The New Yorker, Highbrow Ignorance

The New Yorker never ceases to amaze me in its split personality. On the one hand, the view of the magazine’s contributors (and the tenor of the thing as a whole) is hard core liberal of the most literate kind, suggesting that its staff and contributing writers are highly educated, reasonable, insightful, and compassionate. There is another side to this group of oracles of the erudite message, however, which is as backwater and uninformed as the hairiest yahoo. I first encountered the underbelly of the glorious beast in a restaurant review of Benoit Restaurant, in which the food critic delightfully described how the chef (aka Dr. Evil in my view) served up whole piglets to celebrate spring. To complement that are articles about barbecue that seem more suited to Redneck’s Home Journal than a magazine claiming itself as a spokesman of sorts for one of the most enlightened cities in the world.

Now we have one of the team, Nathan Heller, who apparently was absent from the discussion of morality during Philosophy 101 back at Old Ivy. Heller takes on the topic, couched as something more and making of it something less, of animal rights as a moral issue. His jaunty little piece, “If Animals Have Rights, Should Robots?” is an exercise in superficial, tired, pseudo questions on morality as it concerns non-humans. For one, he calls humans “omnivores,” an old wives tale of a justification for meat eating, so easily countered by the fact that many species do not eat meat, and we have more in common with those species that do not eat meat than the predators that do. And even if we had the teeth and digestive system of a meat eater (which we don’t) the confinement and killing of farm animals has no similarity to predation at all. He also goes over the old ground of differentiating between humans and non-humans on the basis of cognitive ability, when it is an easily discernible reality that there are many humans who are not “cognitive peers” (e.g. infants and the brain-damaged) who are not excluded from moral treatment. He pontificates: “Until we can pinpoint animals’ claims on us, we won’t be clear about what we owe robots—or what they owe us.”  We, or some of us, have “pinpointed” how we should treat nonhuman animals: we should follow the Golden Rule and abandon the maxim of “might makes right.” However, that does not address robots and what we owe them in the least because robots unlike humans and other species are not animals.

Throwing around hackneyed arguments in support of culturally endorsed cruelty only adds to the message that we don’t need to really think too long or too hard about what we do to animals. Tee hee, an animal, shoot, it’s kinda like a robot. Come on Nathan Heller, why not read more than a few lines for the purpose of your article of the authors whom you cite: Peter Singer, Johnathan Balcombe, Sherry Colb, Michael Dorf and Christine Korsgaard. If you do and you still come out with statements like you made in the article, then your education and intelligence failed to equip you to perform the most important kind of critical thinking—to question the forces of culture and self-interest.




Holiday Season Approaches

Dear Friends and Relatives,

As the time to gather for holidays gets closer and gathering means eating, I want to explain what it means to be vegan to hopefully prevent misunderstandings. First, it is not a diet, per se. The reason to be vegan has nothing to do (for me) with eating healthier foods or losing weight, although those are two consequences of being vegan. Second, it is not a belief, like a religious belief, because as a matter of science humans are but one species of animal, and all animals suffer, just as humans do. I do “believe” that suffering is bad. I think you do too, if you consider it.

You might think that I shouldn’t care whether others eat meat or not, as long as I don’t have to, but a vegan does care, just as people care about dogs suffering that are chained up outside in the heat, or about monkeys stuck in cages for a lifetime for “science,” or as abolitionists in the past cared about slavery. As that last sentence shows, underlying veganism is the idea that we are all animals and the difference between the the human species and all the others does not give humans the right to inflict suffering on others, unless we adhere to the callous and unreasonable moral code of “might makes right.”

One way to get an idea of the effect of meat is to imagine that you had a Chinese guest who brought dog casserole to a pot luck dinner.  You would not like the thought or the sight of a chopped up dog or even better puppy (the equivalent of veal, lamb, or certain pig dishes) on your table. So, if I ask you to please not bring those “pigs in a blanket” or if I decline the invitation to come to your house and “just eat the vegetables,” keep that visual of puppy fricassee in mind.

I just wish that my perspective would at least spark some curiosity so you would look into what goes on to produce that piece of meat on your plate: a loving, sociable creature lived a life of torment and died a terrifying death. Such suffering does not add to any holiday spirit.





Two Questions

Two factors prevent most people from quitting meat.  I arrive at that conclusion from conversations with various and numerous people – friends, family, and total strangers; the only unifying characteristic is that they do not think twice about eating meat. I could also for the sake of further anecdotal evidence invoke my own experience as a one-time meat eater.

The first impediment is the belief that humans need meat in their diet. Meat eaters feel they know the science when they haven’t read a single word on the topic, or maybe they have fallen subject to misinformation. The latest unbiased scientific evidence establishes that we can all do fine without meat (of course it actually says that we would be better off without meat). Given that this barrier is objective and factual, it should be easy to refute with the scientific facts; but, if people deny global warming and the need for vaccines, they can also refute the evidence that humans do not need meat. I think we can chalk this objection up to willful ignorance. Why would anyone prefer to remain ignorant?

The second reason cited for not feeling any compunction about killing and eating the body of an animal is that “those animals” are different from dogs (or cats, horses, dolphins, monkeys, let’s see, what other species are not on the menu?) I mention dogs because they are eaten in China, as a fairly recent article in The New York times informed us. I have heard more than once the exclamation with horror, “They eat dogs in China!”   I concede a difference between dogs and farm animals is that dogs are in our houses. That we have decided to treat them better than other species says something about us more than about them. If we had taken to having pigs in the house to keep us company, to assist us in finding food, and to be our eyes and ears, then they would have names and find a place in our hearts and we would then cringe at the thought of eating them. Pigs are as intelligent as dogs, trainable, sociable, affectionate, and useful.  Above all, pigs and all farm animals — all animals — have interests, feelings, emotions, and can suffer. To supplant the idea that it’s okay to treat farm animals in a way that we would never treat our dogs, takes one simple question of a common moral type: “Would I want my dog to be treated like that?” Because farm animals are kept out of sight, we have to exert ourselves a little to know what conditions are like.  Books, the internet, and documentaries will do the trick  (although it would be optimal if everyone got the chance to visit a real farm and slaughter house, preferably as a school field trip) and then, if the sights and sounds of those animals are not enough, then a little imagination is required: what if that was my dog subjected to procedures without anesthesia, constant confinement in metal cages in factories, forced impregnation, loss of puppies resulting from that forcible pregnancy leaving the mother bereft and whining with grief, forced feeding, and the miserable truck ride without any food or water to  hell, complete with the smell, sights, and sounds of death –a death that is painful, terrifying, and violent.

I assert that once people get over the beliefs that meat is a dietary necessity and that  farm animals are different in any relevant way, they will necessarily have to make a change because who would declare the following: “I know that I don’t have any need to eat meat and by that eating it, I am inflicting horrific suffering on animals, who despite being a different species, are as capable of feelings and suffering as my dog, whom I protect and love, but I will do it anyway because I don’t care about suffering.”

Who could say that?

In Praise of Sherry F. Colb, Cornell Law Professor

Here is an excerpt from one of the best things I have ever read, “Decoding ‘Never Again,’” by Professor Sherry F. Colb. The cite to the complete essay follows.

“The solution to “might makes right,” then, is not for victims to become perpetrators. Instead of protecting ourselves by identifying with the oppressor, we serve justice when victims instead identify with other victims and extend the compassion and justice that should rightly have been extended to them, to the rest of sentient creation.”

I wish I was taking a class with this professor; I wish I was her friend. She is compassionate and brilliant and my only criticism is that she has not been pushy enough to hit the radio talk shows and get a book touted by a big name in order to bless the main stream public with her presence.  She is too good to be relegated to academia, but maybe she is too good for most of us.


“Decoding ‘Never Again’”

Sherry F. Colb* Cornell Law School Myron Taylor Hall Ithaca, NY 14853-4901 Cornell Law School research paper No. 15-27

This paper can be downloaded without charge from: The Social Science Research Network Electronic Paper Collection:

Along the Appian Way

I believe that I saw my first crucifixion when I was ten, getting a pretty close look at the arresting spectacle as I rolled past in the family ox-drawn cart that was taking us from our villa in Apulia down the Apian Way to visit Uncle Antonius at olive picking season.  My first experience gave me a lot of bang for my buck because there had been a little slave revolt in a neighboring town and a hundred of the rascals were all nailed up along both sides of the road at intervals of about an arm’s length. One could hardly miss taking in every detail with the crosses lining the road at no more than a man’s height from the ground, but my gaze stayed the longest on the ones that were most alive. We did whip up the ox a bit to get through quickly because the flies were really annoying.   I asked my father how come I had never seen a crucifixion before, given that they were common; I heard all about them and had thought about practicing one for myself on a cat, but he got away and then I lost the nails.

“Well, figlio mio,” Pater explained, “crucifixions are for the vilest kinds of criminals, like slaves and traitors. So you wouldn’t see one every day.”

“But it seems like a waste when they could have gone to the Colosseum as entertainment.  I’m sure we would rather see them trying to run from a hungry lion and then get ripped apart one limb at a time rather than hanging there groaning and making faces.”

“I guess there is no shortage of folks for the games, and the Tribune needed to make a lingering example. For some reason slaves keep trying to revolt; they don’t get it that there will always be slaves and that is their lot in life.”

“Maybe a revolt will succeed one of these days and there will be no more slaves?”

“No, no, figlio, there have always been slaves; that is the way of the world.  It is human nature to take captives from a conquest. Look at the example of history.  Everyone has done it. I think it is in our genes as humans to subjugate other weaker individuals. Some day we might evolve to be able to take another creature’s perspective, but as of now our credo is, “If it’s good for me, then it’s good.”

“But slaves are sort of like us.”

“No they are of an entirely different sort—not Roman at all; so we can do whatever we please.”

Pater’s way of looking at things has stuck with me for a long time and has worked out all right as my approach to living.  However, there have been moments of doubt . . . when I think of our conversation I also remember the distorted bodies and anguished cries and at times I wonder at my feeling a vague sense of unease and dislike for crucifixions.  However, I just cannot get over the immutable truth that both slavery and severe punishment are part of our culture, that Rome’s culture is the best, and that such practices have gone on for thousands of years.  Who am I to question something that Pater and his pater and so on have done?  We couldn’t live without slaves and my needs are perfectly served by the suffering of other creatures. Well!  Glad I settled that.  I’m off to the games to for some rollicking good entertainment. Wild beasts are on the schedule today; then off to a pig roast.

The Cultural Animal

Here is one definition of culture I found on the internet that is more comprehensive than some because it includes the statement that culture is something that is accepted without thinking:

“A culture is a way of life of a group of people–the behaviors, beliefs, values, and symbols that they accept, generally without thinking about them, and that are passed along by communication and imitation from one generation to the next.”

That element seems critical when one considers how different the definition would be if it were the opposite: “. . . behaviors, beliefs etc. that are accepted by each generation or person only after careful critical analysis.”  Culture would be predicated on a world of moral philosophers.

Culture and thinking are at odds with one another. Which should we endorse? For the pro-culture position, people who do not question culture enjoy the benefit of generally fitting in. For example, they have the affirmation of numbers in their religious practices, they have no trouble ordering in restaurants, or enjoying television.  They, on the whole are bothered less: they are not bothered by hunting, cruel practices to animals, and instances of hypocrisy. They have ready-made explanations for bad things: it has always been like this; it could not be different; we have not evolved to do otherwise; what would become of such and such industry, line of work, or institution without continuing such a practice; and God wants it this way. It might seem like the mainstream, predominate group in any society is more likely to be culture-content.  That is logical, but does not take into account that many people in the satisfied groups do still utilize the power of thinking sometimes and find themselves questioning something, even at times without knowing that they are trying to unite the strangle hold of culture. That little insurrection could be the result of education; if so, that is one giant endorsement for a liberal arts education.  How does education lead to a culture-challenging idea? The study of history, for example, will quickly reveal a sophisticated culture from another time which generally will exhibit several instances of bias, discrimination, and typically appalling cruelty that makes us cringe and feel so glad not to live back then.  The next step however is to wonder how any given individual during that time got up and went around his or her business with such atrocities going on or perpetrated them so callously; are we not made of the same stuff?  Are we not all of the same species?  When did we become so unlike the Romans who simply loved to see people torn apart by wild animals or set on fire as human torches, really just for the sake of entertainment? Are there not vestiges of the displays of animal combat from that time in the bull ring in Spain?  Could it be that the objective view of our own culture would reveal to a different group a similar conclusion? Oh no, we would say—we are not like that. However in the very short (and it is very short) history of the United States, we had slavery.  The mind struggles to comprehend how the enlightened free thinking American clung to this practice even after it was outlawed by England, the Great Oppressor. I find it ironic in a way that we fought the Revolution for the all-important cause of saving tax money so that we would be a free nation, allowed to continue with slavery after the mother country outlawed it. On that note, it is interesting that culture can corrupt a person who was not even raised from childhood in its miasma:  In the 19th Century, English immigrants, who of course lived in a non-slave culture, once in the United States owned slaves.  I was profoundly disappointed to read that the brother of the poet John Keats, when he came to America and settled in Kentucky, owned slaves.  When in Rome . . .

No doubt, those who find themselves oppressed by cultural practices are the ones to give it more thought and, if in a position to do so, take steps to change it. Which segues into the proposition that not all cultural practices must be challenged or even questioned; only those that are self-serving to one group and detrimental to another—that is the test.  Innocuous cultural practices keep the machinery of life turning. If each couple had to invent a ritual for pledging their troths, if every grave memorial had to be original, if every greeting invited yet another way of extending hands, we would expend way too much thought on the trivial, and certainly the last thing we need to do is occupy our minds with more trivial questions.

What is my main point of contention?  The largest and most firmly entrenched aspect of culture, even more than religion — food. What is more defining or central to a culture?  I want us to question what we eat because after all, that stuff is not just going on around us it is going into our mouths and stomachs, and there is something evil lurking behind the curtain—we all know that.  How does the touchstone question for determining if a practice should be challenged apply in this instance, i.e. is one group serving its own interests to the detriment of another? The self- serving is interest is stunningly clear (businesses making a lot of money, convenience, money, oh! and did I mention financial gain, profits, and money) and the harm is tremendous, although it is not a detriment suffered by our species. There’s the rub, but does only human suffering count?  Obviously not—not really to anyone (consider your dog, cat, horse, canary).  Going even further to what may be even more than a cultural question, although heavily informed by culture: why must we feel so elevated and separate from other species when we are all animals? Academics who study a species always become amazed at the “animals’” abilities, feelings, interests, practices, and habits, and they wind up overcoming that feeling of separateness. Some people who are not scientists in the field attain such a realization and are simply called animal lovers. I guess the definition of “lover” there is someone who is unwilling to inflict suffering, fear, and death on another creature and is deeply disturbed at that reality.

Giving consideration to the suffering we inflict on animals under the aegis of culture is a paradigm of the combat waged between accepting and thinking.  Every statement (I would say argument but that connotes more worth than is due) that anyone has ever marshalled to defend a bad cultural practice comes into play: we have always done this; everyone does this; it would be hard to do without this; what would happen to certain businesses. Culture gives a way out, whew! That’s easy. I can roll over and get a good’s night sleep because the suffering of other creatures does not have to concern me. Where does thinking get us?  Initially, into a state of near despair in facing the tremendous, grinding ugliness and cruelty  of a factory farm and slaughterhouse death; then into the ranks of the petty activist, at odds with culture, writing blog posts that nobody will read; at the same time in the company of those who understand Morality. A benign aspect of culture itself and liberal thought has taught that notions of morality make the world a better place, so that we may understand that  might does not make right and that inflicting suffering is wrong. Morality issues its categorical imperative to live the daily struggle against the cultural behemoth, remembering that one doesn’t need hope to start out or success to persevere.

Letter to the Editor

I write letters to the edtiors of “The New York Times” and “The New Yorker” from time to time as an exercise of self-espression, remembering that Stoic truth that when it comes to having an audiance or readership, “Few are enough, one is enough, none is enough.” What one writes might matter a little, but who is writing counts the most, and I like most people, as Emily Dickenson said, “am noboday, are you nobody too?”

To the Editor:

Roxanne Gay’s editorial piece, “Of Lions and Men,” uses the killing of Cecil the lion and the resulting grief and outrage to propose that we extend those sentiments to the death of all human beings, particularly black lives lost at the hands of the police.  There could be no disagreement there; and even though the tragedy of police racial bias persists, I think no one but the most depraved would take issue with her plea.  There is another lesson, less obvious to most, to take from our sadness and outrage at the senseless slaughter of Cecil.

Every now and then we are surprised at how we can grieve the death of a non-human being, such as Cecil the lion.  That was also the case with Barbaro the race horse a few years ago. Such sadness leads to confused questioning; how can we mourn an animal’s death, or as Ms. Gay noted, even cry at that death while not giving way to such emotion for a fellow human being? On such occasions we overcome our pervasive and deeply rooted bias toward the human species. That emotional connection to an animal perplexes us, although many do know the feeling, having experienced it before; anyone who has had a companion animal, such as a family dog, die knows the grief a non-human death can bring, although many would labor at grieving less at that death than at a human death and wonder why the recovery from it is so long and painful. In such cases we humans slam into our cultural, ingrained bias toward our own species.  We are indoctrinated with the idea that the human species matters most, the other species differ so much from us that our sentiments cannot extend to them, and therefore we humans enjoy the privilege over all the other species to do as we will. Humans live according to the code with regard to non-humans that “might makes right.” We can kill them, we can hunt them, we can imprison them, we can use them for experiments, we can eat them without regard to their interests or their lives because it serves our interests and nothing is stopping us.  The contradiction, or cynically stated, hypocrisy, of mourning one dead animal within that cultural background is striking.  That contradiction should not lead us to suppress out sadness for Cecil or Barbaro or the family dog.  The reality of that sadness should open our eyes to the worth of the lives of other creatures who cling to life, have interests, and no more deserve what the human species inflicts on them than Cecil deserved to suffer and die for the human joy of having his head on a dentist’s trophy wall.