We’ve known about Daniel Redwood for a while now, as he is an accomplished musician, and the force behind the new CD, Songs for Animals, People and the Earth. Well, Daniel wears many hats, and writing is one of them. He’s also a very thoughtful activist, and we are delighted to welcome him to Our Hen House today to shed light on a book by a truly brilliant thinker and advocate for animals, Norm Phelps. Today, Daniel is reviewing Phelps’ e-book, Changing the Game: Why the Battle for Animal Liberation Is So Hard and How We Can Win It.
Book Review: Changing the Game: Why the Battle for Animal Liberation Is So Hard and How We Can Win It by Norm Phelps
Review by Daniel Redwood
Norm Phelps is a veteran animal rights activist whose books include The Dominion of Love: Animal Rights According to the Bible (Lantern Books, 2002), The Great Compassion: Buddhism and Animal Rights (Lantern Books, 2004), and The Longest Struggle: Animal Advocacy from Pythagoras to PETA (Lantern Books, 2007). His writings on the spiritual and religious roots of animal rights stand as a unique contribution to the movement. Scholarly yet fully engaged, his words are imbued with compassion and a burning desire to move humanity ever closer to the embodiment of principles for which its spiritual traditions too often provide lip service but little more.
Phelps’ new book, Changing the Game: Why the Battle for Animal Liberation Is So Hard and How We Can Win It (Lantern Books, 2013) – available only in e-book format – positions the contemporary animal rights movement within the continuing story of the social justice movements of the 20th and 21st centuries, noting that while it shares some of those other movements’ core characteristics – defending the weak against the powerful, advocating for their moral parity, and basing its appeals on compassion and empathy – there are also dramatic differences.
These differences are easy to overlook. In the long forward march of all other social justice movements in the United States – minority rights, women’s rights, labor rights, and gay rights – the oppressed groups played a central role in their own liberation. They could speak for themselves, testify about their oppression and their needs, serve as the movement’s core constituency, provide its most committed activists and leaders, and correct well-meaning allies whose understanding of their plight was inaccurate or incomplete.
Animals cannot contribute to the animal rights movement in these ways. “Try to imagine a civil rights movement led and conducted entirely by whites with no mechanism to get regular, reliable feedback from blacks,” Phelps asks. “Or a feminist movement led and conducted entirely by men with no mechanism to get regular, reliable feedback from women. The thought boggles the mind. And yet that is where we are in the animal rights movement.”
Moreover, the oppression of animals has lasted far longer than the forms of oppression that sparked other social justice movements, in one form or another crossing all national, ethnic, and cultural boundaries. Because animal slavery and slaughter are not specific to any particular religion, nation, or economic system, abandoning or overthrowing such systems or regimes will not solve the problem. Animal oppression, Phelps asserts, is the “universal crime … more securely embedded in our psychology and culture than any other form of despotism.”
Phelps then points out something less obvious and ultimately more hopeful – that in the United States and much of the Western world, the entire history of the modern animal rights movement (from the 1970s to the present) has taken place during a period of “conservative consensus,” historically the most difficult of times for any social justice movement to achieve significant progress. In contrast, the period of liberal consensus between the 1930s and the 1970s saw major breakthroughs in social justice for workers, women, and minorities. Phelps describes that era as one “that by any reasonable standard would have to be regarded as one of the most remarkable periods of human progress in the history of the world.”
In such eras of liberal consensus, even conservative leaders do not seriously challenge the fundamental assumptions of the liberal worldview; in conservative eras such as ours, the reverse is true. As Phelps illustrates, “Just as conservative presidents Eisenhower and Nixon made no serious efforts to dismantle liberal programs, Obama has made no serious effort to overturn the conservatives’ philosophy of social Darwinism and unregulated cutthroat capitalism.” He describes the conservative consensus as characterized by “substantive attacks on the idea that caring for the well-being of the people is a legitimate function of government.”
For readers, Phelps describes how the implications of this situation for the animal rights movement are profound, if often unrecognized. “The civil rights movement had nearly 20 years to make progress in the [liberal] consensus’ nurturing environment, while the women’s movement had barely ten and the gay and lesbian movement no more than five. Timing is everything, and the animals’ movement had the great misfortune of coming into being just as the liberal consensus was passing into history. Animal rights is the orphan child of the 1960s.”
Phelps’ long-term optimism springs from the fact that all such eras have a beginning and an end and his belief that a new progressive era is now on the horizon. “We are approaching a period of social upheaval that promises to combine the concern for economic justice that characterized the 1930s with the impulse toward social justice that defined the 1960s.” When this period of opportunity emerges, Phelps says, it will bring with it the potential for major breakthroughs in many areas, including animal rights. While this situation by no means guarantees success, it will differ markedly from the current conservative era, in which the strategic focus of progressive activists, including animal rights activists, has been to prevent major steps backward rather than to achieve major steps forward.
With the long-arc view of an elder, Phelps proposes a series of directional guideposts for current and future animal rights activists, a Seven-Point Program for Changing the Game. First, however, he cautions that “animal slavery and slaughter will end when and only when four conditions coincide.”
1. Our society enters an era that is sympathetic to progressive social justice causes and accepting of rapid, radical social change. 2. There is a genuine and broadly based universal liberation movement that pursues justice for humans, animals and the environment together. 3. The animal liberation movement establishes its identity in the public mind as a public social justice movement (such as civil rights or women’s rights) rather than a private morality movement (such as prohibition or the war on drugs). 4. The movement adopts a two-track strategy, pursuing both agitation and politics.
Regarding agitation and politics, this review cannot do justice to Phelps’ detailed and evidence-based case for combining agitation (the abolitionist wing of the movement) and politics (the animal welfare wing). Basically, he is saying that the bird can’t fly without two healthy wings and that no social justice movement has ever succeeded without both agitators and politicians. Readers of Changing the Game will develop a full appreciation of the clarity and elegance of Phelps’ thinking on this subject.
Here is a brief summary of the Seven Point Program with which Phelps closes the book. He addresses each of the points in detail.
- Align the cause of oppressed animals with the cause of oppressed human beings. “When the new age of social change arrives, it will be essential for the leaders of that change to be on the side of animals.”
- Align with the environmental movement, establishing animal rights as essential to the protection of the planet.
- Establish animal rights as a compassionate social justice movement in the progressive public tradition.
- Create a pedagogy of animal liberation based on findings of contemporary ethologists (who study animal behavior) like Mark Beckoff, Victoria Braithwaite, Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, and others.
- Practice two-track activism.
- Present animal liberation as a universal human value, with deep roots in both East and West.
- Maintain nonviolence in fact and rhetoric.
Changing the Game could prove as valuable to animal rights activists of the 2010s and 2020s as Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals was for the generation of community organizers who came of age after the 1960s, or Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed for educators and activists of the same era. I suspect that nothing would please Phelps more.
Daniel Redwood is a vegan singer-songwriter whose new album of animal rights music, Songs for Animals, People and the Earth, can be heard and downloaded at www.danielredwoodsongs.com. He is also a professor at Cleveland Chiropractic College – Kansas City.