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September 1998
Actually Doing Something

Book Review by Martin Rowe


Ethics into Action: Henry Spira and the Animal Rights Movement by Peter Singer (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998). $22.95 hardcover. 192 pages

Regular readers of Satya will know that when it comes to the contemporary animal advocacy movement there are few thinkers more important than Peter Singer and few activists who have achieved more than Henry Spira. Now the author of Animal Liberation has written the biography of the man who, inspired by Singer's original essay on animal liberation in a 1973 issue of The New York Review of Books, set out to put Singer's ethics into action.

     Such an interaction between theoretician and practitioner could have turned into a nauseating love-fest. Luckily, however, Ethics into Action: Henry Spira and the Animal Rights Movement is saved from self-congratulation by the very reason these two men have achieved so much: Singer's clarity, wit, and thorough scholarship and Spira's doggedness and honesty. Independence has always been a Spira hallmark ever since, born in Belgium in 1927 to Jewish immigrant parents, he moved to Panama and then to the United States, and left home at the tender age of 17 to forge a life for himself.

     Singer's narrative consciously reveals some of the strands that have made Spira. First, Spira has been uncompromising in his support of the rights of the oppressed-whether they were his fellow seaman in the merchant marine, where he served for 11 years, or the cats whose sexuality was being "tested" in New York's Museum of Natural History. Secondly, Spira has never worried about causing trouble by thinking differently. He was discharged from the army after two years for "subversive and disloyal activities." Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Spira wrote for The Militant-covering the Montgomery bus boycott, the Freedom Summer of 1963, and attacking J. Edgar Hoover's FBI so much so that a file was opened on him and he was visited by agents (whom, characteristically, he summarily dismissed). At each stage of his account, Singer notes the skills Spira learned: to think outside of established norms and institutions; that careful research "can often turn up internal contradictions in what a large organization says and does"; and that dialogue can solve more problems than confrontation, but that you should be ready with a plan to up the ante should dialogue fail.

     Two-thirds of Ethics into Action is taken up with Spira's work for animals. It includes a detailed summary of the tactics that led to Spira spearheading the campaign to stop experiments on cats at the Museum of Natural History (1976), changing the position of Amnesty International which had endorsed a Danish research institute which was burning pigs with hot metal rods to study the effects of torture on humans (1977), stopping cosmetics giant Revlon blinding rabbits to test make-up (1980), and other campaigns. Singer fairly acknowledges that not all these campaigns have been wholly successful, but points out that several successful campaigns undertaken by others that have followed owe much to the groundbreaking work Spira did a decade or so earlier.

     Since the early 1990s, Spira has focussed on farm animal issues, recognizing that this is where 90 percent of animal suffering lies. In one notable success, his non-profit organization Animal Rights International stopped the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) from face-branding imported Mexican cattle in 1994 after an advertisement campaign led over a thousand readers to protest to the USDA in two days.

     None of this has been without cost, however. Spira's willingness to accept less than abolition and to recognize the (sometimes slight) concessions of animal abusers has increasingly left him isolated from more radical animal rights organizations. His refusal to name-call and his old-fashioned belief in dialogue and incremental progress often seem out of place in today's atmosphere of flash and finger-pointing. Given the substantial amount of money and people-power the animal advocacy movement could call upon should it get its act together, it is salutary to note, as Singer unsparingly does, that during the period when he was making inroads against animal exploitation, Spira worked as a teacher in a New York City public school, drew a paltry salary, organized and coordinated campaigns on his own from his very modest apartment, and looked after his mentally-ill mother when both his father and sister committed suicide.

     In 1995, Spira was diagnosed with stomach cancer and given months to live. Typically, he did not do what he was meant to do, and three years later he is still thinking about and carrying out campaigns. While some would question the imitability of his life-governed as it has been by an independence bordering on isolation, an intimidating self-reliance, and an awesome commitment to work over entertainment, justice over self-comfort-lesser mortals can still learn a vast amount from this entertaining and thoughtful book about what one person with few resources can do to bring about change. If we shudder at the sacrifices Spira has made, we should at least take him at his word: that he is content with how he has lived, aware that not only has he given life his best shot but he has had fun doing it.

Peter Singer on Henry Spira and Ethics into Action

Why did you feel it was important to write this book?
For two reasons. Firstly, Henry's methods of bringing about change have been amazingly effective. Without any big organization behind him, he has been able to change the behavior of huge corporations like Revlon, and of government departments like the United States Department of Agriculture. His methods are not limited to the animal movement; they could also be used by environmentalists, or others working for good causes. So I think it is really important that they be widely known. Secondly, I think Henry has found an answer to the problem of how we can make our lives meaningful. He hasn't got the usual material goods that people so commonly associate with a successful life, but he has led a life that is deeply fulfilling. I hope that his life will prove an inspiration to others who are searching for a way to find fulfillment in their lives.

What does Henry's life tell us about the challenges of any activism, especially activism for animals?
It shows that while it is difficult to bring about change, it is not impossible. You need to think hard about where to place your lever. Bringing about change is very different from letting off steam. If that is all you want to do, fine, just go ahead; and then you can be as morally pure as you like. For example, if you demand total abolition of all animal experimentation, and refuse to accept anything less, you almost certainly will not help a single animal. If on the other hand you want to really make a difference to animals, then you need to think first, and ask yourself: Just what can I do that will lead people to change the way animals are treated? Then it isn't a matter of all or nothing, but often, a matter of bringing about change bit by bit.

How do you see the future of activism in general, and animal activism in particular?
I think that we have to become smarter at putting pressure where it makes a difference. And I see us focusing more and more on the issues where there are the largest number of animals, and the greatest amount of suffering. That means farm animals, especially intensive confinement animal production.



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