by Stephen M. Wise. Cambridge, MA : Da Capo Press, 2009. 304pp. Hardcover. US $26.00/CDN $30.00/ £15.99. Paper $26.00. ISBN: 9780306814754.
Reviewed by Dylan Weller, Department of Political Science, Hobart and William Smith Colleges. Email: dweller [at] hws.edu.
AN AMERICAN TRILOGY by Stephen M. Wise is, at its core, a book about the mistreatment of pigs by the American swine industry. It should be noted at the outset that while some of the author’s previous work has dealt specifically with issues surrounding the legal rights of animals, this book has very little to do with the study of law specifically. The primary goals of the text appear to be three-fold: First, to give the reader a visceral and emotionally wrenching tour of the modern industrial swine industry. Secondly, to draw similarities between the injustices suffered by Native Americans, African slaves and modern day pigs in one particular county of North Carolina. And thirdly, to consider the role that Christianity has played in sanctioning each of these injustices. These three themes developed by Wise have the potential to inform one another in interesting and provocative ways. Yet by the conclusion of the book, very little has been done to draw the variety of arguments and observations into an informative relationship with one another.
The book begins in Bladen County, NC, home to one of the largest slaughterhouses in the country. One of the self-professed goals of the book is to analyze the history of Bladen County in order to better understand its present condition as a place that tolerates the mass killing, and unjust treatment of pigs. The historical analysis of Bladen County is quite limited. The focus is on Native Americans and African slaves, two groups of human beings who have suffered at the hands of Christian colonizers. The injustices are laid side by side, and the reader is given the task of considering the similarities and dissimilarities for herself. This will be effective for those already predisposed to view pigs as worthy of certain rights and privileges, but will do little to persuade those who mark a categorical distinction between the rights of human beings and animals. Indeed, some readers will likely be offended by the comparison.
Wise discusses the plight of Native Americans and African slaves in the region briefly. Very little enlightening information is supplied concerning the inhabitants of Bladen County in particular. The information on each of these groups tends to be general, and those relatively familiar with these past injustices will find little of note here. Somewhat more enlightening is the examination of the ways in which certain Native American tribes tended to conceive of animals as members of their larger cosmology. A clear distinction is made between Native American culture, which often revered and respected animal life, and Christian European [*395] culture, which, according to Wise, tends to appreciate animals merely for their use-value to humans.
Through the first few chapters we learn a great deal about Wise’s attempts to uncover significant linkages between the swine industry and the slave trade in Bladen County. However, while a great deal of time is spent informing the reader of his difficulties in researching the matter, very little of that research bears significant fruit. Wise informs us that the slaughterhouse in Bladen County is in fact located on what was once a slave-holding plantation. But this information, unaccompanied by some further examination of the family lineages, or cultural inheritances that may have led from one form of cruelty to another, does not strike the reader as particularly revelatory. The reader is never told explicitly why this coincidence should be meaningful, and by the second half of the text, Bladen County, as a significant character within the narrative, is largely abandoned.
The middle portion of the book, which provides a synoptic history of the swine industry, as well as some insight into its contemporary policies and mechanisms, is the most interesting and enlightening section. Wise provides a good deal of interesting information regarding the present state of the swine industry and its development over time. A fairly broad range of information is covered, though the amount of time allotted to each issue is somewhat puzzling. An entire chapter is dedicated to examining the preferred fat content within pork, and the struggles the industry has undergone to maintain the proper balance, while only a paragraph notes the recent legislation in multiple states, banning certain types of animal crates. The somewhat more detailed analyses of the mechanisms and formulas at the center of the swine industry make obvious allusions to Eichmann and the banality of evil, but once again, those connections tend to be implied, rather than substantively defended.
Lest the reader become detached, as Eichmann, from the results of these abstracted formulas and mechanisms, this section is interspersed with an ongoing narrative about an emblematic pig named Wilbur. We are given a detailed account of the various horrors Wilbur experiences in his short life on a pig farm, all of which leads up to his eventual demise at the slaughterhouse. This information is related in a matter of fact tone, and can be very moving. The organization and interweaving of the Wilbur narrative with the rest of the more mechanical information concerning the swine industry could be more artfully rendered. Nevertheless, the middle section of the text gives the reader some interesting and specific information about the workings of the swine industry, as well as a more visceral understanding of the process from the perspective of the pig.
The last section of the book retrieves a theme originally introduced in the first few chapters. Wise argues that Christianity is centrally responsible for the cruelties perpetrated by Europeans against Native Americans, African Slaves, and animals. The argument would require far deeper analysis to be persuasive to the critically minded, but those predisposed to view religion as a negative force in human (and animal) history will find some plausibility to the claims made here. Although Wise [*396] clearly expresses some disdain for Christianity and the world-view it is capable of engendering, the book concludes with an optimistic assessment of the ways in which a particular branch of American evangelicalism may contribute to the expansion of animal rights in the future. Wise does some investigation into the “Creation Care” movement, which began relatively recently as an evangelical response to the looming threat of climate change. Evangelicals within the movement have begun to see the earth and its inhabitants less as a resource to have dominion over, and more as a Godly creation, which requires human stewardship in order to be properly maintained. Wise examines the current state of Creation Care, and clearly finds reason to hope that a movement such as this one, based in environmental stewardship, may some day turn its interests to the plight of factory farmed animals. However, while he interviews a variety of people associated with the Creation Care movement, none of them seem particularly interested in animal rights specifically, at least not yet.
The author repeatedly draws the reader into his experience in researching the book. Many of these adventures in researching are largely extemporaneous to the larger project. Nevertheless, by being forced to witness the author’s struggles in writing the book, the reader is, in some ways, brought more immediately into the dilemma faced by Wise in writing such a text. How does one gain recognition for an injustice that is at once ubiquitous and invisible? How does one make the mistreatment of animals a problem for people?
PETA has long dealt with this question, and in recent years has made many tactical adjustments to their outreach campaigns. PETA has garnered a variety of celebrity endorsements, and developed billboard, television, and internet advertisement campaigns that raise awareness about the health, sexual vitality, and clear consciences of vegetarians and vegans. This book tends to vacillate somewhere between preaching to the PETA choir, and speaking with a more scholarly voice to an academic audience. I can not see this book as successful in the latter endeavor. Nevertheless, those that view animal cruelty as a significant problem may rightly argue that in the face of glaring injustice, any attempt to give utterance to the suffering of the voiceless deserves our serious attention.
© Copyright 2009 by the author, Dylan Weller.