Lessons of Life and Death from Henry Spira: By Any Compromise Necessary?

Kim Hunter

Ethics Into Action: Henry Spira and the Animal Rights Movement by Peter Singer (Rowman & Littlefield, 1999), $17.95 paperback.

A FRIEND OF Henry Spira once asked him why he left teaching in New York City, where he was successful and loved by the students, to go into the animal rights struggle. Spira said that humans were more able than animals to help themselves because humans have “freedom in this country” and minds to think for themselves. This statement came not from a naive liberal dilettante do-gooder, but from a man with years of radical activism to his credit, including work with the Longshoremen and the Socialist Workers Party.

Every bottle or tube hair spray and toothpaste that claims to exist without animal ingredients or testing is a direct result of the work of Henry Spira and the coterie of activists he organized and inspired.

He directly engaged and persuaded some of the most powerful people in the capitalist world (Revlon, Proctor and Gamble), primarily using an uncanny ability to pick winnable fights, rational, unemotional private appeals and very judiciously applied coercive publicity campaigns when all else failed.

His life, successes and strategies, have been chronicled in Ethics Into Action, Henry Spira and the Animal Rights Movement, a biography by philosophy professor Peter Singer. Singer is the author of Animal Liberation, the bible of the animal rights movement. He has also been appointed to Princeton University’s Center for Human Values amid howls of protest. Opponents cite Singer’s more controversial and complex views of life that reserve the use of the term “person” for able- bodied creatures that are capable of suffering, as opposed to severely handicapped creatures.

Here, we are spared Singer’s most unyielding rhetoric and treated instead to the adventures of his good friend Henry Spira, a far more nuanced and down-to-earth activist. (For a succinct but thorough exploration of Singer, see the September 6, 1999 New Yorker magazine).

It was a socialist’s negative review of Animal Liberation that led Spira, eventually, to an ethics class taught by Singer. Singer’s first impressions of Spira—rumpled, New York accent, simple and to the point, working class—make Spira seem like the Columbo of animal rights. Like the affable TV detective, Spira came across as completely unthreatening and totally likable, a great cover for a razor sharp tactician who studied his opponents and his options with great care.

Henry Spira was born June 19, 1927 in Antwerp, Belgium, the son of Maurice and Margit Spitzer Spira. The family emigrated to Germany, England, Panama and finally the United States in the years leading up to World War II. Henry Spira left home at 16, plunged into left-wing politics and joined the merchant marine. After two years in the Army, he worked on the assembly line at the General Motors factory in Linden, N.J.

Spira died of esophageal cancer in September 1998, just as the biography was going to press. The book is an eminently readable if not deep account of Spira’s life, moving from his early life with parents and siblings to his political activism, first as a member of Hashomer Hatzair, the left wing Zionist youth movement where he honed his skills in analysis and debate, to his days as a writer for the SWP’s The Militant during the early `60s civil rights movement and, finally, to his days in the animal rights cause.

The Ethics of Animal Rights

Most of the work focuses on Spira only in order to illuminate his tactics and methods of struggle. Not surprisingly, then, some key questions are unanswered, though there are many lessons for those of us still more engaged in struggles for human life and dignity.

Spira’s reasoning for taking up the animal rights struggle (correct though incomplete, in this writer’s view) touches upon what many animal rights advocates feel is an essential argument for the cause: the human mind with its self-conscious ability to choose, an ability which places us in a special place in the animal universe.

This argument does not necessarily extend to traditional ideas of “stewardship,” which can invoke all sorts of myths about our reflecting “divine wisdom” (regardless of how you feel about wisdom or divinity). Rather, it is about options versus instinct.

When a bear scoops a fish out of a river or a hawk swoops down on a rodent, they are doing as they must in order to survive. While some of us confuse our sadly uninterrogated habit of eating meat with “biological need,” the undeniable fact is we don’t have to eat other creatures to live or thrive.

Humans, particularly most of us in North America and Europe, have many options. Inherent in any choice is some level of responsibility that simply doesn’t apply to non-human animals acting on instinct. Instinct has been all but beaten out of us. Most other animals rely on it for basic survival and have few options.

We, especially most of us in North America, have many alternatives to using animals as food and, increasingly, alternatives to torturing and killing them in research and product “safety” tests. Certainly there has never been any ethical justification for their being tortured and murdered in order to “test” cosmetics and toiletries, products that have saved precious few human lives.

The extent to which our choices are limited by economic, social or physical circumstance is the extent to which I believe we can be excused to eat other sentient creatures. Spira did not directly articulate or endorse this incremental, relativist view (i.e. seeing animal rights as expanding in relation to the development of human society itself). But his work is a shining example of it.

He understood the subtleties and practicalities of the issue. He refused to demonize his opponents and insisted on waging battles in terms that could be “understood and supported by ordinary people.” All of this was key to Spira’s success in preventing the torture/death of millions of animals, while challenging and transforming American corporate and social landscapes in the process.

The Power of Creative Reform

Henry Spira succeeded where decades of previous animal rights activism had failed. Spira stepped into the animal rights struggle with no knowledge of the infighting and self-righteousness that still characterizes the worst of the animal rights organizations.

Not only did he come to the struggle free of much of the baggage from the past, but he came focused on achieving goals rather than political positions. In short, he was ready to compromise and think “out of the box.”

Where previous anti-vivisection and anti-cruelty groups believed and espoused an all-or-nothing approach to every case where animals were tortured and or killed, Spira said he’d be happy if there were just reduction in the number of animals being harmed and happier still if all animal abuse were halted.

Ironically, he and his loose band of actvists came closer to realizing the complete halt to abuse than any group before or since. Moreover, Spira, unlike his peers, always gave his opponents the benefit of the doubt. All of his campaigns began with a letter and request for a meeting to talk over his position. The struggle would only go public if there was no good faith effort to meet with him.

It was this willingness to negotiate that got him in the door at Revlon cosmetics, where he sought to end use of the infamous Draize Eye Test—where rabbits are strapped and their eyelids peeled back while “experimenters” pour all manner of cosmetics into the animal’s eye to measure the harmful effects.

The lessons mostly have to do with pragmatic strategies and tactics, how to begin a campaign with a winnable fight, what makes a campaign winnable and where do you go from there. Most experienced organizers believe they know some answers to these questions, but few have had as much impact as Spira.

One of the things that made his more coercive public campaigns successful was his utter insistence on relating the fight to the concerns of ordinary people who were not activists. Spira left the SWP largely because he felt they were out of touch with “the concerns of real people.”

A poster designed twenty years after Spira went vegetarian succinctly demonstrates his grasp of public consciousness and the contradictions therein. The poster features a kitten and a piglet, both cute and vulnerable, almost rubbing noses. The copy reads “Which do you pet and which do you eat? Why?”

Here is philosophy and ethics crystalized to a level most 12-year-olds could understand, without patronizing platitudes or truisms.

Torture in the Guise of Science

Spira’s first battle and victory took years and was emblematic of most of his struggles to come. He discovered that scientists at New York’s American Museum of Natural History were chopping limbs and other body parts from cats to test their sexual performance after the amputation. The “experiments” had gone on for years despite the total lack of practical application for the data and precious little publication of the data in any event.

The director of the Museum, being a good scientist trained to seek “pure” knowledge, said that scientists had the right to engage in experiments that appeared to have no practical application.

Spira, being a progressive sort of guy, might have agreed with the director had these experiments not hinged on what was clearly cruel and unnecessary suffering. Spira chose the Museum’s cat sex mutilation experiments because they were absurd on the face and would appear so to the layperson, including many of the legislators and funders.

First came the obligatory letter requesting a halt to the experiments. When that request was refused, Spira began what would be a two year campaign that included a full-page ad in the New York Times, weekly protests in front of the museum, thousands of letters of protest, direct contact with major donor groups and legislators including then Congressman Ed Koch.

The fact that seventy animals a year were spared torture and premature death after years of struggle was a relatively small factor compared to the experience and clout the victory gave Spira et al. They wouldn’t have gotten a foot in the door later on without at least one victory under their collective belt.

Spira took pains to view things from other’s eyes. He never questioned the motivation of the people he sought to persuade. Even when faced with the circuitous lethargy of Revlon, he sought valid scientific and legislative alternatives to the animal testing the company was mandated to perform.

Revlon and the rest of the cosmetics industry had been required by law to “test” products on animals until fifty percent of those in the test died. These companies also strapped rabbits down, pried their eyes open and poured all manner of chemicals into the rabbit’s eyes. Even after the laws were changed and the alternatives tested, changing hidebound corporate culture was and is no small task.

This brings us to why Spira’s tactics and victories, as important as they are, are probably more instructive for reformers than revolutionaries. It is one thing to seek a change that allows a corporation to go on earning a profit for its private owners. It is quite another thing for the wealth and power to be democratized.

It would have been interesting to hear as well how Spira viewed his transition from seeking such fundamental changes in society to one who was making reforms, albeit major and much needed reforms.

Assessing Spira’s Legacy

The last section of the book is devoted to Spira assessing his progress and the worth of his accomplishments. Clearly, he thought the incremental approach was more effective—and who can argue with him, given the monumental lack of progress in the animal rights movement before he got involved?

Of course, at the end of the day, we are still left with much suffering, both human and animal, at the hands of corporations, particularly factory farms. Spira was working on the animal suffering inherent in factory farming when he died. That’s too bad for the animals.

On a lesser tactical note it would have been interesting to see what Spira would have brought to the table. This was his first fight with private for-profit organizations who depend utterly on animals as commodity. While companies like Revlon exploited animals, their profits were not directly tied to that exploitation.

That brings me to why Spira’s methods, effective and powerful though they were, may only serve revolutionaries in the short term and in very particular situations.

To be sure, challenges to capital made by revolutionaries are not shaking any foundations at this point in history. But the fact is that we do aim for a direct challenge of the system, not, ultimately, a reform, however major.

Meetings and public pressure aimed at changing a “Fortune 500” company’s treatment of animals is one thing. The same tactics aimed at directly affecting profit and power is quite another.

Moreover, the problem of animal suffering in particular would still exist even if real people took over corporations tomorrow.

While vegetarians have made clear links between capitalism, consumer-driven decadence and exploitation (see Francis Moore Lappe’s Diet for a Small Planet) and even sexual politics (Carol J. Adams, The Sexual Politics of Eating Meat), Spira and many other socialists have yet to see the bigger picture: It is a question of how much killing and suffering we choose to eliminate and how much we are willing to be responsible for.

ATC 85, March-April 2000