Lantern Books (2010)
Reviewed by Charles Boyes
It seems that the petty antagonisms that for so long characterized relations between competing animal activist and advocacy movements are dissipating. More and more frequently, the struggle for legitimacy between welfare, rights-based, and grassroots movements is being subsumed into a superstructural antagonism: a tension between those whose stock in trade consists of manufacturing internal contradictions (mostly welfare monoliths like HSUS) and those interested in inter-movement collaboration and cooperation. However, it is much too early to begin celebrating a new paradigm of animal activism, one that is inclusive and democratic, as too many of the most prominent and well-funded voices persist in promoting their means at the explicit exclusion of others. In this nebulous field, Dara Lovitz’s Muzzling a Movement makes an instructive key: too politically oriented and passionate to read as a rote law review yet too legalistic to pass as conventional ethics or activism, Lovitz’s text is at once an emblem and symptom of a coming animal politics.
Muzzling a Movement takes as its primary problematic the necessary failures of the American legal system with regard to the systematic suffering of animals, whether in the struggle for the eradication of torture in factory farms or the enshrinement of biosovereignty. “Necessary” because, as Lovitz notes, the legislative and executive bodies are more than just complicit in the systematic exploitation of nonhumans: “lawmakers commit the error of promoting speciesism … such that humans can feel justified in denying nonhuman animals the right to be free from use, exploitation, and abuse” (23). How can one be expected to have faith in an apparatus that, even when ostensibly drafting legislation to protect the interests of animals, accomplishes nothing more than amplifying their suffering? “Our lawmakers commit the sin of omission by not passing laws that are written with the purpose of serving what’s in the best interest of the animal. All laws that pertain to animals are written with the underlying and fundamental premise that animals are our property to use and govern as we see fit” (23-24). Lovitz undertakes careful legal, critical, and anecdotal readings of the most significant meetings of law and animals in the US in recent years, including the Animal Enterprise Terrorism (née Protection) Act, recent revisions to the Animal Welfare Act, and the prosecution of the SHAC 7. What the text might lack in the presentation of unique material to the well-read activist (notwithstanding cursory glances at a handful of less familiar legal proceedings) it more than makes up for with Lovitz’s ability to demystify the functioning of the judiciary and subsequently highlight it’s systemic and operative failures vis-à-vis nonhuman animals. For the interstate activist, the book also serves the utilitarian function of synopsising state laws protecting animal enterprises.
As a practising lawyer, it is unsurprising that Lovitz, despite her (hopefully) uncontroversial claims that systemic animal abuse is foundational to liberal and neoliberal policy, still pursues legal recourse as part of her advocacy work. This is where the book might strike some among the new guard as heretical, or at least symptomatic of centralized practices of animal advocacy. Lovitz devotes a great deal of the book to making the case for the illegitimacy of labelling any animal activist a terrorist, a category, she argues, that has become progressively more populated, proportionate to the obfuscating of the concept of terrorism: “animal activists simply do not fit any legitimate definition if terrorist. … The government and media (funded by businesses with a vested interest in maintaining nonhuman exploitation) have been exploiting the public’s fear of terrorism … to create universal (and unfounded) fear and dislike of animal advocates” (112). Lovitz is not simply coming to the defence of those activists who work through legal and legalistic avenues, but also those who are customarily accused of ‘taking the law into their own hands’: “animal activists do not condone attacks on innocents. All individuals targeted for protest, property damage, or other economic damage are directly or indirectly involved in the abuse of nonhuman animals” (111). Though she more than once blurs prescription with description (glossing the reconcilability of the work of activists such as Daniel San Diego within her broad definition of ‘animal activist’, ex. “Most animal advocacy groups … advocate only nonviolent methods of activism” ) which might otherwise complicate her assumed notions of animal advocacy, Lovitz works to disabuse her readers of their prejudices of the ‘effective’ activist as an adherent of this or that philosophy, a believer of this or that strategy. “Nonhuman animals obviously cannot unite on their own behalf,” Lovitz writes, so “[i]t then falls to humans with a conscience to advocate for them” (128) – and this advocacy must be a united movement, a decentralized operation that targets not only institutional and personal abusers, but the laws (too often written by the abusers themselves) that permit and promote such abusive practices.