Kristof’s Moral Wavering

» December 5th, 2014

Nicholas Kristof has this annoying way of being the last gumshoe to arrive at the crime scene, writing about the incident as if he were the first on the scene, and delivering a completely inane verdict about what should be done to rectify the situation. This claim is especially true when it comes to his coverage of animal issues.

Yesterday he dedicated a column to the abuse of chickens confined on “cage free” farms. If you care enough about animal welfare to keep up with the relevant news regarding agribusiness you would have to be totally checked out to think that Perdue was treating its chickens well. But here came Kristof to blow the lid off the scam.  Turns out “cage free” doesn’t mean squat.  Turns out Perdue doesn’t give a cluck about the welfare of birds.

Well. No. Shit.

But that’s not really my problem with Kristof–nor should it be. I actually applaud him for dedicating the world’s most valuable journalistic space to the welfare of chickens. My problem comes later in the column. It comes with how he handles his “discovery.” First he shines his journalistic strobe light on severe suffering:

Most shocking is that the bellies of nearly all the chickens have lost their feathers and are raw, angry, red flesh. The entire underside of almost every chicken is a huge, continuous bedsore. As a farmboy who raised small flocks of chickens and geese, I never saw anything like that.

(Sidebar: The “farmboy” thing again. Okay, got it. You were raised on a farm in Oregon. But now you are a columnist at the world’s most prestigious paper. And that means–or it should mean–that  you need to do some real thinking.)

Then note his conclusion in the face of this suffering: “I don’t know where to draw the lines.”

What? For real? Really? This is insane. On the one hand, Kristof wants to take credit for exposing the horror of what Perdue does to its birds. But on the other, he won’t even adhere to the ineffable logic of his own reporting.

Hey, Nick: when you confront the systematic and morally atrocious treatment of chickens, and when you yourself realize that this treatment is endemic, and when you reveal this reality to millions of readers, there’s a very easy line to draw: you stop eating chickens.

And you get very brave. You tell your readers to stop eating chickens. And then you call your colleague Bittman and ask him to follow suit, and then Bittman can call his friends in the foodie world, and then . . .

Well, then you’re a hero. But otherwise you’re kind of a coward.



12 Responses to Kristof’s Moral Wavering

  1. John T. Maher says:

    Brilliant. My one critique is you think too highly of the Grey Lady. That was the Times of the 70s.

  2. Elaine Livesey-Fassel says:

    While I wrote my letter to the LATimes, I neglected to be as pointed as you which I now regret. I merely wrote that I became an avowed Vegan after witnessing countless horrific videos of such treatment as Kristof describes! Thank you again for reminding us of our mission to be as consistent in our actions as we are in our words and sentiments.

  3. Barb Lomow says:

    Thank you, James, for having the intestinal fortitude to tell it like it is. Many of the self-appointed “leaders” of the “animal protection movement” have been posting the link to Kristoff’s latest article; most have conveniently ignored Kristoff’s glaring hypocrisy outright, while others acknowledge his glaring hypocrisy, hastily followed up with a big apologetic “BUT” as to why we should all still be so gosh darn appreciative to Kristoff for being oh-so-brave in declaring the obvious regarding the treatment of chickens. You’re right, it’s insane.

    Kristoff for sure is being cowardly and hypocritical, but not any more so than these “leaders” and their staff who fail the animals by refusing to do on a steady, consistent basis what you state Kristoff needs to do: “you get very brave. You tell your readers to stop eating chickens.” (and cows, and pigs, and dairy, and eggs, and fish, and lambs, and turkeys, and….) So many “leaders” of this movement toss around terms such as hero, all-star, rock-star, epic, superstar etc. etc. with embarrassing frequency to describe each other when all the while these supposed heroes are themselves as guilty as Kristoff of moral wavering and deliberate mixed-messaging, undoubtedly so as to not upset the donation apple cart.

    How can Kristoff, a non-vegan journalist be expected to do the right thing and not waver morally when so many “career” vegans being paid a salary to do the right thing for animals – and not waver morally – appear incapable of doing so? The animals need more *actual* heroes holding positions of power in the movement to clearly and consistently say what needs to be said on their behalf, and fewer cowards.

  4. Karen says:

    Sadly, Mr. Kristoff simply doesn’t want to stop eating animals. He’s said as much in the past. He knows he should, but he just doesn’t want to. I didn’t even read the article, because when I saw it I knew it would be exactly like his previous ones on the subject. — Everything about our treatment of animals is bad, but oh well, we like how they taste.

  5. Scott says:

    Bittman will be among the last to tell people never to eat animals. I always wondered why he shows so little empathy for them. Until September 9, 2014, when he wrote lovingly about his father after his death and said:

    “He was too impatient to take advantage of the G.I. bill, and went straight to work as a ‘jobber’ in the fur industry, a position he stayed in for 40­-odd years . . . .”

  6. Karen Harris says:

    THANK YOU!!!
    Back in March, Kristoff wrote another article about chickens and factory farming. In that article, he spoke again about the horrors of the industry, but commented that there was not a viable alternative because we couldn’t raise the price of a pound of chicken to $6.48, (Which is what he computed it would cost to serve up “humanely raised” chickens, like the ones on the farm he grew up on!), as that would be cost prohibitive for most folks. So, no, the thought of not eating the poor birds seems beyond the scope of his thinking.

  7. Karen says:

    While not nearly as eloquent Cher’s recent Tweet on Bacon said what needed to be said in far fewer words! At least Kristoff helps to make those who read NYTimes “aware” by mentioning the “absent referent’s” plight! See Carol Adam’s seminal book “The Sexual Politics of Meat”. All but a few are “Comfortably Unaware”!

  8. Colin Wright says:

    Thanks so much for saying what needs to be said.

    There is another Animal Rights argument that is somewhat stronger than the average one. Here is a basic overview:

    The single most overlooked, and at the same time most foundational error in logic whenever a non-Vegan tries to justify human animals exploiting nonhuman animals is the irrational idea that humans in general are morally superior to nonhumans. This idea can be easily disproved, and yet most people do not even question it. It is assumed to be indisputable when it’s not based on, as some would have us believe, objective fact.

    Unless we can explain how human animals are morally superior to nonhuman animals, whenever we try to justify humans exploiting nonhuman animals in the ways that we do, we can’t rule out humans exploiting human animals in the exact same ways and for the exact same reasons (our mere pleasure, amusement or convenience).

    All other forms of moral supremacy, from ethnic, to religious, to gender-based, etc. all stem from this one basic idea; that it’s acceptable to refuse the same moral consideration to a being merely because of morally irrelevant criteria like the color of their skin, which genitalia they have, or their species membership.

    The belief that humans are morally superior to nonhumans is not based on instinct. If it was, then we would not be questioning it, and therefore you would not even be reading this. And yet, it’s the reason why we believe it’s just fine to torture a nonhuman, who is fully capable of desiring to not suffer or die as much as a human, in ways that we wouldn’t torture the worst human criminals.

    The myth of human moral supremacy is almost never even examined. But when it is, it’s obvious that, just like the arguments we use to justify racism, sexism, homophobia, religious intolerance, or any other irrational form of oppression, it’s based on nothing more than arbitrary, subjective personal opinion (and biased, self-serving opinion at that).

    The idea that humans are superior to nonhuman animals is based on the misconception that all humans have some characteristic or set of characteristics that all nonhumans lack. These characteristics are commonly proposed to include intelligence, creativity, physical ability or physical adaptation, the capability of surviving in conditions of environments that others can’t, proliferation, a “soul” or some other form of divine endowment.

    Since we can’t prove that any of these criteria are both possessed by all humans and that they are lacked by all nonhumans, they are obviously as arbitrary as gender, ethnic membership, or religious belief when it comes to moral superiority.

    Although human animals created a concept of morality, many humans commonly break the moral codes imposed by society. This is why we have human slavery, rape, torture, murder, and all the other atrocities that civilized humans abhor. Nonhuman animals, who cannot be proven to understand the concept of a human moral code, almost always follow our moral codes better than we do. They do not enslave us, create concentration camps, weapons of mass destruction, torture chambers, or pollute or otherwise destroy our habitats. Nor do they wage war on humans, or any of the other atrocities that humans are guilty of. They merely wish to be left alone to live and die on their own terms. To claim that they should have to follow our moral codes to benefit from them would be like claiming that we should punish a severely mentally handicapped human for failing to pass the S.A.T.s.

    On the other side of the coin, humans enslave, rape, torture and murder nonhumans by the hundreds of billions each year, merely because we enjoy the taste of their dead bodies and secretions and the conveniences that it affords us. And we also are intentionally destroying every wild habitat that we can. We regularly treat nonhumans worse than we would treat the worst human criminals. So who is morally superior to whom again?

    The idea that we should be able to do these things because say, a lion eats a zebra is ridiculous in the extreme. A male lion often will kill a rival male and their offspring before copulating, in public no less, with the mother. If a mother lioness gives birth to a severely ill or deformed baby, she will usually cannibalize them. When applied to human contexts, do we think these are morally justifiable ways to behave?

    This is where the Human Supremacist says “Either we ARE morally superior to animals, in which case exploiting them is fine, or we aren’t morally superior to them, in which case we can kill them merely because we want to consume them, just like any other animal does.”

    However, this completely fails to recognize that claiming one is “morally superior” means that one adheres to a code of fairness and justice more than the other does, not that one can merely understand human concepts of morality. If a human can understand the concept of the injustice of slavery, rape, torture or murder, but does not adhere to the code that such things are wrong, where is the moral superiority in that?

    As I mentioned, we very rarely hold completely to our optimal code of conduct. We claim, as a society, to believe in the Golden Rule, but we routinely inflict massive unnecessary suffering and death on innocent beings merely for our pleasure, amusement, or convenience. We enslave, rape, torture and murder upwards of a trillion nonhuman animals EACH YEAR merely so we can unnecessarily eat their flesh and secretions and use their body parts for clothing (among other things), which not only causes massive suffering for them, but massive amounts of chronic disease for us and massive ecological devastation as well.

    We should realize that if we don’t follow this system of justice regarding EVERY innocent animal, human or nonhuman, then the same arguments we use to attempt to justify inflicting unnecessary suffering and death on them (“that animal isn’t as smart as I am”, “they don’t have souls”, “it’s how I make a living”, “meat/fish/dairy/eggs/honey tastes good”, etc.) can also be used by other humans to justify inflicting unnecessary suffering and death on US (“that person isn’t as smart as I am”, “I’m one of the chosen people and that person isn’t”, “I wanted their stuff”, “rape feels good”, etc.).

    There is no way to morally justify the intentional, unnecessary exploitation of nonhumans by humans without also morally justifying the intentional, unnecessary exploitation of humans by other humans. This means that if we personally are against nonhumans having the right to be completely safe from being enslaved, raped, tortured, slaughtered or in any way used as replaceable resources, then we have no claim that we ourselves should be safe from having those same things done to us by other humans. Any argument we try to use to justify harming nonhumans can also be used successfully by humans to justify harming us in those same ways.

    This also means that until we as a species evolve past our irrational belief in intentionally exploiting nonhumans merely for our trivial interests, we will continue to endure racism, genderism, homophobia, ableism, tyranny, mass murder, and all the other human rights atrocities we commonly abhor.

    To learn the answers to every question you have on why it’s wrong to exploit nonhuman animals, go here:

    This argument can be used to show more forcefully that if we use double-standards in our thinking about nonhumans, we run the risk of invalidating our own claim to rights.

  9. unethical_vegan says:

    “You tell your readers to stop eating chickens. And then you call your colleague Bittman and ask him to follow suit, and then Bittman can call his friends in the foodie world, and then . . .”

    Bittman and Kristof are clearly advocating for eating fewer chickens (or at least fewer cheap factory-farmed chickens). Seeing someone like Kristof write about this is real progress, IMO, even if it is not the kind of absolutist progress some desire.

    • Karen Dawn says:

      Amen, Unethical Vegan, re Kristof and Bittman. With his bestselling VB6 (Vegan Before 6) Bittman has surely spared more animals than 99% of animal advocacy writers who have staunch vegan messaes. The”self-appointed leaders” (as Barb Lomow wrote) who commend Bittman and Kristof’s work are not cowardly or hypocritical, they are practical and expedient. They are more concerned with saving animals than they are will saving souls. Those columns educate people, many of whom know nothing about the cruelty of the food industries. Reading those introductions may be their first steps towards a vegan lifestyle. I am probably most likely to guess that as my own first steps came via photos of sows in gestation crates, in a brochure asking me to condemn factory farming rather than to go vegan. I therefore wholeheartedly commend Kristoff and Bittman’s columns and don’t concern myself with the personal sins of the writers.

    • Agree with your point and Karen Dawn’s agreement.

      While I agree it’s important to keep advocating with the goal of 100% veganism, I honestly don’t understand how Prof. McWilliams and some commenters here think that is going to happen. Is there a magic wand that will suddenly turn everyone vegan all at once?

      In the absence of that magic wand, people like Kristoff and Bittman are doing hugely important pro-vegan work in encouraging their large, mainstream audiences to eat less meat and care more about animal suffering. And, yes, of course, Kristoff’s background as a farmboy is relevant and adds weight to his message.

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