Art by Daiana Feuer

Animals

Photo by Art by Daiana Feuer

How to Get Animal Rights Wrong Without Realizing it


When a diet guru takes on animal rights, it’s a bit thin on logic.



There’s a world of difference between a diet and a diatribe, and to paraphrase Freud, sometimes a bitch really is a bitch. That is, when you’re talking about a female dog. Just when we thought the complex issue of animal rights had been simplified enough by the – ahem – rabid rantings on either side, we get Beg: A Radical New Way of Regarding Animals (Running Press), a new book by the best-selling diet maven Rory Freedman.

Because, hey, being a best seller in any field makes her an expert, right?

It certainly gives Freedman a built-in audience.  The LA author is no Michael Pollan, but she is a star, catapulted to fame after onetime Spice Girl Victoria Beckham was photographed holding her first book, the diet bible Skinny Bitch.  That book – and the four that followed – used a sassy chick-lit delivery to promote what was essentially a low-cal vegan diet. It didn’t hurt that Freedman, a former modeling agent, was drop-dead gorgeous herself.  Give up those nasty animal products and look like me, the subtext ran.

But diets and looking beautiful are so self-involved, right? And so this time out, Freedman is tackling what she calls the real inspiration behind the diet books: animal rights. Or, as Peter Singer fans might call it: Animal Liberation Lite.

Freedman eases us in with pet stuff – how she acquired her three dogs, how she organizes custody with her ex, and also how she gives them pet names. “Don’t ask me to explain this,” she writes in a maddening fashion. “Just know it”. In between her gushing, she goes onto spay-and-neuter and the need to adopt rather than buy. She then makes the case for going vegan – using both the compassion argument and, at times, the health one, both of which can be compelling.

But they aren’t here. To put it mildly, Freedman has nothing new to say, and what she does say is not presented critically.   

Sometimes, that means presenting a complicated issue as black and white, throwing out one scenario or study that supports her argument without acknowledging any others. On zoos, for example, she seems to have swallowed the PETA line in its entirety.  Yes, many zoos are cruel places, animal prisons, so to speak. But many – the Bronx and Central Park Zoos in New York, for example – abide by a strict code of ethics. Run by the Wildlife Conservation Society, which is arguably smarter, as well as bigger, than the World Wildlife Fund, these two zoos also finance habitat preservation, and produce medical and nutritional knowledge that have helped animals in the wild.

Some of her arguments are also screamingly simplistic. “Don’t get all freaked out that you’ll be some hemp-wearing hippie,” she says, as if that’s our only objection to abjuring leather, steering us instead to “man-made or synthetic” substitutes.  What she doesn’t ask is how much fake leather is made out of plastic or other petroleum by-products. If we’re talking fashion with compassion, why not look at how these other products are manufactured, and at what environmental cost?

Other arguments are just inane. When talking about breeders, for example, she takes offense at the use of the phrase “bitches are in heat,” citing the “creep factor.”  Um, no.  This is the correct terminology for a female dog (a bitch) during her fertile time (heat). If you take offense at the phrase when it is correctly used, you may as well say you don’t like the word “vagina” because it’s icky. Oh, and what was the name of that first, huge diet book again?

Which brings us to the other great flaw of this book: the writing. Part of the problem may lie in our definition of what a book is. After all, Skinny Bitch was a book. So is Beg. But the two genres couldn’t be farther apart. A diet book isn’t something you sit and think about. It’s self-help – a cheerleader in word form, pushing you to act in a certain way. If it has humor, as Skinny Bitch does, it makes the actions easier.

A book about rights, however, should be something more. Not on an ethical level – though you could make that distinction, too – but in terms of its efficacy. At heart, we already understand that we should give up cookies for cauliflower. Changing our minds about our fellow creatures takes more, however. Don’t just tell me to give up steak. Build a case. Convince me.  Otherwise you’re simply clubbing me over the head like some hapless baby seal.

Freedman has her fans, and this book may win her some new ones. Perhaps some of her readers will never have heard these arguments before and will be convinced.  But critical readers will want more than Beg offers. There’s no meat in it.

 

Clea Simon is the author of 15 books, including The Feline Mystique: On the Mysterious Connection Between Women and Cats (St. Martin’s Press). She can be reached at www.cleasimon.com.

 

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