REVIEWS: Henry: One Man’s Way

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 1997:

Henry––One Man’s Way
Documentary by Peter Singer
Distributed by The Great Ape Project
(POB 19492, Portland, OR 97280-0492), 1997.
Two hours. $15.00.

Even if Henry Spira had never taken up the animal
cause, he would still have had a formidable career in activism,
as maritime labor organizer, leftist through the McCarthy era,
and muckraking reporter who exposed the peccadillos and perversities
of longtime FBI director J. Edgar Hoover at the height
of Hoover’s power, traveled to Cuba to cover the first developments
after Fidel Castro ousted the CIA-backed dictator
Francisco Batista, and followed the Freedom Riders through
rural Mississippi.


As a New York City schoolteacher after that, Spira
would have been an enduringly influential example of the individual
pursuit of truth and decency, helping the oppressed and
sharing the wisdom acquired by experience––including a
Jewish childhood partially spent in Nazi Germany, and a stint,
after being drafted, as a U.S. military propaganda officer.
Spira still enjoys the irony that even as one branch of government
was investigating him for being an alleged subversive,
another was recruiting him to tell fellow troops about the greatness
of America.
But that was all just Spira’s apprenticeship.
Becoming aware of institutional animal abuse through a night
course taught by Peter Singer, the Australian philosopher who
was then writing his influential book Animal Liberation,
Spira felt compelled to put his street smarts to work for, as he
puts it, “the most exploited and helpless class of victims in
our society.”
The issue then, in 1973, was not that animals didn’t
have self-appointed champions. The American SPCA, right
there in New York City, was already more than 100 years old,
and a galaxy of other humane societies and antivivisection
societies were approaching that milestone. A second galaxy
had formed through a post-World War II series of internal
splits over the conservatism of the older societies, which had
often accumulated wealth while compromising their founding
principles by endorsing sport hunting and laboratory use of animals,
and had become more focused on killing homeless dogs
and cats than in challenging the norms of society.
The younger organizations, calling themselves collectively
the “animal welfare movement,” won more federal
legislation between the 1959 passage of the Humane Slaughter
Act and the 1973 adoption of the Endangered Species Act than
has been passed in all the years before and since––but none of
the new laws actually stopped any common use of animals, no
matter how cruel.
What Spira wanted was not more feel-good legislation,
but rather meaningful institutional change. What he did
was develop a strategy demanding not that abuse should be
conducted within a framework of law, but that abuse should
stop, regardless of legality. In 1976 Spira won the first-ever
shutdown of experiments already underway, obliging the
American Museum of Natural History to discontinue studies of
sexuality in brain-damaged cats that had already gone on for a
quarter of a century. Stopping product testing on animals
proved tougher, because alternative testing methods had to be
developed to insure consumer safety. Thus, after nudging
Avon and Revlon to abandon animal testing, Spira persuaded
Procter & Gamble to fund research and development of alternatives,
in which pursuit P&G has spent $54 million to date,
halving animal use and virtually eliminating animal use apart
from legally required pharmaceutical testing, while tripling in
size and product line.
Since then, Spira has emphasized improving the
lives, easing the deaths, and reducing the consumption of socalled
farm animals. Halting the facebranding of cattle imported
from Mexico was among his achievements in that regard.
His current focus is persuading McDonald’s Inc. to honor a
pledge to make suppliers meet basic animal care standards.
Singer, now an accomplished film maker, documents
Spira’s life and achievements in Henry––One Man’s
Way. Even those who have known and worked with Spira for
many years will learn much about a personal history that he
rarely discusses, mainly because he tends to talk about the present
and future instead of the past.
But the most important words in the whole documentary,
widely separated, concern tactics.
In mid-documentary, Spira explains that when planning
his approach to animal activism he sought to avoid the traditional
error of the antivivisection movement, endlessly
shocking the already sensitized with new photographs of abuse,
to get them to send money, which would be used to obtain and
publish more such photos, to be mailed mostly to the same
pre-sensitized audience to raise more money. This cycle is
even more evident now than then. Asked why he indicted only
past practice on camera, Spira told ANIMAL PEOPLE, “I
was being polite. Maybe they’ll get the message anyway.”
Concluding the video, a New York Times ad censor
objects to the same why-don’t-you-eat-your-pet collage advertisement
showing a cute kitten entering a meat grinder that has
several times appeared in ANIMAL PEOPLE. Though T h e
New York Times routinely publishes photos of killed and tortured
humans, it rarely offers a graphic depiction of animal
suffering––and the one it did use within recent memory, of a
Russian shooting a wolf, provoked a storm of protest that such
an action should ever be depicted. Thus any visual reminder
that every meat-eater contributes to cruelty can still shock
Times readers and the ad department.
Working to beat the ad censors, Spira takes the hard
path of developing the audience instead of preaching to the
choir.

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