NOTES FROM A DIARY OF STRUGGLE: FROM EPIPHANIES TO AFTERMATH
by Dr. Steve Best, USA
Author’s Preface: What follows are notes I prepared to address the media in South Africa, as I began the first of three long speaking tours of that beautiful but still-tortured nation.
Ladies and Gentlemen, you are looking at one of the very last people who should be standing on this stage in front of you, in the capacity of being a scholar, writer, activist, and world citizen.
In my youth, I was seemingly headed toward blue collar work at a factory, to prison, or to an early grave, but profound changes in my life set me in different directions. A major theme of my talk tonight is change, growth, development, and evolution. Indeed, as a species, if we are to avert total disaster, we need to take a quantum leap in our moral and social evolution, as the global crises in capitalism and ecology portend catastrophic change and a dystopian future.
The Lost Years
My life got off to a rocky start. My father died when I was five years old. My oldest brother died at age 24 in a plane crash that I also was involved in. Only 11 years old, I was not expected to survive, but I did. Despite two remaining older brothers and one sister, I had no positive inspirations or mentorship whatsoever in my life. I grew up solely on my own devices, making mistake after mistake, barreling down the wrong road at the speed of light.
To quote Malcolm X, “I was born in trouble.” Beginning in kindergarten, I was kicked out of school more than I was allowed in. In high school, I had gravitated to the habit of consuming copious amounts of mind-altering substances and my first three years of high school were passed in a perpetual fog. In my senior year, quite deservedly, I was expelled from school, and from there I graduated to stints in and out of local county jails. My biggest fuck up occurred at age 17, and almost earned me 2-4 years in the notorious Cook County Jail in Chicago, but with a good lawyer and a handsome fee, I got off on 5 years probation.
I was a train wreck waiting to happen. I will say I had some life experiences in these troubled times that added piss, fire, and depth to my character. I drove trucks, delivered newspapers, worked in factories, shot pool, drank beer, fought in bars, chased women, and consumed any drugs that came my way. I was one step away from 4 divorces, 5 kids, 7 bad tattoos, and living in a two-bit trailer.
I found my first love – jazz guitar – and practiced relentlessly until I blew out the tendons in my right hand at age 21. In deep despair and confusion, the only identity and purpose I ever had stripped away from me with a frozen wrist, I decided to get my high school equivalency degree and begin anew by enrolling in a Chicago area community college. Almost 22, I told the student counselor I had no idea what to do and was not interested in anything. The man suggested I begin with humanities and liberal arts courses, and so I signed up for a plate full. After the first class, a switch turned on; I went to the library and checked out a 4 foot-high stack of books and began to read seriously for the first time in my life.
Quite unexpectedly, I fell in love with reading and learning. Working full-time as a bartender at night, during the day I took courses in film, literature, theater, history, art, and philosophy. I graduated with a degree in television production and film directing, and at age 24 I travelled south to the University of Illinois (Champaign-Urbana) to pursue a Masters of Arts degree in theater direction, but the indifferent or hostile faculty I encountered led me to switch majors to philosophy, in which I subsequently earned my Bachelors of Arts, Master’s and Doctorate degrees. Despite a standard paternalistic warning by faculty to reconsider pursuing advanced study in philosophy due to dismal job prospects, I lunged forward because by then I knew nothing but to pursue what I loved and the path of creative thinking.
Little did I realize that only the first few layers of change were peeling off my encrusted psyche and soul. At the University of Illinois, I studied the radical thinkers like Nietzsche, as well as the revolutionary political traditions of Marxism, anarchism, and critical theory. I became intensely interested in politics, and I joined some left-wing campus groups. I was learning about capitalism and the injustices of imperialism and racism, about the lies I was spoon-fed regarding my “great” country and its mission of spreading democracy and freedom throughout the world. I wanted to smash the capitalist system and I became intimate with my hidden affinities for the oppressed and those who suffer injustice or pain in any way.
I immersed myself in organizing support for Central American nations then under relentless attack by Ronald Reagan and US-sponsored and trained juntas and death squads. I was also involved in the anti-apartheid struggle and local environmental groups. With an appetite for creative writing and theatre still burning inside me, I was regularly writing and performing political-conceptual art, street theatre, experimenting with the political–artistic possibilities of Surrealism, and Dadaism, and generally trying to foment subversive thinking and practices of multiple kinds.
My second epiphany happened at age 25, now more than 30 years ago, and it led me down the path of veganism and animal rights. I experienced something sacred within the bowels of the profane. I was in Chicago, during the middle of the night, half-drunk and goddamn hungry. I pulled into a White Castle fast food restaurant and ordered a double cheeseburger. As I always was content with a mere single cheeseburger, I found the double cheese and meat patties to be so excessive, so over the top, just dripping with blood and gore, that I was completely nauseated. For the first time in my carnivorous life, in a total vacuum of information, I made a concrete connection between the processed slop in my hands and the bones, tissues, muscles, tendons, blood, and life of an animal. I suddenly saw in my hands something that came from a slaughterhouse, not a supermarket.
With no prior knowledge of vegetarian issues – no contact with any book, video, speaker, or person of this persuasion – I spit the vile flesh out of my mouth in utter revulsion. I stumbled around in a dietary no man’s land for two months, not knowing what to eat, not wanting this consciousness but unable to shake it. Fortuitously, I met some vegetarians who assured me of the value of horrid new consciousness, mentored me, and set me off in the right direction.
From a Marxist-humanist-carnivore to a health-oriented vegetarian, I evolved to veganism, and doubled back to mediate these concerns with radical politics and social revolution “by any means necessary” as Malcolm so perfectly put it.
Although alert to the health impact of meat and dairy products, I had no clue about the innumerable barbaric ways human beings exploit animals. Even while researching the evils of juntas, death squads, genocide, fascism, and imperialism, my picture of humanity and the world was still too rosy.
That changed in the midst of a third stunning epiphany in 1987 when I read Peter Singer’s book, Animal Liberation. Like so many people, that book changed my life in an instant. I became ill from the emotional stress of what I was learning about the unconscionable exploitation of animals in factory farms, slaughterhouses, vivisection labs, and other human-manufactured hellholes.
Once I recovered from the shock, I morphed into a very different person. Realizing that animals suffered far more than human beings in the quantity and quality of their pain, suffering, and death, I shifted from human rights to animal rights activism. Whereas most human beings have at least some rights, no animals have the most basic right to life and bodily integrity and they needed representation and alliance more than any oppressed human group. When I studied the impact of meat production on world hunger and the environment, I realized that by promoting veganism and animal rights I would also be helping humans in the most productive way possible. I saw veganism and animal rights as the most radical, complete, and holistic forms of activism, having a powerful and positive impact on the crises in human health, world hunger, food shortages, environmental devastation, ubiquitous violence, and the deep and troubling alienation of humanity from the natural world and other life forms.
Many think, for instance, that people should help humans as our first priority and relegate animals to an afterthought at best. They think humans suffer more than animals, which is not true. They think that activism is a zero-sum game, such that one group (humans) gains only if another (all other animal species) loses, which is a capitalist ideology belied by the deep interconnectedness of all life and the natural world. One of the most profound truths I have learned in my life is that the fate of all species stands or falls together, that what we do to the animals we do to ourselves and to the earth, and that promoting animal rights and respect for all life has direct benefits to human society and the environment
Yet I also found my political commitments ridiculed far more than ever before, as animal rights provokes hostility from the arrogant people who enjoy power over animals, from the insecure who boost themselves by demeaning and exploiting animals, and from the guilty who do not want to confront their ignorance and implication in violence against animals. I took heart in the words of Emile Zola: “The fate of animals is of greater importance to me than the fear of appearing ridiculous; it is indissolubly connected with the fate of men.”
The ridicule I received for defending veganism and animal rights was particularly harsh from the radical and Left communities. For leftists have completely assimilated the anthropocentric and speciesist ideologies of agricultural society, Greco-Roman culture, Christianity, modern science, the Enlightenment, and Marxist and anarchist humanism. I grew tired of the inconsistencies and hypocrisies. Over and over again, I listened to humanists, “progressives,” “radicals,” and “peace and justice” activists rail against capitalism, exploitation, and injustice, while devouring the tortured and dismembered carcasses of cows, chickens, pigs, and other sentient beings and fellow animals who were brutally exploited and killed in the industrial capitalist institutions of factory farms and slaughterhouses. Champions of holistic theorizing and systemic analysis, one-dimensional leftists completely miss the origins of hierarchy, slavery, war, racism, environmental ruination, and other profound crises requiring urgent attention, all related to speciesism and interconnected by the hideous chains linking animal exploitation to human exploitation and environmental devastation.
I realized that the “radical” traditions in no way are a liberating philosophy or politics from the standpoint of animals and the environment. I saw Leftism as merely another form of Stalinism toward animals. The Left doesn’t grasp the deep roots of human power pathologies and would only replace capitalist anthropocentrism with socialist anthropocentrism, and could never resolve key social and ecological problems. They operate with pre-scientific, mechanistic models of understanding animal behavior, still cling to dualist oppositions separating humans and animals with an ontological chasm rather than evolutionary continuity, and to this day they are mired in the Dark Ages, the philosophical (animal rights) and scientific (cognitive ethology) revolutions having completely passed them by as new paradigms emerge vital for salvaging the wreckage of psychologically stunted humanity and the metastasizing cancer of “civilization.”
I came to the conclusion that a truly revolutionary social theory and movement will not just emancipate members of one species, but rather all species and the Earth itself. I rejected the humanist cliché — “We Are All One Race, the Human Race” – for a broader vision: “We Are One Community, the Biocommunity.” I saw that all forms of oppression were interrelated, that they were all facets of one odious system of hierarchy with deep roots in speciesism and the domestication of animals that commenced with agricultural society ten thousand years ago. From animal liberation, I evolved to a politics of total liberation, abandoning single-issue approaches in favor of linking human, animal, and earth liberation struggles. Total liberation involves a dialectical theory of interrelated oppression and an alliance politics deeper and more inclusive than anything yet imagines. Its ultimate goal is to revolutionize global capitalism, reconstruct society along anarchist lines, and harmonize the social world with the natural world and respect the autonomy and equal interests nonhuman animals share with us in freedom from exploitation and suffering and freedom to self-determination in their natural habitat and with their own families and communities.
Thus, I evolved from vegetarianism to veganism, and from animal welfarism to animal rights then to animal liberation. At this stop in my journey, I abandoned the baggage of pacifism and lent philosophical and political support to the most dynamic and threatening resistance movements of the last few decades, the Animal Liberation Front and the Earth Liberation Front. Parallel groups that emerged in the 1970s and 1990s respectively, both are organized in decentralized cells, operate underground and anonymous to the public and to one another, and carry out the mission of inflicting maximal harm on exploitative industries through destroying property and liberating animal slaves. Their actions were bold, constant, and effective enough to cost industries hundreds of millions of dollars, to liberate hundreds of animals at a time, and to shut down many operations altogether. After 9/11, the FBI elevated them to the nation’s top two “domestic terrorist” groups after 9/11.
From animal liberation, I moved to a politics of total liberation, abandoning single-issue approaches in favor of linking human, animal, and earth liberation struggles. Total liberation involves a dialectical theory of interrelated oppression and an alliance politics deeper and more inclusive than anything yet imagines. Its ultimate goal is to revolutionize global capitalism, reconstruct society along anarchist lines, dismantle all hierarchical ideologies and institutions, harmonize the social world with the natural world, and respect the autonomy and equal interests nonhuman animals share with us in their desire for freedom from exploitation and suffering and freedom to self-determination in their natural habitat and with their own kind.
The UTEP Years
I landed a tenure-track position in the philosophy department at the University of Texas, El Paso in 1993, and found myself stranded in a geographical and cultural desert. But I immediately set to work waking up the sleepy town. I taught radical topics in my classes, involved my students in protests, and engaged in civil disobedience. I was Vice President of the Vegetarian Society of El Paso; I led a dynamic animal rights group that was the political epicenter of the area; and I was debating, speaking, and intervening on local radio, TV, and print media on a daily basis. I spearheaded a successful drive to free a badly beaten elephant from the El Paso Zoo to a sanctuary in Tennessee; I fought for a new animal shelter, free spay and neutering for low-income families, and aggressive adoption practices. I lobbied the city council and successfully won a vote which made EL Paso the 300th city in the US to declare the USA PATRIOT Act unconstitutional — all the while fending off attacks from colleagues, cops, right-wing media, and politicians.
Unlike the vast majority of academics, I believe that teaching and research should be linked to activism and the urgent issues of the day. I hold that in a world of environmental ruination, species extinction, and predatory global capitalism, academics should not have the luxury to pursue abstract issues that are not related to social transformation and revolutionary change. Rather, they ought to work as organic intellectuals in social movements and communities, using their skills to help understand and transform the dynamics and causes of domination, hierarchy, increasing concentrations of wealth and power among power elites, the ongoing animal holocaust, and planetary ecological meltdown.
As an educator and activist for over thirty years, I can say with confidence that there are few, if any, topics as heated and controversial as animal liberation and veganism, both of which push primordial buttons. Although I have taught radical subjects such as Marxism, anarchism, feminism, postmodernism, queer theory, anti-globalization, post-colonialism, critical race theory, and deep ecology, it was only my discussions of animal liberation and veganism that aroused the ire of colleagues and administrators and provoked intense student interest and debate.
The police chief wrote letters to the university president against my protest and demonstration actions. I was mocked on local right-wing radio. Resentful professors phoned in anonymous complaints based on lies and third-hand rumors. Senior colleagues and administrators admonished me that teaching animal rights was not appropriate (!) for humanities or philosophy. I shot them all down and pumped up the volume.
In 2005, things heated up considerably. In June, a notorious right-wing US Senator, James Inhofe (Okl.) sent letters to me, my department, the university president, and the entire Texas Board of Regents, pressuring me to testify before Senate eco-terrorism hearings due to my open support for and writings on the Animal Liberation Front. Almost subpoenaed, I refused to legitimate this McCarthyesque witch-hunt. The hearings went on without me and were broadcast on C-Span Live before an international audience and an audience packed with top lawmakers and FBI Brass. David Martosko of the Center for Consumer Freedom, a corporate and agribusiness front group, delivered a twenty minute harangue that denounced me as “the leader of the Animal Liberation Front” and a “truly dangerous individual.” He went on to accuse me of recruiting students into the ALF. These were most amusing charges. For there is no leader in a decentralized movement and it certainly was not me. Moreover, I found it challenging to persuade students to attend vegan potluck dinners, let alone to risk a ten year prison term to join me in alleged criminal underground adventures!
In July, after a series of speeches in England on animal liberation, the British Home Office banned me from the entire UK for life, deeming me a “threat to the public order.” My status was elevated from domestic terrorist to international terrorist, and I can never thank them enough for raising my profile. I subsequently suffered political repression from my own university, however, which inspired me to introduce and edit a 600 page volume history and analysis of academic repression and the corporatization of the university in the post-9/11 era. In Academic Repression: Reflections From the Academic-Industrial Complex (AK Press, 2010), I exposed the myth of free speech and featured numerous cases studies of repression, persecution, and firing professors for their political beliefs and activism.
But long before this turbulent time, I began to wonder: Why are people who show compassion to animals mocked and derided? Why are we considered psychologically abnormal or morally flawed? Why are we called everything from bunny huggers to misanthropes to terrorists? Why are the topics of veganism and animal rights so controversial? Why does animal liberation touch a primal and raw nerve in the human psyche and provoke resistance from others and fierce repression from the state? Why is it so threatening?
I concluded that animal rights is subversive and revolutionary on many levels, but to understand this point, one has to appreciate the difference between animal welfare – which every exploiter and speciesist claims to respect – and animal rights, which prohibits any exploitative use of animals and which all parties reject as extremist. Whereas welfarism never challenges the assumption that animals are resources and property for human use, animal rights explodes the prejudices underpinning the hierarchical system of speciesism to insist on equal consideration for the interests of all sentient life. Animal welfare doesn’t change the vast system of animal exploitation that slaughters over one hundred billion innocents every year, it only regulates minor technical and administrative details to “reduce suffering” and kill the endless procession of animals “humanely.” Enlightened people did not ask for a more “humane” Auschwitz, nor did the 19th century abolitionist movement ask for better treatment of the slaves. One does not regulate evil, one abolishes it completely, and the only “humane” way to treat a slave is to free it!
Because animal rights is abolitionist rather than welfarist in logic, it poses two different threats to humans and their societies: first a material or economic threat, and second a psychological threat. Animal rights is a potentially serious economic threat in its goal to eliminate every form of animal exploitation it can bring down, and thereby to end the vast system of animal slavery which is crucial to the growth of the global capitalist machine. In the UK, for instance, where pharmaceutical corporations are the third most important contributor to the economy, activists have shut down numerous breeders, liberated thousands of research animals, attacked multiple laboratories, stopped production of a biomedical facility at Cambridge University, and seriously thwarted plans to build a research complex at Oxford University.
This is very serious indeed, but the psychological threat is deeper. People throughout society are threatened by animal liberation, whether or not they have a direct economic interest in exploiting animals, because it means profound changes in their identities, values, interpersonal relations, and everyday lives. Animal liberation transgresses an inviolable boundary, as deeply rooted and universal as the prohibition against incest. It is considered taboo to challenge the distinction between human and non-human nature. Throughout the entire history of Western civilization, thinkers have built an elaborate lie that reduces animals to machines or things, falsely separates us from the animal kingdom, and arrogantly establishes us as the end to which all other beings are mere means. Animal rights forces us to confront the lies we have told about animals and ourselves.
Whereas prior liberation movements addressed sectors of humanity who were specific oppressors dominating distinct oppressed groups, animal liberation sees all humanity as oppressors; it attacks not just white supremacy or male supremacy, but the larger phenomenon of human supremacy, a universal ideology and everyday practice that cuts across class, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, nation, and other boundaries. Nobel Prize winning author, Isaac Bashevis Singer, stated that, in relation to animals, “all people are Nazis; for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka.”
Animal liberation is revolutionary in that it demands a complete reorganization of our social and psychological realities. It demands a fundamentally different economy, mode of science, worldview, culture, rituals, social practices, and identities. It rejects the conceptual map humanity (Western society in particular) has developed over the last ten thousand years throughout the reign of “civilization.” Indeed, the identities and traditions animal liberation challenges go back over two million years, with the emergence of the Homo genus and the coeval rise in meat consumption and development of the tools and fire used to hunt, kill, and consume animals.
Animal liberation is the next necessary and logical development in moral evolution and political struggle, whereby humans learn that animals deserve fundamental rights, grant them these rights, and change their social institutions, practices, and mentalities accordingly. Animal liberation builds on the most progressive ethical and political advances human beings have made in the last 200 years and carries them to their logical conclusions. It takes the struggle for rights, equality, and nonviolence to the next level, beyond the artificial moral and legal boundaries of humanism, in order to challenge all prejudices and hierarchies including speciesism. Martin Luther King’s paradigmatic humanist vision of a “worldhouse” devoid of violence and divisions, however laudable, remains a blood-soaked slaughterhouse until the values of peace and equality are extended to all animal species.
Thus, the revolutionary implications of animal liberation explain the intense resistance to it on all fronts.
Animal liberation is not a sufficient condition for avoiding the impending nightmare of ecological catastrophe, for it needs to be articulated with social justice and ecological movements. But it is a necessary condition of revolutionary change, and our attitudes toward animals stand as a litmus test to whether or not we ourselves will survive in viable and desirable form.
Let’s be clear: we are fighting for a revolution, not for reforms, for the end of slavery, not for humane slavemasters. Animal liberation advances the most radical idea to ever land on human ears: animals are not our food, clothing, resources, or objects of entertainment; they exist for their own purposes, not ours.
Every justice struggle up to now was has been relatively easy. Now it gets hard. Speciesism is primordial and universal; it is arguably the first of any form of domination or hierarchy and it has spread like a deadly virus throughout the entire planet and all of human history. The problem is not limited to Western culture or to the modern world, such that there is some significant utopian past or radical alternative to recover. The problem is the human species itself, which but for rare exceptions is violent, destructive, and imperialistic. Universally, humans have vested interests in exploiting animals and think they have a God-given right to do so. To change these attitudes is to change the very nerve center of human consciousness.
That is our task – no more and no less.
The net result of my unrestrained passions, relentless critiques, and highly controversial activism is that my academic career is over, frozen at the level of Associate Professor and blacklisted on the national hiring market. But there are no apologies and no regrets. I am one of those rare academics whose primary ambition was never to obey, conform, and promote careerist goals, but rather to make philosophy dangerous again, to be a controversial public intellectual, and to use critical theory and political engagement toward a revolutionary transformation of all psychological, social, and economic structures which have brought us to this critical crossroads in human evolution and the history of the earth itself.
In a world of environmental ruination, species extinction, human overpopulation predatory global capitalism, resource scarcity, runaway climate change, and an ever-growing animal Holocaust, academics should not have the luxury to pursue abstract issues unrelated to the urgent need for systemic change at all levels. They ought, rather, to abandon petty ego obsessions and narcissistic careerism in order to help clarify and change the causes of social and ecological breakdown, which demands a break from the ten thousand year reign of dominator cultures and the much longer tyranny of Homo rapiens.
My life is the story of principled commitment, endless self-overcoming, and ceaseless struggle: the struggle for truth, enlightenment, justice, and peace; a struggle to bring change to myself, to others, and to this world. The struggle goes on, it will never stop. It provides the continuity and coherence for my ever-changing life.
Dr. Steve Best’s websites:
Two poems by Dr. Steve Best:
I walk among the clouds
my head a burning lamp
that throbs with the pain of insight;
I drive through the sunlight
in a chariot carved from fevers,
steering toward the bend in the rainbow,
into the quickening pulse of entropy.
Do you see the trembling in the light
that refracts from the scrapheap of automobiles?
do you smell the morbid bouquet
that wafts from the heart of the city
and strangles the day?
Count X seasons,
the axis winds down,
slows to its final confusion.
If our signature on the world is read someday
it will be condemned for its brute legibility,
the force of the mark
that drove deep to the depths
of a hidden value,
and built empires
as it razed civilizations.
Beauty invites violence;
land of nobles, conquistadores, oligarchs, generals,
executives, and statesmen;
site of wealth and wonder, awe and daring;
from coliseum to mausoleum,
it’s the night of the living dead
on a toxic cadaver
spinning in a void.
Count X seasons
and divide by Y;
multiply by your greatest fears.
The embers glow softly within the sandbank.
My pocketwatch is anticipating
the last train ride
we would take together
on a voyage beyond hills,
on rose-flaked lips and
Have I told you that when the dew drips from your hair
to form a perilous bridge under your brow
and the small nuggets of wonder I carry within my pockets
begin to dance,
that the skeletons by the garden’s sundial speak of kinetic maps assembling by the blue fountains?
the uncoined tongue steeps in black tea
the barking whistles in umbrella forests
they share the same heritage that hurries down the avenue
past the gate that swings open
to a child’s wagon filled with modern factories.
I come to this day with the expectations of
I am armed with the ax that swings clockwise
I am firm in the resolve that our arms must stay open.
Our hearth burns with logs of a certain knowledge.
I want to share our dissident dreams.
(photo courtesy of Dr. Steve Best)