Posts Tagged ‘Nicholas Kristof

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.



A Tale of Two Bobs

» September 25th, 2012

I’m not yet done with Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times columnist who has tirelessly dedicated his career to exposing suffering and abuse among the world’s most disadvantaged humans. His work can be moving, but when he turns his attention to farmed animals, the results are disastrous.

Never failing to note that he grew up on a cherry and sheep farm in Oregon, Kristof insists that animal agriculture can be humane if the animals killed within that system are treated with dignity while enjoying the brilliance of life. Consumers, in turn, can fancy themselves as benign carnivores eating “happy meat” so long as they’re willing to dish out a bit more for these responsibly produced animal products. Everybody wins in this Pollyannish portrayal of agrarian bliss that Kristof so daftly represents.

A quick three graph recap (skip this section if it’s familiar–but stick with this column till the end, because the other Bob will blow you away). To appreciate how uncritically Kristof practices promotional agricultural journalism it’s worth going back to his recent Times piece about “a high school buddy” of his who manages a bucolic Oregonian dairy farm.  In the opening paragraph, to stress just how well this dairy farmer (Bob) treats his 430 dairy cows, Kristof notes that Bob “loves them like children,” “has names for every one of his ‘girls,’” and puts them out to pasture, where “they are much happier.”

All well and good. Until we get to paragraph number twelve or so, where we learn that, lo and behold, Bob is not running “a charity hostel.” To the contrary. Farmers, we are told, “slaughter them” when “they age and milk production drops.” Turns out the cows are in fact not really treated like loved children at all, but rather objects of exploitation whose lives are deemed less important than the unnecessary human desire for a glass of artery-clogging milk.

But no need to dwell on all that ethical stuff, right? Proof that Kristof has no clue that, in the course of his shameless paean to small scale animal agriculture, he has shifted from treating animals as sentient subjects to treating them as cold objects, he concludes that when we buy Bob’s milk we can all feel warm and fuzzy about the cow that produced that milk because, as Kristof writes” “It had a name.”  (summary ended)

Kristof, like so many journalists who write about alternative forms of animal agriculture, thus succumbs to the omnivore’s contradiction. In the space of a single column, he confers moral worth to animals (“loves them like children”), approves of their killing (“farmers slaughter them”) and confirms their sudden transition into a lifeless object (“It has a name”). It’s enough to give the thoughtful reader whiplash.

In an article clearly intended to highlight the comparative benefits of small-scale animal agriculture, Kristof thereby does something that’s regrettably endemic to journalistic coverage of non-industrial animal agriculture as a whole: he subsumes the ethical question of killing and commodifying a sentient being under the feel-good rhetoric and titillating imagery of agricultural pornography, No doubt the pressure to produce optimistic copy for his business played a role as well.  (See my recent piece on sardines and Mother Jones for more of this analysis.)

It happens all the time.  As with sexual pornography, certain tropes dominate agricultural pornography–blue skies, green rolling hills, healthy looking and happy animals, and an atmosphere of impossibly perfect bucolic peace.  Also like sexual pornography, these seductive tropes channel the consumer’s attention away from the inherent messiness of agricultural reality, obscuring the unpleasant and largely hidden aspects of small scale agriculture behind the false but fantastic sheen of the family farm.

The popular media, not to mention these farms themselves, hawk small scale animal agriculture as a viable, sustainable, affordable, and humane alternative to the grim existence of industrial agriculture. They do so, however, using the same distortions and cynical marketing ploys used by factory farms to convince us that all is well in the land of industrial animal production. Despite the conventional portrayals, all is not well in on farmer Bob’s farm.

(Now to the blow you away part . . .)

Consider another farmer Bob, this one the owner of  a small pig farm in upstate New York. Bob treats his animals well. Extremely well.  They are, as Bob puts it, “as close to natural as possible in an unnatural system.” Even more so, they are “as piggy as pigness, they are Plato’s pig, the ideal form of the pig.” Bob–whose identity I’m going to sort of protect for now– notes how within the foodie media “there is celebration of the way I raise my pigs.” He knows that the humane-sustainable-happy meat people love him. He explains: “I am honorable. I am humane. I am just.” His pigs, if they could talk to us, would sing Bob’s praises because, as Bob puts it, “they root, they lounge, they narf, they eat, they forage, they sleep, they wallow, they bask, they run, they play, and they die unconsciously, without pain and suffering.” Sounds very familiar–this self-congratulatory assessment by the humane farmer about his oh-so0lucky animals. So what’s up here?

This Bob is unusual. He’s a fundamentally different kind of farmer than Kristof’s Bob. This Bob, it turns out, refuses to hide the ethical implications of his work.  “As a pig farmer,” he writes, “I lead an unethical life.”  And who is to blame? Well, carnism for one. He explains, “slaughter is a socially permissible ethical transgression.” But Bob is not looking for arbitrary social norms to exonerate his work. To the contrary: it’s all on his shoulders. He writes, “I am a slaveholder and a murderer.” He says that he’s living behind “dark, damning shrouds,” but when he admits that “what I do is wrong,” he is lifting those shrouds for us, allowing us to peer into his hellish agrarian universe, one where “the ethics of slaughter” are not ignored, and the reality of killing a sentient being is not whitewashed by the likes of Bill’s Bob and their happy little spot of pornographic paradise.

Bob is asking for something important. He is asking for help. He writes: “What I do is wrong. I know it in my bones, even if I can’t act on it. Someday it must stop.”

Yes, it must.

Note: Bob the grieving farming will be more fully profiled in my book, The Modern Savage, which I’m currently writing.

Small Eyes and Big Claims: Kristof on Animal Empathy

» April 12th, 2012


“Like many readers,” writes Nicholas Kristof in today’s Times, “I don’t particularly empathize with chickens.” His reason? “It’s their misfortune that they lack big eyes.”

So let me get this straight. Kristof’s ability to empathize with an animal hinges on the animal’s ability to make eye-contact? Yes, Nick Kristof appears to rely on the categorical determining power of eye diameter to do something rather morally acrobatic: justify the decision to exploit chickens while denoting concern for their ultimate welfare. Eye size. Earlier this week I spoke at the University of Texas and a student based his choice to eat animals on the Book of Genesis. I’d give this student the edge over the Times columnist.

Kristof recalls growing up on a farm in Oregon. “I found our pigs to be razor smart, while our geese mated for life and our sheep and cattle had distinct personalities. The chickens were the least individualistic of the animals we raised.” Hmm. So, add mating for life and “razor sharp” intelligence to the vexing list of Kristof’s prerequisites for the right to moral consideration.  (As for how he determined whether sheep and cattle had personalities, I’m going to assume it had to do with, well, their big eyes.)

Kristof’s comments are, at best, thoughtless toss-off lines that in no way reflect the deeper qualities of Kristof’s intelligence. We just happen to live in a culture so inured to behaving unconsciously toward non-human animals that one of the nation’s most respected columnists can, with a smirk and a wink, make comments that are, upon even the sketchiest examination, patently inane.

After all, if we took Kristof’s remarks literally, and examined them reflectively, we would have to conclude that he believes anyone with multiple sexual partners, lukewarm SAT scores, or congenital eye impairment is rightfully subject to arbitrary exploitation.  Needless to say, he doesn’t believe this. In fact, his column goes on to express genuine concern for the chickens who refuse to meet his gaze. He writes, for example, “I flinch at a system in which hens are reduced to widgets.” He even mentions the “arc of empathy,” noting how “our sensibilities have evolved so that there is an outcry when animals are abused.” Wow.

Without intending to, Kristof’s column not only causes whiplash, but it drives home an important message: as a culture that claims to value peace and the reduction of suffering, we’re illiterate when it comes to animal ethics. I’m not letting Kristof off the hook here. I’m simply observing the reality that the court of intelligent public opinion–the kind embodied in the Times–tolerates Kristof’s inconsistency regarding the moral consideration of animals because the court of public opinion has never really thought about it.

Obscured by Kristof’s insouciance are questions that cut to the core of what it means to be a human being. Can we justifiably cause unnecessary suffering? Can we claim to value the life of an animal and declare its premature death morally acceptable? I’d love to hear a writer with the moral depth and intellectual acumen of Kristof give these questions a column or two.