A Vegan’s Response to Nicholas Kristof’s 7/31 NY Times Op-Ed piece, A Farm Boy Reflects.
By David Irving
Nicholas Kristof’s happy-go-lucky New York Times Op-Ed Page article A Farm Boy Reflects (7/31/08) reminds me of Ring Lardner’s short story Haircut in which a small town barber mindlessly recounts the thoughtless and cruel exploits of some of the town’s local characters. Kristof cheerfully describes his boyhood days on the farm where the geese “virtually become family friends,” but only after years of being slaughtered. He relates that he was troubled by the “unforgettable character and obvious intelligence” of the pigs, which the reader is left to surmise ended up in the stew. But Mr. Kristof quickly lets us know that such “trouble” does not penetrate deeply. With tongue in cheek he cleverly notes that “pork chops” are his intellectual equals even as he eats them. Funny! But aside from expressing a hunch that in a century or two our descendants will be repulsed by factory farms, Kristof offers not a hint that he is aware of the connection between eating animals to the larger issues of animal cruelty, individual and public health risks, environmental damage to the earth, and world poverty. He gives a nod of approval in the general direction of the animal rights movement while at the same time pushing his love of meat eating in the face of everyone who has become aware of just what eating meat is all about. His article can only serve to function as a good ol’ boys guide to meat eating and cannot go unchallenged.
To briefly set the record straight, factory farming that produces the meat of which Mr. Kristof is so enamored, is notoriously cruel to animals as has been well documented. Reports describing cattle whose hides have been ripped from their bodies and their feet cut off while they are still alive are all too common. Many animals slaughtered for food are kept in crates or stalls so small they are unable to turn around their entire lives before being transported to the slaughterhouse without food or water. Chickens are thrown with brute force into cages filled with excrement and other chickens many of which are injured or dead. Pigs and chickens genetically engineered to make them grow faster than normal often break their legs which aren’t strong enough to support their own weight. If they then cannot stand and are too injured to survive the journey to the slaughterhouse, workers throw them against the concrete floor, stomp on them, or beat them to death with pipes. Those badly injured but able to survive continue on to the slaughterhouse without any relief or pain for their suffering. Their journey through hell only finally ends when their throats are slit or they are scalded to death, often fully conscious.
Thanks to courageous undercover operators, some of the horrors described above have been filmed and brought to the public’s attention. See, for example, www.meat.org This is a video the whole world should see. Unfortunately, these cases barely scratch the surface of an industry that has lived well protected from public scrutiny beneath the skirts of the USDA for decades. Meanwhile, the world consumes 25 billion animals every year for food. That’s more than three times the human population of the earth. Not only does this vast aggregate produce enough artery-clogging cholesterol to make heart disease one of our greatest killers, it pollutes our streams and rivers with waste and fills our atmosphere with methane, carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide that damages the ozone layer. At the same time, the food and water necessary for feeding 25 billion animals is enough to eliminate world poverty entirely.
Perhaps Mr. Kristof will contemplate the sketch above the next time he gleefully munches on whatever meat product he is feeding himself that day.
Kristof insists that he is on the side of animal rights, but he is sure not to let those rights interfere with his love for pork chops and hamburgers. He isn’t about to give up his barbeque even though it makes him feel guilty. As a boy of 10, when it came time for the monthly slaughter it was his job to lock the geese in the barn where they cowered in terror with no good place to hide. He had to corner one, grab it while it screeched and struggled in his arms, and then take it out and hold it by the wings on the chopping block while his dad or someone else axed it. That some of the terrified geese bravely registered their protest “pitifully” and “tremulously” approaching him after he had grabbed a loved one, arouses thoughtful respect from Kristof, but not enough to give up relishing that tasty morsel of flesh. He’ll still eat a goose even today, albeit “hesitantly.” I guess the “hesitantly” part represents his compassion for the geese he “came to admire.” In the meantime — Hmm yummy! Dinner is on the way!
Fortunately, we don’t have to wait a century or two as Mr. Kristof has suggested for a more enlightened humanity to take issue with the world’s abuse of and cruelty to animals. There are plenty of aware people already, past and present, and that includes Plutarch (46AD-120 AD) who wrote, “But for the sake of some little mouthful of flesh we deprive a soul of the sun and light, and of that proportion of life and time it had been born into the world to enjoy.” That is the stuff of which great minds are made. But great thoughts can hardly compare with Mr. Kristof’s love of hamburgers. Smother it in onions, please, and pass the ketchup!
As a boy growing up in a small Midwestern rural community myself, I am very familiar with Mr. Kristof’s narrative. How often have I seen a decapitated chicken run around a yard spurting blood, its wings wildly thrashing the air, the head lying grotesquely off to the side with a startled, fearsome look in its eye. Farm kids know well, too, the squeals and screams of pigs when they are castrated without anesthesia and their terror waiting in line knowing something terrible is about to happen. They make a sound one never forgets. In a country setting, you try to take in stride the cuts and gashes in innocent sheep shorn for their wool. But you don’t forget it. In those days the annual pest hunt at school awarded 500 points for a hawk’s claws all the way down to 10 points for a mouse’s tail, creating another unforgettable impression. During the summer it was common enough to go frog hunting in the creek in the woods in the deep of night, suddenly turning on the flashlight hoping to spot a frog which, if caught in the light, was rendered immobile so you could snatch it up and plunge it into a burlap bag.
But a frog is just a frog. And if a frog is just a frog so is a pig just a pig, a goose just a goose, and so on and so on. At the apex of the chain of command stands our super race dictating the rules by which all other species need to comply. To date, it has arrogantly and obtusely shown itself incapable of understanding the simple concept that animals, just like humans, have rights.
The question that Kristof’s article raises is should we stay with the mindset that gives approval to our continued consumption of animals once we learn that to do so aids the cruelty required to serve them up on our dinner plates? We know full well that the propaganda provided by the meat industry to a meat eating society is nothing but public relations invented to shield our eyes from the cruelty upon which our meat eating rests. We are all too happy to ignore the risks eating animals poses to not only ourselves but the entire world just as does Mr. Kristof, who excuses his “dining on animals” because his “view was shaped by those days in the barn as a kid, scrambling after the very geese” he eventually “came to admire.”
Mr. Kristof deserves credit for recognizing and wanting to promote the cause of animal rights. But he needs to emerge fully, not half-way, from his established mindset. Otherwise, he gives aid and comfort to a meat eating society that is practically impervious to the dangers that confront it. This continuing ignorance means further abuse and cruelty towards animals, more threats to individual health with the needless premature loss of loved ones, constant danger to the environment, and a continuation of the world poverty that is becoming an increasingly vital concern for the welfare of the planet.
If we believe that life is more than a little mouthful of flesh it is time to leave old mindsets behind and reach for a vision worthy of humankind’s loftier possibilities. That includes the recognition that all living creatures have rights. And that means the right not to be eaten just to satisfy human appetites. When we stop eating animals we will begin creating a world that is safer for the earth and its creatures, including ourselves. This is the path to a more enlightened future towards which many people of good conscience are traveling today.
David Irving is a Phi Beta Kappa, Magna Cum Laude graduate of Columbia University, class of 1980, School of General Studies. He subsequently obtained his Masters in Music Composition at Columbia and founded the new music organization Phoenix in New York City.