Why they fight


In Jean de Brunhoff’s 1931 children’s book, The Story of Babar, a young African elephant sees his mother shot by a hunter; he runs off, not deeper into the jungle, but (somehow) to Paris. There, he is taken in by a kindly and rich old woman, and learns the pleasures and virtues of urban civilization before eventually becoming homesick and returning to Africa, where he becomes King of the Elephants and helps his subjects adopt an improved lifestyle based largely on human ways. It is a delightful and amusingly surreal story that can be read to children as often as they like. They will learn the horrible truth soon enough.

Continue reading

A List in Response To A News: Take My Cats, Please. Seriously. I’m Going to Freak Out.


What’s that you say?  A cat lady on the Upper West Side?  How weird.

My Cats or My Future Baby?

  1. Barf on the floor
  2. Poop on the floor
  3. Pee on the floor
  4. Has a brain larger than a handful of grapes
  5. Sleep on my mom’s nice chairs so that I keep getting up with what Best Friend Lindsey calls a “diaper of cat hair”
  6. Not have such judgey-looking eyes
  7. Grow up to be a functioning creature capable of actual conversation and feelings
  8. Scream and claw at my locked bedroom door at 6am so that I will get up and feed them cat food
  9. Purr loudly like some kind of 4th grade nerd while I’m trying to research how Kim Kardashian lost so much weight
  10. Be cute and not annoying
  11. Not freak out when I want to dress it in a cute outfit
  12. Not be covered in hair
  13. Not cover everything I own in hair, causing drafts from opening and closing doors to blow cat-hair tumbleweeds across the floor
  14. Not be crouched on my bedroom floor glancing awkwardly from me to the pile of vomit under its chin
  15. Be worthy of my love
  16. Not barf into the box of old newspapers that I was about to put out with the recycling
  17. Not make me want to drown it
  18. Not chase its friend down the hallway, leap onto my computer desk knocking over my tea, run over my keyboard typing weird garbage into my email to my boss, then barf on the floor
  19. Love me back

Future baby: 4, 6, 7, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19

My Cats: 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 9

Felix the Cat & Blackface

Felix, a happy-go-lucky trickster. Is he presidential material?
Felix, a happy-go-lucky trickster. Is he presidential material?

Snorting has greeted Niall Ferguson’s new column, which begins like this:

President Barack Obama reminds me of Felix the Cat. One of the best-loved cartoon characters of the 1920s, Felix was not only black. He was also very, very lucky.

But aside from derision, Ferguson’s comments deserve some analysis. There is a reason why Ferguson, when he looks upon a cartoon character from the 1920s, lets his mind free-associate in the direction of black people. As many cultural historians have pointed out, the classic American animated cartoons emerged from the same milieu that produced blackface performances (like the Amos and Andy show) and minstrel music. Many of the great early animated characters — Felix the Cat, Mickey Mouse, Bosko — had more than a touch of blackface and the minstrel show to them.

Felix the cat is a feckless, happy-go-lucky trickster. Culturally, he’s the missing link between Br’er Rabbit and Bugs Bunny: admirable in some ways but lacking in the “white” qualities of respectability and responsibility. It’s interesting that Ferguson managed to pick out such a potent, meaning-rich cultural symbol of blackness. It was probably subconscious on his part but still very revealing.

Continue reading

The most apropos news photograph never taken

June 3/09 (Reuters): “Dead whale found on bow of Exxon tanker in Alaska”

Oh, how the entire PR unit of ExxonMobil must have gone to bed on Monday night praising God that no photographer happened to be hanging around the terminal the day that tanker came in. But while this particular image-as-metaphor will apparently have to be provided by and preserved in our own imaginations, the report itself does contain one passage of almost poetic sadness:

Neither crew members on the Kodiak nor those aboard the tugs that escorted the tanker during the final approach to Valdez noticed anything out of the ordinary during the transit, said Ray Botto, external affairs manager for SeaRiver Maritime.

“There was nothing that suggested any deviation from standard operating practice,” he said, adding the poor condition of the whale, which had a noticeable stench, suggests it had been dead for a while.

Sums up the whole progress of civilization, somehow, doesn’t it?

Russian Animal Rights Orgy

The museum where the orgy took place.

Not safe for work; not safe for the home; not safe at all: here’s a link I’m hesitant to pass on. Via the great Doug Henwood, a blog account, complete with very graphic photos, of an animal rights rally and orgy that took place at a Russian Biology Museum. While making love on the floor of the museum, the activists chanted slogans about the need for Russia to save its bear population. Apparently the orgy was influenced by pagan Slavic ideas about the intimate connection between human sexuality and the health of Mother Earth. The signs that the activists are holding up read something to effect that “Screw to save our bears.” A very interesting glimpse of Russia at this current moment.  Fair warning: if you’re at all squeamish about sexual matters, don’t look.

Interesting sidelight: the Russian word for bear (“Medved”) is part of the name of the new leader, Medvedev.


An animal rights orgy or a political protest? I got an e-mail from a Russian-born friend saying that I was naive to take this blog account at face value. It wasn’t an animal rights protest but rather a performance art event designed to mock the new Russian president Medvedev (Putin’s hand-picked successor). Medvedev’s name, as I noted above, is Russian for bear and his political party uses the bear as an emblem. My friend was rightly critical of this performance art group, saying that their prank distracts attention from Russia’s many real problems, including an increasingly corrupt and authoritarian regime.

Charles Murray and “Liberal Fascism”

Sans Everything is a blog that supports animal rights. So it seems amiss for me to keep beating the same poor broken-down horse, whether it’s dead or alive. Still, there is one last comment to make about Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning. The book has been enthusiastically endorsed by Charles Murray, a blurb that’s included on the book’s website. “Liberal Fascism is nothing less than a portrait of 20th-century political history as seen through a new prism. It will affect the way I think about that history-and about the trajectory of today’s politics-forever after,” Murray says.

What credibility does Murray have as a critic of fascism? As I noted in two earlier postings, Murray is most famous as the co-author, along with Richard Herrnstein, of The Bell Curve, a book tainted by its reliance on extreme racialists. The writers Muray drew on for his book are not the made-up “liberal fascists” of Goldberg’s imagination (Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Hilary Clinton). Rather, Murray built his case by relying on men who had genuine connections with dictatorial, racialist regimes. One of them was Nathaniel Weyl, a strong supporter of the apartheid-era South Africa.

Continue reading

Science Fiction and Empire: Part the Second

As soon as you write down an idea, you start to realize how it needs to be qualified, expanded, and generally revised. Blogging helps this process along by giving you commentators who jump-start new thoughts. In my earlier post I suggested ways in which science fiction, a literature thematically obsessed with encounters with the alien, was shaped by the childhood experiences of a few key writers, who grew up witnessing colonialism at close hand. Thanks to the bright suggestions from David Sachs and Tim Hodler, I’ve been spurred to append a few additional notes.

 Limits of the theory. First, I should make it clear that I’m not offering a theory of the genre as a whole: the encounter with the alien is a major part of science fiction but doesn’t define the field. There is an entire tradition of gothic science fiction, coming out of Frankenstein, that has little truck with colonialism. (If you go back to the very early days of the blog, you’ll see that I’m trying to map out the relationship between science fiction and real world subjects like religion. The imperialism post is one of a series).

The Essential Ancestors.  There are two key figures who should have been singled out as the crucial instigators of imperialist-tinged science fiction. The obvious name is H.G. Wells, whose The War of the Worlds (1898) is very explicitly an allegory about imperialism. The Martians who nearly conquer the earth are acting out of the same morality that allowed the Europeans to conquer Asia and Africa. The more surprising ancestor is Wells’s great rival, Rudyard Kipling. The author of “The White Man’s Burden” deserves mention here not for his handful of proto-science fiction stories but for books like Kim and his short stories about India. Like Alice Sheldon and Paul Linebarger, Kipling was a child of empire: as a boy he spoke fluent Hindu, taught to him by a servant, and halting English. His literary achievement was to broaden the range of the British novel by introducing into it imperial argot, ranging from barrack-room cockney to bubu English.

Heinlein and Kipling. Kipling entered science fiction through Robert Heinlein. Heinlein was a great reader of the imperialist bard and constantly reworked Kipling-esque themes into science fiction settings. The military ethos of Starship Trooper is pure Kipling, and many of Heinlein’s juveniles (books aimed at teenage boys) follow the core pattern of Kim: a young man from the provinces, cocky but unsure of his identity, is initiated into adulthood through the mentorship of avuncular older men and a grueling rite of passage. Stylistically and thematically, everything in Heinlein can be traced back in to Kipling: the dialogue rich in banter and slang, the sprightly narrative pace, the evocation of an exotic environment through unexplained foreign (or alien) words and inexplicable background details, the anti-modernist faith that the world is fully knowable and conquerable, the didactic insistence on the importance of willpower (as against intelligence) in overcoming adversity, the clipped manly tone that hides a sentimental self-pity, the plebian distrust of intellectuals and other soft guardians of cultural authority, the celebration of engineers, soldiers and other competent men who get the job done without dawdle or time-consuming introspection.

Military Science Fiction. Out of Heinlein came the whole sub-genre of military science fiction: Gordon Dickenson, Jerry Pournelle, David Drake and countless others. It has to be said that Kipling was vastly superior to his children and grandchildren. He really knew how empire worked and his books grapple with genuine questions of moral responsibility. Military science fiction, by contrast, avoids these very questions by creating scenarios where morality is not an issue. In Starship Troopers, you never feel that the killing of the insect-like enemy is at all questionable (animal rights activists might disagree). More than that: the popularity of military science fiction comes from the fact that it allows readers to enjoy stories about war without thinking about the moral costs of killing human beings.

An Epigram. Kipling is to military science fiction as William Gladstone is to George W. Bush and Tony Blair: an ancestor who shames his progeny.

Other branches of the same tree. Of course, imperialist-inflicted science fiction has other branches. Much of it is implicitly anti-imperialist and tries to portray convincing alien civilizations that are treated with anthropological respect. In this regard, two other names should be mentioned: Ursula Kroeber Le Guin (who was surely influenced by the fact that her father was the great anthropologist Alfred Louis Kroeber) and Doris Lessing (the most recent winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, who was born in Iran and grew up in Southern Rhodesia). Many critics have been puzzled by Lessing’s forays into science fiction ( notably the five-volume Canopus in Argos: Archives Series). These books might make more sense of we see that Lessing falls into the same pattern as Alice Sheldon, Paul Linebarger, J.G. Ballard, and Gregory Benford: a child of western parents who grew up in a non-western culture and then tried to grapple with the experience by writing science fiction.

Wayne Pacelle

Wayne Pacelle, reading cockfighting magazines, in 2004 (Photo: Washington Post).

Wayne Pacelle may be the single most effective advocate for animals in North America. Since becomming head of the Humane Society of the United States in 2004, he has turned that organization into one of the most powerful animal protection organizations in existence. Pacelle avoids the more-radical-than-thou approach that has plagued animal advocacy groups in the past and focuses instead on achievable victories. He has proven especially good at organizing and winning animal-related ballot initiatives, something he writes about in the current issue of Newsweek:

No battle was ever easily won. But along the way, something remarkable has happened. In recent years, our cause has moved from the margins to the mainstream. Yes, many of our adversaries still have money and influence, and resist even the most modest reforms. But we have something better—the power of conscience and the votes of the majority. There is a sense that the winds of change are blowing in our direction, and more briskly than ever. Since 1990, I’ve been part of 20 successful ballot-initiative campaigns to end the abuse of animals. We have championed hundreds of new reforms at the state and federal level. There aren’t many issues these days on which both parties can agree, but compassion for animals is a universal value.

We’re even seeing the first stirrings of reform in the abusive treatment of the 10 billion animals a year on factory farms. Voters and lawmakers in Arizona, Florida and Oregon have outlawed confining farm animals in crates so small that they cannot turn around, and Californians will have the chance to do the same in the November 2008 elections. The ballot initiative has the potential to relieve the suffering of 20 million animals in California raised for food.

In Europe and elsewhere animal groups have managed to get reforms through national legislatures. In the United States this has proven far more difficult, given the disproportionate role money plays in U.S. politics and the lobbying efforts of the agricultural industry. Pacelle’s breakthrough has been to find ways around this problem by working at the state level. The 2008 California ballot initiative he mentions is shaping up to be one of the most important animal welfare reforms of its kind. More information about the California campaign is avaialable here. To keep up with HSUS projects check out A Humane Nation, Pacelle’s informative blog.