Sometimes the most subversive standards are the ones that we ourselves profess, and here defenders of the unborn need only think of their own most universal ideas and moral guideposts: The restraint of the strong toward the weak. The compassionate society. Broadening the circle of protection. The prior claims of life — “the things that are,” in a phrase of John Paul II’s. The Culture of Life. “Choose life.” Honoring the Lord of Life. Which of these, when we turn to grievous animal suffering at human hands, counsels doing nothing? Which would make a fitting inscription over the gates of a factory farm or modern slaughterhouse? I can think of only one pro-life catchphrase — the Culture of Death — that would look just right.
Factory farming amounts to a complete subordination of animal life to human convenience, the reduction of thinking, feeling beings to commodities only and of their fate, no matter how horrific, to a calculation of pure self-interest. And it is not by chance that the abortion culture and the culture of cruelty came about at the same time. They are products of the same mindset and hardness of heart. They involve wretched things we don’t even want to think about. They rely on concealment of fact, denial, bluff, and euphemism, because it can take just a moment of real reflection — informed conscience — to undo years of propaganda.
To escape judgment, in the insular world that cruelty creates, both interests spend a lot of time and money working on their image, relying on eerily similar contortions in science, law, and language. And for all their truculence, the propaganda of both convey a deep insecurity, always straining for just the right pitch of mainstream respectability, and settling on the same formula of smarm, appeals to self-regard, and false indignation over encroachments on privacy. The fur industry has for years played up personal choice, freedom, and rights to market its entirely frivolous products, and lately factory-farming interests have picked up the theme. Here’s Rick Berman, a Washington, D.C., operator who runs various civic-sounding, tax-exempt front groups for animal-use industries: “Everyone should have the right to make his or her own choices about what to eat and drink. . . . We respect your personal choices, and we expect the same in return.”
The main front group is the Center for Consumer Freedom, a “non-profit” outfit devoted to “protecting consumer choice” (from those anti-choice “radical vegans”), and along with the pro-choice pablum Berman has lately provided yet another refinement of phrasing. Industry dogma holds that what looks so mean and ruthless in our modern farms is actually, as a fellow from Smithfield once put it to me, all “for their own good.” In that spirit, advises Berman & Company, forget all that nasty stuff you’ve heard about sows condemned to pitiless confinement in gestation crates. Think of them as “maternity pens,” and what could be wrong with that?
A sense of entitlement is critical to the effort. Crude self-interest in both cases has to present itself as morally superior, sanctified by the act of making Personal Choices, so that self-denial and altruism are somehow made to seem in error. The trick is to celebrate choice while creating the illusion that one really has no options at all.
My favorite examples where animal welfare is concerned are the celebrity chefs, always good for comic relief when they pronounce on weighty matters, typically with meditations on the Larger Meaning of Meat: joie de vivre, tradition, family bonds, holidays, conviviality, and all those other good and wholesome things that, we are supposed to believe, all suddenly vanish forever without flesh on the table. As Anthony Bourdain, host of the Travel Channel’s No Reservations, put it a few years ago in a CNN debate with Jonathan Safran Foer about the ethics of eating meat: “What about pleasure? I mean, for God’s sake, man — pleasure! . . . Sitting together at a table and enjoying meat — isn’t deliciousness important? Isn’t it really important?”
We vegans, of course, don’t have families or tables or happy times together over meals, but sit joylessly alone subsisting on roots, leaves, and crusts of bread, breaking the silence only with our wails of outrage and resentment toward a world that doesn’t understand. It is a caricature that suits the self-satisfied, and nobody panders to it quite like Bourdain, though he does at least spare us the euphemisms. His show takes him around the world in search of ever more exotic fare, and though factory-farmed meat is beneath his standards (of deliciousness), the whole shtick is to give cruelty — any food that pleases him, obtained by whatever means — the feel of the hip and cool, with the militant gourmand’s usual hyperbole and exaggerated taunting of critics. He’s the edgy, restless, “deliciously depraved” truth teller of the kitchen who’s had it all, because “you only go around once” so grab what you can, a sort of Hugh Hefner of gluttony bidding us to follow along and get some too, defying those censorious types who would deny us our choices: “Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans, are a persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn. To me, life without veal stock, pork fat, sausage, organ meat, demi-glace, or even stinky cheese is a life not worth living. Vegetarians are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit, an affront to all I stand for: the pure enjoyment of food.”