Inching Toward Insanity

by DAVE ZIRIN

Let’s get this out of the way early: I don’t support the fighting of dogs. I am not sitting here in a Michael Vick jersey snacking on Labrador fajitas thinking that his 12 month plea bargain is the greatest injustice since Sacco and Vanzetti. Please don’t send me emails saying that I hate dogs. Please don’t write that I am a "supporter" of Michael Vick, whatever the hell that means. I don’t love dogs. I don’t hate dogs. I will say I’m not a vegetarian. I love a good haggis. I gargle with gravy. I think short ribs are a "side." None of that means I hate dogs or think Vick is some kind of political prisoner. Like many, I eat meat, abhor dog fighting, and am comfortable with that hypocrisy,

But all that said–now that we have gorged on disclaimers–I find the reaction to this entire dog fighting case to be a frightening example of the worst kind of group-think: an unreflective mob-mentality run amok. I will not dwell on the various Internet postings that call for Vick to be lynched, beaten, or put in a phone booth with pit bulls. In less than five seconds of mouse-work, you too can buy a "Save a Pit Bull & Neuter Vick" T-shirt. They are easy enough to find since he Internet has always proven comfortable quarters for enterprising bottom feeding parasites.

I will also not harp on the sundry sports columnists using this opportunity to cluck about black athletes, "hip hop gangsta" culture, and what happens when you hold onto your "boyz." I think they speak for themselves. They are as predictable as a setting sun, their arguments and prose so mundane one wonders if they have a computer program where they enter key words like "gangsta", "hip hop", and "boyz" and just watch as the graphs spew themselves.

And I certainly do not wish to draw any unnecessary attention to Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia and the bizarre Senate floor speech in which he condemned Michael Vick to Hades, saying, "I am confident that the hottest places in Hell are reserved for the souls of sick and brutal people who hold God’s creatures in such brutal and cruel contempt!" I am also way too classy to may hay out of the fact that Byrd’s "youthful indiscretion" was joining the Ku Klux Klan, a group that used dogs on black people the same way people want dogs used on Mr. Vick.

There is simply no need to take aim at these obvious targets when our best sports columnists ­ people to treasure in these fetid waters ­ decide to ride the wave.

Such a writer is Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post. On Thursday she wrote, "If an animal didn’t perform well enough, if it wasn’t champion enough, if it was in Vick’s judgment flawed, he strangled it, drowned it, electrocuted it or beat it to death on the ground. Vick and his pals deliberately enslaved and tormented weaker creatures, and killed those they considered inferior. The dogs had faces and voices that would have eloquently expressed their agony, and Vick hurt them anyway, repeatedly. The crimes may have been committed against canines, but at issue is basic humanity. Commit those crimes against people, and the words we’d use for it are fascism, and genocide. Don’t kid yourself: The people who are so angry at Vick are angry for all the right reasons."

If it had run in the Onion, I wouldn’t have blinked. But this is the Washington Post, an esteemed paper of record. And this is Sally Jenkins. First, the contention, repeated everywhere as if fact, that Vick "strangled, drowned, electrocuted or beat dogs to death" was in the indictment, not the guilty plea. In other words, it remains an unproven accusation. If anything, Vick pleaded guilty because all of his friends pled deals when it became clear that the federal government wanted ­ as they always do ­ to land the big celebrity catch. The same justice department that says of Barry Bonds, "He’s our Al Capone" wanted Vick. That’s the headline. That’s what keeps their budgets fat.

In such an atmosphere, taking a plea clearly seemed to Vick and his team like the best of bad options.

As RL White, head of the Atlanta NAACP said, "At this point, you’re not looking at guilt or innocence. You’re thinking, ‘What I better do is cut my losses and take a plea.’"

All that said, the part of Jenkins’ piece ­ and almost all the writing on this subject ­ is the way dogs have been so thoroughly anthropomorphized. Faces? Language? Enslavement? FASCISM? Do we really need to check-off the actual crimes of fascism from the last century? Is Michael Vick really the Eichmann of the kennels? Is Jenkins’ prose more insulting to Vick or the people who actually had relatives die at the hands of Hitler and company? Does this discourse really make us smarter, or just more enraged?

Katha Pollit of the Nation has written that it says something positive about humanity that people are in an uproar about dogs and against the "poisoned narcissists" who make up the athletic community. I think it is the opposite. The humanization of the dog is the painfully ironic mirror image of the dehumanization of the rest of us. Just look at the world with semi-open eyes: How can we rally for the pit bull when one million Iraqis are dead and the US media barely yawns? How can we humanize dogs with such piety as Texas puts Kenneth Foster to death next week ­ puts him down like a dog for a murder all sides agree he didn’t commit? How can we imbue dogs with "language" when the actual words of those calling for help in HIV ravaged Africa are being ignored by our government? How can we cheer violent sports, ignoring ­ or even celebrating – the mutilation of people’s faces and voices, and weep over the pit bulls?

As Chicago Tribune columnist Rick Morrisey wrote, "Abuse your dog, and people howl. Smack around your girlfriend or face charges of sexually assaulting a woman and people shake their heads and roll their eyes."

Morissey is the exception in this point. Preemptive strikes are abounding against looking at some broader social context. Jemele Hill of ESPN wrote, "You can say Vick was persecuted unfairly by the white media, say we should be more concerned with the war in Iraq than an illegal dogfighting ring or say his downfall wouldn’t be a 24-hour news event if he were the highest-paid white quarterback. But it’s impossible to stand on moral high ground while trying to defend something so low."

Why does one have anything to do with the other? Why does pointing out that there is a war going on — and that lots more people are suffering than dogs — mean that you are by definition defending a pit bull ring?

Maybe a better question is, "Why are we surprised people get off on pit bull fights when there is a war going on?"

The response I will surely get ­ and have always gotten – for writing this is that "dogs are innocent." Once again this is a logic that transcends the bizarre.

Therefore poor people that become boxers, women who get raped, Iraqis picking up unexploded cluster bombs, are "guilty?" Have exercised "free will?" That’s not logic. That’s the doctrine of original sin. I don’t know what led Michael Vick down the road to Bad Newz Kennels. I also don’t pretend to know. But I do know that the world is in rather lousy shape and outrage is better spent elsewhere.

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