The NYT Editorial Board Sneers at Animal Rights

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

Earlier this month, Professor Dorf posted an analysis of a lawsuit in which a lawyer brought a habeas corpus action in New York on behalf of Tommy, a captive chimpanzee.  The courts had rejected the plaintiff's claim, both in the trial court and on appeal.  Although Professor Dorf is certainly sympathetic to Tommy's situation, his bottom line was that the attempt to vindicate animal rights through innovative use of the courts is a doomed strategy, because judges almost universally share the same attitudes as the public at large regarding human exceptionalism.  Here is the final paragraph of Mike's post:
"Some day, lawsuits on behalf of animals may be a sensible way to advance the cause of animal rights. But so long as the vast majority of people--including the vast majority of judges--reinforce their own psychological investment in the normality of exploiting and killing animals every time they sit down to a meal or put on their shoes, a better strategy will be to focus on changing individual hearts and minds."
As if to prove Professor Dorf's point, at nearly the same moment that he was writing his post, the editors of The New York Times wrote "Horse Nonsense From City Hall," in which they mocked Mayor DeBlasio's proposal to ban Central Park carriage horses by mid-2016.  The editorial is so nonsensical, so lacking in anything other than scattershot assertions and innuendos, that it can only have come from the minds of people whose hearts and minds are certainly not where they would need to be to make real progress.

To be clear, I understand that the carriage horse problem is a very small part of the massive tragedy faced by nonhuman animals every day.  If one were looking for the worst offenders, carriage horse owners (and riders) would hardly top the list, and even "sport hunting" is quantitatively minor.  Even so, one takes one's victories where they can be found, and sometimes solving 100% of a small problem is better than throwing stones at the edifice of an enormous problem.  Work must proceed on all fronts where progress is possible, long term as well as short term, but it is simply not true that solving small problems is per se pointless or wasteful.

The closest the Times's editors come to an argument on the merits is their description of carriage horses as "a well-loved, well-regulated, law-abiding part of the tourist economy."  But of course, that is merely an example of Professor Dorf's point, which is that one can "love, regulate, and pass laws" in ways that simply reflect the degraded states of people's hearts and minds.  I have heard beef producers profess to love cows, and some of those producers even follow safety regulations and animal welfare laws, but that does not mean that they are not torturing and murdering untold numbers of sentient beings.  It only means that they are doing so in the way that the society as a whole finds acceptable.  (Of course, many -- perhaps most -- factory farms violate even those minimal laws and regulations, and then they persuade legislatures to make enforcement a joke.)  When the big fight in "animal welfare" is over whether it is acceptable to have pigs living in crates that prevent them from turning around, then calling an industry well-regulated and law-abiding proves nothing.

Beyond that, the editorial relies on two strategies to change the subject from animal cruelty: (1) This is all crass politics, and (2) Why rush into this when there are so many unanswered questions?  (It is actually difficult to figure out what the editorialists' main points are, because they lurch back and forth among their ill-formed arguments throughout a very short piece.)

On the first point, the editorial board calls on the Mayor to "move on from the foolish campaign promise to shut down the industry, made last year to a small, loud and financially generous group of horse-rights advocates."  Yes, it is just a bunch of rich malcontents who care about horses, right?  Or maybe it is all about political corruption, as the editors wonder what will happen to the "coveted property on the West Side of Manhattan" where the horses are currently stabled, and then note parenthetically: "Not for nothing do people wonder why the force behind NYClass, the group pushing the anticarriage crusade, is a real estate developer, Stephen Nislick."  Yes, the land will probably be put to other uses.  Would the Times be happier if the mayor promised that he would never let that land be used again?  (The editors also ask how the horses will escape slaughter, without noting that rescue groups are already arranging adoptions).

And if it is not direct corruption, then maybe it is all political back-scratching: "And does this have anything to do with the $1 million ad campaign financed in part by NYClass to eliminate Mr. de Blasio’s main rival in the primary, then-Council Speaker (and carriage defender) Christine Quinn?"  This, however, merely returns us to the classic question in politics: Do people support a candidate because he shares their views, or does a candidate share their views in order to get people to support him?  Either way, however, why should we care?  None of this was secret during the campaign, and the new mayor is trying to do one of the things that was debated extensively before he was elected.

At this point, the arguments become utterly incoherent, alternating between invocations of false populism and trying to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.  On the former point, the editors ask, "Why eliminate an entire class of Teamsters union jobs?" later followed by a complaint that the mayor is not really "a defender of unions and small businesses, and whose job it is to promote the city as a place for tourists."  I cannot help but recall the classic Saturday Night Live fake ad for the fictional Acme Puppy-Grinding Company, the tagline of which was: "Puppy grinding.  Sure, it's disgusting, but think of the jobs!"

On the latter point, as part of their claim that they mayor has adopted a "selective animal-rights pose," the editorial board asks: "Why are no advocates talking about getting rid of Police Department horses, which have tougher jobs than carriage horses?"  Why indeed?  And if the mayor were to propose eliminating the NYPD horse brigade, would the Times not complain that he was trying to get rid of a well-loved tradition, that the horses would just end up being slaughtered anyway, and on and on?

As much fun as it is to critique the nonsensical and disorganized jumble of assertions in the Times's editorial, the more important question is where the heck it all came from.  The Times's editorial board is not usually like this, making arguments of a sort that they would normally ridicule if anyone else tried to apply them to other policy issues.  But here, they just say, in essence: "What's the big deal?  People like to see horses prancing through the City.  Nobody's hurt.  And the horses get to wear pretty plumes and are fed regularly."

There are many days when I feel that hearts and minds are changing for the better, and then there are days like this.  If the Times cannot even get its head around something this basic, a simple baby step toward becoming a society that does not exploit animals at human whim, then there is much more work to be done than I had realized.