Friday, October 19, 2007

Half a Superbunny autobio is better than none

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, autobiographies, activism, animal rights

For years, I've wondered, "Just what is PETA anyhow?" I happened to see the back of this book first, and once it caught my eye, it didn't take long to find that the Rabbit-Man is none other than Dan Mathews, a VP at PETA. The book is Committed: A Rabble-Rouser's Memoir.

Dan is a master of getting attention. Of course, since just about day one in school, it was usually attention of the unpleasant kind. His schoolmates had him pegged for a "fag" long before he adopted the label. Now he's almost as active in gay rights as he is for animal rights. But he took the lemon and made lemonade. He's had a couple decades to hone his craft, which now consists of three steps:
  1. Attempt a civil approach with a target person or organization, whether Calvin Klein or KFC. This is usually fruitless.
  2. Subject a number of said target's employees, including the CEO or other honcho when possible, to an amusing, outrageous slice of Hell for a short period (minutes, hours, sometimes days). This sometimes prompts a change of direction...or at least of things said about direction.
  3. In rare cases, someone like Calvin Klein will send a message, "Why didn't you just ask to see me?" and the answer is, "We really, really tried with [documented] results." The ensuing sit-down usually gets the best results.
Dan's earlier "work" was more heavily weighted on step 2, until he learned "that apathy and indifference are more easily conquered with charm than antagonism", as he writes on page 56.

However, institutions and important people are often very, very insulated. It can take a lot to get their attention. Getting attention is what Dan Mathews does best. Whether posing as a big rabbit, or carrot, or as a priest, in formal dress or none whatever, he gets attention.

I've been quite put off for years by the PETA tactics. Now I understand a little better. Almost by happenstance, PETA performed two "actions" on behalf of a Harvard class. First, they did a version of "I'd rather wear nothing than furs". That got Dan and one or two others arrested for indecent exposure. Then, taking one student's suggestion, they had a much more civil demonstration. The first event was seen by millions; the second, by scarcely a dozen. The students got the point.

It is a pity such tactics are required, just to get someone to sit still to hear a complaint. In the face of some real, and really dangerous, fanatics out there, PETA is actually rather innocuous. They are also useful. We need our gadflies, our finger-pointers, our loud 'voice of conscience' activists, to give civilization at least a ghost of a chance at being truly civil.

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