Books April 2004

Nasty, Brutish, and Short

Our author finds Jeffrey Masson's "divertingly amateurish" style likely to broaden the audience for the animal-rights movement in a way that Peter Singer and Matthew Scully never could

Although linked by a subtitle to his innocuous best sellers about dogs and cats, Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson's The Pig Who Sang to the Moon reads suspiciously like a veiled attack on meat-eating—until page three, that is, when the veil comes off. It is a more muddled attack than we have come to expect from the animal-rights movement, but that may be why it works so well. Most of us want to be talked out of enjoying our favorite foods about as much as we want to be talked into studying The Watchtower in our spare time; we're more likely to let people try to convert us if we don't think they've spent years perfecting their harangue. Masson, then, may be just the sort of spokesman the animals have been waiting for. His approach is so divertingly amateurish, his logic so far from airtight, that we see no harm in letting him ramble on for just one more chapter—only to find we've turned the last page, and he has affected us by the simple decency of his example.

Unless the author thinks that quoting Gandhi is the way to cast an awed hush over neighborhood barbecues, he did not write The Pig Who Sang to the Moon for the average American meat eater. The publishers, for their part, must have known that the PETA crowd would be put off by the open-doored fantasy barn on the cover and the absence of grisly photographs inside. No, this book is aimed squarely at the James Herriot-reading fellow travelers of the animal-rights movement: those kindhearted people who are always looking for ways to help, even if it means donating a perfectly good exercise machine to the Humane Society thrift shop; the ones who are so appalled by factory farms that they've pretty much given up meat entirely, especially veal, unless, of course, they're at someone's house; these are the people who assume an air of solidarity with the movement that drives it stark raving mad. If Masson shares his comrades' urge to tell all these ovo-lacto-carno-vegetarians where they can put their Mr. Winkle calendars, he has done an impressive job of restraining himself—as well he should have. For better or worse, they're the closest thing to an audience the animal-rights movement has, and it's about time someone wrote something on this subject that they won't feel too upset to read.

Masson's main point is that animals, far from being dumb and unfeeling, are similar enough to human beings to suffer horribly from the conditions in which they are farmed and slaughtered. The dust jacket calls this "revolutionary" talk, but it's unlikely to elicit much surprise or disagreement even from the meat-eating mainstream. The idea that the animals we eat are mere moving things, though still widespread in Asia (the word for "animal" in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean means "moving thing"), is common in the West only in regard to fish, which we hardly think of as being slaughtered at all, and to the lobsters we boil alive. For the farm animal, on the other hand, we've always had more pity than Masson seems to think; not for nothing do we get choked up when reading Charlotte's Web to our children. But this is a false pity—what the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig defined in another context as "the heart's impatience to rid itself as quickly as possible of the painful emotion aroused by another's misfortune." Its main effect on our lives is to make us lunge for the TV remote (ill-temperedly, as if a trust had been broken) whenever a camera so much as points at a slaughterhouse across a cornfield. We don't support gratuitous cruelty—we're not monsters, for God's sake—but neither do we lose any sleep wondering what happens to farm animals when we're not looking. Still less do we care what goes on in their hearts and minds. Research could prove that cows love Jesus, and the line at the McDonald's drive-through wouldn't be one sagging carload shorter the next day. The ethological thrust of Masson's book is therefore no more likely to change our behavior than the other arguments he tosses in for good measure—philosophical and moral arguments that the animal-rights movement has spent decades preaching to a world that can barely be bothered to look up from its plate. As the heroine of J. M. Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello (2003) concludes in one of her lectures, our hearts are closed to animals; we have the capacity to imagine their suffering, "but choose not to exercise it."

This is precisely what makes Masson's style so important, a style that contrasts strongly with that of most well-known books on this theme. In Animal Liberation (1975), the bible of the movement, Peter Singer seems at pains to present himself as prickly and aloof, a man who has never felt the need for a pet, and he obviously wants non-vegetarian readers to see themselves reflected in a pair of cat-loving dimwits who once asked him over for ham sandwiches. A similar inability to relate to any but the already indignant marks Matthew Scully's Dominion (2002), an otherwise brilliant book that was reviewed in these pages. The cover shows a trussed ram, the inside jacket promises a "painful" read complete with a visit to a "hellish" farm, and the introduction starts like this:

It began with one pig at a British slaughterhouse. Somewhere along the production line it was observed that the animal had blisters in his mouth and was salivating. The worst suspicions were confirmed, and within days borders had been sealed and a course of action determined. Soon all of England and the world watched as hundreds, and then hundreds of thousands, of pigs, cows, and sheep and their newborn lambs were taken outdoors, shot, thrown into burning pyres, and bulldozed into muddy graves. Reporters described terrified cattle being chased by sharpshooters, clambering over one another to escape. Some were still stirring and blinking a day after being shot.

I don't know about England, but America certainly didn't watch that, and wouldn't have watched it for anything. Nor is it interested in reading a book that starts out like that. The reason a hurried "Oh, I hardly eat meat either" has become such a popular response to another's declaration of vegetarianism is usually not that we mean it, but that we now know enough about factory farming to want to stop Scully types from telling us any more. It's a cold-blooded squeamishness all right, like that of the German villagers who scowled into their handkerchiefs rather than behold the corpses in liberated death camps, but it does no good for activists to rage against it. This is a free country (for human beings), and the American meat eater doesn't need to consider anything he doesn't want to. Try forcing him, and he will only conclude, again like those German villagers, that the whole exercise has more to do with punishment than persuasion.

Presented by

B. R. Myers is the author of A Reader's Manifesto: An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose (2002), a portion of which first appeared in the July/August 2001 Atlantic.

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