BOOK REVIEWS (2013): Hine’s (2010) Duncan The Wonder Dog: Show One

2 February 2013

—you can’t be contrite for what you aren’t going to change, and if you really think you can’t do anything, then you really aren’t going to be contrite for it.

Summary (in One Sentence)

The destruction of animals and the trafficking of human beings (through the adoption of children and the slavery of mass incarceration) are all linked together.

Pre-Disclaimer

Last year in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day, and now I’m not sure if I kept up. I have the same task this year, and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). These reactions will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to that when I read it. In general, these amount to assessments of in what ways I found the book helpful somehow.

Consequently, I may provide spoilers, may misunderstand books or get stuff wrong, or get off on a gratuitous tear about the thing in some way, &c. I may say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff. There are some in the world who expect everyone to be omniscient and can’t be bothered to engage in a human dialogue toward figuring out how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reaction I offer for a book is a here’s what I found helpful about this, then it is further up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, this or whatever it is we see as potentially helpful toward making the world a better place. If you can’t be bothered to take up your end of that bargain, you’re part of the problem to be solved.

A Review Of: Hine’s (2010)[1] Duncan The Wonder Dog: Show One

I got this book from the library at the behest of my graphic novel recommending friend. As an initial note about it, I’m not going to add to the raves. I’ll just say that of all the graphic novels I’ve read, I want to own this one to have a copy around.

One of the things about the book is its conceit of not being anthropocentric. I suspect that the book may be organized according to an animal-centric view of the world. At the beginning, for instance, in a dialogue between a tiger and a monkey—a newcomer to a circus—the tiger advises that it will not help to be afraid of human beings. And at the end of the book, there is a coda that runs—REMEMBER, I WARNED YOU IN ADVANCE THERE MIGHT BE SPOILERS:

The world is going to end, Eudora. It’s just a fact of existence. The sun will eventually burn out and this planet will turn into an [sic] frozen ball of ice. Everything and everyone will die, and more than that, there won’t be any evidence that anyone was ever here at all. There are some that say that because of this certainty, nothing anyone says and nothing anyone does can ever really matter. They say nothing can matter if everything will end. Eudora, if you take nothing else from me, take this: they are wrong (381–7).

There is so much pointless, lame-brained whilom fashionable cynicism in literature, this resounding conclusion is a massive breath of fresh air and betokens (again) a sense of the animal wisdom, if you will, in the book that seems smarter than the usual human wisdom.

But this is not what my reaction to this book is most about.

Over the course of my life, I have encountered two compelling arguments for vegetarianism. Of course, sanātana-dharma enjoins, “harm none,” and I could hardly not agree, but the argument, while as succinctly put as possible, by itself isn’t enough to be compelling for me, though it could or should be.  Part of the issue here is that, taken just at face value this way, it is hard to be convinced that the “demand” that my eating a steak from the store prompts really has a relationship to the “supply” of that steak. The connection seems—looked at this way—too tenuous.

Rather, it was from a recording of Thích Nhất Hạnh that the matter was put unambiguously, in the fact that the grain needed to raise meat that might be consumed by human beings (and also the grain used to make alcohol to be consumed by human beings) could feed many more people compared to the meat. This demonstrated to me that the fact of the meat in the freezer at my grocery store cannot be reduced simply to whether I refuse to buy it or to the fact that “it’s going to be thrown out anyway”. One can quibble with Thích Nhất Hạnh’s (Buddhist) point, but the issue rather is that it made a compelling argument that “harm none” did not.

This book makes a second compelling case by dramatizing the fundamental ethical problem involved in how we treat animals, although in trying to come to grips with this issues, it opens up in a number of complicated and not entirely satisfactory ways—which is not the fault of the book. Somehow, the seemingly simple device of allowing animals to speak (sometimes in English) back to humans creates a massive nest of ethical problems, which animal rights activists are deeply versed in.

The injustice of the tiger in his cage at the beginning, and his wisdom in the face of it, if you will, helps to set up a sequence where an extremely effectively drawn cow refuses to get out of a truck because he has heard that he’ll be killed for meat. The human responds to this with the obstreperousness of a slave-driver, pulling the power card and, ultimately, using a rope to pull the cow out. It breaks its leg in the fall—more precisely, because the humans force it out of the truck, its leg breaks, and it is eventually shot by a duly appointed butcher. The pathos is pretty devastating while still managing to be measured at the same time.

Later, in one of the set pieces in the book, an extended diary shows the life of a family pet, the dog Bundle. He’s nothing but continuously sweet toward his owners so, as he is dying and his “family” remain preoccupied with all of the things they are up to, it is the cat who lives in the house with him who yells at Bundle’s human “mom”, who works at a shelter for lost animals:

The poorest most pathetic humans live like gods compared to any animal. It doesn’t matter who you were with, they won’t get rounded up and burned in an oven if they walk the long way through somebody’s back yard! You wear clothes and Bundle wears a collar that you gave him to match your carpeting and all he wants is for you to be here. He’s dying and he just wants you to be here with him. Who cares about the fucking shelter! (315, emphasis in original)

It’s easy enough to suspect that the house cat is a platform for the author’s point of view here, and an editor who wanted to be crueler to the book’s readers would ensure that the word “fucking” were deleted, but this shouldn’t give us a reason to dismiss the point being made. Imagine if this was being said to someone whose slave was dying, whose adopted child was dying.

As someone who owns a cat—notice that one says “owns”—a cat who is availing herself of the sole of my foot and my legs as I type this, I am not one of those pet owners who says things like, “I love my pet like family,” or “I treat my animals better than my relatives,” and other pious falsehoods. What I immediately hear instead is that sort of counter-argument that says, “If we didn’t keep them as pets, they’d be worse off.”

That’s the same argument used to justify the trafficking in human beings called adoption. And since this book takes as its (slippery) conceit that animals can speak, we can hardly ignore how these two issues slide together. The point where adoption is concerned is first and foremost that it is human trafficking; someone financially benefits from these kinds of sales, and the same is true of animals. And there are any number of adoptees in the world—particularly transracial adoptees—who seriously question the notion that they were “better off” for having been “rescued” from wherever they were rescued.

Two points must be made crystal clear about this. First, transracial adoptees  (adoptees in general, but especially transracial and transnational adoptees) have a higher rate of suicide than non-adoptees. For those adoptees who killed themselves, it is clear enough that whatever “better’ life they were having in their adopting country, it could only be, at best, equally bad in their original country, if they resorted to suicide. Second, the only participants in the entire conversation about what might constitute a better life are either adopters or those adoptees who did not (yet) opt for suicide, so the whole discourse is skewed in the direction of people who have made some kind of peace with it, even if—as is the case with many transracial or transnational adoptees—they squarely set their voices against it.

The fact that no animals have complained so far tells us nothing, unless we count those who ran away. But we never imagine that that has anything to do with us, do we? In this respect, animals may be slightly more fortunate—it’s easier for them to run away than it is for the adopted child.

To tell an adopted child, “you would have had a terrible life if we’d left you where you were” for one thing makes the adopter (of a child, of a pet) into a rescuing hero. Let’s leave that part aside. Let’s leave aside also those cases where the adopting heroes decide that this non-biological child they own is theirs to sexually predate, to dress up in weird “native garb,” to speak down to their native culture, &c. My cat meows pathetically at me, and I decide not to feed her so she doesn’t get fat, or what not. Could that be abuse? What if it were my child? Let’s ignore the actual treatment inflicted on the pet/adopted child.

On what grounds can we say, “You’d’ve had a terrible life if we’d not adopted you” (whether one is speaking to a shelter dog or an orphanage boy). This fantastical otherworldly life is utterly fictional—raised in the Congo, you might indeed (if a woman) have wound up one of the hundreds of thousands of victims of sexual violence, but a hypothetical avoidance of that does not answer—except to grind out filial obedience—the conditions of living in this country.

Were I a Congolese boy, there is one thing I would not experience if I grew up in the Congo, and that would be the kind of systematic and institutional racism present in this country. If I was a second-class citizen of some sort, it would not be merely because I was Black. But this is not something that affects only children adopted into a culture who can’t “pass” as natives of that culture. As noted here, in a context where “reactive affect disorder” has been noted amongst adoptees:

From this I would be willing to state that race-similar children, not having the obvious physical “difference” to rely on—i.e., a kind of “safety valve” of obvious difference—might likewise go further in their “resistance” to the adoption, and against those they are compelled to “be like”. In such a light, RAD might better be stated as an acronym that stands for “Resistance Against Domination”, and should be categorized with similar resistances, and supported as such.

In this particular case, the author surmises that this kind of radical alienation, which leads often to suicide, may arise more easily in similar-appearing adoptees as compared to their adoptive parents. This, because when an adopted child is clearly Other, then a parent may have less impulse to really drive a child to assimilate (to the whiteness—or simply the dominant culture—that the parent represents). This is a function of racism—my Black child will never, of course, be nonblack like me, so there’s really no reason to push too hard. But when the child, say, is Romanian or Russian and adopted by white parents, there is no check on the parents’ desire to impose conformity to (unconscious) expectations.

With pets, we can only have illusions that they will ever “be human” by some pretty severe cognitive somersaults, no matter how much we might wish they were or treat them as such. This is one of the reasons, I believe, pets tends to be easier to love than humans, because we recognize early on (if subconsciously) that they cannot be what we want. So we’re able to “love” them as they are, or as we fantasize they are, without the interference of them “speaking back.” But, of course, sometimes there are such problems, especially when one adult in the house wants a dog and another wants a cat, &c. On My Cat From Hell, what is continuously presented are situations where, we might say, a cat is going through reactive attachment disorder. Importantly, the show’s resident expert always takes a cat-centric approach to the problem. With human beings, especially in an adoption context, children are sometimes returned because of a “bad fit”.

And of course this problem of “pet” dovetails into “slave” as well and all that is involved in that, where trafficking played an essential role and where the border between “human” and “animal” was disingenuously negotiated by those who trafficked in these human beings. Just as with pets, though less frequently with our adopted children, owners may license themselves for breeding. And, as with pets and adopted children alike, owners also may license themselves sexually too. Usually none of these wound up as meals though Albert Fish (the name is ironic) is a great equal-opportunity devourer in this regard.

Of course, we have a thousand and one reasons why killing and eating animals is just fine, as also trafficking in human children for adoption, and also for slavery. There’s never any shortage of comprador human beings who will say anything if only it allows them to sit up, beg, and get a scrap from the Master’s table. But to be more fair about it, what is one to do?

In a shitty musical—not that badly performed but not rescued from its shittiness for that reason—where a president of the United States, cast in far less ironic tones than the composer imagined, told a Native American character, “I know that the extinction of your kind is inevitable.” As utterly untenable as this absurd apologetics is, motherfuckers in the world will continue to insist that we must traffic human slaves, sell human babies, and can’t do without the needless destruction of so much animal life. Shall we say to the tiger, “I know that the extinction of your kind is inevitable,” and pretend that some dread necessity makes a hero of the hard man who shouldered that awful burden?

Carried to its logical conclusion, we should commit mass suicide (or is that exactly what we’re doing) to spare not so much the biosphere itself as the daily millions of creatures we are needlessly harming and slaughtering in so many millions of ways. Or else we can simply embrace Empire and say, “Well, black fox, you had your chance to evolve but goodness only knows what you did with the opportunity.” The image of the Jainists comes to mind, who in effect do, in their greatest asceticisms, get to the point of self-termination—but before that, they set the marvelous and admirable example of killing almost nothing to live, straining their water to avoid killing microbial life, walking before themselves with fans to spare the flying insects any harm, and the like.

The part where it breaks down is that animals do not talk in the sense that Hines deploys in his book—and I’m absolutely in support of making human beings feel queasy about the mind-boggling holocaust that is visited upon animal life on an hourly basis—or in other words, approximately 6,735,159 land and sea animals per hour for human consumption in the United States. If making the creatures of the world speak, never mind philosophize, causes us to pause for some length of time to think that all through, that’s better than the alternative.

Certain parts of human thinking are deconstructed by Hines. He presents the notion that we are too either/or; our mania for thinking that by naming something we understand it is a continuous criticism throughout the book. Very often, the animals speak with what appear to be empty speech bubbles, but I believe it is, rather, that we simply cannot hear what the creature is saying. There is a moment where one animal says to another, in effect, there are things our language cannot confine and things I cannot show you. Presumably, they are only open to experience. But as against the usual human run of things, where we “give each other names, we give everything names to assert our place” (251), Pompeii asserts, in the context of a story where an eagle mother lays two eggs but only one will survive (the one who gets the most food): “we take the form of what brought us here, and we take the name of what we killed to stay” (251).

So the problem with the conceit is that animals (so far as we can tell) don’t make the same kind of fuss about things that we do. Pompeii voices her distress at the various elements of the environment—poisonous lights make her fur itch, &c. Hines goes out of his way to try to illuminate, or at least imagine, the unimagined effects of human presence on animals, I think partly as an argument against the claim that animals don’t feel what we do. Animals are sentient creatures, to be sure; and on those grounds, it has to be considered immoral to cause them needless pain, quite apart from whether an animal is able to reflect on that experience or not, i.e., to come to terms with its existential condition in whatever terms they do. Animals, and their arguably “alien” outlook, provide the center of this story. The humans in it are largely underdeveloped—there are a lot of human names that get thrown around for no narrative reason or necessity, and the backstories tend to be sketchy and stretched out over long periods, if at all. It is, of course, the sequence with a human diary that provides the most developed look at a human being, and that diary is burned and destroyed by Pompeii in disgust after reading it.

But unlike animals (at least as it seems to us), the adopted child and the slave can speak. Hines has not written an allegory about adoption and slavery; it is, rather, that the consequences of the themes here open up into those vistas because they are similar, and sometimes, identical terrain. If one were to try to rationalize with a tiger and say perhaps, “Well, if it were you choosing your kind or our kind, you’d choose tigers too,” whatever truth that has in the world of animals is refuted by the slave and adopted child. But it is the tiger in the story who asks the monkey why the monkey’s father told him the story about a terrible human; “to fear humanity” the monkey answers, and the tiger replies, “Yes. To fear humanity. But humanity shouldn’t be feared, should they.” Monkey: “No.” Tiger: “No, they shouldn’t.”

As a human being, that seems like an immensely generous (and, frankly, heartening) thing to hear (from an animal).

In the actual world, we cannot at present, for better or for worse, have this conversation with the animals. The animals have the advantage or disadvantage of not experiencing this dilemma. The tiger actually lets humans off the hook, by declaring it is our dharma to be this way. I think this means that once we achieve a higher consciousness, a more auspicious reincarnation, then we will have a better dharma, a less terrible one. This religious solution, like most religious solutions, does an end-around on the whole ethical dilemma in the first place. It can be accused of a quietism that may seem forgivable if it is really the case that there’s nothing to be done, especially if you are an animal, an adopted child, a slave.

But we do at least have the human example of previous civilizations. Manifold were the rites, performed at the communal meal, where the bones of the creature slain were honored and treated well. The understanding was that so long as the creature was respected, it would reconstitute and go on to support human (and other) life, that being its dharma. This is, of course, a story humans tell themselves to justify slaughtering animals, but to take sparingly and with respect only what is needed is at least preferable to taking excessively and without compunction a thousand-fold what is needed.

It’s worth noting that in the book the terrorist activities of Pompeii don’t seem directed only toward those who eat animals. There is also, if memory serves, one frame of one animal eating another and, at another point, some scavengers eating a dead human. The problem of “eating” per se may not be a major problem or focus in the book.

So can there be a respectful slavery then, a respectful adoption? The metaphors may be flying apart here because where human respect for the animal slain is concerned, this is because biological sustenance is involved. But if we’re thoroughgoing about this, then we should have to dismiss even these respectful feasts from human habit, as there can be no respectful murder of slaves or adopted children. Even the story of reincarnation included in the animal tale is a comfort to make the devouring acceptable, and reincarnation introduces its own problems in the human domain as well.

What I find in all of this is myself hopelessly cornered. I can’t pretend that destroying animals for my benefit is ethical, even as it is unclear what difference it would make were I wholly a vegetarian. I cannot pretend that the status of my pet cat is not problematic, no matter how committed I am to her well-being, since she can’t tell me what that even is, and I cannot know.  Just as my adoptive parents cannot excuse themselves from whatever culpability results from taking in a child that is not their own, however much they loved me, believed they loved, or what not.

And so like my adoptive parents, I might find myself saying, “Look, I did the best I knew how,” knowing that (as Winston Churchill observes), sometimes it is not enough to do your best; sometimes you must do what needs to be done.

One may justly ask, were the northerners during the time of slavery in the US south morally superior merely by virtue of not owning slaves? In the first place, the answer is a resounding no, because so many northern industries were textile enterprises that relied on US cotton. There were also all of the northern industries that relied on sugar from Caribbean slave products. But even those industries that did not depend on these slave labor products were embedded in a whole cultural life that included these things—the sort of reverse of the current situation where the well-off gripe about taxes and use publicly funded roadways to drive all their shit around without paying for it.

So also then are we all in the United States now the beneficiaries of the industries involved in animals, slaves (mass incarceration and the Drug War, if you think slavery is over), and adoptees, even if we are strict Vegans. Our protest is a conceit, or as the “word of the day” wolf shouts at Jack Hammond in the book, “Vanity!” (356). An only solution, besides suicide, is to expatriate, albeit it may be difficult to find somewhere in the world where these things are not true—if it is only a matter of less severe by degree, that’s still not negligible.

No doubt the argument remains unaddressed—Jainist dedication aside—it’s simply not possible to do away with all of this. The idea that we must persist in slavery, must persist in human trafficking, must persist in needlessly harming animals is a self-destroying argument, but even if such desperate hand-waving were taken seriously for a moment, it cannot be unreasonable to suggest that perhaps we’re currently doing too much of it, and should scale back. Or are you not in favor of reducing human slavery? Are you against decreasing the amount of human trafficking? Do you oppose lessening the amount of NEEDLESS destruction of animals?

Let’s not be trite.

So instead I seem to be proposing some massive guilt trip. We should just all feel horribly sickened and depressed at all of this disgusting behavior on the part of people—“people” in this case including “us” and “me”.

If someone breaks into your house and you kill them, that’s called self-defense. If you can prove that it really was self-defense and not something staged, then you’ll likely not be held criminally liable. But that exculpation of criminal liability should not be grounds for feeling good about what you did. You should feel bad about taking a human life, no matter how hopped up on methamphetamine that home invader was, who threatened to rape your children and slit your spouse’s throat.

When we commit wrongs, we should acknowledge them. To eat meat is to commit a wrong—we should acknowledge that wrong. You don’t have to drag yourself through the gutter—just don’t be disgustingly proud of yourself for being such a piece of shit. There’s vanity galore. Nothing stops you from that point of acknowledgment and trying to do better, to be better, to change things for the better—ground pork  is cheap, and we’re poor, so that’s what we eat. It’s wrong—acknowledge it, don’t be proud of it.

You bought a child—acknowledge that; don’t be self-righteous about it. You own slaves—acknowledge it; don’t make idiotic excuses for what we all know is wrong. You own a pet—acknowledge that wrong and keep on doing the best you can. But don’t congratulate yourself for being an ignorant saint. You shot someone who broke into your home—acknowledge that; don’t act like you did the world a favor.

We’re in the soup, especially in the United States. Let’s not kid ourselves we’re not the world’s bad guys. It may be well, well, well beyond our ability to do shit about it, but we can at least do the shit of not pretending we’re something we’re not. Anyone who thinks this means dragging ourselves through the mud is an idiot, frankly. All that chest-beating and garment-rending and mea culpa bullshit is just the flipside of vanity—no matter how sincerely felt, you can’t be contrite for what you aren’t going to change, and if you really think you can’t do anything, then you really aren’t going to be contrite for it.

But even beyond this, it’s still all about vanity. I shoot a man in self-defense, and someone tries to compliment me for it, for being brave—fuck no, “It’s a terrible thing I did, and I wish I could’ve done something different.” I can find it troubling; I don’t have to find it crippling. You know, me wearing a fur coat, that’s kind of high-siding on the fucker scale, but someone wants to hammer me for eating meat, I’m going to just have to agree, “Yeah, it’s a terrible thing I did, and I wish I could’ve done something different.” And anyone who thinks I should just buy a vegetarian cookbook and get to cooking obviously doesn’t know my situation and needs to do more than be a self-righteous co-conspirator in the holocaust of animals being slaughtered every second, because your self-righteousness is just covert northern complicity in my southern overt malfeasance.

Every day, it’s terrible things we do, and I wish we could do things differently. It seems Adam Hines feels in the same boat. And unless we all start helping one another, nothing’s going to change for the better.


[1]Hines, A (2010) Duncan the wonder dog: show one. Richmond, VA: AdHouse Books, pp. 1-392.

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