Until There Are No Beings Whom We Still Define as “Other”

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Until There Are No Beings Whom We Still Define as “Other”

From Cyrano's Journal

Norm Phelps and Steve Best exchange thoughts on their differences concerning direct action and alliance politics in the animal liberation movement


Editors’ Note:

We include the following email and thoughtful exchanges between noted authors Norm Phelps and Steven Best in the hope that the yin-yang flow and point-counterpoint arguments might interest our readers and stimulate wider debate on these issues. Rather than pretend that controversial differences – such as over direct action and alliance politics – do not divide this broad “animal advocacy movement” into separate and conflicted zones, or, worse, suppress any mention of controversial debates in a way that brings the menacing chill of the Green Scare into our conference rooms, meeting halls, and mailing lists, as if differences had to be steamrolled by dogma, conformity, and bureaucracy. This dialogue shows how topics such as direct action, violence, and social revolution can be openly and intelligently broached without acrimony and recrimination, without defaming or fear of being demonized; in the spirit of friendship rather than under a cloud of fear, stereotyping, and objectifying judgment. The exchange began in late January, when Phelps sent an appreciative but critical response to Best’s tough but nonetheless positive review of Phelps’s recent book, The Longest Struggle: Animal Advocacy from Pythagoras to PETA in the last issue of The Journal for Critical Animal Studies. Despite Phelps’ intent that his missive be for private rather than public reading, Best was sufficiently impressed by the warmth, humanity, and intelligence of his new interlocutor to want to respond, engage in a lengthy dialogue and debate, and ultimately to publish the exchanges, and Phelps graciously agreed. Despite a mutual recognition that some of their core beliefs were incommensurable, clearly their similarities outweigh their differences, such as bond them in their unwavering commitment to animal liberation. But whether in agreement or disagreement, their dialogue unfolded in a context of mutual support, respect, and stimulation. With the exception of Phelps’ initial letter, these exchanges were edited (at the expense of existential flattening) to maintain focus on philosophical, political, and tactical issues, rather than on personal matters such as health, travel, and cats (as interesting as the cat conversations were!).


1. January 30, 2008
Norm Phelps to Steve Best

Hi Steve,

This is not in any sense a “letter to the editor.” It is rather a private email that I am writing to you for two reasons: First, to express my appreciation for your review of The Longest Struggle in The Journal for Critical Animal Studies. Given our (probably irreconcilable) differences on certain issues, I thought you interpreted the narrative that I was trying to develop in regard to long-term historical themes with great sensitivity, insight, and fairness, and I appreciate that. I also appreciate your generosity in recommending the book on the basis of what you see as its strengths despite your serious concerns about what you see as its weaknesses. Thank you.

Secondly, I would like to briefly (well, maybe not all that briefly) discuss my reasoning regarding some of the points that you raise in your review, especially where I may not have expressed my views as clearly as I might have wished to.

If I interpret it rightly, the overall thrust of your critique is that I treat animal abuse and slaughter as an independent phenomenon rather than viewing it as being of one piece with human abuse and slaughter and pursuing a more holistic approach that attacks all forms of exploitation simultaneously in the context of an overarching social theory (anarchism, for example). This approach is deliberate based on what I believe are sound theoretical and practical reasons.

Animal exploitation and murder are no more the result of a particular belief system, political system, or economic system than are human exploitation and murder. To think that they are is to mistake the symptom for the disease. The disease is selfishness, greed, arrogance, and a lack of compassion. As Lord Acton told us, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Human history demonstrates that whenever a system (economic, political, religious, whatever) is installed that is designed to end, or at least ameliorate, human oppression, it is fairly quickly corrupted into a new mechanism for the same old oppression. Communism, is one example, institutional Christianity another. Political and economic democracy slow the process by distributing power widely enough to prevent its concentration while placing a significant share of it in the hands of those most vulnerable to oppression. As Winston Churchill reminded us, “Democracy is the worst system of governance ever devised except for all of the other systems that have been tried from time to time.” Radical social revolutions simply put a new class of oppressors in charge. I wish it were not so, but it is.

To put it bluntly, we enslave and murder animals because it is in our self-interest to do so and we have the power to get away with it, not because of capitalism, liberal democracy, the Judeo-Christian dominionist tradition, or any of the other reasons so commonly given. These are merely after-the-fact justifications. We enslave and murder animals because we can and we enjoy the results. Change the political or economic system, and that fundamental fact will still be operative, and the enslavement and murder of animals will continue unaffected except that it will now be justified by a different set of theories, one that is compatible with the new system. During the 20th century, animals, like people, suffered even more in the Communist East than they did in the capitalist West.

That being the case, changing the social or economic system without first changing the moral standing of animals in the public consciousness would make no difference in the lives of animals. Once the animals have caught up with humans in this regard, then changes in the social, political, or economic system could have beneficial effects for them—depending, of course, on the nature of those changes.

In terms of specific items, you suggest that I am “not even consistent in [my] critique of direct action.” (italics yours) I think that I am. The thread of consistency is this: I support the direct liberation of animals and actions whose function is to educate the public, whether legal or illegal, but I do not support arson, bombing, or other forms of economic sabotage.

For example, in the context of the ALF’s Operation Bite Back, I said, “Liberation raids are of inestimable benefit to the sentient beings who are liberated, and they are justified on that basis alone.” (268) The direct actions that you cite as examples of my inconsistency (because I approve of them) all were focused on either direct liberation or public education.

You say that the Gennarelli raid in the 1980s, “provoked a national outrage and closed the torture chambers down.” Yes and no. Yes, it did provoke a national outrage and was invaluable in raising public awareness of the horrors of vivisection. But no, it did not “close the torture chambers down.” NIH did indeed cut off Gennarelli’s funding in response to PETA’s sit-in at NIH headquarters, but animal labs at the University of Pennsylvania continued to function undisturbed, and Gennarelli went on to complete his gruesome experiments and develop his “Traumatic Injury Scale,” which is now routinely used in the assessment of traumatic head injuries. In other words, while the raid performed a vital public education function, which is why I describe it favorably, it had zero impact on the vivisection industry or the career of Dr. Gennarelli.

And that illustrates my point. Raids that are undertaken to destroy property lack the justification of immediate liberation of specific sentient beings. They depend on impeding research or creating economic disincentives to animal research (or fur farming, or whatever). But in fact, they do neither. Vivisection continues to expand, and fur is doing better than it has for nearly two decades (and its earlier decline was due to campaigns aimed at consumers rather than producers). Such raids have no track record for advancing the cause of animal liberation and a considerable track record for turning the public against it and giving an oppressive law-enforcement-animal-industrial complex an excuse to implement draconian measures against the entire movement.

As long as animal liberation is supported by only a tiny sliver of the population, property destruction has no potential to move us in the right direction. In fact, it performs the grave disservice of taking the focus off of the animals and shifting it onto the animal rights movement. It makes torturers and murderers look like victims and animal activists look like criminals and terrorists—while the suffering of the animals gets lost in the shuffle. This plays into the hands of the animal abusers, and leads to laws like the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act and the proposed “Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act,” which in December 2007 passed the House by a vote of 404 to 6, with no significant opposition in either party. It is now before the Senate where it appears poised to pass by an equally lopsided majority. These laws, and others that will surely follow, threaten the entire animal rights movement—not to mention free speech generally—and in would not have gotten a free ride in Congress had the ALF and SHAC not given surface plausibility in the public mind to the animal abusers’ claim that the animal rights movement constitutes domestic terrorism. The push for such laws began with Deputy Assistant Director of the FBI, John Lewis’ Senate testimony in 2004 (283) labeling the AR and environmental movements as “terrorist,” asking for new laws specifically targeting these movements, and supporting the need for these laws by citing the activities of the ALF, the ELF, and SHAC.

For both strategic and ethical reasons, I oppose arson, bombing, and threats of violence against humans, as well as harassment of people not directly involved in the animal abuse being campaigned against.

Thus, I support the liberation of animals — from Jesus’ liberation of the animals waiting to be sacrificed in the Temple through medieval saints, through early ALF liberation raids on laboratories and mink farms, through “open rescues” of the type practiced by Animal Liberation Victoria, Compassion Over Killing, and other groups. I myself was arrested and spent two days in jail for liberating 200 pigeons at a live pigeon shoot in Pikeville Pennsylvania (civil disobedience rather than a surreptitious raid), and I was arrested twice in Maryland for violating hunter harassment laws. You ask why I do not support “economic sabotage and arson . . . if they are both effective and needed tactics in the long and broad war against animal exploiters.” (italics yours) But that is precisely my point. I have seen no evidence that they are effective, and considerable evidence that they are counterproductive. Under present circumstances, I think their main function is to make their perpetrators feel like they are some kind of dashing, romantic cavaliers (I call this the Zorro complex, the daring masked raider galloping out of the night to right an injustice), and I think these raids actually sacrifice the animals to the fantasies of the activists.

In regard to arson, as I say in the book (270), there is the additional problem that the consequences of a fire or bomb cannot be reliably predicted, no matter how careful the perpetrators are to avoid injury to humans. So far the movement has been lucky, but if arsons continue, sooner or later a firefighter will be killed or severely injured, and that, in addition to being a moral wrong, will be a strategic catastrophe. Arson and economic sabotage are not “contemporary versions of Jesus’ acts.” Jesus’ act was the direct liberation of animals; it was civil disobedience rather than a surreptitious raid; and it carried only a negligible risk of unintended consequences.

Incidentally, I agree with you that I more assert than support my claims about Jesus. But that is because of space constraints. In a footnote, I refer readers to The Dominion of Love: Animal Rights According to the Bible, where I devote considerable space to supporting my position. If you are interested, I would be happy to send you a copy; just let me know a mailing address to which I can send it. Interestingly, as I also make clear in The Dominion of Love, the Later Prophets and Jesus tied justice for human beings to justice for animals and advocated for both in a single, integrated social justice agenda. Unlike ours, the ancient Jewish left was neither humanist nor speciesist.

“Compounding the schizophrenic effect, Phelps attacks SHAC and the ALF but is entirely uncritical of Paul Watson’s own sabotage tactics, whether these involve sinking fishing vessels in a harbor, ramming pirate whalers to thwart their intent to murder whales, or ripping open a hole in the side of a whaler’s ship to disable it from its despicable task. I am certainly not criticizing Watson’s work, which I greatly admire, but rather pointing to another inconsistency whereby Phelps praises one form of property destruction but condemns another.”

I see Watson’s seal campaigns as primarily liberations rather than economic sabotage; when you spray-paint a white coat seal, you directly save her life. His whale campaigns should also be understood as liberations rather than more generalized economic sabotage since their primary functions are to save the lives of individual animals whom are being hunted and rally world public opinion against the whalers. And because they take place at sea rather than on land amid the general population, because they affect only people directly and voluntarily involved in the killing of whales, because Watson’s targets are clearly in defiance of international treaties (even the Japanese, with their plainly spurious claim of “research”), and because the public regards whales as unjustly endangered, charismatic creatures, these actions do not elicit the public backlash that the ALF and SHAC have engendered. They actually enhance the public image of the movement, and therefore, neither my strategic nor my ethical objections to the ALF’s use of arson and to SHAC’s targeting of people not directly involved in animal abuse can be applied to Sea Shepherd.

“Animal and human liberation projects work together, or not at all. Phelps’s single-issue politics transforms the relative autonomy of animal issues into a radical autonomy that separates animal liberation from its larger social, political, and economic context. Phelps’ atomistic, single-issue, two-party, liberal vision thwarts any effort to forge alliance movements against issues such as war, rainforest destruction, poverty, and world hunger that affect humans and animals alike.”

The massive imbalance of power between humans and animals and the cloak of invisibility which we have cast over animals necessitates, at least for the time being, a single-issue focus for the animal rights movement. Up until recently, there has effectively been no vision for the animals, and until one is articulated and repeated until it becomes thoroughly integrated into the common discourse, there can be no common vision that does not seriously disadvantage animals. That is to say, any alliances formed at this very early stage of society’s consciousness-raising concerning animals will carry a grave risk of betraying animals, a risk that in most instances I would regard as unacceptably high. (Based on its track record, I would consider ecofeminism an exception to that general rule.) At the present historical moment, the philosophical battle that needs to be won is for widespread recognition of the moral equality of animals; until that is accomplished, grand alliances of the type you describe (which look to me more like “popular fronts,” with all their attendant risks for betrayal and failure, than my own smaller alliances within the animal protection movement) will advantage human beings and disadvantage animals. Such alliances function like yellow caution flags in an automobile race; they lock everyone into the relative positions that they held when the flag was raised. If animals are at the back of the pack (as they are), they will stay there, having traded away most of their ability to propel themselves forward independently. Our task now is to establish the principle of moral equality for animals; then will come the opportunity to consider forging grand alliances. Dee Brown and Vine Deloria saw no reason to include the hardships and dangers faced by white pioneers in their groundbreaking books intended to level the playing field between American Indians and they saw very good reasons not to.

Not that I would spurn help for animals from individuals or groups whose primary interest is an anthropocentric issue (women’s rights, economic justice, racial justice, whatever), but I would not make alliances with such groups or movements an integral part of AR strategy until the power and awareness imbalance has been rectified.

“Moreover, they tend to be ignorant of the history of social movements and the crucial role violence, force, and intimidation have played in bringing about progressive social and moral change. The corrective to wholesale consumption of Gandhi and King can be found in books such as Howard Zinn’s, A Peoples History of the United States (which throughout emphasizes the crucial role sabotage and violence play in struggles for democracy); Ward Churchill’s, The Pathology of Pacifism; and Peter Gelderloos’s How Nonviolence Protects the State.”

I find nothing in A People’s History (a book I much admire) to suggest that a group with as little popular support for its goals as animal rights can accomplish anything by sabotage and violence except its own destruction. Ward Churchill’s success at depriving himself of a very important bully pulpit from which to speak out against oppression is an excellent illustration of this point. Whatever his merits as a scholar may or may not be, as an activist and strategist, he is a buffoon living in a fantasy world. How else can you describe an academic who poses for publicity photos wearing Che Guevara style camouflage and beret and holding an automatic rifle? (A Che complex is just a left-wing version of a Zorro complex.) I am not directly familiar with Peter Gelderloos’ work, and so I will not comment on it.

Your point that I devote less space to larger social, political, and economic context than is needed for a full understanding of animal exploitation is largely correct. One reason is lack of space: In a history that attempts to describe the human-animal relationship—with emphasis on efforts to bring compassion and justice into that relationship—over more than 10,000 years of human history, it is necessary to be selective, especially in a one-volume work aimed at a general audience.

More substantively, I believe that only after the animals’ perspective on the human-animal relationship has been established and analyzed—a project which is still in its infancy—will it be possible to fit that relationship into its proper place in terms of social, political, and economic theory. Otherwise, we will end up trying to force-fit the animals’ situation into already existing ideologies like socialism, anarchism, or whatever, that were designed for human-on-human relationships and have yet to demonstrate that they are adequate to address animal issues. Relatedly, I think that before a comprehensive explanatory history that integrates human and nonhuman oppression into a single exegesis can be written, it will be necessary to do much more of the preliminary work of writing explanatory histories (and sociologies) that focus on animals.

“While demonstrating that key advances in the modern animal advocacy movement came from England, Phelps never explains why this occurred and what socio-economic and cultural conditions might have prompted England’s leading role.”

I don’t think that anyone knows the answer to questions like “Why did the revolution in our perception of animals begin in England?” I have seen a lot of theories, mostly having to do with the assumption that it evolved in one way or another from the industrial revolution and the sudden expansion of companion animal guardianship, but none of them are persuasive. The difficulty with identifying causal relationships in major historical trends is, of course, that most hypotheses a) cannot be tested, and b) have no predictive function that can serve to keep them tied to reality, a fact demonstrated by Communism (“scientific socialism”) in the twentieth century. Therefore, they tend to be expressions of ideology masquerading as historical analysis. Historical trends have a uniqueness that typically frustrates causal analysis. The England question may well remain forever unanswered and unanswerable, although I did, somewhat tentatively, put forward one possible explanation (90-91; 94-96)

“It is an odd and significant lapse, moreover, that he doesn’t engage the environmental and social justice aspects of vegetarianism as they become increasingly apparent in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and were explicitly developed as least by 1971, with the publication of Francis Moore Lappe’s Diet for a Small Planet.”

For reasons of length, focus, and redressing the imbalance between animal issues and human issues (including environmentalism and social justice), I deliberately dealt only with animal advocacy for the sake of (nonhuman) animals, as I said in regard to the human health wing of the vegetarian movement. (150). I think that this is an essential step and that trying to tie animal issues too closely to human issues is premature in a way that disadvantages animals. I do not reject human health, environmental, social justice, and world (human) hunger arguments. I just think at the present juncture we need to focus on the animals and their unjust suffering and death if we are ever to build a viable, effective animal rights movement.

“In another curious move, Phelps treats PETA with kid gloves despite their endless follies and demented policy of “euthanizing” thousands of cats and dogs, many perfectly adoptable.”

I do not find PETA’s “endless follies” (I assume you mean things like pies in the face and the “naked” campaign) foolish at all, given PETA’s unrivaled status for nearly thirty years as the group that has had the most success in bringing the animal rights and vegan/vegetarian messages to the mainstream public. PETA has done more to advance the animal rights cause than any group in the history of the world. More seriously, you give readers the false impression that I support PETA’s “euthanasia,” policy. In fact, I was critical of this policy in the book, saying in regard to PETA’s defense of it, “I do not find this argument persuasive,” (115) and going on to explain why I oppose the killing of healthy animals. I was even more explicit in my critique of PETA’s euthanasia program (and the failure of PETA, HSUS, and the ASPCA to support the no-kill movement) in the Abolitionist-Online interview that you cite elsewhere.

“Phelps carps against militant direction today in the same way that in the 1960s the NAACP chastised Martin Luther King Jr. as an “extremist” and urged he abandon his civil disobedience tactics and patiently “wait” for change.”

I have nowhere criticized civil disobedience. In fact, I support it. Nor do I anywhere argue that we should “patiently ‘wait’ for change.” But I do think we must be patient while we work for change. I certainly understand why you are impatient. I’m impatient, too. The horror of animal exploitation and mass murder cries out for impatience. But sadly, given the ubiquitous and entrenched nature of the problem, haste can all too easily make waste. In developing both ideologies and strategies, we need to move with forethought and discipline, one step at a time. At this point, the “patient” wing of the animal rights movement is making faster progress for animals than the “impatient” wing.

A new generation of historians is demonstrating that the civil rights movement was not born fully formed from the head of Zeus with Brown v. Topeka and the Montgomery bus boycott, as we had always been told, but had been developing slowly, feeling its way, almost from the end of Reconstruction. Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King were the culmination, not the beginning, of what some historians now call “the long civil rights movement.” The animal rights movement is as yet nowhere nearly as far advanced as the civil rights movement was when King wrote his Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

Most importantly, there is a critical difference between internal discipline (which is what I am arguing for here) and counsel to “go slow” by people who want to retard progress or are afraid of change. We have to remember that while Dr. King was rejecting calls from his right to slow down, he was also rejecting calls from his left to go faster by adopting reckless means that threatened to undermine his strategy and his progress, i.e. from Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, Huey Newton, and others. I support the kind of civil disobedience practiced by King; I do not support the kind of counterproductive violence and economic sabotage that he condemned.

“Without argument or cause, and sounding more like the reactionary corporate front group, the Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF) than a champion of animal rights, Phelps smears the ALF and SHAC as “reprehensible” (274) groups engaged in nothing but “mischief-making” (276).”

I did not call the ALF and SHAC “reprehensible” (although I did say, and do believe, that many of their activities constitute “mischief making” and worse for the AR movement). I said that “SHAC’s tactics are reprehensible” (because they target people who are not directly involved in the animal exploitation that is being protested, including spouses, children, and neighbors of employees of companies that do business with the exploiters and sometimes go beyond simple harassment into the realm of violence). I deliberately did not apply the term to the people in SHAC or apply the term in any way to either the ALF or its tactics. I think that many of the ALF’s and ELF’s tactics (primarily arson and bombing) are morally and strategically wrong, but I did not call them “reprehensible.”

“Like HSUS and much of the mainstream animal movement, Phelps uncritically accepts FBI, state, and corporate definitions of violence and terrorism which are then replicated in the critique of direct action, thereby condemning some of the most effective actions taken in the movement as “criminal” and “counter-productive.”

I was highly critical of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, the prosecution of the SHAC 7, and the general oppressiveness of the government offensive against the animal rights movement. (274; 275-277; 280-283) I cited the FBI’s statement about the Chiron raid and Kevin Jonas’ denial, and pointed out that the government has never charged anyone except the mysterious Andreas San Diego. (273) I was also critical of the prosecution of Rod Coronado (268-269). One of my major objections to some of the tactics of ALF and SHAC is that they facilitate an unjust and oppressive crackdown on the animal rights movement while accomplishing nothing for the animals.

I have two questions in regard to your concerns about my definition of violence: First, if agents of HLS set fire to your office or staged a raucous, noisy demonstration outside of your home and threw bricks through your windows, would you consider those acts “violence?” I know I would if they happened to me. Violence is properly understood to refer to means, not ends, and we cannot have one definition of violence for those with whom we agree and another for those with whom we disagree. It is important to maintain consistency and clarity of language. (We can, of course, discuss whether there is such a thing as justified violence; that is a legitimate, but separate, discussion.) Second, can you show me any evidence that the tactics I condemn have had any effect in reducing animal exploitation or increasing public opposition to it? If not, what is your basis for calling these raids “some of the most effective actions taken in the movement?” My research suggests to me that they are largely ineffective and severely counterproductive.

I have gone on for a lot longer than I intended, and I apologize for that and thank you for your patience. Our differences are large and apparent, and will no doubt remain so, but there is also, I think, a great deal on which we agree, most importantly the need to end all animal exploitation and establish a vegan society. It is always a pleasure to read an intelligent review from a thoughtful and dedicated defender of animals, even when I do not agree with much of it.

Warmest regards and best wishes,



2. January 31, 2008
Steve Best Reply to Norm Phelps

Hi Norm, I was perched on the edge of my seat as I opened this expecting something less than favorable, but this is the longest and most thoughtful letter I have received in some time, certainly from an author I criticized, and I was gradually pulled more and more into your considered response and gracious spirit.

The consciousness point you make I agree with very much, but I would always dialectically link it to social conditions and insist on the need for radical subjective and objective change; I agree the latter is impossible without the former, but equally insist on the reciprocal need. You might be surprised to learn that my current book is entitled Animal Liberation and Moral Progress: The Struggle for Human Evolution, and places great emphasis on the need for new values, sensibilities, needs, relations, worldviews, cosmologies, narratives, and so on — but new social institutions and settings too. I’d be happy to share any of that with you should you be interested, and I am sure I could profit from your critical remarks. Actually, you should know that I cite your book often in my own work, approvingly, and find still great value in it as I have in your past books I have read. You might like to read a recent essay I wrote which emphasizes this subjective/objective dialectic: “The Killing Fields of South Africa: Eco Wars, Species Apartheid, and Total Liberation.”

We do have major differences that I am happy to argue over and learn from you, as I am non-dogmatic and open to changing, refining, and improving my arguments from criticism. But you are right we also have profound similarities, and differ on tactics, not goals, and note I am a contextualist and pluralist in tactics, so that I see different tactics working in different situations, and if and when liberation and/or sabotage helps, they should be used. Seriously, I wait to be convinced that true change can ever come only from veganism, education — and legislation, of effectively legislating animal liberation through a corporate-dominated state in a society grounded in animal slavery. We need other tactics, they need to be employed intelligently, and, I also emphasize, we need a social movement, the social/ecological/animal problems we face are all interconnected, and only a social movement of great force and unity can bring “total liberation.” You are right; I say it a million times, about the need for animal liberation not to be coopted by humanist concerns. This movement is not taking a back seat to anyone.

Thanks again, Norm, an honor to hear from you.


3. January 31, 2008
Norm Phelps to Steve Best

Hi Steve,

Thank you for your prompt, thoughtful, and very fair-minded response to my email. I was delighted to hear from you.

I, too, am happy to argue over our differences and learn from you. I also try to be non-dogmatic, and I am strong believer in the importance of context to tactics and in pluralistic approaches.

There is, perhaps, no more difficult challenge than effecting change in a society that is founded on and sustained by slavery, be it human or nonhuman. But when you are working against the deeply held consensus of society, perhaps the two greatest temptations are to push too hard too soon and thereby self-destruct, and to mistake your fellow advocates for the enemy, so that the various wings of the movement destroy each other. The ALF and similar groups are most subject to the first temptation, and the more conservative, “main stream” groups are most subject to the second. Either way, we end up doing the oppressors’ work for them.

I look forward to reading “The Killing Fields” over the weekend, when I will have time to devote the serious attention it deserves. I am a fan of your work, and would be very interested in Animal Liberation and Moral Progress, as I have no doubt it will be a seminal contribution to social-justice thought and moral philosophy.

Warmest regards,


4. February 1
Steve Best to Norm Phelps

Hi Norm!

Great to hear from you again. Thank you so much for your kindness, support, open-mind, and wisdom. If you keep this up, I may regain some faith in Homo sapiens! (One of my favorite quotes, by E.O. Wilson, in response to the Marxist utopia of the end of class/hierarchical society: “Good theory. Wrong species.” Let us hope he is wrong! But I have my doubts….)

Photo by Michele Pickover

I look forward to your comments on my South Africa essay. Actually, I am returning there in a month to begin work with a kick-ass activist there on the front lines of species extinction and the war against elephants. She is Michele Pickover, who wrote a great book, Animal Rights in South Africa, and works with a fantastic group, Animal Rights Africa (http://www.animalrightsafrica.org/; good resource site, there is a link there too with her recent interview with Animal Voices). As you probably know, there is a strong and nearly imminent move to begin culling again, with all the supporting “scientific” (ecological) evidence for it about as sound as that for going to war with Iraq. I write about all that in my essay. We are putting together an anthology on the issue in all its complex facets, and are working to draw in some big names and hopefully have some influence with it.

By the way, what did you think of Josh Harper’s critique of your book? He had a similar response as I did, that it is a great work, but marred by – how shall we say it – an arguably less than objective and accurate critique of SHAC and direct action? If you were to revise the book, would you change anything in response to any remarks my Josh and myself about this part of your book? Aren’t all aspects of the movement making contributions, but also have limitations and serve as problems and impediments in some way?

Thanks again, Norm, hope to hear from you soon,




5. February 7
From Norm Phelps to Steve Best

Hi Steve,

I did indeed enjoy your excellent article “The Killing Fields of South Africa.” Thank you for pointing it out to me. If you have the time and the inclination, I think you have the core of a very important book there.

The section on “The Pathology of Humanism” is absolutely brilliant, which is not meant to imply that the other sections aren’t, but that section resonated with me as being particularly original, insightful, and eloquent. I’m afraid I still think there is a universal human tendency to selfish rapacity that survives undiminished through every change of social, political, and economic system. And I think it can only be eliminated by broadening the definition of “we” until there are no beings whom we still define as “other.” Until that happens—and admittedly, it is a tall order, but I think it is slowly but inexorably occurring—every new system we come up with will be distorted into an excuse for the same old atrocities. This is a process that largely (but by no means entirely) goes on outside the political system; religion, for example, has played and can play a large role in it.

I think the kind of universal vision you call for advances that process, and so I welcome such calls, but I also think that making alliances with human social justice and environmental groups an integral part of the animal rights strategy is still premature and will retard rather than advance the cause of universalism, primarily because, as I said before, as long as the power imbalance is so great and the level of popular support for animal liberation is so low, the risk that we (and the animals) will have our lunch eaten by the humanist and environmental groups is unacceptably high.

I think human overpopulation is a massive problem for nonhuman animals. In fact, human overpopulation combined with technological and economic progress constitute the most severe threat facing nonhuman animals, as individuals as well as populations. Malthus was generally correct in his diagnosis, even if his prescription was hopelessly wrongheaded. What is the right approach is, however, much harder to say. The Chinese approach, while effective, is inhumane and freighted with unintended consequences. Witness their current surplus of males who can find neither wives nor steady, career-type jobs. And there is no way, morally or practically, that we can ask Africa, Latin America, and Asia to forego trying to attain our standard of living unless we are willing to voluntarily lower our standard of living dramatically, something I don’t see happening. The Ehrlichs, I think, suffered the fate of many prophets. They were written off as wrong, when in fact their predictions (or at least the broad thrust of their predictions, if not all of the specifics) appear to be coming true. It is just that they are coming true later and much more gradually than predicted, so that they tend to be overlooked and ignored. Needless to say, I wholeheartedly endorse your emphasis on individual animals and your comparison of the way we deal with certain situations when the subjects are human as opposed to when they are nonhuman. I agree with you that the ultimate solution must be to include humans and nonhumans in one compassionate system; I just don’t think that can happen until the status of animals has been raised much closer to that of humans. That is the concern that underlies my apparent single-issue approach. It has nothing whatsoever to do with misanthropy.

Are you familiar with Romain Gary’s 1956 Prix Goncourt novel The Roots of Heaven? It is long out of print in English, although it is available through used book services. It is one of the very few novels that I go back and reread every couple of years or so. It is not an animal rights novel, (even though its hero is the first modern hunt saboteur, a Parisian dentist who goes into the Chadian bush to shoot elephant hunters) as Gary shows relatively little concern for the suffering and death of individual animals, and has a fundamentally humanistic orientation, but it is certainly the first modern ecological novel, and its descriptions and assessments of the impact of elephant hunting and its prediction of the extermination of the African elephant are, I think, remarkable. It is also the most eloquent eulogy to the Enlightenment that I have yet read, with an admirable sensitivity to both the universal Enlightenment values that we are rapidly losing and the role that contradictions within Enlightenment thought played in that loss.

If I were writing The Longest Struggle now, after reading your critique and Josh Harper’s, I think in all honesty there is not a great deal that I would do differently. I would certainly interview you, Josh, and Kevin Jonas, and let the ALF and SHAC speak for themselves, so to speak. But I don’t think my conclusions would be much different. Constraints of length, and theoretical considerations that I described earlier, would not permit me to devote significantly more space to the social and political context than I did, although I agree that this is an important endeavor for future non-speciesist historians to undertake. And I think that enterprise has to be done from the ground up, entirely from scratch, not simply by grafting animals onto an already existing theory, viewpoint, or ideology. Animals need to be equally objects of consideration throughout the forming of the theory, from the moment of its conception forward. One of the things I like most about your South Africa article is that I believe that is what you are trying to do. But I would suggest, most respectfully, that you may be still too involved in the anthropocentric dialogues (socialism vs. capitalism, deep ecology vs. sustainable exploitation, whatever) to fully reach that goal. Perhaps it is not yet reachable. Perhaps that is the task of a future generation. I am acutely aware that I did not reach it in The Longest Struggle, but I think we are groping our way in the right direction, and at this point that is what counts most.

I might also try to organize it in a way that is both smooth and coherent. Unlike the stuff of physics, the stuff of history often lacks elegance. Perhaps the difference lies in the fact that human beings had no role in the creation of the physical universe. I made a conscious decision to sacrifice at least some chronological unity for unity of theme in the hope of making the book more coherent for the reader and making the causal connections easier to follow, and I would probably not change that approach, although I might well tweak it a bit. Obviously, there are downsides to that method, which you pointed out in your review—it can, for example, be a bit jarring—but there are downsides to the other approach, as well, primarily that the thematic continuity will be lost.

Warmest regards,

6. February 8
Steve Best to Norm Phelps

Hi Norm!

I actually agree with your assessment of human nature, although I am very torn – I’m not the first! – between thinking we have strong biological drives that lead us to violence and selfishness, and hoping we can become different animals than we are or have been through new social and cultural conditions. To the extent we write and educate about animal rights, we do believe that to some degree, right? I recall cutting my philosophical teeth on Marx, and then discovering Nietzsche, who confirmed my deeper biases toward pessimistic views on humanity. I’ve done a hell of a lot of work on AR and veganism here in El Paso and have been constantly in the media, doing interviews, and organizing groups and actions. But it cuts against my grain and I do it only out of duty. In my early 20s I worked as a bartender which gives you unique insights into the human animal, not pretty, and it was that time I was reading Nietzsche, along with Baudelaire (truly amazing poet!) who as you may know also did not favor society or the human animal.

All this is by way of confirming your pessimism about humans which I share more than you may know. This comes out a lot in the book I’m trying to finish, which traces human evolution from australopithecines to Homo sapiens. It appears our first significant act as a species was to wipe out Neanderthals, then slaughter every large mammal that we encountered as we moved from Europe to other continents, and then to go to war against ourselves incessantly. There is a lot of controversy over whether or not we butchered Neanderthals (or interbred or they died out) and caused the extinction of so many large animals early in our planetary journey (or natural events annihilated them), but the evidence as far as I have read is rather damning against us. I found the book Demonic Males to be interesting, and I do not think we can ignore the fact that chimpanzees can be incredibly aggressive and violent and that they, not the more peaceful bonobos, are our closest biological relatives. It has become political incorrect to talk about biology, but we have too, and Singer is right to remind of this in his book, The Darwinian Left. I’ve also found very convincing the counter-PC trend, such as Lawrence Keeley’s War Before Civilization, which provides convincing evidence humans have always been violent and warlike, and shows how strained the attempts are to deny the archaeological evidence. Thanks for the reference to the Goncourt novel, I am completely unaware of it, but will read it at your strong suggestion; it sounds fascinating.

So I do in fact agree with you on humans, and argue that despite our make-up – if not our ingrained history – that we can learn new behaviors and form societies that are sustainable and harmonious with nature, if by no means perfect. I’ve never accepted the Marxist/anarchist utopia that people can replace law with ethics and regulate their own behavior with one another without murder, robbery and other quaint human behaviors. Freud is right against Marx that we can abolish private property and capitalism and still have aggressive human beings in a socialist society – although I would add that while we would still be tainted we could become better. I think my favorite book on all this, on this tension between good and evil and biology and culture, is Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, In the Shadow of Forgotten Ancestors, which, as I have been saying, argues we have biological make-up and ancient behavioral patterns that were once functional but are now dysfunctional and we need to learn new behaviors, and we can potentially. This is a beautiful book if you have not read, absolutely profound, poetic, and brilliant.

Actually Norm, it is our shared views on human nature that dispose me to defending sabotage and hard core direct action, as I do not think exploiters whose careers and livelihoods depend on animal exploitation will ever be persuaded except through coercion and force. As Gandhi worried about, but too much so, boycotts and protests are forms of coercion too, so it is not that coercion is morally unacceptable, but what degrees of it are we prepared to accept. If you’ve been following the ALF attacks on UCLA vivisectors, for instance, they have had some quite amazing success in forcing many of them out of the vile and detestable tortures they are inflicting on animals, and we both know how arguments, debates, or protests would not have accomplished this result. And remember the recent successful attacks on POM juice, where the ALF claimed to be poisoning their juices in some stores (although they would of course be breaking their non-violent code and I believe this was nothing but a threat)? That in conjunction with protests stopped their horrid experiments (e.g., severing the penile arteries of rabbits, and force feeding them POM juice in order to make the claim that POM Wonderful cures erectile dysfunction!). I just find myself incredulous when people do no see that (1) these actions are often effective, (2) they are often the only tactics that work, and (3) they should be supported as such – not as ends in themselves but necessary means to the end of AL. Whose side are we on anyway? I am on the side of animals, not UCLA vivisectors, and I am not concerned one damn bit that their homes have been flooded or spray painted, but I am completely concerned with the animals suffering in the torture chambers of “higher education.”

Doesn’t your own pessimistic view of human nature lead you logically to give at least qualified support to raids and sabotage tactics? The field of human action is not pure – this is some Platonic and essentialist belief that people hold. Of course we want to hold the moral high ground, of course we support non-violence, but we also are operating with incredibly violent people who are supported by the entire system of state violence. Existence is nothing if not paradoxical and we cannot completely and consistently achieve our goals for animals by following some utopian pacifist credo. The American Revolution we are still living in (in caricatured form of course) was inspired by the Boston Tea Party, a brilliant act of sabotage, and the job was finished off through prolonged armed struggle and violent war. Gandhi thought he could appeal to Hitler’s soul and essence, but it took the armed might of many nations in fact to defeat his brand of evil. The abolitionist movement was riddled with sabotage and violence and even “failed” acts like John Brown’s aborted armed struggle inspired further resistance. Everyone holds up Harriet Tubman as an icon and hero, rightly so, but do they know that she supported Brown’s attempt at murder and armed resistance? The argument has been made many times, and never successfully answered: why is the animal movement so inconsistent in peoples’ common recognition and admission that violence has often brought progressive results in history, but has no place in animal liberation? Isn’t this the last refuge of speciesism, to claim that humans are worth violent struggle but animals are not?

We are in a complex, difficult, contradictory, tortured position in our struggle and I think we should recognize it and appreciate the legitimate place the ALF has in our cause and, indeed, history itself. I am not swayed by the common platitudes that “violence is never justified” (it is) or “the end doesn’t justify the means” (sometimes in fact it does). I came to these conclusions while researching Terrorists or Freedom Fighters. I started off with a curious and neutral position and the more I read and learned the harder it was for me to deny that raids and sabotage actions are legitimate and necessary. I haven’t won any awards, favors, or friends in taking this position, I can assure, but rather endured my share of repression and grief. I stood – and stand – alone among philosophers (certainly not Singer or Regan) in my defense of ALF and SHAC tactics. I hear from so many people that they agree with my views but are too afraid to share them with peers in the movement let alone in public lectures or published writings. Maybe I lack good judgment, but I am among those who have to call it as they see it.

I am as divided and ambivalent about my positions here as I am about my beliefs in human nature. History is an experiment and laboratory and we don’t yet know who we are as a species and what we are or are not capable of. Gelderloos stated eloquently what I have come to believe, that we need many tactics and a pluralist and a situationist approach (what tactics work best in which situation) as he exposes the pacifist dogmas that dominate US and European social movements (generally) and how people who dare to broach the topic of “violence” – as I learned myself – are silenced and ostracized not only by police or institutional forces but their “allies” within their own “movement.” The phenomenon is actually not dissimilar to what Keely discusses in his book, namely that from the 1960s through about the mid-90s, academic scholars arguing that humans have a largely violent not peaceful history were punished, denied tenure, or ostracized in some way. It is refreshing in this light to have such an open and honest discussion about these matters.

Well, as to social movements and the question of alliance politics vs. “one track” activism, here too I have to confess basic agreement with you, some differences, a lot of ambivalence, and a non-dogmatic outlook as I refuse to believe like so may others (present company excepted) that I “have the answers” – no one does.

Yes, I have grave doubts about the Left. My political activism and education began with the Left, and I am still far Left in my beliefs, but I have had more than enough experience to confirm how backwards, ignorant, biased, prejudiced, fallacious, and pre-scientific their views on animals are. So I share you skepticism about alliance politics and I can see the virtue of a single-issue focus. I would never accept a back seat for AL to any alliance, and we have to educate the Left too. Some like Carl Boggs (see his essay in the same Fast Capitalism journal as mine) and Bob Torres get it, but too many are of the Michael Moore persuasion. But when, Norm, are we going to be ready and advanced enough in our cause to be strong enough to form alliances? You certainly see as I do all the connections that exist between human, animal, and environmental issues, and how directly relevant veganism and animal liberation is to social justice and ecological movements, why then should we not try to work this out in practice? Why close the issue, as you do, in an apriori manner, when the issue should be worked out in practice, as an experiment? Again, history is a laboratory (of the non-vivisection type I would hope!) and we do not know what kinds of politics are really possible. We don’t know if socialism is a possibility as every attempt at it (e.g., Russia 1917, Chile 1972, and Nicaragua 1979) has been attacked and destroyed. And we don’t know anything certain about alliance politics, but it is a fact that since the 1990s all kinds of new alliances have been forming in the anti/alter-globalization movements (a great book on this is Jeremy Brecher et al., Globalization From Below).

Imagine the kind of power the vegan/AL movements could have if they had the backing of social justice movements. Isn’t the problem that we are isolated as a movement? Part of my problem with Francione is that his simplistic concept of AL through vegan revolution is not only tied to consumerist values, but replicates the problem of veganism as a white middle class affair and doesn’t even bother to think about engaging working classes, the poor, or people of color. We continue to be the stereotype the Left has of us – an isolated, white, middle class, elitist movement. And guess what, they are right. And we need to break these barriers down. And this involves alliance politics. And thus I talk less of “animal liberation” and more of “total liberation” such as integrates human, animal, and earth liberation into one coherent (in theory anyway!) project. And it may fail – miserably. It is hard enough to form a grassroots group of 20-30 people on one issue like vegetarianism, for God’s sake, given personal differences and ego battles, let alone a larger social movement, let alone still more an alliance of many movements, and one on a global level at that!

But what options do we have but to try, to forge links in theory and practice. For over 7 years now the Institute for Critical Animal Studies has organized alliance politics conferences, and note that my last two books (co-edited with Tony Nocella), Terrorists or Freedom Fighters and Igniting a Revolution, both work to break down barriers, to bring people from different concerns together, to recognize the importance of animal liberation to human and earth liberation and vice versa, and that these books not only just talk about alliance politics but are concrete examples of alliance politics in practice. Note in Terrorists or Freedom Fighters, for instance, how Ward Churchill — who has many gripes with the animal rights movement – writes a forward in support of AL despite his differences with some aspects of it. Note how another Native American and non-vegetarian weighs in with support. And note the amazing essay in Igniting a Revolution by the Black Liberation activist, Ashanti Alston, who talks about the education he received at our conferences and how he learned to check his speciesism just as he did his sexism.

There is hope here, and I think we should pursue alliance politics, not drown further in our isolation. But we should do so with caution and never let our concerns be diluted – I am with you here – for veganism and AL are at the forefront of concern and importance today, the absolute cutting-edge. In admittedly broad ways, I have tried to engage this issue in my writings on total liberation and alliance politics. If you think I am too anthropocentric, please point out where in all this you think I go astray, for as Muir said, in a battle between humans and bears, I stand with the bears!

Well, to draw this drawn-out letter to a close, but which is only a down payment of reciprocation for your thoughtful letters, I completely understand your concerns with your book, The Longest Struggle. I did note the tension between theme and historical narrative, but could sympathize with the dilemma as I confront it all the time too. I hope it was not an unfair criticism, but it was minor regardless. In fact, it is a great book, and I think you should seriously commit yourself to updates and revisions of it, say as Zinn has done with his masterpiece, A People’s History of the United States. If you do so, you could revamp the critique of direct action, at least enough as you suggest to give it the more detailed – and a bit more dialectical and objective – treatment it deserves. The ALF and SHAC are not going anywhere; in fact it amazes me how active they have been despite the incredible state repression and pro-corporate laws such as the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA). Anyway, do consider the possibility of updating and revising your book every so often; it is worthy indeed.

Thanks again for reading my essay and writing a thoughtful response Norm, write back when you can, and do take good care.

Yours in Friendship,


February 25
Norm Phelps to Steve Best

Hi Steve,

You mentioned Albert Schweitzer. By coincidence, I’ve been wrestling with him recently. I came across something he said that struck me. “Meine Erkennen is pessimistisch, aber meine Wollen und meine Hoffnung sind optimistisch.” That doesn’t really work in English, but I like to paraphrase it as “What I see around me makes me pessimistic, but what I feel inside of me makes me optimistic.” Someone else, I don’t know who, said, “We have to be pessimistic in our thought and optimistic in our activism.” That ain’t easy, but I think it’s right, and I try to hold on to those two thoughts.

I think that our behavior is not biologically determined for the simple reason that it is biologically determined both ways: toward selfishness and aggression and toward altruism and caring, and the two exist in a kind of balance in which selfishness and aggression is usually dominant (especially in a crisis), but not necessarily so, an idea that seems to be supported by primate research. We have the genetic resources, so to speak, to tip the balance the other way, although it will be a long, slow effort. One of the problems is that our race improves very slowly, glacially in fact, compared to our individual life spans. If we lived 500 years instead of less than 100, things might look brighter. I do take some comfort in the success of the civil rights movement and the women’s movement. I’m old enough and Southern enough (my family is from southern Maryland and Tidewater Virginia) to remember Jim Crow and “a woman’s place is in the home.” When I was in college, the idea of a black man and a woman being two of the leading candidates for President would have been absurd. Now it’s real. Movements like these have a habit of simmering for decades or even centuries making no apparent progress, and then suddenly, almost overnight, they break loose and make tremendous gains. Sort of like fissionable material appearing to be inert until it attains critical mass and then it suddenly breaks loose. I think it will be the same way with animal liberation, although when the breakout will take place I have no idea. I only know that no one will see it coming until it arrives. When the February revolution broke out, Lenin was in Zurich feuding with the Mensheviks and Trotsky was in New York writing for a leftist exile newspaper. Neither one had any idea that the revolution was upon them.

I am a near pacifist, but not an absolute pacifist. I agree that in an intrinsically imperfect world (I think the world, like the human race, is improvable, but not perfectible), violence can sometimes be justified, at least in theory. But I think violence can only be justified under three conditions: 1) It has a reasonable likelihood of reducing the total amount of suffering in the world (in other words, it has a good chance of succeeding, at least partially); 2) it is kept to the absolute minimum needed to achieve the result; and 3) it is limited to persons who are themselves practicing violence. In regard to animal liberation, I think that at the present time condition 1 is not met. And when that is the case, violence is immoral because it will only add to the sum of suffering. My added objection to SHAC is that they violate principle 3. And I still worry that a firefighter will die in a fire set by the ALF or the ELF, which would be a moral and strategic catastrophe. I am unalterably opposed to arson and bombing.

I agree that in Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Russia, Gandhi would have suffered the fate of Martin Niemoeller and Raoul Wallenberg. He would have heard the knock on the door and disappeared into the camps, never to be heard from again (at least not until others had destroyed the system). But violent resistance from within did nothing to topple the Soviet Union and very little to topple Nazi Germany. The former collapsed from its own internal contradictions (There’s irony for you!) and the latter from external military force applied by a coalition of sovereign states. Slavery was not ended by activist violence, but by a full scale military invasion from what amounted to foreign territory. All Nat Turner achieved was his own execution and that of his followers. Activist violence works only in very specific and very limited historical and social circumstances, and those circumstances do not now obtain for animal liberation. Nor do I see any likelihood that they will appear in the foreseeable future. And so I remain a staunch opponent of activist violence on behalf of animals (with the exception of Paul Watson, which I explained in my earlier email).

What you so accurately call “left humanism” is a very real and very serious problem. While I certainly don’t think that animal liberation should be tied to a leftist political agenda, I do think that some outreach to the left is called for. Just as I am a strong supporter of outreach to religious communities although I don’t think that animal liberation should be tied to religion.

I would be more than happy to read whatever parts of the book you are working on that you would like to share with me (or all of it, for that matter).

Although we disagree on the subject of the ALF and SHAC, I think you are doing extremely important work and I am very happy that the animals have your mind and your voice on their side. As we used to say in the sixties,

Keep the faith, Baby,



February 26
Steve Best to Norm Phelps

Hi Norm, great to hear from you, and thanks for this letter.

I’d love to hear more about your thoughts on Schweitzer; he has always been a favorite of mine, although I confess superficial knowledge. I like his emphasis on the universal community of willing and living, and that he also extends his ethic into environmental concerns (which apparently many environmental types think we cannot do without emphasizing ecosystems over sentient individuals and supporting hunting!). That quote you’re looking for by the way is from Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, who quipped we should have: “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” I find optimism harder to come by though, Norm, especially given the disastrous turn in the movement toward industry collaboration, the breakneck pace of global warming and biological meltdown, and the rise of meat consumption, along with current trends in China and India. I agree about the duality of our nature, as you find violence, territorialism, and love and altruism in other animals too. After all, recall Kropotkin’s critique of Social Darwinism by way of emphasis on mutuality and caring in the animal and human worlds. We are making progress, yes, but, again, it’s one step forward, ten back, and we’re “losing ground” ultimately in serious ways. The progress is not coming fast enough, and the crisis in ecology is paralleled by one in democracy, with increasing corporate domination paralleled by citizen apathy and detachment. The new book by Naomi Wolf apparently is a good analysis of the near-tipping point in our society now, as authoritarianism threatens to make irreversible gains over whatever shreds of democracy we have left. So what happens once the industrial system begins to come apart – as it will and must – and chaos results with the government asserting increasingly control and authority and citizens left without enough of a culture of enlightenment and democracy to sustain a resistance? It’s harrowing to think about, but it’s happening now…

You’re right about the dynamics leading to the downfall of Germany and Russia, but we disagree about slavery and abolitionism. I think slavery was ended by a number of dynamics working together (indeed, all of history is overdetermined by many dynamics, no?), including revolts, protests, education, reforms, the Underground Railroad, and so on. The military invasion you emphasize, was a form of violence – armed warfare, civil war – so where is the peaceful solution to oppression there? Turner and Brown, I add, inspired the deeds of many others; their influence far exceeded their failed revolts. Brown as you know became hailed as a hero and was made into legend in folk songs, stories, and resistance ethics.

I am glad you admit there are some circumstances where violence is legitimate and necessary, but am puzzled by the oxymoron of a “near pacifist” if such a phrase is coherent, but imagine you (like Regan et. al.) are (to coin a term) an “exceptionalist” in your sparse condoning of violence. Your criteria for justifying violence of course come straight out of just war theory. I’d make the same argument with you as I do with Regan: how do we know when “we’ve tried everything” and “no alternatives” exist to violence? We can always use this ruse, if it is that. Indeed, how do we know – how can we predict – if a tactic will have a “reasonable guarantee” of working or not, when politics is an experimental and tactics like those used by SHAC in particular are new and untested? Note that SHAC, unlike the ALF for the most part, attack those relatively far removed from the animal exploiters themselves; whereas the ALF tends to attack directly vivisectors, meat plants, etc., SHAC goes after those who provide services for HLS in some way, and thus can be fairly removed from the role of “combatants.” This is a difference to note, and an interesting point to argue either way. I agree with you about the use of fire, as indeed I think most who support the ALF and ELF do–I have read arguments by many who support sabotage, but not arson for reasons you note (and note also small animals could do in such fires, certainly insects might). I myself waiver here, as do many supporters of sabotage tactics.

On the question of alliances, I’d like to hear more details on what kind of outreach you envision with the left being productive. Single-issue AR is problematic and lends itself to all kinds of horrible politics that are inconsistent with ethics and compassion for all oppressed beings, animals and humans. Torres does a good job dissecting the problems with PETA’s support for the likes of Pat Buchanan and Matthew Scully, the former who is anti-gay/women/immigrant etc., and the latter who provided significant support for the Iraq war and killing of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and US soldiers with his putrid pro-war speeches he wrote for Bush. The near universal praise for Scully’s Dominion book sickened me; yes it was a good book, but how can we abstract the worth of his book from the moral character of the author? I suspect you agree with me here, as this is **exactly** what you critiqued in The Longest Struggle, namely the veneration of those who support animals but are misanthropic, misogynistic, etc in their overall politics.

These are the kind of problems single-issue politics lead us into, including support for the Christian Right or even ecofascists (as Ronnie Lee dabbled with in the UK) if they support animal causes. I reject this, as well as PETA’s sexist campaigns (which I think we agree are problematic?). Given these kind of problems and the reactionary or naïve political attitudes rampant in the animal movement, I do not see how this movement can lead society as a whole to a better world unless we form progressive (left, anti-hierarchical) alliances rather than regressive (corporations, proto-Nazis, warmongers, the Christian Rights, etc) alliances. This movement has already formed alliances to a significant degree – of the wrong kind. So it’s a matter of:

Which alliances should we form?

When – under what conditions – should we build bridges to other causes and movements? (These can at least be tactical and situational, where we support one another in specific instances where human/animal interests are clearly intertwined, but I see the need for something more enduring and substantive)

How do we avoid diluting the animal liberation emphasis in the acid bath of humanism?

I see the need for a mutual education and conversation, Norm, between the Left (not the Right!) and the animal movement, such that this movement gains more social and historical sophistication, learns to benefit from the analytic power of political economy/Marxist analysis, challenges the oppressive core of capitalism, just as the Left and human social movement, and environmental communities learn from us not to be speciesists, the incredible importance of animal liberation for human and earth liberation, and so on.

I think I was among the very first to analyze and emphasize the importance of things like the USA PATRIOT Act, the AETA, green scare, and – bless their hearts – the Center for Consumer Freedom. I’ve talked about the need to critique and engage the left in an alliance politics years before Torres is now doing it, etc. and so on. There is still a lot of original material in my book, Animal Liberation and Moral Progress: The Struggle for Human Evolution, and I’d be incredibly honored if you would comment on it!! Truly I would. Well, to start, I humbly enclose a recent draft of the Table of Contents and the Prologue whenever you can read that.

I just finished Bob Torres’ book, Making a Killing. It makes some real contributions, I believe, in its use of social and anarchist theory to diagnose capitalism and critique the single-issue, corporate, and absolutely vile, sell-out, accomodationist/collaborationist politics of HSUS and PETA in their promotion of humane meat. But it has many problems. You would not agree with his emphasis on alliance politics although I appreciated that too. What cracked me up though is that he emphasizes how the animal movement suffers from a cult of personality that uncritically accepts the words of “leaders” like Singer, and then he uncritically uses Bookchin and Francione throughout the book! I’m about to write a critique of this and will share with you.

By the way, what do you think of these “humane meat” campaigns and – talk about alliances! – tight relations between HSUS and PETA and industry groups? This seems the worst disaster of this movement ever, as we should be promoting veganism, not humane meat! Only the industries profit from this, and figures suggest droves of guilty/borderline/quasi-vegetarian types are flocking to Whole Foods for their “humane” meat, cheese, and eggs!

My closing comment for now is to thank you for your closing comment, it is refreshing to have a productive and interesting dialogue with someone despite differences, although we’ve noted our shared concerns are far more weighty than our variances.



February 29
Norm Phelps to Steve Best

Hi Steve,

I hope this finds you and your rescued cats well. Patti and I also have a family of rescued cats, so I understand perfectly when you call them a blessing. They are, indeed!

Thank you for the precise quotation “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will,” and its source. It is, I think, an excellent motto.

Your question about “humane meat” campaigns raises an issue that I have been involved with for a while now. Bruce Friedrich and Paul Shapiro have been good friends of mine for almost as long as their youth allows, and we have had some very stimulating and enlightening discussions. I am somewhat hopeful that I may be able to attend Karen Davis’ UPC conference at the end of March (I live about 150 miles from Norfolk and Machipongo; this would be my first conference in nearly 6 years), which will have that issue as its theme and at which Paul, Bruce, Patty Mark, Harold Brown, and others on both sides of the issue will be speaking. It should be fascinating, as Karen’s conferences always are.

I believe, obviously, that the creation of a vegan world is the only legitimate long-term goal for the animal rights movement. (I use animal rights in its non-technical sense, to mean that it is immoral and should be illegal to exploit or murder nonhuman animals for human benefit, pleasure, or convenience.) And I believe that vegan advocacy must be the heart and soul of the animal rights movement. My personal advocacy, in my books, etc., is vegan. I would never suggest that any kind of animal product is “humane.” I have a review in the current online issue of Philosophia: Philosophical Quarterly of Israel of Tzachi Zamir’s new book, Ethics and the Beast, in which he argues for “moderate liberationism,” or “liberationism that speciesists can accept.” (Talk about oxymorons!) In the review, I am extremely critical of Zamir’s arguments; in fact, I pretty much trash them. I would be very interested in hearing your reaction.

That said, as a matter of tactics, and only as a matter of tactics, I support campaigns like the cage-free egg campaign and bans on veal crates. I have an article posted on the website of Vegan Outreach that explains my reasons, and I’m attaching a copy as a Word document. I also suspect that the quasi-vegetarian types are not flocking to Whole Foods out of guilt. I think that they are flocking to Whole Foods out of concern for their own health and because it has become a trendy thing to do among upwardly mobile bourgeois, like buying your coffee from Starbucks instead of Dunkin Donut. But many of them say they shop Whole Foods out of concern for animal suffering because that sounds a lot more noble and altruistic. Also, I think a number of environmental and genuine animal welfare folks may shop there.

I agree that talking about “humane meat,” and “cruelty free eggs,” etc., etc., is counterproductive, and I do not support that. But I do support encouraging people who are not yet ready to become vegan to at least reduce the cruelty in their diet. Beyond a few very questionable anecdotes, I have seen no evidence that this undercuts the vegan message. I remember that I continued to eat fish and chicken for several months after I stopped eating beef, pork, and lamb, and then continued to eat eggs and dairy for several months after I cut out fish and chicken. At that point in my education (This was the early 1980s, and I was in my 40s), if I had thought my choice was all or nothing, I’m not sure what I would have done. I might just have given up and stayed a carnivore. I hope not, but I am not at all confident about it.

I think that we can sometimes get too hung up on our own logical consistency. Becoming vegan is more a psychological than a logical process, and if a tactic holds out some reasonable hope of moving people closer to accepting the vegan philosophy or of reducing animal suffering, I will support it even if it appears inconsistent with my underlying philosophy or long-term goal. Kind of like Lenin’s New Economic Policy.

Someone once said that all of our most important decisions are made on the basis of inadequate information, or words to that effect. I don’t know how we know when there are no alternatives to violence or when a tactic is likely to succeed. And I don’t know how we predict the future outcome and impacts of pretty much any major decision that we make or activity that we undertake. The law of unintended consequences (of both action and inaction) is always hiding in the wings. We just have to assess the situation as best we are able, consider the alternatives carefully, and make a leap of faith based on our moral principles and our best judgment. Needless to say, we will not all make the same leap, and only the passage of time can reveal with any certainty who was right. But if we are to have any hope of being effective as theorists or activists, we have to commit, and we have to believe in our commitment, even though we cannot be certain of its outcome. It’s the same process by which we handle all of life. I strongly believe that nonviolence should always be our default position, and overriding it should require the strongest possible reasons.

By “near pacifist,” I mean pretty much what you surmise. And yes, I suppose it does have some strong analogies to just war theory, although that theory has been used to justify a lot more wars than I would. My gut inclination would be to be a complete pacifist, but I can find no way around what I call Garrison’s Dilemma. Garrison, as you know, was both a pacifist and an abolitionist. But when forced to chose, he supported the Civil War as the only practical way to end slavery any time soon. This relates to an insight of Schweitzer’s that it is not always possible to act ethically, but that we should act unethically only in the most extreme circumstances and must always be uncompromisingly honest with ourselves in analyzing both the situation and our own motivations.

It seems to me that there is only a narrow range of historical circumstances in which violence, especially violence by individuals, can contribute significantly to the achievement of a social justice goal. (On the other hand, there are a wide variety of circumstances in which violence can destabilize a society and unleash chaos upon the land, which is not necessarily a desirable outcome from a social justice standpoint by any means.) Some of those circumstances were present in the run-up to the Civil War, primarily the fact that the northern states had abolished slavery and there was throughout the North a large and solid body of anti-slavery opinion. John Brown got a level of public sympathy that helped mobilize pro-war sentiment in the North, but that was his only significant contribution. And in the final analysis, slavery could not have been ended without full scale war for a least a generation and probably longer. (I believe that the idea that slavery was dying because of changing economics and would have collapsed of its own weight in a few years is a myth created by Southern historians.) Public support for animal rights is so nearly nonexistent that acts of violence engender a reaction that is diametrically opposed to the pubic reaction to John Brown’s raid—especially in our post-9-11 United States of Paranoia—and that makes the entire movement vulnerable to attack from an oppressive law enforcement-animal industry complex. (As I said in an earlier email, Paul Watson’s campaigns are an exception to this.)

Until we have far greater public support than we have now, our challenge is to create the circumstances that will make it possible for animal rights to be won in the future. Being a Buddhist, I have learned to look at things through a long lens, and I have reconciled myself, although not happily, to the idea that the victory will belong to a future generation. To use a different historical analogy, this generation is the Marcus Garveys, the Paul Robesons, the Langston Hugheses of the animal rights movement; the Thurgood Marshalls and the Martin Luther Kings will come after us. But if we keep the faith and continue the struggle, they will come, and they will win. Of that, I have no doubt. I won’t be here to see it, but that’s not what really matters. (Although you might be; when these things reach critical mass, they often start moving very suddenly and unexpectedly.)

As to the California raids, I see them as counterproductive. The dropping out of a researcher here and there has no impact. And I don’t see the pipeline of new researchers drying up as long as the federal grant and Big Pharma money keeps flowing. On the other hand, every time a story like this makes the national news, the idea becomes seated more deeply in the public mind that animal rights activists are terrorists, and that Congress and the FBI are protecting them when they treat AR as if it were Islamic terrorism. Speaking of which, you will also notice that our leaders are very careful to distinguish jihadists from mainstream Muslims but take just the opposite tack with AR, creating the impression that the entire movement is violent. The most important weapon we have today is our freedom of speech, and anything that makes it easier for that to be curtailed sets us back. Even Jerry Vlasak went to some lengths to downplay and distance the ALF from the Santa Cruz incident:

“Jerry Vlasak, a Los Angeles-area surgeon connected with the underground Animal Liberation Front, said members of that group are typically stealthier in their confrontations with researchers who use mice and other animals. He said ALF operatives would not drive to a target’s home and depart with a visible license plate, as occurred during Sunday’s Santa Cruz incident.

“‘This sounds like an above-ground group doing a demonstration at someone’s house,’ Vlasak said.

“He said he did not believe confrontations ALF protesters have instigated with UCLA faculty were related to the Santa Cruz case, which left a UC Santa Cruz researcher’s husband with a minor hand injury. Though Vlasak and two other supporters said they have no firsthand knowledge of the loud encounter at the Westside home and didn’t know it was planned, they doubted whether it was a ‘home invasion,’ as police have dubbed it.

“While Vlasak acknowledged that knocking by protesters on the researcher’s door could have gotten ‘out of hand,’ he said, ‘It doesn’t sound like they hurt anybody or were doing anything illegally.’ He said it was likely that ‘police and animal abusers were spinning whatever happened’ to demonize demonstrators.”

In terms of outreach to the left, I think it is very possible to urge the left to incorporate animal rights into their agenda without making the animal rights movement a subset of the left, and without forging actual alliances with human-issue organizations, just as I and others have been urging the religious community to incorporate animal rights into their doctrines without trying to make animal rights dependant on religious belief. I absolutely agree that dialogue and mutual education between the left and the AR movement is essential while dialogue and education between the right and the AR movement is pretty much futile, at least for the time being, and might even be counterproductive in some cases. In both cases, I have great concerns (just as I have with the religious dialogue) that we are vulnerable to being co-opted because of the imbalance in the way human social-justice issues are viewed compared to animal social-justice issues.

Scully’s book drove me up the wall. Several times, I had to put it down and come back to it later out of sheer frustration. Scully writes extraordinarily well, and like Singer’s Animal Liberation, some of the best parts of Dominion are actually investigative journalism. But Scully is part of the same movement I criticized in reviewing Zamir’s book: reforms unaccompanied by a recognition of the moral equality of nonhuman animals. While I strongly support reforms as a limited, deliberate tactic, I believe that as a philosophy or guiding principle, reformism is morally deficient. Only full moral equality will render our relationship to animals moral. And yes, I do agree with you about Scully himself.

You expressed an interest in my thoughts on Albert Schweitzer, I’m finishing up an essay that I’ve been working on—off and on—for several months about Schweitzer. Researching him a bit for The Longest Struggle reignited my interest. He is, I think, a far more important thinker than is generally recognized today, but tragically, he was too Eurocentric and could not bring himself to get on the right side of the colonialism issue. If you would be interested, I’ll be glad to email the essay to you when I’m reasonably happy with it (probably within a week or two), and I would very much appreciate any thoughts you might have on it.

I’m very impressed with the ToC of your book in progress! It looks to be both fascinating and seminal, as I knew it would. I started to say that I’m especially looking forward to Chapters 1 and 2 (the idea of “writing animals back into history” is of particular importance to me), but the truth is I’m looking forward to the entire book. The problem I have with some folks who seem to be taking note of animals in history, like whatever-his-name-is who wrote Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers, is that they are only interested in showing the effects of our relationship to animals on human society and ignore the effects on nonhuman animals. In short, they are speciesist, and for that reason, I think, less helpful than they are often claimed to be. We need to be moving in the direction of unified histories based on the moral equality of all sentient beings.

I’m about half-way through the Prologue, and I will try to give you my thoughts on that over the week-end or by early next week at the absolute latest. I will just say that in my opinion your observations on the revolutionary nature of animal liberation represent the clearest, most honest, and most insightful discussion of the subject that I have encountered.

Warmest regards and best wishes,



February 29
Steve Best to Norm Phelps
Hi Norm!

I’m very torn on the rights/welfare thing, you may have read the piece I did for the last issue of The Animal’s Voice on the topic (the essay is around the net) where I tried to square the circle, but perhaps not successfully. I think the situation for farmed animals is so incredibly bad, even bigger cages is almost revolutionary and since this Prisonhouse system is not going anyway anytime soon, I am concerned with the “purism” of Franciones’s approach. (In fact, see David Sztybel’s “pragmatist” form of abolitionism and critique of GF in the last issue of the ICAS journal on this point, I imagine it is similar to what you are arguing here.) But I am also concerned of squandering our vegan card, don’t understand why we aren’t pushing for veganism rather than meat and eggs given all the options out there, am completely alarmed by the data of spiked increases in animal product consumption, and the mixed messages and incoherence of all this.

I DO see the argument for being welfarist in tactics, but rights/abolitionist in philosophy, but that is the definition of new welfarism, according to GF, and runs into the problems he points out, and everything I state above.

Moreover, even if these campaigns are defensible, I am appalled at things like giving awards to Temple Grandin (ok, can we quietly support her without giving her an award – imagine the human Holocaust analogies!) and the statements of both HSUS and PETA telling agribusiness how reforms will increase their profits. More profits mean more consumption; more consumption means more killing; more killing means more pain. Even on a utilitarian ledger this doesn’t work. But what kind of “animal rights” movement is it that collaborates with industries, attends their conferences (and vice versa), gives slaughterhouse designers awards, calls meat “humane” (and who can top the term in the UK – “freedom food”!!), and – on balance I think – is doing far more for the animal exploiters than the animals themselves?

Had I more time in this insane pre-trip moment, I’d track down the data of increased meat consumption as best I could. The anecdotes seem more than a few, and not merely questionable, but come from local newspapers all over the country (you read the same lists I do), from talking to students who would gladly eat meat if “humane,” and just as a matter of common sense these reforms will promote more eating and more killing in a meat-addicted society. Can veganism really end this addiction, especially when we are telling people to eat meat if humane? Or am I missing a nuance or two here?

It is ONE thing to promote reforms in cage size and killing methods, but quite ANOTHER to aggressively promote “humane meat”! The former is for the animals; the latter is for the consumers (and industries!) and works against the animals. Maybe this is pretty much what your position is – make the reforms, but shut up about “humane meat” and promote veganism instead. This it seems would be MUCH better than to make the reforms AND to market “humane meat”!

How is it, Norm, that Gandhi’s message that the ends must be reflected in the means is not contradicted here? Why should we support this noble idea when talking about the need for peaceful tactics (even if “violent” ones often work) but not when talking about veganism? This escapes me.

Your stage theory is an interesting possible argument, I went the same way; so maybe we can move people into Whole Foods, and then out to the vegan restaurants and lifestyles, although I remain skeptical given the human love affair with animal by-products.

I’m worried our movement is becoming co-opted by very powerful industries. I’m worried Bruce is doing their work and young people like Paul are being seduced by status and a paycheck. This has happened to all other movements (e.g., labor!), it has happened in our history before (didn’t HSUS break from the AHA because they were collaborating with industries?!), and I see it happening here. And ADD to that the fact that HSUS, GF, FoA, Hall, and others (well, sorry my friend, you too) are denouncing our “extreme” elements in the same discourse used by the corporate-state complex and invented by corporate front groups like ALEC and CCF, and I’m not sure I can any longer “have a dream” instead of bear witness to a nightmare.

“Garrison’s Dilemma” – I like that, would be a good title for your next book, and could bring together the violence and vegan dilemma issues we have been debating. It at least acknowledges that the world is riddled with dilemmas and ambivalence and nothing is pure or non-paradoxical (a bit of Buddhist-cum-existentialist-cum-postmodernism insight, no?). I agree with you about using violence as little as possible, but disagree what violence is and how often it may be necessary (not to free elephants from my zoo, for example, which I have not successfully done over years of trying [I did get Sissy out if you remember that], but to stop what is going on at UCLA, quite arguably yes). I also agree that violence could backfire and tar whatever good will we have earned with the public, and thus I do not support bombings (or certainly assassination!) but don’t think sabotage is enough to provoke this backfire, think a press office can help minimize condemnation and increase support, and think it is better to spray-paint slogans like “love animals don’t kill them” or “free all animals” rather than “die vivisector scum!” which does make the news pages.

I love this. “To use a different historical analogy, this generation is the Marcus Garveys, the Paul Robeson’s, the Langston Hughes’s of the animal rights movement; the Thurgood Marshalls and the Martin Luther Kings will come after us. But if we keep the faith and continue the struggle, they will come, and they will win. Of that, I have no doubt. I won’t be here to see it, but that’s not what really matters. (Although you might be; when these things reach critical mass, they often start moving very suddenly and unexpectedly.)”

Brilliant, perhaps, but it is a bit too linear, and what history has shown in our movement is that people were talking about rights (17th and 18th century) before welfare (19th century), and that all tendencies included abolitionism exploded at once. So I’d propose another approach, that we let a thousand flowers bloom, including SHAC and the ALF, while we (or at least they) be very intelligent and careful about all that you say here and keep our messages and actions, even break-ins and sabotage, as peaceful and positive as possible.

Honestly, each one of us, and everyone I’ve ever heard argue on either side, are much too vague in our arguments, and we both need to specify more carefully and give many more examples of just what the “narrow range of historical circumstances in which violence, especially violence by individuals, can contribute significantly to the achievement of a social justice goal” are. We cannot do that well in these exchanges, as it would take a book, but let us be aware that we are being vague and perhaps more intuitive than exact, and that this remains the work for a “future prolegomena” for a philosophy of (both efficacious and moral) tactics. This also demands a sound knowledge of and comparative analysis with social movement history, as we also explore the differences between social and animal movements and which of these are significant (e.g., see the debate between Bruce and Freeman in TOFF on this very point).

I hear what you are saying too about the Left, and see by the Prologue to my book what contempt I have for their utter, shameless, disgraceful hypocrisy (all this noble and self-righteous talk about peace, justice, and exploitation!). But you seem to be proposing to be shifting from one type of one-sidedness to another. You’re asking the Left now to serve us, without us incorporating them at all. Don’t we need each other? Can’t we learn from each other? Are there alliances that need to be formed? Can’t we form strategic alliances when they are especially effective, without losing our identity and movement to the Left? That is all I am talking about, strategic alliances when useful, such that we keep our relative autonomy from a larger justice movement. As the Left sounds like a bunch of elite theorists and professors I don’t much care about, let’s be clear we are talking about progressive social justice movements of all kinds. These people will never get it until we actively reach out and try to educate them (although I have to admit that on the various occasion I have tried, no one from the local groups showed up!!) and have a dialogue in which we too have a lot to learn from them (about history, social movements, political economy, tactical experience, anti-capitalism, etc). They will not get it on their own! I was able to educate the local Green Party (same humanist mentality but throw in maybe some pro-hunters too!) to the point they got the health and environmental issues of veganism and while they did not convert en masse, they began serving vegan options at the meetings, a big step forward. Moreover, note we will NEVER get Blacks, for instance, in this blindingly white movement just by slapping their face on the cover of VegNews once a year, but rather by going into the communities and helping them feed each other, etc, without asking for anything in return, just helping. Then there is a space for dialogue, learning, and mutual aid.

Again, to apply your own philosophy here (mine as well), this is an experiment, we don’t know it if will work; all I know is that this movement has not tried! Fuck that crusty old, self-righteous Marxist or anarchist you and I have had the unfortunate experience to sit next to at a dinner and argue with so many times. They are not who we need to reach, but the ordinary, nonintellectual and activist members of communities.

Thanks again Norm, another stimulating and productive exchange.



Steven Best, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Texas, El Paso. He has published numerous books and articles on philosophy, cultural criticism, social theory and animal rights. He has appeared on TV shows like Extra! and is frequently interviewed by national print and radio media including the New York Times and National Public Radio. Best is Cyrano’s Journal Special Editor for Animal Rights, Speciesisim and Human Tyranny over Nature.

Norm Phelps is the former spiritual outreach director of The Fund for Animals, as well as a founding member of the Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians (SERV) and a contributing writer for Satya Magazine.


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