Personas para el Tratamiento Ético de los Animales?

August 14th, 2008 7:00 pm by Kelly Garbato

Via Noemi @ Vegans of Color, PETA’s latest publicity stunt: pro-vegan ads on, of all places, the US-Mexico border fence:

While many view the contentious border fence as a government fiasco, an animal rights group sees a rare opportunity.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals plans today to announce an unusual marketing pitch to the U.S. government: Rent us space on the fence for billboards warning illegal border crossers there is more to fear than the Border Patrol.

The billboards, in English and Spanish, would offer the caution: “If the Border Patrol Doesn’t Get You, the Chicken and Burgers Will — Go Vegan.”

“We think that Mexicans and other immigrants should be warned if they cross into the U.S. they are putting their health at risk by leaving behind a healthier, staple diet of corn tortillas, beans, rice, fruits and vegetables,” said Lindsay Rajt, assistant manager of PETA’s vegan campaigns.

The Department of Homeland Security is working to meet a deadline to complete 670 miles of fencing and other barriers on the Southwest border by Dec. 31. The fencing operation has run into stiff opposition by landowners fighting government efforts to obtain their land through condemnation.

PETA says its billboards would picture “fit and trim” Mexicans in their own country, where their diet is more in line with the group’s mission. Another image on the sign would portray obese American children and adults “gorging on meaty, fat- and cholesterol-packed American food.”

PETA’S offer to the feds is expected to arrive in a letter to Border Patrol officials today.

But a government spokesman in Washington said the request will be rejected because it would limit visibility through the fence. And Border Patrol does not allow advertising on its property or installations, the officials added.

“The fencing being put in place is, in many cases, mesh fencing to allow our officers to see what’s happening on the other side and to better secure the border,” said Michael Friel, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

One property owner on the Texas-Mexico border laughed at PETA’s proposal.

“I think it’s ridiculous,” said Noel Benavides, who is contesting the construction of a fence dividing his family’s 145-acre ranch in Roma on the Rio Grande. “I can’t see the point of something like that.”

But Rajt said the rent money they’d pay would help offset the huge costs of the fencing — and the advertising message “might even be frightening enough to deter people from crossing into the U.S.”

PETA has often been criticized for its aggressive animal rights crusades. It’s used billboards to push many of its controversial positions such as “Buck Cruelty: Say NO to horse-drawn carriage rides” or “Feeding Kids Meat Is Child Abuse.”

(Emphasis mine.)

Over on an official PETA blog, The PETA Files, PETA staffer Sean Conner confirms the story and even posts Spanish- and English-language versions of the proposed poster. Reaction on The PETA Files is mixed, but mostly positive, while the bloggers and commentators at VoC are less impressed with the idea.

My feelings on PETA are somewhat mixed. Some of their campaigns, I support (e.g., their “Think you can be a meat-eating environmentalist?” ads, which links meat consumption to climate change), while others just piss me the fuck off (for example, their efforts to get Michael Moore on the veggie bandwagon…by calling him a fatty mcfatty, in so many words, i.e., alluding to Moore as “the elephant in the room”). Most of their campaigns, particularly those involving naked or scantily clad female bodies, inspire distressing levels of ambivalence in this vegan feminist.

Suffice to say that mostly I’m just sick of PETA already: sick of non-vegans conflating PETA’s brand of animal welfare with the abolitionist concept of animal rights; sick of carnivores looking to Newkirk and Singer as the spokespeople for animal advocates everywhere; and, most of all, sick of the “isms” that PETA sometimes employs in the course of combating speciesism. Just as I don’t think human animals are more deserving of ethical consideration than are non-human animals, nor do I think non-human animals are more important than their human counterparts. By resorting to racism, misogyny, sizeism, etc., PETA is advocating against one form of oppression by engaging in another – and there’s nothing ethical about that.

Which brings me to the border fence billboard. I find this stunt problematic and, quite frankly, offensive for several reasons.

For starters, there’s the fence itself. 670+ miles of fencing in a sweltering hot – and ecologically significant – area is both inhumane and environmentally unfriendly. A border fence isn’t going to deter (most) immigrants from entering this country “illegally”, rather, it’s just going to make it more dangerous to do so. People don’t flee their homeland for shits and giggles; rather, poverty and unemployment kind of force their hands, no? Unless the US government is going to employ Mexican citizens to build the damn thing, a border fence does nothing to address the fundamental reasons underlying immigration. (Not to mention, up to 45% of undocumented immigrants enter the country through legal channels but overstay their “welcome”.)

Plus, ya know, you can always go up, around or over a fence. Even my dogs know that.

And then there’s the environmental impact of arbitrarily separating a large piece of land. The Center for Biological Diversity breaks it down:

Unfortunately, the administration also has failed to consider the environmental costs of its policy. Construction of a 700-mile border fence would irreparably harm some of the Southwest’s most significant lands, including wildlife refuges, national parks, national forests, and wilderness areas.

The Center’s “Arizona Assessment” project has identified 29 imperiled species that live on or near the Arizona border, 15 of which live or move directly in the path of the proposed fence. Among the species that could suffer severe impacts to their habitat and migration corridors as a result of a border wall are the Jaguar, Mexican Gray Wolf, Sonoran Pronghorn, Cactus Ferruginous Pygmy- Owl, and Flat-tailed Horned Lizard, as well as numerous riparian plants and animals that depend on unfragmented binational rivers and streams. The Center maintains that this “Berlin Wall” will do nothing to address the underlying causes of illegal immigration nor stop the flow of migrants crossing the border in increasingly remote and deadly regions, but will have devastating effects on the fragile desert lands and diverse wildlife of the Southwest. We oppose wall construction, and we call upon the administration to bring more wildlife- friendly and socially and environmentally responsible options into the debate.

(Much more here.)

By purchasing ad space on the border fence, PETA would be sponsoring these atrocities – which is something they seem to be down with when their spokesperson argues that “the rent money they’d pay would help offset the huge costs of the fencing”. Not cool. Not cool at all.

Of course, there’s also the likely possibility that PETA knew damn well that they’d never be able to rent space on the border fence – it’s a fence vs. a wall for a reason, right? – and so they also knew that their cash (their supporters’ cash, really) would never go towards supporting such a human-, animal-, and environmentally-unfriendly project. Which makes this all a stunt, capable of redemption.

Over at VoC, most comments are along the lines of Noemi’s titular “wtf seriously”, but Elaine suggests that the ad is PETA’s best attempt at being subversive. And, you know what? I can actually see a (different) version of this stunt being subversive.

The border fence serves as both a symbol and tool of the American megatheocorporatocracy: symbolically, it reinforces territorial borders, fosters nationalism and xenophobia, and makes us feel as though our country is safe from all those hard-working brown people when in fact, fences are rather ineffectual deterrents. Quite figuratively and literally, the border fence defines and crystallizes the divide between “us” and “them”; it transforms an entire continent into the “other”.

As a tool, it punishes the victims of the system (i.e., the “illegal” immigrants), while conveniently overlooking those who really benefit from the megatheocorporatocracy: the businesses who employ undocumented workers and then use the workers’ “illegal” status to exploit them, for example, by paying them a fraction of what “legal” employees would earn. Consequently entire persons are criminalized (the phrase “illegal immigrant” or, worse still, “illegal alien” criminalize the person vs. the crime), while any actions that benefit the “free market” are lauded (or, at best, ignored by the government).

So such a symbol/tool is ripe for subversion or satire. But PETA’s ad not only falls flat on these counts – it resorts to fat phobia and perhaps classism as well.* (Redemption: FAIL.)

Let’s start with the classism. The ad itself reads, “If the Border Patrol Doesn’t Get You, the Chicken and Burgers Will — Go Vegan.” And in the article above, “assistant manager of PETA’s vegan campaigns” Lindsay Rajt says, “We think that Mexicans and other immigrants should be warned if they cross into the U.S. they are putting their health at risk by leaving behind a healthier, staple diet of corn tortillas, beans, rice, fruits and vegetables.”

How’s this classist, you ask? Well,

according to the World Bank 17.6% of Mexico’s population lives in “extreme” poverty, while 30.1% live in “moderated” poverty, for a total of 47.7%

Like I said before, poverty is a primary cause of Mexican immigration into the United States. Immigrants aren’t worried about getting “fat” – they’re worried about feeding their families. Too much fatty food? Not so much their chief “fear” as no food at all. So to paint obesity or an overabundance of “bad” foods as an immediate concern for those facing crippling poverty is, yeah, somewhat classist.

PETA also points to traditional Mexican fare as a healthier alternative to American fast food. Yet they completely ignore the issues that make sustaining such a diet increasingly difficult for impoverished Mexicans, such as the Mexican government’s seizure of communal village land. Like, duh, you can’t grow (and eat) that traditional, healthy food if you don’t have any farmland on which to grow it. Keep on with the helpful advice there, PETA.

Granted, this all isn’t spelled out explicitly on the billboard(s) so much as elaborated on in their press releases and such, but still. These are classist attitudes just the same. In addition to offending POC and those who suffer from poverty, it makes the rest of us middle-class white vegans look like clueless fuckwits. Thanks, PETA!

Next, on to PETA’s fear of fat, which perhaps takes center stage in this particular campaign. (Again with the sizeism! WTF PETA?)

Here’s PETA describing the billboard:

PETA says its billboards would picture “fit and trim” Mexicans in their own country, where their diet is more in line with the group’s mission. Another image on the sign would portray obese American children and adults “gorging on meaty, fat- and cholesterol-packed American food.”

If you click on over to the images at the PETA Files, you can see that, yes indeed, we gluttonous Americans are all a bunch of fatasses.

PETA reinforces several misconceptions with this imagery (and the accompanying sound bites):

1) Weight is determined (primarily) by diet.

2) Meat-eaters are mostly obese, while those who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet are mostly trim.

3) Fat is necessarily unhealthy, while thin is necessarily healthy.

4) Thin is the ideal.

As usual, fat phobia abounds in PETA’s campaign materials. I hope it goes without saying but: you can be a veg*n and eat a poor, deficient diet; some “fat” people are actually more fit and healthy than some thin people; undereating can actually be worse for your body than overeating; and, hell’s bells, not all humans are shaped liked Cindy fucking Crawford! (I feel like I’m belying my age with this supermodel ref, but wevs.)

Pushing your vegan message – which is a good message, a great message, don’t get me wrong – by reinforcing stereotypes about overweight folks is, again, not cool.

For all the non-veg*ns reading this on the interwebs, please trust me when I tell you that PETA is not the be-all, end-all of the animal rights movement. Saucy FSM, many of us veg*ns question whether PETA can even be considered an animal rights group. (See here for the difference between rights and welfare.) We don’t all think like PETA, and hell, PETA is such a large organization, I sometimes wonder how many of PETA’s on-the-ground, grassroots volunteers even agree with the bulk of their campaigns. If you read me over on easyvegan.info, you’ll notice that I’ll oftentimes link to PETA’s campaigns or reprint their alerts. They can be an excellent source of info, despite their other flaws. Even I can’t escape the reach of Mother Ingrid and Grandfather Peter.

While they might be the most popular animal advocacy group in the US, they’re not the only one; and many other animal advocates are striving to rebuild the bridges that PETA’s scorched. Many of us care about issues of racism, classism, misogyny, homophobia, sizeism, ableism, etc. Don’t let PETA turn you off from the movement. A concern for the rights and welfare of non-human animals is integral to – rather than incompatible with – a concern for the rights and welfare of their human counterparts. Despite what PETA’s latest campaign suggests.

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* After writing but before publishing this piece, I hopped on over to VoC to catch up on the newest comments. In response to the actual images, Meep says

I feel kind of like someone stole my culture a bit.

So you can add racism by way of cultural appropriation to the list. Yay PETA!

(Crossposted to.)

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