Chickens

by Bryan

In The Ethics of What We Eat, by Peter Singer and Jim Mason, the authors describe the nightmare conditions of the American chicken industry, focusing on chicken giant Tyson foods, animal cruelty and its commercial pollution of the “Delmarva Peninsula” — the tract of land composed of Delaware, parts of Maryland and Virginia. The conditions are horrible enough that Tyson Foods did not cooperate with the authors, nor did most of the large meat processing corporations profiled in the book. This code of silence is driven, it seems, out of self-preservation: the mode of production is horrifying enough that the company fully understands the consequences of exposing its operation to the world would be catastrophic. Yet, they seem fine with this arrangement. Why? Because you like cheap chicken and they like money. That appears to overwhelm any ethical concerns they have for the livestock they are raising and killing, often in spectacularly incompetent fashion. The authors, quite refreshingly, don’t recommend vegetarianism as the only ethical solution to this dilemma: they simply implore the reader not to buy chicken from these people, and cite some producers who operate their farms under humane conditions.

The “big” chicken industry looks, to me, a lot like the Chickenhawk industry that roosts about 100 miles away from the Delmarva Peninsula, inside the Beltway. There’s bloodletting, a lack of simple decency and a code of silence that protects the structure — even though those at the top of the pecking order they know what they are doing is wrong, and opposed to the fundamental values of our government. They just don’t care. Worse still, they have an army of bird-brained Chickenhawks who think they’re part of the plan, and they get treated well — plenty to eat, comfortable life — right up until they step out of line. Before they realize, their throats are cut, and they’ve been replaced. A few of them actually survive the throat-cutting process — much like, horribly, many chickens survive the throat cutting process and are left to bleed to death — and they also bleed to death on the grandest stages, giving ineffectual testimony before an astonished Congress that, like the small number of ethics-conscious food consumers, is powerless to stop the bloodletting.

Actually, that description may not be fair to the Bush Administration. The administration and its cronies are far more effective at silencing the troublemakers than big chickens, which resorts to such wonderful measures as electrocuting them, scalding them, and when that doesn’t work, “stomping on them, beating them, running over them on purpose with a fork-lift truck, and even blowing them up with dry ice ‘bombs.'” Sounds lovely. Now listen to what happened to Russell Skoug.

In an incredible, eviscerating article for Rolling Stone magazine, Matt Taibbi describes “The Great Iraq Swindle,” the grab-bag of millions upon millions of dollars in defense contracts gathered and executed by the most incompetent people this side of the Washington Generals. In fact, we ought to call them the Washington Generals. The Washington Generals, according to Taibbi, were so callous with their disregard for American taxpayer money that they used $100,000 in rolled $100 bills as a football. (And that was one of the confirmed accounts). He estimates America has spent $500 billion on the war and $44 billion on the Iraq recovery effort, an effort so botched that the tally is embarrassing to completely recall. “And what did America’s contractors give us for that money?” he asks. “They built big steaming shit piles, set brand-new trucks on fire, drove back and forth across the desert for no reason at all and dumped bags of nails in ditches.”

But that’s not all they did: they also fucked Russell Skoug. Taibbi recalls how Skoug, working for the private contractor Wolfpack, was tasked with fixing Humvees as part of his duties on the ground. It is beyond the point of our story that Skoug had no previous experience repairing Humvees: one day — actually, September 11th, 2006 — Skoug set off across Iraq to find repair parts when the U.S. Army vehicle in which he was traveling was hit by a bomb. He was airlifted to a hospital in Germany and back to the United States, whereupon his employer tried to deny him the medical insurance claims to pay for his injuries. Nevermind that Wolfpack was required to provide medical insurance in a war zone, Taibbi writes, Wolfpack CEO Mark Atwood let Skoug go with some pittance payments and scolded his wife when she tried to recoup the hospital bills, which totaled over $500,000. Confronted with this, Atwood refused to speak to Taibbi, saying, “I just want some peace.” And you thought they were cruel to the chickens.

The worst part about all this is that, despite this callous regard for their own followers, Cheney, Bush, et al. have no shortage of hens clucking away at their heels. Last night, I was watching The News Hour with Jim Lehrer. Judy Woodruff was conducting a debate on the Alberto Gonzales “legacy,” a hilarious ludicrously-phrased topic, with Michael Greenberger, a former justice department official in the Clinton Administration, and Noel Francisco, a partner at the Jones Day law firm (which represents R.J. Reynolds) and former associate counsel to President Bush. Over Greenberger’s polite objection, Francisco painted a rosy picture of the Gonzales era, saying that history would judge him fairly:

I really do think that, once we have the distance of history between us, the American people and history will look at the attorney general and look and see that he made the right decisions and the president made the right decisions in combating the war on terror and combating this new and dramatic threat to our country.

He was saying this about Alberto Gonzales. Just a reminder from the Think Progress blog:

– It was Alberto Gonzales, not Congress, who fired attorneys for political reasons.

– It was Alberto Gonzales, not Congress, who gave the White House political team unprecedented power to intercede in the affairs of the Justice Department.

– It was Alberto Gonzales, not Congress, who allowed his department to illegally hire attorneys based in part on their loyalty to the Republican Party and the Bush administration.

– It was Alberto Gonzales, not Congress, who dissembled and misled about the administration’s spying activities.

– It was Alberto Gonzales, not Congress, who lied in stating that all Bush appointees would be Senate-confirmed.

Oh, did I not mention that Francisco, like former White House spokesman/part-time Nantucket resident Ari Fleischer, blames Congress?

I don’t care who the attorney general was. I think you would have seen the similar thing going on regardless of who the attorney general was. The issue might have been a little bit different, but they’d still be trying to come out with a scalp.

Just repeating the party line: it’s the Democrats’ fault. Always the Democrats’ fault. That’s how you move up the pecking order. You can be as smug as you want (watch Francisco or Fleischer for examples), callous (Rumsfeld teasing reporters who challenged him during the beginning stages of the war) or plain incompetent (recall Gonzales’ “I don’t recall” fiasco from his Senate testimony), as long as you keep moving forward and, never, ever deviate from the plan, and you will be fed. This is classic chicken behavior. In The Ethics of What We Eat, Singer and Mason describe how egg-laying hens “are like fans at rock concerts in that they have a mob mentality. They will crowd all over each other to get into a particular nesting box, although the one right next to it—which is identical as far as he can tell—is empty.”

The worst part about this war, as filmmaker Charles Ferguson said on Charlie Rose a few weeks ago to promote his incredible film No End In Sight, is “the emotional and intellectual blindness of the people that did this;” the inability to see the error of their ways, and the chance to fix things through a slight change of course. They won’t go to the other nesting box. Jon Stewart recently said that the worst part about this war is that the people who are least responsible for it feel the worst about it, and vice versa. As you go through the massive the pecking order, it’s shocking how few people have broken with the administration for the far easier path of telling, and acknowledging, the truth. Like the men in charge of “big chicken,” it’s not that we’re actually dealing with chickens. We’re dealing with cowards.

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