When the East Coast earthquake hit last week, I was on the phone to Washington D.C., talking with the Devil.
Yes, there are many devils in Washington these days, depending on where you’re standing. But this particularly one has managed to make herself the Evil One to at least two wholly separate demographics, each of which view the other like a vampire views the morning sun. That’s no easy trick these days.
Her name is Ingrid Newkirk, and she’s the co-founder, leader and animating spirit of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), and to call her controversial is to call a hurricane a “spot of rain.” She eats controversy for breakfast – hold the bacon, please.
For more than 30 years of brazen and near absolutist defense of animals to live free from the exploitation of humans, Newkirk has been Public Enemy No. 1 for those to whom hunting animals – and/or eating them – is a way of life. But she’s also become a scourge for many feminists who believes she contributes to the sexual exploitation of women, and who are generally no friends to the radical carnivore crowd. Imagine being in an elevator with Ingrid Newkirk, Ted Nugent and Gloria Steinem, an equilateral triangle of mutual contempt.
And how did this come to be? If you are at all paying attention, it is not news to you that PETA has for years used human flesh to protect animal flesh. The group’s “I’d Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur” ad campaign in the 1990s launched a long-standing and still robust effort to use sex to raise the group’s profile, and nobody can argue that it hasn’t worked. You can’t even count the number of models and quasi-celebrities who’ve posed nude in cheesecake posters for PETA – though, if you’re a 17-year-old boy, you’ve probably tried.
Now comes news that PETA’s naked ambitions have jumped into an entirely new, and positively weird, evolutionary realm. This month, it was announced that PETA has registered for the new .xxx Internet domain in order to create pornography to promote animal welfare and vegetarianism, a move we should call the Full Employment Act for Jay Leno’s Joke Writers.
If that sounds like going from a vodka-and-tonic after work to swigging moonshine out by the dumpsters, well, Newkirk doesn’t care what you think.
“I’m a feminist,” she told me just a few minutes after an earthquake shook PETA’s offices in Washington. “There are different ways to look at feminism. My generation, we fought for the right to take our clothes off.”
OK, see what she’s doing there, students of rhetoric and communication? She’s slyly putting her critics in the realm of rabid Taliban-like patriarchal lunatics who make women wear head-to-toe tents in public to repress their own sexual thoughts. This woman is no amateur.
“I don’t think it’s sexist in any way for a woman – for political reasons, or for any reasons – to shed her clothes,” said Newkirk, who will be visiting Scotts Valley next month in an event hosted by the local group Center for Animal Protection and Education (CAPE). “It’s just become knee-jerk feminism to tut-tut women who want to do what they want with their own bodies.”
In PETA’s case, though, the messenger is threatening to overwhelm the message. Not only does the group use nudity (almost always female, by the way) in its ads, naked protesters are a significant part of its street actions as well. If putting a young woman wearing nothing but a little paint in a cage really evoked disgust at how animals are treated, that’s one thing. But these kinds of images poke around in that dangerous territory between disgust and arousal. And that’s what so infuriates people.
Newkirk, however, is unbowed.
“We seize every opportunity,” said Newkirk about the recent move into the porn business. “A lot of people will be looking at those sites. Like it or lump it, pornography is a favorite habit for millions of people. We would not be doing our job if we ignored it. If we can get an animal message on a triple-X site, fantastic.”
What she’s practicing here, of course, is classic ends-justify-the-means thinking, an intellectual construct that has led to both great good and great evil. It is, in fact, at the heart of just about any ethical action that we all undertake every day.
In the late few decades, awareness of the suffering of animals for human purposes, not to mention vegetarianism, has gone from a far-out, fringey concern to a thoroughly mainstream idea – Bill Clinton, for goodness sake, recently came out as a vegan. And, love it or hate it, PETA probably deserves a good deal of credit for raising that kind of awareness.
But Newkirk – who, it should be noted, was a very gracious and considerate interviewee – is applying one set of principles in her chosen realm, and another when it comes to sexism. Eating a ham sandwich, she would contend, may be, in some small way, the first step on a road that leads to appalling animal abuse. But, to her, the idea that a naked woman on a poster might lead, in the same small way, to the abuse and repression of women is absurd.
Her attitude may, in fact, come from an 11th century English legend that became one of the greatest publicity stunts in the history of Western culture, when an English noblewoman rode naked through the streets to protest taxation.
“I just love the Lady Godiva idea,” she said.
Yeah, a thousand years later, we’re still talking about that one.
Listen to Wallace Baine, with Richard Stockton every Sunday at 7:30 p.m. on KUSP (88.9 FM) or truefictionradio.net