Published December 4, 2014
Some of us have been saying for a while now that animal welfare is a moral issue transcending the usual ideological lines — or at least, that it ought to be. Matthew Scully has written on NRO with singular passion and beauty about just this, here, here, and most recently here. Some of my work on the issue has appeared on NRO too, including here and here, as well as in the pages of First Things.
Other signs of moral interest in animals abound these days in places where PETA wouldn’t dare to stampede. Just the other week, Weekly Standard writer Jonathan Last outed himself as a vegetarian in an NRO interview with Kathryn Lopez about his new book on the deadly virtues. He’s not alone. Conservative circles in Washington and New York include a growing number of like-minded animal softies, ranging from mindful carnivores to all-the-way vegans. As the respectful treatment accorded theologian Charles Camosy’s recent book For Love of Animals goes to show, Catholic/Christian hangouts harbor fellow travelers like that too.
And in one especially vivid incarnation of such new moral seriousness, The New Atlantis, edited by Adam Keiper, recently devoted an issue to “regarding animals,” with pieces by noted conservative writers Noemie Emery and Diana Schaub, headlined by Caitrin Nicol’s magisterial essay, “Do Elephants Have Souls?”
Now enter New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who this week against much popular opposition vetoed a bill banning “gestational crates,” meaning pig pens in which notably sentient animals (ask any farmer) are prevented from moving or turning around for much of their lives.
Christie’s move had little to do with New Jersey, a state with relatively few pigs, but with another state out somewhere in the Midwest — one beginning with an “I” that stands for “caucuses.” For this he is predictably catching flak from the port-ish side of the political spectrum, including a shrewdly sharp rebuke by food writer Mark Bittman in the New York Times.
Like many people, Bittman is neither a vegan nor a vegetarian, but he does want to avoid subsidizing cruelty — meaning that gestation crates, for him, are out of bounds. Interestingly enough, an increasing number of corporations agree. Snarkier words have been hurled Christie’s way in other places, including Salon and the Daily Beast. Cher has just weighed in too. Meanwhile, in today’s New York Times, Nicholas Kristof ponders the ongoing dilemma of the many people who do want to eat meat but who don’t want the animals treated mercilessly along the way.
Whether Christie’s gambit costs him elsewhere on the way to Iowa or not, there’s a sizeable irony lurking in this passing but pregnant spectacle. For while some on the left lash Christie for selling out on animals in order to please conservatives, within American conservatism itself, a growing coalition of newly attentive carnivores, vegetarians, and vegans is steadily acquiring new momentum. In fact, it’s no exaggeration to say that the freshest thinking on animal welfare these days is emanating not from the Left but rather from writers who are Christian or conservative — or both. And where ideas are today, activism of a kind not seen before may be tomorrow.
All this is happening for a reason — the same reason that vegetarian Leo Tolstoy cited a century ago in a report he wrote about a slaughterhouse. The trouble with killing, he observed, was that it deadens the moral sense just when it may be needed most.
And so it is today. The momentum in conservative and traditionalist circles toward a consistent ethic of life is arising not by accident in an age of omnipresent abortion — but on account of it. That’s why the new moral thinking is thriving among those who take abortion seriously. They are people who see in animal cruelty not just an episodic act but a gateway drug to the culture of death itself.
It’s an unexplored story that is only beginning to be written, but the outline is there. The pro-life lions and pro-animal lambs are just beginning to find each other. But plainly there are more of them all the time; and down the road, the result might just be to remake some of politics as many both left and right now know it.