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The Paper of the Apes

The New York Times’s animal-rights crusade.

May 26, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 35 • By WESLEY J. SMITH
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That the New York Times is a subversive cultural force can readily be seen in its unremitting assault on human exceptionalism, the philosophical backbone of Western civilization. 


The Nonhuman Rights Project’s home page

In the old view, every human being has intrinsic dignity and equal moral worth. The United Nations’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) states that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” 

But particularly in politically progressive circles, assignment of special status to people—as opposed to flora and fauna—is increasingly seen as hubristic and arrogant. If we just demote ourselves to merely another animal in the forest, we are told, we will live more gently on the land and save the planet. While the Times frequently hosts this latter view, it rarely—outside the occasional Ross Douthat column—publishes an unequivocal defense of the unique importance of human life.

On April 27, the Times Magazine published a cover story about Steven Wise, the radical head of the Nonhuman Rights Project. An animal rights lawyer, Wise has spent years strategizing to obtain a court ruling declaring some animals legal “persons.” Most recently, he unsuccessfully sought writs of habeas corpus for three chimpanzees. 

“Animal standing,” as it is known, is high on the animal-rights agenda because it would allow movement ideologues to attack animal industries in court. But the Times profile doesn’t get into that inconvenient issue. Rather, it accepts Wise’s premise that human exceptionalism is “inherently irrational” and that the poor treatment of animals is equivalent to an abuse of human rights:

“It’s those deeply held beliefs [in human exceptionalism] that I’m concerned about,” [Wise] told me. “The judge who either doesn’t recognize that he’s ruling against us on those grounds, or who does, and decides that way anyway. Our challenge is to lay bare that bias against our facts. I will say: ‘Judge, you know, we’ve been here before. We’ve had people who’ve essentially said, “I’m sorry, but you’re black.” Or “I’m sorry, you’re not a male or a heterosexual.” And this has led us to some very bad places.’ ”

The Wise profile ends by making the civil rights analogy explicit: 

Much like other civil rights movements, the [Nonhuman Rights Project’s] efforts are designed to be a systematic assault; a continued and repeated airing of the evidence now at hand so that other lawyers and eventually judges and society as a whole can move past what Wise considers the increasingly arbitrary distinction of species as the determinant of who should hold a right.

This is par for the course. The week before the Wise profile, the Times Magazine gave a similar boost to another social radical, the English environmentalist Paul Kingsnorth, creator of the Dark Mountain Project. 

The DMP exemplifies the anti-humanism and nihilism that has infected much of the environmental movement. Rather than striving through activism and civil disobedience to save the planet, Kingsnorth directly promotes “uncivilization.” He seeks to harness the power of art to celebrate economic collapse and liberate society from human exceptionalism. As one of the DMP’s “8 Principles of Uncivilisation” states:

We intend to challenge the stories which underpin our civilisation: the myth of progress, the myth of human centrality, and the myth of our separation from “nature.” These myths are more dangerous for the fact that we have forgotten they are myths.

Actually, these “myths” have created more freedom from want, political liberty, and alleviation of suffering than at any time in human history. But never mind. In “It’s the End of the World as We Know It .  .  . and He Feels Fine,” the Times devoted 6,000 words to Kingsnorth’s journey back to paganism. The piece opens as participants at an uncivilization festival set a wicker sculpture on fire, chanting, “We are gathered. We are gathered.” To what end? Baying at the moon:

A man wearing a stag mask bounded into the clearing and shouted: “Come! Let’s play!” The crowd broke up. Some headed for bed. A majority headed for the woods, to a makeshift stage that had been blocked off with hay bales and covered by an enormous nylon parachute.

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