If you juxtapose the spectacle of Michael Vick’s woeful cruelty to animals with the kind of insight Michael Pollin’s Omnivore’s Dilemma gives into how carefully we misunderstand the origin and meaning of the meat we eat, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that we are pretty adept at a really interesting kind of doublethink when it comes to killing animals (along the lines of the “commodity fetish,” we should talk about a “meat fetish”). Michael Pollin is of course not at all unique in pointing that out, but it was in reading that book that I first got a sense for how long-running and important a problem it is, how unsolvable the following set of presumptions are:
- Bad to Kill Humans
- Humans ~ Animals
- Okay to Kill Animals
This circle doesn’t square easily. So it’s no wonder that the question of how like or unlike humans are to animals has had such a contentious history: how we gloss that little squiggle in the middle of the whole structure determines how we answer the question of who gets to kill who. Especially when people let race enter into the question (and they have had a tendency to do that, to put it diplomatically), I’m increasingly convinced that how we think about animals has a great deal to say about the ways we engage with the question of what kinds of violence are legitimate. The contraversy around the “Scopes Monkey trial” was not unrelated to the fact that Africans were very conventionally seen as not only primitive but primates, and as all kinds of people have observed, you can’t talk about “social darwinism” without stepping all over the ways people have tried to use science to both justify and criticize racial colonialism.
To put an even finer point on it, as Mahmood Mamdani observes, when Prime Minister Salisbury said in 1898 that “one can roughly divide the nations of the world into the living and the dying” he was taking a stand in the hotly contested, oh so 19th century question of whether a thriving race had the right and was justified in “helping” a dying race, nation, or species (the difference between being useully fuzzy) along its merry way to oblivion. Depending on your preference, Spencer, Malthus, and Darwin could give you different kinds of answers to that question. But as Mamdani goes on to observe, the ways we justify political violence, then and now, are related back to that kind of question, to the issue of whether violence really is the midwife of progress, as Marx put it, and as Adam Smith probably would have too. People like Berman are good for reminding us that Smith and Marx and Goethe and all the other “modernists” were highly cogniscent of all the scary stuff modernity brings with it, and that progress isn’t always a good thing, but what Mamdani shows us–that he doesn’t–is that whether or not you thought using violence to bring modernity into existence was a good thing or not showed a very high level of correlation with whether or not you found yourself in the day-to-day predicament of being mistaken for an animal, and were thus personally subject to such violence.
This post could go from here into talking about Michael Vick, but Dave Zirin has already done that, or it could veer into a discussion of J.M. Coetze’s really interesting foray into using the figure of the animal as a way to talk about political violence (which began way back in Disgrace, at least), but I find I haven’t figured out what I think about that yet. So I want to talk, as always, about my dissertation, about the ways that animal metaphors get used to magically transform the idea of human beings being killed into something as normal as a McDonald’s hamburger, or as inoffensive as a fly swatter. As Mamdani, again, notes, the spectacle of 9-11 should show us how good we are, as a society, at transformin a horror for violence into a legitimization of violence, using one kind of terror to justify another. More specifically, as he puts it, it shows that what we object to is not violence per se, but senseless violence. In fact, if we put a Weberian spin on Salisbury’s statement, there’s something really interesting about the ways he’s conflating “nation” with “race”: Weber observed that the modern state achieves itself when it acquires a monopoly on violence (and this insertion of violence into the origin story of modern political society is a surprisingly Hobbesian way to go about it, though Hannah Arendt warned us that it was so) and Salisbury is doing exactly the same thing, defining the success of a nation–and its modernity, if I may make that leap–by its ability to use violence rather than be subjected to it. Such violence is sensible; what we object to is senseless violence, violence by dying animals against their more highly evolved competitors, us. Me eating a hamburger is banal; a cow eating me is terrible. The US bombing the third world is banal; the third world bombing us is terrible*.
“Those who have been following the Iraq debate might remember “flypaper theory,” which was one of the earliest exponents of the “incoherent post hoc justifications for the Iraq war” genre. The idea was that there was some limited number of terrorists in the Middle East, and the presence of an occupying U.S. army would lure them to Iraq, whereupon they could all be conveniently killed, presumably as soon as they stepped off the bus.
This plan was prevented from working only by the fact that it was staggeringly dumb. The U.S. occupation radicalized scores of young Muslims, many of whom traveled to Iraq, where they learned terror warfare and were galvanized in the global jihad. And now they’ve begun returning home, to share the tactics and technology developed in a laboratory we provided for them by invading Iraq. The violence in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in Lebanon in May 2007 was one instance of this. Yesterday’s attack in Yemen is another.”
What strikes me isn’t just that our leaders are staggeringly dumb–if that’s a new idea, you haven’t been paying attention–it’s how central an animalizing metaphor still is to how this kind of political violence gets imagined. Hutu power referred to “tutsi cockroaches” and the United States cavalry referred to the ways “nits make lice”** in their project of wiping out American indians, and it should shock us more than it does to find that we don’t mind following in their footsteps and naturalizing violence against terrorists by imagining terrorists as flies. It’s bad politics, sure, but while it’s dumb by the standards of someone who understands that terrorists are human beings, the neo-con political imaginary operates by an unimpeachable (if grotesque) logic: in abhoring senseless violence, it finds that violence against animals and terrorists makes sense, in exactly the same way that putting a fly on trial doesn’t. But where, oh where, do you draw that line?
Every Friday, I have a chicken BBQ sandwich; today I’m thinking about having a veggie quesadilla***.
* which would be another way into the interesting issue Sepoy raised a while ago; since the United States is currently bombing targets inside Pakistan, what happens when Pakistani defenses of their political sovereignty result in American loss of life or property? You can only go so far by positing the tribal areas being targeted as ungoverned “frontiers”; not only are they still a part of Pakistan, but encroaching on Pakistani sovereignty breaks the “nuclear rule,” as the Pakistani Daily Times put it, by which (presumably) you only bomb people who don’t have the bomb. The US failure to play by this rule reflects a very interesting (and frightening) disinclination to play by Kissingerian realism. This is not surprising–the neo-cons are specifically not Kissingerian realists–but it is a scary reminder that stupid can be a lot worse than evil.
** That reference comes from an essay Ward Churchill wrote at a time when he was producing extremely competent scholarship. I don’t know if he stopped and became an idealogue, as his politically motivated enemies have asserted, but my own use of his work makes me second this judgement by one of his colleagues:
“By addressing only a tiny fragment of his writings, the report implies that Ward tries to overawe and hoodwink his readers with spurious documentation. Anyone who reads an essay like “Nits Make Lice: The Extermination of North American Indians 1607-1996″ with its 612 footnotes will get a very different impression. Churchill, they will see, goes far beyond most writers of broad historical overviews in trying to support his claims. He often cites several references in the same footnote. Ward is deeply engaged with the materials he references and frequently comments extensively upon them. He typically mounts a running critique of authors like James Axtell, Steven Katz, and Deborah Lipstadt. Readers will see that Churchill is familiar with a formidable variety of materials and can engage in a broad range of intellectual discourses.”
***Though if I do that, the terrorists win.