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Compassionate conservative

Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals,and the Call to Mercy, Matthew Scully, St. Martin's Press: 434 pp., $27.95

January 19, 2003|Caroline Fraser | Caroline Fraser is a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books and the author of "God's Perfect Child: Living and Dying in the Christian Science Church."

On this season's "Sopranos," our hero, Tony, finally beats and strangles his outrageous crew boss, Ralph Cifaretto, to death with his bare hands. Since Ralph had long been "disrespecting" his boss -- even murdering a hapless prostitute -- his own fate had been sealed, but the end, when it came, was brought on not by the murder he committed but by an act considered unforgivable in Tony's eyes: Ralph had torched the stables housing the light of Tony's life, a racehorse named Pie-O-My, for the insurance money.

Tony's response to the death of the horse is evocative of the powerful, unreasoning, emotionally contradictory impulses inspired in us by animals. It's reminiscent of the scene in Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment" in which Raskolnikov, just before killing his landlady and her sister with an ax, dreams of witnessing, as a child, a drunk beating an old mare to death, a sight that fills the boy with rage and despair. How can Raskolnikov, who felt such pity for a horse, wake up and murder helpless women? How can Americans -- the same Americans who root for Tony, a psychopathic murderer with a soft spot for horses and ducks -- cheerfully tolerate the considerable suffering of the factory-farmed animals that make up their hamburgers, chicken nuggets and bacon?

Our discomfort with such questions is one of the topics tackled by Matthew Scully's "Dominion." The book, his first, represents a startling career shift. Scully served as special assistant and senior speechwriter to George W. Bush from January 2001 to June 2002, having previously worked on the president's campaign and written for other conservative candidates, including Dan Quayle and Dick Cheney. As Scully wryly notes, few of his fellow conservatives have much patience with animal issues: "Conservatives tend to view the subject with suspicion." Suspicion? Try contempt. In his book "The Way Things Ought to Be," Rush Limbaugh calls one conservationist a "long-haired maggot-infested FM-type environmentalist wacko" and temperately remarks: "If the [spotted] owl can't adapt to the superiority of humans, screw it." Scully seems determined to lift conservative language, at least on animal rights, out of the Limbaugh gutter.

And he is eminently qualified, by virtue of his rhetorical gifts, to do so. In "Dominion," a polemical call to bring the quality of mercy to bear in our dealings with animals, he challenges the "exasperated snobbery" with which conservatives react to any discussion of animal suffering, an attitude that leads, he argues, "to a dogmatism rivaling anything among the animal rights crowd, if not worse in its stern uncharity toward our fellow creatures, its lazy disdain of moral inconveniences mixed with high talk of moral virtue, and its rigid faith in the Prosperity Bible." A conservative Christian himself, he nonetheless attacks the assumption that "there is this one world in which man made in the image of God affirms the inherent goodness of animals.... And then there is this other world, the world of reality in which people and industries are left free to do as they will without moral restraint or condemnation."

In his central chapters, Scully focuses on several offenders, groups and industries that not only cause animal suffering but also, in his view, propagate the arrogant utilitarian view of animal life that justifies any cruelty, a view that seeps into everyday life, immunizing the supermarket shopper confronted with a package of pork or chicken against moral considerations. He questions hunters' principles, visiting the annual convention of Safari Club International, whose members enjoy shooting elephants, rhinos and other big game. He attends the International Whaling Commission Conference, where Norwegians and Japanese defend their right to eat whale meat. ("Most whales are no smarter than cows," says whaler Steinar Bastesen. "They can be very stupid creatures.") Finally, Scully takes on factory farming, driving around North Carolina's sanitized but still stinking landscape of hog farms and "waste lagoons" -- pools of pig urine and feces -- a vista that represents to him "a synergy of two amoral ideas": the decision to abandon "all regard for the well-being of the animals" and "to take the farmer out of farming."

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