The following is a letter written by John Sanbonmatsu, associate professor of Philosophy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, to Aaron Gross of Farm Forward which promotes “humane” animal products. We thought this letter made some of the most insightful connections between human and nonhuman animal forms of oppression, especially in the context of the Orwellian nature of “humane” animal products and “humane” slaughter.
Thank you for writing me personally, and for doing so in such civil and gracious terms. These debates are emotionally fraught, because politically and morally so, and wherever possible one should reach for the high moral ground by empathizing with those one disagrees with and trying to meet them half way.
I am Jewish too, as it happens (on my mother’s side). And I too take seriously the Holocaust analogy. What other analogous human institution or set of moral crimes can we turn to, but to the Shoah, when looking at our treatment of the other species? It is precisely because I take the analogy seriously, however, that I cannot understand what you and Jonathan Foer and others think you are doing over at Farm Forward, HSUS, and other “reformist” groups.
Allow me, briefly, 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:
- “Himmler is a long-time friend and mentee of Franz Stangl. His objective is to turn the Coalition into a fully-integrated and self-sustaining production network capable of supplying the region with Jews to be gassed.”
- “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.
- Buying and using products made from the bodies of gassed Jews–lampshades and so on–shall henceforth be known as participating in “Conscientious Consumption.”
- We at Camps Forward support “the transition back to sensible and sustainable practices”–such as pogroms in the Pale and the ecologically friendly, scientifically sustainable methods of the Einsatzgruppen. As is well known, Jews for thousands of years were killed in small batches, in a romantic and aesthetically pleasing way, rather than en masse in ugly industrial facilities. We therefore applaud a return to this aspect of our collective Heritage.
- The Camps Forward project makes it possible for “disparate interests opposed to the abuse of Jews in concentration camps [to] unite in coordinated and effective ways”–i.e. such disparate groups as the S.S., the Einsatzgruppen, as well as advocates of Jews in North America. We have created an ongoing dialogue and meeting ground between the peaceful killers of Jews, and Jewish advocates. Follow us on Twitter #Wannsee.com.
What kind of self-deception must be involved, I wonder, for your organization to go around writing and promoting such Newspeak? For Newspeak it is. Here is another example:
“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.”
Recall if you will the images from the beheading of Daniel Pearl by terrorists in the Middle East. Then look at some of the images I have attached here to remind you of where all the “happy talk” on your site about benignant farming really leads to in the end. If the leadership and board members of Farm Forward were intellectually and morally honest, you and they would include such images prominently on your website. But of course you will and cannot, since you are trying to make the bodies of dead animals seem palatable, not horrific. Please at least acknowledge that, in your special way, you are therefore lying to the public and betraying the interests of the millions of individual beings who are being killed on organic farms, precisely by not showing the public what actually ends up happening to them.
Can you not see why, reading the Farm Forward website, I cannot help being reminded me of the model camps the Nazis set up for the International Red Cross? The “humane” camps which showed the Jews and Roma well fed and clothed, but which left out the part about all the killing?
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. Well, just as you can’t make a nation of alcoholics give up the drink by advertising 70-year old Scotch or offering them even finer liqueurs, you aren’t going to get people to change their prejudice that the lives of other animals are worthless by offering them “Heritage” flesh. 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.
It has been my own personal observation that consumers of organic “beef” and other products do not stop eating factory-farmed steak when eating out with their friends, nor do they reduce their consumption of animal products, after reading Omnivore’s Dilemma. But then, nor do such folk subsequently go on to question vivisection, or their right to bring their kids to see Ringling Brothers or the zoo, and so on. They don’t in fact come away caring about animals at all. And why should they? Because so 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. Factory farming is as you know expanding, in fact, not contracting: the Smithfield deal is only the beginning of things. Locavorism will remain at best a niche market (as James McWilliams has pointed out, were all the cows pasture-fed, we would anyway need several more earths to devastate). 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.
I cannot, therefore, make any sense of your otherwise heartening assurance to me that you too embrace the “project of trying to re-imagine subjectivity as such with a liberatory intent for animals.” Where is Hannah Arendt [author of the study, Eichmann in Jerusalem] when we need her? At least the Judenräte never had the chutzpah to advertise products made from Jews, or to speak enthusiastically of their liquidation as “humane and sustainable.” (Sustainable murder–now there is a concept.)
As for the terribly disappointing Jonathan Foer [one of the prominent supporters of Farm Forward], I appreciated much of his book, Eating Animals, and in fact assigned it to my students last year. For me, though, the most revealing thing in the whole book was this passage: “Whether we’re talking about fish species, pigs, or some other eaten animal, is such suffering the most important thing in the world? Obviously not.” How’s that for playing to the mob? Now, one may quibble about whether the wholly unnecessary suffering and violent deaths of perhaps 100 billion land and sea animals each year is more important than, say, climate change, or poverty in the Third World, or anything else. But it is Foer’s “Obviously not” that gives the game away. Obviously the lives of all those animals could not possibly be that important. Re-reading that enabled me to understand Foer’s reasons for participating in that awful New York Times Magazine contest, “Defending Your Dinner,” in which the Times invited readers to defend meat consumption.
In your note, you amiably advise me to expend my scarce energies elsewhere, rather than to attack fellow animal advocates. But the Times 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.
John Sanbonmatsu, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Philosophy
Department of Humanities and Arts
Worcester Polytechnic Institute