PETA vs. the Feminist Blogosphere

Offended yet?

Periodically, animal advocates get torn to shreds for daring to suggest that the suffering of animals deserves our consideration alongside the suffering of humans.  Last year, Natalie Portman had the audacity to ask, “If we don’t tolerate rape, why do we tolerate meat eating?”—and was promptly pounced upon by feminist bloggers.  More recently, twitter called my attention to a feministing post saying “Fuck you very much” to a PETA display that pointed out the eerie similarities between contemporary justifications for animal abuse and past justifications for slavery, eugenics, child labor, and women’s subjugation.

I’m not surprised to see that the PETA display received such a negative reaction.  When a group I helped found, the Princeton Animal Welfare Society, brought a similar exhibit to campus my junior year, I was labeled a “racist” by numerous student groups—groups which had repeatedly ignored my attempts to reach out to them and hear their objections prior to the display coming to campus.  As a result, I’m sensitive to the kind of attacks being made on PETA, which is why I feel the need to launch into the blogosphere my own explanation of why, even if you don’t care at all about animals, you should think that comparisons between the justifications for animal and human abuse are appropriate and defensible.

Part of my problem with the kind of objections feministing raises is the complete lack of empathy it suggests—not empathy for animals, but for animal advocates.  If you take the inferiority of animals to be axiomatic, comparisons between animals and humans are offensive, because they entail dragging humans down to the level of animals.  But even a half-hearted attempt to put oneself in the shoes of an animal advocate makes it obvious that this is not what we are trying to do.  PETA’s goal is to raise animals up to the level of humans: displays like this are not “quite literally dehumanizing”, as feministing insists, but “quite literally humanizing.”  Even if animal rights activists didn’t have the slightest concern for women’s equality or racial justice, there still would be no conceivable reason for them to make any argument that debases women or racial minorities.

What disturbs me more about the recent outrage, though, is the parochial attitude towards social justice it suggests.  As one blogger, Anna North, wrote about Natalie Portman, “I cannot hear meat-eating and rape in the same breath without feeling that the enormity of the rapist’s crime is being minimized.”  North admitted that Portman was probably not trying to trivialize rape—but she nonetheless felt that Portman was upsetting a hierarchy of wrongs that insists that time spent worrying about animals is time spent not addressing more important, human issues.  What bothers me, though, is the suggestion that our commitment to justice for one group detracts from justice for others; that compassion is something finite which must be hoarded for our own particular, pet causes.

I submit that our concern for the suffering of one subjugated group is precisely what makes us likely to reevaluate our prejudices towards another.  Is it coincidence that movements for civil rights, gender equality, gay liberation and—dare I say it—animal rights emerged around the same time?  Or is it perhaps that the same activists’ involvement in one cause led them to think critically about their preconceptions towards another?  With that in mind, how, exactly, does my being vegan make me a less effective advocate for social justice for humans?  If anything, abstaining from animal products reminds me—three times a day—to challenge the received wisdom of which kind of inequalities and injustices are natural and unchangeable.

All this is very different from arguing about whether comparing the slaughter of cattle for meat to murder or the milking of cows for milk to rape is tactically effective.  It probably isn’t.  There are some injustices about which we cannot be rational: the visceral reactions of people of color to comparisons between factory farming and slavery, or that of Jewish groups to analogies between slaughterhouses and gas chambers, should be respected, even if—as a privileged white male with no oppression to speak of in my personal history—I cannot entirely undertand them.  But my own experience as an animal activist makes me aware of why these tactics are inevitable: because most people—including many, many people on the left—are completely unwilling to challenge their own biases towards animals, and simply dismiss arguments out of hand.  To those continuously outraged about PETA’s attention-grabbing (and, yes, at times sexist and misguided) tactics, I offer this paraphrasing of JFK: those who make thoughtful advocacy for animals impossible make stupid, offensive advocacy for animals inevitable.

The Nostalgia Series, Part II: Ascension Day

Five-hundred-or-so years ago—which, in Oxford, falls under “modern history”—a mob of townspeople were chasing two students (as tended to happen back then).  One student was from Lincoln College and the other Brasenose.  They reached Lincoln’s gate, at which point the porters—being English and, by extension, sticklers for the rules—permitted the Lincoln student to enter but shut the Brasenose student out.  The Brasenose student attempted to climb the Lincoln walls’ ivy to safety but, alas, fell and was killed.

The rivalry between Lincoln and Brasenose has persisted for five-hundred years, though, and Lincoln continues to commemorate the event by inviting Brasenose students over, once a year on Ascension Day, for a conciliatory pint.  In an act of lingering bitterness, though, the ale is spiked with ivy, which makes it nearly undrinkable.  I was lucky to have all this explained to me over one of the aforementioned pints with a friend at Lincoln, who—in addition to relating the above story—assured me that the free beer in no way constituted an apology.

Bad beer is only part of the Ascension Day celebration.  Instead, Lincoln has conglomerated its annual get-together with Brasenose with a few other, seemingly disconnected, traditions.  When I arrived at Lincoln, a large group of Oxford townspeople, led by several prients carrying long wooden staves, were returning from “beating the bounds” of their parish.  This is, of course, an important ritual by which the Anglican Church in Oxford delineates its boundaries—which now run through a Marks and Spencer’s grocery store and a Wagamama’s noodle shop.

Ascension Day is about more than celebrating mob violence and delineating property rights, though: it is also a tool for teaching important moral lessons.  The high point of Ascension Day comes at 12:30 p.m., when Lincoln students throw £40 worth of pennies from the college tower.  I watched as a group of school children from the parish fought each other to gather them, alternating between jostling to get closer to the tower and howling as they were pelted by pennies.  The Vicar, standing by, explained that in the good-old days, the pennies would have been heated so the children would have to wait for the pennies to cool before grabbing them.  The event would have thus been doubly instructive, teaching the value of money but the perils of greed.

Laughing at the suffering of children: an Oxford tradition

Oxford is full of stories, most of which have been forgotten.  Why the murder of a Brasenose student five hundred years ago is commemorated—and, inexplicably, melded with a religious holiday and penny-throwing ritual—is completely beyond me.  In fact, like most of Oxford’s traditions, the practices of Ascension Day seem to have continued, even as their original meaning and purpose has been lost.  Part of me thinks that this inability to break free from past ways of doing things in part explains why Oxford is struggling to maintain its position as a world-class research university in the 21st century.  And yet, although devoid of any clear academic purpose, these traditions are key part of why Oxford is so utterly unique.

In the last few months, I’ve been frantically ticking boxes in my mental pre-departure-from-Oxford checklist.  I’ve drank port in the Senior Common Room with the college Provost, sifted through disintegrating 17th century books in the St. Edmund’s Hall Old Library, eaten in the Christ Church dining hall (as featured in Harry Potter), witnessed the procession of maces and academic gowns of the Encaenia ceremony, and, of course, sat an exam wearing a red carnation, tuxedo, white bow tie, and academic gown.  I’m already regretting not writing about these experiences—and many others that I am, at the moment, forgetting—because in a few days, I will be back in the U.S., and the absurdity of what here is routine will quickly present itself.

The iconic Oxford photo

I’m excited to move to Berkeley, but I fully understand that there’s something here—be it the traditions, or the architecture, or the formal halls, or the sub fusc—that I know I will miss.  Even the byzantine labrynth of bureaucracy students here are subjected to somehow fits into the overall topography, as if an extension of more entertaining traditions—like the annual college Tortoise Race or May Day bridge-jumping.

Now on my last week here, I’ve given up on ticking any more boxes.  Oxford only reveals its secrets slowly—something that the D.Phils on their third degree and tenth year of study here seem to have realized, but that, for a second-year American masters student, can make leaving very, very hard.

Behind the Iron Curtain

“Was it really that bad?”

Last year, one of my housemates was from Rostock, Germany, and had lived under the socialist regime until he was ten.  His stories were a window into the daily life of communism, something my history books could never provide me.  His mother used to deposit him in queues without actually knowing what he was waiting for, under the assumption that if there was a line, someone from her family should be in it.  One family vacation to the coast was abruptly aborted when his father decided to seize an opportunity to wait three days to receive two tires.  Although the tires did not constitute a complete set (and weren’t even a fit for his car), my housemate recalled how his father would not stop talking about what a success their trip had been, since he could trade those two tires for all manner of consumer goods.  One of his Oxford friends – a Romanian of the same age – had similar memories that mixed the tragic with the absurd.  Once, he saw swiss cheese on television; all he could think about afterward was the hope that it would appear on screen again.  Actually getting a chance to eat swiss cheese, of course, was beyond what he could imagine.

My visit to Berlin – where I met up with my old housemate – finally gave me a chance to see the place behind some of these stories.  Central Berlin has been redeveloped with a massive infusion of West German money.  Even twenty years after the wall came down, though, the far eastern part of the city still betrays vestiges of socialism, in its many guises.  The wall itself—and the guard towers and kill zone that surrounded it—show socialism at its most insidious and repressive.  Yet the system’s aspirations, too, are still visible.  On Karl Marx Boulevard, we biked past concrete apartment buildings that—my host assured me—are cookie-cutter replicas of similar buildings in Kiev, Riga, and Warsaw, but which, rising from the ruins of post-war Berlin, may really have seemed like the worker’s palaces they were billed as.

Deep in East Berlin, we turned away from the austere ultra-modernist architecture and crossed into Russian territory.  Much like an embassy, the land of Berlin’s Treptower Park is still formally owned by the Russian government.  In an almost comical throwback, the marble entrance to the massive monument to the Red Army was framed by two hammer-and-sickle engraves.  Inside, a 10-meter-tall bronze Russian soldier stomped on a broken swastika.  Although the marble reliefs below ostensibly celebrated the Soviet soldiers who won the wars, all the quotes engraved on them were from Joseph Stalin.  My friend, translating, told me that they spoke of the glorious Soviet liberation of Eastern Europe—carried out in the name of freedom and equality, of course.

Forward, to Socialism!

Ours wasn’t the only trip that ended at the memorial.  At one point, another guide came by, speaking to a group of English-speaking tourists.  East Germany, he said, was undoubtedly awful.  Yet, he admonished his listeners, if you ask an East German, they will inevitably give you a more complicated picture.  Having stayed last week in Dresden with an East German family—who had prospered because communism gave them a chance to get off the farm and become engineers and doctors—I could understand what he meant.  The leaders of East Germany, said the guide, really did have a vision of a better society, even if that vision was usually obscured by their own obsession with power.

His short soliloquy was a perfect summation of why I have always been fascinated by Eastern Europe and Soviet socialism.  The fashion on the left is to disown the Soviet system entirely: my friends from the Socialist Worker’s Party in Oxford, for example, insist that by the time Stalin came around, Russia wasn’t socialist at all.  They still speak of Lenin and Trotsky with reverence, yet claim that their legacy can be fully severed from the Soviet empire that insisted it was inspired by their ideas.

I don’t think that a neat separation is quite so easy.  The USSR – and, of course, its satellite states like East Germany – was an abomination, but, as leftists, we have to acknowledge that it was our abomination.  The Soviet monstrosity, for all its evils, did all sorts of things to which progressive governments everywhere aspire: it increased access to education, worked towards some forms of gender equality, and offered universal(ly crappy) healthcare.  Its legacy hangs over anyone who believes in massive projects to improve the human condition—anyone who, like me, wants something more substantive than the feeble efforts of the Democrats in the U.S., Labour in the U.K., or even the SPD in Germany.

“Was it really that bad?”, for me, is a question of more than just historical relevance.  Its answer has disturbing implications for a much bigger query: is another world really possible?  Seeing Europe—both the ruins of socialism and the decline of social democracy—makes me wonder.

Words of (Imagined) Wisdom

I’m not entirely sure what I was supposed to have gotten out of Oxford—why, that is, some generous Princeton alumni decided to send me here.  It certainly wasn’t a degree: this was clear to me two days after I was informed I received the scholarship, and proceeded to awkwardly explain that my chosen course wasn’t actually offered by Worcester College.  The scholarship coordinators said that didn’t much care what I studied.  I just needed to go to Oxford and do something.  What that “something” is—whether to learn, row, drink, or launch my campaign for a seat on the Supreme Court, I still don’t know.

Absent answers to this more cosmic question, though, I have put some thought into what I’ve learned about how an American graduate student—I make no pretense to speak for those not fitting this description—can make the most of her or his time in Oxford.  Some of this advice I followed, some I wish I had followed, and other elements I would never myself follow, but figure someone should:

1) Study only in pretty libraries.  Oxford is known for its fabled tutorial system, in which students work one-on-one or two-on-one with a don every week.  In reality, though, few graduate students get tutorials: instead, we prepare from thoughtlessly assembled reading for disjointed seminars taught by a rota of professors taking turns at the unpleasant task of instruction.  Most of the masters courses here, from what I’ve heard and experienced, suck.

At first, I found this frustrating, until I realized that classes—or essays, or reading lists, or exams—were little more than necessary impediment to my real education, which has come from pursuing my own research, attending open lectures, and interacting with the incredibly diverse range of people in my course.  Academically, Oxford has been a joke, but intellectually, I’ve never been so stimulated.  That’s why I suggest only studying in Oxford’s prettier libraries: learning in this place comes as much from the physical milieu as formal instruction, and the senseless requirements of various courses aren’t worth sweating unless you’re, at the very least, sitting somewhere pretty.

2) Row, or at least drink with rowers.  I don’t actually think everyone should row.  Although I love the Worcester College Boat Club to death, I’m not quite sure it’s particular concatenation of pseudo-athleticism, binge drinking, casual racism, and heteronormativity is likely to work for everyone.  That said, I think rowing is an excellent way to avoid the greatest mistake many of my American friends studying in England made: not meeting any English people.  Rowing was my window into undergraduate life, one which constantly reminded me that I was living amidst a distinct culture—not just America-with-funny-accents—and which illuminated the uniqueness and idiosyncracy of my own undergraduate experience.  Not everyone should row, but everyone should drink at least a pint of Pimms in their college boathouse before they graduate, and realize that English undergraduates—to generalize terribly—are a fun and immensely creative bunch.

3) Do not try to change Oxford, as it does not exist.  It’s easy to spot the tourists in Oxford: they’re the people wearing “Oxford University” gear.  True Oxonians only wear garb advertising their colleges, because the colleges are where instruction takes place, friendships are formed and—as I realized far too late—meaningful changes are enacted.

One of my greatest failures at Oxford was the attempted creation of an already-defunct Oxford University Vegetarian Society.  I abandoned this project with the lament that a 900-year-old institution is unlikely to change.  In retrospect, I was wrong: Oxford can change, but only insofar as this change has passed through all 39 colleges, from Christ Church to St. Benets.

4) Travel, but don’t go too far.  Yesterday, I went to Prague, and today I am in Dresden.  It’s cool.  I’m enjoying my current European gallivant, but am acutely aware that much of the continent remains unexplored.  How have I spent two years with easy access to cheap Ryan Air flights, and not visited Riga, or Budapest, or even Rome?

I do wish I had traveled more.  But more than anything, I wish I had seen more of the United Kingdom.  Those places I have visited on the Isles—Stoke-on-Trent, Sheffield, Manchester—are not particularly pretty, but seeing them has enriched and contextualized my experience at Oxford in a way that visits to sexier destinations on the other side of the channel would not have.

5) Buy the Big Issue.  Oxford is a bastion of privilege and home to Britain’s finest—at least, so long as you stay within 500 meters of the Bodelian Library.  Venture outside of the city center, though, and the city changes dramatically.  Out Cowley Road, there is about as much ethnic diversity as in Manhattan; south of the city center are the shelters and soup kitchens that maintain Oxford’s substantial homeless population.

“The Big Issue” is a mediocore magazine hawked by some of these unhoused individuals on practically every street corner of Oxford.  Buying it is more than a way to assuage liberal guilt and catch up on celebrity gossip.  It’s also a way to—in a small way—engage with this other version of Oxford.  The non-student, non-dons of Oxford have a lot to teach us too.