The Anatomy of Cruelty

September 17, 2007

Multiple Pages
The Anatomy of Cruelty

When H. G. Wells wrote his fantastic tale about a scientist who breeds human-animal hybrids with sadistic intent—created to destroy one another, plus any humans unfortunate enough to wash up on The Island of Dr. Moreau—that utopian socialist probably didn’t envision his own country becoming another island of lost souls.


  

Morally speaking, however, modern-day Britain increasingly resembles the futuristic dystopia Wells depicted in The Time Machine: a post-historic world where mutant cannibals, the Morlocks, sustain themselves upon the helpless descendants of modern men, the Eloi.


  

A harsh analogy? Just consider this breaking news: Britain’s own Moreaus have been given the all’s clear to farm human-animal hybrid embryos for stem-cell research. Like Moreau, these gods of the laboratory also create to destroy, but with the putative aim of doing good: saving sick people by curing incurable diseases. Creative destruction, if you will.


  

Even if this should prove possible, the notion of achieving good ends through destructive (or, if you like, evil) means is still a Devil’s bargain, smacking of hubris and destined to folly. Even if Grandma shouldn’t die of Alzheimer’s any longer, that won’t make the Grim Reaper reconsider his vocation. People will continue to die, however many nascent human beings (or, literally, human guinea pigs) are destroyed to delay the inevitable.


  

Despite the ghoulish attempts of men who would play God, it’s instructive to remind ourselves that no man can create a living being from scratch. Animal hybrids count no more than plant hybrids. In both cases, creation is merely manipulated to assume new forms, like lumps of clay molded into sundry forms.


  

Creating even the simplest organism is beyond our ability, a cell being incomparably more complex—and awe inspiring—than a computer chip. Playing God is best left to science fiction, where freak shows can entertain without incurring moral culpability.


  

*****


  


  

No man can create an animal, but history shows men terribly capable of making animals of themselves. To be fair to the lower orders of creation, however, they don’t deserve to be grouped together with self-debased humans. While we can lower ourselves, smothering the spark of the divine that makes us human, animals cannot rise above their natures. Besides, some animals have exhibited a certain nobility that reminds us that one Creator made us all for each other’s mutual benefit. So it would be cruel to put Lassie or Robert E. Lee’s horse Traveller in the same pen with disgraced football star Mike Vick, who cashed in civilization for savagery.


  

As most know, Vick faces prison time for running a dog fighting operation. Evidently his $130 million contract with the Atlanta Falcons didn’t serve to cultivate higher forms of leisure. With his cronies, he trained dogs to fight to the death. Stacks of bloody Benjamins exchanged hands as they bet on the winners. Pooches who weren’t up to the ultimate challenge were killed: some drowned, others hanged (yes, hanged: but how, and why?).


  

After the court hearing where Vick entered a no-contest plea agreement, he consoled his mother, his sobbing pregnant fiancée, and legions of distraught fans who live vicariously through such "heroes." His actions were "immature," he said, his tail between his legs.


  

"I want to apologize to all the young kids out there for my immature acts and, you know, what I did was, what I did was very immature, so that means I need to grow up.”


  

It’s unmanly to kick someone when he’s down, and there’s always hope for redemption: of "mak[ing] Michael Vick a better person," as he put it.


  

But such gruesome acts of cruelty, which is the sheer pleasure of inflicting pain upon the helpless, demand punishment. Of course, Vick’s masters would have preferred covering up their star player’s "immature" pastime off the gridiron. He was an incredibly lucrative fighting machine himself, and his #7 jersey was one of the best selling in the whole NFL.


  

Although the dog fighting angle may be shocking, is it surprising that rotten things should bob to the surface of our cultural swamp? Cruelty toward the weak and helpless is often mistaken for strength nowadays, though it’s usually packaged as a virtue. Destroy a country for democracy? It’s just a blessing in disguise, really, and the wogs—never called such, of course, but that’s how the benighted are regarded—will thank us when they trade in their bullets for ballots. Pry good jobs from your countrymen and ship them to strangers overseas? That’s just the marvel of free trade. Besides, lighter wallets can buy cheaper foreign manufactures at the local Wal-Mart. Don’t have cash? Put it on plastic.


  

When it comes to the Neanderthal realm of commercial sport, however, there is no window dressing. "Being a man" is celebrated as the in-your-face exhibition of the rawest characteristics of the male sex, human or not: unbridled aggression; using females as mere vehicles for sexual gratification; expressing language in grunts with the aid of gesticulations; all accompanied to the "music" of a primitive beat with lyrics from that ring of Hell where all evil is banal.


  

And whereas the ancient Romans never would have dreamed of treating their human fighting animals as heroes, the lucrative contracts showered upon males like Vick give their behavior an imprimatur of propriety, though as fake as the "gold" in bling jewelry.


  

Nor is cruelty masquerading as manliness the sole domain of over-muscled morons. Maybe Vick truly believes that staging his little horror show was merely immature, though this recognition may be more reflexive—the humiliated reaction to getting caught—than genuinely understood. Less can be said of otherwise admirable men like Ernest Hemingway and his friend, the great actor Gary Cooper. They should have known better.


  

In the biography Hemingway: Life into Art, Jeffrey Meyers recounts one of Papa and Coop’s hunting expeditions. They were accompanied by Ingrid Bergman’s first husband, Petter Lindstrom, and the gentle Swede was shocked by the indiscriminate slaughter: "We drove along the power lines in a jeep and they shot eagles off the power lines using telescopic scopes. ... Another day we went rabbit hunting. They engaged these farmers to ride in trucks chasing the rabbits towards them. They killed maybe fifty rabbits. Nobody wanted them."


  

Killing distant eagles and scurrying rabbits may be one thing, though Natty Bumpo (who felt such remorse for shooting an eagle) and Beatrix Potter would beg to differ. Cruelty to man’s best friend, however, is more beastly than anything a mere animal could contrive. It’s impossible to imagine Hemingway, Cooper, or any real man abusing a dog.


  

*****


  

On a lighter note, it’s worth mentioning that even when man’s best friend isn’t available to pet and play fetch, he sometimes has to be invented as an imaginary friend.


  

Strolling about Capitol Hill the other evening, I saw a little boy playing on the sidewalk in front of his home. He was maybe five years old. As I approached, he said, "Hi, you got a dog?"


  

"Yeah, but she’s on vacation," I answered, which is sort of true: It would be tough caring for a dog given my work schedule (a dog being not a cat), so Julia—a Pomeranian-Chihuahua mix consisting of equal parts charm and naughtiness rolled up into one furry roly-poly of a mutt—resides with my folks back in Chicago.


  

"Well, you wanna see my dog?" asked the boy. Of course I did.


  

So he ran into his front yard and pulled out a sort of toy dog—or so it appeared—attached to the end of a push cart resembling one of those make-believe lawnmowers with bobbing balls that a boy pushes alongside his father while the old man cuts the grass. And so the three of us walked a few yards down the sidewalk together.


  

It was twilight, and when the last rays of sunshine broke through the shady trees, I saw that the boy actually was pushing a toy frog.


  

"Hey, that’s not a dog, that’s a frog," I said.


  

"Yeah, I know he’s a frog, but I call him my dog," said the boy.


  

Then he swiftly turned around with his frog-dog and said, "Nice meeting ya’, but I’ve gotta go inside now!"


  

He didn’t abruptly depart because he was disenchanted by this statement of fact. He was just your usual uninhibited kid, in this case for the better. Some children can be the cruelest human beings for the same reason; others never are cruel, their marks of Original Sin expressed in other deformations of character; a few, alas, never develop the moral maturity requisite to conquer cruelty, becoming pathetic shades of the men we all are called to be.

Matthew Rarey writes from Washington.  He can be reached at MatthewRarey00@yahoo.com

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