Science fiction is a vastly underrated genre. For almost 200 years now (if you consider Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to have been the first modern science fiction novel), it’s been on the cutting edge of the technological changes that drive society — not just making up stories about such innovations, but extrapolating them to their logical conclusions — and, as a result, science fiction also exists on the cutting edge of sociology, culture studies, women’s studies, and other relevant disciplines. Lots of fascinating ideas live in the pages of science fiction texts.
For example, I just finished Macrocosm by Piers Anthony, recommended by a friend. It was written in the 1970’s, and that’s obvious in its treatment of women, among other things. What is striking about that book, though, beyond its “product of its times” characteristics, is the core message: the discovery (fictional, of course) that civilizations around the universe, for literally hundreds of millions of years, have been rising and falling, rising and falling, always stopping just short of being able to eradicate violence on either an individual or a societal level. Just like us. Interesting.
That’s an idea that puts things into perspective.
For me, “The Matrix” is something else that puts things into perspective. If only for introducing the concept of factory farms filled with humans, tended by the machines that have taken over the planet, this film deserves accolades from animal rights activists. Reality as we know it is a computer program (known as the Matrix) which was designed to pacify us as we live our biological lives in pods on the farms. Interestingly, this program describes a dystopic earth, as previous utopic versions were impossible for our human minds to accept. In any case, some humans have broken through, realigned their minds and bodies, and are fighting the Matrix.
It’s a hard life, devoid of most creature comforts, save in the Shangri-la-esque Zion, buried deep underground near the earth’s core, where the Free Humans have made their last stand. Life on the ships is hard, from the rags they wear to the snot-like food they eat, to the fact that they are in constant danger from drones whose mission is to seek out and destroy them.
It’s also hard on a psychological level, not least of which due to the fact that any time they re-enter the Matrix, they find it filled with billions of people whom they used to consider co-citizens of Earth, but now know to be fake. Thus, members of the resistance are regularly confronted with an alienation so profound, it has to make them feel like animal rights activists walking through daily life surrounded by people who resemble who they themselves used to be, but are no more.
It’s such a hard life, in fact, that some people want to go back to the way things were. One of the villains is a free human who’s sick of fighting with a rag-tag group of unpopular outcasts and wants to return to his former life. He cuts a deal with the Agents (analogous to the FBI), promising to hand over the leader of the resistance movement in exchange for being slipped back into a pod and made a rich, important bit of code in the Matrix. To explain his internal justification for this, he cuts a bite of flesh from the slab in front of him and holds up the fork. “I know this isn’t a real steak,” he says, “but I don’t care. It smells like a steak and tastes like a steak, so it’s a steak.” I paraphrase, but the point is the same: It can be hard, unrewarding work to be an activist, I’m sick of fighting my own species, I don’t have the will to continue the struggle, and I just want to fit in again.
Who hasn’t felt like that from time to time? Who isn’t tired of being the only vegan in a room full of flesh-eaters? Who doesn’t get bone-weary from constant explanations, justifications, arguments, tension? Who isn’t sick of feeling the demoralized, helpless rage, the mind-blowing angst of wondering why things are this way, and the endless work of fighting the powers that make it so?
I would venture to guess that most animal rights activists feel that way sometimes. How could we not? It doesn’t mean we give up, but these are very real feelings with very understandable sources. So how do we keep our strength and commitment to fighting an enemy larger than we can comprehend?
I have come to believe that most long-lived animal rights activists have excellent boundaries. They know when it’s time to shut it all off for a couple of hours and do something to forget, just for a moment, everything we know to be true about this planet. To be unable to do so is to subject oneself to 24/7 unmitigated horror; a horror that can destroy us, that can render us insane, paralyzed with helpless terror.
I also feel like this is a way to stave off any of the temptations that have a way of creeping into peoples’ brains and luring them back to normalcy. This is actually what I suspect is behind the trend of a percentage of vegans who are becoming non-vegans: I think some of these people simply can’t take the pressure any more. They lack the moral strength, as well as the coping skills, to navigate a treacherous animal-hating world, so they slip back into their pods and try to forget it all.
I have this kind of boundary, which on most nights consists of a couple of hours of mindless television, followed by a few pages of some science-fiction book or other, and blissful sleep. I wouldn’t want to go back into a pod — I’d be the one ending up a basket case on the floor, begging people to do anything but put me in an institution — but I don’t want to go nuts either. And I have this innate rage inside of me that, while mostly dormant in my personal life after many years of extremely hard work, still exists unabated, the same general analyses of the world I formed over decades of various kinds of activism still rock-solid, still unaltered, undiluted. I may seem to be a polite unassuming middle-aged woman, but I’m not. That is not who I am.
Of which I was reminded when I visited Pittsburgh last week, an annual trip I make to see my mom and some very important friends. I was sitting in a Panera’s with my soy latte, working my job, and the conversation behind me turned to the War on Christmas. The first words out of this guy’s mouth were “Now, why do they have to do that?” “That” meaning “wage a war on Christmas.”
Are you KIDDING me? And there it was, all of a sudden, the rage I do my best to keep in a box so I can live my life without losing it. I never know when it will rear its head, but this kind of bullshit talk tends to do the trick, given that I hold patriarchal religions largely accountable for most of the nightmares in this world.
And when it does hit me, it hits me the same way every time, undiminished from almost thirty years ago when I first saw — really saw — the true sickness of the patriarchal religions that have oppressed and dominated this entire planet for thousands of years now. Christians who feel like a war is being waged on Christmas are like white men in the United States who believe that they are now an oppressed minority because they don’t have a quota system. Surprise: You don’t get a quota because you own the whole goddamn country. Because I prefer that you not tell me “Merry Christmas,” I’m shooting a gun at your God? Give me a break: your God is a gun that’s always been, and always will be, pointed at my head. At the heads of all women, all animals, all of the creatures of the world who are explicitly given, as property, to human men in the sacred books of the patriarchal texts.
And for those people who believe I’m wrong — those who genuinely believe there is a benevolent Higher Power known as God, Goddess, Universe, Creator, what have you — something amorphous, something life-affirming, something like a Greater Consciousness made up of who we will become when we die — hey, that’s fine. But you’re not the ones I’m talking to. I’m talking to the people who worship a Man in the Sky; the people who believe that As Above, So Below means human men are the gods on earth; the people who believe that whatever happens is all right by God as long as we all do what His earth-bound representatives tell us to do. Anyone who opposes this directive — people like animal rights activists who put forth a message of true equality among all of the creatures on this planet — is a threat to their power, and dealt with summarily.
So please don’t tell me I’m killing footsoldiers in some skirmish of the War on Christmas. I’m engaged in a very different (and a very real) war — a war created, in large part, by mass adherence to the dogma of such religions. I’m watching those I’m supposed to be defending die torturous deaths every second of every day. I’m surrounded by their corpses, the smell of their mangled flesh, their cries in the wind when they lose their babies to the veal crates, wood chippers, garbage bags. I’m surrounded by people who wear the skins of those I fight for — on their feet, their hands, their backs. Don’t tell me the Christians who think there’s a war on their holiday feel these kinds of agonizing feelings simply because a tiny percentage of us don’t chop down trees and plop them in our living rooms once a year. Don’t tell me it’s an act of war to refuse to spend thousands of dollars supporting the kind of capitalism that has led us to the brink of a mass uprising (yet again).
That’s not war. These people have no idea what war truly is. Ask any chicken in a battery cage; ask any sow in a gestation crate; ask any cow hooked to a machine sucking the milk from her breasts. They will tell you what a real war is. And because they cannot fight this war, we have to do it for them.
I won’t sell out to the supposedly seductive world of Christmas trees and holiday hams. I’ll end up dead by my own hand or crazy first (preferably neither, though, to be honest). But to guard against even the remote possibility of either one of these outcomes, I have learned to make my own small joys in this life, enough to preserve me for awhile. In the meantime, my conviction to non-human animals grows. I have many plans for the future. I just think I’ll avoid Panera’s for awhile.