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Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust

by Charles Patterson

[Book Review by Nowick Gray]

This book is important and disturbing. I took a growing (and almost) morbid interest as the catalogue of atrocities grew. From the very foundation of Western thought, Genesis, to the current dehumanization of political enemies as "animals," people have taken power and false morality in order to exert dominance over others. At the nadir of this depressing history is the incomprehensible evil wreaked on the Jews by Hitler; but the book does an excellent job of showing how the way was paved by, among other factors, Henry Ford and assembly-line slaughterhouses, animal breeding and forced sterilization, hunting, slavery, and the conquest of the Americas. Indeed, the author does an admirable work of research in drawing the links between these various lineages of oppression and murder--as, for instance, between the treatment of slaves and the treatment of beasts of burden. Through all of it the tone is impeccably objective, letting the horrific facts and connections speak for themselves.

In contrast, the book's conclusion (comprising its final third, and entitled "Holocaust Echoes") homes in rather one-dimensionally in on what really is the author's chief concern: the cause of animal rights. The mountain of dead bodies assembled earlier in the work certainly proves the point that for animals the holocaust is a daily reality. What is missing, however, is any consideration of the rationale which supports meat-eating and its industry. Obviously billions of humans addicted to meat have their reasons, and not all of those reasons have to do with sheer domination.

Many native American peoples have survived largely by virtue of their dependence on animals for food, clothing, and shelter; in the far north that dependence was absolute. In such a context animals have to this day been given sacred status, and killed with respect for supporting human life. Earlier in human history, animals similarly played a key food role in allowing our species to expand and survive in conditions that were unfavorable to supporting year-round vegetable diets. The advent of agriculture allowed that dependence on dwindling herds of game to shift to cereal grains: but again animals were necessary, this time to provide the labor and manure. Finally, I wonder how the author would deal with the question of carnivorous animals: are only non-human animals allowed to kill for food with impunity?

Eternal Treblinka is nothing if not thought-provoking. The host of central questions--like ghosts from the gas chambers--arise and refuse to go away.

Is killing animals absolutely unjust, or are there occasions where it is morally "okay"? This question is reminiscent of the hoary Catholic concept of the "just war." Christians--and Jews--for centuries have preached the commandment "Thou shalt not kill" (other humans) but have made haste to cover the globe (or get swift revenge on Palestinian settlers) doing just that.

Is it unjust to kill all animals? What about oysters? Fish? Blue-green algae? What about plants--which other researchers have shown to respond to human emotion (including thoughts of harm!) or classical music (Wagner, anyone?)

Was it okay to kill animals when it was a matter of human survival, but no longer okay when we can buy California soybeans year-round? Except maybe in the Arctic where it still might be . . . or only in cases of imminent starvation? The same question could be applied to cannibalism, I suppose: leg of lady is only on the menu on Day 30 after a plane-crash or shipwreck?

Or is it all a matter of degree? No absolutes, but just a consideration of scale, attitude, mind-set? If we went back to the family farm, or the bison on the prairie, or the scavenged lion-kill, can we eat meat then (after prayers) and be pure?

Or do we have to find that Space-Odyssey moment of revelation in our dim apelike history when the light bulb should have gone on--and instead of wielding the first club against our food-grubbing neighbor, we throw it down and cry out to friend and foe alike: "War no more! We can grow sprouts together (and when our descendents invent blenders, they can wash it down with hemp milk)!"

I'm almost ashamed to be so irreverent in the face of such evil in the world; and in playing devil's advocate I risk the liberal disease of rational dismissal, which amounts to denial. On the other hand, I don't call myself "Cougar" for nothing...

more about Eternal Treblinka


[more Book Reviews by Nowick Gray]



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