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Taking Singer Seriously
Don't do it.


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Jonah Goldberg

There’s a scene in the Mel Brooks movie High Anxiety in which Brooks plays a famous psychologist. Invited to give the keynote address at an academic conference, Brooks encounters a problem at the podium; an attendee brought his young daughters with him because he couldn’t find a babysitter. Brooks’s talk is on such Freudian themes as, well, a condition that begins with the letter “p” and rhymes with “Venus frenzy.” He also has to mention other words, unutterable in front of young children. He’s forced to use words like “woo-woo” and balloons for various female body parts. Well, you guys are hardly children, but even NRO has its limits.

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Hence my problem. I want to write about Peter Singer, the famously controversial professor of “human values” at Princeton University. But I don’t want to overly offend (indeed, this was originally going to be a syndicated column, but my editor demurred for the sake of family newspapers everywhere. So, you’ve been warned).

Singer’s just written an article for an online magazine called Nerve.com. And as NRO’s Kathryn Lopez first reported over a week ago, Singer’s essay is an endorsement of, um, well, extremely close friendships between people and animals. I mean very, very, very close friendships. My relationship with Cosmo, my new dog, doesn’t come close to what Singer’s talking about — and I let Cosmo on the furniture all the time. Mr. Singer is in favor of a word I will use only once, just so we’re all clear: bestiality.

“Not so long ago,” Singer begins, “any form of sexuality not leading to the conception of children was seen as, at best, wanton lust, or worse, a perversion. One by one, the taboos have fallen.” Singer offers examples ranging from birth control to gay, er, festivities to Bill Clinton’s intern-mentoring program. “But,” he laments, “not every taboo has crumbled.”

Singer goes on to demystify — or rather, to attempt to demystify — those crazy superstitions that, literally, let sleeping dogs lie. He tells us about an orangutan that wanted to get jiggy with a lady scientist named Birute Galdikas. “Fighting off so powerful an animal was not an option,” Singer notes. But who cares? She told “her companion not to be concerned, because the orangutan would not harm her, and adding, as further reassurance, that ‘they have a very small penis.’”

Shweeeeooo. Clearly that’s the only issue to be concerned about.

“As it happened,” Singer writes, the orangutan lost interest before he did anything that might have contradicted his testimony before the grand jury, “but the aspect of the story that struck me most forcefully was that in the eyes of someone who has lived much of her life with orangutans, to be seen by one of them as an object of sexual interest is not a cause for shock or horror. The potential violence of the orangutan’s come-on may have been disturbing, but the fact that it was an orangutan making the advances was not. That may be because Galdikas understands very well that we are animals, indeed more specifically, we are great apes.”

Now, Professor Singer thinks apes and humans should be equal in the eyes of the law, so one wonders why he isn’t in favor of putting the orangutan in jail — zoo, whatever — for attempted rape. Or one might wonder why he would object to a human — albeit one unblessed in the department that lets one walk around without a towel at the Y — from doing the same thing.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Anyway, he runs through all of these examples throughout history of bored men having their way with barnyard animals (“What? I’m just pushing this sheep over the fence.”). He uses the sort of language that we (okay, I) normally associate with Penthouse’s “Forum,” (“Dear Penthouse, I never thought I would write a letter like this, but the other day my snapping turtle got a look in his eye that could only mean one thing…”). And he suggests there’s a certain canine mystique about which nobody dares speak. “Who has not been at a social occasion disrupted by the household dog gripping the legs of a visitor and vigorously…” playing a game of vertical fetch.

“The host usually discourages such activities,” but Singer says that many of us at these social gatherings keep making eye contact with rambunctious Rover in the hopes of grabbing a quick minute or two alone in the rumpus room.

I simply can’t talk about his alternative uses for chickens.

Anyway, he concludes as he begins, by suggesting that it is just as irrational to discriminate against interracial or homosexual relations as it is to be opposed to human-horse relations. He concludes that “sex across the species barrier” may not be “normal, or natural” but, he says, those words have almost no meaning today. And besides, a bump and grind with Fido under the bumper-pool table is simply not an “offence to our status and dignity as human beings.” Though what Fido thinks about this remains a mystery.

Now, we’ve all heard stories about kids coming home from college with crazy ideas and haircuts. “Dad, I’m a Maoist gender theorist,” “Mom, I will only eat roots, tubers, and grubs.” This is the obvious risk that parents have come to assume by sending their kids to college today. But, honestly, how would you feel after cutting a check for $33,613 — the price tag for one year at Princeton — and every year at Thanksgiving dinner your kid’s grumpy because he didn’t get to stuff the turkey — if you know what I mean. Meanwhile, your cat won’t come down from the top of the closet until she hears young Tommy’s car pull out of the driveway.

All this because a “professor” says that the whole concept of the “species barrier” is so much bourgeois claptrap.

What To Do About This Joker?
I admit it’s difficult to take Singer’s arguments seriously. But the fact is that a lot of serious people do. He’s arguably the most famous “ethicist” in the world — though hardly the most respected. He holds the chair in bioethics at the Princeton Center for Human Values. He’s been celebrated in numerous elite publications including The New Yorker and the New York Times. And as Miss Lopez points out, he was enthusiastically appointed by the president of Princeton, who also happens to chair the National Bioethics Advisory Commission. In short, he may sound just like the loons you avoid at the public library, but in practice he’s not.

Technically, Mr. Singer’s views can be described as “hyper-utilitarian.” But jargon-leery laymen could use the more conventional term, “evil.” He advocates infanticide for unneeded babies, euthanasia for unwanted old folks and — of course — last-minute abortions on demand. Sometimes, he says, such things are a moral obligation. He also says that in order to live a “morally decent life,” you shouldn’t keep a penny of wealth beyond what covers your barest necessities if somebody, somewhere, is in need. And, of course, he says many non-humans have the same “special claim to be protected” as people.

The questions raised here are endless. For example, can your canary sue for sexual harassment? Should rich dogs, like Benji, Lassie, or that Chihuaha from the Taco Bell commercials, share the wealth with pound pooches? And, if a majority of humans think we should kill Professor Singer, does that make it okay? After all, saying “Peter Singer sleeps with the fishes” does have a nice ring to it, all things considered.

Of course, I’m being sarcastic. Which is a moral obligation. Taking Singer seriously is dangerous. As J. Bottum of The Weekly Standard pointed out a couple years ago, the appointment of Singer has already forced politicians to take positions “against” infanticide, as if this were a brave option or even a choice at all. When you treat reprehensible and ludicrous arguments with respect you have elevated the reprehensible and made the ludicrous a bit more reasonable. Having a serious argument with a Nazi makes the horror of the Holocaust a debatable point. Don’t wrestle in the mud with pigs. You get dirty and the pig likes it.

There are only two substantive points to make here. First, Singer is a cocktail-party trickster. He uses intellectual prestidigitation to get you to agree to all sorts of assumptions that sound reasonable and then forces you to remain consistent to those “principles” until you find yourself in favor of killing babies, pulling plugs, and mounting the jolly Rover. Second, for all the talk about the pernicious influence of religion in America, there’s no conservative or right-winger at any major university who is a fraction as extreme as Singer, and yet if there were few schools would cloak them in the cocoon of academic freedom. (For more on these themes see “I’ll Transgender You” and “In Defense of Bob Jones University.”)

No, the only thing that lessens his influence is to either ignore him or mock him. Alas, ignoring him is hard because the media has a bad case of puppy love when it comes to Peter Singer. And Princeton, in its infinite wisdom, has elevated the sicko to a place of real influence; thus scoping out the freshman “pig book” for datable coeds now takes on a whole new meaning.

But mocking him — and Princeton — is still easy and, unless there’s something going on between you and Spot that none of us want to know about, it’s the right thing to do.

Announcement
I am pleased — and a little frightened — to announce that the NRO “Flying Monkey” T-shirts are selling like catnip — the date-rape drug of choice — at Princeton singles bars. We ask for patience as we increase our supplies, add new products, and try to fulfill orders. But please, do not stop buying things, because we’ve already spent the money.



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