Free as a Bird

In the European Ceramics gallery of Oxford University’s Ashmolean Museum there is at present a “contemporary art installation” entitled A Nice Cup of Tea? The title is a pun of sorts, and the implied answer to the more serious sense of the question – has a cup of tea always been a nice, a fastidious, thing? – is ‘no’. In fact the aim of the show is to remind viewers who enjoy this refreshment ritual that “every sip connects us to the legacy of the British Empire, global trade and transatlantic slavery”, and in particular with “the brutal exploitation of enslaved people producing sugar in the West Indies. The art-work itself is in the suspended-bits style pioneered and made famous by the artist Cornelia Parker: a tea set has been broken into pieces (analysed, in fact; it’s a sort of visual pun) and hung on strings above a pile of crockery fragments and dust. cup of tea art.JPG

A notebook to one side is made available to visitors: “Please tell us what you think”, says the label. The pages were still blank when I was there: nothing to add, it seems. Or too much for the time and space, perhaps. After all, that dazzling gallery of eating and drinking equipment “connects us” to much more than the prizes and vices of Empire: it’s an index to human life and history. And if the Ashmolean’s curators have rightly spotted the shameful connections to slavery, they have yet to remark on the much more obvious and continuing reference to the non-human objects of our compulsive imperialism. It’s not just that most of this china was designed and used for eating animal parts and products from. Much of the charm, and sometimes beauty, of its designs derives from representations of animal life. (To only a slightly lesser extent, this is true of the whole Ashmolean Museum, and indeed of any art gallery.) The animal presence simply stares at you from all sides. And although the images are often made with affectionate attention, there’s no doubt who’s serving whom. Not only the real presence of animals in flesh and work provides for us, then; their mere forms minister, as ornaments, to our pleasure.

liberty figureFor instance: just to one side of the exploded tea-set installation, a showcase contains the figure of a man reaching up to release a bird (the piece was made in the eighteenth-century at the Bow factory in London). The man’s gesture has a sort of drunken licence about it: might it represent the traditional subversive fantasy of a world turned upside down – in this case, letting the animals go at last? No: the figure is indeed intended to represent liberty, but it’s the man’s liberty; the bird is only a symbol for the human experience. At the man’s feet is a ram, also there as a symbol (of virility), and a dog (of philandering?). The whole piece is in fact called ‘Liberty’, and was designed as a pair with its complement or opposite (not represented in the gallery) called ‘Matrimony’. The wretched bird, all too aptly stuck to the man’s up-reached hand, is just there to image the husband’s day-dream of sexual licence.

One can find this ‘free as a bird’ motif throughout art and literature (yes, and pop music), part of the larger habit of making non-human animals tell us our own story back again: a use for them, in fact. Often these images are very fine. The well-known poem by Siegfried Sassoon, ‘Everyone Sang’ (which is generally read as a response to the contemporary 1918 armistice, though Sassoon himself denied it was written as such), thoroughly deserves its place in national memory:

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on – on – and out of sight.

That word “must” at least shows that he allowed the birds their own mystery; he did not pretend to know them. But then of course the poem is not about them. The birds are there to illustrate a human feeling.

The release of poor Miss Flyte’s caged birds at the crisis of Charles Dickens’s novel Bleak House is likewise very moving, but that too is essentially symbolic – in her case, of liberation from the false hopes and ruinous toils of Chancery law.

In short, these thought-up birds all mean what we mean them to. Meanwhile real birds, birds as themselves, are “everywhere in chains” – in cages, at least – in order to please humans or (as instanced in some previous posts of this blog) to make some possible or merely notional contribution to our understanding of human physiology. It’s surely strange that, feeling this almost visceral communion with the flight of birds as humans commonly do, we should nevertheless deny flight to so many of them. A brief and informal study was recently made by Animals Australia of this phenomenon. Showing, in a series of impromptu interviews, that randomly selected people did have this sympathy, they juxtaposed it with the wretched statistic of 8.1 million caged ‘pet’ birds in that country. The short film ends with a definition of the phrase ‘cognitive dissonance’: “simultaneously holding two or more conflicting ideas, beliefs, values or emotional reactions”. It’s a human capacity or perversity which has made possible our present tragic relations not just with birds but with all the other animals.

So of course that famous opening statement of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Social Contract (1762) was about humans only: “Man is born free, but he is everywhere in chains.” And how many high-minded invocations of freedom have made it special to humans in just that way! Thus President Kennedy in his fine inauguration address, a locus classicus for the theme of liberty, was talking with all his ambitious expansiveness strictly about “the freedom of man”. And when the politician and diplomat Wendell Willkie wrote grandly, in his best-selling book One World (1943), that “Freedom is an indivisible word”, he meant, of course, within reason: indivisible as between us humans. And that’s the premise also, casual and undeliberate as it may be, of the Ashmolean Museum exhibition. Freedom – the valuation of it and the right to it – is really what divides humans from the rest of nature.

There’s a scene in Axel Munthe’s memoir The Story of San Michele (a book featured in this blog last month) where both these human habits – denying animals their freedom, and yet making them symbols of our own – are satisfyingly busted. During Easter week, it was the tradition in the village of Anacapri (and elsewhere, no doubt) to capture small birds in preparation for a special ritual on the Sunday: “For days, hundreds of small birds, a string tied round their wing, had been dragged about the streets by all the boys of the village.” At the Easter service, they were to be released as images of the resurrection. But not in practice given their freedom, because when let go “they fluttered about for a while helpless and bewildered, breaking their wings against the windows, before they fell down to die on the church floor.” So one Easter at daybreak Munthe puts a ladder up against the church and smashes the windows to let the birds fly out.

Like most direct actions, this was an imperfect victory: “only a very few of the doomed birds found their way to freedom” [309]. But for those birds at least it was real freedom, not a picture of it, or an idea about it. Just so when Mr Virtue, the parson in Flora Thomson’s memoir Still Glides the Stream, attends the village show: he knows that many wild birds are cruelly kept in cages by the villagers, but at least they are no longer proudly exhibited, as are the various rabbits, cats, and canaries, “because one year Mr Virtue, who judged the pet entries, had carried outside and released a skylark, and when its owner had complained had thrown the empty cage at him, swearing with many oaths unfitting for a Flower Show, that a man who was capable of robbing a little singing bird of its liberty should be sent to gaol for six months’ hard.”

Yes, an incomplete victory, but a real freedom, so that the visceral communion I mentioned earlier itself becomes real, an authentic sympathy rather than a romantic whim. When 1500 foxes were set free from a Scottish fur farm in 1976, one of the cage-breakers recalls as much: “It was like being liberated at the same time as the foxes.” [61] It’s a beautiful saying, and here we’re beginning to see that freedom is indeed morally indivisible, or as William Hazlitt said, love of liberty is love of others (love of the others, he might have said). And in fact that quotation about the foxes comes from a book which is a great testament to that indivisibility: Keith Mann’s 600-page history of the Animal Liberation Front titled From Dusk till Dawn (2007).

This most remarkable book chronicles the efforts of groups and individuals, from the 1970s to the early years of this century, to practise that love of others by actually liberating them, and implicating their own freedom in the endeavour. The book itself was begun in a prison, and as papers or discs it followed Keith Mann from prison to prison. So it’s not just a story of captivity and freedom, but a material product of this largely invisible but altogether real strain in modern society. It relates to the Ashmolean’s artistic meditation on slavery much as an escape bid relates to wringing your hands in the comfort of home (or for that matter, I’m afraid, writing prose like this about freedom). In one vivid and exemplary scene, “the prisoner Mann” (as the police report of the incident calls him) does indeed make his own escape bid, slipping from a police escort, jumping onto and over a twelve-foot gate, cycling off on a ‘borrowed’ bicycle, and then hiding up under a railway viaduct, all the while “chuckling intermittently to myself . . . I’d liberated myself and it felt great.” He stayed free for nearly a year, which he spent (of course) at an animal sanctuary.

That impertinent glee, the chuckling, is characteristic of this folk-heroic personality, pictured grinning undefeatably on the back of the book. For Mann belongs to a kind that has been embarrassing authority, mocking its dignity and disrespecting its institutions, ever since the first official uniform was put on, but also paying for it, often far over the odds. And From Dusk till Dawn, full as it is of subversive wit and dauntlessness, is necessarily a tragi-comedy. At every story of liberation that Mann tells (and as Benjamin Zephania rightly says in his foreword, “Mann is a natural storyteller, with a hell of a story to tell”), some or most of the animals have to be left behind. Even those that are freed can have no firm property in their freedom: getting them back into confinement is at least as much part of the official response as punishing their liberators is. Keith Mann recounts the effortful rounding-up in this way of some beagles briefly rescued from Oxford University’s notorious Park Farm (at that time “a complex of windowless buildings imprisoning various species of animals awaiting the vivisector’s carving knife”), and he wonders “What is this obsession with taking these animals back to these places?”   

One consequence of the direct actions which Mann recounts has been stricter law and increased security, so that his chronicles now have a period feel about them; such low-tech raids on the prison camps of speciesism are no longer feasible. Compare, for instance, the disorderly and half-supervised Park Farm with its “comparatively minimal” security, as Mann describes it, with Oxford University’s present-day animal storage and research facility, the Biomedical Sciences Building, likewise windowless, but also fenced, front-doorless, and protected by CCTV. But of course that ‘love of others’ never goes away, so that, as Keith Mann says with his characteristically selfless buoyancy, the story of ALF “will continue to be re-written and be added to by many others over the coming years until animal liberation is finally achieved.”

The hazardous actualities of From Dusk till Dawn, even the simple but wholly practical proto-ALF interventions of Axel Munthe and Parson Virtue, seem to belong to a different dimension from the fashionably aesthetic meditation on historical 68408684_1332946016860747_7385333270633775104_o.jpgslavery which the Ashmolean’s “contemporary art installation” provides, but in fact it’s all one unhappy and continuingly urgent subject. The placard pictured here on the right, which was being carried during August’s Official Animal Rights March in London (reported in this blog), succinctly states the case which the Ashmolean Museum might bear in mind if it wants its art to be not just modish but actually modern.

 

 

 

Notes and references:

The free exhibition A Nice Cup of Tea? is on show at the Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford, until 22 March 2020.

The Animals Australia video can be viewed here: https://www.animalsaustralia.org/issues/caged_birds.php

Research using birds is a particular topic in this blog on 21 May 2019 (‘What are Sixty Warblers Worth?’) and 24 October 2016 (‘How to Learn about Magpies’).

The post in this blog about Axel Munthe’s book The Story of San Michele can be read here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2019/10/04/franciscan-medicine/

Still Glides the Stream was first published in 1948, its contents looking back to the late nineteenth century. The quotation is from p.103 of the Oxford University Press edition, 1966.

The critic and essayist William Hazlitt contrasted love of liberty with love of power (which, he said, is “love of ourselves”) in the article ‘Illustrations of the Times Newspaper’ published in Political Essays (1819).

From Dusk till Dawn was published by Puppy Pincher Press in 2007. The book is available to buy online at http://www.fromdusktildawn.org.uk/shop/

This year’s Official Animal Rights March was reported in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2019/08/26/march-of-a-nation/

See also, on this subject of direct action, the post ‘In Prison, and You Visited Me’: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2016/01/15/in-prison-and-you-visited-me/

Franciscan Medicine

Today, October 4th, is the feast day of St Francis of Assisi, and also World Animal Day, an “international day of action for animal rights and welfare”. Something was said in this blog last year about the World Day, and about the mind and personality of St Francis whom it commemorates. This time I shall speak about a notable latter-day disciple of his, the physician and writer Axel Munthe, who wrote one of the twentieth century’s best-selling books, published in 1929 and in print ever since: The Story of San Michele.

The book is a sort of memoir, which begins and ends with Munthe’s project to build a house among the ruins of the Emperor Tiberius’s villa at San Michele on the island of San Michele.JPGCapri – a project conceived by Munthe as a young man, and gradually completed during and after his career as a doctor to the rich, whence his social and financial success, and also to the poor, whence the fame and honours he won.

St Francis too is there at the book’s start and at its end. While Munthe was still a medical student, working in the public hospitals of Paris, he learned, in what were then religious institutions, of the “wonderful features” of St Francis, “the friend of all humble and forlorn creatures of sky and earth, who was to become my lifelong friend as well.” [28] Not that Munthe himself was persuaded by Catholicism or by any other faith, and his agnosticism shows in the very unorthodox fantasy with which he closes the book. He imagines himself before St Peter in the Hall of Judgement, unlikely to come off well. In his desperation he calls for the intercession of St Francis: “I have loved him my whole life and he knows me, he understands me.” [351] And happily the saint is indeed fetched to Munthe’s aid, not by the attendant sub-gods but by a sympathetic skylark who knows of Munthe’s past services to his species (more of those services later). In the last scene of the book, then, “there he came, the pale Umbrian saint, slowly descending the winding hill path . . . Swift-winged birds fluttered and sang round his head, others fed from his outstretched hands . . .” And so on.

Yes, you’ll be finding this a bit soppy. No doubt there is something of Ronald Searle’s “sissy” schoolboy Fotherington Thomas – with his “Hello clouds, hello sky!” – about St Francis himself, at least as recorded in legends. (In fact, of course, he was a very strong personality as religious leader and as administrator of the order he founded.) And like St Francis, Axel Munthe speaks of “my brothers and sisters from forests and fields, from skies and seas” [9]. In The Story of San Michele and his other writings he often converses with animals, imputing replies to them, as indeed he does in the case of that skylark. Accordingly, the entry for Axel Munthe in the Dictionary of National Biography (Munthe was a British, as well as a Swedish, citizen) calls him “a sentimental lover of animals”.

Munthe knew himself liable to the disparagement. When he denounces the shooting of larks for food, a friend says to him “You are an idealist, my dear doctor.” Munthe replies, “No, they call it sentimentality and only sneer at it.” But then he says, “mark my words! The time will come . . . when they will understand that the animal world was placed by the Creator under our protection, and not at our mercy; that animals have as much right to live as we have.” [73] If ‘sentimentality’ means pleasurable indulgence in the gentler emotions, then Munthe’s anger about the larks is a plain refutation of the charge. For as he exclaims later when speaking of his retirement on Capri, “The birds! The birds! How much happier would not my life on the beautiful island have been had I not loved them as I do!” [309]

And it’s not just that decisive ethic, “as much right to live as we have” (an ethic which must indeed bring unhappiness to all who know it to be right but see it everywhere violated) that gives his relation with animals unsentimental substance. No, he fought for those birds on Capri. Even literally he did so: he was fined for knocking down the man whose land on the side of the mountain was used for trapping the birds when they briefly rested there, thousands of them, on their way across the Mediterranean in spring and autumn. Munthe’s feud with that man – the local butcher, appropriately enough – and his eventual success (he finally bought the mountain-side and made it into the bird sanctuary which it remains today) is one of many practical animal narratives in the book. He knew very well the difference between ‘love of animals’ as a sentiment and as a motive for conduct. When he says in his book of essays titled Vagaries “I know well that England is the country for lovers of animals”, he is speaking sarcastically, his topic at that moment being fox-hunting.

Besides, the phrase “right to live” was one which Munthe couldn’t have used carelessly. For he spoke as a doctor, and one who was even more familiar than most in his profession with what he calls “the battle between life and death”. [125] He writes a lot about ‘Death’ (his own is being imagined in that last scene). Parts of San Michele constitute a sort of meditation on death, felt and addressed as a distinct personality. First seen “at work” in a relatively modest way (“a mere child’s play”) in the Paris hospitals, death later assumes giant proportions in Munthe’s career:

I saw Him at Naples killing more than a thousand people a day before my very eyes [i.e. during the cholera epidemic of 1884, the subject of Munthe’s book Letters from a Mourning City]. I saw Him at Messina burying over one hundred thousand men, women and children under the falling houses in a single minute [the earthquake of 1908]. Later on I saw Him at Verdun, His arms red with blood to the elbows, slaughtering four hundred thousand men, and mowing down the flower of a whole army on the plains of Flanders and of the Somme [Munthe was serving in the ambulance corps, as described in his book Red Cross, Iron Cross]. [125]

To all these places Munthe had gone voluntarily, leaving his comfortable practice in order to attend the sick and dying. His experiences during the two Italian disasters are described in San Michele. But this man who felt so much sympathy and took so much risk for humans in extremis was with equal willingness and earnestness a doctor to animals. In Rome he kept “a sort of infirmary and convalescent home” [291] for them alongside his human practice, and some of the most vivid images in the book are of suffering animals. There is the gorilla dying in the Paris zoo, who “sat up in his bed and put his two hands to his temples in a gesture of despair” [47] (Munthe hated zoos and menageries: “The cruel wild beast”, he said, “is not behind the bars of the cage, he stands in front of it.” [60]) Or there is the time when Munthe is asked to attend a monkey scalded by boiling water; the request comes from a fellow-doctor who “begged me to wait in his salon, and appeared a minute later with a monkey in his arms, a huge baboon all wrapped up in bandages.” The bandages once removed, “it was a pitiful sight, his whole body was one terrible wound.” [243]

No, there is nothing sentimental here, only careful observation, sympathy, and devoted Axel_Munthe00service. And what Munthe says about his skill as a “dog-doctor” seems to have been true with all these animals: as patients, they needed love and understanding, “the same as with us, with the difference that it is easier to understand a dog than a man, and easier to love him.” [49]

It’s in the monkeys in particular that we see how Munthe had, in his own thinking, revised the conventional Darwinian scheme. He knew and felt its general implication, of course, that we were all, as he says in the book Vagaries, “fellow-citizens in Creation’s great society”. But the idea that humans were evolution’s newest and best did not appeal to him. The zoologist Thomas Huxley had spoken in his justly famous Romanes Lecture, ‘Evolution and Ethics’ (1893), of rising above the heritage of “ape and tiger” in man. For Munthe, however, humanity was more of a coarsening of what had come before than an ascent from it. Near the end of San Michele he combines Genesis and Darwin in a scarifying narrative of man’s emergence on the seventh day of Creation:

a huge monkey maddened by hunger set to work with his horny hands to forge himself weapons to slay the other animals . . . he grew up, a brutish Protanthropos slaying friends and foes, a fiend to all living things, a Satan among animals . . . His raucous cry of wrath and fear grew into articulate sounds and words . . . he evolved into man . . . The ferocious war began, the war which has never ceased. [349-50]

If – so Munthe suggests – the God who made this mistake ever wakens from his “haunted slumber” sufficiently to organize a second world-cleansing deluge, the next Ark will be for animals only.

No sentimentalist, then, though it’s true that his excitability as a writer leads him into maudlin moments, as it does into all sorts of other carryings-away: whimsies, exaggerations, obvious fictions, over-coloured dreams and visions. The author himself confesses it, but with one beguiling reservation: in the prefaces which he wrote from time to time for new editions of San Michele, he admits that some of the scenes in the book are mixtures of “real and unreal . . . fact and fancy”, but then he says, “in one respect at least I can say with a clear conscience that I have not deceived my readers – in my love for animals.”

Still, Munthe was a physician; his training had therefore implicated him in the use of animals for research, and to some extent it had even reconciled him to it. He had direct experience, as a student, of Louis Pasteur’s studies in rabies. Then in his own practice he had to deal with the worst medical scourges of that time, whose aetiologies were just then being uncovered in the laboratory: cholera, diphtheria, consumption. Rabies too he was called in to treat, and it’s while writing about rabies that he suddenly faces this subject, using the rhetorical question to which he habitually resorts in passionate moments: “When will the anti-vivisectionists realize that when they are asking for total prohibition of experiments on living animals they are asking for what is impossible to grant them?” Researchers like Pasteur, Behring (on diphtheria), and Koch (cholera), he says, “must be left to pursue their researches unhampered by restrictions and undisturbed by interference by outsiders.” [59]

True, it’s only to such directly disease-related studies that Munthe concedes this freedom, and such projects are “so few that they can be counted on one’s fingers”. For the rest he agrees to “severe restrictions . . . perhaps even total prohibition.”  Moreover, he acknowledges that differences between the physiologies of animals and men often undermine the “practical value” of vivisection. He even proposes that convicted criminals be offered remission of their sentences in exchange for service in laboratories – in the laboratory, for instance, of the then fashionable ‘rejuvenation’ specialist (or fantasist) Dr Voronoff, as “substitutes for his wretched monkeys”.

That’s a desperate alternative, which was no more practicable at that period than it is now, but it suggests something of Munthe’s restlessness of mind on this subject. And of course there did not exist in his time the many non-animal “substitutes” that have become available since.

It’s notable also that the terrifying rabies-related case to which Munthe has been called, and which prompts this single brief disquisition on animal research, is not in fact a case of rabies at all. After frightful scenes of panic, bloodshed, and attempted suicide, leaving in their wake a shot dog and a blinded and mentally unhinged patient, laboratory tests indicate that neither man nor dog had any infection. This story of false alarm, therefore, so far from illustrating the case for research (I don’t think that Munthe means it to), belongs with a much larger theme in Munthe’s career as a doctor: namely hypochondria, the resort to medical explanations and therapies for what are really moral and social ailments. We would now call it the ‘medicalization’ of unhappiness. At that time it was only for the rich, naturally enough. The poor, meanwhile (as Munthe clearly shows) were living in conditions which made even ordinary good health nearly impossible. Their poverty was what above all needed curing. Certainly disease is real enough, but much of human illness is of our own creating, and can be put right (if at all) without benefit of medicine.

The Story of San Michele is not an orderly narrative of Munthe’s life, still less is it a reasoned report on his profession. He shows the horrors of disease and suffering, the vanities of invalidism, good and bad doctoring, the comedy and tragedy of these, but offers no summing-up, except what is implied in the joy of escaping them, as he finally does escape them at San Michele. But of course there is a philosophy that takes form and persists through it all. Munthe brings with him into his San Michele way of life animals new and old (including that scalded monkey, now fit and hyper-active) and also his continuing sense of the necessity to love and defend them and all their kind. In short, the philosophy of St Francis: the one thing, as he says in the preface, that is unconditionally to be trusted in all he has written. As to vivisection, the dissonant element there, we may trust what he says or not. St Francis, his model in so much, could not guide him in that matter.

 

Notes and references:

Quotations from The Story of San Michele use the edition issued by John Murray in 2004, Murray having also published the first edition in 1929. Vagaries (later titled Memories and Vagaries) is a collection of short essays, many of them about animals, and was published by John Murray in 1898: quotations are from the chapters titled ‘Blackcock-Shooting‘ and ‘Zoology’.

The idea of using convicted offenders in medical trials may have some obvious logic and appeal but is also flawed and dangerous, even sinister. There is quite an informative piece about it on the web-site of Understanding Animal Research here: http://www.understandinganimalresearch.org.uk/news/communications-media/why-testing-on-prisoners-is-a-bad-idea/  But I don’t mean to promote that web-site, which is given some critical attention in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2018/06/08/on-the-trail-of-an-untruth/

Last year’s post about World Animal Day can be read here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2018/10/02/two-anniversaries-one-lesson/

The portrait in charcoal and pastel of Axel Munthe is by his contemporary, Feodora Gleichen.

March of a Nation

The starting place for this year’s Official Animal Rights March in London was the huge Achilles statue in Hyde Park – that triumphalist image of man the combatant, protecting his own interests with his left arm, while savaging the interests of others Achilles 2.JPGwith the his right. Against this obsolete rhetoric of Richard Westmacott’s 33 metric tons of cannon-bronze (the type of rhetoric which may yet inspire humanity to bring the whole house of life down into ruin), came together on 17 August a counter-eloquence of non-violence, asserting the right of other species not to be minced by the human sword.

And certainly the rally and the march were powerfully and variously eloquent: banners and placards (“The only thing we need from the animals is forgiveness”, go vegan sign.JPG“I’ve come from Lisbon looking for protein”, “You kill them and their flesh kills you”, “Suck your own tits!”); chants and other noise; and that symbolic mass movement through the streets towards Parliament Square – the organizers said 12,000 people, an over-estimate possibly, but certainly many thousands. Speeches too, of course, and these were sign-languaged: translated into a repertoire of gestures and looks not only beautifully expressive in themselves, but demonstrating that words, so often preened upon as our special human property, are not the sum of language but one variety of language only. In fact signing is a reminder of our heritage of animal communication, more generally of what ought to be our animal solidarity. And some of the signs are especially moving and beautiful: most notably on that Saturday the sign for ‘freedom’, the fists opening out forwards into spreading hands, as one might liberate a bird or preferably all birds.

Well, eloquence then. But as Prime Minister Lloyd George said exactly one hundred years ago at the time when he and others were trying to make an end of war at the Paris Peace Conference (Lloyd George was one of the pedestaled figures that overlooked the march when it reached its destination in Parliament Square), “the finest eloquence is that which gets things done.” So what does an event like this get done?

Of course it’s a massive mobile advertisement for veganism, touring the centre of a crowded metropolis: veganism the diet, but more importantly, as both the placards vegan options.JPGand the antiphonal chant (“Go vegan: for the animals”) insisted, veganism as a political movement. So, some persuasion gets done at least.

Also this time round there was a more definite project: a rehearsal for the ‘Animal Rebellion’ event in October, when animal rights will join the Extinction Rebellion movement (in which, of course, it’s a crucial element, whether acknowledged or not) in a large-scale disruptive demonstration. The assembly at the Achilles statue was therefore given advice on the philosophy, practice, and efficacy of peaceful direct action. (Gandhi, its great exponent and therefore the precise opposite of Westmacott’s Achilles, was another of the figures overlooking the crowd in Parliament Square.) The rehearsal itself was to consist in a blockade of traffic in and out of Trafalgar Square.

However, when the march arrived at the Square, all the traffic had already been closed off for the march, and there was nothing to blockade. In such ways a liberal society absorbs the blows of criticism and simply springs back into shape. And a march like this one does demonstrate, rather disconcertingly, how liberal British society is, so far as it goes. All those main roads through London closed off to let its critics pass clamorously through at their own pace! But then, as a glance round the world makes painfully obvious, this liberalism is not natural to human government; it has had to be laboured for and won here, in past centuries, by just such shows of dissent and demand as this one. In fact it illustrates their necessity and efficacy: they do get things done.

One of those political forerunners is just now enjoying bicentenary attention: the great gathering in St Peter’s Fields, Manchester, in 1819 to demand political reform, a gathering which was violently dispersed in the ‘Peterloo massacre’. (The name ‘Peterloo’ was an ironic allusion to Wellington’s victory at Waterloo four years earlier, an achievement which the Achilles statue commemorates.) Though a disaster at the time, this event was part of the run-up to the Great Reform Act of 1832. And that legislation began a sequence of electoral reform which reached its natural conclusion nearly 100 years later with the Equal Franchise Act of 1928, giving the vote to all women and men over the age of twenty one (over eighteens were enfranchised in 1969).

And there we came to a stop, leaving the great uncountable majority of UK residents completely unrepresented. In fact it seemed miserably apt, when the march was cenotaph.JPGclamouring its way past all the government offices in Whitehall, that those great rooms were empty and the windows blank, and, in Parliament Square itself, that large parts of the buildings were sightless behind scaffolding shrouds. At present, politics needn’t take notice of animal interests, and usually don’t.

Even so, it must be there, in Parliament Square, that a start is made, and animals begin their own far harder journey towards liberty through political representation: not, as at present, indirect representation by means of the good will of the humans who do have their own delegates there, but direct representation of some kind. As Robert Garner has argued recently in the journal Contemporary Political Theory, “a democratic polity should take account of animal interests, not because a substantial number of humans wish to see greater protection afforded to animals, but rather because animals themselves have a democratic right to have their interests represented in the political process.”

By way of illustrating that distinction, here is the government’s response last month to a parliamentary petition asking for theft of pet animals to be made a specific criminal offence. “We acknowledge the emotional trauma which the theft of a much-loved pet can cause”, it caringly states, but no reform is needed because existing guidance on sentencing already takes into account this “emotional distress that the theft of personal items such as a much-loved pet can have on victims.” There is no mention of the interests of the animal; it is simply assumed that the humans are speaking for themselves, animals happening to be the focus of their interests in this case.

In short, it’s “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. But Abraham Lincoln’s fine and famous phrase is no longer adequate, if it ever was. That chant “for the animals needs bringing into it. Lincoln spoke of a “new birth of freedom” in “this nation”. But the animals are as much a part of whatever nation they live in as the humans are, more so by seniority; they are at least as much affected by its government; and therefore they are equally entitled to their own voice – that is, a voice dedicated to their interests alone – in that government’s decisions.

How to manage that is, of course, a difficult question, but let’s at least insist on the principle now. As the quoted article by Robert Garner shows, it’s making some headway in academic political thinking: indeed there is a peer-reviewed online journal titled Politics and Animals. But by a more popular audience the idea is likely to be thought absurd or threatening. Going back to the Peterloo anniversary, one of the aims of the Memorial Campaign set up to mark this anniversary year is “to crowd-source ideas for radical improvements to how democracy is conducted”. For this purpose it has set up a web-site called ‘Six Acts to reboot democracy’. People are invited to sign up and vote for or against the proposals shown there, or to make their own proposals for democratic reform. When I first looked, there were 33 such proposals; none of them mentioned animals. I have therefore posted a proposal titled ‘Representation of Animals Act’. Please go there and vote for it, if you have time: when I last looked (it’s near the bottom of the page), it had received a total of one negative vote.

 

Notes and references:

The title-phrase comes from a speech of the Irish nationalist politician Charles Parnell, given in 1885: “No man has the right to fix the boundary of the march of a nation; no man has a right to say to his country – thus far shalt thou go and no further.”

The Official Animal Rights March (TOARM) facebook page is here: https://www.facebook.com/events/achilles-way-london-w1k-1ab-united-kingdom/the-official-animal-rights-march-2019-london/615721232212726/  There have been/will be related marches at about this time in many other cities round the world. TOARM was founded by the organisation called Surge in 2016. Last year’s London march was described in this blog on 3 September 2018.

Prime Minister Lloyd George’s speech at the Paris Peace Conference was reported in the Times of 20 January 2019.

The publicized intention of Animal Rebellion in October is to blockade the meat market at Smithfield in London. Please visit its web-site at http://www.animalrebellion.org/

Robert Garner’s essay ‘Animals and Democratic Theory: beyond an Anthropocentric Account’ was published in Contemporary Political Theory, vol.16.4, 2016, pp.459-77. It can be read online here: https://www.readcube.com/articles/10.1057%2Fs41296-016-0072-0?author_access_token=xNdtWwORBPuYWYx0bHmbalxOt48VBPO10Uv7D6sAgHtNg344y2R29w6T1gh33kZDmAvHpritVE1zaVYYkHK2S22mn9e-UqOTAw2XrOTRE95RWBW9DCw6tbESCaRw05SaTD67RwZg3G8UgFwzYJmjrg==

The animal-theft petition and answer can be found here: https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/244530?reveal_response=yes

Abraham Lincoln is quoted from his speech given at the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, Gettysburg, on 19 November 1863.

The Peterloo Memorial Campaign’s ‘Six Acts Project’ is online at https://www.sixacts.org/

WDAIL 2019

On Saturday 27 April, Oxford was the venue for the main gathering in the U.K. to mark World Day for Animals in Laboratories (strictly April 24th). And Oxford certainly is a suitable place in which to remember all those animals. Not only are more animal lives being worked through here than in any other British university; Oxford is, besides (as we find among the various boasts on its web-site), “ranked top in the world for medicine”. It may therefore be regarded as setting an example of big spending in animals to all the rest of the world.

The gathering point for the rally was a fine open field at Oxpens on the western side of the city, adjacent to the railway line and a cut of the River Thames. Oxpens was once a working-class suburb; long since demolished as such, it’s now a miscellaneous and unpretentious area of offices and recreations, including an ice rink. As the place-name suggests, there was until recently a market for the buying and selling of cattle where, WDAIL banneron Saturday, impassioned speeches were being made on behalf of their (and our) fellow-creatures. Then, the march set out from Oxpens to make the case for animals visible and audible through the main streets of Oxford, stopping outside the Biomedical Sciences Building to hear, among other speakers, Mel Broughton, hitherto silenced on this subject for ten years by imprisonment and probation. Those years have evidently done nothing to qualify his thinking or his fervour.

This event, the WDAIL, last came to Oxford in 2013, and it’s natural to wonder what changes there have been since then.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the University’s commitment to animal research. The number of ‘procedures’ recorded at Oxford in 2013 was 189,460; the number for 2018 was 219,551, an increase of about 15%. No doubt there was a general increase in scientific activity over the same period, and I don’t know whether animal research has been growing disproportionately or not. In fact the University is growing in all material directions more rapidly now than at any time in its history. Growing ethically also? The question may arouse laughter, either as comically naïve or as meaningless. It should be asked, all the same, and the animals will certainly be somewhere in the answer.

Still speaking of the University’s expansion: even here at unacademic Oxpens, far from the colleges, the shadow of their ambition has fallen. The whole area, either bought up by Nuffield College or forming part of its original endowment, is to be re-developed. Reading the prospectus for the grandiose scheme, we discover that this modestly useful district is “perhaps the most extraordinary undeveloped area of any historic city in the UK. And those who have noticed that the University’s architectural scruples deteriorate with distance from the collegiate centre of town can happily be reassured. Oxpens is to become “a new vibrant community” (now I remember, the WDAIL rally also was vibrant, but presumably not in the sense, if any, intended here). The design will show “innovation, imagination and vision”, and the result will be one which “adds value . . . to the built environment in our world-class city.”

I quote from this dreary tract of planner’s jargon, ending with that cock-a-doodle brag about Oxford, because it’s signed off by the Warden of Nuffield College, a distinguished academic. I’m sure he didn’t write it; probably he didn’t even like to read it. This sort of publicity is a discipline in itself which does not, we must assume, engage the professional ethics or interest of the academics who commission and pay for it. Its particular relevance here is that publicity like this constitutes one of the most notable changes in the animal-research scene since the WDAIL in 2013. The Concordat on Openness on Animal Research had just been initiated then, and seemed little more than a pompous and clumsy name. Since then a nationwide fog of words has been generated by this PR project, very much in the “world-class city” style, often making it impossible to know whether what one descries through it is real or illusory.

Certainly some increase in real public knowledge has come out of the Concordat. For instance, in 2013 Oxford University was willing to disclose only that there were about 16,000 animals in the new laboratory at any one time, but since there was no indication of the rate at which those animals were used up and replaced by others, that was a nearly meaningless number. The more revealing numbers had to be fished out bit by bit with Freedom of Information requests. Nowadays all the relevant numbers which the University is required by law to submit to the Home Office are also promptly posted on its web-site, together with a great deal of other material of a more or less enlightening kind. Other signatories to the Concordat (121 institutions altogether) are similarly informative.

Such increase in public knowledge must be a good thing. But of course the knowledge is still rationed by those who provide it; even if it’s dependable in itself (and this blog has shown that Oxford’s is not), nothing unpleasant or seriously discreditable is likely to be volunteered. The most notable effect of the new candour is really on the morale of those practising animal research. They may personally prefer to remain as discreet as ever, but their work is continually boosted for them, and a habit of boastfulness and complacency now characterizes the whole scene.

Already in 2015 this can be noticed in a post about that year’s WDAIL published on the web-site of Understanding Animal Research, and titled ‘World Day for Animals in Laboratories – 140 years of animal welfare improvements’. Here we are reminded that we’re “a nation of animal-lovers” (actually the original has “animal lovers” without the hyphen, but I know they didn’t mean that, even though it would have about the same amount of truth in it). Accordingly, we are urged to mark this anniversary (instituted as a focus for anti-vivisection protest) by celebrating “the major milestones which have ensured the UK has some of the best laboratory animal welfare conditions in the world”. These “milestones” are then listed, beginning with the Royal Commission of 1875 and ending with the 2015 ban on testing of household products. Complacently looking backwards, the writer treats all this as a completed history, something for us British, and the animal-research profession in particular, to take pride in. He helpfully forgets that the purpose of milestones (anyway a tellingly obsolete image) was to inform you, not how far you’d got, but how far you yet had to travel to reach your destination. As for the “World” reference, the writer seems to regard that not as a plea for all the animals suffering in laboratories, including the many millions enjoying none of the protections mentioned, but as introducing an element of international competition in which the U.K., satisfyingly, comes at least equal first. It’s a classic piece of PR management.

The listed “milestones” have, it’s quite true, been valuable improvements. However, most of them were the result of strenuous campaigning from outside the profession, against fierce and indignant resistance from within. Nor were the results ever quite what had been hoped and aimed for; they were always partial successes at best, milestones indeed on a still unfinished journey. What we really learn from this UAR retrospect, therefore, is that eloquent and active opposition to animal research is what causes progress, and that WDAIL, as this opposition’s symbolic or representative annual event, should therefore be as noisy, restless, uncompromising, and future-minded as possible.

And that’s indeed what the 2019 WDAIL in Oxford was, just as it had been in 2013. The speeches, having nothing to hide or disguise, were in plain vehement English. Nobody was there to advance a private or professional interest, or to secure their salary. Three of the speakers had, on the contrary, paid heavily for their part in this sort of campaign with time in prison. It was, in fact, just the sort of communal/political event which the much-missed Tony Benn used to speak about and prize (and attend). “Everything comes from underneath”, he used to say: meaning that it was the collective will and sense of justice of the people, the ‘commons’, that effect change, not the formal agencies, authorities and powers. They, indeed, are what suffer the change and therefore resist it, until resistance becomes futile, when they accept, institute, and take credit for it: we’ve seen it happen. So the familiarity of the scene at Oxpens – the unpolished and WDAIL cops and dog.JPGmiscellaneous crowd, the banners and placards, the shouts, chants and whistles, the dogs, all as they were in 2013 – should be reassuring. It means that progress continues.

 

Note and references:

Film of the WDAIL speeches can be seen here:  https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCb42LS3_n_U7hob9qMVnmDQ

The prospectus for Oxpens redevelopment is online here: https://www.bidwells.co.uk/assets/Uploads/oxpens-brochure.pdf

The UAR post about WDAIL 2015 is here: http://www.understandinganimalresearch.org.uk/news/animal-welfare-alternatives/world-day-for-animals-in-laboratories/

Please read this blog for more about Tony Benn and the “underneath” at https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2016/11/21/tony-benn/

Photographs are by Paul Freestone.

 

 

Two Anniversaries, One Lesson

Today is International Day of Non-Violence; Thursday 4th October is World Animal Day.

To take today’s anniversary first: it was established by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 2007, as a day which UN members and associated organisations are invited to celebrate in “an appropriate manner” with a view to encouraging “a culture of peace, tolerance, understanding and non-violence”. I can’t find in the publicity for this most worth-while venture any suggestion that refraining from violating the bodies and rights of animals, even just for the day, might constitute an “appropriate manner”. However, amongst the online support for the Day of Non-Violence there is a selection of quotations where, tailing along after Nelson Mandela, John Lennon, and other champions of peace, the inventor and businessman Thomas Edison is quoted as saying “Non-violence leads to the highest ethics, which is the goal of all evolution. Until we stop harming all living beings, we are still savages.”

This was certainly the model of non-violence promoted and practised by the man whose birthday in 1869 the UN day commemorates: that is, Mohandas Gandhi, commonly titled (but not pleasingly to him) ‘Mahatma’, meaning great or perfected soul. The word for non-violence which Gandhi himself commonly used was the Hindu ahimsa, and just as Edison spoke of “the goal”, so Gandhi saw ahimsa as something to be continually yearned towards, against the resistance of worldly impossibility:

Man cannot for a moment live without consciously or unconsciously committing outward himsa. The very fact of his living – eating, drinking and moving about – necessarily involves some himsa, destruction of life, be it ever so minute. A votary of ahimsa therefore remains true to his faith if the spring of all his actions is compassion, if he shuns to the best of his ability the destruction of the tiniest creature, tries to save it, and thus incessantly strives to be free from the deadly coil of himsa.

“incessantly strives”: this strenuous reaching for the just life is evident in Gandhi’s earliest adult days as a law student in London. A vow made to his mother not to eat meat or even eggs (that is, as a violation of Hindu teaching) was the origin of his vegetarianism, but he soon came to decide for this diet on its own ethical merits, and then, characteristically, to regard promoting it as “my mission”. Starting a vegetarian society in Bayswater was his first public action. But to pursue, in the London of the late nineteenth century, what in his case was a nearly vegan diet (he reluctantly continued to use milk) was an almost comically difficult project, especially for one living in lodgings and hotels, to whom every menu was written in a foreign language. Later on, much more demanding trials came to test his convictions. When members of his family, or he himself, fell ill, doctors would indignantly decry his dietary rule. When, for instance, his young son Manilal had typhoid, the doctor urged Gandhi to let him prescribe meat and eggs, saying “Your son’s life is in danger.” But Gandhi, “haunted” by this responsibility, nevertheless insisted that “Even for life itself we may not do certain things.” All this is DSC05074.JPGrecorded in his autobiography, where also he says “To my mind the life of a lamb is no less precious than that of a human being.”

The doctrine of ahimsa governed also, of course, his attitude to the use of animals in medical research. Although Gandhi led the campaign to free India of British rule, he admired many things about Western life and culture, including its “scientific spirit”. He titled his autobiography The Story of My Experiments with Truth, characterizing his life, in that title and in his introduction to the book, as a series of essays towards his moral and spiritual ideals, never completed or absolute. So he took his crucial image of growth and struggle from the “scientific spirit” of the West. But he also said

I abhor vivisection with my whole soul. I detest the unpardonable slaughter of innocent life in the name of science and humanity so-called, and all the scientific discoveries stained with innocent blood I count as of no consequence.

How indeed can a proponent of non-violence say otherwise, or is there, somewhere in the UN’s documentation for the day, a list of permissible exceptions?

But even ahimsa, still there as Gandhi’s preoccupation in the last lines of his autobiography (“the only means for the realization of truth is ahimsa), was itself part of a larger vision of a more literal life-sympathy. This vision is most poetically expressed in Gandhi’s praise of the cow and its sanctity in the Hindu faith:

The central fact of Hinduism is cow protection. Cow protection to me is one of the most wonderful phenomena in human evolution. It takes the human being beyond his species. The cow to me means the entire sub-human world. Man through the cow is enjoined to realize his identity with all that lives … Cow protection is the gift of Hinduism to the world.

I shall return to that vision in a moment. Meanwhile, that second anniversary: World Animal Day on 4th October. This observance, a more highly organized and practical occasion than the non-violence day, was initiated in 1925 by Heinrich Zimmermann, editor of the Berlin journal Mensch und Hund, and is now sponsored by the Naturewatch Foundation. The date which Zimmermann chose for it was, naturally enough, the feast day of the late twelfth-century saint Francis of Assisi.

Here was a Gandhi of his own time: similarly a devotee of poverty and humility, wearing the simplest peasant clothing; a forceful organizer, travelling and exhorting on behalf of his ideals (formalized in the Franciscan Order); strict with himself and others, but wholly kind-hearted; evidently a powerfully attractive personality; and of course a man persuaded of the kinship of all the created world.

The stories which record Francis’s feeling for non-human animals, as told for instance in the early biography by St Bonaventura, are no doubt many of them legends rather than sound recollections: his preaching to an attentive congregation of birds; the mutual affection of Francis and a “sister cicada”; the returning of a “fine, live fish”, presented as a gift to him, back into the lake, where the fish “played in the water nigh the man of  God, and, as though drawn by love of him, would in no wise leave the boat-side until it had received his blessing.” But even as embellishments rather than facts, these stories do certainly express the mind of Francis as known from his attested life and writing.

Perhaps more significantly the stories express a tradition of broad sympathy in Christian and pre-Christian minds, which disposed them gladly to imagine and believe in such free communications. In the introduction to his book of animal-friendly liturgies, Animal Rites, the theologian Andrew Linzey sees this tradition as having reached “its fullest flowering in the life of St Francis of Assisi”: fullest, because it was subsequently  pushed out by a type of spirituality “whose primary impulse is to gain knowledge through the exercise of analytical intelligence”. This newer line of theology did not just distrust the intuitive character of the old sense of kinship, but turned against nature itself as binding humanity to the flesh and the world. It’s a hopeful sign of recovery, then, that Cardinal Bergoglio took the name of Francis when he became Pope in 2013.

And, like Gandhi again, Saint Francis did not feel for animals merely a sentiment of friendliness and sympathy, as for other but alien lives. St Bonaventura says of Francis

When he bethought him of the first beginning of all things, he was filled with a yet more overflowing charity, and would call the dumb animals, howsoever small, by the names of brother and sister, forasmuch as he recognised in them the same origin as in himself.

You remember Gandhi’s phrase “identity with all that lives”. Accidents of place and period fall away, for it’s a truth perennially visible: to the eye of faith in these two men, to the eye of science in Charles Darwin, to the political eye in Richard Ryder’s term for its opposite, ‘speciesism’. At all times, in all mentalities, there’s a way to see it, because it’s really there.

There’s a scene near the end of Iris Murdoch’s fine philosophical novel The Nice and the Good (1968) which draws together the concerns of these two October anniversaries in a kind of parable. Willy Kost, a survivor of the concentration camp at Dachau, has hitherto been unable to speak of his terrible experience, complicated as it was by a fatal lapse of courage on his own part. Very near the end of the book, he at last does speak of it to Theo, a disgraced monk tormented by his own moral troubles. Theo encourages him to tell, but is reluctant to hear, perhaps can’t bear to. Instead, he thinks about an injured seagull recently brought to him by two sorrowing children. Theo had assured them that the bird could not survive, and must be freed from its slow death. He must drown the bird in the sea: “It was the kindest thing, the only thing.” The children run off, crying. Theo does not remove his shoes or roll up his trousers, as he might do for his own comfort, but walks as he is, holding “the soft grey parcel of life”, into the sea. When the bird is dead, he brings it out with him:

He mounted the shingle and walked with wet clinging trouser legs along to the far end of the beach where he knelt and dug with his hands as deep a hole as he could in the loose falling pebbles. He put the dead bird into the hole and covered it up carefully. Then he moved a little away and lay face downward on the stones.

Back in the present, as Willy’s voice continues to tell the story of Dachau, Theo, half listening, “pressed the thought of the seagull against his heart.”

I find myself unequal to explicating this moving episode, and shall leave it to mean what it will.

 

Notes and references:

The United Nations non-violence day is presented online here: http://www.un.org/en/events/nonviolenceday/.   The related quotations appear on a World Economic forum page here: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/09/non-violence-day-inspiring-quotes/.

An Autobiography, or The Story of My Experiments with Truth was originally published serially in Gandhi’s weekly journal Young India, during the 1920s. It was first published as a book in two volumes, 1927 and 1929. Quotations here are from the Penguin Books edition of 1982, translated from Gandhi’s original Gujarati by Mahadev Desai, pp. 318, 59, 230, 222. The statement on vivisection came in Young India 17 December 1925, p. 440, and the praise of the cow in Young India 6 October 1921, p. 36, both of them quoted in The Mind of Mahatma Gandhi, ed. Prabhu and Rao, Jitendra Desai 1967, pp. 426 and 388.

Quotations from the life of St Francis by St Bonaventura are from the text published by J.M.Dent, 1904, pp. 90, 88-9, and 85.

Animal Rites, by Andrew Linzey, was published by SCM Press, 1999. Quotations are from pp. 6 and 8.

Quotations from The Nice and the Good are from the Penguin Books 1969 edition, pp. 355.

The Noise of a Great Host

On Saturday 25 August, the Official Animal Rights March, organized by the group called Surge, made its way through central London. There were related marches in other cities, including New York and Los Angeles, but this particular one started at Millbank, by the Houses of Parliament, and finished in Hyde Park. It was a huge clamorous assemblage – the organizers say ten thousand people. That may be an overstatement, but at any rate the march took about twenty minutes to pass any particular point.

From such a procession, which frees attention from the usual demands of road and pavement traffic, the buildings and other places on the route can be properly observed for once and seen for what they really are. To take just the beginning and end: at first, the huge and over-detailed Houses of Parliament, seat of the earliest of all representative governments and still laboriously governing the nation without any representation at all for the vast majority of its residents, and lastly Hyde Park, notionally an irruption of nature in the middle of a great city, but in reality an exhausted tract of human playground.

And one characterizing thing about the human species as imaged in the scenes passed by the march is its addiction to war. The rallying point was the famous burghers.JPGRodin sculpture in Victoria Gardens, Millbank, titled The Burghers of Calais. These are the six dignitaries who, in legend and perhaps in fact, gave themselves up as a ransom for their city when it surrendered to the English army of Edward III in 1346. A fine image of heroic suffering, then: more generally, an incident in war – the Hundred Years’ War, in fact, which my dictionary of history describes as a “series of wars, punctuated by periods of peace or truce”.

And just such a description of human history as a whole was evidenced along the route which the march took through London. Leaving the burghers of Calais, it next went past the statue of Winston Churchill as war leader in Parliament Square; then on into Whitehall, with its fine Cenotaph built to honour the dead of the Great War; then past the new memorial to the women women's memorial.JPGwho served in World War Two, and the statue of Earl Haig, Commander of the British Army in France in 1915-18; then, the Crimean War Memorial in St James’s; then, just before Marble Arch, the memorial to Bomber Command; and finally, at the southern entrance to Hyde Park, the memorial to the Duke of Wellington’s victories in the Napoleonic Wars, with its colossal statue of Achilles, naked except for a sword and shield, a summary of man as mere belligerent. And as if to affirm this story of the perpetual merry-go-round of war, the statue was made from the enemy’s cannon.

Most of these memorials are impressive and even moving records of courage and self-sacrifice: seen, that is, from within the species and taking it as given. Seen from without, however, they’re simply a shameful record of delinquency, the evidences of a uniquely disorderly species.

Is there some connection between this war-making and the affluence which is the other most patent characteristic of these streets of central London, with their clubs, restaurants, pompous hotels, and luxury goods displayed in windows? It was a proposition put by the Quaker and zoophilist Thomas Woolman in his Plea for the Poor (1774): “May we look upon our treasures and the furniture of our houses and the garments in which we array ourselves and try whether the seeds of war have any nourishment in these our possessions or not.”

Doubtless there is such a connection, but much more directly and essentially this affluence is the plunder from a war which is only not recognised as such because it’s simply a way of life. This is the war which Rachel Carson spoke about in her book Silent Spring (1962): “man’s war against nature”. In her book she habitually uses that phraseology: “our war against the insects”, “war on blackbirds”, “all-out chemical war on the gypsy moth”. She writes that “the chemical war is never won, and all life is caught in its crossfire,” and she summarises it all as humanity’s “relentless war on life”. Rachel Carson did not mean these expressions for images, but for fact. She showed, indeed, that much of the post-war insecticide novelties of the 1940s and 50s were taking forward research pursued during “man’s war against his own kind” – as memorialized in Whitehall: “post-war” because, thank God, there are indeed “periods of peace or truce” between human wars. There is no truce, however, in the war against nature: a few sanctuaries, perhaps, but peace never.

Rachel Carson was writing about only one branch of that war, the destruction of the lives that compete for food with or otherwise annoy human beings. But all our exploitation of animals fits into that same war and the war mentality. Edward III may have spared the lives of the six burghers, but he appropriated their city and staffed it with Englishmen. Likewise, but more ruthlessly and ambitiously, we have appropriated the lands and lives of all the other species. Humanity is everywhere an army of occupation, and its exactions are there on show along St James’s and down Piccadilly: the leather goods, the cashmere shop, the charcuterie, the cheap burgers and, by way of contrast, the pricey Ritz Hotel menu: Veal Sweetbread (£28), Native Lobster (£52), Roast Bresse Duck (£38), etc. You’ll observe in that menu how a habitat becomes a ‘provenance’ to interest the consumer, a sort of gourmet’s trophy.

Very rightly, then, the marchers were chanting Their milk . . .  not ours! Their flesh . . .  not ours! Their skins . . .  not ours! Their lives . . . not ours!”  Simple and absolute: the wrong is so elementary that it can properly be changing the world.JPGsummarized in sayings and chants. “We are trying to change the world”: yes, and not in favour of some impossible utopia. On the contrary, the change would be to turn it, as the novelist T.H.White said, “right back into the real world, in which man is only one among innumerable other animals” – no longer their conqueror and scourge, an anomaly in life’s history, but their co-tenant. “With us, not for us”, one placard said. After all, it’s certain that we shall have to unlearn the habit of war or else finally destroy ourselves, and here’s the place to start: “Peace begins on the plate”, said another.

Of course if we do destroy ourselves, it might liberate the other animals in a more lastingly satisfactory way.

 

Notes and references:

The title is a quotation from the Bible, 2 Kings 7: 6.

The Hundred Years’ War is described as quoted in A New Dictionary of British History, ed. S.H.Steinberg, Edward Arnold, 1964.

John Woolman’s A Plea for the Poor, or a Remembrance and Caution to the Rich can be read here: http://www.richardporowski.com/documents/books-papers/john%20woolman%20-%20a%20plea%20for%20the%20poor.pdf  The quotation is from Chapter 10.

T.H.Whyte wrote about “the real world” in a letter of December 1940, quoted by Sylvia Townsend Warner in her introduction to The Book of Merlyn, Fontana, 1983, p.18 (slightly altered here to correct a mistaken preposition). The theme of Whyte’s story of Merlyn and King Arthur is how to cure humanity of the habit of war. The book is discussed in this blog on January 1st 2018: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2018/01/01/two-merlins-and-their-tasks/

Love Talk

A radio presenter, referring last week to Brian May’s book about Victorian photography, described him as a “badger-lover”. Naturally enough: it’s how his campaign against the culling of badgers in Britain is habitually summarized. Even a quite serious interview in the Guardian newspaper speaks of May’s “love of animals”. This is a convenient shorthand, no doubt. And besides, the question in both cases, radio and newspaper, was really ‘What’s he like?’ The badgers and other animals just help us to chew over that question, if we wish to. However, it’s noticeable in the interview that May himself does his best to refuse the personalization of the topic: “I just care about the animals”, he says, adding “This concerns us all.”

The word for such a person and such a point of view used to be ‘zoophilist’ or ‘zoophilite’. In fact the journal of the first British anti-vivisection organisation, the Victoria Street Society, was titled The Zoophilist (first published, 1881). Of course that’s just a more classical version of ‘animal-lover’, a phrase already in use at that time, but the classical form is exactly what knocks out the homely personal associations. It helped, too, that the word came into currency during the vivisection controversy of the 1870s (though it had been in occasional use for some years before that), giving it a purposeful and even political character. A zoophilist was someone whose interest in animals could not safely be supposed a matter of merely personal sentiment. Accordingly, one of the pioneers of animal rights, Henry Salt (1851-1939), spoke of “the zoophilist movement”.

Salt tried to save that movement from its association with the concept of the animal-lover, an association which its opponents deliberately used against it. For this purpose he wrote a short play titled ‘A Lover of Animals’. One of its characters says “if we are to fight vivisection, we must rid ourselves of this false ‘love of animals’, this pampering of pets and lap-dogs by people who care nothing for the real welfare of animals . . . and must aim at the redress of all needless suffering, human and animal alike – the stupid cruelties of social tyranny, of the criminal code, of fashion, of science, of flesh-eating.”

Unfortunately the word ‘zoophilist’ fell out of use (though Salt himself was still using it in the 1930s). It’s true that there are now various specific words and phrases for those who might formerly have been called zoophilists (‘animal activist’, ‘animal advocate’), but ‘animal-lover’ survives as the only general term, still carrying with it the associations to which Salt objected. Most damagingly, perhaps, it locates the relationship firmly in the person. It’s what the person is like, not the situation; it’s all subjective, in short.

And therefore, when Peter Singer came to renew the “zoophilist movement” in his book Animal Liberation, his first necessity was to dissociate it from the image of the ‘animal-lover’, just as Salt had tried to do. He starts the preface with a story of being invited to tea by two old-style animal-lovers who knew about the book he was writing and therefore supposed him one of themselves. They discovered, to their bewilderment, that Singer had no pets, “didn’t ‘love’ animals”, was not even “especially ‘interested’ in animals”. There’s some pathos in this situation, though I don’t think that Singer, a resolute young man at the time of the tea and the writing, was much affected by it. Anyway, the story dramatizes the idea which Singer wishes to establish as a premise of the book:

The assumption that in order to be interested in such matters one must be an ‘animal-lover’ is itself an indication of the absence of the slightest inkling that the moral standards that we apply among human beings might extend to other animals . . . The portrayal of those who protest against cruelty to animals as sentimental, emotional ‘animal-lovers’ has had the effect of excluding the entire issue of our treatment of non-humans from serious political and moral discussion. [pp. x-xi]

It was a radical and powerful statement in 1975, even though it was what Henry Salt had been saying eighty years before.

And the habit of siting the interests of animals in the mind and sentiment of the people who speak for or about them lives on, as we’ve seen. It’s what the people are like. And from there we move on to what the whole nation is like. Britain is a nation of animal-lovers”, says a Member of Parliament, leading a debate on the export of live animals for slaughter (26 February 2018). Members of Parliament habitually say it whenever questions of animal welfare arise there: “We’re a nation of animal-lovers . . . ,” their speeches begin. Perhaps the formula does have some value, because it usually implies that we ought to demonstrate our ‘love’ in the particular instance under review. But of course it goes with merely corrective improvements (e.g. slaughtering the animals in the UK instead), rather than radical change. After all, since we ‘love’ animals, we must already be doing the right thing by them in general; any problems are likely to be anomalies rather than symptoms of an essential wrong.

This national version of the formula has been as durable as the personal one. The valiant zoophilist Hugh Dowding (see this blog on 26 June 2016) did all he could to expose its falsehood during debates in the House of Lords. This is what Dowding said there in 1956:

We English people pride ourselves upon being a nation of animal lovers, and we tend to be righteously critical of the lower standards of other nations. In point of fact, as a nation we are not animal lovers: we are sentimentalists about our animals. It is true that we cherish our domestic pets and that we have qualms about the condition of old and worn-out horses; but where the interests of animals run counter to our sports, our amusements or our pockets, the animals receive scant consideration at our hands.

And he listed “examples of the general callousness of the nation towards animals’ suffering”, including “the vivisection laboratory”.

Unfortunately Dowding was no more successful in this case than Henry Salt or Peter Singer in theirs. The nonsensical saying seems to rise above all evidences against it, and of course it has a currency far beyond the Houses of Parliament. For instance, and puzzlingly, it’s a saying much liked by Cruelty Free International (CFI), an organisation which campaigns very effectively against the use of animals in research. Here too the formula seems to have some practical use as moral leverage: for instance, “As a nation of animal lovers, the UK should lead the way in ending dog experiments.” Perhaps it also has a consolatory purpose. The CFI style favours puns and sobriquets of a cute or warm-hearted kind: “our feline friends”, “sharing our homes with a pooch”, “five facts that will make you barking mad for animals”. Like “nation of animal-lovers”, these tropes are presumably intended to sweeten an unpleasant subject. They do so, if at all, at some expense of seriousness, but at least they’re harmless flourishes rather than untruths. The claim that Britain is a nation of animal-lovers, however, is both harmful and untrue.

And the badger cull itself has shown that it’s not becoming any less untrue. In fact even before that started, the naturalist Richard Mabey wrote about what he called “the New Vermin Panic”: “With a sense of disgust and outrage that seems borrowed from the Dark Ages, wildlife is increasingly being demonised for the slightest intrusion into human affairs.” Among the examples he gave was the “farcical commotion” recently caused by a fox that had strayed into a boutique in the Portobello Road. The manager reported that “people started shrieking and ran out into the street in their socks . . . We shut the shop because we couldn’t tell if it would make our customers sick.” This was in the capital city of a nation of animal-lovers.

The phrase is a foolish one, and should be disused everywhere. Probably ‘animal-lover’ itself should be discarded too, at any rate in all public discourse. The case for the animals has nothing to do with the love which some of us have for some of them – a love very often real and honourable, of course, but also fickle and partial, and in any case beside the point. What the animals need from their human fellow-creatures is not love-talk from their special friends, agreeable though that must be, but the sympathy and active respect of society as a whole. In short, ‘animal-lovers’ or not, “This concerns us all”.

 

Notes and references:

The interview with Brian May was in the Guardian of 4 May 2011.

Henry Salt used the term ‘zoophilist’ throughout his writing on animal rights, but the particular quotation comes from The Creed of Kinship (1935). His play ‘A Lover of Animals’ was not separately published, but appeared in The Vegetarian Review, February 1895. Both texts are quoted here from extracts published in The Savour of Salt: a Henry Salt Anthology, ed. George and Willene Hendrick, Centaur Press, 1989, pp. 199 and 56.

The preface to Peter Singer’s 1975 edition of Animal Liberation is quoted from the 1995 Pimlico edition, pp. x-xi.

The debate in the House of Lords on the use of wild animals in circus performances took place on 31 January 1956.

The quotations from Cruelty Free International appear on its web-site at https://www.crueltyfreeinternational.org/

Richard Mabey is quoted from A Brush with Nature, BBC Books, 2010, p. 217.