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PETA 1

It’s been called our next big moral challenge. Over the next century, activists say, we will come to see animals in a different way and recognize that we can no longer use them for our own ends.

Just as no one would now argue in favor of slavery, in the future no one will argue for using animals to test medicine, killing them to provide food or burdening them to do our work.

“Animal rights means that animals, like humans, have interests that cannot be sacrificed or traded away just because it might benefit others,” says PETA, or People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

In their quest for better treatment for animals, such groups make the case that animals have — or should have — legal rights. In opposition are those — many with an economic interest in the status quo — who think of PETA as a bunch of spit-gargling extremists bent on disrupting our way of life.

But no matter which side you land on, there is a problem at the heart of the issue that has not been solved.

Man and Beast

At the core of the animal rights issue is the question of exactly what, if anything, separates human beings from animals — or from other animals.

All the remaining issues, from the biblical verse giving “man” dominion over the beasts to whether Sharon Stone should wear fur, pivot on this single question. And it is a question with many gray areas and no satisfactory answer.

Animal rights activists, such as members of PETA, emphasize the similarities between animals and humans. They point out that the chimpanzee, for instance, shares more than 98 percent of its DNA with the human. Not enough of a difference, they say, to warrant treating these apes as property.

The Judeo-Christian tradition emphasizes the distinction in Genesis, when Jehovah creates Adam in his divine image and grants Adam dominion “over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the Earth.”peasant and oxen

This has been considered as theological permission to use the animals for food, for transportation and for medical research.

Since then, however, science has had trouble with the border between human and animal. It’s been forced constantly to retreat from its definition of what distinguishes the two. Once, we were the toolmaking animal, until we learned that chimpanzees can make a primitive form of chopsticks to pluck termites out of their nests. Then we were the linguistic animal, until gorillas started learning sign language.

By now, science can only fall back on DNA: Humans are genetically distinct. That’s not much of a mandate to reign over Creation: After all, each species is genetically distinct.

This gradual blurring of the human-animal border would seem to benefit PETA. However, it could end in confounding their own argument.

Great chain of being

Traditionally, we have thought of life on Earth as a hierarchical “great chain of being,” in which certain species are “higher” or more advanced than others. PETA’s argument tacitly accepts this principle, even when others are finding it outdated or even paternalistic. PETA wants to “raise” animals to a human level by including them in our laws.

If you approach equality from the top down, as PETA does, and you see the question as raising the animals up to a human level, you get one set of answers. But you can also blur the line between humans and animals without recourse to the hierarchical principle. If you do, you get an entirely different result.

PETA’s argument, essentially, is that animals are people, too. But you make the same argument with different results if you state it in reverse: That people are animals, too.PETA collage

Another problem with PETA’s paternalism is that it treats intelligence as a shibboleth. If, for instance, science can show us that whales and dolphins are intelligent, or that gorillas or chimpanzees can learn to use sign language, does that mean those animals should receive special recognition under the law, and that dumber animals should not?

After all, we don’t give more legal rights to smart people over dumb ones. Why should animals be different?

Is intelligence the determining factor in deciding what animals have near-human legal rights? And if we decide that is not the case, then why are humans accorded special distinction among the animals, unless by divine fiat?

Animals are people and people are animals

More important, if you erase the line between human and non-human, you may end by making the case for the opponents of legal rights for animals.

For since the case can be made that human beings are also animals, one species among many, we have no reason for assuming our laws — the recorded customs of our species — can work for animals but not the other way around. Turnabout is fair play: If we start applying our laws to animals, why is that preferable to applying animal laws to humans?

Why should humans not be asked to conform to the moon-baying, alpha-male pack organization of wild dogs?lions eating

In fact, the chief reason humans exercise dominion over other animals has less to do with Scripture or law than it does with sheer power: Humans dominate other animals because we can. No rational person doubts that, say, mastodons or sabertooth cats would dominate the Earth — including humans — by force, if they could.

Further, animal rights activists talk about “species-ist” behavior — parallel to racist behavior — in which we favor our own species over others.

“I care about animals,” the late former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop once said, “but I care about people more.” It’s a common sentiment.

Species-ist dominance

Yet, in the animal world, each species favors its own over other species. Our own species-ist behavior is something we share with other animals, and if our behavior underlines the distinction we draw between ourselves and the beasts, it weakens the argument that animals should be treated like people.

Call it the animal rights Catch 22.

In other words, if there is no distinction between animal and human behavior in species-ist behavior, then there is a valid line between humans and animals and no logical reason to grant animals the legal rights we grant ourselves. To do so is to deny our animal natures and pretend that human beings are different from animals. And if we do pretend that humans are substantively different from animals, we again make the case against smudging the legal line between animal and human.

“Alle Menschen werden Brueder”

Of course, all this reflects only on the legal question — and underscores the point that the treatment of animals is properly a moral, not a legal, issue. PETA may be barking up the wrong tree.

Still, PETA may be on the right side historically.

One must remain humble about the possibility. Before the Civil War, there were intelligent, moral-minded people who defended slavery on logical, historical, religious and ethical grounds. And in the 1850s, abolition often seemed championed by crazy-eyed radicals and fringe elements in society. If you were a moderate then, you would probably have considered abolition “crazy,” or at least, precipitate, even as you recognized the need to treat slaves humanely.

Now the question of humane treatment of slaves seems entirely beside the point. Slavery itself seems patently inhumane and indefensible.

So instead of merely condemning animal rights apologists out of hand, we might consider that we, ourselves, could be in the same moral position: That in 100 years, animal rights may seem as obvious as emancipation seems to us now.

Obviously, we cannot know if this will occur, but whether we worry about the historical argument or not, we can still do our best to function ethically and morally on all fronts in the present.Buber

One does not need to make the legal case that animals are humans to recognize the fraternity of Creation. We need only see all that is not ourself as equal to ourself. In other words, recognizing the aliveness, existence and independence of the teeming individuals on the planet, we see in them the mirror of ourselves.

This is the basis of human morality: To see, as theologian Martin Buber has put it, the other as a “thou” rather than an “it.” It has always been easier to see family, or clan, or tribe, or nation as “thou,” and easier to see strangers or foreigners or different races as “it.” But that argument is just as compelling when you look into the eyes of a dog, or a horse or a canary.

We easily see our pets as “thou.” But just as moral action requires we see other people as “thou,” we shall have to begin considering animals other than our pets as “thou,” also.

Life feeds on life

rembrandt oxThis may not make PETA entirely happy, because even when we recognize other people as “thou,” we may still find just cause to end their lives. And even when we take animals as “thou,” we may find it acceptable to eat them.

Many tribal cultures have done just that, revering the animals they kill and eat. All life is a smorgasbord, with one species eating another. Even if we become vegetarians, we kill plants. Life feeds on life; life is not gentle. There is a certain sentimentalism to the PETA point of view.

The moral action is not necessarily to refrain from causing injury, but to take responsibility for it, and never to cause injury blindly and blandly. Making a law to enforce action — such as proper treatment of animals — tends to take away our personal responsibility and lets us obey blindly and blandly. This might be just as bad.

woody mugshot

Woody Allen’s peccadilloes are in the news again, as his ex and his purported son publically dis his recent Golden Globe “lifetime achievement” award.

This is not to defend Allen. Whether he is a child molester or not is not a question I can weigh in on. There is certainly something creepy about the whole affair with him and his current wife, Soon-Yi.

But whether the filmmaker deserves recognition for his films is a completely different question from whether his conduct in life is reprehensible.

We so often confuse private morality with public achievement, and demand they complement each other. They seldom do.

Not that Woody hasn’t given us a few hints over time. father andrei

In his Love and Death, Diane Keaton asks shriveled old patriarch Father Andrei for his wisdom.

He answers haltingly from behind a 9-foot beard: ”I have lived many years, and after many trials and tribulations, I have come to the conclusion that the best thing is — blond 12-year-old girls. Two of them whenever possible.”

This used to be a joke; it is now evidence.

Former fans, turned prosecutorial, now search the Wood-man’s films for this kind of evidence, ever since Allen’s former squeeze Mia Farrow accused him of sexually abusing their adopted 7-year-old girl, Dylan, and Allen admitted having an affair with Farrow’s 21-year-old adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn. ronan farrow

Not that Farrow gets off: She has recently implied that her son, Ronan, may not have been Woody’s child, after all. She may have been cheating with Frank Sinatra. Looking for old-time sexual morality in Hollywood can be like looking for sympathetic liberals on Fox News.

But about Woody, there’s lots of evidence to be unearthed from the films, from the underage girlfriend in Manhattan to the shifting family connections in Hannah and Her Sisters.

Rightly or wrongly, Allen’s life and films have always been confused by his fans. After all, Allen plays the same character in each film, a character that seems to be a stand-in for the film maker. No one mistakes Chaplin for a tramp, but Allen seems to be so much like Alvy Singer in Annie Hall, Isaac Davis in Manhattan and Gabe Roth in Husbands and Wives, that the confusion is natural.

So it’s no surprise that some formerly devoted fans have decided that they can no longer stand to see their fallen hero’s films.

So, let us please re-establish the separation between the artist and his creation. For his real sins, take him to court, for his art, remember the art exists, now, on its own, just as a son or daughter now exists separate from parent, and should not be held guilty of the parent’s crimes or vices. Polish director Polanski attends news conference for film "Chacun son Cinema" at 60th Cannes Film Festival

Roman Polanski is a reprehensible human being, but a very good filmmaker. Should we stop showing his Macbeth to high school students because of his crimes? Not if we want to convince those teens that Shakespeare is actually an exciting playwright.

Separating the artist from his work is essential. Otherwise, we will need to get rid of our copies of Alice in Wonderland. Lewis Carroll, after all, enjoyed taking photographs of nude little girls.

And if we are religious, we will have to stop singing that Ave Maria, because Franz Schubert liked sex with underage boys.Robert Frost

Artists are as venal, evil, self-centered, confused and destructive as the rest of us. The history of art is a landfill of disturbing biography.

Robert Frost sounds wise and paternal in his poems, but he was such an S.O.B. off the page that he drove his son to suicide.

William Burroughs and Norman Mailer have been hell on wives. Charges of child abuse now dog even James Joyce.

Benvenuto Cellini was a murderer. Ezra Pound was an anti-Semitic apologist for Fascism. Herbert von Karajan was a card-carrying Nazi. Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Hector Berlioz were drug fiends.

And we cannot begin to count the number of drunken novelists.

Sometimes we forget that Lord Byron diddled his sister. Or that Percy Shelley married a 16-year-old girl and then told her that he was in love with another teen-ager and that maybe all three could live together. Wagner

Or that Richard Wagner wrote Tristan und Isolde while enjoying a love affair with a woman he borrowed from her husband, who was housing and feeding the freeloading composer at the time. Wagner’s wife wasn’t happy about the arrangement, either.

This rogue’s gallery of adulterers, criminals, perverts and wackos made some of the greatest art of all time.

I am not suggesting that we let Woody off the hook. If he is guilty of child abuse, he should have to pay the price. He is certainly guilty of foolishness and self-deception in his relations with Soon-Yi.

But it is the man, not the art that should have to pay. Allen is one of America’s best film makers, the one of the few who consistently make films that examine the quality and meaning of life. That his films vary widely in quality is not in question, but even Allen’s worst films — Interiors and September — are serious attempts to deal with issues.

And his best, from Annie Hall to Crimes and Misdemeanors and Husbands and Wives, are as rich and textured as the best of Jean Renoir, who, by the way, married one of his father’s nude models and later divorced her.

What is so hard to understand is that Woody Allen can be so wise on celluloid and so foolish on the streets of New York.

But this goes well beyond Allen, and well beyond artists.

Our heroes just can’t seem to keep their noses clean.

One after the other they self-destruct, turning from demigods into blackguards before our very eyes.

Pick one, let his luster shine for a few moments and then notice the worm.Lindbergh

And I mean some of the most accomplished and meaningful personalities of the American century: Charles Lindbergh was a Nazi sympathizer. Martin Luther King Jr. was a womanizer. Elvis was a drug addict.

The list is long and luxurious, and the heroes in question come from politics, sports and the arts. We admire their accomplishments, even aspire to be like them, and then come to find out, as with O.J. Simpson, that they beat their wives and perhaps worse.

It isn’t just a recent phenomenon.

For every Woody Allen there is a Charlie Chaplin; for every Roman Polanski there is a Fatty Arbuckle. And let’s not forget Ingrid Bergman.

Let us not forget the charm of Ty Cobb, the graciousness of Babe Ruth and the temperance of Pete Rose.

Madonna raised eyebrows with her reputed NBA exploits, but what of  Clara Bow, who had a thing for the 1927 University of Southern California football team. The whole team.

Horatio Alger

Horatio Alger

Just think of some of their stories, moving backward in time. Errol Flynn, the patriotic hero on screen, was a Nazi sympathizer who died in a hotel room with an underage girl.

Horatio Alger, before he became the author of those inspirational rags-to-riches stories that Republicans like to recommend to those on welfare, was a minister who lost his job because he liked to seduce young boys.

It seems as if no one can escape: Who was the most saintly man of this century? Mahatma Gandhi liked to sleep naked with young girls, and he regularly weighed his excrement in the morning.

So beside that, a governor with his pants down in a motel room may seem kind of tame.

Even if he later became president.

I do not mean to debunk all our heroes, but to better understand what they are and what role they play in public life.

Heroism is a story we fashion from someone’s life, gaining nourishment from the pulp and spitting out the pits. As a story, it is tidied up with a beginning, middle and end, and it sports a moral that is meant to make our lives better or more meaningful. Unlike a real human life, it cannot sustain the complexities, contradictions and ambiguities that are always found in people, so it simplifies to make a point.

Charles Barkley is right to complain about being a called a role model — role model is the term we use instead of hero in an increasingly bureaucratic society — because the role he is asked to play is so much smaller than the life he lives.

Flesh-and-blood heroes are like actors that step into a part we need them to play.

And we do need them.

In earlier times, the hero was the person who translated the will of the gods into history. We no longer may believe in the gods and destiny, but we still need heroes. The hero is the link between the everyday life we live in and something transcendent. He brings the sky down to us so we can see it, feel it and taste it.

Michael Jordan hanging in the air like an angel who doesn’t need wings. richard burton

But when we hold our heroes up to higher standards than humans can sustain, we are like little children who cannot tell the actor from the part.

An adult doesn’t condemn Hamlet because Richard Burton was a lush.

Our heroes are capable of doing all the things ordinary people can do, including lying, cheating and stealing. Murder and rape are not beyond them, nor is mere vanity or meanness.

Like humans, our heroes are bundles of contradictions; they are large and contain multitudes.

For their crimes, we prosecute them as we do anyone else. For their simpler sins, we develop short memories. For their heroics, we need to be grateful.

What we forget is that a hero is a hero for what he does, not for who he is.

This is the Information Age, a century choked with facts and factoids, bites and gigabites. Yet, for all the blizzard of data, it has been a century of drought for Truth.

As the century has progressed, we have become increasingly suspicious of the very idea of Truth, to the point that many younger people simply no longer believe there is such a thing.

I ran into this attitude in a university art seminar I was asked to address. The brightest and most talented student in the class took exception to my exhortation that they use their art to discover truth.

Art, of course, often pretends to address “universal truths.”

“There is nothing universal,” she said, giving words to the common belief, which in itself is a sweepingly universal statement. “It’s all just personal preference.”

I asked her if she didn’t think that her art had validity for her viewers.

“No, it’s just my version. I don’t expect anyone else to believe it,” she said.

Why, then, I wondered, did she bother to make art? What was the point, beyond self-gratification?

It was, as I saw it, utter capitulation.

Yet, I still understood why she might think that way. It was a previous “universal truth” held by everyone from Aristotle to Southern Baptist Convention that prevented women from making art in the past — or at least kept them from being taken seriously. Universal truths held people back, subjected them, disenfranchised them, enslaved them, justified the status quo and glorified local circumstances — that is all she cared about the subject.

The century has had its belly full of horror perpetrated in the name of “universal truths.” Cambodia cleared out its cities and slaughtered its citizens in the name of a great truth. The Soviet Union starved its provinces and imprisoned its best in the name of a “historical truth.” Germany’s big truth was a big lie and ended in genocide.

And in the centuries before ours, truth had a nasty habit of justifying colonialism, war, racism, the subjugation of women and the worst aspects of jingoistic nationalism. Just read any 19th Century justification of slavery. Is it any wonder that we have become nervous and twitchy about anyone claiming a franchise on Truth?

Even in our own time, those who profess to know the Truth habitually kill those who don’t agree. It doesn’t matter if they are Christian or Muslim, Tamil or Sikh. Truth is too often just a good excuse to blow each other to kingdom come. The nightly news carries new proof of this every day.

Yet, the loss of a sense of universal truth is in some ways just as bad.

We have no core beliefs to unify our culture; it fragments into interest groups and the groups fragment into individuals, each with his own desires and directions. The groups quarrel and soon, like Tutsis and Hutus, they are at each others throats.

Seven billion screaming ids. Either way, people wind up dead.

It used to be one of the functions of art and literature that it tested the veracity of purported truths, taking exception to ideas that had become outworn and making provisional stabs at creating substitutes. Art was the attempt to find universal truths that could stand up to the sulfuric acid used to separate the gold from metals more base.

As D.H. Lawrence said about the novel, meretricious ideas are easier to spot in fiction than in everyday life.

But the problem now is that it isn’t just that we no longer know which truth to believe, but that we simply don’t believe there is any truth.

We have reached an uncomfortable impasse. We need belief to make life meaningful, yet we cannot allow ourselves to believe in anything. Every faith, institution, political faction and ideal has proved at some level to be a tissue of hypocrisy. We decry our own cynicism, but recognize that at some level, it is merely realism.

Some retreat into conventional orthodoxies; others free float, aimless in an increasingly valueless society.

But there is another alternative: starting from scratch to see if we may discover for ourselves something like universal truth and build the whole thing all over again.

If we could only find a starting point, a single truth that everyone can agree is universal.

I suggest there is one such truth: We all die.

Death, if nothing else, is common to all 7 billion people on this planet. It is common to all living things, and metaphorically, common to all inorganic things, too. Perhaps if we recognize the universality of death, we can allow the possibility of other universals, even if we tread such territory gingerly.

If there is one truth, perhaps there are others. At the very least, it puts the lie to the canard that “it is all just personal preference.” At least one thing isn’t.

Death may seem a grisly place to start, but it doesn’t have to be.

The raw fact of death, when we are willing to be aware of it, also brightens and colors the gray ordinariness of daily life. It is what philosopher Martin Heidegger meant by the term, “authenticity.”

In simple terms: Death makes life more immediate.

If we ignore the fact of death, we can become bored with small things. But if we keep our death in mind, even mud becomes magic.

Perhaps just as important, it isn’t our own death that we feel most poignantly. We may not experience our own deaths at all — at least we have no reliable reports from after the fact — but we do feel the deaths of those around us in a profound sense of loss.

A sense of loss may be our second universal truth: It is certainly at the root of much mythology, from the expulsion from the Garden of Eden to the current New Age belief that Native American culture is somehow “in harmony with nature” and that our own culture is somehow cut off from it.

This loss is not merely generated by our awakened sense of our own mortality — in the face of loss, our own deaths often become insignificant — but of the recognition that we extend beyond our egos: We love.

Love — this opening up beyond self-interest — is perhaps a third truth, for whatever cultural inflection it picks up — and make no mistake: despite the rumblings of the Republican right, love is manifested in a million forms — the basic truth is that we all manage to break out of our blind egos and forge connections with others.

From love, we can begin to build a sense of morality. By breaking from our own egos, by imagining what it is to be other than ourselves, we begin to understand how our behavior affects those around us.

Young artists often deal with death in a symbolic fashion: skulls and blood. It is the mainstay of prison art, tattoos, heavy metal music and adolescent — primarily male adolescent — fantasies. Yet such doodling has as little to do with death as with art.

Such things are mere conceit.

It isn’t until we are older and come face-to-face with loss, that we begin to understand the meaning of death and the hundreds of emotional consequences that follow.

Beginning with one uncomfortable truth and wind up with a complex web of things, including that which makes us happiest.

I recommend to artists, not that they get all morbid, — quite the opposite — but that, starting with the universality of death, they may begin to build once more a fabric of belief that will sustain the human spirit.