Viewing entries in
Review

Excerpt: Until Every Animal Is Free

Excerpt: Until Every Animal is Free

By Saryta Rodriguez

 

Howdy!

It is my pleasure to present to you the following excerpt from my book, Until Every Animal Is Free, which is now available for presale order here.  I would like to thank all of my fellow DxE-ers for making this possible, as well as my friends and family and the amazing Vegan Publishers.

Last but certainly not least, I'd like to thank animal liberationists everywhere for all of the hard work they do to create a more compassionate world.

 

From Until Every Animal Is Free, Chapter Two: Speciesism: The Final Frontier.

 

“They are a damned set of jackasses...”

“It can be of no benefit commensurate with the additional expense involved.”

“It is unwise to risk the good we already have for the evil which may occur.”

“Every lover of his country should desire to vindicate its institutions, of which this is one.”

“You are requested to attend and unite in putting down and silencing by peaceable means this tool of evil and fanaticism.”

What do these quotes mean to you? Can you guess what they are about?  To me, the first sounds like a popular sentiment amongst meat-eaters against animal liberationists.  The second two refer to common concerns about the Animal Liberation Movement: that it will be costly, and risk the economic and social stability America holds so dear. It will disrupt the existing state of affairs, and who knows what might result? Why risk it, when everything is fine as-is?

The fourth quote implies that to challenge any American institution is to reveal oneself as patently un-American (one resultant implication being that liberationists, by challenging American meat and dairy industries, lack patriotism), while the final quote beseeches the public to use nonviolent means to disrupt a meeting that could serve as a “tool of evil and fanaticism.”  The person making the statement is presumably on the side of the Goodies, beseeching the public to help check the Badies using “peaceable means”—i.e. nonviolent direct action.

Here’s what these quotes are really about:

“They are a damned set of jackasses...”

—Rioter during the Farren Riots, a series of anti-abolition riots in New York, 1834. He was referring to Yankees and abolitionists.

“It can be of no benefit commensurate with the additional expense involved.”

“It is unwise to risk the good we already have for the evil which may occur.”

—Pamphlet encouraging women not to fight for suffrage, published in the 1910s.

“Every lover of his country should desire to vindicate its institutions, of which this is one.”

—Charles J. Ingersoll, 1856, referring to abolition as a challenge to the American institution of slavery.

“You are requested to attend and unite in putting down and silencing by peaceable means this tool of evil and fanaticism.”

—An anonymous ad posted in a newspaper in 1837, asking the public to disrupt a meeting of abolitionists.

The rhetoric hasn’t changed much.  The last quote is, to me, the most shining example, as a pro-slavery zealot manages to sell his position as one of peace and harmony while demonizing abolitionists as evil fanatics.  Similarly, meat-eaters often refer to vegans and animal liberationists as “fanatical,” “extreme” or “radical.”

Fear of disrupting the status quo—exposing oneself to negative repercussions not currently experienced— prevents would-be activists from taking direct action. It resigns them instead to making personal lifestyle choices that make them feel better about themselves, like going vegan, or engaging in welfarism (improving the living conditions of nonhuman slaves)—without making any effort to end the Animal Holocaust once and for all. This issue is best highlighted by the anti-suffrage packet; you may have noticed that neither of the sentiments I’ve extracted from it demonize women’s suffrage itself. Instead, these sentiments caution women not to rock the boat, playing to their sense of prudence rather than that of morality or justice.

Ingersoll questions the integrity of anyone who challenges existing American institutions, whereas I and many other activists believe it is far more ethical to seek to improve upon an institution—or abolish it if it cannot be improved upon, as in the cases of both human and nonhuman slavery—than it is to let a detrimental institution remain unchanged and watch idly as our country suffers the consequences.  To challenge a failing American institution is an act of the utmost integrity.

Book Burrow: The Lives of Animals by J.M. Coetzee

Book Burrow: The Lives of Animals by J.M. Coetzee

By Saryta Rodriguez

 

I first encountered this gem while babysitting for the Chen family in Oakland Hills one chilly summer night.  I had heard of Coetzee’s Tanner lectures and some of his other writings, but not this one.  The Chens seemed to feel lukewarm about it; some fellow activists laughed in my face when I mentioned I’d borrowed it.  Others had never heard of it.

Needless to say, I had little notion of what to expect.

First, allow me to extoll the literary device, the meta-ness—the many, many layers of meta-ness; and not of the superfluous, Inception kind. A kind that matters and is useful.  Elizabeth Costello is Coetzee’s fictional character, a novelist invited to Appleton College for three days to talk about whatever she wants.  Everyone expects her to talk about her novels, or about the craft of fiction writing more generally; to the academy’s chagrin (not to mention that of her son, John Bernard, a professor at Appleton who would have preferred no one find out about his famous mother), she instead devotes her lectures to animals.  A liberationist speaker writing a fiction piece about a fiction author giving liberationist speeches.  Brilliant.

The novel is humorous, colorful and honest, with points scored on both sides.  Day One is Elizabeth’s first lecture, entitled The Philosopher and the Animals. Day Two consists of her second lecture, The Poets and the Animals, as well as a reception dinner. On Day Three, the university hosts a debate between Elizabeth and Thomas O’Hearne, professor of philosophy at Appleton.

Elizabeth’s answers are not always coherent; she rambles, goes on tangents.  Still, her examples are powerful and carefully chosen; her discussions of Franz Kafka's "A Report to an Academy" and Ted Hughes’s poem The Jaguar were, I thought, particularly gratifying.  She also scores what she herself refers to as “cheap shots” by comparing animal enslavement to the Holocaust early in her first lecture—an offense for which an aging poet, Abraham Stern, refuses to attend the reception dinner held in Elizabeth’s honor.

Elizabeth’s son is embarrassed by her.  He wishes she would just go away, just stop talking about animals; where did this all come from, anyway? She didn’t used to be this way; maybe she’s just going senile? His wife, Norma, is a psychologist who hates Elizabeth and badgers John every evening with counterarguments to Elizabeth’s lectures.

I found it impossible to avoid begging the questions throughout the text: Is this how J.M. Coetzee feels? Is he Elizabeth? Is he Norma, and guilt-stricken by it? Is Elizabeth an exaggeration of himself, an alter-ego, or an ideal? A nightmare?  How much of this is really fiction? The facts were real. The arguments made sense—on both sides, though I ultimately sided with Elizabeth on those few occasions on which she actually answered a question. I was frustrated that at times she only made some vague comments about a question before delving into some story or other and then promptly apologizing for rambling or being old.  Sometimes her son says to his wife for the reader’s benefit, “She’s rambling now.”  As more that one critic have noted, this allows Coetzee to be evasive without sacrificing credibility.

Yes, a cheap trick on Coetzee’s part; but there's so much ultimate truth, too—so much boldness—in this piece. The characters are vivid, the conversations all too familiar. The dinner party scene was memorable for its strong, efficient character development as well as the discussion of consciousness as a “smoke screen” initiated and dominated by a gentleman surnamed Wunderlich. Wunderlich employs the example of born human babies to illustrate that ultimately, consciousness is moot with respect to life value. A baby is not as conscious as a grown man; yet we consider the murder of a baby to be among the vilest crimes anyone can commit.

The Lives of Animals was the subject of four primary critiques, which are published at the end of the novel and have received high acclaim: by Marjorie Garber, Peter Singer, Wendy Doniger, and Barbara Smuts.  While I thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated all of them, I’d have to give a slight advantage to the one enclosed last: that which was penned by primatologist Barbara Smuts. It simply resonated with me the most. (The order in which these critiques are presented is, I believe, fitting.) A close second would be Peter Singer’s response, if only for the novelty (pun intended) of the fact that he utilized the same device Coetzee himself had in order to respond to him: he hid behind a veil of fiction. His is not Peter Singer’s lecture about Coetzee; it is a conversation between Peter and his daughter Naomi, who don’t exist, about Elizabeth Costello, who also doesn’t exist. 

A beautiful blend of some of my favorite things: animal liberation, literature, poetry. This book rocked. Clever, short and sweet—and truly enriched by the enclosed responses. 4 out of 5 stars.

 

Ask a Wolf's Mother

Ask a Wolf's Mother

By Saryta Rodriguez

 

I’ve always been a huge theater geek.  One of my favorite composer/lyricists is Stephen Sondheim, famous for such musicals as Into the Woods, Sweeney Todd, and A Little Night Music.  I first encountered Into the Woods in high school; I was initially devastated to not have been granted the part of the Witch, who in my opinion has the best number in the entire show, and later delighted to discover upon joining the pit orchestra (on violin) that the score was every bit as exciting and innovative as the lyrics and dialogue were.  More recently, I had the pleasure of viewing Into the Woods at San Francisco Playhouse.  It was a truly fantastic performance, and has made me eager to return to SF Playhouse in the near future.

SPOILER ALERT: Read no further if you do not want to know how Into the Woods ends. (However, I promise that even knowing the ending, you should definitely go see this musical if you have not already done so.  It will still be amazing and well worth the expense.)

Into the Woods    on Broadway. Original 1987-1989 cast, starring Bernadette Peters as The Witch.

Into the Woods on Broadway. Original 1987-1989 cast, starring Bernadette Peters as The Witch.

Into the Woods tells a complex story blending some of the most beloved and renowned Grimm’s fairy tales: Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk and Rapunzel.  The musical explores the two most essential of all human relationships: the parent/child relationship and romantic partnerships.  Within this framework, there are also allusions to classism:

Prince Charming to Cinderella, upon being caught cheating on her: “I was raised to be charming—not sincere.”
Prince Charming lyrics in Anything Can Happen in the Woods, to the Baker’s Wife: “Life is often so unpleasant; you must know that, as a peasant.”

With respect to animal liberation—and even human racism—this musical is at once subtle and direct.  Three aspects of the play, in my opinion, confront otherization in general and animal issues in particular: Jack and Milky White, Little Red Riding Hood vs. the Wolves, and all other characters vs. the Giant’s Wife.

Jack's best friend is Milky White, a cow, and from early in the musical his mother and others repeatedly make fun of him for this.  Later, when he acquires a harp from the Giants' home, Jack declares happily, "Now I have two friends: a cow and a harp!" (thus equating an animal with an inanimate object--and this from the character who loves animals).  Upon hearing the news that he must sell his cow at the market because his family needs the money, Jack sings to Milky White:

I guess this is goodbye, old pal. You've been a perfect friend. I hate to see us part, old pal. Someday I'll buy you back. I'll see you soon again. I hope that when I do, it won't be on a plate.

Little Red Riding Hood is not eaten by a wolf in this musical; rather, she learns through a close call to take better care of herself. “My grandmother gave me this knife, for PROTECTION!” she proudly proclaims.  Riding Hood proceeds to kill multiple wolves “off-stage,” so to speak, and wears a shawl made of wolf hide beginning about halfway through Into the Woods

In a scene in which all characters are arguing over what to do about the Giant’s Wife, who has come down a beanstalk demanding Jack be turned over to her because he stole several items from her home and ultimately killed her husband, Red Riding Hood suddenly displays apprehension towards violence:

The Witch: Since when are you so squeamish? How many wolves have you killed?
RRH: A wolf isn’t the same!
The Witch: Ask a wolf’s mother.

While Red Riding Hood worries about Jack being hurt, and even hesitates about using violence against the (human-ish) Giant’s Wife, she has not merely learned to defend herself but has come to delight in the slaughter of all wolves—whether they have attacked her or not—and consider her acts of violence against them legitimate.  The Witch, who by name if not by deed one would presume to be an “evil” character, surprisingly demonstrates compassion—while reminding audiences that yes, even wolves have mothers.

The primary conflict that arises in Into the Woods—whether to hold Jack accountable for his crimes or murder the Giant’s Wife before she can destroy the entire village—is ripe with otherization.  Jack, upon discovering a beanstalk resulting from a bean he discarded, climbs it and steals a golden-egg-laying goose from the Giants’ home.  He and his mother are poor, and he considers this an act of necessity; later, however, he returns up the beanstalk on a dare from Red Riding Hood (quite the little troublemaker, that one) and steals a golden harp to impress her and prove he’s not afraid.  Off-stage, we hear the Giant pursue Jack as he climbs back down the beanstalk and chops it down. The Giant then falls to his death. (We'll reserve the subject of Sondheim's having named the male giant Giant while referring to the female giant merely as Giant's Wife for another day.)

Upon the emergence of a second beanstalk resulting from a bean discarded by Cinderella, the Giant’s Wife climbs down to Earth, smashes up part of the village—including the palace—and presents the townspeople with an ultimatum: give me Jack, or I will destroy everything.

The townspeople, after wasting a substantial amount of time arguing about who was to blame for all of this, resolve to launch an attack against the Giant’s Wife and protect Jack.  Only the Witch sees anything wrong with this plan.  In that oh-so-awesome number, Last Midnight, the Witch calls everybody out on their Blame-Gaming and demands that Jack be turned over to her so that she can personally deliver him to the Giant’s Wife.

Townspeople: “NO!”
The Witch, mockingly: “No.
The Witch continues:  “You’re so nice.  You’re not good; you’re not bad.  You’re just…nice.  I’m not good, I’m not nice—I’m just right….I’m the Witch….You’re the world.”

The townspeople, knowing full well the extent of Jack’s crimes (and the role that others, such as Red Riding Hood, played in said crimes), nevertheless decide to protect him because he is “one of us.”  He’s a regular, average-sized human; the Giant’s Wife, by contrast, is big and scary and other-ly.  They are not doing the morally “right” thing here; they are doing the nice thing.  Personally, I can’t help but side with the Witch on this one.  Jack should have apologized to the Giant’s Wife and begged for mercy, leaving the rest of the townspeople out of it.  Instead, the poor Giant’s Wife, who only seeks justice for her fallen husband, is herself murdered; and the townspeople rejoice.

The genius of Sondheim with respect to lyrics and storyline (leaving aside his brilliant, rhythmically intricate compositions) is to address so many social issues at once without turning characters into lecturers or dialogues into debates.  So many points come across, in such rapid succession, that you hardly notice until mentally processing the show after the fact.  You get caught up in the moment, the music, the costumes, the fun; then, on the way home, you realize you have just witnessed a provocative social commentary unlike any other.  He teaches you while cleverly masking the fact that you are being taught, behind smoke screens of magical beans (greed), fur capes (speciesism), and giants (racism). 

My rating for Into the Woods: infinity stars.

The Pig in the Room: Walking Dead Season 5 Premiere

The Pig in the Room: Walking Dead Season 5 Premiere

By Saryta Rodriguez

 

Last night (10/12/2014), The Walking Dead— the most-watched drama series telecast in basic cable history, with its Season 4 premiere yielding a viewership of over 16 million viewers worldwide—aired its Season 5 premiere.  I have been a serious Dead devotee since Season 1 premiered in October 2010, and awaited this premiere with baited breath.  While it was ultimately among the most suspenseful, most captivating season premieres I have ever seen, it was also the saddest—and the hardest to watch.

I know I am not alone in this assessment.  The public was shocked, outraged by where our Good Guys end up in this episode—from the very first scene, they are subjected to horror far beyond that of an animated corpse chasing them.  They are exposed to the horrific violence that lies deep within the souls of the living

Read no further if you haven’t seen the episode; this post contains spoilers!

Violence and bloodshed are by no means new to the show. It’s tough to watch, but we get through it; we control our mounting angst, and we celebrate the Good Guys’ inevitable victory—because at the end of the day, we can rest easy knowing that it’s all just pretend.  There are no actual walkers; we don’t actually have to do these things; and independent of whether or not we had to, there aren’t people out there right now doing these things to each other, or to corpses.

What was so very horrific and depressing about last night’s episode is that what happened at Terminus IS happening. It is not pretend; it is all too real.   One detail, and one detail alone, was altered: the victims in this case were live humans.

Season 4 ends with the Good Guys trapped in a dark van by the newest Bad Guys—a group of survivors living in a place they call Terminus, and have advertised as a “sanctuary for all, community for all.”  Maps promising safe harbor led the prison survivors to this location, where after noting that the Terminus survivors don apparel belonging to their missing comrades Rick and his now-diminished crew realize all is not as it seems.  Rick pulls his gun on Garrett, the leader of the “Termites,” resulting in Rick’s group’s captivity.

Early in last night’s episode, some of our favorite Good Guys are dragged into a room and lined up in a row, on their knees.  In front of them is a metal trough.  The Good Guys watch as some other dudes in the row are slaughtered: they each receive one blow to the back of their heads with a baseball bat, then have their throats slit, pools of crimson blood running down the trough and into its drains.

Replace baseball bat with lead pipe; or, incorporate the use of a stun gun.  There you have it: the fate of pigs.  They were lined up, literally, “like pigs for the slaughter.” 

"Like pigs for the slaughter."

"Like pigs for the slaughter."

Two underlings set about this gruesome task. Soon Garrett, the leader of the new-Bad Guy-cannibals (to whom Conan O’Brien lovingly referred as “every uptight manager of a Starbucks you’ve ever met” on last night’s Talking Dead), interrupts them to ask for a “shot count” or some other number in relation to how much ammo is left. 

He asks for a statistic, clipboard in hand. 

His underlings squirm and apologize for not having the info Mr. Manager wants.  They did not squirm as they swung the bat.  They did not squirm as they slit each man’s throat; but they squirmed when Mr. Manager entered and asked them a question they could not answer.

I don’t normally watch Talking Dead.  Frankly, when I first heard of its existence, I was insulted on behalf of the American people.  A TV show about a TV show?  Really?!  Yet I watched last night because upon viewing the episode, from that very first scene at Terminus in which men are lined up at a trough for slaughter, I wondered: Will they say it?  Would anyone address the Pig in the Room?  Would anyone have the guts to state the obvious, to derail the conversation from how concepts and characters were developed and scenes choreographed to how this behavior is reflective of our own society, here and now—with no Apocalypse handy to excuse us?

No.  Not one person said it; though the many allusions to it were painful to hear.  The host (Chris Hardwick), the producers and Conan discussed the “trough scene,” the clipboard:

Hardwick: When Garrett comes in with that clipboard and sort of admonishes his staff…The most chilling thing about that whole scene is that this is really just another day at the office, to them.

"Nothing personal."

"Nothing personal."

Yes.  Yes, it was.  The employees had been trained to turn their empathy switches off and carry out these brutal executions as a matter of course.

Sound familiar? It should.

I crossed my fingers—literally—with my eyes and ears glued to the screen in front of me, waiting for someone, anyone, to say it.

No one did.

The Walking Dead is arguably the biggest show in the world right now.  Millions of people watch it religiously.  If you look on any message board, any social media outlet today, you will quickly see the mortified reactions of the public from all over the globe.  How cruel the Termites are!  How gruesome!  They should all die!  Indeed, Talking Dead has a live poll component, and one of the questions posed to the public last night was: Do the Termites deserve their fate (to die)?  An overwhelming 97% of viewers who responded thought that yes, they deserved to die for what they had been doing to humans.

And us? What will be our fate? Do we deserve to die, for what we do to pigs? Did any of those 97% of Talking Dead viewers who chose to respond to this question even think, for one moment, about the parallels between what they had just seen less than an hour ago and what happens on farms all over the world every day?  What did those people have for dinner last night?

The episode ends on an ominous note: While the other prison survivors, having escaped the Termites thanks to Rogue Ranger Carol’s assistance from the outside, simply want to flee and forget this ever happened, Rick asserts of the Termites: “They don’t get to live.”  Here we see a cycle of violence begin.  Mary, a Termite, explains to Carol in an earlier scene that once upon a time, the Termites were just like Rick’s crew.  Their sanctuary was captured by Bad Guys who did atrocious things, and the Termites had to fight back to reclaim what was theirs.  But Mary claims that her group learned a valuable lesson from that experience: “You’re the butcher, or you’re the cattle.”  Thus, she and the other former Good Guys become the human-slaughtering cannibals Rick’s group encounters. 

The Butchers.

The Butchers.

Now, upon having reclaimed his freedom as well as that of his post-Apocalyptic family, Rick can’t let go.  He can’t just leave.  Something’s brewing inside of him—bloodlust, desire for vengeance; take your pick.  He will not walk away peacefully; now he and his crew will, presumably, become the New Bad Guys themselves.  Whether or not they will actually eat people remains to be seen; but they will commit violent atrocities such as they never imagined they would a week ago, let alone a year—let alone a decade.

What of our own vicious cycle of violence? When will that end? Ours is not rooted in vengeance; the pigs didn’t do us any harm.  Neither did the cows or the chickens.  Ours is not rooted in survival; this is not the Apocalypse, and there is no shortage of nonviolently attainable food.  We do not need to slaughter innocent animals to survive.

What is our excuse?