The Dreaded Comparison: Martin Rowe on Marjorie Spiegel’s
Groundbreaking Book

…Marjorie Spiegel’s extraordinary book, The Dreaded Comparison…[makes] most forcefully the comparison that dare not speak its name: that African slaves in the United States before the Civil War were considered no more than animals, and that the ideologies of slavery that kept these human beings as property continue to be used with non-human animals today.

This comparison—between the conditions of slaves and the conditions of animals in factory farms, as victims of the hunt, and in laboratories—may not seem particularly surprising. After all, as Spiegel documents, slaves in the antebellum United States were considered literally sub-human….

Of course, this type of thinking does not only extend to slaves or African Americans. It extends to Jews, who were rounded up by the Nazis into cattle-cars and sent to the camps because they were considered less-than-human viral infections in the Aryan body politic. It extends to women who have been thought of as bitches, foxy ladies, vixens, bats, old cows, and less-than-male (i.e. fully human) for centuries. But, and this is Spiegel’s dreaded kicker, this comparison extends to non-human animals—who continue to be beaten, abused, tortured, confined, hunted, and made the play and work thing of those in power.

Now there will be those of you reading this who will be formulating arguments as to why we should continue to exploit animals: that we need animals in order to provide us with food, skin, entertainment, and labor; that many animals wouldn’t be alive unless they were in our company—indeed, they are happier with us than they would be in the wild; that we protect them against their own worse natures; that animals feel no pain or less pain because they don’t know the meaning of “pain”; that animals enjoy the thrill of the chase…

Well, as Spiegel’s book catalogues, all these arguments were used to justify slavery. Specious, and speciesist, arguments continue to lurk within human consciousness about what it is and is not permissible to do to animals. We consider that making elephants stand on their hind legs and perform in circuses is something acceptable while putting on black-face and singing “Mammy” is not: why is one more demeaning, unnatural, and more of a caricature than the other? We consider that putting animals in cages is an acceptable act of conservation while the thought that in 1906 the New York Zoological Society displayed an African Pygmy named Ota Benga in a cage with chimpanzees fills us with horror. We are staggered that slave carriers accepted the huge mortality rate for their slaves in the passage to America as a kind of natural wastage, but unworried that animals continue to be shipped to slaughter in conditions that leave a percentage suffocated and or terrified to death on arrival. And we are content to believe in vivisection’s central contradiction: “On the one hand,” to quote Spiegel, “it is said that the animals are so unlike us that they are not worthy of our consideration. On the other hand, vivisectors claim that animals are so like us that they are essential to research.”…

Spiegel’s book makes abundantly clear that those with an instrumentalist view of the world and creation don’t much care where or on whom they exercise their power. They will use all the arguments, all the subterfuge (including false distinctions among the living beings abused), and all the lies in their means to use that power as long as they can get away with it. As The Dreaded Comparison reveals, with remarkable concision, it is not so much the case that we need to “raise” animals to a condition of being human or that we should “lower” ourselves by recognizing that we are all brutes to each other. It is that we should recognize the abuse of power wherever it is and whoever it is upon, unmask it, and stop it. If one thing is resoundingly clear from Spiegel’s invaluable contribution to this debate, it is that abuse, torture, and cruelty cannot stand the spotlight. – Excerpted from Buck Fever, Martin Rowe’s 1998 review of The Dreaded Comparison, published in the Boston Book Review.

Did you like this? Share it: