Each Thanksgiving, the President uses his executive powers to publicly pardon the life of a turkey gifted to him from agribusiness in a celebratory press conference. I believe this rather utopian life-saving pardon reveals our collective moral tension over eating fellow animals. The bird’s pardon exists uncomfortably in a gap between the pleasure-seeking advertising of the meat industry and the critical moral rhetoric of animal rights. What does this odd ritual imply regarding American identity, attitudes, and anxieties about raising and killing billions of animals for food?
As scholars of critical media and animal studies, my colleague and I examined 20 years of White House press conference transcripts and news coverage of the Presidential Thanksgiving turkey pardoning (From Bush Sr. to Obama). While George W Bush saw it as an opportunity to pun it up, Obama is the President who expresses the most disdain for the pardon, saying: “There are certain days that remind me of why I ran for this office—and then, there are moments like this – where I pardon a turkey and send it to Disneyland.”
Being a smart guy, Obama knows the pardoning is absurd, so let’s explore why.
Its most obvious absurdity is the hypocrisy of the President saving one bird publicly while eating another bird privately (a bird someone killed for him outside the media spotlight). And Obama’s trivializing comments let people know he shares the dominant humanist bias, where we presumably find it absurd to consider the lives of nonhuman animals a serious or “Presidential” matter. Although, I argue the ceremony could be more Presidential and less trivial if he used it as an opportunity to enact the first federal laws protecting the welfare of animals on (factory) farms or requiring needed environmental standards from agribusiness. He could stop allowing the fox to guard the henhouse, which may just begin to curb the animal welfare and environmental disaster that increasingly stains the American landscape. The final absurdity is that all Presidents use the Thanksgiving ceremony to compliment Americans for being such a generous, just, and freedom-loving people, while ignoring the reality that we are complicit in legalizing the mass captivity and slaughter of billions of sentient individuals here at home. If Presidents continue to brand American identity through this hollow gesture sparing one lucky bird, it threatens the moral integrity of the values Americans claim to believe in -- freedom, life, respect, compassion, justice, accountability, honesty, and personal & social responsibility.
So what is my suggestion for the White House, then? Do I expect President Obama to kill the turkey? (that seems most likely if Perry gets in office). No, I’m not a fan of killing. But if the Presidential pardon continues to be used as an “animal sacrifice in reverse” to assuage collective guilt over the violence of our holiday meal and it continues to function as an official sanction for an unnecessary mass slaughter, then yes, stop accepting a ritual turkey. However, if the President does continue to accept and save a bird’s life, then he shouldn’t hypocritically also accept and eat a dead one. He could follow Clinton’s lead in eating a plant-based diet and become a role model for health and social responsibility by giving thanks in a genuine, meaningful way that needn’t involve animal sacrifice. Presidents could use the Thanksgiving ceremony to show public support more broadly for American-grown organic crops of the season, such as: pumpkin, squash, yams, potatoes, wheat, asparagus, green beans, soybeans, peas, apples, pecans, etc. Let’s face it, for an American male (much less the Commander in Chief) what would show more courage, leadership, or masculine self-assurance than a principled boycott of meat?
And what can journalism do? Avoid following the whimsical rhetoric of the White House that belittles animal life with unprofessional puns and jokes. Approach the pardoning ceremony critically, for what it is, a staged PR event for the National Turkey Federation. Question and investigate the turkey industry and all animal agribusiness for its systemic unsustainability and inherent animal suffering. Don’t sanitize it – show us the reality and magnitude of the cesspools and the slaughtering line. While some journalists do a good job questioning the poor treatment of factory farmed turkeys, highlighting the fact that their engineered unnatural bodies can’t live long, you should also allow for a debate over whether it is necessary or morally justified for humans to breed and eat fellow animals at all (joining a conversation about vegetarian ethics that world religious leaders and intellectuals have been exploring for several thousand years). Why deny animal rights a place on the public agenda? You are the news media, not the Food Network or publicity agents for the turkey industry. Don’t be afraid to spoil America’s appetite by stimulating our minds and our consciences.
This op-ed for Common Dreams is a response to the findings of Carrie Packwood Freeman & Oana Leventi-Perez : Pardon Your Turkey and Eat Him Too: Antagonism Over Meat-Eating in the Discourse of the Presidential Thanksgiving Turkey Pardoning. (Full study to be published in a 2012 book: The Rhetoric of Food: Discourse, Materiality, and Power)