Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category
Language– in particular the ability to harness it’s power to tell stories—is arguably a phenomenon that makes us unique as humans. Whether or not this ability confers upon us special moral status is a topic of debate, but as as I see it, while the ability to forge narratives enriches life in an essential way, language also serves to undermine our humanity as much as deepen its worth.
Violence, for one, thrives on the distortion of language. When we harm others we account for it by twisting language to articulate a legitimate culture that excuses that harm. Consider the lexicon of hunting. Humans walk into “the wilderness,” sneak up on critters, and blow them away with high-powered machinery. The inequity of our actions, however, in no way prevents us from glorifying hunting as a noble endeavor—a culture— that meaningfully binds us to the natural world. Words allow us to create and celebrate that unreality.
To grasp how unreal reality can quickly become under the influence of language melded with a predilection for savagery, it helps to check in every now and then with the Texas Hunting Forum, where language renders violence the norm. Pour a stiff one, because here’s what’s happening:
Erich: “i’ve heard that you can castrate feral boars and then either raise them or turn them loose and that they will put on a lot more weight and will improve the quality of the meat. is this true? has anyone done it? any advice on how to do it? does it do any good to castrate one that is already an adult age animal? or does it have to be done when they are young. seems like it’d be a difficult task, but seems like there’s enough folks out there that do it. was just wondering if it was worth the hassle.”
Big Tuna: “yeah they call those barr hogs. When they are castrated they supposedly loose interest in mating and just eat so they get massive. Not sure about how it affects the meat. I guess you would have to use a tranquilizer to neuter them but not sure.”
Texaswolf: “It gets their mind of @ss and puts it on Grass…..I knew a guy on our old lease who would catch them and put a tight rubber band around their Nutz and they would eventualy fall off due to poor circulation…..????? Not sure because I never saw it done but at the time, it made sense…..”
elliscountyhog: “We cut 4 boars this weekend and yes it will cause them to grow faster and bigger with bigger tusk and most of all it shortens there home range up. Just make a small slice and pop em out and cut off then use cut and heal and they are good to go.”
dwayne2003: “This would turn the hog into a ‘barrow’ hog which is what pork producers do; it is best done at a young age if you are gonna feed them out for pork. Texas A&M is doing a study with boar hogs in the TDCJ hog farms to see if they can castrate mature boars and see if it will improve meat quality of those boars so they can then be slaughtered.”
ccbaseball: “haha sounds funny but then again point of getting rid of them is so they are destructive and dont compete with deer.cool info tho.”
CFR: “A common practice here in Florida is to trap them, cut them, and then let them loose. The result is a better quality meat, bigger hogs, and bigger teeth, as they do not fight as much and break them off.”
It goes on.. But if anything here is clear it’s that language is all too easily used to forge sick cultures of hatred under the guise of normal. People who speak this way about sentient beings who, for all their power, lack the ability to fight narratives with counter-narratives (and thus have no truck in our big verbal mud sling), should have their right to use their words severely curtailed. Their hatred and insensitivity is that blatant. It has no place in civilized society.
Like so much of our language, it’s hate speech. And I hate it.
The Food Movement—in its fervent quest to revive nonindustrial animal farming as a “humane” alternative to industrial agriculture—follows an increasingly tyrannical TED talk script to reach the mainstream. In instructing consumers to pay more to support animals who are killed after being loved, it accomplishes the very TED-like prerequisite of providing its audience an accessible way to have its virtue and eat it, too. Nobody walks away feeling that real risks must be taken, or that genuinely radical options should be entertained. Instead, they’re left with win-win expressions that have been nipped and tucked into the collective visage of mindless optimism.
Now, I’m no enemy of optimism. Keep hope alive; but keep it honest. The irony of TED is that its promotion of original thought is undercut by the format’s canned requirement that the message inspire without challenging. Rather than aiming to redefine the boundaries of contemporary thought, a successful TED moment life hacks the status quo to offer a “gee whiz” takeaway. It would violate the Tao of TED to piss and moan about the structural inequalities forged by conniving operatives who get off on abusing power. That would be a total bummer—especially for an audience who just paid thousands to hear that they can eat beef to save the planet.
The Food Movement, stuck in TED land, could do itself a big favor by bumming out a little bit. They’d certainly be more plausible. The situation with global food production is dire, animal agriculture is at the root of the world’s environmental crises, and these happy hipsters are off celebrating sustainable and humanely raised barbecue. Living well may be the best revenge, but if that revenge eliminates the ability for future generations to do the same, its time for someone to blow the whistle and deliver a less sanguine sermon.
Or at least significantly alter the boundaries of food discourse. This was the big idea I had in mind when I spoke this evening on a panel at NYU with Brighter Green’s Mia McDonald and Chris Schlottmann, an environmental studies professor at NYU. What if, instead of breaking down agricultural discussions into industrial and nonindustrial, big agriculture and local farms, we reframed the debate in terms of domesticated animals or no domesticated animals? What if we began to envision future agricultural systems that grew an unprecedented range of edible plants through a variety of methods (industrial, nonindustrial) without the use of animals as exploited resources?
What if, in other words, we left the world of TED and started to think truly radical agrarian thoughts?
Photo: Karl Thibodeaux and/or GreenSourceDFW.org
Rarely do I use the Pitchfork for promotional purposes, but this instance is different. My friend and unlikely vegan activist Big Bald Mike is writing one of the most honest and hard hitting vegan conversion narratives that I’ve ever read. The honestly and rawness of BBM’s story instills it with rare authenticity. Moved as I was by it, I offered to edit it. As Mike notes in his video below, he’s seeking time to write—he’s very short on cash—so that this book can find a publisher and reach an audience that very few of us could ever reach. Mike is a powerful, sincere, and rare voice for animals. He is the kindest of souls. Please, even if it’s only a $5 donation, consider helping fund his effort. Learn more here.
Praising the FDAs move to address the overuse of antibiotics to promote the growth of domesticated animals, the Times editorial board wrote:
Medical experts have long been concerned that rampant overuse of antibiotics in agriculture — to speed the growth of cattle, pigs and chickens and to prevent disease among animals crowded together in unsanitary conditions — is stimulating the emergence of bacteria resistant to treatment by some of the most important antibiotics used to treat humans.
The emboldened text above highlights a major oversight in our thinking—and the editorial board’s thinking— about antibiotics and animal agriculture. They are not just used in industrial settings where confinement is the norm. They are also used by small farmers to prevent disease of domesticated animals who are not crowded together but, because of their freedom to move and natural sociability, interact often enough to spread disease. In a way, this should be common sense. Small farmers have more invested in every individual animal and, as a result, are quick to seek prophylactic solutions when the faintest sign of sickness becomes evident.
Consider this account from a chicken farmer writing about her birds on a popular forum: ”Been treating [the mysterious disease] really well, but, I am out of Gallimycin [antibiotics that fights respiratory disease], till my order comes in! I am giving the 4 really bad ones LA-200 [another antibiotic] injections, and injections to the other sick pen. I have terrimycin [yet another antibiotic] in the water now, as well as Probios. I am also terrymincing everyone else as a precaution. All are getting Vet RX [compound that treats worms and colds] at the moment too.” (1) As for concerns over the perpetuation of resistance, “I am questioning if giving her the same antibiotic a second time might perhaps be ineffective? (may even lead to resistance in the organism causing this?).”(2)
It’s important that consumers become aware that the problems that we assume are endemic to factory farming happen on small, nonindustrial farms as well.
(1) Smoky73, April 5, 2008 (3:52 p.m.) thread starter “Aye, I am fed up with the weather causing sickness,” backyardchickens.com April 5, 2008: http://backyardchickens.yuku.com/topic/10764/Aye-I-am-fed-up-with-the-weather-causing-sickness. Accessed April 28, 2013.
(2) Eprinex Questions,” various backyardchickens.com thread started on April 19, 2007 (907 a.m.): http://backyardchickens.yuku.com/reply/28271/Eprinex-Questions#reply-28271. Accessed April 29, 2013; dlhunicorn, November 3, 2006 (3:41 p.m.) comment on halo826’s thread starter “I have a very sick hen too…please help me again,” November 3, 2007: http://backyardchickens.yuku.com/reply/30124/I-have-a-very-sick-hen-tooplease-help-me-again#reply-30124. Accessed April 29, 2013.
Sweetwater, Texas has a less-than-charming tradition of letting loose village folk into the foothills to gas innocent rattlers out of their dusty dens before slaughtering them with impunity. The dubious rationale for this springtime massacre is to grant locals an exclusive bounty on the venom, skins, and meat that endow these sleek creatures with a modicum of economic worth. Some advocates insist that, without these ritualistic killing sprees, the citizens of Sweetwater would find themselves at war with a plague of serpents. Back on planet earth it’s sinister proof that barbarism begins at home.
Media coverage of this annual affair typically tends toward a pandering patois of local color and hayseed mockery. There’s too much weirdness at play not to write the piece as a bemused outsider stuck in yokelville. Duck Dynasty and Bounty Hunter comparisons thus abound alongside snippets of crankiness over carpetbagging urbanites and their effete environmental notions. Rarely if ever are the interests of, say, the snakes mentioned, much less the ecological role they play in these arid ecosystems.
That said, the Times obligatory piece on this year’s roundup was mixed. Manny Fernandez certainly gets off on the wrong foot when he identified rattlers not by their scientific name or ecological significance, but rather as “a creature that bites and frightens ranchers and others” before making the unlikely claim that West Texas is “as infested with western diamondback rattlesnakes as New York City is with rats.” Nor did it help matters that he then indulged the lazy trope of “outraged animal activists”— crazed maniacs!—raising holy hell over such venomous villains.
What saves the piece, and actually makes it a decent example of animal writing, is Fernandez’s decision–despite his mention of “outraged” animal lovers–to couch his article in the sober testimony of wildlife experts. He quotes Kristen Leigh Wiley, a curator of the Kentucky Reptile Zoo, as saying, “The behavior that occurs at the traditional roundups is animal abuse. Just because it’s a rattlesnake and not any other animal does not mean that it cannot experience pain or suffering.” Likewise, a Dept. of Wildlife official says, “I liken this to fishing with dynamite. It’s about a means of take, a means of collection.”
These quotations place a fair-minded framework around the bungled justifications offered in support of killing thousands of rattlers with infusions of unleaded fuel. “It just helps thin out the population,” says one supporter of the roundup. “The rattlesnake roundup is our ways and means,” says another. Yet another: “If you’re into the Bible, snakes have intimidated people from the beginning, and I don’t think that’s changed to this day.” Fernandez’s decision to juxtapose this pap with the assessment of wildlife experts helps keep the reader’s focus on the fact that animals and their ecological significance, if not their inherent right to exist, are at stake amid this rhetorical lunacy.
Other strengths in this piece include the mention that the snakes are slaughtered “in front of the men, women and children at the event,” that the roundup has over the decades killed “enough dead reptiles to equal the weight of a small locomotive,” and that many of those who condemn the event “oppose not only gassing, but the roundup as well.” It’s understandable to want the writer himself to lambaste the roundup for its senseless brutality, but it is, of course, a news report, not an opinion piece. Even so, Fernandez lends supporters of this senseless slaughter a fair share of rope to do themselves in.
It was a busy month of writing here in Austin and I thought I’d highlight some of my recent work, for those who might be interested. My story, “Loving Animals to Death” takes on the moral conundrum of claiming to care about animals while killing them. It’s the journal’s cover story. In a different vein, there’s this piece on the ecological promise of micro brewing–also a cover story. As readers know, I have a deep passion for the work of Cormac McCarthy. Here is a piece I wrote for the literary journal Conversation Quarterly. Finally, my recent article in Pacific Standard (I think the title is ironic–I didn’t write it) takes on one of the more half-baked articles I’ve seen in a while. I hope you find the ideas in these articles edifying.
As a species sharing the earth with others, humans have every right to integrate our lives into the rainforest. However, led as we are by the frontal lobe, we bring to this environment our own unique set of possible contributions. Consuming the oxygen generated by endless primary growth, we may not be able to camouflage ourselves, emit a noxious musk, or carry twenty times our weight, but we can contemplate the most responsible way to minimize our impact on finite natural resources. Granted, that choice might have meant avoiding taking a jumbo jet to San Jose, followed by a puddle jumper, to reach this place. But curiosity has its costs. And, if we can walk out with a clearer notion of our relationship with other animal species, maybe there will be some offsets.
And what would a clearer notion of our relationship with animals look like? Perhaps it’s best to answer the question by imagining what it won’t look like. Few people from the developed world would enter a rainforest and think, “ah, lovely day to slaughter and eat a spider monkey.” Jungle creatures might be enmeshed in a web of violence but the humans who peek into it rarely feel compelled to participate (weirdly, we’re more comfortable bringing exotic animals back to terra cognita and killing them on home turf). I would even guess that there are plenty of humans who would justify eating animals on the grounds of “it’s a dog eat dog world” while, at the same time, balking at killing the javelinas that trudge through the underbrush of the world’s densest garden, serving an ecological purpose that we can barely understand.
The reason for this reticence would surely have something to do with the altogether decent desire to avoid sullying “virgin” territory with our disruptive slugs of lead. But as I noted in the last post, decent as it is, the whole idea is bogus. As far as the human eye is concerned, there is no virgin territory. We are nature; nature is us. Now, I could stop right here and conclude that the “red in tooth and claw” carnivores are merely deluded by a jejune idealization of nature. Sure. Fine. But, as you might suspect, I think there’s a little more to the story.
To spend time in a rainforest is to realize not only our holistic connection with the bees and the trees, but also to appreciate our differences from the surrounding thicket. Guided by a long and embodied history of decision making, one that we sustain with storytelling and reflection, humans are able to negotiate the rainforest with a more abstract understanding of our species’ potential place within it. The wisest among us know not to project “mere instinct” onto the sloth and her many forest companions. We know there’s more to it, and that such a characterization, regularly belied as it is by animal ethology, is essentially self-serving.
But we also know that the sloth is not contemplating the ethical implications of unnecessary animal exploitation. Nor is she in any way considering the moral consequences of her actions. Instead, she’s contemplating how to take a poop and not get eaten by a jaguar (sloths are usually killed while defecating; it’s the only time they come down from the canopy). This distinction (not where we poop, but rather how we think) matters none when it comes to the basic moral consideration we’re obligated to grant to humans and non-humans. But it’s critical when it comes to our attempt to justify our dominance over, say, the animals that we have no problem killing and eating beyond the rainforest, back in the confines of “civilized” life, to eat food we don’t need.
Our cultural willingness to kill and eat animal unnecessarily while, at the same time, showing respect to the creatures that do violence to each other in the rainforest is a double standard that speaks volumes about our confusion vis-a-vis animals. It’s a confusion that persists because we fail to realize that, as we observe the rainforest, that we do so as human beings endowed with the capacity to not only act peacefully, but to make such a quest the essence of our being. Post-humanism notwithstanding, only humans can stand in the midst of violence and ask, “how can we structure our lives to minimize what’s so necessary for other species to stay alive?”
In other words, in the rainforest, where bloodshed is the norm, we can, however momentarily, step aside and seek solace in the human capacity for peace. I’m pleased that I’ve never had to fight to the death in order to have sex. I’m pleased that that I’ve never had to start a war with another clan in order to reserve a place to sleep and eat. I’m pleased that I don’t have to kill and eat animals. I saddened every time we forget that violence could, theoretically, be eliminated among the human species This is what the rainforest reminds me. This is how it enhances my feelings for the potential of humanity to be decent.
Of course, you could interpret the violence as an easy green light toward aggression. But do note: to align ourselves with the violence of the jungle in order to justify eating animals is to accept moral behavior that, for most decent folks, is considered reprehensible. Endorsing the logic of the rainforest as a model for human behavior is to endorse the myriad forms of dominance that have marked the lowest points of human society: slavery, eugenics, indentured servitude, internment camps, and all the other ways that humans have ignored their better angels in order to further selfish interests.
And that would be a tragic lesson to learn from a rainforest that, through its violence, asks us for peace.
I’ll be unable to post material for at least a week and, for the most part, will be disconnected from all online media. Plan on a fresh post a week from tomorrow. Also understand that, while I’ve been doing my best to regulate commentary (much of which has been amazingly good), I will also be unable to do that over the next 8 days as well. I would simply advise readers not to engage in personal attacks in the comments section and, if you are rebuked in a less than civil way, resist the urge to get into a slugfest. Makes everyone, not to mention The Pitchfork, look bad. Thanks.
On a final, note, I have long pieces coming out soon in The American Scholar and Conservation Magazine (both cover stories) and, possibly, the New York Times. There’s a chance these may come out while I’m off line, but I’ll post when they are published. Meantime, keep an eye out. Be well. Thanks, again.
That’s the good news.
The bad news is that NPR’s coverage of this story was a mess. It begins by immediately belittling the issue of horse welfare, noting that one might reasonably expect the mayor to deal with “big picture problems” instead of . . . .horses. This choice of an opener raises a question. Why would a journalist begin an article on any topic by suggesting that, compared to “big” issues, the one she was covering didn’t really matter? If nothing else, this is a strange way to draw attention to a topic that is somehow important enough to warrant national coverage.
But Janet Babin’s dismissive attitude infects the entire piece. Babin explains that “horse carriage rides are a staple in cities around the country.” Really? In so far as a “staple” is a “main item of trade or production,” horse carriage rides are decidedly not a staple of the urban experience. The reporter furthers her opinion—and, in a way, what she has put together is an opinion piece–that the Mayor’s proposal is just plain weird by reporting that the mayor “raised some collective eyebrows” with his choice.
This phrase is another interesting choice. It implies that everyday folks—the collective–were similarly thrown for a loop by the fact that the mayor cares more than a whit about horse welfare. But again, there’s no evidence offered of a collective anything. And if there was, how about the possibility that a collective of New Yorkers might find the carriage trade problematic? Might it have been more accurate to note that “a collective cheer” went up when New Yorkers heard the news?
And then there’s the problem of context. The carriage horses are largely a political and horse welfare issue whose underlying motivator is economic. The money is on the side of the drivers who allegedly exploit horses. But the politics aren’t—they are more complex, including as they do, interest groups who are concerned with the welfare of horses. Babin again takes the easy way out by ignoring this context and offering only opinions (her own, the industry’s, a horse advocacy group’s) while calling it “news coverage” — which it isn’t.
The segment goes downhill quickly. Before explaining why the horse carriage industry might be a welfare problem, Babin rushes to quote a joke from the Daily Show with John Stewart. Stewart had remarked, ”Should we even be living here? ‘Cause . . . sometimes I look at their stable and I go like, what do you think that’d go for, $1,600 a month? What do you think?” Well, sorry to be a grump, but I think humor does not have a place in this story. Unless you find the prospect of horse abuse funny.
When Babin finally does get around to exploring the issue from a welfare angle she quotes Allie Feldman, the executive director of New Yorkers for Clean, Livable and Safe Streets. Feldman gives a great quote, but her organization is identified as an “animal rights group.” Now, maybe Feldman described her organization this way but, judging from the organization’s website, I would doubt it. It does not in any way address the issue of animal rights per se. More to the point, it allows Babin to use loaded language—yikes!, an animal rights group!—to skew the issue as one that only a bunch of crazies, oh and the mayor, cares about.
She then quotes the Horse and Carriage Association, which predictably says, ”A lot of these horses come from very, very bad backgrounds and are rescued from very abusive situations. This is not an abusive situation . . .” And then some tourists from North Carolina who are crushed that they’ll never be able to ride through Central Park behind horses that, according to a great deal of evidence that Babin ignores, suffer immensely.
Not only is the Horse and Carriage Association given the last word in this piece, but its message of sanctuary is never countered by credible and widely available information that would, if given attention, have resonance to more than the “animal rights activists” who Babin identifies as the only nuts who care about this issue in the first place.
NPR’s Grade: D.
Note to readers: I’m in the process of beginning an on-line project with the journalist Vickery Eckhoff that evaluates the media’s coverage of animal issues. A more thorough statement of purpose, as well as a web address will be forthcoming. For now, though, please note that the kind of piece published here is the sort of work that Eckhoff and I (and an assemblage of writers) will be doing. Needless to say, when we launch, I hope to count on readers to spread the word. –jm
I think anyone who eats animals—and thinks about eating animals—is at least somewhat cognizant that the choice to do so is, on some level, an ethical one. Of course thoughtful meat-eaters are not walking around with their noses buried in Bentham, but they do, by virtue of being thinking meat-eaters, at least entertain the idea that there’s a basic difference between eating a pork chop and a piece of toast. A moral difference, no less. Put simply, for anyone who is honest with himself about the decision to raise and kill animals for food we don’t need, there’s a vague idea that eating animals under certain circumstances might very well be morally wrong.
It all comes down to the realization that an animal, like us, has interests—the most basic of which is avoiding pain. Because we cannot, as decent people, go through life thinking that our interests matter more than other interests simply because they are ours, we thus tacitly grant to other humans and many non-humans—basically anyone with an interest in avoiding pain and seeking pleasure—what philosophers call equal moral consideration. We may not even be aware that we live our daily lives according to this standard but, in most cases, we do. We often just call it the Golden Rule or some such and get on with the business of being decent folk.
Adherence to this fundamental notion of fairness actually requires a lot of us—and it structures the workings of everyday life. Notably, it means that if we are going to inflict intentional pain on another sentient being, we need to justify that painful act with a competing moral consideration. For example, when I affix a leash to my dog before walking her down a busy street, I surely cause a nominal amount of suffering. She hates her leash and is much happier left untethered. But of course I justify my decision to leash my dog with the competing moral consideration that, without that little torture device, she would dart into traffic and suffer far more serious harm, if not death.
That’s a relatively easy case. Where this scenario causes many meat eaters problems is when it forces them to highlight the rather unfortunate fact that the only competing consideration against killing an animal for food we don’t need is lame: our taste for the texture and flavor of that flesh. And, by any moral standard, that won’t cut it. After all, is it a standard you’d ever want applied to your own life? Or the society of humans you cohabit?
It’s for this reason that whenever I read contorted defenses for raising and killing animals I find myself thinking, “stop with the half-baked rationalizations and just admit you love meat too much to give it up.” I find this answer—I just can’t stop eating meat—to be far more refreshing than the pseudo-philosophical junk often brought in to justify the causation of terrible but unnecessary suffering. ”I know I shouldn’t eat meat but . . . .” strikes a more honest chord than “we evolved to eat meat.” Not that I agree with the “I can’t help it” assessment, but at least it doesn’t cheapen the importance of equal consideration of interests, which is at the foundation of leading an ethical life.
The looming nature of this conundrum—how can something as arbitrary as taste ethically justify killing animals?—may also help explain why so many consumers react to eating meat with such visceral enthusiasm. I know people who, at the mere mention of eating bacon, will veritably growl and twitch and say “mmmm. . . bacon,” as if there was something primal stirring in their gut. Nobody acts that way about broccoli. But it could it be that what’s primal is the subconscious effort to excuse ourselves from the moral standard we know deep down, as thinking meat eaters, we fail every time we eat animals? Could that expressed inability to stop eating meat be a way to avoid the conclusion that, to live an ethical life, we must do just that?
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