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Getting Used to Things

The things we grow used to.  This piece in the New York Times this morning, on the difficulty of agreeing about how to remember the days when Montgomery, Alabama, was a center of the slave trade illustrates how “Southern history is a custody battle still in litigation,” and it reminded me of an interview with Shelby Foote, which I bumped into a few days ago while looking for something else.

Foote, a native of the Mississippi Delta, spoke mostly of William Faulkner (to whom, as a young man, he had boldly introduced himself while his best friend, Walker Percy, shyly cowered in a car parked in Faulkner’s driveway) but he included some searing, honest and fascinating comments about racism and the culture in which he grew up. Acknowledging the evil of it, he nevertheless remembers how that culture could regard a black person (though he doesn’t use that term) as “somewhere between an animal and a human being,” and admits that “I lived in a society that was filled with horrors…they were not horrors at the time.”

I can’t help but wonder if there will come a time when many of us will be speaking of the commonplace, unremarkable horrors of our own time and country, among them, the aborting of nearly a million unborn children annually and our evident nonchalance about it. 

We can get used to anything, it seems.

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Crystal, I have farming relatives with small old fashioned farms, and my model for farming involves a harmonious cycle of raising, taking care of, feeding, killing, and eating animals. I am repulsed by the living conditions of animals in modern farm factories, and am all in favor of making meat more expensive even if it means eating less of it, but I think it's a big leap to go from there to becoming a vegetarian.

But in spite of our problems in our relationship to animals, humans come first. When I see that more people give money to a beggar when he holds animals on his lap, that they are more sensitive to the plight of animals than of people, it seems to me that such compassion is misplaced. That is where I part ways with the many vegetarians who want equal rights for people and for animals. Humans have priority.

As to the vegetarians who exclaim "That's horrible!" when I squish a fruit fly, I find it hard to not make fun of them. My compassion does not extend to fruit flies. I may have some grudging respect for those for whom fly compassion is an extension of their love of all creation, but I disagree strongly with those who turn to animals because they don't like people.

But that is not related to the topic of this post. A microscopic bean-like embryo, even though it does not arouse compassion (except by fantasizing about some pretty baby that it represents in some imaginative people's minds), is still the start of what will  become a human person, and I think that makes it more important than even the cutest kitten. 

Claire,

Thanks for explaining how you feel.  I've spent my life with pets and have loved them.  I don't see any compelling reasons to priviledge people over other animals as far as kindness goes, since studies seem to increasingly show that people and animals are much the same in a number of ways.  Since animals do think and feel, fear and suffer, I empathize with them and I'm not comfortable  killing them for food or just because I can. And since they are so outmatched by us in power, I feel obliged to help them if I can.

 

Crystal - I admit I've made lots of fun of vegetarians in the past.  I've grown to respect the choice to be vegetarian.  I don't think I could do it myself, but the moral issues make me uncomfortable.  So maybe that's progress.  People who are sanctimonious about being vegetarian rub me the wrong way, but that's a function of sanctimony, not vegetarianism.  I strongly oppose smoking, too, and have lost family members to lung cancer because of smoking, but people who are sanctimonious about not smoking rile me, too (the non-smoking sanctimonious ass perhaps was more common 20 or 30 years ago than now).  If I come across as a sanctimonious anti-abortion ass, I really do apologize to one and all, and would welcome any suggestions, short of compromising the underlying principle, that would fix it.

Gerelyn - I like both Merlot and Pinot Noir, but I have an insensitive palate, and wine snobs rank second only to Mac snobs on my list of Bores To Ignore At Any Party Or Gathering.

While I don't discuss abortion with Catholics, I always learn something from these discussions and appreciate the comments here.

Couple of tangential points:

I think Jim Pauwels is a right-winger, but does that in any way preclude him from being a friend to all here and a person of sense?

Temple Grandin has tried to make the meat industry more humane. I don't think you have to be a vegetarian to support better treatment for livestock. Turns out that animals that are raised and slaughtered more humanely tend to be better for you. This is a very complicated issue with a lot of facets, but I was happy to hear about new FDA regulation of antibiotics. Anyone who wants to take a small step personally could refrain from eating turkeys, most of which are now bred to have so much breast meat that they cannot walk and are usually bred in intensive livestock operations. Send a letter to meat companies at Thanksgiving telling them you've changed your menu and why. They might eventually get the message. Veal is also often raised in pretty terrible conditions, and a good one to avoid.

 

Jim,   my mother died of lung cancer and I know I can be sanctimonious about smoking.  It's hard sometimes to share insights or beliefs without going there, I guess.

Crystal - FWIW, you never come across to me as sanctimonious about anything.  

you never come across to me as sanctimonious about anything

I second that.

Thanks, you guys  :)

Ann, I have vegetarian tendencies myself and probably would be at least 90% vegetarian if I weren't married to someone for whom a meal without meat isn't a meal.  I like the food, and I very much dislike the inhumane farming practices of agribusiness.  I think the PETA people are extremists though and don't wish to support them.  

On a practical level, I simply try to buy from humane sources. I try to buy Fair Trade items, especially coffee and chocolate when I can. I buy as much organic as I can afford - not only to reduce the pesticide load on my family but also because farmworkers face these pesticides in huge amounts every day, and these poisons also make their way into the water table.  I am not 100% organic, but I do what I can.  I am more adamant about buying free range chicken, eggs and meat - free range, and without antiobiotics or hormones. I also buy milk and other dairy items that are free of the rBST hormones given to so much of the dairy herd.  My friends and family think I'm nuts because I do pay a lot more for food than they do.  Our food is very cheap in this country - but others pay the price, including animals.  

Anne C --

ISTM that it's utterly inconsistent to call someone who tortures a dog or a cat depraved yet at the same time to let the cruelly indifferent growers of cattle go unregulated.  And it's even worse, of course, to refuse to think of what abortion is in its terrible particularity (see Dr. Gosmell!).  I'm hoping that eventually Pop Francis will speak out about tthis.  A consistent ethic of life must extend to *all* animals.

I don't usually take the trouble to shop at Whole Foods, but  you're right -- I should try to get there even if it costs more, or at least be on the look outfor fairly grown food.  And, yes, we need to think of those who farm the farms which are marinated in pesticides, and also us who eat such foods.

I read a heart-rending story once by a journalist who was doing a story on the chocolate farms of Africa.  He spoke with a woman who for years had worked harvesting the chocolate.  Her wages were so low that she had never been able to buy a piece of chocolate -- she had no idea of what it tasted like!  Enjoy your Christmas bon-bons, folks.  (At least don't domplain at the price of chocolate  these days!)

It also seems to me that our indifference to the farm animals and sometimes to those who work the farms is part of our ethic of indifference-to-life.  (By the way, there was another school shooting today in Colorado.)  American tolerance of violence is the result of such indifference.  And since we tolerate the violence, we must also suffer it or the threat of it.

Ann, I find that the issue of how we raise our food and the impact on farm workers, the environment, and on the animals is simply not on most people's radar.  We buy everything very sanitarily, all cleaned and neatly packaged. We don't see the growing conditions. We don't see slaughterhouses, or chicken coops where the chickens are so close together they can't spread their wings.

I now live on the east coast, but grew up in California, and I visit there frequently. One of my children lives in southern California and two near San Francisco (all three grew up in the east, went to college in California and decided to stay there), so I frequently drive through the heart of California's main agricultural valleys on my visits.  About 1/3 of produce in California is now grown using organic farming methods, and since California is the largest supplier of produce in the US, that is very good.  The farmworkers still work under backbreaking (literally) conditions. I see them stooped over  the fields, picking strawberries and  vegetables and other produce, in the hot sun, for many hours at a time. But at least those who work on organic farms aren't taking in huge amounts of pesticides and other chemicals.  As the market for organic has grown, the costs have also gone down, at least some.  And as more farmers adopt organic growing methods,  less damage is done to the farm workers and the environment.  

I am lucky enough to live in an area where it is possible to find organic and humanely raised animal products in places other than (the expensive) Whole Foods market, although I love just to wander around that store!. We have a couple of small organic markets, but I often shop at Trader Joe's. Their selection is limited, but their organic fresh, canned (diced tomatoes, for example), and frozen produce are very affordable - less for organic produce in all three of those forms there than I do at the mainstream grocery stores for non-organic. Catholic Relief Services has links to Fair Trade sources where people can buy coffee and chocolate if there are no Fair Trade products in their normal grocery stores. Most of the stores in my city now carry at least one brand of Fair Trade coffee and chocolate and Starbucks also has some Fair Trade coffee.  Another source for Fair Trade chocolate and coffee but also for a wide selection of gift type items is Ten Thousand Villages. They have a lovely shop near my home, but also sell mail order. The prices are very reasonable. http://www.tenthousandvillages.com/

The abortion issue is, for me, a very difficult issue.  I am "pro-life", but I also understand why many don't agree that a single-celled zygote is a human being, but a potential human being, nor do they think a blastocyst is a human being..  Scientists believe that somewhere between 50% and 75% of blastocysts never implant.  

I think that the bishops have made it harder for convincing and reasonable discussion about abortion to take place because they conflate birth control with abortion. They are not the same thing and it makes the Catholic church sound somewhat hysterical on the issue. Of course HV itself did that within the church - it was a disastrous decision to ignore the Birth Control Commission's recommendations, because the "magisterium" lost pretty much all credibility on sexual teachings after that. The vast majority of Catholics believe that the choice of birth control method belongs rightly to the couple who can choose which method best supports the marital union and they don't believe that taking the pill or using an IUD aborts "human beings".  

We know that both Aquinas and Augustine believed that abortion was not a "mortal" sin until after a certain stage of development - I believe it was 40 days for male fetuses and 50 for female (there they go again with their misogny showing).  That pretty much conforms to the stage of fetal development when all fundamental systems are in place, including the heart, brain and nervous system.  

The question about when a true human being exists will probably never be answered. What IS a human being?  What makes us human besides a particular arrangement of cells?  Aquinas looked to "ensoulment" as the answer - but nobody really knows. When does the soul enter the body? When in our development are we "human beings" instead of a collection of cells invisibe to the eye?  The Church has changed its mind on this more than once. Perhaps it will again someday.

Most Americans support abortion rights, but polls show increasing support for limiting it to the first trimester except under exceptional circumstances (saving the life of the mother, for example). Insisting that contraception and abortion are equivalent leads most people to simply ignore the arguments against abortion. Insisting that a zygote or blastocyst is a "human being" with equivalent rights to "born" human beings turns people off from listening at all.  Most people are at least somewhat uncomfortable with abortion on demand, but the bishops  and extremists within the pro-life movement make most people simply turn away from deeply examining the whole issue.  I do not believe that any one religion has the "right" to impose its beliefs on all. So, as far as abortion goes, the bishops and pro-life movement should reconsider how they are fighting this issue. Education on the stages of embryonic and fetal development goes a lot farther to convince people of the immorality of abortion (at least after a certain stage of development) than does the hysterical approach they take now that equates birth control and abortion as being equivalent.

 

Anne, the abortion issue is also difficult for me. I am "pro-choice", but with many misgivings and reservations. Actually, the discussion on that seems to have moved to https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/blog/peter-steinfels-responds-george-mckenna

(It's annoying that a new page is created as soon as the number of comments exceeds 50. It makes the  comments above 50 much less accessible...)

 

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