I recently made the mistake of picking up a book called "Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals and the Call to Mercy." It was written by a former writer for National Review (where I currently hang my hat) who is now a speechwriter for President Bush. Matthew Scully is a devout Catholic, an ardent conservative and a committed vegetarian.
But that's not to suggest it's a bad book. In fact, it's an outstanding literary effort to convince Americans to abandon or, at minimum, rethink their dependence on mass-produced meat.
No, the reason it was a mistake for me to read the book is that I did so while writing a story for National Review about what it was like to become a vegan. My boss thought it would be hilarious for me -a notorious meat-eater -to write an article titled "Soy Vey!" And so, for more than a week, I went without not just beef and chicken but also fish and all kinds of dairy, including anything with eggs, milk and cheese.
Veganism is a hardcore version of vegetarianism. Think of the difference between, say, socialism and Maoism. For example, vegans do not eat honey because honey can only be mass-produced by "enslaving" -to borrow a phrase from one vegan Web site -bees. Indeed, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) insists that honey consumption aids and abets the "rape" (its word) of queen bees. Its Web site insists that queen bees are artificially inseminated on what it calls the "factory farm `rape rack.'"
Now, I'm not exactly ready to "take back the night" for bees quite yet. Indeed, I think equating insects and human rape victims is a bit offensive. But as a general proposition, I do care a great deal about (non-bug) animals. I don't believe in "animal rights," however, because, well, animals don't have any.
Animal rights activists get confused about this. For example, Ingrid Newkirk, the president of PETA, once explained, "When it comes to feelings, a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy. There is no rational basis for saying that a human being has special rights." Rarely have more dumb ideas been squeezed into so few words. "Feelings" are not the source of rights and never have been.
And, even if they were, it's simply not true that rats and pigs have the same feelings as people. Animals have nowhere near the emotional range of humans. Pigs do not feel empathy. Dogs may know joy, but I doubt they're often happy for other people or experience moral outrage. My dog Cosmo is scandalized by many things -lack of tennis balls, for example -but he has no passion about famine or poverty or "Joe Millionaire."
What the PETA crowd doesn't understand, or what it deliberately confuses, is that human compassion toward animals is an obligation of humans, not an entitlement for animals. Perhaps because he's a conservative, perhaps because he actually wants to persuade people, Scully doesn't make the same mistake.
"Animals," he writes, "are more than ever a test of our character, of mankind's capacity for empathy and for decent, honorable conduct and faithful stewardship. We are called to treat them with kindness, not because they have rights or power or some claim to equality, but in a sense because they don't: because they all stand unequal and powerless before us."
Scully offers numerous grizzly accounts of the torment factory-farmed pigs, chickens and cows are put through. And on this score, it is hard to be glib in one's objections to his arguments. Which is why it was a mistake for me to pick up his book while writing a broadside against veganism.
I see it like this. Imagine conventional chickens cost one penny. For two cents -twice the normal price! -you could buy a chicken that had been treated humanely as opposed to a one-cent chicken that had been tortured. Wouldn't you pay the extra penny? I would. In other words, we can -or should -all agree that if the costs are tolerable we should make what sacrifices we can for treating animals humanely.
Scully argues for large sacrifices, including giving up meat altogether. It is here where I think he stumbles. He says those who are unwilling to become vegetarian selfishly refuse to relinquish a mere "pleasure. A flavor. A feeling in their bellies."
This strikes me as a gross underestimation of the central role food plays in our lives and culture -a lesson I learned first-hand while eating "meatless" buffalo wings and soy "Not Dogs." Even Scully concedes that eating only farm-raised, humanely treated animals is an acceptable compromise.
Even where it doesn't persuade, Scully's book succeeds because anybody who reads it will be forced to ponder what sacrifices are worth a bit more compassion for the lesser of God's creatures.