Compassionate conservative

Caroline Fraser is a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books and the author of "God's Perfect Child: Living and Dying in the Christian Science Church."

On this season's "Sopranos," our hero, Tony, finally beats and strangles his outrageous crew boss, Ralph Cifaretto, to death with his bare hands. Since Ralph had long been "disrespecting" his boss -- even murdering a hapless prostitute -- his own fate had been sealed, but the end, when it came, was brought on not by the murder he committed but by an act considered unforgivable in Tony's eyes: Ralph had torched the stables housing the light of Tony's life, a racehorse named Pie-O-My, for the insurance money.

Tony's response to the death of the horse is evocative of the powerful, unreasoning, emotionally contradictory impulses inspired in us by animals. It's reminiscent of the scene in Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment" in which Raskolnikov, just before killing his landlady and her sister with an ax, dreams of witnessing, as a child, a drunk beating an old mare to death, a sight that fills the boy with rage and despair. How can Raskolnikov, who felt such pity for a horse, wake up and murder helpless women? How can Americans -- the same Americans who root for Tony, a psychopathic murderer with a soft spot for horses and ducks -- cheerfully tolerate the considerable suffering of the factory-farmed animals that make up their hamburgers, chicken nuggets and bacon?

Our discomfort with such questions is one of the topics tackled by Matthew Scully's "Dominion." The book, his first, represents a startling career shift. Scully served as special assistant and senior speechwriter to George W. Bush from January 2001 to June 2002, having previously worked on the president's campaign and written for other conservative candidates, including Dan Quayle and Dick Cheney. As Scully wryly notes, few of his fellow conservatives have much patience with animal issues: "Conservatives tend to view the subject with suspicion." Suspicion? Try contempt. In his book "The Way Things Ought to Be," Rush Limbaugh calls one conservationist a "long-haired maggot-infested FM-type environmentalist wacko" and temperately remarks: "If the [spotted] owl can't adapt to the superiority of humans, screw it." Scully seems determined to lift conservative language, at least on animal rights, out of the Limbaugh gutter.

And he is eminently qualified, by virtue of his rhetorical gifts, to do so. In "Dominion," a polemical call to bring the quality of mercy to bear in our dealings with animals, he challenges the "exasperated snobbery" with which conservatives react to any discussion of animal suffering, an attitude that leads, he argues, "to a dogmatism rivaling anything among the animal rights crowd, if not worse in its stern uncharity toward our fellow creatures, its lazy disdain of moral inconveniences mixed with high talk of moral virtue, and its rigid faith in the Prosperity Bible." A conservative Christian himself, he nonetheless attacks the assumption that "there is this one world in which man made in the image of God affirms the inherent goodness of animals.... And then there is this other world, the world of reality in which people and industries are left free to do as they will without moral restraint or condemnation."

In his central chapters, Scully focuses on several offenders, groups and industries that not only cause animal suffering but also, in his view, propagate the arrogant utilitarian view of animal life that justifies any cruelty, a view that seeps into everyday life, immunizing the supermarket shopper confronted with a package of pork or chicken against moral considerations. He questions hunters' principles, visiting the annual convention of Safari Club International, whose members enjoy shooting elephants, rhinos and other big game. He attends the International Whaling Commission Conference, where Norwegians and Japanese defend their right to eat whale meat. ("Most whales are no smarter than cows," says whaler Steinar Bastesen. "They can be very stupid creatures.") Finally, Scully takes on factory farming, driving around North Carolina's sanitized but still stinking landscape of hog farms and "waste lagoons" -- pools of pig urine and feces -- a vista that represents to him "a synergy of two amoral ideas": the decision to abandon "all regard for the well-being of the animals" and "to take the farmer out of farming."

Of course, from the owners' point of view, these sterile barracks where animals live their entire lives unable to move their limbs or breathe clean air are "state-of-the-art." "They love it," says one administrator, a questionable assertion given Scully's harrowing description of immobilized pigs, tails docked, some with tumors, some with legs "crushed and broken," some lying next to their dead companions. It is impossible to remain unmoved by the horrific conditions he describes or unconcerned by the sanitation and health issues such conditions entail. Scully's message for meat-eating readers: "This is how your pork is made. These are your farms, too." His conclusion, that Congress should enact a Humane Farming Act curtailing the worst excesses of industrial farming, seems reasonable but also hopelessly utopian. Despite his feeling that "change is in the air," politicians will force meat producers to give up their big profits when pigs fly. Or when a truly catastrophic outbreak of mad cow, salmonella, listeria or avian influenza, costing many human lives in this country, forces change.

For all Scully's eloquence, "Dominion" remains an evasive and frustrating book, partly because he avoids grappling with the pro-business, pro-growth environment cherished by both political parties. What's more, he fails to place his account in a larger context. The debate on animal rights and factory farming has been raging, at least in this country, since the 1975 publication of Peter Singer's "Animal Liberation." Singer, the Australian philosopher, now at Princeton's Center for Human Values, drives conservatives crazier than almost anybody besides the Clintons, and Scully lets his antipathy for Singer's "hard utilitarian calculus" on the equality of all animals get the better of him. While allowing a grudging "debt of gratitude" to Singer, Scully nonetheless never adequately acknowledges the fact that he himself is a latecomer to an issue that might never have come to public attention -- or his attention -- without Singer's work. He writes as if in a vacuum, never mentioning other important milestones, such as Orville Schell's "Modern Meat: Antibiotics, Hormones, and the Pharmaceutical Farm" (1984) or John Robbins' "Diet for a New America" (1987).

Indeed, Scully has little to say that hasn't been said before; the novelty in his cri de coeur -- and its most drastic shortcomings -- lies in the fact that he is a Christian conservative. For someone who says he admires animals, Scully often adopts the condescension and arrogance he claims to deplore. He writes about "the lowly animals," with "their little joys and travails," in a dated, patronizing and sentimental way, as if unaware of the growing scientific understanding of the complexity of animal behavior, intelligence and even language. As a conservative, Scully is just as apt to make lazy assumptions as his peers, as in this remark: "I have no doubt that President George W. Bush -- a man, in my experience, of extremely kind and generous instincts, and back in Austin even a rescuer of stray animals -- would be appalled by the conditions of a typical American factory farm or packing plant." Oh, really? President Bush's kind and generous instincts must be limited to strays, because his campaign accepted a substantial contribution from Smithfield Foods, a company Scully singles out as "the world's largest producer of the world's most popular meat," which is to say, pork.

Scully's insistence on the goodwill of conservatives is as hard to swallow as his primitive conclusions regarding man's relationship to the animal world. "Someone," he writes, "has to assume dominion, and looking around the earth we seem to be the best candidates, exactly because we humans are infinitely superior in reason and alone capable of knowing justice under a dominion still greater than our own." The best candidates? Infinitely superior? In his zeal to erase the Darwinian era, Scully seems to have lost track of an essential fact: We, too, are animals, moved less by reason than by appetite, less by rationality than by avidity, rapacity and greed.

Ask Tony Soprano. We're buffeted by brute emotional needs, forces we can often barely contain or control, and remain ever more willing to inflict pain on the helpless and the vulnerable. Surely, the sooner we abandon our fantasies of dominion, the sooner we'll be able to respect the rights of other beings. The sooner we come to terms with our own nature, our own bestiality, the better for everyone. And everything.

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