kindness bestowed on them and their relatively comfortable place in a world of vicious racism. The “field Negroes,” however -- those who toil in the hot sun, sleep on the hard ground, and experience their oppression for what it is -- hate the slavemaster, have no illusions about good relations with him, and want their chains completely broken, not polished or lengthened.
Animal welfare and rights activists who uncritically embrace the Legal-System-As-The-Only-Path-Of-Change dogma, are the “house Negroes” of the movement. They cherish the status, respectability, salaries, and benefits the social system often gives them, they live and lobby in the slavemaster’s (political) house, and they believe that the masters are kind and good enough to treat the animals better if they just learn to ask in the right way and play strictly by his rules. The activists who embrace the fundamental principles of capitalism and “democracy,” and display uncritical trust in the power of persuasion, reason, and legislation to win victories for the animals in a rotten and corrupt system, can also be seen as “house negroes.” The militant direct action camp, conversely, are the “field negroes” who have no illusions about winning a liberation movement by respecting the masters; rather, they are ready to follow the lead of the “peacemaker” Jesus in overturning the tables of the moneymakers. So from this perspective, the fundamental division in the animal advocacy movement is not between welfare and rights outlooks, but rather between those who embrace and those who transcend legalist dogmas, a division between the house and the field Negroes.
Speaking of Malcolm X, I think the animal advocacy movement could benefit considerably from putting down their King and Gandhi books for awhile to consider the implications of Malcolm’s genius for animal rights struggles. Pacifism and non-violence have become dogmas uncritically embraced, binding us to the rules and values of the exploiters. Malcolm abandoned the “love your neighbor” and “turn the other cheek” philosophy of Christianity-Gandhi-King that undermines our power and makes us safe and predictable opponents whom exploiters never have to fear. Malcolm X never advocated violence. Indeed, unlike King, he did not even advocate civil disobedience; rather, he sought strictly legal means of change through the ballot box and by exerting global pressure on the US through the United Nations. His infamous phrase “by any means necessary” was meant strictly in reference to the need and right of blacks to self-defense in a brutal racist state where police and government allow the Klan and other murderers to kill blacks with impunity. Malcolm argued that if the government and police cannot or will not defend black people, they need to defend themselves, through armed violence if necessary. You only turn the other cheek where your opponent does first, any other tactic is suicidal. If your opponent aims to murder you, then reach for your revolver.
Part III: Violence, the ALF, and Direct Action
CV: Are you supporting violence as a legitimate tactic for animal liberation?
SB: That depends on what you mean by “violence.” I do not include attacks on inanimate objects as violence (vandalism, sabotage, and other terms work better here), but I certainly do include assaults on animals. In our speciesist society, it is no accident that animals are systematically excluded from definitions of violence and terrorism, which concern themselves only with human interests. If the terms violence and terrorism were – most legitimately – expanded to include the interests of non-human species, then we would quickly discern the identities of the real agents of violence and terrorism. Because they attack property, and never life, the ALF is a non-violent organization; non-violence is their core value. It is, consequently, no mistake that in over three decades of action across the globe, no human animal exploiter has even been injured or killed by the ALF, although many hunt sab and direct activists have been victims of violence at the hands of states and animal exploitation industries. If attacks on property are what you mean by “violence,” if the term involves this circumscribed speciesist definition that favors the interests of animal exploiters over exploited animals, then, yes, I support “violence” in any situation where it will liberate an enslaved animal.
But let’s reconsider your question as we re-define violence as the intentional act of causing physical harm to an innocent sentient life, human and non-human. First, let’s do away with any false absolutist position and some serious hypocrisy while we are at it. Just as causing physical violence to another “person” is not always right, nor is it always wrong. There is wide assent that violence is legitimate to defend innocent human beings from being wrongly harmed or killed by others. In the paradigm case, who truly condemns the use of property destruction and violence to free Jewish prisoners from Nazi genocide? Resistance fighters blew up train tracks, gas ovens, and killed German soldiers at every possible opportunity. Bravo! But if discussion turns to the use of property destruction or physical violence to liberate animals from oppression, suddenly there is outcry that this tactic is wrong, violent, and counter-productive. Appealing to critics to overcome the fallacy of speciesism and to think in a rigorously consistent manner, I simply ask: why? Why are the anti-Nazi resistance fighters heroes, and the ALF are terrorists? Why is violence acceptable to use in defence of human beings but not animals? This gross inconsistency ought to embarrass every unprejudiced and logical person and it is a scandal when paraded about by a so-called “animal advocate.” It is just a disguised form of speciesism whereby extraordinary actions are courageous and laudable if done on behalf of human animals but despicable and deplorable if taken for nonhuman animals.
That said, I do not advocate physical violence against human beings as an ethical or effective tactic for the animal liberation movement. It is a moral imperative to first pursue peaceful methods of change to bring about justice for an oppressed group; if these channels are blocked, however, it is a defensible and legitimate alternative to use violent means of struggle. The reasoning here is similar to “Just War” theory (which originated in the early medieval period with philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas) that analyses two key conditions where violence is legitimate and/or necessary. Basically, Just War theory states that violence is acceptable if, in a conflict to involving self-defense or defense of the innocent, all other means of resolving the conflict have failed and the violence used to win the cause is not excessive. I do not endorse violent solutions to a political conflict lightly, but nor am I a pacifist. I am too much a realist about political dynamics and “human nature,” and too adamant a defender of animal rights.
But let me close this response with a question of my own. When Malcolm X said American blacks should arm and defend themselves “by any means necessary,” it is well-known that he was not advocating the use of violence. Rather, he was emphasizing the right to self-defence in conditions where the state and police would not defend blacks against racist violence and often were the perpetuators of violence against them. Now, if (1) Malcolm X is justified in saying an exploited group has the right to defend itself by any means necessary; and (2) the state will invariably defend exploiting industries over exploited animals; and (3) we are proxy agents for animals who cannot defend themselves against speciesist violence, then what tactics we are justified in using to save animals from extreme forms of violence?
CV: Why are you so open and adamant in your support for the A.L.F? For myself, I say to all who do not support the A.L.F, “If you don’t like it, then join the R.S.P.C.A”.
SB: Exactly. Quit your carping and divisiveness. Work wherever you can be effective and leave others to follow their own path. All paths are necessary. I would also say if you do not support the ALF, you need a lesson in history and a logical consistency check. Despite the lies of the corporate-state-media complex, and the ignorance of many animal advocates, the ALF has nothing to do with Al Qaeda, the SS, or the Republican Guard that tyrannized the Iraqi people before Bush did. The ALF is the animal rights version of the Underground Railroad, the anti-Nazi resistance movement, and contemporary peace and justice struggles. Like the Underground Railroad, the ALF breaks the law in order to rescue exploited animal slaves and shuttle them to freedom in loving homes. Like the anti-Nazi resistance, the ALF will smash the oppressors’ property and any implements of violence or death in order to slow down or stop their killing machines. Unlike some brave warriors fighting Nazis, however, the ALF has never used physical violence against any animal exploiter. And like all contemporary movements fighting for peace, justice, and human rights, the ALF intends to help secure all these values for the most defenseless victims of all, the animals who are utterly dependent upon us for their liberation.
The ALF belongs to the long and noble traditions of direct action and civil disobedience that include the Quakers, Henry David Thoreau, Harriet Tubman, the Suffragettes, Mohandas Gandhi, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. From the Boston Tea Party to the Battle of Seattle, there are important historical anticipations of or parallels to the ALF whenever oppressed people find they have to break the law and destroy property in order to realize ideals of freedom, rights, justice, and democracy. Whereas some argue that property destruction is violence, the ALF correctly identifies itself as a non-violent movement -- one that attacks only the property of animal exploiters, and never the exploiters themselves, in order to stop their obscene violence, create conditions of peace, and rescue animals from their bloody hands. Only in our perverse capitalist world, one that values property over life, does it make sense to demonize the ALF and elevate these freedom fighters – these counter-terrorists -- to Public Enemy #1 on the domestic terrorism list. Get real. The real terrorists occupy the corporate suites and highest political offices of the land.
CV: Why, specifically, do you feel people should support the ALF?
SB: Because they are needed and effective. As Kevin Jonas says, we should be proud to have on our side such brave warriors willing to risk their freedom and possibly lives for the animals. Over the last three decades of operation in the UK, the US, and throughout the world, the ALF has rescued and released countless thousands of animals no one else could, they have weakened and shut down many industries and sadistic vivisection projects, and they have obtained video documentation of animal exploitation that has provoked valuable change and public dialogue (such as the 1986 raid on the University of Pennsylvania head injury laboratory).
I find it most peculiar that the general public and so-called animal advocates support the legitimacy of property destruction, law-breaking, and even violence when used to bring about or defend human rights in places like Germany and South Africa, but then vilify these same tactics (minus the physical violence) when used to liberate animals. This is a blatant inconsistency and unearths the latent hypocrisy of animal advocates who criticize speciesism. They are simply parroting the Empire’s line that direct action is a breed of violence and terrorism without bothering to define these terms, place the burden of defense on animal exploiters rather than fellow activists, and grasp the pragmatic realities of animal liberation in a violent speciesist world.
ALF actions are just and courageous; for those in the aboveground movement who cannot join the underground it is important they at least show support for those who work with masks in whatever way they can. It is crucial that all aspects of the animal advocacy movement – welfare, rights, and liberation standpoints -- co-exist in a pluralistic environment. Every possible tactic – both legal and illegal – is needed to win the fight for animals. The animal advocacy movement would profit considerably from a respectful pluralism that recognizes the importance of working on multiple fronts at once. Activists can combine underground and aboveground strategies without any need for communication or overt cooperation, such that one approach compliments the other. ALF attacks on the homes and restaurants of foie gras chefs in the San Francisco area in the summer of 2003, for example, brought unprecedented public attention to that vicious industry and opened the door for aboveground organizations to further weaken it through education and legislation campaigns. The 2004 California ban on foie gras may not have been possible without the aggressive initial attacks of the ALF, and the positive publicity these generated. Open rescue activists such as with GourmetCruelty.com have opened up yet another front in the battle to end foie gras.
CV: So what problems do you have with critics of direct action?
SB: First, many critics of the ALF, SHAC, and direct action don’t seem to know the history of social movements very well. They don’t know that violence, property destruction, and law-breaking were key catalysts advancing struggle to the point where non-violent approaches themselves can become effective. Consider the abolitionist movement in the 19th century: it was galvanized and punctuated by widespread acts of sabotage, arson, and violence against slavemasters. Nat Turner, John Brown, and countless other abolitionists rose up in armed insurrections against pro-slavery whites and inspired countless more acts of resistance. Or consider the case of El Salvador: the decades-long bloody conflict between the fascist government prop of the US and the resistance movement ended in favor of dialogue and peaceful civic life only when the armed struggle of the guerrilla forces became strong enough to force negotiations with the junta government.
Second, many direct action critics labor with overly romanticized and idealistic views of human nature, believing that species supremacists can be converted through appeals to their compassion, humanity, religion, and reason. Sometimes this approach works: many prominent people in the animal rights movement are former animal exploiters. But for every speciesist Steve Hindi can convert with the barbarism and lies he captures on videotape, Paul Watson can show you a thousand vicious bastards who laugh as they rip the skin off a conscious baby seal.
Third, these critics rely on an equally naïve model of political struggle which assumes that “democratic” systems are sufficiently open to pluralism and justice that activists can defeat the economic and political monopolization of power held by corporations or other special interest groups. The lie of “capitalist democracy” has to rank right up there with McDonalds propaganda for “Happy Meals.”
CV: What does it mean for you as an academic to openly support the ALF?
SB: You mean besides killing any chance of career advancement? As an academic and “professional,” I suppose it is unusual that I openly support what corporate society defines as criminal and terrorist actions. Both William Blake and Friedrich Nietzsche noted that what society denounces as evil are the vital and healthy forces that threaten its corrupt concepts of good. So I proudly adopt the side of “evil.” Academics on the whole are a cowardly bunch. First, they are normalized into conformity in order to win their bid for tenure, a highly political process. Afterwards, they theoretically have the right to speak their minds freely, but by then they often are thoroughly conditioned and there are always further rewards and punishments dangled in front of them.
That said, it is important that academics do speak out in favor of any and all liberation movements because, for better or worse, society tends to accord them some degree of respectability, more than to the young anarchist with nose rings and purple spike-haired. Thus, academics play an important role in helping to legitimate a movement like the ALF. Moreover, they can use their analytical skills to speak and write persuasively about radical causes. Every liberation movement has had its public representatives and scholars, and it is high time these emerge in support of the ALF.
This, in essence, is the raison d’etre for the Center on Animal Liberation Affairs (CALA), a unique online forum created by Anthony J. Nocella II and myself (see: http://www.cala-online.org/index.html). CALA is the first scholarly center dedicated to philosophical research and dialogue on the principles and practices of animal liberation and how it relates to social justice struggles. The Center promotes philosophical discussion of these issues through an online journal, research databases, a speaker’s bureau, and conferences on animal liberation issues.
CV: Tell us about the recent attempt by the British Government to ban you from entering their country.
SB: Dr. Jerry Vlasak, Pamelyn Ferdin, and I were invited to attend the International Animal Rights Conference 2004 in Kent, England. Once the British Home Office got wind of this, they sent each of us a “Minded to Exclude” letter, citing controversial things we as individuals have said or done on behalf of animals while threatening to ban us from the UK. In my case, they cited statements I made in defense of the ALF in an article entitled “You Don’t Support the ALF Because Why?” and they accused me of providing an “intellectual justification” for terrorism and criminal action.
In my response letter, I proudly admitted that I champion rights and justice for all species, and I reiterated my support for the ALF. I insisted that the ALF is a non-violent organization and that the true violence and terrorism is committed against animals by exploitative industries and the states that support them. It is true, I wrote, that I provided an “intellectual justification” for the ALF, but then again – examining intended or unintended consequences -- so does any modern democratic constitution or bill of rights, so did J.S. Mill, Mohandas Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, along with anyone who promoted concepts such as rights or justice that apply to any person, whatever their species. Moreover, the ALF and other direct activists hardly need or await my justifications to act, so I don’t quite see how my words have inflammatory potential.
Upon considering all our appeals, the UK Home Office banned Jerry and Pamelyn as dangerous advocates of violence, but curiously granted me free passage into England. I had some mixed emotions about this. On the one hand, I was proud to represent the militant face of animal rights in the US and delighted to be among some great activists in the UK. On the other hand, I was somewhat embarrassed for not being militant enough! I thought my status was going to be upgraded from a mere domestic terrorist to an international terrorist, but alas it is not yet to be.
No animal rights activist, to my knowledge, has ever before been banned from a country. It is incredibly ironic and telling that the Home Office banned Pam and Jerry, two passionate defenders of compassionate values, but granted passage to Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a Muslim cleric who has defended suicide bombings.
This is less an animal rights issue than a free speech issue. As I have long contended, to fight for animal rights within repressive corporate-controlled societies we also have to fight for basic human rights.
England has a long and distinguished history of democracy that must not be extinguished. From the Diggers to the suffragettes to the animal liberation movement, struggles in England have advanced democracy, rights, and moral evolution for our species as a whole. Facing a second prison sentence in the Bastille for his satires of the government, Voltaire sought shelter in England in 1726-1729. He subsequently described to the world how much more free, liberal, and advanced England was than his native France. In the 1840s, Karl Marx was expelled from several European countries for advocating free speech, workers’ democracy, and, indeed, global revolution, but he found a safe haven in England.
Currently, however, England is heading down a dangerous slippery slope of censorship. Will they next ban Peter Singer next for his defense of euthanasia and infanticide, also illegal acts? Or perhaps Tom Regan, whose contribution to Terrorists or Freedom Fighters is entitled “How to Argue for Violence”? It is frightening to see England follow the same path as the US by repressing civil liberties in the name of security. The recent involvement of the FBI in England affairs is hardly reassuring, as the specialty of the FBI in the US has been to suppress democracy and disrupt political organizations.
Truthfully, any articulate advocate of animal rights is subversive and dangerous to the corporate-state complex. But the state must either grant us our constitutional rights or abandon any pretence of being a democracy. This incident demonstrates two things: that we are becoming increasingly effective as a movement (certainly in England), and that, consequently, the state is escalating their struggle against us.
Clearly, with so much money at stake in the billion dollar vivisection industry (fed by universities, private companies such as HLS, the pharmaceutical industries, and so on) the animal rights movement in England has become not only an ideological and political threat, but, far more seriously, an economic threat. Just as human slavery was once a huge part of modern capitalist economies, so animal slavery is fundamental to capital accumulation today. They can no longer ignore a movement that has discovered its power is not in the vote but the ability to shut down production, and that has moved far beyond (all-too-often) meaningless gestures of protest through letter writing, demonstrations, and lobbying. The animal rights movement has rocked the core of the British establishment and they are beginning to take extraordinary measures against us. This includes measures to criminalize previously legal activities such as home protests, to place free speech in a choking straightjacket, and to increase penalties for breaking laws protecting corporate rights to murder and butcher billions of animals.
Part IV: SHAC and Tactical Pluralism
CV: In your article, “Thinking Pluralistically: A Case For Direct Action,” you point out a key flaw in mainstream criticism of the direct action movement by drawing an interesting distinction between “inclusive” and “exclusive” tactics. Can you explain?
SB: Supporters of the ALF and other militant direct action approaches always acknowledge the value of mainstream (legislative and educational) strategies – indeed, they regularly practice them through protests, letter writing, education, and passing out vegan literature. They thereby demonstrate an open or inclusive approach to animal advocacy, recognizing the importance and validity of a wide range of actions. In contrast, mainstream activists invariably decry militant direct action approaches and adopt a closed or exclusive approach that sees only one way to helping animals – working through the system’s pre-approved legal and bureaucratic channels. Consider the differences between the two approaches this way: Almost no cat lover dislikes dogs, but many dog lovers dislike cats. The cat lovers have a broader perspective and resist creating artificial barriers.
Those who think that we can win the fight for animals through enough leafleting, protests, education, and lobbying need to wake up from their hippy dreams and drop back into the real world that unfortunately is governed by Machiavellian dynamics. I always prefer a conversation to a war, but we are in a battlefield not at a bargaining table. I as described for you last time, in the short time of its existence, the modern animal advocacy movement has won some impressive victories and can accomplish many more great things through creative education and legislation approaches. But that approach alone will never be enough. Rarely in the history of modern social struggles has legal and nonviolent tactics alone resolved fundamental antagonisms, so why think we can disarm powerful animal exploitation industries – whose billions of dollars of profits are at stake -- only through vigils, boycotts, education, protests, and persuasive arguments?
Well, there are many reasons. First, many critics of the ALF, SHAC, and direct action don’t seem to know the history of social movements very well, such that they recognize how violence, property destruction, and law-breaking were key catalysts advancing struggle to the point where non-violent approaches themselves can become effective. Consider the abolitionist movement in the 19th century: it was galvanized and punctuated by widespread acts of sabotage, arson, and violence against slavemasters. Nat Turner, John Brown, and countless other abolitionists rose up in armed insurrections against pro-slavery whites and inspired countless more acts of resistance. Second, direct action critics labor with overly romanticized and idealistic views of human nature, believing that species supremacists can be converted through appeals to their compassion, humanity, religion, and reason. Sometimes this approach works: many prominent people in the animal rights movement are former animal exploiters. But for every speciesist Steve Hindi can convert with the barbarism and lies he captures on videotape, Paul Watson can show you a thousand evil bastards who laugh as they rip the skin off a conscious baby seal. Third, these critics rely on an equally naïve model of political struggle which assumes that “democratic” systems are sufficiently open to pluralism and justice that activists can defeat the economic and political monopolization of power held by corporations or other special interest groups.
We need every legal maneuver we can create, but we also must attack from numerous other directions whereby we liberate the oppressors’ victims, dismantle their machines, jam their computer networks, and disrupt the peace of their domestic enclaves built from the blood of the tormented. The anti-vivisection struggle in the UK is as advanced as it is not because of letter-writing campaigns, boycotts, lobbying efforts, and politeness, but rather because of vandalism, harassment, threats, and humiliation campaigns. You may not like it, but if you’re more concerned with bourgeois decorum than with animal suffering, you may want to rethink your commitment to the animals.
CV: So, is there a strong division emerging between militant and mainstream approaches?
SB: Yes. It is distressing to witness a growing trend in the animal advocacy movement where more and more organizations are turning against direct action individuals, groups, and strategies in order to speak the language of animal exploiters and the state and retreat to increasingly conservative positions. Some mainstream organizations in the US have chosen to publicly denounce the ALF and SHAC as violent or terrorist groups and are pulling out of conferences that include direct action advocates. In important part because of the direct action divide, seven major organizations boycotted the 2004 national animal rights conference in the US. Many organizations trip all over themselves to flee from any association with tactics that exert direct pressure on animal exploiters, while paying their respects to the sanctity of the legal system created by and for corporate exploiters of all life.
Certainly, mainstream groups have a right to their own vision and philosophy, which a pluralist position encourages and respects. But instead of debating the differences in-house or just staying quiet in their criticisms, they often feel compelled to make public statements against direct action and the underground. They are saying to the state, “Hey, don’t confuse us with those bad guys who have hijacked our cause, we are respectable citizens who honor and obey your laws and promise to work only within the set of rules you created!” (Indeed, in the current neo-McCarthyist climate in the US, the state demanded that mainstream animal rights and environmental organizations publicly denounce and disavow themselves of the ALF and ELF.) Instead of running away from conferences forward-minded enough to give voice to direct activists, why don’t they stay and debate the issue so we can have a productive dialogue and learn something from one another?
Why let the real terrorists define your agenda and dictate where you will and will not speak? Clearly, the mainstream is dreadfully afraid that any relation to radical elements that could make them guilty by association earns them the stigma of extremists, and – here is the main point – affect the funding sources they are so utterly dependent on. They see how the corporate-state complex has vilified PETA for its occasional support of radical activists like Rod Coronado and Josh Harper and they don’t want to meet the same fate. Their actions are understandable in terms of their own survival interests, but hardly laudable in the lack of principled solidarity. If the movement as a whole does not stand up to the demonization of animal rights activists as terrorists, it is a quick ride down a slippery slope from attacks on the ALF and SHAC to PETA and mainstream national and grass roots organizations.
Indeed, amidst the hysterical “Green Scare” culture of the US, directly parallel to the fascist Red Scare of the 1950s, this process has already begun such that virtually any expression of dissent is demonized as anti-patriotic, treacherous, criminal, and terrorist. The corporate-state complex now has numerous tools to repress animal rights struggles. These range from Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP) complaints (that protect corporations from public criticism) and the 1992 Animal Enterprise Protection Act, to the “domestic terrorism” laws of the Patriot Act and “Animal and Ecological Terrorism” bills that corporate lobbying groups are pushing in various state legislatures. The common denominator of all these measures is that they criminalize any speech or action which interferes with industries that profit from exploiting animals and the earth. Some new laws make it a felony crime to trespass on corporate property, to videotape cruel or illegal actions, or to be a whistle blower. Boycotts of the kind launched by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. today could be viewed as terrorist acts.
To give you an indication of escalating repression, and capitalism’s skewed hierarchy of values, the US state is now mandating massive fines and jail terms for activists caught sabotaging industry property. In June 2001, for example, Jeffrey Leurs got 22 years and 8 months in prison, with no possibility for parole, for torching 3 SUVs. In comparison, he would have gotten 10 years for manslaughter, 7 and ½ years for attempted murder, and 8 years 4 months for rape.
CV: Very frightening indeed. Weren’t some SHAC activists recently arrested in the US under one of these recent laws?
SB: Yes. On May 26, 2004, a police dragnet rounded up seven prominent animal rights activists in New Jersey, New York, Washington, and California. Hordes of agents from the FBI, Secret Service, and other law agencies stormed into the activists’ homes at the crack of dawn, guns drawn and helicopters hovering above. They arrested Kevin Jonas, Lauren Gazzola, Jacob Conroy, Darius Fullmer, John McGee, Andrew Stepanian, and Joshua Harper – collectively known as the “SHAC7.” In additional to stalking charges, the government issued a five count federal indictment that charges each activist, and SHAC USA, with violations of the Animal Enterprise Protection Act.
SHAC USA, I should point out, is an aboveground organization engaged in strictly legal actions of operating a website and conducting demonstrations against HLS. It is important to distinguish SHAC USA Inc. from the shadowy SHAC movement which often engages in illegal actions such as sabotage of HLS-related targets. SHAC USA rejoices in these strikes and reports them on their website, but they do not advocate criminal actions nor are they responsible for the actions of others.
The arrests of the SHAC7 came a year after the FBI raided SHAC headquarters in New Jersey, taking everything and finding nothing as evidence of criminal action. Just a week before the round up of the SHAC7, moreover, a phalanx of high-level vivisectors and animal industry representatives marched into the Senate Committee on the Judiciary in order to complain about the inadequacy of existing regulations to crush SHAC and other direct action groups. In a hearing designed to investigate “Animal Rights: Activism vs. Criminality,” not a single animal advocate was invited to speak; instead, it was business as usual as powerful animal industry interests commanded the ear of government. Got democracy? It may soon come to pass in the US that, following recent actions taken by the Home Office in the UK, home demonstrations are banned as illegal.
Quite likely, the state will not win its case against the SHAC7, because, constitutionally, it has no case. But I think their real objective is to intimidate activists from stepping outside the battery hen cage of legally sanctioned “free speech.” The arrests of the SHAC7 is a watershed moment for the entire progressive community -- all those committed to human and/or animal rights and the environment -- because they are the “canaries in the mine,” as SHAC puts it, a critical test case for future repression of dissent. I hope the larger progressive community grasps the importance of the arrests and stands with us, because divided we fall. As Will Potter put it in an important piece he wrote for the social justice community, “The rounding up of [SHAC] activists should set off alarms heard by every social movement in the United States: This "war" is about protecting corporate and political interests under the guise of fighting terrorism.”
CV: I think the main problem with the animal liberation movement in Australia is the serious lack of underground movements. Yes there’s a bit of rescue work going on but it seems that the countries with the most radical AL movements, like England, also have a real undercurrent of direct action groups. The underground movements kind of set the standard for the above ground actions and as such makes the middle ground much more radical.
SB: I agree. Despite increasingly intense efforts by the corporate-state complex to criminalize animal rights/liberation actions through surveillance and new laws, the ALF remains very active in the US while the SHAC movement courageously stands up to state repression, showing no signs of letting up. It is most significant that after the arrests of the SHAC7, there was a flurry of new activity taken against HLS. You are right that the militant “extremes” of the movement are valuable for the middle ground because the militants make everyone else seem moderate in comparison and allow their agendas to be more easily embraced due to fear of the alternatives. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s tactics of nonviolent civil disobedience were palatable only in relation to the fiery radicalism of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers. Unlike today’s animal advocacy movement, King was well aware that the “extremists” were in fact his allies, for, as he said, “I am only effective as long as there is a shadow on white America of the black man standing behind me with a Molotov cocktail.”
If it is to succeed, the animal advocacy movement – encompassing diverse voices for welfare, rights, and liberation -- must embrace a multidimensional and contextualist model of change rooted in the basic insight that different situations require different and perhaps multiple types of tactics to be deployed simultaneously. Eschewing dogma and pre-packaged answers, this approach asks: what tactic or combination of tactics is appropriate to a specific situation?
Part V: Terrorism and Humanism
CV: Can you talk about what real terrorism entails and about the violation done to the integrity of life by the corporate cowboys (also known as ‘the dirty big boys’)?
SB: Neo-McCarthyites today so grossly abuse the term terrorism in order to denounce virtually any form of dissent and protest that it is virtually drained of meaning. Just as during the 1950s Red Scare in the US, when anyone with liberal values or a critical opinion was denounced as a communist, the same mechanisms and climate applies today in our current Green Scare. Thus, animal rights activists, defenders of the environment, anti-war resisters and others are absurdly demonized as “terrorists,” while the
The term “terrorism” is difficult but not impossible to define. While there is some truth to the phrase “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,” there is also a more objective definition of terrorism to be derived from the fact that some groups are violent aggressors and others are innocent victims of their violence. The fact that Ronald Regan defined the Contras who brutalized Nicaraguans as freedom fighters does not make them so; because they injured and killed innocent civilians for US economic goals, they were terrorists. A reasonable definition of terrorism should include three key aspects: (1) the intentional use of physical violence (2) directed against innocent persons (“non-combatants”) (3) to advance an agent’s ideological, political, or economic purposes of an individual, corporation, or state government.
I make two key clarifications on this definition. First, following Peter Singer and Tom Regan, I broaden the definition of “person” to include animals. Second, by “agent” I do not mean only an individual, but also a corporation or state government. These conceptual adjustments are entirely reasonable, and once they are made, an entirely different picture and evaluation of terrorism appears. In the current haste to brand animal and environmental activists as “eco-terrorists,” the two dominant types of terrorism continue to go unnoticed: state terrorism and species terrorism.
The main terrorists of our times are the “Leaders of Men,” the power elites running the corporate-state complex. Corporations, nation states (above all the US), and the legal systems made in their image are the dominant forces of violence who exploit, torture, and murder humans and animals as they plunder the earth. Obviously, the US has engaged in wars of genocide and extermination ever since it founding in the 18th century. From the massacre of the Indian nations and murderous exploitation of African slaves to the pogroms against the Central American and Vietnamese peoples to the war in Iraq, US history is an uninterrupted extermination campaign against millions of lives.
Once we recognize that animals are persons too, then it makes eminent sense to speak of their murder by animal exploiters of all kinds and to bring to light how the human species – corporations in particular – are terrorists toward animals. It follows that the so-called “terrorists” of the animal and earth direct action movements are in truth freedom fighters, not terrorists, but rather counter-terrorists.
The “War on Terror” is a mythical farce and ideological passion play. It is, above all, a war on democracy and a smokescreen for a corporate coup d’etat. Clearly, Al Qaeda and its fundamentalist, anti-modern offspring are menacing terrorists in their attacks on innocent civilians. But Bush codes the battle as a war of “Good vs. Evil” when in fact the terror war is simply two different expressions of religious fundamentalism and evil battling one another for world hegemony.
CV: You talk about these issues in the new book you co-edited with Anthony J. Nocella II, Terrorists or Freedom Fighters? Reflections on the Liberation of Animals (Lantern Books, 2004). Please tell us about this exciting volume.
SB: If I may, this is a very significant book, the first comprehensive analysis of the ALF. Sue Coe created the striking cover image, Ward Churchill wrote the preface, Ingrid Newkirk penned the Afterword, and Anthony and I wrote a substantive introduction to critical ALF issues and controversies. The book delves into the history, philosophy, and tactics of the ALF as well as its relation to social movements such as feminism and the American Indian Movement. The book features leading voices from both academic (e.g., Tom Regan, Mark Bernstein, and myself) and activist (e.g., Karen Davis, Bruce Friedrich, pattrice jones, and Kevin Jonas) camps. Half of the contributors are women, three are Native American Indians, and some such as Rod Coronado and Gary Yourofsky are former ALF activists/prisoners now working aboveground.
The volume covers a wide variety of topics such as how to defend “violence,” media coverage of ALF actions, feminism and the ALF, and “open” rescues vs. the “closed” rescue tactics of the ALF. My own contributions include reflections on the growing war between animal exploiters and animal liberators, and a detailed analysis of the terms “violence” and “terrorism” that overturns the speciesist definitions of corporations, states, and mass media. Some critical perspectives from within the animal rights movement are included, but the book overwhelmingly is a strong and unapologetic defense of ALF actions.
I hope that the book can dispel the many shabby arguments against the ALF, generate a productive debate about philosophy and tactics, and cross over into the human rights community in order to discuss our commonalities and promote bridge-building. Whatever one’s views on direct action and the ALF, everyone interested in animal rights should read this book. I hope the FBI buys lots of copies too – maybe they will learn something!
CV: How will the ideology of 'humanism' change once we broaden the value and universalize the concept of "person" to include in other species?
SB: It will be both dismantled and absorbed at a higher level. Beginning with the Renaissance, there was a progressive historical movement from theocentrism – a dogmatic, God-centered worldview antithetical to human freedom – to humanism, a school intended to promote human dignity and autonomy and the independence of the arts and sciences. This shift began to put human reality on a worldly rather otherworldly footing, contributing to the realization of a secular society that was a precondition for the emergence of bourgeois democracies in the late-18th century. But humanism also substituted one distortion and mythology for another, as it absorbed all the anthropocentric ideologies of Western history into a new framework proclaiming the separation between culture and nature, humans and animals, and promoting human domination over animals and the earth through science and technology.
The false universality of humanism -- the specious appeals to general interests that masked the particular interests of capitalists -- was exposed and contested through militant struggles over class, race, gender, and other social differences. Progress in attaining human rights and a “democratic” society was made through creating a more genuine universal culture of rights for all human persons, understanding of course that this process is far from complete. Since the 1960s and the emergence of liberation and “new social movements” around the globe, however, there has been particularly rapid growth in moral progress.
But the problem with humanism, however universal, extensive, and progressive, is that it is speciesist and therefore radically incomplete as a liberatory project, Humanism is a dysfunctional and violent worldview premised upon the catastrophic illusion of human separation from and mastery over nature, a fallacy that has all-too-real consequences for animals and the earth. By promoting global social and ecological instability, it ultimately undermines human interests for a viable social and natural world. The greatest challenge facing the human species is to grasp the interrelationships between injury to animals, the earth, and other human beings. The viability of a future for humans depends greatly on the ability of our species to revolutionize its relation to animals and grasp the profound importance of “the animal question.”
However noble, Dr. Martin Luther King’s vision of a “worldhouse,” a global community free of prejudice, poverty, and violence, still remains a damn slaughterhouse soaked in blood and violence. 48 billion farm animals are killed each year around the world - nearly eight times the human population, more than 130 million a day, more than five million every hour, almost 100,000 a minute. Billions more die in the name of science, entertainment, sport, or fashion. Every second is a 9/11 attack on the animals.
The speciesism of Leftist “progressives” is no less hypocritical than antebellum whites decrying British oppression while enslaving blacks, or the Founding Fathers’ championing the “universal rights of man” while maintaining slaves. Just as blacks assailed those inconsistencies in the US during the 19th century, so must animal rights advocates deconstruct the inadequacies of humanism. Western societies need a new worldview that incorporates human rights, animal rights, and environmental ethics into a systematic and coherent framework. is the next step in our moral evolution and if we do not take it, we will perish or slide into a protracted, grim dystopia.
Thus, the animal liberation movement is both an heir of the great human liberation movements and a transcendent force that carries the fight for rights, justice, and equality toward its logical fulfillment.
CV: Any final words?
SB: Every justice struggle up to the present has been relatively easy. Now it gets hard. We are involved in a serious battle -- a war -- that will be lengthy, protracted, costly, and most likely violent as it heat up (exactly like earlier struggles to end human slavery). Animal liberation is the most difficult liberation struggle of all because speciesism is primordial and universal. Speciesism is arguably the first of any form of domination or hierarchy and it has spread like a deadly virus throughout the entire planet and all of human history. The problem is not limited to Western culture or to the modern world, such that there is some significant utopian past or radical alternative to recover. The problem is the human species itself, which but for rare exceptions is violent, destructive, and imperialistic. Universally, humans have vested interests in exploiting animals and think they have a God-given right to do so. To change these attitudes is to change the very nerve center of human consciousness. That is our task – no more and no less.