Friday, December 31, 2010

Dog botherers

Quoth Tucker Carlson on Tuesday:
"I’m Christian. I’ve made mistakes. I believe fervently in second chances. Michael Vick killed dogs in a heartless and cruel way. I think, personally, he should have been executed for that. The idea the president of the United States would be getting behind someone who murdered dogs is beyond the pale."
So far, the most common reaction I've seen from people to this comment is that Carlson must be joking-- as heinous as Vick's acts were, we don't usually execute people for killing people, let alone dogs.  Maybe some of us would prefer that the death penalty be applied more often, but no one would seriously suggest that it be applied for the killing of animals, however heartlessly and cruelly it is done.  Would they? NBC's Al Roker tweeted yesterday that 'Tucker Carlson's bowtie has finally cut off oxygen to his brain. Only explanation for odious Michael Vick comment. Or maybe he's an idiot."  Others are wondering whether Carlson's comments are truly Christian at all, and even suggesting that he is a racist.  At Black Voices, Dr. Boyce Watkins remarks
First of all, I think that most decent Christians would not believe that Tucker Carlson is a Christian. But then again, most of the original members of the KKK also considered themselves to be Christians, so perhaps Carlson's delusional behavior actually makes sense. I'd be curious to see if Carlson believes that the hundreds of thousands of deer hunters and members of the National Rifle Association should also be executed for killing animals themselves. After all, killing an animal is the same no matter what, right?

Secondly, Carlson's insinuation that the life of this black man is worth less than that of a dog is a telling reminder of how the Right Wing is nothing more than a modern-day manifestation of those who've profited from slavery and the execution of black men for the past 400 years (they continue to profit from slavery within the prison system - the only place where the United States Constitution allows slavery to take place). If this were 1840, Tucker Carlson would surely be part of the lynch mob that would have dragged Michael Vick out of jail in the middle of the night and murdered him in front of his family. So, as much as 'Tucker the Christian' might want to deny this, he is a direct descendant of those who've been responsible for the Black American Holocaust that we have yet to fully understand in our country.
Wow. Was Carlson really saying that the life of a black man is worth less than that of a dog?  There's really no way to tell unless he elaborates further.  It's possible that Michael Vick's race is relevant, and also possible that it isn't.  It could be that Carlson would have said the same thing had Vick been white, and my suspicion is that he would have.  My guess is actually that Carlson wouldn't have said anything on the subject at all, had President Obama not called Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie to praise the team for giving Vick another chance.  Call me a cynic, but I think what this was really about was Carlson seeing an opportunity to criticize the president for being soft on crime.  Just as the ACLU routinely comes under fire for protecting the rights of people who say the most heinous things and perform the most disgusting acts, Carlson saw the chance to claim that the president was "getting behind someone who murdered dogs" because Obama felt that Vick had paid his debt to society after serving nineteen months in prison and should be given another shot.  Whether you agree with the president on that or not, it's dishonest to interpret such a position as an endorsement of the acts which caused Vick to be arrested and imprisoned in the first place. 

And what to make of Carlson prefacing his remarks by mentioning his Christianity?  It seems a little odd to start out by noting that you're a Christian and you believe in second chances, and then finish by effectively saying "...but not for this guy."  Execution is, for all intents and purposes, the elimination of any second chance.  Not only does Carlson apparently disapprove of the president's policy of forgiveness, but he has come down firmly against making any effort to turn the other cheek.  It's not hard to see why that would lead Watkins to conclude that "most decent Christians" would not count Carlson among their ranks.  I wouldn't say that the Bible articulates a coherent theory of animal rights, but the fact that it includes stories of Jesus giving people fish to eat and casting demons into pigs who were then driven off a cliff leads me to at least conclude that he didn't regard animals as equal to humans. 

Nevertheless, stories of animals being mistreated-- dogs in particular-- do spark a particular kind of furor in people.  People who own dogs commonly regard them as members of the family, but definitely as more analogous to children than adults.   A dog-owner himself, journalist Radley Balko pays particular attention to cases of "puppycide" when describing incidents of police malfeasance, such as when a video of a Missouri drug raid, in which a family's pit bull and corgi were killed and injured respectively, went viral.  We have a long, complex history of interaction with canines, and it's not at all unusual for people to react passionately at the thought of them being killed, much less tortured and killed gratuitously.  That explains why so many were angry at Michael Vick when it was first discovered that he was involved in dog-fighting, but not why such cases occasionally draw more attention than those involving crimes against humans.

The answer, I think, lies in our conceptions of moral responsibility.  We grant to dogs the capacity to be loyal, loving, dedicated, and even angry, jealous, and spiteful, but not evil.  When we find it necessary to put a dog to death, it is for the pragmatic reason of preventing it from attacking anyone again, or the compassionate motive to ease the suffering it experiences from injury or illness.  Not because it "deserves to die."  Humans, on the other hand, can deserve to die.  They aren't innocents.  I think that's why stories of humans killing other humans don't seem to provoke quite the same kind of outrage that we see when humans kill animals.  Not any animal, of course-- as Watkins alludes, our compassion for animals is by no means consistent.  If dogs are regarded as half-people, pigs (for example) aren't regarded as people at all.  Or maybe it would be better to say that they just aren't regarded.  I don't want to get too far off-topic by elaborating on why I think that is, but suffice to say that the gentle, panting, tail-wagging creatures we share our lives with tend to have a special place in our moral estimation.  When humans are killed it is generally by other humans, which makes obvious the fact that humans are capable of being both victims and perpetrators, and often the two categories aren't necessarily so clear.  With dogs it's always innocent victims, and harm to innocents is what makes tragedy so tragic. 

Again, I think Carlson's comments were primarily a façade. I don't think he is an idiot, rather that he went overboard in trying to make the president look bad.  But had he tempered his rhetoric a bit, he would have tapped into a common thread among average Americans, people who don't see dog-killing as equivalent to person-killing but as a heinous act nevertheless, and find no conflict in their faith or moral reasoning in sharing Carlson's opposition to Obama's statements on the matter.  Me, I side with the president on this one.  But I can understand why others do not.

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