Monday, March 21, 2011

The Brain From Planet Anus

A Radio Comedy Skit I Wrote in College

When I was an undergrad at the State University of New York, New Paltz, I performed with an audio theater troupe called The Magnificent Glass Pelican. We did live broadcasts just about every week from our college radio station, mainly of sketch comedy. Even now, 20 years later, the Pelican is still on the air every Wednesday night at WFNP, 88.5 FM.

While having nothing really to do with animals (aside from the "Pelican" part), I thought some readers might find this 3-minute, 27-second comedy skit I wrote for the show (circa 1993) mildly entertaining. Enjoy!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Arabian Knights

Could the Jasmine Revolution offer clues to catalyzing change for animals?

They say revolution's in the air,
I'm dancin' in my underwear
'cause I don't care.

–  The Rutles, from “Piggy in the Middle”*

By now you probably know the story of how a formerly unknown fruit and vegetable vendor's self-immolation swiftly brought down a dictator who'd been ruling Tunisia with an iron fist for 23 years, but I'll quickly recap it here for the sake of context. Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old unemployed college graduate, was just barely scraping out a living on the streets of Sidi Bouzid hawking fresh produce from a pushcart when he was harassed by a local policewoman for lacking a vendor's permit (even though he apparently wasn't required to have one). She allegedly insulted Bouazizi's dead father, slapped the young man's face, spat on him, and confiscated his cart containing the equivalent of $200 worth in goods—outraging Bouazizi so severely that he quickly sought an audience with the district's governor. After being refused a hearing, Bouazizi publicly lit himself on fire in protest, igniting a firestorm of revolt that toppled President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's administration in a matter of mere weeks, then spread like wildfire to Egypt and Libya while inspiring major protest movements throughout the Middle East.

Not even the world's most astute political analysts had predicted that a popular insurrection would sweep through the region with such lightning-quick speed. Sure, Tunisia is a country whose population is overwhelmingly young, educated, social-media-savvy, and frustrated by high unemployment and escalating food prices, but the Old Guard had been firmly ensconced for so long that it seemed their regime would be holding the reins of power for the foreseeable future. Yet Bouazizi's bold (and ultimately suicidal**) statement turned out to be one of those historically rarified events that utterly upends and transcends conventional theories of how change actually happens in the world. 

I mean, if you think about it, could Bouazizi have even dared to dream that by setting his body alight, he would so sensationally affect the trajectory of world geopolitics? Probably not. And what about Faida Hamdi, the municipal official who so antagonistically dropped the final straw that broke Bouazizi's existential back? In the course of her workaday job, in her wildest imagination, could she ever have conceived that upsetting this young man's proverbial and actual apple cart would end up toppling the corrupt autocracy that employed her? Definitely not. (I also wonder what she could have possibly said when called before her superiors to answer for this monumental screw-up: maybe something eminently pedestrian like “Whoops, my bad!”)

In retrospect at least, Bouazizi's self-inflicted combustion appears to have been perfectly timed to dovetail with the powderkeg social conditions that happened to exist within his surroundings at that precise moment. (Of course, discontent had been festering for decades before finally reaching an exasperated crescendo.) Activists for different causes have resorted to self-immolation many times before (perhaps most famously, Zen Buddhist monks opposing the bloody Vietnam War)—but few have succeeded in changing the world to the extent that Bouazizi has in this instance. So what exactly made this single act by one solitary individual the flashpoint for such a massive and seemingly spontaneous freedom uprising?

We'll most likely never know the answer to that question, but it still seems worth asking because this mystery may well hold the key to accelerating the end of other oppressive systems—such as (for the purposes of this discussion) humanity's violent enslavement of animals. Like most animal advocates, I consider myself a pragmatist who tends to take a long view of the struggle, generally assuming (based on theory, historical precedent and personal experience) that progress takes place incrementally, one small step forward at a time. But what if radical change could be instigated in one fell swoop by engaging in just the right action at exactly the right moment? Wouldn't that serve animals and the world at large better than endlessly negotiating relatively minor concessions while billions of our fellow Terrans continue to be viciously tortured and killed?

Here's the trillion dollar question: If such an exceedingly effective action could be taken to stop the massacre of innocents, what would it look like? And how do we go about figuring out whether such a strategy is even possible?

Lest anyone reading this thinks for even a second that I'm suggesting animal activists should start setting themselves on fire, allow me to categorically state here and now that I endorse no such thing. Let's make this nice and sparkling clear: do not immolate yourself, or incite anyone else to do so in protest of society's exploitation of animals. Granted, if I truly, absolutely believed that by sacrificing my own life I could fundamentally alter the way humans treat other species for generations to come, I'd probably be in line at Walgreens buying a basket full of lighter fluid right now. I mean, at the risk of implying that I have some sort of death wish, exchanging one life to save billions seems like more than a fair trade in the universal scheme of things.

There is no real reason to suppose, however, that such an act of principled self-annihilation would significantly alter most people's attitudes towards animals (aside from perhaps reinforcing the stereotype that animal rights activists are crazy). In fact, Bouazizi's auto-destruction may well have been at least as much an act of sheer desperation as a deliberately-planned political statement, and its incredible impact a relatively random by-product. Besides, my comparison between the Arab and animal rights revolutions is admittedly tenuous, at best. Which is to say, there are major differences between human and animal liberation movements that may well render my entire hypothesis a moot fantasy.

My point, however, is that there may, perhaps, be some other equally dramatic action one could take that would achieve for exploited animals what Bouazizi's sacrifice accomplished for oppressed Arab peoples—without doing bodily harm to oneself or others. I'm just saying, it can't hurt to think outside the box by at least considering the possibility that animal advocates may be able to effect change for other species much more quickly than we had previously thought realistic. That is, if we can finely attune our minds to the zeitgeist that defines our present, thereby making the most of specific opportunities when they present themselves. In terms of our modern collective consciousness, perhaps it would help to think of such a potential occurrence as our movement's Rosa Parks moment.

I know, it seems like a really long shot, and I completely acknowledge the pressing need to patiently persist in laying the groundwork for a more compassionate paradigm brick by concrete brick. And we must continue to do this the old-fashioned way: by spreading the word (through personal interactions, public protests/demonstrations, social and traditional media, etc.), financially supporting vegan businesses, passing pro-animal legislation, and other proven methods. But still, with revolution now so thick in the Arabian air, I can't help but wonder whether there are lessons we animal advocates could learn from current events taking place on the other side of the globe.

* If you're wondering why I began with this lyric (since it seems to contradict both the tone and point of this piece), it's simply because this song always makes me laugh, and I couldn't resist referencing a classic Beatles parody group fronted by Monty Python alum Eric Idle. Then again, perhaps I'm also satirically commenting on mainstream society's apathetic attitude about creating a more enlightened civilization. Rest assured, anyone who's read far enough to reach this footnote is categorically excluded from such smug judgments on my part.

** Notably, Mohamed Bouazizi officially achieved martyrdom when he died in a hospital bed from third-degree burns over most of his body 18 days after he set himself on fire.