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For the Love of PETA

A group that promotes naked supermodels and beer drinking can't be all bad.

12:00 AM, Oct 1, 2002 • By MATT LABASH
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THE LAW OF AVERAGES dictates that if you spend enough time writing for a living, you will eventually make embarrassing disclosures about yourself. Here is mine: Of all the crank left-wing groups I am paid to periodically encounter, I've always harbored a secret soft spot for my friends at the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. This is not an easy admission. For the only thing I like better than eating meat once a day, is eating meat two or three times a day. If they made meat desserts, I'd push for four. Meat and I--we've had some great times together.

Still, though it doesn't happen often, there is always the slight pang of conscience when I stop to consider that the plate of flesh and bone in front of me was once one of God's living, breathing, sentient creatures. It was a creature with a mom, a creature that could be affectionate or hungry or scared or feel pain, a creature that my kid throws his arms around when he encounters it at a state fair. It is a creature who was slaughtered because in creation's hierarchy, it does not enjoy primacy over my appetites.

To live with myself, I cheat, pretending that animal welfare is of great importance to me. I don't hunt. I give my pet labrador--or "companion animal" as PETA would have it--inordinate amounts of table food (he especially likes meat). And whenever I go to restaurants, I order veal--doing my bit to ensure that those poor calves don't have to spend any more time in one of those wretched crates.

But there is one other thing I do, which is to quietly root for PETA. It doesn't really matter how provocative their latest media campaign is. When they stripped Kim Basinger and Christy Turlington down to their birthday suits, having them declare they'd "rather go naked than wear fur," I could think of no other apparel I would have rather seen them in. A few years ago, PETA took advantage of a medical study saying that avid dairy consumers experienced higher incidences of prostate cancer, by parodying the milk industry's "Got Milk?" campaign with a billboard featuring a milk-mustachioed Rudy Giuliani asking "Got Prostate Cancer?" Having been recently diagnosed with the disease, Giuliani threatened to sue. PETA yanked the ad. But I took subversive pleasure, knowing that broad-bottomed, milk-fed steak-heads driving past the billboard in Oshkosh or Fond du Lac would nearly drive off the road in a snit, oblivious to the implication that they could be suffering adverse health effects from downing the milk of factory farm cows who are shot full of unhealthy growth hormones, kept constantly impregnated and permanently confined to rib-hugging pens, and who are then milked with machines until they bleed or suffer bacterial infections.

Now, PETA has raised everyone's Irish again by reprising their "Got Beer? ! . . . Better than Milk" ads, which they had pulled out of deference to Mothers Against Drunk Driving after the campaign was originally launched two years ago. PETA is not merely content to show that, according to Department of Agriculture Nutritional Data, a cup of beer has less fat, sodium, cholesterol, and fewer calories than a cup of 2 percent milk.

They've also issued trading cards with mascots illustrating milk's detrimental effects. Chubby Charlie lets us know that when "you put a 'milk mustache' on your lips, you are likely to add extra inches to your hips.'" Pimply Patty lets us know that some doctors think milk-drinking contributes to acne. Loogie Louie informs that milk is a "mucus maker." And just in case your cast-iron stomach has still managed to retain its contents, PETA's "Got . . . pus?" campaign informs us that every cupful of milk contains somatic cells, commonly known as pus. (Robert Cohen, author of "Milk: A-Z" says that a "milk mustache" should be called a "milk pustache.")

Naturally, MADD is again, well, mad. Since the beer campaign is targeted at college students at "party schools" like Florida State University, MADD is decrying PETA as "putting cows before kids" by encouraging our young people to binge drink. But of course, they are doing no such thing. They are simply making a point that beer--which medical science now claims when consumed in moderation can decrease the likelihood of heart attacks and strokes--is just as healthy, and perhaps even healthier, than milk. (It is instructive to note that the average American only drinks several ounces of milk a day--hardly enough to foster alcoholism in a straight beer-for-milk tradeoff.)

Anyone who has followed MADD since their inception 20 years ago knows that they have gradually drifted from the worthy mission of keeping drunks off the road into becoming a band of expansionist neo-Prohibitionists, eager to end happy hours, increase alcohol excise taxes and penalize every driver who has had anything stronger than a spoonful of cough syrup. But MADD has been joined in their boo chorus by plenty of conservative editorialists, who often regard PETA as humorless scolds. To which the glib part of me says: "Here is a group that promotes naked supermodels and drinking beer. Remind me, again, why I'm supposed to dislike them."

But the rest of me chafes when my esteemed colleagues suggest they are on to PETA. Even my own magazine has deemed them "the highly annoying group of busybodies that pursues its mission under the banner of 'animal rights.'" Like-minded conservatives congratulate themselves on discovering PETA's veiled agenda of say, saving kid goats from being boiled alive to make gloves, as actually being about converting us all to veganism. Despite these epiphanies, there is nothing veiled about PETA's agenda. Of course they'd like us to all be vegans, to which I say--so what? It will never happen. Even PETA knows they'll never be able to save all animal-kind by winning the meat wars. People like me, who are otherwise sympathetic, will never let them. I think it's great that they shine a light on the mistreatment of dairy cows. Still, I'd rather eat my own shoe than Tofutti ice cream.

That is what is commendable about PETA. To be against all animal suffering is intellectually consistent. To admit that you can't stop it, and do your best to stop it anyway, is heroic. They don't let the perfect (having mankind refrain from consuming all animals or animal byproducts) be the enemy of the good (saving animals wherever possible, or ensuring the treatment of animals, even animals raised for slaughter, is more humane). Take their anti-fur campaign, for instance, directed at an industry which often sees animals boiled or skinned alive. I have always thought it a bit presumptuous to assume that animals should be grateful to us for the oxymoronic proposition of "humane killing." If they'd been blessed with the gift of language, they'd probably say something like, "Gee, thanks." Still, not suffering is better than suffering. And if I am a rabbit, I suppose it doesn't make a dime's worth of difference to me whether I am being killed for my pelt or for my meat. But at least having PETA pulling for me on the former--even if it's by throwing a dead raccoon in Vogue editor Anna Wintour's soup, as they once did--increases my chances of not being killed.

Sure, PETA in their overexuberance often aims wide of the mark. They lost me when they fought for the town of Fishkill, New York, to be renamed "Fishsave." Likewise, they did the same when they tried to get the Green Bay Packers (named after meat packers) renamed the Green Bay Six-Packers (a change many of the inebriated regulars at Lambeau Field would've probably applauded). And while it makes sense that all of God's creatures should be extended our mercies, I cannot utter the words "lobster liberation" without breaking into giggle fits.

But then there are their perfectly reasonable campaigns. While PETA president Ingrid Newkirk has expressed dismay that fast-food consumers seem to be under the impression that their hamburgers come from some pastoral "hamburger patch," she knows that inviting McDonald's consumers to take slaughterhouse tours (which would surely see a spike in the number of vegetable gardens nationwide) isn't tenable. But what PETA did do was pass out "Unhappy Meal" horror-story packages, forcing McDonald's to confront the fact that they were buying chickens raised in a space that was less than the size of a sheet of paper, buying pigs that spent their entire lives squeezed into cement stalls unable to turn around or even nuzzle their offspring, and only requiring 1 in 20 animals to be fully stunned before their throats were slit.

Once we've completed our abattoir ethics symposiums, of course, it is a whole different matter whether it is moral to eat meat in the first place? I have, and will continue to do so, for three very simple reasons:

(A) Because it's convenient, and I can.

(B)Because it tastes too good to stop.

(C) Because it's hard for me to work up a full head of steam against eating animals, when animals seem to have no compunction about eating each other.

I don't pretend these reasons are good enough to win debates, just good enough to get me through my next meal. The reason why groups like PETA will never truly open up debate with people on my side of the political street, is because with all their shrillness and over-the-top media stunts, it has become too easy to dismiss them out of hand, even when they meticulously trace the often harrowing path of how your meals arrive at your table.

Considerably harder to ignore is a new book by Matthew Scully, entitled Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy. Scully doesn't come with any of PETA's baggage. In fact, he is the oddest of ducks--a vegetarian and lifelong conservative journalist and political speechwriter who can discuss animal-rights issues without his epiglottis seizing up in nervous spasms. Most recently a key speechwriter for President George W. Bush, Scully has composed an eloquent, tightly reasoned, courageous manifesto that doesn't merely recount horrific object lessons of man's appetites running amok, but that functions as a stop-the-merry-go-round moral inquiry, examining why, when it comes to animals, we do what we do. Or more precisely, how we can do what we do.

To be sure, it is not a debate Scully found himself often having around the office, even if this line of inquiry is hardly new. It's at least been touched upon by many of those whom modern conservatism regards as leading lights. All the way back in the first century, Plutarch wrote of farm animals that "For the sake of a little flesh, we deprive them of sun, of light, of the duration of life to which they are entitled by birth and being."

And then there's this: "How it is possible to look for God and sing his praises while insulting and degrading his creatures? If, as I had thought, all lambs are the Agnus Dei , then to deprive them of light and the fields and their joyous frisking and the sky is the worst kind of blasphemy." The above could have been written by PETA president Ingrid Newkirk, if she wasn't so busy going naked and pouring beer in her cereal. Instead, it was written by Malcolm Muggeridge.

But in recent years, the animal-rights movement has been taken over by eco-weenies, Gaia-worshippers, and others who've ensured the debate never veers much beyond legume-popping co-eds in sativa smocks. The very term "animal rights" is off-putting to many, because it confers on animals equal status, allowing the preening moralists of the Left to turn voiceless animals into just another mewling grievance group. But it is at the preening moralists of the Right--who, I can speak from experience, are not in short supply--that Scully directs his efforts.

While the Right's favorite fallback position is often a biblical one--that it is morally acceptable to use animals as we see fit since God gave us "dominion" over them--Scully doesn't argue that animals should be regarded as equals. But rather, it is our dominion over animals, he writes, that is "more than ever a test of our character, of mankind's capacity for empathy and for decent, honorable conduct and faithful stewardship. We are called to treat them with kindness, not because they have rights or power or some claim to equality, but in a sense because they don't; because they all stand unequal and powerless before us. Animals are so easily overlooked, their interests so easily brushed aside. Whenever we humans enter their world, from our farms to the local animal shelter to the African savanna, we enter as lords of the earth bearing strange powers of terror and mercy alike."

Using Genesis's dominion clause as a moral umbrella, Scully says, is not sufficient cover for the cruelties of factory farms, canned hunts, and other indignities animals suffer at the hand of man. "However adamantly we might care to defend certain practices," he writes, "to press on requires a certain hardness, and it sounds more and more strained to describe the things we do and permit in the language of morality. That doesn't prevent many people from trying, from ascribing their every whim and pleasure gained at the expense of animals to the Divine Order. But theirs is a dominion only of power, with them and not God at the center, all grandeur and no grace."

Thumbing the eye of animal-rights types of course, has become a reverse-sort of political correctness, a reflex that is not an argument, but an attitude--as embodied by Ted Nugent, the rock'n'roller/bow-hunting nutnik who never misses a chance to advertise his kill-it-and-grill-it ethos. Actual debate is almost nil, and Scully says there is no surer way to clear a room in conservative circles than to try to start one: "Conservatives should recognize here a familiar figure from their own critique of modern culture. It is the Imperial Self, armed and dangerous. Indeed dominion today is a little like the U.S. Constitution, stretched to cover all kinds of abuses done in its good name. It is the same fundamentally vulgar vision of man that conservatives elsewhere so earnestly worry about--man the perpetual victim, man the whiny special pleader, man the all-conquering consumer facing the universe with limitless entitlements and appetites to be met no matter what the cost."

While many bristle with "huffy impatience" at the documentary evidence that the likes of PETA produce to show how your coat was harvested or your veal delivered (much in the same way that pro-choicers often bristle when pro-lifers insist on shoving photos at them of extracted fetuses dying in trash receptacles), Scully regards such awareness as a useful exercise: "In fact, let us just call things what they are. When a man's love of finery clouds his moral judgment, that is vanity. When he lets a demanding palate make his moral choices, that is gluttony. When he ascribes the divine will to his own whims, that is pride. And when he gets angry at being reminded of animal suffering that his own daily choices might help avoid, that is moral cowardice."

To be sure, Scully's "Dominion" is a tough read for anyone who feels the slightest ethical obligation toward animals. Will it cause me to go whole hog, as it were, and remove meat from my table? Certainly not--I'm too weak, and would rather live a life of moral compromise than one eating Textured Vegetable Protein. But does it prick my conscience and cause me to be plagued by second thoughts? Most certainly. This is not a bad thing. Pricked consciences and second thoughts--they are, supposedly, what separate us from the animals.

Matt Labash is senior writer at The Weekly Standard.