Editorial: Politics and the unity myth
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, June 1996:
“United we stand; divided we fall,” Martin Luther King proclaimed in his “I had
a dream” speech to the participants in the 1964 civil rights march on Washington, D.C.
Activists have quoted King out of context ever since. Borrowing an early motto of
the 13 Colonies, King spoke of the power of voting blocks, and the influence they might
have to purge Congress of racists. He asked his audience to stand up as Americans, part of
the United States, and claim their right to vote. He most certainly did not tell the marchers
to stand united with those who either used or espoused violent tactics, which he forthrightly
opposed all his life; nor with the politically corrupt who looted the cause, even if they
espoused similar rhetoric; nor did King have any more use for black separatism than he had
for white separatism. Martin Luther King made plain where he stood, welcoming everyone
who chose to stand with him, but he didn’t welcome purported allies whose actions
tended to undermine, pollute, or dilute his message of multiracial Americanism.
King, who earned part of his early reputation by desegregating bowling alleys,
certainly knew the limited applicability of “United we stand, divided we fall” as a
metaphor. In bowling, pins near the ones struck go down too. One need only pick up a
newspaper to find examples of political figures and causes neutralized or discredited not by
their own deeds, but by those of their associates.
From promotional literature circulated in support of the upcoming World Animal
Awareness Week and March for the Animals, to the motto “Promoting unity in the humane
community” adopted by the organizers of the No Kills in ‘96 conference to be held in
September, we hear much emphasis on standing or marching together, a popular theme,
and not a lot of talk about why, or what we’re supposed to be together for.
If there were a genuine national political option available to animal people, a
major party or presidential candidate with a distinctly persuasive record favoring animals,
campaigning for ballot-box unity behind that party or candidate might make sense, much as
voting for the party and candidates who supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made sense
then for civil rights advocates. But there is no such option. Presidential challenger Robert
Dole may have a better record of supporting animal protection than incumbent Bill Clinton,
who has a better record of defending the Endangered Species Act. Both, however, have a
dismal record of pandering to hunters––Clinton to the extent of blasting a tame duck at a
1994 canned hunt to “prove” he isn’t either anti-hunting or anti-gun.
One might argue that keeping a Democrat in the White House is essential as a
check-and-balance on an anti-animal Republican Congress, but one could also argue that in
the present climate voters are better advised to support pro-animal Congressional candidates
of either party, building strength anywhere there is opportunity. It is noteworthy that every
federal law protecting animals has been adopted through bipartisan effort, and that the
political views of animal protection advocates, except on animal issues, are indistinct from
those of other Americans in the same age, gender, and income brackets. The tilt toward
the Democrats discovered by some surveys of animal advocates, in a cause including three
female active participants for every male, only mirrors the national “gender gap” of 10% to
15% in voter preference of parties, against which Dole is struggling.
This suggests that the “animal vote,” if there is such a thing, might most effectively
make itself felt by distinguishing itself from general voting trends, which might best
be done by making a visible difference in Congressional races where the outcome may be
decided by a few thousand votes either way.
Currently, Democrats including Clinton and vice president Albert Gore, an enthusiastic
hunter, are cocksure of the “animal vote,” if any, because they are certain that they
will get it, as part of the “liberal” vote, no matter what they do. This assuredness enables
them to favor the resumption of commercial whaling in principle, as Clinton and Gore have
done, and to accept hunting as a purpose of the National Wildlife Refuge system, as they
have also done, without fear of political consequence.
Right now, no political goal matters more for animals than undoing the idea that
animal people are automatic Democrats, to make politicians of either party fight for the proanimal
vote as avidly as they fight for the hook-and-bullet vote––perhaps more avidly,
because animal people are on average a decade younger, better educated, with higher
incomes. It is important to make candidates take a stand on animal issues, and to tell those
who don’t, or who take anti-animal positions, why they won’t get your support.
Especially in contests for seats with a two-year tenure, e.g. in the House of
Representatives and most state legislatures, it is also worthwhile to grit your teeth and vote
for a challenger with a negative position if it helps oust an incumbent whose position is also
negative, because the longer the incumbent remains in office, the more rank he or she
holds within legislative committees, and the more likely he or she is to be re-elected. You
can always let the challenger know, if he or she is elected, that you voted in his or her
favor only to oust so-and-so, and that you’ll support another challenger in the next election
if you are not more satisfied––fast.
The conventional political wisdom that animal people are unified as Democrats
hasn’t served animals well, and emphasis on “unity” isn’t any more useful in other regards
––not that it isn’t understandable. In our May cover article on primate behavior, including
the political behavior of humans, we mentioned psychological research that indicates
females are more concerned that everyone in a group gets along; males are more concerned
with keeping or advancing their own status. We also mentioned the tendency of males who
lack status to form alliances to seek status collectively that none could obtain as individuals.
In a female-dominated cause that until recently represented a minority view on most major
issues, whose male participants have been a minority both inside and outside the cause,
emphasis on unity evolved as an obvious survival strategm.
That doesn’t mean it really helped. On the contrary, group-think in taking a
blame-pet-owners-and-rub-their-noses-in-euthanasia approach to fighting pet overpopulation
demonstrably retarded progress: many people came to fear humane societies as death
camps for animals and abandoned animals to “give them a chance.” It took Richard
Avanzino, coming from completely outside humane work when he took charge of the San
Francisco SPCA twenty years ago, to reduce a whole city’s population control euthanasia
rate to zero by adopting a totally opposite approach.
Undue emphasis on unity has long inhibited re-examination of many other unwarranted
assumptions and ineffective tactics. And calls for unity, portrayed as the equivalent
of patriotism on behalf of animals, are still the last refuge of too many scoundrels––which
is certainly not to indict the many animal people who appeal for unity in good faith, including
most Marchers and the No Kills in ‘96 organizers, who are perhaps hurt by the
scoundrels more than anyone else but the animal victims. The animal cause is discredited
on the one hand by the few individuals who toss bombs in the name of animals without
meeting emphatic rejection by fellow activists, and weakened on the other by the equally
few who bleed away donated dollars in schemes for self-enrichment.
Even more damaging may be the tolerance of truly humane organizations for the
pro-animal claims of the World Wildlife Fund, the National Wildlife Federation,
Greenpeace, and others, even as the latter actively promote trophy hunting and the undoing
of whale and dolphin protection laws. Few major groups dare risk a public schism and the
chance of losing some donors by differentiating themselves clearly from all the others on
potentially controversial matters of policy.
Having closely monitored the fundraising and spending patterns of the major
national animal protection groups for nearly seven years, we are of the view that at least
half of all the money raised for animal advocacy is wasted, donated either to corrupt organizations
or to organizations whose activities in fact cancel one another out.
It’s time to cease thinking as a minority, on the defensive. According to recent
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service statistics, 94% of all Americans do not hunt, including 75%
of adult males. Recent polls commissioned by Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times
found that two-thirds of all adult Americans agree that “an animal’s right to live free of suffering
should be just as important as a person’s”; 62% believe using animals in biomedical
research is sometimes wrong, while 29% believe it is always wrong; 50% believe killing
animals for fur is wrong; 49% believe sport hunting is always wrong, and most of the rest
believe sport hunting is sometimes wrong.
It is time to convert that residual support into political clout, which is accomplished
not through pious talk of unity, but rather through forthrightly presenting alternatives,
seeing what works and what doesn’t, dropping whatever doesn’t, and avoiding
encumbrance with the baggage of people trying either to smuggle sociopathic obsessions
into the cause or to get away with a suitcase of unmarked bills.
Strong causes and leadership emerge stronger from intelligent internal debate and
self-policing. Martin Luther King knew that. He encouraged the process.