Archive for the ‘A Thousand Words’ Category
Here is a discussion between Gail Collins and David Brooks, both of the Times op-ed page, where they are columnists. This is not a parody. I have made none of it up. You will be stunned at the . . . oh, never mind. Just read on. (And please follow on twitter @the_pitchfork.
Gail Collins: David, here in New York we’ve been having a crisis over swans. Can we talk about that today? I don’t think we’ve ever discussed large fowl before.
David Brooks: I’d be really happy to talk about them, but when I was growing up we called them pigeons. The only birds I remember in New York were pigeons — and maybe sparrows, but sparrows manage to live without actually entering the consciousness of the creatures around them. I’m guessing you’re referring to pigeons and that now we’re calling them swans in the hopes that it will boost their self-esteem.
Gail: Wow, I’m getting a vision of pigeons tattooing each other and shooting up steroids. I think we have another movie script idea. But no, this involves real swans – mute swans, to be precise.
The New York Department of Environmental Conservation wants to get rid of virtually all the mute swans in the state. Apparently they eat up a lot of aquatic vegetation. But their main crime is being nonnative. Rich people brought them over from Europe to swim around in their estate ponds and now there are about 2,200 of them. Actually, that doesn’t seem like a lot of birds for a state this big. But the officials want to declare the swans a “prohibited invasive species.”
Doesn’t that seem sort of un-American?
David: My view is that the swans should be able to claim political asylum to escape all the Frenchmen chasing them for their foie gras. Yes, I know foie gras comes from geese, not swans, but I’m not sure U.S. immigration officials know that.
Gail: I’m generally in favor of government intervention in animal-management situations, but I’m coming down on the swan side. If New York is going to worry about wildlife overpopulation, they should concentrate on the deer and the geese. Or send all their troops west to block the path of the wild pigs. Do you know how many feral hogs we’ve got in this country? They’re taking over!
David: We’ve got feral hogs in Washington too! Many with law degrees. I’m not sure what the best method to reduce their number is, though bow hunting strikes me as a promising approach.
As for your animal problems in New York, I’m sensing an agreement between us. I‘d take care of the excess deer first. Then I’d take on the geese. I was once almost killed by a very angry mama goose while out for a run in Tarrytown. Since then I’ve been terrified at the prospect of being killed by anything essentially vegetarian. I wouldn’t mind some carnivorous bear or a lion taking me down, but I’d hate to be gummed to death by a grass eater.
Gail: You’ve been thinking a lot about ethics lately. Where do you come down on human rights versus animal rights?
David: My thinking about animal rights is evolving, I guess. On the one hand, I eat animals. On the other hand, it’s hard not to be impressed with the moral sophistication of some animals. The question to me is whether animals have souls. I guess I don’t think any have the sort of souls that could be saved or damned. But I do think elephants, dolphins and dogs exhibit soul-like behavior — that is to say, they seem to exhibit moral virtues, like empathy and loyalty.
Last December I gave a Sidney Award to an essay on the soulful behavior of elephants. In one story an elephant who had been abused at a circus greeted a new acquaintance by showing her all the places where she had been injured. The other elephant touched each injured spot with her trunk, as if to say: I feel for you. I am with you.
I wouldn’t be comfortable eating an animal who could do that.
On the other hand, when it comes to geese and deer, I’m like: Go ahead, make my day. I guess I’m describing a slippery slope between animals that seem to have soul-like pieces and animals, like cows, that don’t. This may be extremely self-justifying and bogus, but I’m comfortable with slippery slope arguments. Much of life is about making decisions on a continuum.
Gail: I believe humans come first, and that our main responsibility to the animals is not to cause them unnecessary suffering. If there are too many deer or geese, it’s O.K. to get rid of the excess. But we have to do our best to kill them fast so they won’t die in pain.
David: I’m totally with you on the reducing pain element. Here the laws of kosher killing seem wise. It’s amazing, by the way, how late this sensibility entered human history. For centuries and centuries, even after civilization was quite far along, many smart, caring people were utterly insensible to the suffering of animals. They would have considered it bizarre to care as we do.
Gail: I’m also a big fan of protecting endangered species, but to tell the truth, that’s mainly because they’re a good warning indicator. The things we have to do to protect endangered species are almost always things we need to do to protect the planet for ourselves. Otherwise, to be honest, I could be pretty serene about the passing of the stubfoot toad.
David: Here I slide back onto my continuum. I’d be for preserving endangered animals as long as the human costs aren’t too high.Absolutists sometimes seem on the verge of stopping economic growth for the sake of a few snail darters. More generally, I’m for saving truly homely animals. We have to fight our natural tendency to favor the adorable. It’s a good moral discipline to defend the stubfoot toad, while forcing koalas to take care of themselves.
Gail: Our national attitude toward wild animals has too much of a pro-cuteness bias. If deer had tusks and little beady eyes, we’d have long ago figured out how to reduce the deer population.
David: I’m trying to think of the ugliest animals we allow to live among us. Donkeys I guess. Plus journalists.
Gail: And then there’s meat-eating. How far do you think we’re obliged to go in making sure the animals we eat weren’t tortured on their way to the dinner table? Nick Kristof wrote a columnrecently about factory farming, where animals are squashed so close together that they spend their lives unable to move.
I’m not sure we have an ethical obligation to give livestock full and rewarding lives, but we should at least face up to the way these animals are treated. Right now this is one of the many, many aspects of society where we tend to vote for avoidance.
David: If anybody really wants to think hard about this, I recommend Jonathan Safran Foer’s book “Eating Animals.” For myself, I prefer not to know. I’ve definitely practiced avoidance all my life. I don’t suppose there is any nonmessy way to kill large numbers of large animals, though obviously I’d be for humane treatment on the way to the culling floor.
Gail: How do you feel about hunting? I can appreciate the intense feeling a lot of people have for hunting – although the business about standing in the water waiting for a duck to fly by still escapes me. And while it’s good for gun control advocates to make sure they aren’t mistaken for anti-hunting crusaders, some politicians do go overboard on that point. Listening to some liberal Democrats talk about the glories of shooting partridge, you’d think they were refugees from “Downton Abbey.”
David: I respect hunting as a social institution and I defend it ideologically, but to be honest I could never hunt myself. I have a problem with the idea of sitting around waiting for something and then I have a problem with the act of shooting a creature. That pretty much takes me out of the two big sides of the hunting vocation. I say that aware that I grew up in a big city and I have a certain urban value set so I’m hesitant to impose it on others. I do understand the mental and physical challenge of the sport.
Gail: By the way, what’s your favorite wild animal? Years ago, I did a story about the Bronx Zoo, and I went looking for an animal that was so unlovely, nobody even went “aww” at the babies. I finally settled on the bats. I’ve been a big bat fan ever since.
David: O.K., now we’re crossing the credibility threshold. Do you mean to tell me if a bat landed on your shoulders you wouldn’t immediately flop around frantically trying to get the ugly little bugger off you? I definitely would.
Gail: You’ve got me. Last year, I was in the country and grabbed a book from the shelf. A bat fell out and landed on the desk in front of me, hissing. I instinctively clobbered it with the book before I had a chance to contemplate the critical role of bats in the circle of life.
David: I guess my favorite ugly animal would be the sloth. It’s not only truly ugly, it’s a moral role model. It teaches us to slow down and enjoy life.
Just a quick note to thank you for your patience as I finish a 6,000-word piece tentatively called “Loving Animals to Death: How The Food Movement Cooks its Own Goose.” It’s for a big publication and it’s due to my editor in the next few days. Been working round the clock on it. I plan to be back at The Pitchfork by Thursday, flush with fresh material. Meantime, be well.
The media fails animals. All the time. Tragically. Part of this failure boils down to the fact that it can. And part of the fact that it can reflects the reality that animals cannot speak for themselves, at least not in the press. You cannot, for example, call up an animal to ask his perspective on what it’s like to be owned for the purposes of commodification.
And so what the media does, as Dan Frosch of the New York Times recently did, is project onto animals stereotypical assessments that ignore the most basic tenets of animal ethology. To wit, as a kind of toss off remark, Frosch writes that a cow up for auction “stared blankly out at the crowd.”
For anyone who knows the first thing about cows, this is almost too much to take. “Blankly,” of course, implies without emotion or thought. It implies that the cow didn’t know what was up, that she’s just a clueless fat beast that we needn’t feel bad about killing and eating. But does anyone–I don’t know, say, an editor–ask Frosch to provide a source for the implication that the cow was clueless?
Of course not–that cow is just an animal and, as our blinders ensure it, the cow does appear to exhibit a “blank” stare. So we let it go and take another sip of coffee. And, really, what kind of average reader would think to question the portrayal? Thus the self-serving stereotype is further normalized.
The common acceptance by the media of this kind of projection is why we need to wage a war on how animals are covered in the press. There is, after all, zero evidence that there’s anything blank about the cow’s stare. To the contrary, that stare harbors a world of emotion, a universe of doubt and fear. Frosch could have, should have, in the future must, call someone who has a clue about cows to ask what’s going on behind that stare.
Until he does, we need to push back. Hard. A brilliant example of how this push back might work appeared the other day at The Dodo. Not to pick too much on the Times (although its reporting is chronically insensitive to the animals it covers), but after Stephanie Strom wrote a deeply misinformed article on the rise of humanely raised pork, she was taken to the woodshed in a very productive way by none other than a pig farmer, a man named Bob Comis. You can find Strom’s piece and Comis’ response here. It’s worth reading in its entirety, both to appreciate how dreadfully wrong Strom got the story, her sclerotic reason for getting it wrong, and the measured tone of Comis’ response.
I suppose if we went back into journalistic history we could trace a line of enlightenment in the way reporters wrote about minorities, the poor, and the disabled. Before How the Other Half Lives was published, for example, reporters described the tenement dwelling masses as dirty and lazy. Few questioned this portrayal because (and this is the insidious aspect to today’s animal coverage) it conformed to a set of unquestioned assumptions. People basically didn’t know to question the stereotype.
Today, of course, the media covers the impoverished with considerable sensitivity to the hard reality and perspective of poverty. We must start working to ensure that a similar transition happens with the way animals are covered. (And, please, if you are about to yell at me for equating the economically disadvantaged with animals, just stop it.)
This war is urgent. Right now, Chipotle is undertaking a campaign to promote “humane” farming through tactics taken right out of the Big Tobacco playbook. There will be more on this issue to come. But for now note that through “native advertising” the company is working under the “Farmed and Dangerous” slogan to establish a broad cultural pretext to support Chipotle’s rise to fast food dominance. When a company spends millions on advertising and never mentions its name you should be very scared.
This rise cannot be covered by the media without a consistent reference to the suffering experienced by the millions of animals that fuel the company’s rise into rarified wealth through both ideological seeding and burritos stuffed with animal flesh. We need to let the world know that this flesh came form animals who did more than stare blankly into space. And that those seeds are toxic.
In the course of over 18 stories on horse slaughter in the Unites States, the AP has continually botched the narrative.
Specifically, it misinterprets data in order to convey the impression that horse abuse has increased with the closure of slaughterhouses in 2007. In fact, as is explained in a remarkably well-documented open-letter to the AP by Forbes contributor Vickery Eckhoff, it’s the opposite that’s true. In essence, these 18 stories, which have been reproduced virally throughout the media, have radically distorted reality in a way that favors the meatpacking plants that would love to start killing horses in America.
In light of my own recent experiences with the mainstream media, Eckhoff’s tireless efforts to both highlight the AP’s errors and insist that they make retractions are inspiring, to say the least. I’m gradually reaching the conclusion that the mainstream media all too easily uses the rules of conventional journalism to protect those who exploit animals while marginalizing those who seek to speak to their interests. This is an issue that we need to confront.
In any case, Eckhoff’s open letter is here.
I’m genuinely appreciative of the many supportive comments that I’ve received over my decision to stop blogging for Forbes.com. I was not happy about the article coming down. So your words came right when I needed them. Thank you.
At the same time, it’s important to understand that the changes that I was being asked to make in order for the piece to stay alive were conventional editorial changes reflective of conventional journalistic practice. This does not necessarily make those changes right, nor do I think that they were changes that necessarily should apply to underpaid bloggers pushing a clearly defined perspective, but still, they were not, by the staid standards of “objective” journalism, unreasonable demands. (Even if they were applied inconsistently.)
The problem for me came down to what may seem like an obvious realization: what’s reasonable for conventional journalism is a status quo that turns too many journalists into stenographers for the power elite. As a writer concerned with our treatment of animals in society today, this role will never do. This role extinguishes the fire of our activism.
Was I foolish to think that I could get away with hard advocacy for animals at Forbes? Probably. But I’d never know until I at least tried. And I did. And I got twelve—make it thirteen—articles into the mainstream media, all exposing in one way or another, the awful plight of sentient non-humans in a society that purports to value justice and compassion.
And now it’s time to move on.
I know readers are eager to hear about the specific changes I was asked to make. I’m writing a longer article in which those changes will be described in more detail. For now, the takeaway from this incident is that the mainstream media can, when it chooses to, use the “legitimate” rules of conventional journalism to temper the message of those who seek justice for animals, not to mention the people who profit at their unrestrained exploitation.
In the end, I decided that there are more noble ways to be heard.
In philosophical discussions, language is frequently used to differentiate humans from non-humans. This differentiation, in turn, often becomes the basis upon which to reduce moral consideration for non-humans while granting it to humans.
Although it’s likely true that humans are alone in our ability to generate languages with intricate grammars that we can replicate and represent in a variety of forms (written, spoken, signed, danced), it’s not the case that this distinction grants any more moral superiority than a bird might have over humans because he can fly.
Strange as it sounds, appreciating this point may ultimately involve losing languages. Humans speak about 8,000 of them. This fragmentation most likely has roots in our tribal past, a past that required the creation of small communities that cooperated for survival in localized venues.
Language drew boundaries and, even today, it serves the function of drawing lines between in-groups and out-groups. There are parts of the world—say, Papua New Guinea—where a new language is spoken every couple of miles. All of which is to say, language can prevent as well as foster communication. Hearing an accent inflecting our own language immediately imposes a set of out-group associations.
Linguists tell us that a day will come when we all speak one language. Already, 50 percent of the world speaks 10 (out of 8000) languages. While one common reaction is to lament the decline of this linguistic diversity, another way to think about this loss is to celebrate the idea that fewer languages mean that more of us can break barriers of communication that language diversity traditionally solidified. One day, we may speak a foreign language in the same way that we play an instrument—an admirable and mind-honing pursuit, but not necessary for basic communication.
When we overcome language barriers through a common lingua franca we improve the chances of human communication and cooperation (I realize, of course, that this barrier can be overcome in many non-verbal ways). Another way to think about this optimistic interpretation of the evolution of human language is to note that when we begin to speak one language we do so to support the deepest evolutionary requirement for survival. This means cooperation, and cooperation means compassion and empathy, and compassion and empathy mean a more peaceful world.
Now, think about the implications of this trend on animals. As humans expand the circle of compassion to include other tribes of humans, and as they do so through the collapse of language, they learn to include more members of previously out-groups into what are larger and larger in-groups. I see know reason why the rise of a single global language might not lead to a post-humanist idea of a single language that includes non-verbal emotional expressions as well as words.
And, therefore, animals.
My daughter Cecile, who is nine, has been working on some drafts for a fantasy billboard that we’d like to rent in Austin. One of them is a bit too busy for that venue, but the other might not be. In any case, I think they’re insightful drawings and wanted to share them with you. Cecile is also open to any ideas you might have regarding how art can convey the message that we should love animals and not eat them. Thanks.
Readers of The Pitchfork know very well that I’ve closely followed, and occasionally written on, the issue of horse slaughter in the United States. My primary go-to source for these stories has been the journalist Vickery Eckhoff. She’s a contributor at Forbes and has published in Newsweek and HuffPo as well. Today, she posted a couple of pieces that strike me as seminal in terms of understanding the politics of horse slaughter and, just as importantly, the media’s coverage of it. I urge you to check both pieces out. Find a relatively tame one here and a more outspoken one here.
You have to hand it to the apologists of animal slaughter. They can, when pressed, churn up some pretty righteous indignation. Indeed, when some upstart speaks truth to power, they quake with outrage. In the past week, I’ve taken on eggs, milk, and pork in my role as a Forbes contributor and, I’m happy to say, outrage overfloweth. The responses themselves are worthy paying attention to, if only because there’s an inverse relationship between the anger and the substance. To those of you who have joined the conversation at Forbes, thank you.
The dairy piece elicited considerable anger. One commenter writes, “This article has a lot of misinformation. I would encourage readers to actually visit a real dairy farm and learn more about modern, safe dairy practices as well as visit dairyfarmingtoday.org.” Sure, go and see what the industry has to say for itself. Visit one. Get a tour. Meet an executive. What you learn should be really accurate.
Then there’s this one: ”This is the most incorrect and pathetic excuse for a factual article that I have ever read. As for the ‘marketing geniuses in the milk industry,’ I would love for McWilliams to expand on exactly what [sic] these are. The fact that the dairy industry correctly conveys the numerous health benefits that consuming dairy products has on people?” She actually lost me when she wrote, “the dairy industry correctly conveys . . ” Okay, one more: “I am disgusted by your article. Where is your credibility? Why was a professor of LAW the only person you consulted? How about an industry professional?” Yeah, you know, those Cornell Law Professors who graduated from Harvard Law and clerked for a Supreme Court Justice and wrote a book on veganism. Clearly a lame source.
Does it sound like the milk industry is getting nervous? Well they should be.They’ve become a target, and they’re a mighty fat one. All I’m doing in these articles is stating the facts, ones established by credible sources without a financial stake in killing animals. It intrigues me that these critics condemn me for bias and then insist that I quote industry sources. Message to these people: I’m skeptical of industry sources for the simple reason that industry sources lie. The suggestion that to quote them is required for objectivity reflects a serious misunderstanding of objectivity.
The pork piece also raised some hackles. One response was especially detailed. Here is what was said about “abuse” on pig farms: “Nothing makes me angrier than seeing someone mistreat an animal. When we domesticated them, we made a pact with them that we would provide them with everything they need and they would provide us with nourishment. Neither I nor my supervisors tolerated mistreatment of animals. Doing anything to purposefully harm an animal would result in IMMEDIATE termination. Not only is it morally wrong, but financially it is unbeneficial because if they animal is not comfortable and happy they are not producing as well.” A pact? Can I see a copy of the contract?
Some comments lead me to question basic reasoning ability. Like this one: “I am writing to inform and give a different perspective for some of you regarding a few of the concerns in this article and comments posted. Whenever someone talks about the concentration of hog production and elaborates on how unfriendly this practice is for the environment, I find the need to point out that the entire human population lives in a similar fashion. People live in large cities and we have constructed massive sewage treatment plants to handle the dense population’s waste. Similar concept with pork production!”
My favorite comment of all was this: “I have to say, your war on animal agriculture does know no boundaries.”
With the kind of logic that’s coming my way, don’t expect the war to end anytime soon.
The following post comes from a young, French-speaking Canadian farmer named Dominic Lamontagne. I met him recently at a talk I gave in Montreal and found him to be unusually open-minded and inquisitive about agriculture and ethics. The title to this piece he wrote for The Pitchfork–”Fair Fare” is his. Below you will find his ideas. I ask that all responses be respectful and made in the spirit of dialogue.
“The figure who really grabs my attention and makes me think, question, ponder, and investigate is the intrepid self-slaughterer, the very person who aims to eat the animal she raises…” – James McWilliams
“Vegan farmers will have to be brave, because they are setting out on uncharted waters that will require great innovations to help them arrive at their destination.” – Robert Monie
Rather naturally, as autonomous beings, we thrive on the exploitation of one another. Whether vegetal or animal, our time is spent impacting other’s lives. Making an impression onto the world is a dirty business. Since no clear purpose seems bestowed upon us, it would seem the duration of our earthly passage is completely irrelevant. The only seemingly relevant aspect of our passage would be the sense of pleasure (or displeasure) we took out of it. This does not contradict the fact that most of us, vegetal or animal, young and old, seek our pleasures and enjoy our lives without really knowing when they will end.
The quality of our earthly pleasures seems independent from the duration of our experience.
It could be argued that the pleasures we value most are the ones which keep us alive: shelter, clothes and food. Survival instincts appear to favour the fulfilment of these basic individual needs which in turn allow the multiplication of our more superficial wants which, on the whole, define our particular lifestyles. Consequently, whatever your definition of “basic”, wherever you live, whatever you wear, or whatever you eat, you MUST ask yourself: how can I protect the continuity of this lifestyle which I find pleasurable? How resilient is it?
In these crowded and volatile times, I would propose that some form of resilience assessment is needed. How independent is your homestead? How safe from disruptions must you be to feel comfortable? How quickly could you bounce back into your comfort zone after a serious disruption of your favourite supply chains?
Consider what you eat as a primary need and then identify which proportion of it you could start making on your own, if need be. In my opinion, a copious omnivorous fare (ex.: some garden produce, many eggs, lots of milk and some meat) could quickly be extracted from a budding homestead on most types of terrains, in most kinds of climates. In contrast, a modest vegan fare would require a mature homestead growing food on great soil in a favourable climate.
Both are possible but not equally accessible. How exclusionary is it to believe everyone has the luxury to buy whatever they want to eat wherever they live?
This brings me to my main question, justice-as-fairness style: How fair is it to pretend that a vegan lifestyle is simply a matter of choice?
How fair is it to pretend that nobody needs to exploit animals to survive? Considering the global median salary, it seems to me animals can’t be taken out of the loop just yet.
Some people, including me, are confronted with poor growing conditions where only rough vegetation and forest grows. Some areas can be reclaimed for garden production, but only through serious soil and greenhouse building. In the meantime, animals will eat what we won’t: bark, saplings, brush, grass, insects, mice, toads, etc…These foods they will transform “instantly” into fertilizer, energy, milk, eggs, and some meat, of course.
On a precarious landscape, animals help lay a foundation for the human settlers… and their lush gardens. It takes time and skill to build rich soils where enough fruits and vegetables can be produced with some regularity and in sufficient quantities to feed the whole family year round.
This may sound indeed like a poor man’s scenario, but from where I stand, at this point in my life, it would seem like the only scenario involving freedom for me and my family.
And a fair deal of pleasure too…