Two of World’s Most Influential Opinion Makers On Animal Rights

» March 2nd, 2014


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.

31 Responses to Two of World’s Most Influential Opinion Makers On Animal Rights

  1. Another frustrating day in the life of a vegan advocate. That is twice this week. I went to a Green Drinks event where they screened a film and it actually talked about reducing “meat” consumption, but the lesson was “cow meat” go and just to make sure no one in the audience had an attack on conscience, he made sure to talk about how cute little lambs were but that wasn’t going to stop him from eating them and by all means, goahead and eat all the cute little lamb you want….the audience laughed and that is about when I got up and left. I was damn close to making a VERY VOCIFEROUS objection as I did, but I refrained, partly because I have presented and screened films with Green Drinks before, but boy was it difficult.

    • James says:

      I hear you. After reading this piece, Niman’s piece, and a lame book review on two meat books in the Times (the books aren’t lame, just the review), I feel like I’m trying to turn a battleship that’s plowing full steam ahead with most of the world on board, ignorant and blissful.

      • Ellen K says:

        These are all real lows to be sure. I made the mistake of reading the Niman op-ed — with its chilling photo of the cow and calf sculpture atop the slaughterhouse roof — before going to sleep last night.
        Sincere question: any chance of getting Brooks, Collins and Kristof (both so good on violence otherwise) to watch “Earthlings”? Challenge them to give it a fair viewing, and then reassess their tone at the very least.

  2. John T. Maher says:

    The neoliberal assumptions contained in that poisonous branch of the Fourth Estate known as the NYT will provide a wealth of fodder for your new media project. The article your excerpt is but one more example . . . Noted the ‘bounded rationality’ reference to Nick Kristof as if the entire worldview of the discussants is limited to the NYT media lounge in the new Renzo Piano designed HQ.

    The actual discussion of animals issues excerpted is so puerile and heuristic as unworthy of comment.

  3. Unbelievable. Regarding one of numerous absurd comments:
    “If there are too many deer or geese, it’s O.K. to get rid of the excess.”
    Do they have any idea that there is an overpopulation of humans on the earth?

    • Rebecca Stucki says:

      Oh, NO, Teresa – absolutely verboten to talk about controlling HUMAN populations – even if that’s what’s killing us. Besides, isn’t that what war is for? We wouldn’t want to give up our guns and wars, now, would we?? (sarcasm, of course!)

  4. Isabella says:

    I don’t think I can state it any better than she did: extremely self-justifying and bogus.

  5. Karen says:

    OMG! It gets worse at it goes along. I’m so sorry I started off my Sunday morning reading this crap. The tone was almost as though they were making a joke of the issues they were discussing. Killing a bat because it accidentally fell onto your desk. Being almost killed by a vegetarian goose. Ignorance knows no bounds. James, I fear your battleship will reach its destination before any of those on board realize where they’re headed.

  6. Ronnie Greene says:

    My feeling s too, Karen.

    My 1st thought was how this dialogue about killing animals, or not, was made into a joke. The bottom line being, its ok, but not to suffer much, after all, animals need not lead a “rewarding life.”

    And should we have care for an animal that is ugly, beady eyes, having a soul, or not? Not to kill the swans, but the geese need to go…& on & on…

    Not one comment about how the animals might feel about all this. Most notably lacking was nothing about the extreme importance of “animal sentience.” That was way above Gail & David’s own consciousness. Yes James, your “cartoon” said it all: Head-in-the-sand.

    Lastly, the poor little bat falling from the book…his or her “home.” Not Gail’s. Of course, hissing. Shocked & afraid. But swatted like a fly. Which bring me to the basics. A column James had over a year ago. Basically asking, “Would you kill a fly?”

    I was one who could not. Shoo…Shoo…

    • Rebecca Stucki says:

      And the fact that they ALWAYS choose to ignore that “invasive species” are “invasive” because some idiot humans thought it was a good idea to move animals from their native lands! Human beings = most invasive species of all.

  7. Kat says:

    I’m curious to know where this discussion originated from? Is it from an audio file of some sort, phone discussion, or an editorial? Were they both sober, or under the influence?

    Unfortunately, it’s a disgraceful commentary and tone; one that the majority of the world would also voraciously echo.

    There is a simple word for these two – “nincompoops”

  8. Ruth says:

    For two “influential opinion makers” their ignorance is staggering! I know ordinary down to earth meat eaters who have more insight than that.

  9. Ashley Capps says:

    Oh for f*ck’s sake. I wish I hadn’t read this. There used to be such a thing as journalistic integrity. Why even bother to pretend to ethically engage with a topic if you’ve already decided its very premise is a joke? Which is how these two snidely treat the entire question of whether animals deserve moral consideration. What a waste of space and an embarrassment. “The question to me is whether animals have souls.” Just shoot me now.

    • Ashley Capps says:

      Elsewhere, Nathan Winograd has written compellingly about what he calls “biological xenophobia,” of which the swan issue is just one sad example.

      • Ingrid says:

        Ashley, thanks for this! The Bay Area is my home, even though I’m away for a time. I hadn’t seen this particular piece — nor did I know of the damage already done at Fort Funston. I’m beyond heartsick.

      • Anim says:

        Nathan “I love vivisection” Winograd is despicable. I had heard of him for years but didnt pay attention to his allegations on Peta until last year. His claims were too outlandish to be taken seriously so I went digging. Winograd did his first book interview with Center for Consumer Freedom-which is as anti-vegan as they come. They support meat eating, vivisection–why someone who claims to be a vegan for 20 years would choose to be interviewed by them–quite odd. If he wasnt a lawyer I would assume he was stupid. I cant assume that so I will question his sincerity to veganism.
        Then, in his attacks on big animal rights charities, his argument is that animal breeders aren’t to blame, pet stores aren’t to blame-the entire problem is euthanasia and big animal charities. He does not say puppy mills violate animal rights-he only calls them sad and depriving places. He does not say it is immoral and unethical for humans to be breeding members of other species. Even more outrageous, he seems to feel Peta should divert funding to keep all shelter animals alive–but does not demand the same of pet industry, pet food companies, and the other exploitation industries that profit from and create the shelter animal situation. Quite a convenient oversight. Winograd needs to take a public loyalty test on one of his Huffington Post blogs. he needs to declare a) that Center for Consumer Freedom is a disgusting organization that represents true evil in our society–the meat and dairy industries that enslave animals, and the vivisection industries that violate the equal rights of nonhumans, and b) that the entire animal breeding industry-is against his vegan principles and needs to be abolished. I will not hold my breath waiting for him to state that in unequivocal terms. I am convinced beyond a doubt that he was paid to slander big animal rights charities and is being very shrewd in what he talks about so as not to reveal his actual anti-vegan position. I am not even a Peta member but I can recognize his attacks as the same as the ones used by vivisectors back in the early 90s. It is pretty dirty to use animals in shelters as a pawn for propaganda games against the opponents of big exploitation industries.

        • Catherine Gore says:

          Anim, thank you for calling him out. He has never had my ear or support, but I never knew these specifics about him. It’s important to expose these types. There is some serious, well-funded distorting by impostors going on. Thank you.

          • Anim says:

            You’re welcome. Like shelter animal deaths, the issue of exterminating so-called invasive species is a serious one–and the Nature Conservancy and Sierra Club, both hunter-backed, are particularly insidious–but the way Winograd writes about it, it comes across as a fluff piece–in stark contrast to his Peta attack which was all specific, extremely damning allegations. Why not do the same for Nature Conservancy where the evidence isnt even debatable? They admit to being hellbent on exterminating animals. He also cites a vivisection experiment to back up that HP article. Strange priorities.

        • Jennifer Mora says:

          Nathan Winograd has the ears of a lot of dog and cat lovers who are not vegan and are ignorant about the efforts of the major animal advocacy organizations. When he rails against PETA (Ingrid Newkirk in particular) and HSUS, which he does on a nearly daily basis on his Facebook page
          he gives these people a slanted view of animal rights, a very confusing one. If we had a vegan society tomorrow, I cannot imagine that we would be killing and dogs on the order that Winograd insists that PETA does. I do wish James McWilliams that you could invite him to this blog to discuss some of his views.

  10. Karen Harris says:

    In spite of the fact that I am anything but a Pollyanna when it comes to animal issues, I have to say that reading this “discussion” made me want to weep.
    The glib self satisfaction displayed by Collins and Brooks, at the expense of the rights of all other living creatures, left me feeling hopeless, and even more alienated than I usually feel from my own species. Shame on them.

  11. Veganvon says:

    Stand fast , sweet people, we’re not alone and our number grows daily

  12. Ingrid says:

    How distasteful overall. But just a quick response on the Mute Swan issue. I’ve held my lonely ground time and again, defending “non-native” species in the face of the eradication mentality. Sadly, the ideas of “invasives biology” overtook the field some time ago, and its adherents are often dogmatic. There is hope in the works of people like Scott Carroll — and in the tenets of conciliation biology which aims to look at an animal’s value and also her role in the ecosystem and biodiversity at large, rather than judging her for how long she has resided in a certain location.

  13. Elaine Livesey-Fassel says:

    And I listen to, view and read David Brooks ( and others) almost everyday and most often agree with his stand on domestic and foreign topics. I am always disappointed to say the least that persons ( PBS Genre) are so very unenlightened about/ignorant of the issues that consume us. They ‘ward off’ confronting issues by misplaced attempt at humor which is so inappropriate considering the profound seriousness of factory-farming and slaughter and such. How sad, how sad and how far we must travel to engage these personalities in coming to real terms with our understanding of the reality of the hell animals suffer. We have much work to do with journalists, legislators and the general public!!!

    • Mountain says:

      David Brooks is smug and shallow on every issue he addresses, not just this one. When you agree with him on an issue, it’s harder to see how weak his arguments are. He recently wrote a much-mocked column on drug laws in which he discussed his own youthful marijuana use. He concluded that it was a phrase he grew out of, and therefore we should continue throwing people into rape cages (prison, that is) for the crime of what they choose to put into their bodies.

      • sdunne1989 says:

        I had a good chuckle when I read that column.

        I think you’re straw-manning him a bit on it though. Maybe I’m mis-remembering, but I think the gist of the column was basically that certain consequences of drug legalization (like people smoking pot all the time and not pursuing some of the more enriching experiences life has to offer as a result) shouldn’t count for nothing in the debate. I don’t think he was trying to say that the status quo on drug laws is more desirable.

        • Mountain says:

          It’s true that he doesn’t explicitly endorse the status quo, but the entire column is an argument against legalization. His claim is that law molds culture, and that government should encourage higher pleasures like the arts & nature, while discouraging lesser pleasures like getting stoned.

          I actually agree with Brooks that getting stoned is a lesser pleasure, which is why I don’t do it (or watch TV, drink Coors Light, etc). But understanding that there are higher things in life doesn’t give me the right to impose those preferences on others, or to use government force against those who indulge in “lesser” pleasures.

          Brooks seems to think government can “subtly tip” people in what he thinks is the right direction. But there’s nothing subtle about prison. Non-governmental social pressure can subtle, laws cannot. His failure to understand this is the same sort of first-order, consequence-free thinking he displays when discussing animals.

          • sdunne1989 says:

            Do you think he’s advocating for that though? He doesn’t seem to make any policy prescriptions in the piece –he just points out a downside of legalizing pot that people tend to brush aside.

            Usually the idea behind ‘nudging’ is to try and be subtle –like using a tax to raise the price of weed, or making it so (like cigarettes) you have to ask a sales clerk directly to buy some. You could reasonably argue that measures like these are still an infringement on personal rights, but I don’t think you could argue they’re equivalent to sending people to prison.

          • Mountain says:

            If it’s non-criminal nudging Brooks favors, he should be arguing in favor of the approach taken by WA and CO, since each taxes and regulates the sale of marijuana pretty heavily. Some analyses I’ve read suggest the legal price will end up being higher than the black market price. So, if it’s a nudge he wants, it’s odd that he’s arguing against the legal regime that is actually nudging, rather than imprisoning.

            At any rate, it’s the same kind of thinking he displays with animals: his preferences take priority, and the consequences for the victims of his preferences are ignored.

  14. Jennifer Mora says:

    Argh, this is so frustrating to read! This from David Brooks takes the cake:

    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.

    On the one hand, he is comfortable making slippery slope arguments but he would prefer not knowing the facts. Not every aspect of one’s thinking is worth paying for. These journalists should have just said, “I don’t have the knowledge, experience and wherewithal to have this discussion” and left it at that. Humor and animal rights is something that is beyond each journalist here’s capabilities.

  15. Ty says:

    Anyoen interested in Animal Ethics/Animal Rights – check out this doc film out last year – Speciesism The Movie. The young filmmaker, MArk Devries explores this issue with an all star cast of animal rights/animal welfare people. The film is rated 8.4 on the IMDB. Trailer and info here:

  16. Mountain says:

    A few thoughts:

    1) Gail Collins and David Brooks are not two of the world’s most influential opinion makers in the world. They are fillers on the NYT opinion pages. Gail Collins has never made an interesting argument, and it’s been at least 10 years since David Brooks has. He is now notable only when his columns are so atrocious that they deserve mockery and parody.

    2) You have only yourself to blame for reading the New York Times, and for consistently overestimating the quality and influence of it. It was highly influential when you were growing up, when there were only 3 channels and a couple of national newspapers. But the times they have a-changed, and the NYT’s fall has been long and deep. It is useful only as an indicator of the consensus attitudes of the ruling class.

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