Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Reading List: Dominion

What? "The Reading List"?

Newcomers to the blog may not know about The Reading List. Compiled in a frenzy of Internet-based democracy, it is my eclectic program of self-betterment through reading, as prescribed by the L&TM5K readers. I read the books, I think about 'em, I write 'em up here for you to read about or not, as is your pleasure. It is just like college, except better.

The reason that newcomers to the blog may not know about The Reading List is that it has been awhile since I last wrote about a Reading List book. The reason is largely that I kind of stink at reading non-fiction. I've always had trouble with that. And if it's downer non-fiction, that's even worse; I grew up thinking of reading as the finest form of entertainment, which can make it hard to buckle down and read a sustained argument on a depressing topic.

But I have persevered, and herewith is my coverage of Dominion. It was nominated to the list by Blog Dork Rex Parker, who said of it "This book literally changed my life.... Changed the way I see the entire world.... The most original and convincing argument for the humane treatment of animals I've ever read."

Now, you have already figured out that a book about the humane treatment of animals necessarily talks a lot about the inhumane treatment of animals. If that's not a subject you want to engage with today, stop right here and come back when you're in more of a mood for it.


The most arresting single thing about Dominion is probably the person who wrote it. Matthew Scully is what you would call a "died-in-the-wool Conservative." He writes for National Review and similar right-wing publications, and served a stint as a speechwriter for President George W. Bush. Well, Conservatives write books. But they don't usually write books on animal welfare, and they especially don't usually write scathing critiques of human treatment of animals, rooting the critique more or less in their religious convictions. So whatever else you might say about Matthew Scully, you have to admire his individuality and his complete disinclination to go along with his own crowd.

In Dominion, Scully takes us into grim territory. He gives us a tour of the world of trophy hunting, shows us around a hog farm, takes us to a conference on marine mammals, and introduces us to some of the personalities and attitudes that have made the misery of our fellow creatures a commonplace over the last quarter of a century. Yet his fieldwork is the least of it; from interviews, secondary sources, and even statistics, Dominion abounds with horrors. It is tough going; Scully is a fine writer, but it took me months to get through this book simply because it is difficult to steel oneself for what you know you are going to learn when you pick it up.

Thinking Too Much

In between the gore, Scully takes aim at the twin banalities that underlie systematic abuse of animals: first, that they just don't mind the torture, and second, that there is no moral problem with mistreating them. Both sets of ideas are firmly ingrained in corporate, legal, and academic thinking, and both are fairly obvious rubbish. There are actual learned debates conducted on whether or not, since they can not use language, animals can think. Scholars argue endlessly over whether, since an animal does not understand the long-term implications of pain, it really experiences "pain" in a meaningful way.

Scully skewers this nonsense with a certain flair, but it is hard to give him too much credit for accurate aim in this fishbarrel. The idea that cognition requires formal language is anywhere from decades to centuries out of date, depending on your academic tradition, and the idea that we experience pain primarily in terms of its future implications clearly refers to some creature other than the humanity I know and love. Any marginally introspective person who has ever paid attention to an animal can recognize how much we share in common with our fellow travellers, and as Scully exposes bizarre (but apparently quite common) attempts to deny the obvious with obtuse learnedness it’s enough to make you grind your teeth.

The proposition that cruelty to animals is just not much of a big deal is a more complex one to deal with. There are a million different ways to dismiss someone who brings up the topic of animal welfare, and the most common -- outside of mocking them with an exaggerated show of enjoyment of meat -- is probably to scold them for being worried about animals when there are so many people suffering in the world. Scully believes, and I would agree, that this is an absurd stance. He happily concedes a belief that the welfare of humans is more important than the welfare of animals, and proceeds to ask: "so what?" In no other area, he points out, do we say it is inappropriate to worry about the lesser problem because of the larger problem, and perhaps we should not here, either. And the lesser problem is perhaps not a small problem, either:

Factory farming isn't just killing: It is negation, a complete denial of the animal as a living being with his or her own needs and nature. It is not the worst evil we can do, but it is the worst evil we can do to them. It confronts us with the animal equivalent of Abraham Lincoln's condemnation of human slavery: "If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong."
Scully resists formulating a specific theory of animal welfare. He suggests a number of policy solutions in a final chapter, but in terms of an overall approach he pleads only for mercy: the respect shown to the weak by the powerful, the decency shown to the captive by the free. It is an idea of appealing simplicity:

...animal welfare is not just a moral problem to be solved in statutes, but a moral opportunity to fill our own lives with acts of compassion. Kindness to animals is not our most important duty as human beings, nor is it our least important. How we treat our fellow creatures is only one more way in which each one of us, every day, writes our own epitaph -- bearing into the world a message of light and life or just more darkness and death, adding to the world's joy or to its despair.
Scully argues from a religious perspective, specifically a conservative Catholic perspective, and much of the critique in Dominion is rooted in ideas formulated by saints, popes, and other Catholic and Christian thinkers. It is a tricky business, as the Christian tradition is far from clear on the matter of the relationship between humanity and its fellow creatures; however, Scully ultimately presents a convincing accretive argument that Christian virtue does not consist in bullying the animals who are, truly, forever at our mercy.

Morality in a Consumer’s World

Scully has a tough row to hoe. The people he would really like to talk to are the people who do not want to know how animals are treated, because this would diminish their enjoyment of their food. For Scully, this prioritization of a personal appetite over the welfare of a fellow creature is shameful behavior. More, to Scully, it is sinful behavior. (He also refers to it in a few places as unmanly behavior). He may have a point. My refusal to think about what an animal had to endure on the way to becoming my meal is a negation of its sacrifice; it is to act as if there were no meaningful suffering involved. Since it is unlikely that I actually believe that, if pressed to the point, then I am by definition a hypocrite. But if this is an issue for me, it is awfully unlikely that I am reading Scully's book. I'm probably not even reading this review.

My own assessment of Scully is that his book has two flaws: it is too long, and it is unnecessarily steeped in a specific religious stance. Even as he rightly demolishes the torturous arguments of those who deny animal sentience, and even though his call to mercy is a not a complex one, by invoking theology he still makes a very simple moral problem one step more complex than it needs to be.

Most people, whatever their religious background, reveal the way they honestly think and feel about animals in the way they introduce them to children. A knowledge of animals is, after all, among the very first things we teach kids. Before a child can even talk, he or she has often been trained to mimic the sounds of dozens of animals. Many parents adopt pets or take their children to zoos from a very young age, in order to teach them the kind of respect and gentleness towards their fellow creatures that will serve them well in life. Exposure to animals is by unspoken but universal consensus a way of instilling and affirming a child's humanity. A boy or girl who loves cats, dogs, horses, or whatever creature is thought to be a happy child.

Now, imagine your neighbor has a child who locks a dog in a sealed box that is slightly smaller than its body, so that the animal is literally pinned in place by metal bars. The child locks the dog into this pen when it is a puppy and it is kept there, held in place over a bare concrete floor smeared with its own filth, for its entire life. It is not, of course, allowed to go outside. It is not allowed to move. It is not allowed to lay down. Would you object?

Well, of course you would. In fact, the scenario makes no sense, because you would have objected on the first day; no one would be allow a dog to be tortured like this. Aside from our commendable pity for the animal in question, we would rightly read the way that the child is treating animals as indicative of his or her mental health. This child would immediately and rightly be seen as deeply, horribly disturbed. Your neighbors would, at a minimum be facing visits from the police and from child welfare agencies. There would unquestionably be psychologists in this child's future, if not institutionalization.

Now, let's say that an entire society treated its livestock in this fashion. Pigs, for instance, a social animal generally thought to be slightly smarter than dogs; let's say that they were treated this way. That, of course, we call factory farming, and it or something much like it is the source of most meat products in the United States.

So, it's not like this is an issue of great moral ambiguity. It's just that it is just damned hard to behave as well in a complex corporate society as we do naturally in person.


Rebel said...

I had to stop reading your post at the thoughtfully provided warning. But I did want to say a few things about how Thailand differs from the US in this respect. Well, honestly I don't know if they have factory farms here. But I do know that there are chickens wandering free in the yard next to the restaurant where I eat chicken... so I'm pretty sure there's a connection.

Also, at the markets you can see live and only recently killed food-stuffs. The other day I saw a whole net full of live frogs (I looked away quickly). The table with pork products usually has a big ol' dead pig head right there.

On the one hand, it is a shock to my sensibilities. I'm used to seeing my animals boned, skinned, chopped into nearly unrecognizable bits & wrapped in plastic and styrofoam. But on the other hand... I can appreciate the honest of it. You know? Here's the little piggy that went to market - doesn't he look yummy?

The US system is fucked up.

Rex Parker said...

Thank you for reminding me why I don't eat pork. Dear god.

And speaking of "god" - I think the religious component of this book, while superfluous, unnecessary, or water-muddying to secularists, is vital to the audience Scully would like most to reach: his fellow (hypocritical / wayward) Christians. Scully's willingness to go against the Vast Majority of his party on this issue is an example of the courage I expect Christians to have. Do you answer to God / your conscience, or your party? I like it when "pro-lifers" are bold enough to be consistent. Makes me take them seriously.

Warning - even if you think you are strong enough to read this book, you had better steel yourself for the pig-farming part. Extreme torture + everyday business = nightmares for weeks.


Michael5000 said...

@Rebel: I agree with you that the Thai system, if initially shocking, is ultimately probably better. There's a sense in which Americans in the last few decades have lost track of the facts of life -- many of them do not have a clue where their food comes from, or how it is processed. Part of this is due to how food is marketed, of course, but part of it is due to how quickly people will clamp their hands over their ears if they are in danger of learning more on this topic. It's an interesting psychology.

@Rex: You're right. And it was unfair of me to criticize a Christian perspective on animal welfare for dragging Christianity into the argument. What I should have said instead is something likd: here is another, perhaps more universal, perspective that follows a different logic to Scully's conclusions.

And I'll echo your warning on the pig-farming chapter, too.

Rebel said...

"Americans in the last few decades have lost track of the facts of life"

This is sooooo true in soooo many ways. I have many many many thoughts on this subject!

Yankee in England said...

No to take away from a brilliant post and yet another book has gone on my ever expanding reading list but cough up the weight.

Michael5000 said...

@Yank: Down four to 210, +1 over plan. Doubtless because of the pig-farming chapter.

Yankee in England said...

Well down four over all is really good. Maybe you should read The Jungle or Fast Food Nation this week, go with what works!

Elizabeth said...

I'm no longer a vegetarian, though I don't eat much meat still. I used to be a rabit anti-meater, but over the years my philosophy boiled down to "if you couldn't kill it yourself, don't eat it." Figured that reduced it down to the most primal form.

And before you ask, yes, I have tested myself, twice - once while I was still a fish-eating vegetarian, and received a live lobster (it almost went into the Willamette River, but I did boil it in the end) and once when I killed one of my own chickens a few years ago. I also participated photographically in a beef slaughter, and did you know that the muscles continue to twitch for a long time after death?

Too bad you're preaching to the choir, more or less, on this blog - if not all vegetarians, we seem at least to be generally thought-full people who will find it less comfortable to sweep these issues under the rug. Good review. Cross-post it on Daily Kos perhaps?

Oh, and one more thing - if you (generically now, not you-Michael) still want to eat meat, buy local, from one of the many small humane producers in the Northwest. Down with bruised chicken!

Elizabeth said...

That should have been "rabid" not "rabit" but perhaps it was my inner meat animal coming out to have a part in the conversation. We're edible, too ...

Yankee in England said...

I think I am a closet vegitarian. I very much agree with the if you couldn't kill don't eat it principle. I have raised chickens and gone through the whole process of butchering them. I have gotten to the point that I can not eat grocery store meat. It really freaks me out, luckily we have a local butcher who can tell you what farm all of his meat comes from and I can buy free range chickens. There is a reason that you can buy whole chickens for so cheap at the supermarket, if you can honestly look at the pictures and footage of battery chickens and not want to loose your lunch go ahead, I can't.