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Nellie McKay on Animal Rights and Activism

I’m listening, as I write this, to Frank Zappa’s Broadway the Hard Way, a live recording made during a 1988 concert tour that remains as powerful a musical uppercut as has ever been delivered to the Republican Party’s drooling maw in the run-up to a presidential election.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about social activism in music and the artists I admire whose voices inspire, encourage, and fuel the kind of change this godforsaken society of ours so desperately needs.

Tom Morello’s thorough repudiation of everything Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan stands for definitely had a nice groove to it. Morello’s opinion piece, which Rolling Stone published earlier this month, began with this devastating body blow: “Paul Ryan’s love of Rage Against the Machine is amusing, because he is the embodiment of the machine that our music has been raging against for two decades.”

That got me thinking about the inimitable Nellie McKay, whose music and politics I’ve long applauded, literally and figuratively.

Nellie McKay. Photo by Rick Gonzalez

I had the pleasure, recently, of speaking with Ms. McKay about social activism in and through music.

“Well, you can’t be neutral on a moving train,” she said, matter-of-factly.

While clearly there are artists who do tend to stay neutral to avoid alienating their audiences, or at least portions thereof, Ms. McKay is not among them.

“You have to react,” she said. “You have to want to stop the suffering,” if you have empathy, if you care about something.

Music played a huge role in the antiwar movement of the 1960s and ’70s, and, as I mentioned above, Frank Zappa’s unrepentant smackdown in the 1980s of the conservative and religious right is a scorched-earth soundtrack I still dance to.

And speaking of soundtracks, Ms. McKay contributed music to Josh Fox’s documentary film Gasland, which got me thinking about activist films. Denis Henry Hennelly’s movie Bold Native, which is a fictional exploration of the sinister Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, is a work I’ve described as “an important film about freedom.” When I spoke with Hennelly and producer Casey Suchan about the difficulty they’ve had finding a major distributor for Bold Native, Hennelly told me that “unfortunately, we had a really difficult time doing that. And, at a certain point, it became clear to me that, like, this was a question of content.”

While Ms. McKay pointed out that Fox’s Gasland was nominated for an Academy Award, and not discounting the fact that Michael Moore’s movies – particularly Bowling for Columbinehave reached mainstream audiences, the change that many activist films effect is often incremental. And that’s because they demand change from industries whose captains do not have the same interests in mind.

Ten years after Moore released Bowling for Columbine, dreadful shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and at a Sikh temple in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, remind us that those captains of industry remain unmoved by our empathy.

Ms. McKay seasoned my cynicism with a measure of hope, at least with regard to the growing anti-fracking movement, which she pointed out “is getting a lot of attention right now, and it really is pressing, and it looks like (Gov.) Andrew Cuomo may allow fracking in New York, and it’s good that so many people are realizing the consequences and the urgency of the movement. Because once you poison that water, you can’t go back.”

Still, she lamented, “there’s still a huge amount of resistance … within the environmental movement” when it comes to animal rights.

“There seems to be a reluctance to see the connection between animal agriculture and global warming,” Ms. McKay said. “You know, carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide, together they cause the vast majority of global warming. And raising animals for food is one of the largest sources of carbon dioxide, and it’s the single largest source of both nitrous oxide and methane emissions. And yet, you go to these rallies and people will be eating hot dogs.”

And that turned the focus of our conversation to the factory farming industry.

Writing last week about the Central Valley Meat Co. being temporarily shut down after the U.S. Department of Agriculture reviewed undercover video of sickening acts of animal cruelty being committed at the Hanford, California, slaughterhouse, I made known my frustration that “most people don’t think at all about slaughterhouses until something like this ends up in the news. And even then, such reports are typically framed as isolated incidents involving a few irresponsible employees.”

“The truth of the matter,” I wrote, “is that slaughterhouses exist to feed man’s arrogance. They’re located at the end of a machine whose soulless owners and operators are in the business of slavery, terror, torture, and murder.”

And yet still, the industry’s concern – and the concern addressed by the sycophantic news media – is the safety of the food supply.

“When they expose a slaughterhouse, they reassure the reader that … these cows pose no threat to the food supply, or these cows have not made their way into the food supply,” Ms. McKay said. “They’re still being seen as objects for our exploitation. … It’s not how best to use them, but how we can all share this earth together.”

Man’s callous arrogance is rooted in the bogus belief that humans are entitled to hold dominion over other species – and over one another.

Edward Abbey wrote: “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.”

It is also the ideology that gave us Manifest Destiny, against which there is still no substantive pushback from our representatives in Washington.

“Well, that’s (where) we need to be radicalized,” Ms. McKay said. “You know, we need the voices who are outside the system, because once people get inside the system, they become muted. They are dealmakers, and we do need dealmakers, but we need the fighters, too. Because that’s where the actual change comes from.”

Readings of the sinister Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, its precursor, the Animal Enterprise Protection Act of 1992, and various state-level adaptations of these “designer laws” – as Suchan so aptly described them – tell us exactly who is being represented and how.

“You put the word terrorism on anything and your law will pass,” Ms. McKay pointed out.

Regrettably, these issues are not on the minds of those for whom animals are little more than property. And it’s going to take a lot for the rabble to become enlightened.

There is, fortunately, a growing awareness of where the products we buy and consume come from and how they’re delivered, literally and figuratively, to us.

Seeing vegan options on restaurant menus is becoming more and more common, as is the availability of products that have not been tested on animals. But that’s got more to do with what’s going on “outside the system” – to borrow Ms. McKay’s words – than what’s being done from within.

“I do wish that all the energy and expense put into anti-smoking and anti-sugary-beverage campaigns would get put into getting rid of the animal products in people’s diets,” Ms. McKay said, “which would be good for the people, the animals, and the environment … I mean, it’s an insane system on every level.”

While she hopes “there’ll be as many cheap, accessible alternatives as possible,” Ms. McKay doesn’t “think we need another upscale vegan restaurant on the planet. We need late-night greasy spoons.”

I asked Ms. McKay if she feels like she’s preaching to the choir, in terms of her audience, or if she’s seen a positive change over the past decade in the number of enlightened audience members.

“Well, I have to say … on one hand, I get very depressed because I meet a lot of people who ostensibly like my music, who don’t seem to understand about, in particular, the animals or feminism,” she lamented. “And … I don’t understand how they can like my music. It’s a little bit like Paul Ryan liking Rage Against the Machine. And so I find that disheartening, because you do hope to change the world.”

As our conversation turned back to the “terrorist” label many from the drooling class like to hang around the necks of animal-rights advocates and activists, I pointed out, as I did in my November 2011 commentary about Arnold Christopher Lagergren being charged with a felony under the odious Florida Animal Enterprise Protection Act, that “the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act was enacted just a year after the FBI’s John Lewis was quoted in a CNN report as saying: ‘The No. 1 domestic terrorism threat is the eco-terrorism, animal-rights movement.’”

I told Ms. McKay that I get comments on this blog all the time that include words like “extremist.”

“Well that’s a word they love to bandy about,” she said on her way to making the particularly thoughtful and important point that “among progressives, when it comes to animal rights, they find … that’s one issue that they can make themselves look like the conservatives on – even though I don’t like the word conservative, because I actually think … I’m a conservative. I mean I don’t believe in … spending money wantonly, and I think most people who are looking forward are conservative. They want to slash the military budget. … That’s a very fiscally conservative thing to do. But when progressive people … hear ‘animal rights,’ it’s finally something … they can appear to be the voice of moderation on and … say, ‘Well, we’ll take care of the people first,’ not understanding that the oppressions are intertwined and one is used to justify the other.”

And that justification, she pointed out, is too widely accepted.

“With regard to animals,” Ms. McKay said, “it’s that institutionalized violence, how it’s accepted, and not just by … the extremists – to use your word – on the right. It’s accepted by a vast majority. And until we learn to see past … those institutions, until we get past the expert thing – the thinking that just because someone has a ‘Dr.’ in front of their name, because (he or she holds) a position of authority, that they are the voice of reason and truth, when more often than not the opposite is true – we’re going to continue to be bound up in these systems that hurt us and hurt others.”

Learn more about Nellie McKay and her music at

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