and the Homeless
By Carol Adams
On Fur Free Friday--the Friday after Thanksgiving--I
was returning from the anti-fur protest in front of Neiman Marcus to
the Stewpot, a homeless soup kitchen and day shelter in downtown Dallas.
I found myself musing about the gulfs that divide so much of our culture:
the wealth and riches that Neiman Marcus represents; the poverty and
disenfranchisement that the Stewpot represents. With my "fur is not
a fabric" t-shirt on, I stopped in at the Stewpot to see how their Thanksgiving
dinner was going.
My interest wasn't only humanitarian; I wanted
to see how my partner, Bruce, who runs the Stewpot, was doing. With
525 or so meals to serve and countless eager volunteers, it is a stressful
day for him. In our relationship, incongruities are rife. As a minister
with the homeless, he notes the number of turkeys they are given each
November; as an animal advocate, I think of the number of turkeys killed.
But if you asked either of us if one way to overcome the contradictions
of wealth and poverty and those of animal advocacy and homeless service
provision was to give away fur coats at the Stewpot we would have both
laughed at the ludicrous idea.
On New Year's Eve, however, the ludicrous became
tabloid fodder. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) gave
some 40 fur coats to a select group of homeless in Atlantic City. The
"fur soup kitchen" garnered media attention. While the media have moved
on, many animal advocates are still reeling from this faux humanitarian
act. Now even PETA traffics in animals. What's next: animal rights action
figurines in McDonald's Happy Meals?
In Your Face
If the PETA of the 1980s was brazen, "in your face,"
unabashed, the PETA of the 1990s is cynical, "whatever it takes because
people can't be trusted to think about these ethical issues." In the
1980s, we were heartened by PETA's insolence, temerity, and most importantly,
its activism. PETA's successes were our successes, and we were often
grateful for the way PETA inserted the issue of animal exploitation
into public consciousness. We followed its activities like proud relatives--and
we were related, because we shared the same commitments.
It was inevitable, therefore, that PETA's failures
in judgment felt like our failures. We took its campaign choices
Some of us stopped being PETA's cheerleaders when they sidled up to
pornographers (specifically Playboy and Penthouse), and complimented
them by imitating them in their "I'd Rather Go Naked than Wear Fur"
campaign. Others demurred in the face of their recent "I wouldn't be
caught dead in fur" campaign that used images of a woman in a morgue.
But PETA's "fur soup kitchen" distresses many more activists.
Some of the most intractable forms of animal
exploitation are those that use dead animals' bodies. By the time
of fur, meat, or leather consider that their products exist because
of the death of animals, the animals in question are already dead.
to do? Nothing can bring back those specific animals. This fact leads
to a convenient rationalization: "Since I can't do anything about
this specific animal's death, I might as well as enjoy it." On
New Year's Eve, PETA offered the same hackneyed excuse that every
in this country has heard from exploiters: "We can't bring the animals
back," said Debbie Chiswell of PETA to explain why the beavers, minks
and foxes should be used as clothing for the homeless. Neither can
shelters and battered women's shelters bring back the dead animals
who are offered to them by "Hunters for the Homeless"--but some are
wise enough to say no anyway.
The Indian text The Laws of Manu really captures
this dynamic: "He who permits the slaughter of an animal, she who
kills it, he who cuts it up, she who buys or sells meat, he who
she who serves it up, and he who eats it, are all slayers." (I have
tried to equalize the pronouns.) So too with fur: the slaughterer,
manufacturer, the retailer, the buyer, the group that donates fur to
the homeless, the wearer--are all implicated in the slaughter.
Not Just the Animals
The beavers, foxes and minks aren't the only victims
of PETA's endless search for media attention; so too are the homeless.
PETA explained that homeless people are the "only people left with a
real excuse for still wearing furs." My partner Bruce was shocked to
hear such patronizing statements. "The homeless, like everyone else,"
he said, "benefit from moral examples. Why do they think the homeless
are exempt from ethical standards? The government holds them accountable
for taxes and for maintaining the law. The homeless are not above the
law, nor beneath ethics. In fact, many of them are very ethical."
The homeless had become the new vehicles for
PETA's message, sandwich-board wearers to deglamorize an object because
they were wearing it. What are we activists supposed to do? Should I
pencil in an addendum to my t-shirt that fur is not a fabric "except
for the homeless?" Before someone is heckled for wearing fur, should
they be stopped and asked, "Are you homeless?" If, on the one hand,
the message is, "I wouldn't be caught dead in fur," and on the other,
"the homeless are the only ones who can wear fur," does that mean that
homelessness is worse than death?
PETA defended its giveaway by calling it a way
to challenge the fur industry's claim that "fur is back." "How can fur
be back," PETA retorted, "when countless individuals are giving us their
fur coats?" But many of the news stories covering the giveaway failed
to mention this argument. And what about those individuals who gave
PETA the fur coats in the first place? They may not be too happy with
the resurrection into clothing of what they had disowned as apparel,
and the use of the homeless to stigmatize fur.
Ironically, some people thought that the "fur
soup kitchen" demonstrated that animal advocates do care about people,
as if we had to accept the standards of the dominant culture to undo
the suspicion that we are misanthropes. This notion that animal advocates
are hostile to people has little to do with whether our energies are
protecting animals or helping humans--numerous groups do both in creative
and compassionate ways. More specifically, our activism discomforts
people; they do not like it when we make them aware of disconcerting
facts and prompt emotions they have difficulty integrating into an exploitative
lifestyle. Of course, they will be relieved if they find that wearing
a fur coat can at times be acceptable.
If fur is not apparel, it's true for every
one of us, regardless of whether we shop at Neiman Marcus or eat at
the Stewpot. Funny, PETA's view of the homeless is reminiscent of many
animal exploiters' view of animals--that they aren't ends in themselves,
but only means to our end, and they aren't in any way organized into
a culture of accountability or responsibility. With this giveaway, PETA
proves that tabloid frenzy is not an ethic.
Carol Adams is the author
of The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical
Theory and Neither Man nor Beast: Feminism and the Defense
of Animals (published by Continuum).