Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Who Will Protect The Animals?

Amidst all the birther nonsense, not to mention deathly serious issues like abolishing Medicare, some of our "labratories of democracy" are hell-bent on making life more miserable for our animal friends:

Getting caught is a drag.

Just ask Kirt Espenson, whose employees at E6 Cattle Company in Southwest Texas were videotaped bashing cows’ heads in with pickaxes and hammers and performing other acts of unspeakably sickening cruelty.

Yet if some state legislators have their way, horrific but valuable videos like that one will never be made.

But, first, the story: Espenson, who comes off on the phone as sincere and contrite, explained to me that he’d made a “catastrophic error in a very difficult situation,” when ultracold weather caused frostbite in some of his 20,000 cattle. He was short-staffed and had his best employees saving the endangered but viable cows while new workers were asked to “euthanize” those who were near death. Out came the hammers. “We just didn’t have the protocol to deal with it,” he told me. “I made a mistake and take full responsibility.”

The offending employees have been terminated. Nothing like this has ever happened before. Nothing like this will ever happen again.

Much as I’d like to believe Espenson, this sounds like too many other horror stories of animal cruelty, and frankly — without belittling either situation — the excuses echo Abu Ghraib. And this is far from an isolated incident. Remember the four Iowa factory farmers who pleaded guilty in 2009 to sexually abusing and beating pigs, and the abuses of downed cattle exposed by the Humane Society of the United States in 2008 at the Hallmark slaughterhouse in California, which led to the country’s biggest ever recall of meat.

The root problem is not Espenson or his company, any more than the root problem at Abu Ghraib was Lynndie England. The problem is the system that enables cruelty and a lack not just of law enforcement but actual laws. Because the only federal laws governing animal cruelty apply to slaughterhouses, where animals may spend only minutes before being dispatched. None apply to farms, where animals are protected only by state laws.

And these may be moving in the wrong direction. In their infinite wisdom the legislatures of Iowa, Minnesota, Florida and others are considering measures that would punish heroic videographers like the one who spent two weeks as an E6 employee, who was clearly traumatized by the experience. (I spoke to him on the phone Saturday, with a guarantee of anonymity.)

Minnesota’s “ag-gag” law — isn’t that a great name? — would seek to punish not only photographers and videographers but those who distribute their work, which means organizations like the Humane Society of the United States and Mercy for Animals, which contracted the videographer for the E6 investigation. “It’s so sweeping,” says Nathan Runkle, the executive director of Mercy for Animals, “that if you took a picture of a dog at a pet shop and texted it to someone, that could be a crime.” Unconstitutional? Probably, but there it is.

Videotaping at factory farms wouldn’t be necessary if the industry were properly regulated. But it isn’t. And the public knows this; the one poll about the Iowa ag-gag law shows a mere 21 percent of people supporting it. And poll after poll finds that almost everyone believes that even if it costs more, farm animals should be treated humanely.

That is not the norm on factory farms. Espenson insists that it was a coincidence that the investigator for Mercy for Animals showed up just when his workers were hammering cows’ heads; the videographer believes it was routine. And, while the farmer claims that extreme weather had hurt the cows, Weather Underground recorded that the weather was far from extreme during the period in question. The investigator theorizes that weaker, less desirable animals were sickened by living in their own feces.

We can’t know. What we can know is that organizations like the Humane Society and Mercy for Animals need to be allowed to do the work that the federal and state governments are not: documenting the kind of behavior most of us abhor. Indeed, the independent investigators should be supported. As Runkle says, “The industry should be teaming up with organizations like ours to put cameras in these facilities, to advocate for mandatory training and have real euthanasia policies, things that would allow the public to trust these operations rather than fear them.”

The biggest problem of all is that we’ve created a system in which standard factory-farming practices are inhumane, and the kinds of abuses documented at E6 are really just reminders of that. If you’re raising and killing 10 billion animals every year, some abuse is pretty much guaranteed.

There is, of course, the argument that domesticating animals in order to kill them is essentially immoral; those of us who eat meat choose not to believe this. But in “Bengal Tiger,” a Broadway play set at Baghdad Zoo, the tiger — played by Robin Williams — wonders: “What if my every meal has been an act of cruelty?” The way most animals are handled in the United States right now has to have all of us omnivores wondering the same thing.

This sh$t is starting to really p#ss me off. First there was the anti-puppy mill referendum in Missouri last year, which the voters passed by a small margin, but which is in the process of being undone by the state legislature. Now this crap. WTF?

Mercy For Animal's website is here and you can make a one-time or regular donation.

The NYT editorial page also includes a short editorial, rightfully denouncing Iowa, Minnesota and Florida's pending legislation.

I'd also love to hear some presidential bully-pulpiting on this.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Richard Cohen blasts "Cult of Lee"

Every once in a while, Richard Cohen erupts into some very shrill:

It has taken a while, but it’s about time Robert E. Lee lost the Civil War. The South, of course, was defeated on the battlefield in 1865, yet the Lee legend — swaddled in myth, kitsch and racism — has endured even past the civil rights era when it became both urgent and right to finally tell the “Lost Cause” to get lost. Now it should be Lee’s turn. He was loyal to slavery and disloyal to his country — not worthy, even he might now admit, of the honors accorded him.

I confess to always being puzzled by the cult of Lee. Whatever his personal or military virtues, he offered himself and his sword to the cause of slavery. He owned slaves himself and fought tenaciously in the courts to keep them. He commanded a vast army that, had it won, would have secured the independence of a nation dedicated to the proposition that white people could own black people and sell them off, husband from wife, child from parent, as the owner saw fit. Such a man cannot be admired.

But he is. All over the South, particularly in his native Virginia, the cult of Lee is manifested in streets, highways and schools named for him. When I first moved to the Washington area, I used to marvel at these homages to the man. What was being honored? Slavery? Treason? Or maybe, for this is how I perceive him, no sense of humor? (Often, that is mistaken for wisdom.) I also wondered what a black person was supposed to think or, maybe more to the point, feel. Chagrin or rage would be perfectly appropriate.

I'm pretty puzzled by it, too.

I suspect the admiration of Lee probably stems from the 100+ years of grace awarded the South upon their military defeat, when a morally exhausted but commercially ambitious country turned its attention from war and bloodshed (and racial justice) to reconciliation among Whites and expansion. More specifically, Lee, being a "warrior", is more apt to be seen as "above the fray" and given reverence not afforded to other, more political Confederates such as Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens.

The nation's turn from war to reconciliation, at the expense of racial justice, is addressed in David Blight's Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. I'm a few chapters into it and recommend it heartily.

If anything, I find the respect afforded Lee by professional historians more puzzling than that of average citizens, particularly those in Virginia, who could be expected to be more generous to one of their state's ancestors.

At the same time, I'm not as irritated by the various signs and other monuments to Lee and other Confederates as I once was. The respect granted to "losers" in American history is in its own way, appropriate. I think it largely serves the interest of a pluralist society to allow for a wide range of "heros". For example, there are monuments and tributes, commercial and otherwise, to the various Native American leaders of the Old West (Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, etc) in places such as South Dakota, that serve to help educate Ameicans living long after of their lives and causes, leading us to question our own country's treatment, past and present, of the continent's native inhabitants. Many Americans living today no doubt have little sympathy for Indians or the historical preservation of their leaders. Nonetheless, we appropriately remind ourselves of these representatives of American life.

In the case of Lee in particular, it must be said that Lee was not tried for treason (nor really was anyone else from the Southern Confederacy). General Grant, among others, didn't wish to see Lee imprisoned or suffer politically or otherwise for his course of action, despite having fought against him for more than a year. So that his name adorns highways doesn't concern me too much. But it is high time that among our professional class that a more critical appraisal of the Confederal general is provided.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Very grim stuff in Mexico

Hard to know what to say about this, other than I was almost shocked to read it this morning. And given the carnage around the globe, it isn't always easy to be shocked. This reads like it was Afghanistan:

SAN FERNANDO, Mexico — At the largest mass grave site ever found in Mexico, where 177 bodies have been pulled from deep pits, authorities say they have recovered few bullet casings and little evidence that the dead were killed with a gun.

Instead, most died of blunt force trauma to the head, and a sledgehammer found at the crime scene this month is believed to have been used in the executions, according to Mexican investigators and state officials. The search continued Sunday, with state officials warning they expect the count to rise.

They say as many as 122 of the victims were passengers dragged off buses at drug cartel roadblocks on the major highway to the United States.

The mass killings of civilians at isolated ranches 90 minutes south of the Texas border mark a new level of barbarity in Mexico’s four-year U.S.-backed drug war.

As forensic teams and Mexican marines dig through deeper and darker layers here, the buried secrets in San Fernando are challenging President Felipe Calderon’s assertions that his government is winning the war and is in control of Mexico’s cities and roads.

In the past four years, more than 35,000 people have been killed and thousands more have simply disappeared, since Calderon sent the military to battle Mexican organized crime with $1.6 billion in U.S. support. U.S. officials in Mexico worry that criminal gangs are taking over sections of the vital border region not by overwhelming firepower but sheer terror.

On Thursday, cartel gunmen sacked the city of Miguel Aleman, across the river from Roma, Texas, tossing grenades and burning down three car dealerships, an auto parts outlet, a furniture store and a gas station. Three buses were strafed with gunfire Saturday in separate attacks, wounding three people.

The U.S. State Department issued new warnings Friday advising Americans to defer nonessential travel to the entire border state of Tamaulipas and large swaths of Mexico because of the threat of armed robbery, carjacking, kidnapping and murder by organized crime.

In the red dirt tombs of San Fernando, almost all the bodies were stripped of identification, meaning no licenses, bus ticket stubs or photographs of loved ones, according to interviews with local and state officials, making the job of notifying next of kin especially difficult.

Forensic photographs shown to The Washington Post depict mummified bodies caked in dirt and badly decomposed, with signs of extreme cranial trauma. In the largest two graves, holding 43 and 45 bodies, the corpses were piled atop one another in a 10-foot-deep pit dug by a backhoe, that criminals filled over in the past four months.