Is the idea of progress dead? Alain Finkielkraut, the French philosopher, says that as we approach the millennium, our faith in progress remains undimmed, while progress itself has died.by Alain Finkielkraut / October 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Warsaw, in the 1920s. The young Isaac Bashevis Singer walks by a butcher’s stall. Struck by the display in the window, he finds himself gazing at the beef sausages on their hooks, and offers them this silent oration: “There was a time when you were living creatures; you have suffered and now you know no pain. The tortures that were inflicted upon you and your desperate efforts to escape them have left no trace. Is there a tombstone somewhere in the universe on which it is written that a cow named Kvyatule allowed itself to be milked for eleven years? And that one day, when its udders dried up, it was brought to the slaughterhouse and a blessing was said before its throat was cut?”
Singer pursues the reverie. “Is there such a thing as true compensation for our pains? Is there a paradise for all the cows, chickens and pigs that have been massacred, the frogs that have been crushed, the fish that have been snatched out of the sea, the Jews tortured by Pietlioura or shot by Bolsheviks, the millions who died at Verdun?”
Time has passed since this silent oration, and all the cattle of the earth can only envy Kvyatule, the poor Polish cow to whom Singer offered a form of burial. Singer’s cow was not a mere commodity, it was an animal, it had a name; it had been allowed to roam freely in the open fields until the ripe old age of eleven; it had been spared bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE); a ritual had marked its death.
In order to maximise productivity, today’s anonymous cattle, deprived of their existence from the time they are born, rarely live more than 21 months. In order to speed up their development and their entry into the human food chain, it has been deemed appropriate to feed them meat-based meal. Moreover, a hormone, discovered by reputable laboratories and already in use in the US and in eastern Europe, could now radically increase milk production in cows, thus allowing us to severely limit their numbers.
At the time of Singer’s musings, it was still possible to argue that animal cruelty, such as that inflicted upon Kvyatule, was the price to pay for human progress. In this “spirit of compassion,” we even wished for the elimination of the remnants of archaism in rural life. The modern will to power,…