THE CAMPAIGN MANAGER of a congressional candidate in Arkansas returns home to find his children’s cat bludgeoned to death. The creature’s skull is caved in. The word “liberal” has been scrawled on the corpse. Why should you care?
It is easy to dismiss this as a small crime, relative to the atrocities we read about daily. Protesters are being murdered by the thousands in Syria, and you are being asked to care about the death of someone’s cat, in a minor congressional campaign, in an overwhelmingly free country?
Yes, you should care. You should be stricken with rage, and — when calm enough to consider this rationally — should think hard about the disease that passes for political discourse in the United States of America.
This is not a question of sentiment. JD Salinger has a character refer archly, when discussing a kitten, to “R. H. Blyth’s definition of sentimentality: that we are being sentimental when we give to a thing more tenderness than God gives to it.” Salinger himself, I suspect, had no time for this definition. Still, that is not the discussion here.
I happen to adore cats, but even if you do not particularly like them, you should recognize the nature of this act. The full horror of it. A political partisan, in the course of an ordinary electoral campaign, has decided that this is acceptable. Democracy is a rough-and-tumble business, right? If you’re not tough enough to handle it, stay off the campaign trail. It is fair game to, say, break the hearts of a campaign manager’s innocent children, by slaughtering their innocent pet.
It is not simply a vile act. As Richard Eskow has pointed out: it is part of a continuum of barbarism. Each element of this continuum is easily denied — every one crime is clearly an aberration — but taken as a whole, you can no longer ignore the tendency. This is the way we are moving.
The slaughter of this cat may be a grotesque anomaly. It may well have nothing to do with this congressional contest. It may be the act of an unhinged apolitical drifter, or a psychotic teenager. We know that a local radio station — owned by the father of the Republican incumbent — has been pointedly announcing the personal addresses of Democrats working on this campaign; there is every reason to note an atmosphere of threat; but this one act may be unconnected.
Just as the deranged man who shot Gabrielle Giffords was probably not in fact inspired by Sarah Palin’s fanciful crosshairs. It is not at all clear that he was capable of reason. The fallacy here is “post hoc, propter hoc” — just because something follows something else, that is no evidence of cause.
Still you should care.
Deciding that you do not care is an admission that you truly see the United States as a nation that has no time for the weak. In which democracy is a Darwinian brawl, and collateral damage simply a given. A strong nation cannot afford to worry about kittens.
What Salinger himself thought about this particular crime is not difficult to discern. The narrator of his short story, “For Esmé — with Love and Squalor,” is a soldier who has been driven to a nervous breakdown by precisely this: another soldier displaying his machismo by casually shooting a kitten.
The incident is said to have been inspired by an encounter with Hemingway — I find that impossible to believe. Everything I have read about Salinger’s meeting with Hemingway suggests the opposite: that Salinger was surprised to find Hemingway kind. In fact, this assumption — that real men casually slaughter innocent creatures — goes entirely contrary to everything I have experienced of military honour.
Salinger personally survived the Bloody Mortain, one of the ugliest battles of the Second World War, and was among the first to liberate the death camps. He did have a serious breakdown when he returned from the war. And he chose to express this — the very worst that he or anyone of his generation had experienced — by writing a short story (one of the greatest in the literature) about a soldier who is morally shattered by the murder of a kitten.
If this crime does not matter to you, then you do not care about the nature of your democracy. You do not care about what kind of country you live in — what kind of people you surround yourself with. This is not an exaggeration: Gandhi rightly said that, “the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”
To allow this vicious act, small as it may be, to be associated with the American political process — to permit this in any way to represent the manner in which political decisions are made in this decent country — is to give up on what matters. It is nihilism.
And nihilism is unbearable. Nietzsche, the philosopher of nihilism, the thinker most deeply associated with the brute military ethos, seems to have been unable finally to despise the weak. Not personally. The philosopher’s own mental collapse in Turin was signaled when he was found in tears in a public square, with his arms around the neck of a horse that was being whipped.
Even in madness, Nietzsche had more to say than most of us do at our most lucid. He wrote that he learned everything he knew about psychology from Fyodor Dostoevsky, and many have noted that Nietzsche’s collapse in Piazza d’Alberto was an eerily literal enactment of the famous dream sequence in Crime and Punishment (a book he had read two years previously): Raskolnikov’s dream of attempting as a little boy to intervene when a horse is whipped to death.
Dostoevsky did not consider the slaughter of an innocent animal trivial: “Love the animals: God has given them the rudiments of thought and joy untroubled.” The moral and mental health of a child in The Brothers Karamazov is made to hinge upon whether the boy’s casual act has in fact caused the cruel death of a dog.
You can argue that these things do not matter. Writers more profound than most of us, however, have stressed that nothing matters more.