Book Reviews

October 25th, 2015

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Feelings for Others

Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It by Roman Krznaric. 258 pp. Rider

EmpathyThis book has been on my reading list and sat on my bedside table for some time but it was reading another book about empathy that prompted me to get round to reading Krznaric. This other book is Lori Gruen’s Entangled Empathy, which I will return to at the end but will review separately.

Roman Krznaric, a ‘cultural think thinker and writer,’ defines empathy as ‘the art of stepping imaginatively into the shoes of another person, understanding their findings and perspectives, and using that understanding to guide your actions.’ (x) He describes compassion as the ability to ‘suffer with another.’ (12) He speaks of people using empathy and compassion interchangeably even though there are important distinctions between them. I agree. But at times it seems that this is exactly what Krznaric does. Maybe, I feel this way because I quibble with him on his definitions and the distinctions he draws between them.

In my book, Growl, I discuss four key values in animal rights: compassion, truth, nonviolence, and justice. I talk about ‘sympathy, empathy, and compassion [as] siblings in a family of nouns that describe a concern for others.’ (57)

I understand compassion as the ability to connect with another and be compelled to assist them. This is the definition that I understand Krznaric gives to empathy whereas compassion as the ability to ‘suffer with another.’. Do these differences matter? Perhaps not. This maybe just me being pedantic; however, I came away from reading this book unsatisfied because of it and other reasons.

I liked Krznaric’s sketch of how empathy evolved over time and his discussion of key historical figures who were exemplarily empathic. At times, though, I felt his personal opinions got in the way. I was also unconvinced by the exercises to develop empathy. Toward the end, I had the feeling that empathy was being turned into a consumable item. I’m sure this isn’t meant but it did feel like it.

Nonetheless, this is a good introduction to empathy. It’s a useful reference. I recommend it to the general reader and particularly for animal advocates.

I read Krznaric after reading twice Lori Gruen’s Entangled Empathy. Reading Krznaric contributed to my general understanding of empathy but it’s Gruen’s text that I keep returning to. It’s not a large book but is does demand repeated reading.

In Growl, I discuss animal ethics and its development with utilitarianism, the natural rights view, and ecofeminism. Each has something important to say but, as in all things, there is no monopoly on the truth. Having read Krznaric, I look forward to my third reading of Gruen and committing my thoughts to paper about it.

Revolution for Beginners and Others

Blueprint for Revolution by Srdja Popovic. 282 pp. Scribe.

Blueprint for RevolutionI heard the author interviewed one Monday morning on BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week program. Surge Popovic sounded interesting and his book’s title, Blueprint for Revolution, made me go out and buy it. The book has a co-author: ‘and Matthew Miller.’ One gets the sense that this is Miller’s book after having some conversations with Popovic. The style of writing is conversational, anecdotal, and not too challenging.

There’s not much theory or history but lots of chat about his work, realisations, lessons learnt, and whimsy comparisons. The books subtitle is how to use rice pudding, lego men, and other non-violent techniques to galvanize communities, over-throw dictators, or simply change the world. You get the picture. There’s a sentimentalism to it all that’s a bit too cloying to me.

Don’t get me wrong. Popovic is a, er, revolutionary. He’s been involved with more than his fair share of, er, revolutions. Plus he teaches the stuff. But I’m unsure as to how much anyone can learn from this book. Which is a shame. It’s worth reading, though. There are some important insights and nuggets to savour. Take this:

Believing that change can happen to you, dreaming big and starting small, having a vision of tomorrow, practising laughtivism, and making oppression backfire: these are the foundations of every successful nonviolent movement. But like every building, the foundations aren’t enough. Unless a solid structure is erected slowly and deliberately, the whole thing is likely to collapse. And the first thing you need for a house to stand united is for everyone to work in unity. (p. 150)

Of course, I read this book while thinking about the animal rights movement. And here’s one quote that made me pause:

Movements are living things, and unless unity is planned for and worked at, it’s never going to materialise on its own. And that’s why it’s important to make your movement relatable to the widest number of people at all times. (p. 167)

So, will this book make you a revolutionary? Probably not. But it will make you think about whether you could be a better revolutionary. Yes. And what’s so wrong with that?

Ruth Plant: A Pioneer in Animal Welfare

By Jenny Remfrey. Self-published in 2001.

Caught up in the day to day activity of working for animals, it’s all too easy to forget that there are many other people who are also rescuing at-risk animals or campaigning for them one way or another or quite simply ‘doing their bit.’ It’s even easier to forget those who preceded us even if we knew or remember them. It’s a cliche but it’s true (as they mostly are): we stand on the shoulders of those who preceded us. Ruth Plant is one such of these people. As is her biographer, Jenny Remfrey, as they’re both ‘pioneers in animal welfare,’ as the book’s subtitle states. I recall meeting Ruth Plant but I don’t remember much. Frankly, she was one of those (cliche warning here) dotty old ladies who loved cats and would do anything for them. Tenacious and innovative, and no doubt difficult, Ruth helped to pioneer trap, neuter and return as an effective policy for feral cats. In Remfrey’s affectionate and brief but authoritative account of Ruth Plant’s life, the focus is more on cats than other aspects of her most likely dotty life. For example, Ruth wrote one book about her ‘forty years communication with a brother in the after life’ and another called ‘Nanny and I.’ Nonetheless, this is a must-read for those who care deeply about cats and want to learn about the history of feral cat management, particularly TNR. There’s a useful timeline and bibliography as well as information most likely unavailable anywhere else about the torturous history of cat advocacy organisations. Don’t ask.

Book Review: Soups Up!

Love Soup: 160 All-New Vegetarian Recipes from the Author of The Vegetarian Epicure… by Anna Thomas. 528 pp. $22.95 or £15.99.

Love SoupAnna Thomas hasn’t written a vegan cook book but there are so many bold upper case “V”s against recipes in the index that she almost has. Not surprisingly, perhaps, given the book’s title is Love Soup, this is a cook book primarily of soup recipes. A significant proportion of which are vegan. It’s the non-soup recipes that are primarily non-vegan, that is, they’re vegetarian (see Chapter 17 “A few easy sweets”). Apparently, her two sons are vegan and she “shouts-out” to them in a brief “Vegan-Friendly” foreword.

I like cook books that can be read. Yes, colour photographs in a cook book are always interesting to study. Often, though, they don’t always they make the dishes look appealing. Love Soup doesn’t have colour photographs (there are some cheery two-colour illustrations by Annika Huett) and it’s none the worse for it. This is because it’s cook book to read, browse and savour. Anna Thomas’s writing style is friendly and straightforward. “Cooking was always fun,” she writes. “I never cooked professionally, so I always cooked only what I felt like cooking, for the people I loved.” This sentiment is clearly apparent throughout the book.

The recipes are a mixture of traditional (e.g., “Old-fashioned split pea soup”) and adventurous (e.g., Spicy Indonesian Yam and Peanut Soup). There are also recipes for “Big soups and stews” and “Hummus and company.” I haven’t made any of the recipes. I cannot write about whether they work and what the food tastes like. But I can say that looking through this book I’m inspired. It is one of those rare cook books. I may not ever cook any of the recipes. But I can honestly say that this book will inspire me to make even better soups just by thumbing through the pages and savouring what it has to share.

Book Review: History of British Political Moral Reform

Makers and Manners: Politics and Morality in Post-War Britain by Andrew Holden. 434 pp. £25

Makers and MannersIn Makers and Manners: Politics and morality in post-war Britain, Andrew Holden quotes Lord Devlin

Has society the right to pass judgement at all on matters of morals? If society has the right to pass judgement, has it also the right to use the weapon of the law to enforce it? If so, ought it to use that weapon in all cases or only in some; and if only in some, on what principle should it distinguish?

For animal advocates, Devlin’s questions are pertinent: Why should the moral treatment of animals be distinguished by not receiving the attention of the law? In other words, why haven’t parliaments and legislatures passed laws protecting animals — giving them legal rights — more than they already have, which isn’t much in most cases? The answer, of course, is that animal interests are enshrined in law but those interests happen to human ones and not for the animals. There are always exceptions, mercifully, where effective legislation has been passed in some countries (e.g., the British Fur Farming (Prohibition) Act 2000 was based on moral grounds).

But as Holden so ably demonstrates in the decades since the Second World War, the British Parliament effectively addressed such moral issues as prostitution, homosexuality, abortion, pornography, contraception, censorship of the arts, capital punishment, in-vitro fertilisation, divorce, etc., but not as significantly animal issues. Why is that? Answer: Animal issues are not a mainstream political issue.

Holden’s recounting of Britain’s political struggle with moral issues is one of the most important reads in some time. There are no easy lessons to be learned from this book to making animal issues a mainstream political issue. But there is one important insight: the cliche “Politics is the art of possible” has never rung more true than after reading this book.

Political victories are won by a mixture of hard, painstaking work that can be undone in moments by stupid publicity stunts or being caught in flagrante. It can be won by being at the right place at the right time and knowing the right person to talk to. Above all, it is about relationships and perseverance toward building a groundswell of support. It is not an impossible task but one that takes time and perseverance.

Book Review: First Modern Social Movement

Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves by Adam Hochschild. Houghton Mifflin. 467 pp. $26.95

Bury the ChainsSome books are just worth reading twice. And Bury the Chains, which I wrote about previously in connection with the film about Wilberforce called “Amazing Grace,” is one of them.

A second reading found me focussing more on Adam Hochschild’s framing the British anti-slavery movement as the first modern social movement with its use of petitions, public meetings, boycotts (sugar), propaganda, organising (with particular reference to the ability of the Quakers here) and, of course, lobbying and legislation in Parliament, than the rest of the narrative.

There’s much here for the animal advocate to learn from while understanding that parallels with social movements only go so far but are enlightening nonetheless. For example, Hochschild considers what was in the minds of the founders of a meeting held in London in 1787 for the “Purpose of taking the Slave Trade into Consideration” that resolved it was “both impolitick and unjust”

We can only imagine how the committee members felt as they dispersed to their homes that night. The task they had taken on was so monumental as to have seemed to anyone else impossible. They had to ignite their crusade in a country where the great majority of people, from farmhands to bishops, accepted slavery as completely normal. It was also a country where profits from West Indian plantations gave a large boost to the economy, where customs duties on slave-grown sugar were an important source of government revenue, and where the livelihoods of tens of thousands of seamen, merchants, and ship-builders depended on the slave trade. The trade itself had increased to almost unparalleled levels, bringing posterity to key ports, including London itself. How event to begin the massive job of changing public opinion? Furthermore, nineteen out of twenty Englishmen, and all Englishwomen, were not even allowed to vote. Without this most basic of rights themselves, could they be roused to care about the rights of other people, of a different skin color, an ocean away?

In all of human experience, there was no precedent for such a campaign.

Book Review: Two Essential Readers

The Animal Ethics Reader edited by Susan J. Armstrong and Richard G. Botzler. Routledge. 646 pp.

Social Creatures: A Human and Animal Studies Reader edited by Clifton P. Flynn. Lantern. 458 pp.

Animal Ethics Reader Second EdtionI like to date the start of the contemporary animal rights movement in 1965. This is the year The Sunday Times in London published the landmark essay, “The Rights of Animals,” by the erudite novelist, Brigid Brophy. It began:

Were it announced tomorrow that anyone who fancied it might, without risk of reprisals or recriminations, stand at a fourth-storey window, dangle out of it a length of string with a meal (labelled ‘Free’) on the end, wait till a chance passer-by took a bite and then, having entangled his cheek or gullet on a hook hidden in the food, haul him up to the fourth floor and there batter him to death with a knobkerrie, I do not think there would be many takers.

Twelve years earlier, Brophy’s novel, Hackenfeller’s Ape, brilliantly plays out the arguments we know well today about the how and why, the could and the should, of our confused and contradictory relationship with animals. The animal rights essay caused a ripple at the time but Brophy’s pen continues to dazzle and sparkle in the light that now shines that bit more brightly on our relations with animals. She explored the fundamentals of what animal rights means which, in the last 40 plus years, hundreds of philosophers, social scientists, humanitarians, scientists, lawyers, activists and others have expounded upon. Indeed, my personal collection of books relating to animals now exceeds more than 1,300 titles.

If you want more than the latest “how-to-become-an-animal-right-activist” and if you want to deepen your understanding of human-animal relations, where do you begin? I believe Brophy would have been delighted with two recently published and complementary anthologies.

The first is a revised and updated edition of The Animal Ethics Reader edited by Susan J. Armstrong and Richard G. Botzler. It brings together both classic and contemporary readings. It is comprehensively organized into 10 sections (e.g., Theories of Animal Ethics, Animal Experimentation, Animal Law/Animal Activism), which includes 87 articles written by such experts as Tom Regan, Jane Goodall, Carol J. Adams, Donald R. Griffin, Lynda Birke and J. Baird Callicott. Each section ends with a list of further reading and a set of study questions. It is ideal for both activist thinkers and scholars.

Whereas The Animal Ethics Reader is broad in scope, the second anthology, Social Creatures, is focused on the emerging academic field of human-animal studies. HAS is one of our three primary program areas. Indeed, my ASI colleague, Ken Shapiro, has been in the forefront of human-animal studies from its inception and contributes two articles to this collection. Several of the articles included were originally published in the Society & Animals academic journal edited by Ken.

The anthology’s editor, Clifton P. Flynn, explains how HAS asks “What can we learn about ourselves from our relationships with other animals? What does the way we think about and treat other animals teach us about who we are?” This is answered by such authorities as Barbara Noske, James A. Serpell, David Nibert and Josephine Donovan. Social Creatures is organized into nine sections covering historical and comparative perspectives of HAS, criminology and deviance, inequality and living and working with other animals.

“Where animals are concerned,” Brophy wrote “humanity seems to have switched off its morals and aesthetics—indeed, its very imagination.” These two essential anthologies demonstrate that someone’s finger is flicking on the light switch.

Book Review: Heroes and Villains

The Whale Warriors: The Battle at the Bottom of the World to Save the Planet’s Largest Mammals by Peter Heller. Free Press. 304 pp.

The Whale WarriorsI recognize that it takes all sorts to make up the folks who constitute the animal rights movement. Among them are the celebrated heroes and villains and those who go about their work unsung but live forever in the hearts of the animals they’ve helped. Each one is unique – yes, that’s a cliché – but some (to mangle a phrase) are more unique than others. One such activist who is truly unique is Captain Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd Fund.

Watson, a much admired figure in the animal rights movement and a hugely popular speaker at conferences, is someone who displays courage and tenacity in spades. There’s a fine line between genius and insanity, however. I can’t help but wonder, after reading Peter Heller’s The Whale Warriors, that Watson personifies more than anyone I know all of these qualities and is not only in full control of them but also has them focused on saving the planet. If I ever found myself in a life-threatening disaster I’d want to have the Captain by my side. It’s difficult to think of a better compliment to make about someone than that. Here’s what Heller makes of him after the Farley Mowat has a stand off with the Japanese whaling factory, Nisshin Maru.

No doubt now—Watson is surely an anti-Ahab. More bearish, more charming, but just as terrifying in his fearlessness, and in his willingness to sacrifice everything, including our lives—to save the whale.

Heller recounts his time on the Farley Mowat in the Antarctica as 2005 turns into 2006. The Sea Shepherd’s mission is to stop the Japanese whalers. Heller goes along for the ride and vividly portrays the journey taken.

I stared at the throbbing green blips on the main radar screen. Was it possible? Had Watson found, in hundreds of thousands of square miles of Southern Ocean, his prey? It was against all odds. Even with the informer on board the [Greenpeace] Esperanza. Even with the storm that could now be veiling his approach from the unwary Japanese. I looked at Watson in his exposure suit and began to pull on my own dry suit. Watson turned to Cornelissen. “Wake all hands,” he said.

I know I’d be useless under the command of Captain Paul Watson but I vicariously enjoyed the experience with grateful thanks to Peter Heller’s The Whale Warriors.

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