Sleight of Hand
by Ronnie Rose
“What is this I have in my hand?” he asks us, holding up a deflated red balloon.
Wayne answers, “a balloon.”
“Do you think this balloon, once blown up, will be able to fit inside of this glass?” We pause for a second, looking at the wine glass on the table and then back up at the balloon, imagining the scenario.
“No,” we say in unison.
“Now, I’m going to test your perceptual abilities.” The magician starts to blow air into the red balloon, and we watch him as it inflates to the size of a large watermelon. We both look down at the wine glass again, measuring the likelihood that the two disproportionately-sized objects will be able to fit together.
“You know, I really can’t make this happen without this tool I have, which you may have heard of, called a magic wand. Let me get it.” The magician reaches into his black velvet overcoat with his right hand, while still holding the inflated red balloon in his left hand. We wait in anticipation to see what will happen next.
As he fumbles in his overcoat for the magic wand, he quickly pulls out a knife and stabs the balloon. It pops. I’m startled. My mind is struggling to catch up to the rapid movements and make sense of the chaos. After a short lapse, I realize that in the same hand as the balloon, there now appears a bottle of red wine.
I am thoroughly impressed.
“What you didn’t notice was that there was a bottle of wine inside of the balloon,” he jokes as he opens the bottle and pours it into the glass.
What I didn’t mention in the scene above (a sleight of hand of my own) is that the magician was not only our host in Boston—our first stop on the East Coast tour—but the critical theorist John Sanbonmatsu. As you may recall, I have written about John’s work on this blog before. He has played a key role in my intellectual development on topics of animal liberation and speciesism, and by association, in the development of DxE and the It’s Not Food, It’s Violence campaign.
I asked John after the magic show if he ever performs for his classes (he teaches philosophy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute). “Yes,” he tells me, “in fact I bring magic to the class when I’m teaching Michael Pollan. I use my magic to show how he engages in misdirection to fool his audience every time he writes about how wonderful the conditions are for animals raised for food.” John continues, “Pollan is saying, ‘Hey, look over here! Look how beautiful this grassy field is!’, while diverting all attention away from the horror of the knife going into the poor cow’s throat.”
Like Pollan, magicians aim to misdirect the audience’s attention and awareness away from the source of the trick, so that its cause is obscured and appears to be supernatural. Magic, simply put, is an elaborate deception of the senses. John explains to us, “magic has been around for thousands of years,” and it is perhaps one of the oldest and most wide-spread forms of performance art on the planet.
Magic, I realized, is not only encountered as a performance on the stage, but pervades every waking moment of our lives. The manipulation of perceptions (also known as “marketing”) is an art that corporations and exploitative ideologies have mastered to build, and justify, their empires. For example, Chipotle and other marketers of “humane” meat, eggs, and milk mislead and dupe the public just like Michael Pollan; they carefully craft slogans and polish stories about animal agriculture that appear benign and just, while diverting attention away from the source of real ethical concern: we are controlling, dominating, and killing other sensitive beings because they are different.
As performed in Chipotle’s viral marketing videos, Back to the Start and The Scarecrow, this ethical concern magically vanishes as viewers watch happy animals turned into happy burritos without the pain, fear, and suffering of slaughter.
And voilà! Attention diverted, money made, trick complete.
One of our roles as activists is to expose the tricks, and the mechanisms behind them, for what they are: fraudulent and harmful. We need to pull back the shroud and unveil all the props of deception. We need to redirect the world’s attention back to the violence behind the scenes—back to the knife poised to penetrate that poor cow’s throat.
On this tour, we are attempting to do just that. We are traveling from city to city to create, connect, and inspire activists to organize actions against species tyranny and violence. At each stop, we are presenting about our experiences in DxE, learning from others, and orchestrating demos for the It’s Not Food, It’s Violence campaign, which has now reached 50 cities in 16 countries.
Wayne advises me during the magic show, "Ronnie, we have to focus on what he's doing with his other hand, that's where the trick is!"
"Ah," retorts John the magician, "I see that you're a skeptic... That's excellent. Skepticism is what makes a good activist."