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Disillusionment and Reality

Disillusionment is a common reason why believers lose their faith. But it can occur in any scenario involving an assumption that proves false. This essay is a personal remembrance of disillusionment, unrelated to religion but with direct application to today’s political debate.


My activity in animal rights began in the mid-1960s, when I was about 20. At that time, I was concerned mainly with ending animal experimentation, not just on humane and moral grounds but because such research is a poor way to improve human health (animal research is aimed at medical intervention, which is the least important of the factors that determine health and illness, life and death, for most people; so my perspective was strictly utilitarian, in that the greatest health benefit for the greatest number of people can be achieved through improvements in lifestyle, not through new drugs and procedures).

In that era, the anti-vivisection (A-V) movement was split between reformers seeking better regulation of animal experimentation and abolitionists seeking its immediate end. That split was sometimes rancorous. I was an absolute abolitionist, and I knew the facts well enough to argue effectively for that stance. One time, at a meeting, I briefly encountered an amazing man named Henry Spira, who had started as a human rights activist and later became one of the most influential anti-vivisectionists of the 20th century. No sooner had I introduced myself and stated my abolitionist position than he hurriedly excused himself—and the expression on his face was as eloquent as if he had spoken the words “Oh no, not another damned ideologue…” I felt hurt and confused by his attitude. Didn’t he want to see vivisection ended?

Yes, of course he did. But I later came to understand what he had long known: Having the right goal does not always mean charging straight at it. That may be ideologically satisfying but it is often futile, like battering with bare fists against the walls of a granite fortress. I began to see that the reform-vs-abolitionist divide in the movement was less about different goals than different perceptions of how to reach the goal. It was the moment when my disillusionment began evolving into mature thought, and I grasped that having the right goal is useless without a realistic strategy for reaching it—and a rational presentation of factual evidence is not, by itself, a strategy.

I thought about the problem and then wrote an essay for an A-V magazine in which I pleaded for each side to present its position to the correct audience: The abolitionist message should go out to the general public, whereas the reform message is appropriate in lobbying for state or federal legislative change; then pressure from the public may encourage legislators to seek achievable reforms. Conversely, the wrong message to an audience is counterproductive: the reform message to the public defines a wrong ultimate goal, and the abolitionist message to legislators will go nowhere. And I pointed out that the animals suffering in laboratories are not helped one bit by anyone’s sense of ideological purity if nothing changes. Actual change is the only thing that matters—infuriatingly slow, inch-by-inch reform. We desperately want the horror to end at once, but what we want makes no difference to the animals if it never happens.

And change has occurred. Vivisection still goes on, but now there is now a growing movement among physicians and scientists who question its value and argue that resources should be allocated to lifestyle change if we want to improve human health. I will not live to see the end of animal experimentation; but I know that our efforts are bringing that day closer. As I said in a speech at a meeting many years ago, “We are not trying to accomplish the impossible; we are trying to accelerate the inevitable.”

…and now

So, what has this personal remembrance to do with American politics today? We face an existential threat in the possible re-election of Donald Trump as president. I will not go into all that has happened over the past four years, because the point here is different, relating to my experience in the A-V movement.

Several diverse groups want Trump defeated: people who automatically vote Democratic, people who normally vote Republican but are sickened by Trump, some independents, and all who want to see America move toward a more progressive and enlightened stance on national and international matters. And this last-named group bears some resemblance to the A-V movement of decades ago. Let’s look at the similarities.

Both situations involve a sometimes-rancorous split between those who demand radical change and those willing to work for incremental change. Among Americans seeking progressive change, the majority support Joe Biden; they do not see him as a revolutionary but as someone who will preserve our nation while we work toward incremental progress. A minority, representing the hard left, despise Biden as a corporate tool, no better than Trump; they declare their intent to sit out the election or to cast a protest vote (third-party or write-in), arguing that “choosing the lesser evil guarantees that we will get evil.” They say that supporting mainstream Democrats has not brought about the compassionate socialist state they want.

In fact, as I described in the A-V movement, there has been progress over the decades—maddeningly slow but real, as we see most clearly in the civil rights movement. Racism is still with us, but America now is not where we were in the 1950s.

What about delivering the appropriate message to each audience? In the A-V movement, it was (and is) an abolitionist message to the public and a reform message to legislators. The equivalent in the current political climate is not choice of audience but timing of action: Encourage progressive goals year-round, through letters to legislators and comments in periodicals and social media venues; but on Election Day, vote for the viable candidate who is closest to or least distant from those progressive goals. Voting for the socialist who promises to work for those goals is as futile as banging one’s fists against the fortress walls: That person will not be elected (why that is so is a separate topic); and if elected, he/she would find that the legislature will not enact progressives’ socialist millennium. The only answer is incremental progress.

So, progressives: You don’t like that notion? Tough, but that’s political reality. You’re tired of waiting? So am I; I’m tired after more than 50 years of fighting for animal rights. But when I gave up the illusion of achieving quick abolition of all forms of animal exploitation, I could see reality—the only way we can actually help animals is by incremental change. Similarly, the only way to push America toward a more progressive stance is by working within a hideously flawed political system to achieve incremental change.

In the A-V movement, some activists did not support complete abolition; they believed that animal experimentation was a “necessary evil” if we wanted to bring about medical progress (to which I replied that the goal was not medical progress for its own sake but improved health for the greatest number of people). The corollary here is that some people want America to become more progressive but do not embrace all progressive notions. I am politically eclectic, scoring poorly on ideological purity tests of both the left and the right; that means I support some but not all of the goals espoused by the hard left, and I even support some goals that would be labeled conservative.

Finally, hardcore ideologues should avoid the self-flattering assumption that they represent the will of the people. They represent the will of some people. Lest anyone forget, in 1972, the Democrats’ presidential nominee was George McGovern, a very decent man who took a clear progressive stance against the Vietnam War, which was then the most polarizing issue in the nation; but in the general election, McGovern lost to Richard Nixon by one of the largest margins in our nation’s history. The nation was far more centrist than left-wing… and it may still be so. Consequently, the choice remains what it has always been: A grand gesture that demonstrates ideological purity or the tough slow work of fighting for every inch of progress.

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