Published on:

December 5, 2014

Low-Hanging Fruit: Political Appropriation of AR Sentiments

By Saryta Rodriguez

It's no secret that politicians– like magazine editors, TV producers and others whose careers hinge almost entirely on The Now– love to claim the "it" issue of the day as their own.  People caring about the environment?  I'll plant a tree on camera.  People worried about obesity? I'll run a 5K and give a brief interview afterwards, sweaty and winded.  That sort of thing.  We've all seen it, and it isn't new.

While in the past I have laughed at and mocked such desperate attempts to win public favor, I now find myself mired in a complex internal struggle as a result of them. Why? Because the issue of the day is human treatment of nonhuman animals.  Politicians are now taking seemingly positive steps to end certain forms of cruelty to animals; and as an animal-lover, an end to any form of animal cruelty is naturally a cause for celebration to me.  I struggle because while I appreciate these measures, I understand all too well that these politicos are simply grasping at low-hanging fruit.  They latch on to less pervasive forms of animal abuse and launch legislative attacks against them to avoid having to confront the Big Picture--having to develop and implement any significant structural changes to how our society eats, dresses, builds, learns, or is entertained.

  Waiting for customers on Monday at Grand Army Plaza, near Central Park. A bill would ban horse-drawn carriages by mid-2016. Kirsten Luce for  The New York Times
  Waiting for customers on Monday at Grand Army Plaza, near Central Park. A bill would ban horse-drawn carriages by mid-2016.Kirsten Luce for  The New York Times    

For instance, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio promised during his campaign to ban horse-drawn carriages from use in the city, and earlier this week the New York Times reported that he is making good on that promise. As a long-time New Yorker, I was delighted to hear this. Many of my visits to Central Park– particularly the area around Columbus Circle– have been marred by images of depressed-looking horses lined up in rows, often standing in their own feces; wearing blinders that rendered them unable to see fully in any direction; surrounded by noise, fast-moving vehicles and photo-flashing tourists.

As much as it relieves me to hear that soon, no horse will have to endure such suffering in New York City again, I cannot shake the mental image I have of Columbus Circle. This image includes not only rows of depressed horses (and people and food carts and traffic lights and statues...) but also features as a backdrop the Time Warner Center: home of both the meat- and dairy-serving restaurant Landmarc and humanewashing giant Whole Foods.  While the horses outside are being, to an extent, liberated, just behind them is a building in which other sentient beings are being dishonored, their corpses sold and served.  Does de Blasio intend to do anything about that? I doubt it.

  Pigs shown in the gestation building at Grandview Farms in Eldridge, Iowa, on August 9, 2012. Stephen Mally for  The New York Times
  Pigs shown in the gestation building at Grandview Farms in Eldridge, Iowa, on August 9, 2012.Stephen Mally for  The New York Times    

Also in the news this week was New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's veto of a bill to ban the use of gestation crates in his state. In this case, the politico in question is actually voting against animals for the sake of his numbers.  The reporting itself, independent of the governor's decision, perpetuates the Humane Myth in that by focusing on gestation crates– crates in which pregnant pigs are kept in isolation– it reinforces the presumption that non-pregnant pigs must live in superior conditions. The sad reality is that the vast majority of pigs raised for slaughter experience isolation, overcrowding to the point of immobility, or some combination of the two.

The article about Christie linked above admits, "Passage of the bill would actually have little impact." Unfortunately, the reasons cited are trite (one reason being that there simply aren't that many pigs in New Jersey in the first place). The bill would have little impact anywhere; ultimately, whether they are pregnant or not, farmed pigs are murdered. Male pigs, who have never had to face the gestation crate, are habitually subjected to castration– as piglets, and without the use of anaesthesia or painkillers.

While I am grateful for any measure that is taken to protect animals, I often worry that this focus on low-hanging fruit will only delay that which is truly necessary: a complete overhaul of our speciesist industrial complexes.

DxE Bay Area organizer Brian Burns says of such single-issue campaigns:

Personally, I think that animal liberation will not come about instantaneously in the legal sphere, and incremental progress is necessary. 

The real question is whether or not the AR movement's messaging for that short-term progress interferes with our long-term goal. These single-issue campaigns can be done in a way that not just doesn't interfere with general animal liberation, but actually opens people's eyes to the broader issue. 

I think a great example of reform that does not hinder us in our long journey is the chimp personhood case going on right now in New York with the Nonhuman Rights Project. It has a clear and very tangible goal, but is challenging fundamental notions of what it means to be a person in our society, and is setting serious precedent for other animals...

While the best campaigns for incremental reform challenge fundamental notions in our collective consciousness, it also goes the other way. The minds of lawyers, judges, and juries are all influenced by the cultural soup in which they exist. Consequently, the kind of work DxE is doing which very much focuses on cultural norms rather than legal ones is vital to making incremental reforms possible.

I'm inclined to agree with him.  These single-issue campaigns are useful in that they spark dialogue regarding the lives of animals; what remains, then, is to sustain said dialogue even after the minor victory at hand has been won. Banning horse-drawn carriages cannot be the end of AR talk in Columbus Circle; the matter of gestation crates cannot serve as the apex of discussion of the plight of pigs.  We must continually draw connections between these issues, reinforcing similarities across victims and circumstances alike.  Setting a higher cultural standard will inevitably induce more and more single issues to come to the fore, reigniting the flames of social progress over and over again.