The Casual Blog

Tag: animal rights

A thought-provoking documentary film festival in Durham

Having had such a good time last year at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, this year we decided to go all in. We got a room at the downtown Marriott, which connects to the site in the Durham Convention Center, and took some vacation so we could stay all four days. We saw some excellent documentaries, met some interesting people, and had a lot of good conversations and other fun.

In high school I had a music theory teacher who was a practitioner of Eckankar, which teaches that the soul can separate from the body and travel about. I ordinarily think of Eckankar as an example of the useful rule that there’s no idea so bizarre that some subpopulation won’t believe it. Still, this weekend was soul travel of a sort. The documentaries whisked us around the world and also transported us into some remote and unfamiliar interior landscapes.

Another thing I like about documentaries is that in general they try to be truthful. Even when the filmmaker has a strong point of view, she’ll almost inevitably provide evidence for other points of view. We were particularly interested this year in the films that took on complex social issues. For several of those, the filmmakers answered questions afterwards, and the messages they thought they were sending were not always the same as the ones we took away. I viewed that not so much as an indication of the filmmaker’s weakness as of the medium’s strength.

There were more than 100 films screened, of which we saw 17, including several that I expect to be thinking about for quite a while. Here are some quick notes on my favorites.

Weiner. This was about Anthony Weiner and his New York mayoral campaign, which ended in ignominy because of his social media sexting. Weiner became a late night TV punchline, and so it was a surprise to see him presented as a complex person with a great deal of intelligence and drive. As Sally noted, it was a great reminder that headlines can be misleading. I sat next to co-director Josh Kriegman at another film, and was happy to learn from him that Weiner is still married.

Sonita. Sonita is a 15-year-old Afghan girl living in Tehran who wants to be a successful rap artist. As crazy as it sounds, she may just do it. From her first informal performance with her girlfriends, you sense a prodigious talent. The odds against her are huge at the beginning, as her poor, traditional family plans to sell her to be married, but she records Brides for Sale, which becomes a minor sensation, and things start to happen. You should check out her gut-punching music video, which is here.
Clinica de Migrantes. A clinic in south Philadelphia provides primary medical care for mostly Hispanic undocumented immigrant workers. The volunteer doctors and other personnel are overworked and overwhelmed, but they somehow soldier on, with empathy and kindness. The patients look a lot like the people we see cleaning our hotel rooms, preparing restaurant food, building our houses, and caring for our yards and our children. The film doesn’t preach about the injustice of leaving these people out of the health care system, but quietly makes you feel it. It also reminds you that there are some really good people in the world.

Unlocking the Cage. The subject is Steven Wise and the Nonhuman Rights Project, which has brought habeas corpus petitions on behalf of caged chimpanzees. Wise has worked for 30 years for animal rights, and has succeeded in raising the profile of the issues. He maintains a remarkable air of humanity and decency even with those who think he must be crazy.

Raising Bertie. This film was made about 100 miles from here as the crow flies in Bertie Co., N.C., a poor, rural, majority African-American area. The filmmakers spent 6 years following 3 young black men trying to get through high school and become adults. They make some of the same mistakes that their parents made, such as starting families when they’re much too young, and struggle to find decent jobs. It’s a subject that we all think we know about, but have never seen this intimately, and it’s powerful. We got to meet with one of the filmmakers and a couple of the film’s subjects in the hotel bar last night.

Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru. This film by master documentarian Joe Berlinger follow self-help impressario Robbins through a six-day seminar for which he charges $5,000 per head. It struck me as a mix of evangelical Christian revival and new product sales force meeting, where the attendees were encouraged to get excited and emotional and commit to a better life or more productive next quarter. Robbins struck me as a snake oil salesperson, though more well-meaning than some. I was surprised to learn, when Berlinger spoke afterwards, that he had attended a Robbins seminar and found it life changing in a good way. But as noted above, this disconnect speaks well of the medium, and also of Berlinger, in allowing for different interpretations.

Don’t Blink: Robert Frank. Laura Israel, the director, worked with Frank for years as an editor before making this remarkable film. I just started looking hard at Frank’s intense, quirky photography in the last couple of years, and came to this documentary knowing nothing of his experimental films and other work. I came away with even more respect for Frank, and more curiosity. The film says something fundamental about how artists make art: they never stop experimenting.

I could go on, but, enough. Footnote: I made all these photographs except the tulips on a Samsung Galaxy S7, which I got a week ago. So far, it seems like a very smart smartphone, with a surprisingly credible camera.
Tiller7Bug 1-12

The terrification of our intelligence


We learned this week that Mullah Muhammad Omar, the leader of the Taliban in Afghanistan, died. Two years ago. And we didn’t realize it. We’re still in Afghanistan, still waging the longest war in American history (14 years and counting), at a cost of several trillion dollars and thousands of lives, so you’d think this would be something we’d definitely want to know. I realize that getting good intelligence in a hostile land if not so easy, but still, it’s staggering to think we couldn’t figure out that the leader of a foe for which we sacrificed all that treasure and life was defunct.

It raises serious questions, like, are there some other fundamental realities we’re missing? Are there, along with the unsung heroes in our spy corps, too many unexposed incompetents? We seem to have gotten pretty good at spying on leaders of allied nations, not to mention ordinary Americans, but maybe not so great at learning about our declared adversaries. Here’s an idea: why not take the NSA’s mass domestic surveillance division and repurpose it towards actual threats from our enemies?

Although our enemies keep changing. According to the papers, ISIS is now our main enemy, though I’d note that it has not attacked the United States. They’re definitely fighting against Iraq, our former enemy and now a quasi-client that mostly hates us. They’re also fighting our current enemy Syria, which does not seem entirely a bad thing. Attacking the US is not on ISIS’s priority list. Could they ever be a threat to our physical safety? Sure, just as is possible from any number of countries, but it isn’t now. So why are spending billions fighting them? What are our objectives?

The FBI acknowledged this week that ISIS “has shown no ability to stage significant attacks inside the United States.” But, per a NY Times story, the Bureau is devoting massive resources to detecting and arresting “sympathizers” who express “a willingness to undertake small-scale attacks, such as stabbings and shootings that require little planning.” That is, the FBI has taken on the mission of stopping “shootings and stabbings . . . on a scale that is common in major American cities.” What makes these so important? Why, they’re inspired by ISIS, don’t you see.

This is part of continuing fallout from our post-9/11 moral panic about terrorism. Those who are victims of mass violence motivated by old-fashioned racism feel slighted that those criminals aren’t usually called terrorists, and they have kind of a point. A mass shooting has come to seem more serious if we call it terrorism. And I would agree that we need to deplore and work to prevent all mass shootings. Footnote: can we talk about better gun control laws?

On final word about terrorism, and then I’ll stop. Glen Greenwald wrote this week about the prosecution of animal rights activists on charges of “domestic terrorism.” The crime in issue was releasing minks from fur farms. The point of the activity was political protest – nonviolent, mind you – against the cruelty of fur farming. The protesters are facing 10 years in federal prison. Prosecutions of political protesters as terrorists are apparently on the rise. This is ironic, but also frightening. If the actual terrorists, like bin Laden, ultimately make so fearful and obsessed with terrorism that we sacrifice our most cherished civil liberties, they will have succeeded in their destructiveness beyond their wildest dreams.

A word about the pictures: these were taken at Raulston Arboretum on Saturday, August 1, at about 8:30 a.m. It smelled a bit like a barnyard this Saturday, which I’m guessing had to do with application of fresh animal-based fertilizer. There were many small butterflies, most of which did not care to be photographed.

A proposal that we stop spending tax dollars on promoting cheese eating and think more about our food

Food is not only good to eat. It’s good to think about, and also sometimes bad to eat. Here’s some food news from today’s NY Times — a piece headlined While Warning About Fat, U.S. Pushes Cheese Sales. It turns out that millions of our tax dollars go towards encouraging cheese eating. Some of the taxes we’ve paid have gone to develop fast food with more cheese in it, such as a new super-cheesy type of Domino’s Pizza.

According to the Times, cheese is now the largest source of saturated fat in the American diet. Saturated fat is linked to heart disease and obesity, which are associated with premature death. Of course, cheese tastes good, and eating a little isn’t a huge risk factor. But why would we even think about involving government in promoting it?

Apparently the reason has to do with a special interest: the dairy industry. People are getting the message that the fat in milk is unhealthy, and buying less high-fat milk. This means dairy producers have excess capacity. Too bad for them. Subsidizing cheese is like subsidizing tobacco. It’s not only dumb — it’s wrong. Here’s an idea for Republicans interested in eliminating wasteful government programs: let’s cut this out.

When we had dinner at home Thursday night, Sally and I talked about our own eating decisions and customs. This is a subject we try to avoid when eating in company, because it detracts from the enjoyment of food and friendship. When the issue of vegetarianism comes up, some non-vegetarians are curious, but others react defensively. For most people, it involves thinking about animals and nutrition in a different way that is at first uncomfortable. For us, it has involved many years of both thinking and practical experience that are difficult to reduce to a short explanation. And there are many topics for dinner conversation that are easier and more fun.

Yet not discussing it bothers me almost as much as discussing it. As with other enormous moral issues such as slavery and genocide, the decision not to speak out has moral implications. I try to be as honest as I can about my thoughts and feelings, and dislike leaving the false impression that the basic cruelty of industrialized animal production and consumption is a minor matter, or that I think it’s fine to kill sentient creatures when there are better choices easily available.

But giving value to the welfare of animals or changing eating habits goes strongly against the grain of our culture. Our habits of eating have deep roots and a multitude of personal associations and meanings, and it’s hard for most people to think about changing them. So we have a kind of gridlock involving morality and culture: it’s morally unacceptable not to confront the situation, and also culturally unacceptable to do so.

So I’m very happy as a plant-based eater that my values and eating habits are better aligned than ever before. (I should note that I don’t think they’re by any means perfectly aligned, and should confess that I still eat some cheese.) I’m very happy that I have interesting, varied, tasty meals a high percentage of the time. I’m also very happy that my diet is doing a lot of good for my health. But I’m not so happy that this puts me at odds with some people.

How can we eat animals?

Not eating animals is, for me, a matter of conscience.  It seems to me plain that unnecessarily killing sentient creatures for human consumption is wrong.  I’m very conscious that this is a minority view.   That’s being too kind: this is a fringy view.  I feel good — that is, both healthier and happier — about eating plants rather than animals.  But it’s not pleasant to take a stand on this that is at odds both with the majority of the community and with most of the people I care about and respect, and I would not do so if I saw a principled alternative.

Because the topic is a difficult one, I was heartened to see in today’s NY Times an opinion piece by Gary Steiner setting out the animal rights point of view._ Steiner is a professor of philosophy at Bucknell who’s written extensively on animal rights.   His basic argument is that animals possess inherent dignity, and that human desire cannot justify their slaughter.

Steiner has trouble explaining why most humans seem untroubled by this.  As he notes, the classic arguments that support treating human animals as privileged to cause unlimited suffering on other animals are embarrassingly weak.  It is difficult to square our general understanding of ourselves as beings embodying and constrained by morality with massive indifference to the pain of our fellow creatures.

Part of the answer is that the problem is at once overwhelming and easy to ignore.  According to Steiner, there are 53 billion animals slaughtered each year for human consumption, which is more than enough misery to inspire hopelessness.  There are also nested issues of economics and tradition. Humans have lots of other problems.  This week the NC press had stories about NC pork farmers going bankrupt, who were pleading for people to save them by eating more pigs.  It would be wrong to dismiss the plight of the farmers, but their voices at least get a hearing — unlike the pigs, who would undoubtedly prefer to live.  Steiner also alludes to the Thanksgiving turkeys who will be consumed this week recalling happy memories.  How could we give up such a joyful tradition?

The answer is, it isn’t really that hard, once the horror of the slaughter is brought into view.   There are many intractable problems of human society, but this one is not intractable.  It’s just difficult.

Animal rights and wrongs

Animal rights should not be a difficult topic, though it plainly is.  We humans are, after all, animals.  Like other animals, we’re part of the great kingdom of life, with kinship relationships to every other species.  Like every species, we have our relative strengths and weaknesses:  we can run faster, manipulate more delicately, observe more acutely than some animals — but others are far superior to us in these and other skills.   Yet we sometimes unthinkingly assume our own superiority, and use that assumption to justify brutality and pointless killing.  In my view, this is wrong.

In general, we think of ourselves as independent individuals, joined by strong ties to families, less strong ties to neighbors, weaker ties to more geographically distant humans, and very weak or no ties to other species.  But even within that thought system, there are exceptions, and they tell us something about our nature.

We love our pets.  Many of us  love them more than certain other humans.   We’ve been taught that other creatures are simply not as important as humans, and so we’re hesitant to admit the strength and extent of our love for these creatures.  We can’t reconcile our feelings of love for our dogs or cats, or gerbils, with the doctrine of human superiority.  Yet it would be unthinkable to kill and eat our beloved pets.

Of course, other animals are different — or are they?   Is there any non-arbitrary reason for singling out some animals for special attention?    Just as we might happen to prefer labradors to dachsunds, we might (and some do) choose as the objects of our affection turtles or rabbits.  As to non-domesticated animals, we may have warm feelings for whales, polar bears, and baby seals, and feel revulsion to spiders.  But these preferences are mostly just matters of taste.  The point is, much of our favoritism for some species over others is not based on the reasoning powers that are often though to elevate us over other species.

It may well be that moral philosophy is at bottom no more than a post hoc defense for intuitions that arise based on evolutionary experience.  David Brooks seems to view this as a fact, to judge from his NYT column this week.

Perhaps our early human or pre-human experience is the best way of understanding our feelings about our relations with other species.  When survival depended on successful hunting, our ancestors did what they had to do.  Their survival instincts are surely part of our inheritance, and they probably affect our feelings about killing “animals.”

But for most of us, survival no longer requires the premeditated, intentional killing of other species.  Our needs and values are different from those of our ancestors of thousands or millions of years ago.   When we attend closely to our feelings, we can sense some of those differences.  We feel that there is something wrong in pointless killing of other species.  We feel revulsion when any animal is subject to harsh, brutal treatment.  At the same time, we are inspired by our occasional intimate links with the non-human world.  We feel most fulfilled as humans when we have loving, harmonious relations with that world.  We know very well that we truly love our pets.  We should expand the circle of that love.