The Tender Feelings of Factory Farmers as a Window into Two Types of Conservative Hypocrisy

by Neil H. Buchanan

Back in college, a friend who was a pre-med student landed an internship in a research laboratory.  She left for her first day on the job with great excitement, but she returned looking distraught.  Why?  It turned out that her job was to handle animals (including, as I recall, even domesticated animals like cats) that were going to be the subject of experiments, after which they would be killed -- by my friend.  (The passive voice can hide very pointed realities, indeed.)

When I asked her whether she would quit, she said that she was planning to finish the semester as planned, even though it would be emotionally draining.  She then offered this: "I'm telling myself that at least I'll do what I can to make the lives of these doomed creatures as comfortable as possible while they're still alive."  I never spoke with her about that subject again, and I assume that she is now a successful physician who tries to be good to animals.

This memory came back to me recently as I wrote my 2020 veganniversary column, in which I quoted extensively from a New York Times piece by Jonathan Safran Foer.  (Safran Foer's piece is admirably forceful, but it is worth noting that he has a history of being rather evasive about veganism -- and that is putting it kindly.  I have updated my column to add that clarification.). One surprising aspect of his piece was this paragraph, which followed a description of the Covid-19 outbreaks at meat processing plants:
"Sick workers mean plant shutdowns, which has led to a backlog of animals. Some farmers are injecting pregnant sows to cause abortions. Others are forced to euthanize their animals, often by gassing or shooting them. It’s gotten bad enough that Senator Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, has asked the Trump administration to provide mental health resources to hog farmers."
Here, I will discuss two ways in which Grassley's request highlights Republicans' fundamental hypocrisy.

Although I am reasonably sure that my college friend continues to think of herself as an animal lover and almost certainly avoids being actively involved in animal cruelty, the odds are that she is not a vegan.  Cognitive dissonance is everywhere in humans' treatment of animals, making it possible for people to convince themselves (in the now-classic vegan phrasing) to love dogs, eat pigs, and wear cows.

Such discomfort is not uncommon, especially for people who (unlike my friend) find themselves in non-temporary jobs that implicate them even more directly in animal misery and death.  To be sure, some of these people respond to the grisly reality of their situations by fully embracing their own monstrosity, as hidden videos in meat-processing plants have shown workers gleefully inflicting gratuitous torture on animals -- beyond the gratuitous torture that is systemic to the entire enterprise.  For those workers, apparently the only way to deal with their inhumane behavior is to convince themselves that it is actually fun to be cruel.

Thankfully, however, not everyone in that situation responds by becoming unrecognizably grotesque. 
In one way or another, however, people find ways to accustom themselves to the ugliness of their situations.  Prison guards come to think of inmates as inhuman, justifying their horrible treatment.  Slave bounty hunters could attend churches in which pastors would assure them that nonwhite people were not fully human.  And again, even people who likely have loved family pets at home find ways to walk into work every day to end the lives of living beings and then to dismember the corpses.

The disconnect can be jarring.  I recall in the 1980's, during one of the recurring outbreaks of some disease that resulted in farmed animals being killed earlier than planned, the evening news showed a harrowing scene in a pasture in which the owner of the "livestock" (a grimly utilitarian word, if ever there was one) was crying his eyes out while gunshots rang out behind him.

This was a grizzled, middle-aged tough guy, but his words made it clear that he was not focusing on the economic cost of the outbreak.  Instead, it was plain that he was emotionally invested in his animals, and it broke his heart to see them being killed.  And if someone had said to him: "Hey man, your whole business model requires you to torture and kill animals, so what's your problem?" he would surely have replied: "But I'm kind to them, and I care about them.  What kind of monster wouldn't care about what's happening here today?"

To be clear, I do not find that argument to be morally satisfying, but I do find it heartening to know that people are at least sufficiently aware of their moral contradictions that they can be troubled by them.  And that is why I was not actually surprised by Grassley's request to have the federal government provide mental health services for hog farmers.  Iowa's senior senator surely knows what his constituents want.

Although I think I understand what is going on and even applaud the idea of helping people who are being emotionally broken by a shocking upheaval in their lives -- even when what is being disrupted is the systemic cruelty from which they profit -- I have to say that it is a bit rich to see this kind of thing coming from the likes of Grassley, who all but embodies his party's gleeful movement from Reagan to W to Trump over the last forty years.  This is, as I suggested above, the height of hypocrisy in two distinct ways.

First, how in the heck did a right-winger like Grassley suddenly decide that emotional fragility is a legitimate public health issue?  He is an important part of a movement that has mocked people with psychological and emotional issues for their weakness and, to be blunt, for their lack of manliness.  Republicans are not the only ones who insist on believing that mental health issues are illegitimate and can be overcome through sheer force of will, but theirs is a political movement that insists that Americans are becoming "wusses" and just need to toughen up.

After all, it has become a staple on the right to dismiss liberals -- especially younger liberals -- as mere snowflakes whose mothers never cut the apron strings.  (Mixed metaphors are hardly the biggest problem here.)  Indeed, conservatives' mocking of so-called political correctness is little more than saying that liberals are being too sensitive and need to learn how to deal with the adversities of life.  Someone calls you the n-word?  "Hey, sticks and stones, man."

I have argued that the post-2016 bipartisan insta-consensus that Trump's voters were "misunderstood" and that they deserve sympathy rather than derision for feeling aggrieved is actually quite insulting to the very people whose situations we are supposed to pity.  That is not to say that people who lose their livelihoods through no fault of their own are undeserving of our concern, but how they act out matters.  "I'm a true believer in a charlatan who demonizes everyone who doesn't look like me" cannot be justified by adding, "because my factory job went away."

Indeed, Republicans in the Senate and the Trump Administration are at this very moment justifying their refusal to help people who lost their jobs due to the pandemic by saying that we cannot enable them to choose not to find jobs (even when there are no jobs).  Tough love is the conservative mantra, except when the people they like are the victims, at which point suddenly they become Mr. Rogers.

Second, this is not merely a matter of Grassley suggesting that we feel sympathy for the factory farmers who were killing off their animals in unplanned ways.  He is arguing that the Trump Administration should direct federal funds to provide professional psychological care for those tender souls.  What, he wants the tax dollars paid by hard-working Americans to give some weak-minded pansies an opportunity to complain about being spanked as a child?!  We do not have a deficit crisis, we have a spending crisis!!

At least, that is what the fine folks at Fox News and faux-thinktanks like Heritage normally say when it comes to mollycoddling the snowflakes. Were they screaming bloody murder about Grassley's suggestion?  Why do I doubt it?

In any case, the problem here is that conservatives, especially Trumpian conservatives, truly want to have it both ways.  They are against deficits, but not really.  They are against spending, but not really.  They are against federal action, but not really.  They are against treating people as if they have feelings, but not really.  It is all about whether the "right people" are to receive preferred treatment.  Those snowflakes can count on promises of federal deficit spending.  Why?  They deserve it, I guess, for being such fine people.