They don’t want anyone coming near, least of all anyone with a camera, because when the pictures and videos get out, they never quite capture the industry as it sees itself. The whole routine of bluff and sanctimony doesn’t work any more, as people see for themselves what the choices really are. At public events and stockholder meetings, factory-farm executives from Tyson, ConAgra, Smithfield, and all the rest complain of being harassed by zealots and do-gooders holding up pictures of their victims, images often so heartbreaking that the news media won’t show them. Many of the men and women who see those pictures are changed by the experience, their conscience awakened, never again able to talk around the matter in polite generality or comfortable cliché, while others react in rage and bitterness at the “emotional pressure” of being asked even to look. Does any of this sound familiar?
Talk about “avoidance behavior.” Here we have two industries avoiding judgment by the same deceitful means. National Review
’s Andrew McCarthy not long ago described a Colorado case in which “pro-abortion activists filed a lawsuit against anti-abortion protesters, claiming that the display of graphic images of first-term abortions amounted to an actionable nuisance.” “Imagine,” writes McCarthy, by way of comparison, “if we had told the anti-war Left that photos of the abuse at Abu Ghraib prison could not be publicly displayed. You know, ‘We’ll just describe the whole thing as “enhanced detention” — or, maybe, “choice” — no need to get more graphic than that.’ How long do you suppose that would have been tolerated?”
It’s a great point, but there is an even better parallel, requiring no imagination at all. In dozens of states right now, a major American industry — as central to life as any can be — is trying to use the law to limit free speech and, with that, public knowledge of its routine inhumanity. And this suppression of evidence has been tolerated by the conservative press and by nearly every major media outlet. Outside of animal-welfare circles, it hasn’t received nearly the attention that such a scandalous abuse of power warrants, much as factory farming in general has spread across the earth with only occasional journalistic scrutiny.
Last May, when Smithfield Foods announced a pending acquisition by the Chinese meat company Shuanghai for some $4.7 billion, this was treated as big financial news, even rating a mention in Politico’s “Playbook.” Here is arguably the worst of the worst among American meat companies, whose animal dungeons I have seen for myself, now exporting the merciless systems that it pioneered — going abroad, in part, because demand for meat is declining here as more Americans cut down for reasons of health and morality. And all we get in the way of analysis is number-crunching and vague talk of “food safety” concerns, as if even those very concerns were not related to the brutality of both the Chinese company and Smithfield. There was an empty courtroom press section in the early weeks of the Gosnell trial; there is similar empty space in coverage of factory farming and like enterprises, awaiting reporters who will challenge cruelty and all of the corruption that comes with it.
The contortions in reason and law, for apologists of both abortion on demand and animal cruelty, likewise seek to place as much cognitive and emotional distance as possible between the choice and the consequences, typically with abstract constructs that painstakingly parcel out rights, allocate power, and invent whole new nouns to take the flesh and blood out of the picture. Mary Elizabeth Williams, reflecting in a Salon essay last January about a hypothetical mother and “the non-autonomous entity inside of her” — who is accorded rights only to have them “trumped” by autonomous Mom — is working the same philosophical ground as critics of the animal-protection cause, with their elaborate theories explaining why animals are “un-self-aware beings,” “non-rightholders,” “inappropriate objects of sympathy,” or something, anything, other than what they are by any standard of common-sense morality, and above all of Judaeo-Christian morality: powerless fellow creatures, formed of the same dust, to whom human beings have obligations of both charity and justice. In both lines of thought, escaping inconvenient duty is the aim, the strong “trumping” the weak and defenseless with all manner of precious distinctions and pretentious verbiage. And, for similar reasons, these arguments get complicated.
For instance, in an outstanding column on the Gosnell trial and all the euphemisms it blew away, National Review editor Rich Lowry got to the central problem: “His case is so discomfiting for liberals not only because it is such a stark picture of the seamy, money-grubbing side of abortion, but because it illustrates how slight the difference is between late-term abortion — or late-term ‘health’ — and what nearly everyone recognizes as a crime.” Ramesh Ponnuru, writing for Bloomberg News, made the similar point that unborn babies at the same stage of development, emerging from the womb or still inside, are in essence the same babies, and it’s pure caprice that the law protects one and not the other. “This distinction makes no sense to many people, who wonder why the location of this young human being should make such a large difference in whether he will live or die.” As Kirsten Powers summed it up: “That one is murder and the other is a legal procedure is morally irreconcilable.”