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March 2006
Model of Oppression
Book Review by Mark Hawthorne

 

The Holocaust & The Henmaid’s Tale: A Case for Comparing Atrocities by Karen Davis, Ph.D. (New York: Lantern Books, 2005). $30 paperback. 133 pages.

When I heard that Karen Davis was writing The Holocaust & The Henmaid’s Tale: A Case for Comparing Atrocities, I had to wonder: Do we really need more evidence, however persuasive, demonstrating how the genocide of Jews and other humans in World War II is similar to the institutionalized abuse of farmed animals? Will Davis shed fresh light on a subject already illuminated by other animal advocates such as Charles Patterson, whose groundbreaking 2002 book Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust is a comprehensive examination of the controversial and troubling connection between factory farming and Hilter’s Final Solution?

But in reading her take on the subject, it is clear that Davis can indeed contribute something meaningful on this matter and furthermore offers an intriguing perspective on issues ancillary to the main argument. Davis, the president and founder of United Poultry Concerns, explains that her book grew in part from PETA’s 2003 “Holocaust on Your Plate” campaign (which was, in turn, inspired by Eternal Treblinka). PETA toured the country with this exhibit, displaying graphic photos of chickens in crowded cages and stacks of dead pigs alongside disturbing images of concentration camp inmates in their tightly packed wooden bunks and the piled bodies of Holocaust victims. The juxtaposition of these comparable scenes was meant to stimulate contemplation, but it also raised the ire of groups like the Anti-Defamation League and even Jews for Animal Rights.

No doubt hoping to avoid much of the criticism PETA (and Patterson) faced, Davis is sensitive to readers who may regard the Holocaust as such a sacrosanct point in human history that any parallel with the slaughter of animals for food is, for them, profane. “For many people,” she writes, “the idea that it is as morally wrong to harm animals intentionally as it is to harm humans intentionally borders on heresy.” Notwithstanding this sensitivity, she invites the reader to consider how the forced labor of the concentration camp is akin to the internalized forced labor of chickens on factory farms. (The “henmaid” in her title is an inspired allusion to Margaret Atwood’s popular 1986 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, which describes a near-future dystopia in which a large segment of women have no control over their reproductive systems and are routinely inseminated, only to have their offspring taken away. Such an existence is no mere fiction for farmed animals, who have been deprived of their dignity and freedom.)

Although a slim book, it is dense in volume and not exactly what I was expecting from the author of More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality. With its references to existentialists Kierkegaard and Sartre, The Holocaust & The Henmaid’s Tale reads more like an academic text than your typical book on animal rights and seems intended more for scholars than those already well versed in the atrocities of animal agriculture. The writing, however, is lucid and compelling; indeed, chapter three stands out as one of the most poignant and thought-provoking descriptions I have ever read on the brief, tragic life of a battery hen. Davis takes pains to clearly contextualize our use of the very word “holocaust” and demonstrates that taking what the Nazis did to the Jews and comparing it with society’s enslavement and slaughter of nonhuman animals is meant to raise the status of animals rather than demean humans.

Still, the author is well aware that many people remain indignant about this issue, and consequently she has an extra hurdle to overcome. It’s difficult enough to convince the average meat-eater that animals have as much right to live in peace as humans do. Add to that a topic as emotionally provocative as the systematic murder of millions of Jews and you’re likely to incite anger. (To wit, a typical anti-animal rights site posts this sentiment on the topic: “I cannot wrap my mind around the fact that there exists a group of people who put the Holocaust on the same level as meat packing.”) Davis manages to diffuse the controversy, by focusing much of her attention on the link between language and attitudes. She discusses, for example, how Holocaust victims have described being “treated like animals,” but that for many people such a comparison does not work in reverse. She writes: “To be ‘treated like animals’ is an insult because the experience of animals is assumed to be vastly inferior to that of any human being, most of all one’s particular group… Presuming an immeasurable gulf between humans and animals allows one to appropriate animal abuse as a metaphor for one’s own mistreatment while simultaneously dismissing the metaphor, and hence the ‘animals,’ as ‘just an expression.’”

Not surprisingly, Davis has found much inspiration in Eternal Treblinka, which contends that the Nazis applied the efficiency of animal agriculture and science to their own fascist agenda. But she takes Patterson’s premise a step further. She asserts that the controversy that surrounds comparing the confinement and mass murder of “undesirables” with the abusive system of factory farming—comparing the suffering of human animals with that of nonhuman animals—emphasizes the very speciesism that allows animals to be exploited. More to the point, turning a blind eye to abuse gives us both “They were only chickens” and “They were only Jews.”

I believe we need The Holocaust & The Henmaid’s Tale, if for no other reason than to remind us that the oppression of animals serves as the model for all other forms of oppression and therefore must not be ignored. There is, after all, a correlation between the activity of scholars and activists and how much the consciousness of the general public is raised. As Peter Singer observes in his introduction to the 2006 edition of In Defense of Animals, in 1970, when the modern animal movement was just gaining currency, the number of writings on the ethical status of animals was tiny; yet today, he estimates, it must be in the thousands. Consider how far the movement has come in the last three and a half decades, and how much the writing of advocates has inspired us. Let’s hope Karen Davis’ new book will raise more awareness than it does anger.

Note: Holocaust & The Henmaid’s Tale has been initially published in a limited-print run, hence the $30 price for this small paperback.

Mark Hawthorne is a contributing writer for
Satya.


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