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What George Orwell and Jack London can teach us about the Michael Vick Affair

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Just as the Michael Vick controversy seems to be winding down it may be the proper moment to put the whole matter in perspective and reach a few basic unspectacular conclusions with the help of two unexpected sources. George Orwell is a name unlikely to be cited by many in this context, but given the variety of subjects dealt with in his voluminous writings it should not be a surprise that at least one of his views is relevant to a case involving the treatment of animals. In an essay written in 1943 entitled 'The English People', Orwell, while generally acting as something of a flag-waver (uncharacteristically so, but it was during wartime) gave in passing a somewhat harsh account of what he regarded as one special characteristic of his compatriots:
Perhaps the most horrible spectacles in England are the Dogs' Cemeteries in Kensington Gardens, at Stokes Poges...and at various other places. But there were also the Animals' ARP [Air Raid Precautions] Centres with miniature stretchers for cats, and in the first year of the war there was the spectacle of Animal Day being celebrated with all its usual pomp in the middle of the Dunkirk evacuation. Although its worst follies are committed by the upper-class women, the animal cult runs right through the nation and is probably bound up with the decay of agriculture and the dwindled birthrate. Several years of stringent rationing have failed to reduce the dog and cat population, and even in poor quarters of big towns the bird-fanciers' shops display canary seed at prices ranging up to twenty-five shillings a pint.


Elsewhere in his writings Orwell similarly refers to 'kindness to animals' as a stereotypical English trait and to the 'Anglo-Saxon sentimentality about animals'. Most observers, I think, would agree that insofar as Orwell's description is accurate and still valid today, it applies not just to England or the UK as a whole, but to the entire English-speaking world. In the US we can speak of an 'animal cult' expressed in classic films and TV series like Old Yeller and Lassie, and somewhat earlier, in the novels of Jack London, which we'll have more to say about in a moment.

The outrage over Michael Vick was genuine, but it is partly a culturally-based phenomenon, in the same way that Vick's defenders have indicated dog-fighting is an activity practiced normally within certain strata of society where it is not viewed as the great evil others have regarded it. Before going further I would like to make it clear that although an animal lover myself I would still maintain that Vick, no matter what he has done and what we may think of him personally, has served his time in prison and like anyone else in that position should be allowed to rejoin society and be employed once again in his chosen profession.

Let's move on. The man has expressed remorse and can genuinely be a role model based on his future behavior. A person who engages in violent or unseemly activities in his youth does have the ability to change and it is possible that even if Vick isn't being especially sincere now, as he matures he'll realize fully that his past behavior was wrong and his punishment deserved. Moreover, the idea of carrying out an extended public vendetta against a man who ran a dog-fighting ring is absurd given the enormous crimes committed in the corporate and political worlds that are barely punished at all. The most obvious and most recent example, of course, is that of the Bush administration's having started an unjustified war, based on false intelligence, that resulted in the deaths of tens if not hundreds of thousands as well as the maiming of countless others. The Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld gang walked away scot-free and no one seems to be showing any continuing outrage about it. Under these circumstances the lack of forgiveness for a man with a relatively minor criminal past like Michael Vick is astonishing.

Though it is possible that some of the exaggerated condemnation of Vick is racially-based I would argue that the whole matter is chiefly rooted in economic and educational issues rather than racial ones. Jack London's writings at this point can afford a bit more perspective.

Vick's activities when first publicized instantly recalled to me the dog-fighting scenes in London's novel White Fang. The title character in the familiar story is, of course, a part-wolf/part-dog (more specifically three-quarters-wolf/one-quarter-dog) taken out of the Arctic wild and brought up by an American Indian family before being sold to one Beauty Smith, the sadistic leader of a dog-fighting ring. White Fang fights and wins bout after bout until he is stalemated in a match with a bulldog, at which point he and his opponent are suddenly rescued and the fighting operation is broken up by Weedon Scott, the rich gold prospector who takes White Fang under his wing and is the first human to show any genuine kindness to him.
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Despite his savage past White Fang becomes completely devoted to Scott, who takes him south to his estate in the San Fransisco area where the wolf-dog adapts, albeit with difficulties, to his new life as a domesticated dog. The relevant point here, however, is that Beauty Smith and his circle, and all those directly involved in the dog-fighting ring, are of course white.

100 years ago, when the story takes place, despite the brutal, legalized oppression of African Americans that was ongoing in the US probably no one would have ventured to express the erroneous opinion, as some people seem to do today, that there is a racial aspect to cruelty to animals or that whites are not as guilty of this sort of thing as anyone else. The conditions of life in general and especially in the Yukon and other undeveloped areas,

where Jack London's dog stories take place, were obviously much cruder and less comfortable than what we are used to experiencing today, and people did not find it so shocking and unexpected that animals would be overworked or mistreated. Among the working-class roughnecks who people London's novels and short-stories there are criminal sadists as well as those who are kind to animals and willing, at great risk to themselves, to rescue them from the wretched conditions to which they are exposed in the 'Northland'. As the American public in the decades since London's time has become more educated and as progressive values have become more widely-held, cruelty to animals--both domesticated and wild--has become an offense viewed with increasing condemnation by all races.

Although White Fang and London's other great animal story The Call of the Wild are among the most heart-rending novels ever written, guaranteed to move any dog lover (myself included) to tears, London's view of dogs and of wolves is largely unsentimental and realistic. He depicts White Fang, in spite of the hellish environment into which he has been thrust, as actually enjoying the fighting and looking forward to demonstrating his prowess in the ring. Probably no animal lover today would write a story expressing such ambivalence or showing what is an almost positive side to this activity in spite of London's overall condemnation of it.

So what we were seeing in the outrage over Vick was partly a function of changing times and rising educational levels among all Americans regardless of racial or ethnic background. There may be an ethno-cultural aspect to it, but one needs to guard against overstating it. In the sense that the melting-pot cliche is true of the US most people here, regardless of background, assimilate the cultural attitudes of the dominant group. It is an unconscious process, which I as a person of a non-European ethnic group can attest to first-hand. But if there is, as Orwell indicates, something not simply 'Western' but more specifically 'Anglo-Saxon' about an exaggerated affection for dogs and other animals, this is only a part of the story. Economic issues, education, and the changing conditions of life also play a role. Some would charge me with over-analysis, perhaps. If one can make any sense of these multiple observations, however, the conclusion about the Vick affair must be that we should simply move forward. This has already happened given the paltry number of 'protesters' who were playing to the cameras outside the stadium before Vick's debut on the field. Vick personally, like everybody else, deserves a second chance. He was punished for his crimes, has fully expressed his regrets and should be forgiven. And perhaps the affair can lead us to acknowledge the vestiges of racial thinking in our world and to use this awareness as a springboard to get beyond it once and for all and complete the progress along those lines the country has made over the decades and the centuries. That, in the end, is the 'message' of Michael Vick and the lesson we should learn from his story.
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Allan Arpajian is a computer programmer with an additional background in literature and music. He lives in the Philadelphia area.

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