In an impressive use of Macromedia Flash, the web-animation program, Masskilling.com juxtaposes images of German Holocaust victims--the skeletal living and the brutally piled dead--with photographs of starving animals and pig corpses. Their point is that animals slaughtered for food are every bit the victims of our inhumanity as those who died in Hitler's death camps.
As might be expected, this distasteful exhibition, which PETA hopes to send on tour around the country, has stirred up a storm of protest. PETA attributes this reaction not to a feeling that the Holocaust's dead have been violated anew by PETA's ad, but rather to the public's failure to come to terms with its complicity in the victimization of animals. "If we are revolted by comparisons between the plight of animals and the plight of human victims of oppression," Masskilling.com intones, "it can only be because we are not yet prepared to accept our own role in the animal's fate."
In an attempt to render this obscenity respectable, the PETA exhibit prominently posts a quote from Isaac Bashevis Singer, "a Yiddish writer and vegetarian": "In relation to [animals] all people are Nazis," Singer wrote, "for [them] it is an eternal Treblinka."
A spinster with a cat, I've often been bemused at some of PETA's wacky antics--the billboards claiming "Jesus Was a Vegetarian," and the naked marches to protest wearing animal fur. Now, I'm appalled.
On reflection, perhaps I shouldn't be surprised. Shocked, yes; surprised, no. "Holocaust on Your Plate" is very much in line with the philosophy that fuels all of PETA's activities. Whatever they think of animals, PETA seems to find mankind distasteful. Theirs is an anti-humanity perspective. This is implicit in the "Holocaust" campaign and explicit in much of what PETA's founder, Ingrid Newkirk, has written over the years.
She refuses to recognize that human beings live in a different moral universe from animals. "Animal liberationists," Newkirk has insisted, "do not separate out the human animal, so there is no rational basis for saying that a human being has special rights. A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy, they're all mammals." The relationship between human beings and animals, Newkirk believes, is one of exploitation. Even pet lovers can be a problem. "Pet ownership is an absolutely abysmal situation," Newkirk has written; it leads to the "human manipulation" of animals. (In our household, I'm the one who's twisted around the paw of a manipulative feline. But never mind.)
The Holocaust campaign follows on the heels of Newkirk's obsequious letter to Yasser Arafat, president of the Palestinian Authority and the head of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. In her letter, Newkirk protested the use of a donkey as a suicide bomber--though protest is too strong a word. "If you have the opportunity," she groveled to Arafat, who is stained with blood that didn't come from four-legged animals, "will you please add to your burdens my request that you appeal to all those who listen to you to leave the animals out of the conflict?"
It should be noted that no human beings died in this incident. If they had, Newkirk says she would not have lodged any protest against their deaths. Replying to a reporter's question, she said, "It's not my business to inject myself into human wars."
Newkirk isn't alone in her views. Peter Singer, a respected ethicist at Princeton's University Center for Human Values, is another proponent of a post-humanist view that human life is no more valuable than animal life. At the risk of sounding a bit eccentric, this ideology is especially disturbing to me because it represents a return to a kind of pagan polytheism.
Mankind, in the biblical view of the world, was given "dominion" over the earth and its animals. Animals are to be used as clothing, food, beasts of burden, and for companionship. We develop important relationships with animals, but it is sentimental and foolish to not realize that they inhabit a different moral sphere from us. I adore my cat Ottoline, but, in a pinch, in a burning house, I'd have to rescue my sister instead. Ottoline trumps all my possessions, but my sister trumps Ottoline.
As an animal lover, I shudder at the thought of euthanasia for lost pets, but to confuse this with euthanasia for grandma is stupid and vicious. Cruelty to animals should be punished by the law, but our troops are quite right to be planning to take chickens into Iraq to serve as warnings if there is poison gas or anthrax in the air.
Learning to love animals is a civilized virtue, and, of course, it can make us sad that some of them are slaughtered for our use. We must treat animals well because to do otherwise not only harms them, it demeans our humanity. Equating those who died in the Holocuast to animals, however, demeans the humanity of those who perished in the gas chambers--and by doing so, PETA's members demean themselves.
PETA has mastered the art of garnering publicity and sophisticated when it comes to mobilizing celebrity members such as Alec Baldwin and his former wife Kim Basinger, so earnest and touchingly dim-witted that they seemed on an intellectual par with the parrots of the Amazon they set out to save.
In putting the Holocaust in the service of press attention, PETA has only pointed up the limits of their argument. It's also shown how shallow their understanding of humanity is. When we invoke the Holocaust, we do it to remember that life--in this case human life--is sacred. By putting food production and the Holocaust on equal footing, the folks at PETA mean to mock that sanctity. For that, they must be considered as two-legged rats--or maybe asses--and that is not intended as a compliment.