mm046: sp!ked review of books | Stop Planet Chicken, I want to get off

July 3, 2007

We’re nothing if not eclectic here at MUDGE’s Musings, and I found this fascinating, lengthy review (and site, UK based, hereby added to our blogroll) via Arts & Letters Daily (–>). If I can overcome the Britishisms here, so I’m certain, can you:

Stop Planet Chicken, I want to get off
To complain about the ‘injustice’ done by humans to chickens – those cannibalistic balls of faeces and feathers – is to call into question the entire basis of human civilisation.
by Mick Hume

Books You Probably Can Judge By The Cover, Number 373. Apart from the title, ‘Planet Chicken’, and the subtitle, ‘The Shameful Story of the Bird on Your Plate’ (that’s your plate, notice, not theirs), there is also the cover illustration. It shows a chicken’s head with a tear falling from its eye; indeed the tear is rather bigger than the eye from which it is falling. Never mind your smart Alec questions about whether chickens can cry. Hattie Ellis’ moral message is that ‘the world’s favourite bird’ has been turned into the wretched of the Earth, suffering the terrors of factory farming to feed our addiction to cheap meat, and we should weep for them. 

If I seem a bit cynical in contrast to Ellis’ obvious compassion for her subject, let me declare an interest. I don’t like chickens, oh no. I eat them of course, although the cloying texture and relative lack of taste make it far from my favourite meat. But the idea of having tender feelings for the live birds strikes me as frankly squawking mad. Regular readers will know that, in an anthropomorphic age when those who suggest that man is superior to beast are branded ‘speciesists’, spiked writers rightly insist upon drawing a clear and uncrossable line between humanity and the ‘animal kingdom’. I am tempted to add a personal, admittedly unscientific, distinction between other animals and the chicken.

As a young man I worked one summer on a Ministry of Agriculture farm, where I soon discovered the chickens we were supposed to be caring for were horrible, cannibalistic balls of faeces and feathers, an unpleasant underclass of the farm bird world. One morning a couple of other student summer workers and I were sent into a shed in huge souwesters and raincoats and told we had half an hour to ‘clear’ – that is, kill – the 200-odd chickens occupying it with our bare hands; we soon discovered that the rainproofs were for when you pulled a neck too hard and the head came off, turning the bird into a blood-spurting chicken pistol. I am sorry to report to chicken lovers that no tears were shed in the killing shed, either by hen or human.

Some animal rights’ activists might suggest that this shows I suffer from an irrational ‘henophobia’ bordering on fascism (after all, that Nazi Himmler started off as a chicken farmer you know). But an unsentimental attitude towards farm animals is actually sensible and human. Those who have to work with them for a living have always been the most clear-eyed about these matters – at least until the advent of hobby farmers who give their hens names like ‘Chickpea’.

“If you pull the neck too hard and the head comes off, chickens become blood-spurting pistols”

But Planet Chicken is about more than Ellis’ personal warm feelings towards the foul fowl. Through its critical examination of the poultry farming industry, it suggests that there is something seriously wrong with the relationship between man and chicken today, and that the shitty way we treat them is a stain on modern humanity’s heart.

She starts by offering some startling statistics about the growth of the global chicken industry through intensive farming methods. At any moment there are now almost twice as many chickens alive as humans. People in Britain alone eat five times as much chicken as we did 20 years ago, now accounting for almost half the meat we consume. Britain produces more than a million tonnes of chicken a year, mostly in factory farms where big production lines can kill 9,000 birds an hour. In the USA, apparently, 24million chickens are killed every 24 hours.

Globally, chicken now account for the majority of the 50billion animals eaten every year. As Ellis notes: ‘The world is currently in the middle of what is termed a “Livestock Revolution”. This is the animal equivalent of the Green Revolution of the 1960s, which spread chemically sustained crop farming around the globe. In this case, it is about the rise of industrially farmed creatures.’

Now, to me this sounds like a fantastic human success story. Through the increasingly industrialised farming of chickens, producers are feeding the world by turning meat that, even in Britain, used to be reserved for special occasions, into an inexpensive everyday source of protein. That, surely, is something to crow about.

The message of Planet Chicken, however, is that the rise of ‘industrially farmed creatures’ is a bad thing. It assumes that there must be something morally suspect about ‘cheap’ meat produced by factory methods. More broadly, it is an attack on the development of industry and human society, and its separation from the animal world.

The reactionary strain in the argument is spelt out in the foreword by the TV cook and celebrity cottage farmer, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. He observes that we evolved from ‘savages’ into farmers, but that ‘the industrialisation of farming has brought us full circle’: ‘We have reduced, through mechanisation, the contact between “farmer” and livestock to the point where the sentience and natural inclinations of our farm animals is all too easily ignored… This is industrialised savagery, and for the sanity of our own species, as much as for the welfare of those animals we are so ruthlessly exploiting, this savagery has to end.’

“Supermarket chickens remind Ellis of ‘naked, shrink-wrapped babes’ on magazine covers”

To support this contention that the advance of civilisation is in fact a return to savagery, Ellis takes us on a journey through planet chicken. There is some brief and interesting history of the evolution of the species, from jungle fowl, through birds bred for their looks and cock fighting ability, to the mass-produced meat of the twentieth century. Following the success of industrialised methods in the USA, the first broiler strains came to Britain in 1956. ‘The post-war priority for farming – an entirely understandable reaction to austerity – was productivity. After 14 years of food rationing the bountiful harvest of cheap meat, brought about by the appliance of science, was a beacon of progress.’

So far, so good. But Ellis is quick to emphasise that ‘we’ now know how wrong that productivity-centred approach to farming was, both for the birds (who are still apparently wild jungle fowl at heart) and for the consumer. ‘Have we really changed so much’, she asks, ‘that this form of meat production and eating is natural?’ Well, hunger might be ‘natural’, but that does not necessarily make it right….

Ellis goes on to look at the packaged chickens on the supermarket shelf where, in her odd bird’s-eye view, ‘behind their tight plastic, the meat reminded me of the naked, shrink-wrapped magazine babes lined up on the top shelf of the newsagents’. Next she visits a crammed chicken shed where they grow sitting on their own litter, and seems childishly shocked to discover that ‘it was almost impossible to see these creatures as individuals – as creatures even. It couldn’t be further from a storybook farmyard image.’ Then she reviews a Compassion in World Farming video of a chicken-killing plant where there are apparently ‘birds with monstrous breasts, the Jordans of mass produced meat, barely able to stand up’. (Poultry-as-porn seems to be emerging as a theme.)

Meanwhile Ellis offers as an alternative an unappetising bitch of self-righteous prigs opposed to industrialised farming. There is the man from the Real Meat Company who pompously announces that, ‘if you don’t like factory farming, you’ve got two choices: buy ours or become a vegetarian…. If you buy an ordinary chicken you know that it may have led a ghastly life, been transported terribly, lived badly, been killed badly. And you’re responsible. Who else is?’ This ethical marketing pitch is backed up with pictures of factory farming on his company website. Never mind that people’s primary responsibility might be to feed their family as economically as possible.

Then there is the ‘quietly charismatic’ Italian animal rights activist who, Ellis says, helped persuade the EU to outlaw battery cages by 2012.  He tells her: ‘I knew I was risking a lot. But…if you believe in something you should invest in it to make it happen. What I could invest at that moment wasn’t anything else but putting my life on the table.’ Anybody would think it was him being bred in a cage and slaughtered for meat. Ellis assures us he is ‘not a crazed martyr’. Of course not.

Ellis is an evangelist for the advance of farming methods that claim to produce ‘happy chickens’, ‘slow chickens’, and higher-welfare eggs. She reports of one of these more naturalistic farmers that ‘whenever they have to be confined, for example when part of a shedful has to be collected up for slaughter, Susie told me the chickens emerge like schoolchildren let out at break-time’. Which I’m afraid strikes me as a truly sick attitude to take to birds you are breeding for slaughter. Ellis also has to admit that there is some considerable confusion over what terms like ‘free-range’ eggs and ‘organic’ chicken really mean today, and she lets slip her disappointment that freer chickens don’t live up to that storybook farmyard image either: ‘They may be able to display more natural behaviour, but unfortunately this can include vicious pecking and even cannibalism.’ That’s sounds like the chickens I know I detest.

Of course it is good to be able to eat better-quality eggs and meat, and to develop better techniques for producing them. But that is not about making chickens ‘happy’ so much as finding ways to make us happier to eat them. As Ellis has to concede, this comes down to money. Whether she and her ‘real meat’ mates like it or not, people want and need cheap meat. She quotes a professor of science policy who ‘immediately snapped any precious ivory fork in two’, declaring himself ‘bored and irritated’ by well-to-do friends who ‘sit around boasting about the lengths they go to have local, fresh, organic produce when actually it’s an exercise in conspicuous consumption – showing off their wealth and leisure’.

“Great strides forward for human nutrition are dismissed as ‘inhumanity to animals’”

However, she soon sets aide such humanist concerns to conclude that ‘there is a bottom line. The production of cheap meat at a terrible cost to the chicken’s welfare is wrong…an everyday symbol of man’s inhumanity to animals.’

Like many issues to do with food and farming today, this chicken debate is not really about the details of different techniques for raising them. It is pecking at bigger targets: industrialised farming and, by implication, the social and economic advance of our society. The demand that we should all ‘reconnect’ with the animals that provide our food, for example, is really a call to turn back the clock on a social division of labour that has been developed over centuries. I am happy to leave the connecting to those unlucky enough to work with chickens. Ellis says that ‘chicken harvesting is widely acknowledged as being one of the worst jobs in the world. All you can say is that it must be even worse for the chickens.’ All I can say is that it is far worse for the humans, who unlike the brainless birds know what is going on as they slosh about in the blood, guts and chicken dirt.

The notion that the wonders of modern farming amount to ‘industrialised savagery’ is the product of a conveyor belt of overfed dull ideas in our Chicken Little society, where people who should know better rush like headless chickens from one food and health panic to another (as epitomised by the bird flu scare about UK poultry). It reflects a culture that not only fears the future, but has also lost faith in the achievements of its own past, so that a great stride forward for human nutrition can be dismissed as ‘inhumanity to animals’.

In the past it was said that you could judge the level of a society by its treatment of its prisoners. Frederick Engels argued that we should judge it by the way it treated the female half of its population. But only a society up to its own neck in misanthropic crap would accept that civilisation be judged according to how it treats its bloody chickens.

Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.

Planet Chicken: The shameful story of the bird on your plate by Hattie Ellis was published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK))

sp!ked review of books | Stop Planet Chicken, I want to get off

We eat a lot of chicken here at Casa Mudge, and I agree with Mick Hume that while it may not be my favorite entrée, you can’t beat it for cost-effective nutrition and flexibility. And in keeping with an earlier post today, if not battered and fried in trans-fat, chicken is the foremost component of a practical weight control regime. 

Civilization occurred when our forebears came down from the trees to better exercise their carnivorous tendencies. I’ve always been impatient with vegetarians, and those, like the author of the book reviewed here, who sentimentalize the food chain.

Pass the nuggets, please (oops!)…

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE

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mm045: How to eat junk food without getting fat. – By William Saletan – Slate Magazine

July 3, 2007

 Am I ever ready for this! Sign me up for the trials!

Scientists found a chemical way to eliminate fat. Findings in mice: 1) A natural substance called NPY translates stress and junk food into fat. 2) If you put it under skin, fat grows around it. 3) If you inject a NPY-blocking chemical, mice don’t get fat even when they eat junk food and are stressed. 4) The NPY blocker can dissolve half a fat deposit in two weeks. Previous finding: Humans don’t get fat if their NPY receptors are impaired. Authors’ spins: 1) We can get rid of fat! 2) We can fatten your boobs, in a good way! 3) It’s all-natural! Critiques: 1) In humans, the NPY blocker might fail or cause bad side effects. 2) Mice that didn’t eat junk food didn’t get fat. 3) Mice that ate junk food but avoided stress didn’t get so fat, either. (For Human Nature’s take on gluttony and sex without consequences, click here. To discuss the wisdom of helping people stay slim while eating junk food, click here.)

How to eat junk food without getting fat. – By William Saletan – Slate Magazine

I don’t eat as much junk food as I used to, but it seems to me that this should apply to food in general, and I’m addicted.  This line of research seems a better choice than the newly released Alli, which sounds terrific as long as you are always within 15-seconds of a clean restroom! Sigh. Smokers can quit, and live. Drinkers can stop drinking (we all hope) and live. We horizontally challenged folks can’t stop eating, so bring on the (safe, side-effects-free) therapies!

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE

Quote of the Day:
Start every day off with a smile and get it over with.
–W. C. Fields

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mm044: The London car-bomb plot was designed to kill women. – By Christopher Hitchens – Slate Magazine

July 3, 2007

 A response to mm041: this was real, only the most recent incident in the true cultural war we’re fighting.

fighting words: A wartime lexicon.

Don’t Mince Words — The London car-bomb plot was designed to kill women.

By Christopher Hitchens
Posted Monday, July 2, 2007, at 1:11 PM ET

Glasgow Airport. Click image to expand.

The scene of the attack at Glasgow Airport

Why on earth do people keep saying, “There but for the grace of God …”? If matters had been very slightly different over the past weekend, the streets of London and the airport check-in area in Glasgow, Scotland, would have been strewn with charred body parts. And this would have been, according to the would-be perpetrators, because of the grace of God. Whatever our own private theology or theodicy, we might at least agree to take this vile belief seriously.

Instead, almost every other conceivable explanation was canvassed. The June 30 New York Times report managed to quote three people, one of whom attributed the aborted atrocity in London to Tony Blair’s foreign policy; one of whom (a New Zealand diplomat, at that) felt “surprisingly all right about it”; and one of whom, described as “a Briton of Indian descent,” was worried that “if I walk up that road, they’re going to suspect me.” The “they” there was clearly the British authorities, rather than the Muslim gangsters who have declared open season on all Hindus as well as all Jews, Christians, secularists, and other kuffar or infidel filth.

On the following day, July 1, the same newspaper informed us that Britain contained a “disenfranchised South Asian population.” How this was true was never explained. There are several Muslim parliamentarians in both houses, often allowed to make the most absurdly inflammatory and euphemistic statements where acts of criminal violence are concerned, as well as several districts in which the Islamic vote keeps candidates of all parties uneasily aware of what may and may not be said. True, the Muslim extremist groups boycott elections and denounce democracy itself as profane, but this does not really count as disenfranchisement.

Only at the tail end of the coverage was it admitted that a car bomb might have been parked outside a club in Piccadilly because it was “ladies night” and that this explosion might have been designed to lure people into to the street, the better to be burned and shredded by the succeeding explosion from the second car-borne cargo of gasoline and nails. Since we have known since 2004 that a near-identical attack on a club called the Ministry of Sound was proposed in just these terms, on the grounds that dead “slags” or “sluts” would be regretted by nobody, a certain amount of trouble might have been saved by assuming the obvious. The murderers did not just want body parts in general but female body parts in particular.

I suppose that some people might want to shy away from this conclusion for whatever reason, but they cannot have been among the viewers of British Channel 4’s recent Undercover Mosque, or among those who watched Sunday’s report from Christiane Amanpour on CNN’s Special Investigations Unit. On these shows, the British Muslim fanatics came right out with their program. Straight into the camera, leading figures like Anjem Choudary spoke of their love for Osama Bin Laden and their explicit rejection of any definition of Islam as a religion of peace. On tape or in person, mullahs in prominent British mosques called for the killing of Indians and Jews.

Liberal reluctance to confront this sheer horror is the result, I think, of a deep reticence about some furtive concept of “race.” It is subconsciously assumed that a critique of political Islam is an attack on people with brown skins. One notes in passing that any such concession implicitly denies or negates Islam’s claim to be a universal religion. Indeed, some of its own exponents certainly do speak as if they think of it as a tribal property. And, at any rate, in practice, so it is. The fascistic subculture that has taken root in Britain and that lives by violence and hatred is composed of two main elements. One is a refugee phenomenon, made up of shady exiles from the Middle East and Asia who are exploiting London’s traditional hospitality, and one is the projection of an immigrant group that has its origins in a particularly backward and reactionary part of Pakistan.

To the shame-faced white-liberal refusal to confront these facts, one might counterpose a few observations. The first is that we were warned for years of the danger, by Britons also of Asian descent such as Hanif Kureishi, Monica Ali, and Salman Rushdie. They knew what the village mullahs looked like and sounded like, and they said as much. Not long ago, I was introduced to Nadeem Aslam, whose book Maps for Lost Lovers is highly recommended.

He understands the awful price of arranged marriages, dowry, veiling, and the other means by which the feudal arrangements of rural Pakistan have been transplanted to parts of London and Yorkshire. “In some families in my street,” he writes to me, “the grandparents, parents, and the children are all first cousins—it’s been going on for generations and so the effects of the inbreeding are quite pronounced by now.” By his estimate and others, a minority of no more than 11 percent is responsible for more than 70 percent of the birth defects in Yorkshire. When a leading socialist member of Parliament, Ann Cryer, drew attention to this appalling state of affairs in her own constituency, she was promptly accused of—well, you can guess what she was accused of. The dumb word Islamophobia, uncritically employed by Christiane Amanpour in her otherwise powerful documentary, was the least of it. Meanwhile, an extreme self-destructive clannishness, which is itself “phobic” in respect to all outsiders, becomes the constituency for the preachings of a cult of death. I mention this because, if there is an “ethnic” dimension to the Islamist question, then in this case at least it is the responsibility of the Islamists themselves.

The most noticeable thing about all theocracies is their sexual repression and their directly related determination to exert absolute control over women. In Britain, in the 21st century, there are now honor killings, forced marriages, clerically mandated wife-beatings, incest in all but name, and the adoption of apparel for females that one cannot be sure is chosen by them but which is claimed as an issue of (of all things) free expression. This would be bad enough on its own and if it were confined to the Muslim “community” alone. But, of course, such a toxin cannot be confined, and the votaries of theocracy now claim the God-given right to slaughter females at random for nothing more than their perceived immodesty. The least we can do, confronted by such radical evil, is to look it in the eye (something it strives to avoid) and call it by its right name. For a start, it is the female victims of this tyranny who are “disenfranchised,” while something rather worse than “disenfranchisement” awaits those who dare to disagree.

Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

Photograph of Glasgow Airport by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images.

The London car-bomb plot was designed to kill women. – By Christopher Hitchens – Slate Magazine

So, maybe not so much Beavis and Butthead after all. Nothing like adding a bit of context.

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE