Why Activists Win, Part II

"Jimmy" the hippopotamus and my father both came to Philadelphia in the mid-1930s (I'm pretty sure it was 1935, but I couldn't locate Jimmy on the Net). My father had traveled from Minnesota to his new position in Philadelphia, and as he had to work long, long hours, the only time he could find off was Sunday afternoons. As a new person without many friends, he'd go to the Philadelphia Zoo, which had recently added Jimmy. The hippo struck him as lonely (a new transplant like himself), so he befriended him by coming every Sunday with apples and similar treats. My dad had grown up on a farm, so he was used to animals, but he was surprised to discover that a huge wild beast could be so friendly and intelligent. They developed a real friendship, which lasted for the rest of Jimmy's life. I know this will sound hard to believe, but that hippo knew my father's voice, and would come running on command, no matter where he was in the yard, whether indoors, or outdoors. I was born in 1954, and I saw this many, many times. By the time I started going to the zoo, my father and Jimmy were into their third decade of friendship.

No matter how many visitors were crowding around the enclosure yelling "Jimmy!" when my father called him, Jimmy would run or swim over, and he'd stick his head up as high as he could -- often resting it on the rails, where he'd snort and stare dreamily at my father. It was like a dog wanting his ears scratched. Visitors and keepers who saw this thought it was remarkable. (One keeper told my father that he couldn't get Jimmy's attention like that.)

Jimmy was mated with "Submarie" and they had babies. The family is pictured with Jimmy's name in the caption in one of the books currently on sale in the Zoo souvenir store.

The memories of Jimmy will be with me for the rest of my life, and the reason they're especially poignant right now is that I believe the activist philosophy currently focusing on Philadelphia's elephants does not intend to stop there.

"My name is meaningless," said activist "Rowan Morrison," (real name Marianne Bessey) -- who has repeatedly debated the fate of Philadelphia's elephants. While I think her name is important to the story (and I think journalists who knowingly misrepresented her identity committed a breach of journalistic ethics), Ms. Bessey is right in one sense. In the context of a larger movement, her name and even her identity can indeed be seen as meaningless. She is only part of a movement, a cause much bigger than herself.

While I can only speculate whether "Rowan Morrison" would openly admit to agreement with it (and, in light of her meaninglessness, it really doesn't matter whether she does), there is a much larger agenda -- itself part of an even larger philosophy -- which would abolish zoos.

The following (by Dale Jamieson) is from a chapter in Peter Singer's "In Defense of Animals":

Zoos teach us a false sense of our place in the natural order. The means of confinement mark a difference between humans and animals. They are there at our pleasure, to be used for our purposes. Morality and perhaps our very survival require that we learn to live as one species among many rather than as one species over many. To do this, we must forget what we learn at zoos. Because what zoos teach us is false and dangerous, both humans and animals will be better off when they are abolished.
This underlying philosophy isn't about elephants; it's about a reordering of man's relationship to animals. The people who want to do this answer to a higher moral authority than the ordinary mortals who reason with them, bargain with them, and offer them compromises in the hope of making them go away. The non-activists tend to think that the issue is the one before them, and they often forget that even when the activists are right (which they often are), that they'll be back, with more demands, and that above all, they are unwilling to compromise.

Activists excel at finding issues with which most people can agree as foot-in-the-door starting points. Just as the Communist Party USA focused on racial integration in the 1950s and 1960s (a laudable goal), animal rights activists will focus on sympathetic issues like saving the elephant (which I've posted about twice), and eliminating cruel and unnecessary animal research. (When they tackle issues on which most people can agree, it's a "win-win" situation for the activists, because if they win they win, and if they lose, they still win, because those who oppose them are made to appear reactionary, bigoted, and cruel.)

Activist tactics can range from the mildest forms of perfectly legitimate and legal protest to advocacy of murder. If a tactic is effective, people who believe they answer to a higher authority will advocate, or use it, or perhaps merely give aid and comfort to those who do.

Here's an example of a position most non-activists (and many higher-profile activists themselves) would call "extreme":

'I don't think you'd have to kill too many [researchers]. I think for five lives, 10 lives, 15 human lives, we could save a million, 2 million, 10 million non-human lives.
That's Dr. Jerry Vlasak, director of the Animal Defense League, and leader of the campaign against Huntingdon Life Sciences -- a lab which conducts animal research. According to today's Inquirer, Dr. Vlasak's wife, a former child actress who once played the Peanut's "Lucy" character, took over the activist group after the president was indicted. (Today's Inquirer piece focuses on the New Jersey trial of the anti-Huntingdon activists.)

The Wikipedia entry about the group makes note of a rather grim warning delivered to anyone connected with Huntingdon:

"A new era has dawned for those who fund the abusers and raise funds for them to murder animals with. You too are on the hit list: you have been warned. If you support or raise funds for any company connected with Huntingdon Life Sciences we will track you down, come for you and destroy your property with fire."
Gee. I'd almost swear that sounded like a religious fatwa.

Elsewhere, Vlasak calls murder a "morally justifiable solution."

As the Inquirer confirms, for the most part, the activists' tactics don't include murder; they're just behaving as plain old activists:

The activists say they have driven 300 companies away from Huntingdon and persuaded the New York Stock Exchange to pull back from listing Huntingdon at the last minute.

"That's probably not exaggerated," Hanley said. "These are huge, multinational companies they've brought to their knees."

In 2004, the activists targeted Focal Communications, a Philadelphia company that provided phone and Internet service to Huntingdon.

They followed one executive to her West Chester home, passed out flyers to her neighbors, and held a noisy "home demonstration" in the street.

At the company's Center City offices, Focal got bomb threats, the fax machine spit out nothing but black pages, and the e-mail system was jammed with 15,000 messages, each hundreds of pages.

The protests and harassment stopped only after Focal agreed to sever ties with Huntingdon - and provided the activists with written proof.

I keep saying that ordinary people do not understand the nature of activism, and I mean it. It may be impossible to get them to understand it, because any discussion about tactics tends to degenerate into debates involving of the merits of the arguments. (And as I have remarked many times, there is no winning arguments. Not when they are advanced as tactics.)

For example, even though I'm unwilling to compare these things to the Holocaust, I don't like abortion, and I don't like experimentation on animals. I don't like cruelty to elephants, either. But when I'm talking about activists' tactics, what I think about the merits not only isn't the point, it isn't even relevant.

But they will make it relevant, because their issues advance their underlying philosophy -- which is all that matters to them. These issues are more important than the debate over them, because debate is only seen as a tactic. Ordinary people fail to understand this, and they get caught up in figuring out ways to meet their demands, to make them go away -- anything to quiet them down. It's appeasement, and in the short term, it always seems to work. That is, until demands escalate, and new targets are chosen.

Last year, when I posted about the local campaign to force the Philadelphia Zoo to get rid of its elephants, I did so in order to contrast the winning strategy of the activists with the losing "strategy" (if it can be called that) of the people who might oppose them. It wasn't my goal to focus on the elephant issue itself, because that's no more "my" issue than abortion. I have my thoughts, and like any other non-activist they might change from time to time, but I don't really claim to have all the answers. That's because I don't subscribe to any overarching moral philosophy about these things -- especially the idea that zoos should be abolished, that we should all be vegans, etc.

Most of those of us who hold absolute positions and views on these subjects are not activists, though. It is one thing to believe that abortion is wrong and morally evil; it is quite another to spend every spare moment doing things like chaining yourself to a door, publishing web sites with names and home addresses of physicians, or advocating murder. (Or, by pointedly reminding ordinary people that while you don't agree with the tactic of murder, you "understand the rage.")

This may come as a shock to readers, but I think the 1998 murder of Barnett Slepian by an abortion activist was an effective tactic. I no more agree with the extremist philosophy of murderous anti-abortion activists than I agree with the extremist philosophy of Dr. Vlasak, but the fact is, assassination works. Vlasak is right; a few murders can prevent many animal deaths. And a few murdered doctors can act as a powerful deterrent.

Here's activist Michael Bray:

The termination of the murderer was a deed quite consistent with Mr. Kopps life of service for the innocent, brutalized womb children of America. It was a good deed that brought peace for many innocents through the death of a wicked serial killer.

While the Slepian assassination was officially condemned by mainstream anti-abortion organizations, there's movement which has been called an "underground railroad" which aided assisted him along the way.

As in the case of animal experimenters, activists run web sites which publish the names of doctors who perform abortions.

Back to today's Inquirer. Here's Pamelyn Ferdin, wife of Dr. Vlasak:

"They're innocent, above-ground activists who have been targeted because the government can't find the people throwing bricks," said Pamelyn Ferdin, an activist and former child actress who did the bossy voice of Lucy in some of the Peanuts specials. She took over the activist group after its president was indicted.

"A Web site is just a source of information," she said. "You can't blame a Web site if someone takes that information and goes out and commits illegal acts."

The activists regularly posted personal information about Huntingdon employees, including home addresses, home phone numbers, the names of their children - even where their children went to school.

Although a disclaimer says the group does not condone illegal tactics, the site also posted anonymous messages that bragged about vandalism and encouraged others to "go get them."

Such "informational" web sites are, of course, nothing new. In the case of the anti-abortion activists who do it too, despite the connection with Dr. Slepian's murder, the right to publish names has been held to be a matter of free speech:
The activists had argued the posters were protected under the First Amendment because they were merely a list of doctors and clinics not a threat. They maintained they collected data on doctors in hopes of one day putting them on trial, just as Nazi war criminals were at Nuremberg.

"I think it's a great relief that our posters are just as protected by the First Amendment as the posters of any other movement," said Christopher A. Ferrara, the attorney who represented the activists.

"We were all accused of creating an umbrella of fear in the minds of abortionists that it wasn't safe for them to go to work," said Don Treshman, 57, of Baltimore, one of the activists.

During the trial, U.S. District Judge Robert Jones instructed the jury to consider the history of violence in the anti-abortion movement, including three doctors killed after their names appeared on the lists.

One was Dr. Barnett Slepian, who was killed by a sniper in 1998 at his home near Buffalo, N.Y. Slepian's name was crossed out on the Nuremberg Files Web site later that same day.

Doctors who were on the list testified that they lived in constant fear, used disguises, bodyguards and bulletproof vests, and instructed their children to crouch in the bathtub if they heard gunfire.

Ditto the families of Huntingdon Life Sciences employees. Here's CNN's report on the New Jersey story:
Many targets testified that the harassment made them look over their shoulders when walking or driving, move or change their phone numbers, keep their kids from playing outdoors, and prompted several to buy guns.

Sally Dillenback said her young son would often crouch by the door brandishing a 5-inch kitchen knife when the doorbell rang, promising to protect his mommy.

"He told me not to worry," she testified last week. "He said he was going to get the animal people. Once I found him at the garage door with a knife. That was his state of mind. He was a 7-year-old boy."

Dillenback broke into tears as she recounted an anonymous e-mail that threatened her son.

"The person asked how I would feel if they cut open my son, Brad, and filled him with poison the way Huntingdon does with the animals," she said, breaking into tears. "That was devastating for me to see something like that."

The kid should have thought about that before he selected such an evil mother. Birth has consequences, you know. And if you think that child suffered, why, it's nothing compared to how the animals suffer. Maybe they should cut him open and fill him with poison.

Blogging about this is not fun. That's because fanaticism (which is what activism is) is never fun. Philosophies which subordinate means to an end are never fun.

But I guess I should console myself. Some activists take even cartoons as seriously as abortion and animal research. It's now old news, but here's last week's fatwa:

An Islamic court in India has issued a fatwa, or religious decree, condemning to death the 12 artists who drew the controversial images of the prophet Mohammed according to News.com. "The decree was issued on behalf of the Idar-e-Sharia Darul Kaza Islamic court in northern Uttar Pradesh state by its religious head in the state capital, Lucknow.

"Death is the only penalty for the cartoonists who had drawn sacrilegious cartoons of the prophet," Maulana Mufti Abul Irfan, the religious head of the court, said."

"The court's ruling is binding on Muslims, but can be challenged under Indian law.

Mr Irfan said it was clearly written in the Muslim holy book, the Koran, that anyone who insulted the prophet deserved to be punished.

He said the fatwa was applicable wherever Muslims live.

Fatwas are just another tactic. They're a form of protected free speech, whether we agree with them or not.

My point is, fatwas are effective. So are threats of endless protests:

"We won't stop the protests until the world obeys Islamic law."
Of course, we can "disagree" with the fatwas, or the protests. But I think it's worth remembering that with people who think this way, it's not possible to simply "agree to disagree," especially when one side deems itself possessed of and answering to higher moral authority.

This is true wherever activists live.

When I served on the Berkeley Police Review Commission, I was threatened by activists who wanted me to vote their way on issues relating to "People's Park" -- a place they considered to be "sacred ground." They handed out leaflets on which were printed my name and home address which told the crowd to take "whatever action" their conscience deemed necessary -- the usual activist lingo. I've had a rather dim view of activists ever since.

The problem is, I was once an activist myself, so I have mixed feelings about condemning people for doing what I once did.

All I can do for now is remind ordinary people that when they are dealing with activists that they are not dealing with people like themselves.


MORE: Writing about intimidation in Holland, Glenn Reynolds has some thoughts I consider applicable here:

When other groups decide that the way to get favorable press is to use violence, those who have wimped out now will have no one to blame but themselves. As a reader emailed me a while back, what use is a free press if it doesn't believe in free speech?

People talk about Eurabia, but what's really happened is that Europe has become Weimarized, with governments and institutions too morally and intellectually weak to stand up for the principles they pretend to embody. And we know what that led to last time . . . .

He's right. The problem is, it's not always fun standing up for principles.


MORE: Lest anyone think I am proposing "counter-activism," I am not. I'm talking about little things. Like occasionally saying "no" to a shrill and unreasonable demand.

A little thing like that seems simple enough. In fact, if you're part of a majority of ordinary people who'd like to do things like take the kids to the Zoo, it seems so simple as to be a no-brainer.

(Until, that is, you say no to an activist. . .)

UPDATE (03/03/06): The animal rights activists in New Jersey were convicted:

TRENTON - An animal-rights group and six members were convicted yesterday of using their Web site to incite threats, harassment and vandalism against a company that tests drugs and household products on animals.

The group, Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty, maintained its actions were protected under the First Amendment.

The government charged that the group waged a five-year campaign against Huntingdon Life Sciences, posting on its Web site information about the lab's employees and those who do business with Huntingdon, including their home phone numbers, addresses, and where their children attended school.

Many of those people saw their homes vandalized, and they and their families received threatening e-mails, faxes and phone calls. Many were also besieged by protesters parading with photos of mutilated animals and screaming "Puppy killer!" through megaphones at all hours outside their homes.

One woman said she received an e-mail threatening to cut her 7-year-old son open and stuff him with poison. A man said he was showered with glass as people smashed all the windows of his home and overturned his wife's car.

The defendants were not accused of directly making threats or carrying out vandalism. Instead, they were charged with inciting the harassment with their Internet postings.

Their group, based in Philadelphia, and six of its members were charged with animal enterprise terrorism, stalking and other offenses. The charges carry two to five years in prison and fines up to $250,000.

Had I been an attorney for the defense, I might not have gone along with testimony like this:
Also testifying was one of the defendants, Joshua Harper, who said that he opposes injuring any life form, including humans.

But he also said it was all right to throw rocks through someone's window as long as the person wasn't home.

Juries tend to be unsympathetic to people who think such things are "all right."

UPDATE (03/05/06): I wasn't following the trial closely, so I can only speculate about why the jury wasn't intimidated as people in positions of authority so often are. But Glenn Reynolds links to Timothy Garton Ash's piece in the Guardian, which identifies the same mentality I've been complaining about:

the main threats to freedom of thought, freedom of speech and freedom of association no longer come from the totalitarian ideological superstate that inspired George Orwell to write his 1984. (First line, for the few readers who may not have caught the opening allusion: "It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.") That totalitarian horror still exists in places like Burma, but the distinctive feature of this new danger is the creeping tyranny of the group veto.

Here the animal rights campaign has something in common with the extremist reaction to the cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, as seen in the attacks on Danish embassies. In both cases, a particular group says: "We feel so strongly about this that we are going to do everything we can to stop it. We recognise no moral limits. The end justifies the means. Continue on this path and you must fear for your life." I don't claim that the two cases are strictly comparable. Human lives are saved by medicines developed as a result of tests on animals; no comparable good is achieved by the republication of cartoons of the prophet. But the mechanism of intimidation is very similar, including the fact that it works across frontiers and is therefore hard to tackle by national laws or law enforcement agencies.

If the intimidators succeed, then the lesson for any group that strongly believes in anything is: shout more loudly, be more extreme, threaten violence, and you will get your way. Frightened firms, newspapers or universities will cave in, as will softbellied democratic states, where politicians scrabble to keep the votes of diverse constituencies. But in our increasingly mixed-up, multicultural world, there are so many groups that care so strongly about so many different things, from fruitarians to anti-abortionists and from Jehovah's Witnesses to Kurdish nationalists. Aggregate all their taboos and you have a vast herd of sacred cows. Let the frightened nanny state enshrine all those taboos in new laws or bureaucratic prohibitions, and you have a drastic loss of freedom. That, I think, is what is happening to us, issue by issue.

Mr. Ash's bottom line:
Facing down intimidation, backed by the threat of violence, is the key to resisting the creeping tyranny of the group veto. Here there can be no compromise.
(If only I could figure out what made a New Jersey jury braver than a city commission....)

posted by Eric on 02.28.06 at 12:06 PM










Comments

People who have an obsession will always have an inherent advantage over those who don't. Obsession is focused, while the normal state of mind is not. Think of it as the difference between standard sunlight and that focused through a magnifying glass. Regular sunlight doesn't cause much in the way of damage, but focused sunlight can start fires... and heaven help us from those people who are lasers.

B. Durbin   ·  February 28, 2006 12:38 PM

Wow, great post Eric.

Harkonnendog   ·  February 28, 2006 3:03 PM

I guess the Detroit Zoo director, Ron Kagan, also is part of this agenda.
Is he an "activist"? He closed down the elephant exhibit in the Detroit Zoo and sent the elephants to a sanctuary.

Just trying to understand where your boundaries of "activism" lie.

Rowan Morrison   ·  March 1, 2006 6:36 AM

Decadence is just a girl who can't say no.

I think if the the zoo people cave it will be because of Rand's First Law of Compromise: "In any conflict between two men (or two groups) who hold the same basic principles, it is the more consistent one who wins."*

The zoo people probably have the same beliefs as the activists. They probably think people are part of the food chain with no special dispensation**; that keeping animals locked up is akin to wrongful imprisonment of men; that zoos are unjust, a necessary evil that in the modern age may not even be that necessary.

The activists believe the exact same things, only they actually mean it. When the two groups finally come to blows, the zoo folk won't have a leg to stand on. On every issue their attempts to assert their own position will wind up supporting 99% of the activists' position, who will only differ in their willingness to take the final step. The zoo keepers hate humans - the activists hate humans and want to do something about it. In such a debate, the zoo will lose.

* - This is from her essay Anatomy Of Compromise in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. One of the best things she wrote.

** - Remember that a London zoo a while back displayed people in the cages to illustrate humanity as a "plague species".

Brian   ·  March 1, 2006 8:14 AM

Is Ron Kagan an activist? I don't recall saying he was. If Hoskins did the same thing, would that make him an activist?

Here's Gary Yourofsky -- vegan activist -- who likes Ron Kagan, but who doesn't consider him an activist:

**QUOTE**Actually people are shocked that I befriended Ron Kagan a Detroit zoo director over the years. Ron happens to be a pretty cool guy; he hates circuses and rodeos, fur, hunting, and vivisection. He doesnt get the vegetarian and veganism stuff and obviously the zoo stuff because Id be asking him to condemn himself. Ive befriended him over the years. He speaks publicly and condemns circuses and all those other things but to ask Ron to say the zoos are animal prisons, its just not going to happen. And why he doesnt see that is because he thinks hes doing a great job. Always in complete denial I guess, its mixed in and who knows why. Ill be honest with you; Im one of the most honest activists out there as I like to say, Id rather have Ron Kagan of the Detroit zoo than any other person in that industry. I think hes the worlds preeminent zoologist. I think hes a really, really nice guy even though I dont like the fact that hes the warden of the animal prison in Detroit, I cannot deny that Ron Kagan is a very cool guy. He meets with me whenever I want; he calls me before he goes into meetings with the city council on trying to end pound seizures at the Detroit animal control shelters and selling animals to research labs, or ending the gassing of animals at the DAC where they still gas them. He called me and said, I just got a meeting with the city council what should I say again. I think hes a really cool guy and youd be hard pressed to find someone in that field that would sit there and talk with me. Remember when I said (in the speech) I dont go out there to be enemies with anybody. I know I end up being an enemy to a lot of people, but Id like to make Ron see the light and make Stone Apple Valley see the light. Im trying to get Ron interested in setting up some animal rights lectures at the zoo if you can believe that.***QUOTE***

http://www.veganvanguard.com/vegism/yourofsky_interview.html

Eric Scheie   ·  March 1, 2006 8:45 AM

Great post Eric... Glad to see all the activity here recently.

Sean   ·  March 2, 2006 2:15 PM

So, it's okay for Ron Kagan to want elephants to go to a sanctuary, but the beginning of the end of the world as we know it (or at least, no kids will be able to see "Jimmy the Hippo" or his equivalent ever again) if someone else does?

Straining to follow your logic...


Rowan Morrison   ·  March 3, 2006 3:06 AM

...beginning of the end of the world as we know it?

You're putting words in my mouth, and I need not dispute what I did not say.

I do think it's pretty clear that if the animal rights philosophy prevails, there will be no more zoos (something I think would be bad for the world; not the end of it). There are degrees of activism, just as there are degrees of appeasement. I can't put words in your mouth, as I've no idea whether you want to close zoos.

I sincerely hope that your group will stop with elephants. (But it's worth noting that anti-smoking activists began by demanding no-smoking "sections," and now many of them are demanding that people not smoke in their own homes.)

Eric Scheie   ·  March 3, 2006 7:44 AM

OK - after following this series - how do you stop the process? How do you challenge the incremental, carefully-designed-to-be-reasonable arguments at each stage of the game?

Here in Israel, conservatives and patriots have consistently been correct in our predictions of increased terror, increased demands, increased deligitimization of Israel - but that has not stopped the left-leaning media from leading the general populace down into the current abyss, one grassy-greeen step at a time... painting us as worryworts, fanatics, and cassandras.

Even though we've been proven correct.

So - how to break the cycle?

Ben-David   ·  March 6, 2006 8:16 AM

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