Sunday, October 13, 2013

“Murdering animals is not humane”: John Sanbonmatsu’s letter to Farm Forward

John Sanbonmatsu is a philosopher and the editor of Critical Theory and Animal Liberation, which I recently recommended here.* Some highlights from his recent letter to Aaron Gross at Farm Forward:
…“Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch is a unique network of Heritage poultry farmers that includes the nation’s preeminent expert on Heritage poultry, Farm Forward Board Member Frank Reese. In 2009, with the pro bono assistance of Farm Forward Consulting, Good Shepherd was able to expand its production beyond turkeys to include chickens. Good Shepherd is currently the market leader in the sale of chicken and turkey products that come from birds who are raised entirely outside of the factory farm industry using humane and sustainable methods.”

Talk about Orwellian — a direct advertisement for the market in dismembered animal bodies, on a site by animal advocates. “A unique network of Heritage” farmers is a fine touch — an appeal to conservative instincts, and to the hoary myths of virtuous agrarian life. A real “market leader”: banal corporate-speak in the context of mass killing. And so on. The text cannily interpellates the reader into celebrating the putative moral or public good of “expanding production” of murdered creatures. It is this home team we are implicitly urged to root for.

The difference between true Newspeak and mere propaganda, of course, is the way the former unites contradictory or even antithetical concepts so as to evacuate them of substantive meaning, in order thereby to obscure (and secure) the violence at the heart of the enterprise. Hence the special genius of “the Good Shepherd” trope, which brings violence and government together under one roof, and which anchors the whole rhetorically in a Christian metaphysics. But as Thracymachus rightly pointed out in the Republic during his joust with Socrates, the “good shepherd” does not in reality have his flock’s interests at heart, since his job is to ready them for the executioner. To be sure, if given the “choice” between, on the one hand, being shot in the back of the head while overlooking the pleasant Latvian countryside, and a deep trench filled with bodies, and, on the other, being worked to death at Treblinka, then yes, by all means, I’ll take the former. But the moment one claims that the former “option” is “humane,” then I fear you are laboring in Orwell’s totalitarian vineyards, and indeed are repeating, but in a different key, the same arguments made by the Binding and Hoche and other leading ideologues of Hitler’s euthanasia program.

In your note to me, you write, “Emphasizing the crucial ‘more’ in ‘more humane’ is something we could do better. Point taken.” But no, I’m sorry, that is not my point, so you cannot have taken it. Murdering animals (yes, murdering them: I am tired of using euphemisms) is not humane. Period, full-stop. There is no “more humane” way of cutting throats, gassing hundreds of avians in CO2 tanks. There are only relatively “less brutal” ways. Techniques of extermination can be made more or less aesthetic, more or less horrifying. But changing such techniques, swapping out the mechanisms of doom, does nothing to make the violence any less extreme or unconscionable. You can murder me less brutally, but you cannot murder me “more humanely.”

…The reason this is all so very bad is that the global crisis of capitalist agriculture has for the first time in human history created an opportunity for us to challenge human species right and Herrschaft species politics — and you and others in the locavore/sustainability/welfare movements (sorry, but if I paint with a broad brush, it is because they ply the same basic message) are snatching defeat from the jaws of victory (or, at least, from the historical possibility of a true awakening to the nature and scale of the problem) by re-legitimating animals as commodities, as having lives that do not deserve to be respected or protected. That is what brings your “disparate” group of killers and advocates together: a fundamental conviction, implicit in everything Farm Forward does, that while the suffering of farmed animals ought to be relieved, the actual lives of animals simply do not matter. They are weightless and insubstantial as air. And that is the root of the problem, ideologically. If we don’t challenge that, then we have challenged nothing.

…Farm Forward lobbies for purely superficial and symbolic improvements to animal “welfare,” without however attacking either the ideological root of the problem, which is speciesism, or the fundamental injustice that we do to other animals, which is to exterminate them in the billions. Far from promoting veganism, your organization promotes animal agriculture. Call it “humane” or “sustainable” or whatever you like, that is what you are doing — promoting one more kind of animal agriculture…. The entire discourse is rotten and shot through with bad faith, because it tacitly affirms the behavior it supposedly disapproves of. In reality, asking people to reduce their meat consumption is like asking men to “reduce” their sexual violence against women, or President Assad to “reduce” his massacres of civilians, or racist whites in the South to “reduce” their lynchings of blacks (while adding, occasionally and timidly, that it would perhaps be “ideal” if they should cease such practices altogether). In other words, it is to give one’s imprimatur morally to the underlying practice, which is domination and extreme violence….

…[S]o long as Farm Forward and others tell them that nonhuman lives are worthless — or rather, worth only as much as the market will bear for their flesh — then middle and upper class consumers can indeed eat with a clear “conscience,” while working people and the poor and other middle class people keep on buying affordable, factory-farmed products. It’s a win-win: everyone gets to continue doing what they’re doing, without challenging the overall system one iota…. I fear then that your “peanut-pushing” approach, as you call it, won’t lead to the closure of a single actual animal enterprise, ever — and by design. Instead, Farm Forward is embarked on an approach which advocates continuing such practices for an eternity.

…In your note, you amiably advise me to expend my scarce energies elsewhere, rather than to attack fellow animal advocates. But the Times [“Defending Your Dinner”] contest demonstrates perfectly what I am talking about, and why all this matters: viz. the strategic animal welfare intelligentsia, who are telling the consuming middle classes the very fantasy they most want to hear, which is that killing and eating animals on a gargantuan scale is morally unproblematic so long as we ameliorate the worst excesses of factory farming. Thus, on the contrary: revealing the fraud being perpetrated on the animal rights movement by groups like Farm Forward still seems to me the best possible use which I and others could be making of our time at this crucial historical conjuncture, given the way knowledge and legitimation practices circulate in our society.

In fine, or so it seems to me, Farm Forward fails on both deontological and utilitarian grounds. It fails on deontological grounds because it treats the lives of billions of our fellow beings as disposable commodities, and therefore reinforces speciesism at the most fundamental level. But it also fails on utilitarian grounds. First, because the new welfarism will not displace or lead to the abolition of factory farming, but will only lead to cosmetic changes in the industry (this much is clear) without producing any qualitative mitigation in either the suffering or final agonies of those being killed — all the while putting a moral “Good-Housekeeping” stamp of approval on the new, lucrative niche markets in animal flesh (the very markets lining the pockets of elite Judas like Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, another Farm Forward board member). Second, because the whole project meanwhile serves the aforementioned ideological function of stabilizing speciesism by re-branding and re-naturalizing “meat” as a virtuous commodity.

Farm Forward, whatever else it is or think it is doing, is therefore not promoting animal liberation. In my view, it is not even a pro-animal organization, but an anti-animal one. Call that “absolutist” or “purist” if you like. But I don’t see it that way. I believe it was Benjamin Franklin who said that in matters of ethics, we should stand firm as rock, but in matters of taste, swim with the fishes. Farm Forward and other groups seem to me to treat ethics as a kind of aesthetics, rather than as a fragile realm of empathetic and principled commitments that must be fiercely defended–defended at all costs and regardless of whether they happen to grate against the ugly prejudices of the majority.

What you mistake for “pragmatism,” I fear, is merely giving in.
One point I’d like to add concerns Sanbonmatsu’s rewriting of Farm Forward’s literature, substituting the killing of Jewish people by the Nazis for the killing of other animals. “Allow me, briefly,” he offers, “to ‘translate’ some of the language on your website, imagining however that it is addressing the plight of European Jewry in the early 1940s, rather than the butchery of nonhuman animals today.” One example:
- “The Integrity of Humane Practices” shall include shooting Jews in the head, gassing them, and slitting their throats. Our position is that while murdering billions of Jews, for eternity, is not “ideal,” it can nonetheless be made a “humane and sustainable” (and, what is more, highly profitable) enterprise.
This is an effective imaginative exercise, but another comparison is also useful. It’s true that the Nazis and their defenders didn’t generally describe their actions toward Jews in this manner. They didn’t generally have “the chutzpah to advertise products made from Jews, or to speak enthusiastically of their liquidation as ‘humane and sustainable’.”

They did, though (as I’m sure Sanbonmatsu is aware, since I learned of Charles Patterson’s Eternal Treblinka from his introduction to Critical Theory), talk about their eugenics program in these terms. It was described as a humane termination of life, necessary for the good of society. The same ideas were espoused by the promoters and defenders of eugenics in the US. Their arguments are described in several works, including Eternal Treblinka, Edwin Black’s War against the Weak, Robert J. Lifton’s Nazi Doctors, and many others. (This was especially the case with people believed to suffer from hereditary mental illnesses.**) In the case of oppression and extermination in the name of eugenics, the rhetoric of positive interventions and of “painless,” humane methods was prominent. So that’s another valid and useful point of comparison for today’s rhetoric of “humane and sustainable” animal slaughter.

* Sanbonmatsu expresses his disappointment with Jonathan Safran Foer, whose book I also recommended there, for participating in Farm Forward and the New York Times’ “Defending Your Dinner” contest. I share that disappointment.

** These people were often compared to other animals, and their lives were seen as equal in value to those of nonhuman animals. Further, the human eugenics movement was rooted in the ideas and practices of animal agriculture. The connections between the treatment of the so-called mentally ill and the treatment of other animals in this period and beyond have yet to receive adequate attention.

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