Thursday, August 23, 2007

Something Vicked this way comes

Jim Henson, drat him, is continuing to insist that his readers think about shit, instead of just reveling in our usual emotional hazes. I'm supposed to be all in favor of this attitude, so I can hardly object.

On the recent Michael Vick uproar, Mr. Henson says this:

So, let me hear it! Arguments based on some set of rights for some set of animals; arguments based on some set of obligations toward some kinds of property; arguments that some kinds of cruelty are wrong but should not be illegal and arguments that some kinds of cruelty should indeed be matters of law; arguments that it’s appropriate for one level of government to legislate against animal cruelty but not another (e.g. state vs. federal). Requirement: explain what’s libertarian about your claims. Prohibition: Explanations of how the animal cruelty question shows how awful or at least pitiable libertarians are. I have my own somewhat gestational ideas, but I’m really interested in other perspectives. Post in comments or in your own blog with a pointer. Feel free to critique others ideas in the spirit of rigor.

So, forced to give it some actual thought, I surprise (and annoy) myself by coming down with this (see his comment threads for original, which is probably too long for anyone over there to finish reading):

I can't make any claims to libertarianism, as every time I come over here and ask for an honest definition of same, I come away empty. I won't say what libertarianism seems to be from my perspective, as however I end up putting it, it comes out disrespectful, which serves no purpose here.

My feelings on the law are, the law should not have anything to do with morality, because morality is almost entirely subjective, and generally comes down to being our own personal definition of behavior that pleases us (which we feel should be mandated for all) and behavior which offends us (which we feel should be forbidden, and punished).

When laws try to either prohibit or require behavior on the basis of some notion of right/pleasing or wrong/offensive, things always end up going badly astray. (As a side note, religion is a fabulous justification for all this, because it allows one to make use of the dialectical tool of God within one's moral discourse. Good behavior is that which pleases God, bad behavior is that which offends God. It makes one's pissy, provincial little certainty that heterosexual monogamy is cool, and faggotry is evil, much more palatable, at least, to those who share one's basic belief systems.)

To my mind, legislation should attempt to define what behavior is actively anti-social, to the point where society itself will prohibit said behavior with various levels of applied sanctions when such behavior is detected and confirmed. (As a sidetrack, I'm not wild about imprisonment for lengthy periods being one of those sanctions, especially under conditions which largely amount to constant degradation and/or torture, as our current prison system seems to. I'd much rather see more minor offenses punished with community service of varying degrees of onerousness, while serious transgressions would be punished with either exile or execution. I used to be all for the Heinleinian notion of public floggings for minor offenses, as seen in STARSHIP TROOPERS and a few of his latter-life novels, but I've come to believe that a society that tolerates the torture of its members for any reason is unconscionable.)

With the above in mind, the question becomes, should gratuitously cruel behavior towards lesser order beings be defined as anti-social to the point where sanctions are prescribed for it by society?

Certainly, Vick's actions are offensive to our sensibilities as moral, civilized, rational people. Yet many moral, civilized, rational people find other things, ranging from tattoos and body piercings up through recreational use of chemicals and non-mainstream sexual behavior, to be offensive. But to offend someone, or a great many someones, meets no particular burden as to being judged anti-social, much less, anti-social to a point where sanctions must be imposed.

This is one of the mistakes that many in mainstream society make near-constantly -- that if something has offended them, it has in so doing also legitimately attacked or harmed them, and not only do they as individuals have a right to respond with an attack that may or will do actual harm, but that society has a positive duty to sanction their violent response (but never the original action that offended them, thus justifying their response) but also to sanction the original offensive action in such a way as to make those it has offended 'whole'.

There is no basis for this in any reasonable civil theory; to be an adult is, in large part, to have reached a level of maturity where we can accept offense without becoming violent, because we expect similar tolerance from others of any behavior of ours that may offend without actually harming them.

Having said all that, we Americans have embraced certain lesser order beings as, effectively, 'junior citizens'. In our society, only dogs and cats universally meet this burden. (Many horse lovers regard horses in this way, but nobody buries a horse in their backyard with a little cross made out of popsicle sticks as a marker, and society as a whole feels no umbrage at horses being turned into dog and cat food. Many kids with pet rabbits would insist that rabbits are people, too, but our society does not share those feelings. We are horrified, as a society, at the thought of dogs and cats being served in Asian restaurants, for example, although in many other parts of the world, including large parts of Asia, dogs and cats have not aspired to the emotional status of honorary human beings, and are therefore regarded as legitimate foodstock.)

If Vick had been enmeshed in a surreptitious cockfighting enterprise, I suspect society's response would have been, at best, indignation and disdain, rather than horror and outrage. And said indignation and disdain would not have been intense enough to finish Vick as a star NFL quarterback. His worth to our society as a skilled professional entertainer respected by millions would have been enough to carry him through. He would have faced minor sanctions, but a public display of contrition and a hefty fine would have ended the matter. He'd still be playing ball this season, and my Bucs would be irretrievably once more condemned to the cellar of their division (and John Gruden would probably be coaching for Miami next season, or some college somewhere).

I, personally, don't want to be part of a society that condones or even tolerates gratuitous cruelty towards any living creature capable of feeling pain and incapable of forming consent to the receipt of said pain. And I do feel that sadism is degrading and spiritually corrosive to all participants, volitional or otherwise, although I will fight to the death to defend my or anyone’s else’s right to voluntarily degrade our spirits if it gets us off – that’s what civil liberties are all about, dammit.

But we will take as granted that those legally defined as adults by society can reach a state of informed consent to pretty much any condition or behavior on an individual basis (while noting my intense objection to the concept that any grouping can vote as a majority to give up all individual civil liberties for that grouping, including the minority who vote against said voluntary suspension of individual freedoms). Accepting this, we are still left with a large group of non-adult society members which cannot consent to be degraded or abused, and which therefore have to be protected from such actions and behaviors. Do we limit that group simply to human children, or should the law extend the lesser rights/privileges of human children to non-human orders like animals?

Obviously, certain entrenched financial interests would not want to see any sort of privileged or entitled status extended to, say, cattle, poultry, or swine. (I’ve already said Vick could have gotten away with cockfighting with far fewer sanctions against him; if he’d trained cows or pigs to battle each other to the death, would he have had similar partial immunity to social blowback?) But nobody makes any money off the slaughter of dogs and cats; in fact, many make a great deal of money out of pampering these ‘junior citizens’. Given that, are legal sanctions that protect these honorary humans objectionable? Probably not; the real hypocrisy most likely lies in the fact that so few are willing to acknowledge that we feel such protections should only be extended to dogs and cats, and that reluctance will keep us from writing our laws to that specific extent... but will also keep our institutions from enforcing said broadly written laws to protect, say, swine being raised in iron incubatory crates.

I don’t know. In the end, Vick’s behavior deeply, deeply offends me, and I suspect it reflects some serious, and potentially dangerous, flaw in the man’s psyche. But I do not believe in criminalizing actions that are not egregiously anti-social, and Vick’s actions in this regard do not seem to do any notable, palpable harm to any human individuals, or to human society as a whole. The question then becomes, should higher order animals be accorded human rights, in part or all? And if we say, as we clearly want to, “well, dogs should, sure!”, then, why just dogs? Or just dogs and cats? Why not cows, pigs, and chickens, too? Why not tuna and cod? Or snakes? Can you imagine any outcry at all if Vick had been training snakes to fight each other, and drowning the losers?

Others have argued that while animals should not be accorded the full range of civil liberties or ‘natural rights’ we accord to ourselves, they should still be accorded a primary, universal right to be left alone, or to not be gratuitously harmed. It’s comforting to think this, and I’m comfortable with it… but, still… does training an animal to kill another animal for the pleasure of human spectators arise to the level of an anti-social act so egregious that the state, or society, should interfere with it and impose sanctions against it? Only if we accept that lesser order living creatures have at least some of the same rights as human beings do. And if we do not accept this, then providing this kind of emotional status to certain animals reduces that status to a privilege, which the owner of those animals need not honor. Clearly our society as a whole does not want to accord any real level of ‘rights’ to lesser order creatures (otherwise, several billion dollar industries will have to shut their doors), and just as clearly, Michael Vick and his fellow dogbaiters do not regard the dogs they purchase for these purposes as ‘junior citizens’ or ‘honorary human beings’. (The scarier alternative is that Michael Vick and his fellow dogbaiters simply don’t care about such things and, if the law would allow it, they would happily purchase and train human children to participate in gladiatorial combats for their own gratification and amusement. But I’m not sure that’s germane to this discussion… although equally, I’m not sure it isn’t. Surely no one wants to live in a world where unwanted toddlers can be bought and raised to kill each other in arenas while depraved audiences root and bet; do we want to be part of a society where people who would do such a thing if they could, but who are forced to settle for using dogs as substitutes, walk freely and without sanction on such activities?)

In the end, I’m left with the profoundly uncomfortable conclusion that the State should damn well let Michael Vick and his fellow sociopaths buy, train, and murder all the animals they want, if that’s what they want to do. I can only console myself that I am equally uncomfortable with the idea of free speech for Illinois Neo-Nazis, too, and I’m sure that’s a civil necessity.

Having said all this, our culture does regard dogs and cats as honorary human beings, and even if there were no actual laws against animal cruelty in our culture (as there probably shouldn’t be, until we are willing to practically extend the rights those laws imply to all animals equally), I would like to think that Vick’s dogbaiting activities, once revealed, would have created such a level of opprobrium against him even among football fans that the Falcons would have been forced to fire him (or pour millions into a campaign to educate people out of their hatred of animal torturers; good luck there, fellas).

In the end, I think I'll stick with this. People, including me, certainly want Vick, and anyone else like him in this regard, to be punished for murdering puppies who won't kill other puppies for their entertainment (or who don't do it well enough). It offends us on a very basic level, and to that extent, I think that makes us better human beings (certainly, better human beings than Vick and his ilk). But I certainly don't want the State to act simply because someone (or even a lot of someones) are offended by something; that road leads to gays being sent to re-education camps, spouses being stoned for adultery, and, ulp, people like me being exposed in stocks for the kind of material we read and/or write (or, ultimately, for the grievous thought crime of reading and writing at all). No, thank you. Vick can do what he wants with his puppies, and I'll continue to do what I want with my brain, and we'll call it even... least, until one of his pit fighting champions gets loose and mauls someone. Then I'll be happy to throw the fucker in jail.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Quod erot demonstratum

Over at High Clearing, a blogger calling himself Thoreau has declared "Enough is fucking ENOUGH". Except he spelled 'fucking' with a 'v' in the middle, I guess because he wants to swear but didn't have a chance to check with his mommy first, or something.

Thoreau is enraged because somebody he is tangentially acquainted with (somebody who works with his wife) is moving to Texas, because her husband has been deployed to Iraq, even though he has resigned from the military. And that sucks, yes, it does.

Thoreau notes that "The people whom we elected to end this mess refuse to take any political risks." Later on, he cogently adds to this: "We should all be screaming from the rooftops “How the hell is this shit still going on?!?!?!?” We do on this blog, and on a lot of other blogs, but the Serious People In High Places do nothing."

And then, just to make sure nobody suggests he actually get up off his fat ass and DO something besides bitch on the Internet, he tosses this in as well:

"It would be tempting to say that we need to take to the streets. Earlier this evening I was ranting about that, and saying things that I know are wrong but feel so good to say when the adrenaline is flowing. But the truth is that the street protests didn’t end the Vietnam War. The Boomers tell us stories about 1968, but they neglect to mention that US forces remained in Vietnam well after 1968. The full set of reasons why we eventually left Vietnam is a story that we can debate some other time, but people in the streets certainly weren’t enough."

Here's my response, from the comment threads:

The Internet is, perhaps, the greatest thing to happen for creeping tyranny since… I don’t know… the first Big Boss thought to hire the first secret informer.

See, it’s just like you say. We scream our heads off, on our blogs. Also, we sign electronic petitions and send around forwards and links to cool videos that reflect our political views and we give a little money here and there. And nothing happens, and then we get on our blogs and we whine about it. And all of this is, apparently, enough for us. The itch is scratched, and it’s all very safe and bloodless and pleasant and comfortable and we don’t even have to get up from our cushie chairs, and when we’re done ‘changing the world’ for the day, well, we can go look at porn, or watch that episode of HEROES we missed, over at It’s very very convenient.

I think we are all aware that you do not effect significant change to the real world from a comfortable desk chair behind a standard PC. And I’m sure the Dick Cheneys of the world find it all very very amusing, the way we bluster and posture and shriek from the comfort of our own centrally heated and air conditioned homes. What’s the lesson furtive tyranny has learned over the past forty years? Don’t draft anyone.

No, seriously. As long as you don’t draft anyone, the vast majority of people will confine their protests to venues that make no impact whatsoever. And, what the hell, as long as you implement economic policies that incrementally but steadily grow the indigent class while steadily eroding any kind of real educational or social opportunity, you’ll always have a steady stream of fodder flowing into the military. You’ll use them up pretty quickly, but what the fuck… nobody wants to WIN wars these days, it’s much more profitable to just continually FIGHT them.

So we bitch and we whine and we pout and we stomp our widdle electronic feet and nothing happens so we bitch and we whine and we stomp our widdle electronic feet about that. But what are we actually willing to get up out of our leather recliners fors? The new Harry Potter book. The new Spider-Man movie. Oooh, the new I-phone!

Yeah. That shit motivates us. We’ll move with a purpose, wallets gaping, for some of that action. But ending the war? Nah. All we’re going to do is blog about that.

Our elected representatives won’t take any chances? Gee, what did you expect? They’re POLITICIANS, dude.

What’s our excuse?

I'm not sure what actually ended the Vietnam war, but I'm pretty sure violent street protests played a significant part. I am VERY sure that the lack of same... that the lack of ANY kind of meaningful leverage being brought to bear by the American public against their completely, complacently out of control government officials... is significantly enabling the continuation of policies that we all seem to find vile and horrifying, yet that we won't do anything meaningful to oppose or disrupt.

I guarantee you, if a few thousand people in every major American metropolis decide to lie down across major traffic arteries during rush hour, you'll see a response. If you don't want to go to that kind of extreme, well, I suggest we all put our hands in our pockets for a week. Let's every single American (hell, let's every single human being on the planet, for that matter) who wants to see this war ended NOW stay home from work for a week. Do yardwork. Play with your kids. Watch TV. (Don't spend money.)

THEN watch the people in positions of power fall all over themselves doing whatever they need to do to get us all back at our desks again.

We do that, just once, and then, all we have to do is THREATEN to do it again if we don't get universal health care.

We won't do it, though. It, y'know, might COST us something.

And that's pretty much how I feel about it. I think we are all sheep, waiting for a leader to a come along and say "Okay, three o'clock next Tuesday, everybody get up on a kitchen chair and jump off. THAT'll show 'em." Or something.

We do still have the economic power to bring our government... any government, and any ruling coalition existing behind and/or above any government... to its knees, though, and they way I've briefly outlined is the way to do it. A national strike would send these fat cats gibbering to their bomb shelters. Or, if you don't want to risk your job, then fine... keep going in to work, but stop spending money. Pay the bills, take care of the necessities... but when Season One of HEROES comes out on DVD, leave the fucker on the shelves. No discretionary spending, AT ALL, until the war is over, the bloodsuckers are all impeached and/or in jail, and we have some goddam universal health care.

It would be hard on us, sure. But it will KILL all the rich assholes who depend on OUR money to keep their yachts afloat. Let DVD, CD, book, concert, and movie ticket sales drop off a few percentage points and these guys will all be calling their elected representatives and fucking DEMANDING that something be done.

But, y'know, we won't even do that, because god forbid we don't run out and get the new Harry Potter book the instant it goes on sale.

And, as a final note, here's yet another comment I've hung in the thread I referenced above:

Okay, I just want to add one more thing:

I was 19 years old when Reagan started running his "It's morning in American" ads. And even at the age of 19, I was instantly aware that this was emotionally moving, semantically meaningless, utterly hollow horseshit. And when Reagan won with this emotionally moving, semantically meaningless, utterly hollow horseshit, I realized what it meant -- the average voter of that time preferred pleasant platitudes that demanded nothing except a momentary finger twitch in the voting booth, to real truths about difficult times and necessary sacrifices.

I have hoped throughout my advancing years that the 'average voter' would at some point grow up. But when Bush first ran in 2000, I instantly smelled the exact same flavor of horseshit that Reagan had been peddling. Most of Bush's 'compassionate conservative' blather was meaningless twaddle. The only substantive promises or policies Bush spoke of were obviously lies; anyone who could do second grade level math could see his crap simply didn't add up. And ANYone with half a functioning brain cell only had to look at Bush's resume, in the private sphere and as governor of Texas, to see someone who was monumentally unqualified for ANY elective office... and beyond that, someone whose actual background and behavior were the exact opposite of the carefully calculated facade his campaign created, and the mainstream press happily perpetuated.

All the commenters here on High Clearing seem to be quite intelligent, and many of you seem to have voted for Bush at least once, and I'm just like... what the fuck, dudes? Does the Pentagon really HAVE subsonic mind control rays? How the christ could you be so goddam stupid?