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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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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.