Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Remaining Nameless

As Doug Saunders ("Lone Wolf" - The Globe and Mail, Oct. 25) and various others have pointed out, sensational acts of violence such as the killing of a soldier in Ottawa last week are often in large part motivated by a hope on the part of a mentally deranged person that the violent act will make him (it is almost always a him) famous. And we play right along: from the assassinations of a long line of politicians, to the 1989 École Polytechnique massacre, to the Columbine High School killings, to the Utøya island mass murder in Norway in 2011, and through to the events in Ottawa last week, we keep splashing the names and photos of the killers across our front pages and our television screens. Why can we not simply say, “The killer, whose name cannot be revealed, was a 32-year old Caucasian, an Ottawa native with a history of instability and drug abuse, who had converted to Islam.” No name, no photo, and no chance of becoming famous through committing deranged acts of violence.

Our laws already recognize one important circumstance (youthful offenders) that we regard as providing sufficient justification to trump freedom-of-speech principles when it comes to revealing names. It’s time to add another.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Screening out the World

I began to spend a fair bit of time in the air when I entered book publishing in 1975. I was in my early twenties, and things were different then. On a flight of more than three hours there would always be a complimentary hot meal served—and there would always be at least a few people cheering as the plane landed. But the most striking difference? People looked out the window. A lot of people were wowed by the wonder that is the world from 35,000 feet up in the air.

I’m starting off on a business trip to New York as I write this; I’m writing from the rear cabin of a Boeing 777 traveling from Vancouver to Toronto. We’ve been taking the southern path for this route—across the northern States. For the past three hours I have been alternately reading and looking out (and up and down and ahead and back) at the mountains of Montana; at meandering little rivers and their ox-bows; at tiny endless squares of green and yellow and brown, of all the greens and yellows and browns that are in the fields of America; at the gentle, sweeping curves of the Red River as it rolls north toward the Canadian border; at the rounded shores of Red Lake; at light skittering off the silver of the thousands upon thousands of ragged lakes in the north of Minnesota. From ground level such wilderness lakes are a beauty without pattern, a jumble. It is only from the air that we can see the patterns and the beauty of their geology, their shared history in the earth’s crust.

In this particular cabin of this particular plane there are almost 200 people—20 rows, each nine across, almost all the seats full. If all the shades were up, perhaps 80 of those people could see something of this beauty—those in the window seats, plus those one seat in. Everyone could at least share in the sunlight of a lovely afternoon. But of the 40 windows, mine is the only one with the shade not lowered right down. There are screens on the backs of the seats. In the darkness that the passengers have imposed on themselves, almost all the screens are being watched.

When I was young, window seats were the most desired. Now, the aisle seats are much preferred. Oh, I know, it’s more convenient if you want to get up and go to the bathroom. And make no mistake, I like going to the bathroom as much as the next person. But complete convenience in going to the bathroom at any moment, like complete convenience in watching television screens and computer screens at any moment, is with us every day on earth. Even for relatively frequent flyers like me, it’s not every day we get to see the world in sunlight from 35,000 feet up. It’s still something magical; it will always be something magical, even if most of us decide we want to screen the magic out.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Causing Pain to Non-Human Animals: A North American Brand

Earlier today I came across the following, which I had submitted a couple of years ago to The Globe and Mail in response to an article by Fred Stenson, but which had never been published. It struck me that it would do no harm to post it here on the blog.
“We owe it to animals to treat them well,” says Fred Stenson in his article “In Defence of Branding Cattle: Alberta Ranchers on a Burning Tradition” (The Globe and Mail, June 23, 2012). But apparently what we owe to non-human animals is easily trumped by our own self-interest.

Stenson is under no illusions as to the pain that branding causes. “The smoke rises, the calf bellows. If the hair catches fire, someone brushes it with a gloved hand. The calf wobbles away, shaking its head and sorrowful.” Indeed, Stenson sees it as a virtue that ranchers do “this harsh work themselves: feel themselves inflict the pain. It is less hypocritical,” that way, Stenson argues, than it would be if ranchers were to have someone else inflict the pain on their behalf. No doubt it is. But does the pain really need to be inflicted at all?

The current American Veterinary Medical Association policy on livestock identification recommends that "a high priority be placed on using alternatives to hot-iron branding." And, as Stenson reports, there are indeed alternatives to branding with a hot iron: a method of freezing the brand on, and ear tag ID markers (which since 2005 have been mandatory in Canada). Not all studies agree that freeze branding is significantly less painful than hot-iron branding, but ear-tagging and micro-chipping are universally agreed to be far less painful.

Why are these not sufficient? Because the traditional hot-iron brand is easier for the rancher to read at long range. “We still need a brand for a quick ID,” Stenson quotes rancher Dave Lowe as saying. Otherwise, ranchers “would have to catch” a calf that strayed onto a neighbor’s property in order to be sure of the identification. Stenson accepts that as sufficient reason to continue the practice of branding all calves with a hot iron:
If the purpose of cattle branding were only about tradition and not practical at all, I would have to be against it. But that time is not here yet. In the meantime, I shall continue to respect it as necessary work.
Necessary? That an act of considerable cruelty saves us from some slight inconvenience does not make it necessary. It would certainly be more convenient for me to be able to identify my cat Frankie at long range if he were branded; Frankie not infrequently strays onto the neighbor’s property, and there are at least two other neighborhood cats who look very like Frankie at long range. It can be a real inconvenience for me to take the time to be sure it is Frankie in the neighbor’s yard. But that’s no evidence for the necessity of burning Frankie with a branding iron—any more than a slight inconvenience to ranchers justifies the pain they inflict on calves.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Shipping Guilt Overseas

I'm currently traveling on business in California. Over dinner tonight I was reading an extraordinarily moving book edited by Ann Argersinger--The Triangle Fire: A Brief History With Documents. I had known the basic facts about this horrific episode in our history for many years, but the first-hand accounts leave you with tears in your eyes, even a century and more on.

Why does this matter today? Above all, it matters because the sorts of sweatshop oppression that were the norm on Washington Place in New York a century ago are still the norm in today's world. The Triangle tragedy may be more than a century ago; the sweatshop tragedy in Bangladesh is little over a year ago. That was only the highest profile of many, many appalling sweatshop tragedies in recent years--and, sadly, it does not seem that conditions have improved much in the eighteen months that have passed since over a thousand workers lost their lives at Rana Plaza. Seven of the companies that sourced products from the Rana Plaza sweatshops have made at least some contribution to the compensation fund; the others (more than twenty of them) have given nothing. And so it goes. With our tacit approval, an industry that relies overwhelmingly on near-slave labor forges forward.

We are used to the rhetoric of it being a bad thing to "ship jobs overseas." But even worse is when we ship our guilt overseas. Just as we allow ourselves to not think of how non-human animals are treated if they are hidden away in feedlots or dairy barns, we allow ourselves to not think of sweatshop oppression if it's in Bangladesh rather than Brooklyn. We are happy to reap the benefits; we're fine with the low, low prices of milk and eggs and shirts and jeans. But we would prefer not to think of what is done in order to make these things cheap--we would prefer to outsource the guilt.

What can be done? Press our own governments to act, yes. And speak up any way we can. But also press ourselves to think of these things--and not to reflexively buy the cheapest, or to buy any clothing without asking where it came from.

I am having to work to do this myself; it does take work to break the buying habits of a lifetime. But it can be done--just as we can give up factory farmed animal products, and keep going until we are vegan. If we push ourselves, we truly can make the world better--for the workers in sweatshops overseas, for non-human animals, for all of us.