The lessons of Michael Vick

In an essay about a trip to Morocco, George Orwell noted that it took him several weeks to notice the means by which firewood was being carried past his house. Under each of the enormous loads was a tiny old woman, almost mummified by the sun and by decades of hard labor.

Orwell remarks that, while the sight of these women had registered on his eyeballs, he hadn’t truly seen them: “Firewood was passing — that was how I saw it. It was only that one day I happened to be walking behind them, and the curious up-and-down motion of a load of wood drew my attention to the human being underneath it. Then for the first time I noticed the poor old earth-colored bodies, bodies reduced to bones and leathery skin, bent double under the crushing weight.”

He gives the equivalent of a few pennies to one of the women, and she lets out a shrill wail, “which was partly gratitude but mainly surprise. I suppose that from her point of view, by taking any notice of her, I seemed almost to be violating a law of nature. She accepted her status as an old woman, that is to say as a beast of burden. When a family is traveling it is quite usual to see a father and a grown-up son riding ahead on donkeys, and an old woman following on foot, carrying the baggage.”

Yet, Orwell remarks, “I had not been five minutes on Moroccan soil before I noticed the overloading of the donkeys and was infuriated by it.”

“There is no question that the donkeys are damnably treated. The Moroccan donkey is hardly bigger than a St Bernard dog, it carries a load which in the British army would be considered too much for a fifteen-hands mule, and very often its pack-saddle is not taken off its back for weeks together.”

He points out that “this kind of thing makes one’s blood boil, whereas — on the whole — the plight of the human beings does not.” Indeed, he says, ordinary people in poor countries are for all practical purposes invisible. They are “the same color as the earth, and a great deal less interesting to look at.”

I thought of Orwell’s remarks in the wake of the Michael Vick dog-fighting scandal. The NFL quarterback has been charged with organizing events at which dogs specially bred for the purpose fight each other, often to the death. The charges have elicited remarkably intense outrage and disgust, with many fans demanding that Vick be banned permanently from the league.

Now I myself am thoroughly disgusted by dog-fighting, and believe it should be illegal. Like most over-educated and privileged people, I’m quite sentimental about animals. For example, I can’t bring myself to put down Mr. Puff, the ridiculous little dog I adopted from a rescue organization many years ago, even though he’s now almost blind, and incontinent.

But at the same time, I confess to a certain unease about the intensity of the outrage directed at Vick. After all, I’m not a vegetarian, which as a practical matter means I’m perfectly willing to pay people to keep animals in what are no doubt often cruel conditions (I prefer not to know the details, which is yet another form of hypocrisy) so that they can be killed before I eat them.

Furthermore, part of the disgust I feel toward dog-fighting is without question class-based. It’s not merely that Vick — assuming the charges are true — is a scumbag, but that he’s the sort of specifically low-class scumbag who would run a dog-fighting ring.

Again, none of this is a defense of Michael Vick, let alone dog-fighting. Still, Orwell’s point about what outrages us and what we choose not to see at all remains worth considering.

(Paul F. Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado and can be reached at Paul.Campos(at)


  1. ekaton

    “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its soldiers are treated” – Kent Shaw (apologies to mahatma)

  2. JoyfulC

    I’m not sure it’s entirely a matter of turning a blind eye.

    Yes, some people react very strongly to seeing an animal abused and perhaps less strongly or not at all to seeing a person abused.

    But let’s remember that our race is the steward to the animals that we domesticate. And the case could even be made that since we take our cut off the top of this planet, that we have a duty of stewardship to all living things on it.

    Humans suffer from cruelty, abuse, neglect, exploitation — but humans also have the ability to better their circumstances, although not always greatly and not usually easily. Compare that with domestic animals, though. They have NO ability to fight abuse. They’re pretty much stuck with whatever lot they get.

    And as unlikely as it is that any of Hemmingway’s wood carriers might ever escape their life of hardship and go on to make their fortune in this world, a domestic animal has NO hope of this.

    And I think, at least for my husband and me, this is why we tend to be more affected by images of animals suffering. Just as children rely on adults, animals rely on humans — except that animals don’t have a chance of someday finding themselves on the other end of that equation. An animal owned by a human who has no concern for its comfort has zero hope unless other humans intervene.

  3. lexiedogmom

    Lexie Homewood
    Maybe part of the reason people are so outraged, aside from the nobility of soul and spirit that dogs posess, is that domestic animals are utterly powerless. Their lot in life is determined purely by the people who own them. They cannot make it nor can they change it. To treat them with deliberate cruelty shows a tremendous dearth of kindness, empathy, and decency on the part of the abuser. Anyone who has ever loved a dog is outraged by this practice, and saying that there are other horrible situations in this world does nothing to diminish that outrage.

  4. psyopswatcher

    Something about ‘turning a blind eye’?

    I’m happy to see this issue coming up on the politico sites, because in this case the feds did NOT turn a blind eye when they went to Vick home with their drug warrant and found the evidence of dog-fighting. That fact alone brings a glimmer of hope back to those of us seeing the sad demise of justice in the Department of…

    Then considering the flak the NFL is taking in The Kingdom of the Holy Football, (I’ve actually started reading sports journals over this brouhaha since Atlanta is also the home of the Holy Bulldog) it’s good to see the human side of this issue. Is it any wonder that putting animals above people is a much missed focus that I thank you for bringing to light.

    Whether what we have here is a diversion from the circus in DC, or a true effort of federal criminal investigation on the national level (showing us that yes, they can still do their jobs), this case is about pure viciousness on all levels and the enjoyment it brings to certain individuals participating in this so-called ‘sport’. The gambling side being the next deadly sin.

    It became obvious with last spring’s pet food scare that people are very much concerned with animal wellfare issues and you don’t have to be PETA to get it. With this discovery, I hope it opens some eyes in America. As Gandhi once said:

    “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated” -Mahatma Gandhi

    Of course he’d just get blown off as another raghead.

    I wish I could write this with more clarity, but I’m not Al Gonzales. 😉 😉

  5. bryan mcclellan

    Damn good read.I can envision Lady Liberty as the old woman,and the firewood this current cabal we have in D.C.The burro,our fellow citizens, bent under the weight of hero worship.GOD help us…

  6. ekaton

    I can’t help thinking of our soldiers being abused by this administration. “Bred” (brainwashed) to fight and kill, some are going into their fifth deployment to Afghanistan and/or Iraq. We should be outraged by this total abuse of our military by our supreme court appointed president.

    Kent Shaw

  7. lindaj

    Right on, excellent essay. I often wonder about people so willing to feed “the starving children in (fill in the blank) but not the starving children at home; and to donate kidneys for expensive replacement surgery but not to support basic health care for all. Hipocrisy and blindness are everywhere rampant… lindaj

  8. allan hirsh

    mr. hirsh
    You cannot be too overeducated.
    And for a lawyer your observations are more contemplative than perceptual. While you have said nothing to disagree with, I think the analogy of meat-eating and dogfighting drag us from the specific dogfighting and criminal charge.