When prose becomes political

HookSizedBig

In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics.’ All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia.—George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”

“Vote,” Kathy commanded as she left the house last week on election day.

I wasn’t inclined to. We’d moved here only six months ago.We’d sold my flock of sheep, tended for a decade, and our farm in Appalachian Ohio. Now we lived on the edge of a metropolis. We enjoyed walking to work and to yoga. But everything was still unsettled. New routines were surely forming, but they were hard to see. I hadn’t gotten my annual flu shot—didn’t know where to go—and we kept forgetting to buy food for our little terrier Jack, who eats practically nothing but whose purple sack of Iams Active Maturity was getting low.

In our bedroom I found a flier on the election from a new city friend who was campaigning against the creation of a state livestock-care board. Vote No, it said. The newspaper we’d just started getting in an effort to understand our new world editorialized that the board amounted to factory farmers supervising factory farmers.

Kathy called the house to check up on me: “Don’t forget to vote.”

“Okay. We’re for the school levy,” I said. “Remember to vote against the livestock board, Issue 2. I don’t know the details but Jean is against it.”

I Googled and too much came up to figure out so late in the game. Issue 2 was something that a few months ago I’d have been certain about.

I opened an email from the editor of my old sheep breed society’s magazine and attached to it was the edited version of an article he’d solicited from me because he was running short of copy. Adapted from my memoir, it was an account of Muslim students butchering lambs on our farm on the day that journalist Daniel Pearl’s murder by Muslim terrorists was revealed. The copy editor had condensed the essay, cutting the braid about Pearl and my fear on that day of being surrounded by young Muslim men wielding knives. But in editing it to fit, she’d preserved the point: I admired the students’ taking responsibility for their meat and for their prayers at the moment they cut my lambs’ throats. This stood in contrast to America’s assembly-line slaughter and to the public’s willful ignorance about the origins of its food.

I approved the edits and walked uptown to the poll. I left many categories blank because I didn’t know the candidates or the issues, then went to a reception where people were talking about the election.

“How did you vote on Issue 2?” I asked.

“I voted against it,” one said. “We buy our milk from Snowville Creamery, and the owner said it would be controlled by the Farm Bureau and they could put him out of business if they wanted, because he doesn’t do things their way.”

I knew the couple who supplied Snowville Creamery with its milk—they were big figures in the grazing community I’d belonged to in southern Ohio. They’d sold me our terrier for our daughter’s birthday twelve years ago. I understood the paranoia about Ohio Farm Bureau, which I’d also felt was inherently hostile to my low-tech pastoral approach.

But I recalled from the finer print on my friend’s flier that the coalition I’d joined against the board included the Humane Society of the United States. HSUS isn’t what everyone calls the “humane society” but a national animal activist group akin to PETA-lite. When I raised sheep I figured both groups were my sworn enemies.

II.

Arriving home, I got a call from the editor of the sheep magazine saying he had to reject my story. “I ran it by [the head of the publications committee] and he said that at [the state university] they’re trained to use the word ‘harvest,’ never ‘kill’ or ‘slaughter’ or ‘butcher’ or ‘slaughterhouse,’ ” he said.

“That’s fine—you asked for it,” I said. “But this proves the need for the essay.”

What my piece clarified, the editor explained, is that they shouldn’t print personal essays but just reports. Of course politics roiled beneath every straightforward item; the sheep group was as riven with factions as a church, with the infighting just as nasty. But he noted the fear that my essay “could fall into the wrong hands”—activists—and be used against farmers.

For admitting that food animals are killed? For advocating that we should restore a spiritual dimension to taking life?

The agribusiness establishment, grown paranoid between extremists and an ignorant society, now employs verbiage as cleverly as its opponents. Well, it tries. I shouldn’t have been surprised by the “harvest” edict: a few years ago, the Farm Bureau, having fled from the beautiful concept agriculture for agribusiness, and stuck with its foes’ epithet “factory farms,” unveiled a new word for its sector to win hearts and minds: “agbioresource.” Rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?

Politics is war, and truth is its first casualty. Another new friend had been disgusted when a hog farmer told Kiwanians here that without Issue 2 to protect farmers from extremists “we’ll all have to become vegans.” Meanwhile, she said, in its pre-election advertisements HSUS cleverly positioned the issue as one of “food safety,” preying on fears of e-coli and antibiotics, a screen for its animal rights agenda.

As euphemisms go, “harvest” isn’t very misleading—such a concentrated philosophical argument and so deeply and obviously political. But we do kill animals as well as harvest them. Our society can’t wash its hands of physical labor and blood and get off the hook for what results: industrial agribusiness. At least the Muslim students took direct responsibility. But Americans seemingly refuse to accept that we live by death. This leads to the sentimentality of the brute; to mistreatment of weaker people, not just animals.

An American counter-culture magazine actually printed my euphemism-free essay in all its bloody glory a few years ago: the Amish-run Farming: People, Land, Community. Their society is driven by communal values and by the desire to preserve community, rather than by the sanctity of any individual’s quest for profits. And its agrarian base has kept it in touch with basic realities. The editor didn’t think twice about printing it or the blunt quote from Ernest Hemingway atop it:

“All true stories end in death.”

III.

I emailed a shepherd friend and asked what she thought of Issue 2, and she sent me this description of the watchdog board from a national shepherds’ association: “The 13-member board will include three family farmers, two veterinarians (one of whom is the state veterinarian), a food safety expert, a representative of a local humane society, two members from statewide farm organizations, the dean of an Ohio agriculture college and two members representing Ohio consumers.”

It sounded pretty good to me, moderate—surely for the status quo, yes, but maybe I’d choose that in defiance of clueless consumers and in preference to extremists. I was beginning to regret my vote against the board.

However, this upset my friend in the report: “Members of Ohio’s agriculture community worried if [disallowing extreme confinement operations] were enacted in the state, it would cause the cost of food to rise for consumers, increase costs for farmers and reduce the availability of locally raised products.”

“Give me a break,” she wrote about such clumsy fear tactics. “I’d be happy to see battery cages, gestation and veal crates abolished, but realize that HSUS wants more than that.”

The irony is that her sheep don’t qualify for activists’ Animal Welfare Certified label because they live too close to nature: they graze outside in solar-fueled sustainable pastures year-round without the required constantly available man-made shelter. Infrastructure is the emblem of industrial agriculture’s mania for control that has led to animal factories, antibiotics to fight barn-cough (pneumonia) and the feeding of petrochemical-produced grain to ruminants.

Yet we’ve removed so many people from the land—more Americans are now incarcerated than are growing our food—that perhaps pressuring and regulating farmers is what we must do. Despite my kneejerk bitterness at society, I know people can sense right from wrong. We regulate employers, why not farmers? It would be better if we outlawed caged layers. Maybe we’re in a slow process of bringing values to another area of commerce. That will run counter to America’s cheap food policy that is another underlying villain here. Maybe we will pay a few cents more for eggs, milk, and meat but we’ll know why.

For now, even the man who knew too much hadn’t known how to vote, so how did I expect other urbanites to figure this one out? I was feeling better about having voted against the board, though. I had bet on evolutionary change by siding with the do-gooders, while hoping the public would control them. Was that logical, political, or just perverse?

The public’s decision came in the morning: Issue 2 had passed. Ohio voters had modified the state’s constitution to install the mainstream livestock board. The only location with a majority vote against it was my old county in the hills of southern Ohio, full of paranoid—or were they wise?—alternative farmers.

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2 Comments

Filed under audience, emotion, evolutionary psychology, honesty, MY LIFE, politics, religion & spirituality, sentimentality

2 responses to “When prose becomes political

  1. theexile

    The editor’s remark that students (journalism? composition?) must use “harvest” as a euphemism for slaughter or kill. Especially given it’s really a stretch because harvest tends to be associated with crops rather than livestock. Not always. But more often than not. Very politically chilling. We really need someone like Orwell around today. As astute as Orwell was, though, he might just throw up his hands in frustration at the spectacle of abuse language suffers today.

  2. Sorry, that wasn’t clear: he is a professor or staff member at a big ag school.