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)Colorado.edu.)