At a time when much of the West is rocked by recession, and some of the East is ravaged by war, why are Australians taking to the streets over the fate of a few thousand sheep? Across Oz, both left-wingers and right-wingers, both lentil-reliant veggies and carnivorous steak-chewers, have been marching in their thousands, not for an end to poverty or conflict or any of the other things currently heaping misery on huge numbers of human beings, but for the banning of live exports.
Some have turned themselves into unofficial spokespeople for the ovine community, waving placards with pictures of cute baaing lambs under the words, ‘A plea for mercy’. ‘Stop the animal holocaust!’ the protesters chant, explicitly depicting the export of live animals, particularly to blood-drenched abattoirs in backward countries like Pakistan, as a modern-day version of what was done to the Jews. Which presumably makes the protesters 21st-century Schindlers, bravely saving the feeble and helpless from annihilation.
The highly moralistic, self-flattering language used by the marchers suggests there’s more to these nationwide displays of sheep sorrow than a practical effort to improve the treatment of livestock. The issue of live exports has been turned into a super-simplistic morality tale, starring decent, lamb-loving Aussies on one side, and barbaric, sheep-abusing Asians on the other. The success of the protests is down to the fact that they provide a moral thrill their PC participants, allowing them to feel fleetingly morally righteous at a time when the old moral certainties are in disarray.
The protests were triggered by revelations that less-than-admirable killing techniques were used during a cull of Oz-exported sheep in Pakistan. A video showing Pakistani farmhands clubbing sheep or cutting their throats caused outrage in Australia, just as revelations about the ‘abuse and torture’ of Aussie cattle in Indonesia did six months ago. A gaggle of animal-rights organisations, including the RSPCA and Animals Australia, have spearheaded a campaign to ban all live exports, on the basis that exported animals face ‘cruel and barbaric’ treatment in parts of Asia.
There’s no escaping the awkward fact that these protesters, some of whom waved photos of sad, mewling calves alongside the words ‘Save Me!’, are fighting to save what they call ‘Australian animals’ from wicked Asians. So the mass gatherings were made up not only of Aussies distressed by Pakistani bludgeoners and Indonesian calf-abusers, but also by Aussies enraged by the exporting of greyhounds to China. ‘Stop greyhounds being exported to China!’ placards pleaded. ‘You BET they die.’ Of course they do. All animals sent to Asia die a gruesome, bloody death, don’t they?
That’s certainly the impression one gets from these protests — that where Australians, in the words of Animals Australia, ‘love animals’ and ‘despise cruelty’, those brown- or yellow-skinned folk over there are different: they’re cutthroats, cattle batterers, dog-killers, brutal, cruel, barbaric. The discussion boards on the Animals Australia website are choc-a-bloc with anti-Asian commentary. ‘These barbarians… have not progressed from the dark ages,’ we’re told. We should stop sending ‘our animals’ to these ‘barbaric countries’. Apparently Asians and Middle Easterners are ‘deliberately cruel’ — ‘the more pain they can inflict on the animals, the better they like it’. The boards are a weird mish-mash of concern for animals and contempt for humans (‘I’m disgusted with the human species,’ says one exasperated contributor), especially for the humans Over There.
But that is frequently the case with animal rights activism. Scratch a lamb-hugging lover of God’s four-legged creatures and you will often find a misanthrope, sometimes even a xenophobe, lurking beneath. Bemoaning man’s wickedness to the beasts with which he shares the planet has become a right-on way of expressing disdain for the modern world (factory farming, international trade, industry and so on) and also disgust towards Johnny Foreigner and his animal-bashing habits.
Consider the arguments put forward by that other vocal wing of the Australian animal rights movement: the anti-whaling set. They, too, depict Asians, in this case the mad, harpooning Japanese, as ‘uncivilised’, as a writer for the Courier-Mail once put it, in contrast with the ‘civilised nation of pet-lovers that is Australia’. In leftish comment pieces on whaling, Japanese whalers are referred to as ‘viciously cruel’, ‘barbaric’, ‘unfeeling’, all of which helps to rehabilitate the age-old prejudice about Orientals being robotic, hardhearted so-and-sos compared with us emotionally attuned Westerners.
Asians get mountains of flak from Western animal-lovers. Koreans are attacked for eating dogs, as if that is somehow morally worse than eating a chicken or rabbit, as we do over here. An American charity called Dogbiz claims Koreans ‘take great delight in watching [dogs] die, wagging their tails in a last moment’s desperate but futile plea for mercy’. The British singer Morrissey, whose 1985 song ‘Meat is Murder’ turned a whole swathe of Western youths into proselytising vegetarians, recently said of China’s animal-treating and eating habits: ‘You can’t help but feel that the Chinese are a subspecies.’
Given that animal rights activism seems to lend itself nicely to expressions of alarm at the perverse cruelty of foreigners, especially Asians, it isn’t surprising that some far right groups have thrown their lot in with the animal-loving lobby. The British anti-fascist magazine Searchlight once ran an exposé headlined, ‘The far right have become animal lovers’. It revealed that both British and Italian neofascists had set up animal rights groups, with names like ‘Greenwave’, as way of expressing fury about the behaviour of foreigners.
This is not to say, of course, that the men and women waving bleeding-heart pics of sheep and cows on the streets of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane in recent days are fascists, or racists, or one-eyed misanthropes. But there is definitely an uncomfortable interplay between caring for animals and sneering at human beings, between viewing lambs as poor, put-upon victims and viewing mankind as rotten and beastly.
The problem is the Bambification of politics, the search for childlike battles between good and evil that might provide liberal protesters with a pulsating sensation of moral outrage and moral superiority. Because, of course, every such black-and-white Bambified battle requires both its angelic poster boys, in this case doe-eyed lambs, and its models of wickedness — in this case knife-wielding, cruelty-enjoying Asians.