Saturday, November 23, 2002

Weekend Reading
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"An Animal's Place" by Michael Pollan, New York Times Magazine
This is a fascinatingly well-written and well-argued response to animal rights ideology. It stands apart as a thoughtful, informative analysis in the bilious and polarized animal rights debate because Pollan takes such care to interact with and voice the points of argument of the animal rights movement. He even agrees that the most common practices in raising meat and poultry for sale are primitive at best and barbaric at worst.

["Dominion" author Matthew] Scully calls the contemporary factory farm ''our own worst nightmare'' and, to his credit, doesn't shrink from naming the root cause of this evil: unfettered capitalism. (Perhaps this explains why he resigned from the Bush administration just before his book's publication.) A tension has always existed between the capitalist imperative to maximize efficiency and the moral imperatives of religion or community, which have historically served as a counterweight to the moral blindness of the market. This is one of ''the cultural contradictions of capitalism'' -- the tendency of the economic impulse to erode the moral underpinnings of society. Mercy toward animals is one such casualty. More than any other institution, the American industrial animal farm offers a nightmarish glimpse of what capitalism can look like in the absence of moral or regulatory constraint.

But Pollan moves convincingly keeps going and deconstructs the problem with the animal rights line of thinking: it seeks to transfer the idea of individual rights to animal species, which is in fact a most unnatural transaction. In doing so, he illustrates the highest form of persuasion--not to convince the opponent that the good they seek is invalid, but to convince them that the good they seek is best brought about by your opposing view. I'm a liberal, but/and I'm convinced. Here are excerpts, but Pollan's piece is so nuanced and descriptive it bears a full reading.

However it may appear to us, predation is not a matter of morality or politics; it, also, is a matter of symbiosis. Hard as the wolf may be on the deer he eats, the herd depends on him for its well-being; without predators to cull the herd, deer overrun their habitat and starve. In many places, human hunters have taken over the predator's ecological role. Chickens also depend for their continued well-being on their human predators -- not individual chickens, but chickens as a species. The surest way to achieve the extinction of the chicken would be to grant chickens a ''right to life.''

Yet here's the rub: the animal rightist is not concerned with species, only individuals.... But surely a species can have interests -- in its survival, say -- just as a nation or community or a corporation can. The animal rights movement's exclusive concern with individual animals makes perfect sense given its roots in a culture of liberal individualism, but does it make any sense in nature? ...

The story of Wrightson Island (recounted by the biologist David Ehrenfeld in ''Beginning Again'') suggests at the very least that a human morality based on individual rights makes for an awkward fit when applied to the natural world. This should come as no surprise: morality is an artifact of human culture, devised to help us negotiate social relations. It's very good for that. But just as we recognize that nature doesn't provide an adequate guide for human social conduct, isn't it anthropocentric to assume that our moral system offers an adequate guide for nature? ...

To contemplate such questions from the vantage of a farm is to appreciate just how parochial and urban an ideology animals rights really is. It could thrive only in a world where people have lost contact with the natural world, where animals no longer pose a threat to us and human mastery of nature seems absolute....

The vegetarian utopia would make us even more dependent than we already are on an industrialized national food chain. That food chain would in turn be even more dependent than it already is on fossil fuels and chemical fertilizer, since food would need to travel farther and manure would be in short supply. Indeed, it is doubtful that you can build a more sustainable agriculture without animals to cycle nutrients and support local food production. If our concern is for the health of nature -- rather than, say, the internal consistency of our moral code or the condition of our souls -- then eating animals may sometimes be the most ethical thing to do.

Digging through my's an informative article on false confessions from the NY Times.

So far, the polarities of [the false confession] debate can be roughly summarized in two words: Coercion. Impossible.... In place of the rubber hose, the law grants wide latitude in the use of psychological pressures -- the kind of cajoling good-cop-bad-cop routines seen on "NYPD Blue" that are part of standard police training manuals. That these techniques produce thousands of authentic confessions from criminals every year is beyond dispute. That these same techniques also produce a number of false confessions is also beyond dispute.

I usually don't think much of Paul Harvey's hyper-nostalgic populist act, in which the Everyday American is angelic, but this is a great story about the man behind the name of Chicago's O'Hare Airport. (How is it that a nation rewards a hero by making his namesake one of the most disdained locations on the continent, so that his name is muttered bitterly with every delayed flight?)

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