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Dogs, Violence and Popular Culture

July 27, 2007, 1:02 pm

Last night I was watching the pilot episode of Damages, the new Glenn Close series on FX about a Manhattan litigator who sues corporations for the Big Bucks when they do dirt to the little guy. Ted Danson plays the evil Kenneth Lay-type CEO who has encouraged his employees to invest in the company, then dumped his stock, killed the company and voided their pensions. I think it’s going to be a pretty good series, in part because, in true Fox News style, the producers are not going to let Glenn Close — a torts attorney, one kind of right-wing whipping boy — be a heroine. It appears that she has constructed an elaborate deception to get a witness to testify for the case against the robber baron by killing the witness’s dog, a large friendly mutt named Saffron, and framing the “bad guy.” The witness was willing to let five thousand people’s pensions go down the drain, but her moral compass has been aroused by the need to avenge her dog’s death.

Sounds right to me.

I had a friend once who said she couldn’t watch Hitchock’s masterpiece, Lifeboat, because they throw the dog out of the boat and row away as the camera follows the dog, paddling frantically after the boat and thinking that this must be some terrible mistake. And I feel very much the same way: as I watched last night, I knew they were going to find a dead dog in the apartment, and as I always do, I chanted silently in my head “Pleasedontkillthedog, pleasedontkillthedog.” But they did.

I hate it when they kill the dog. And of course movie and TV people know that, and they are able to make us feel feelings — fear, rage, grief — in relation to an unknown dog that we tend not to feel when seeing people killed on screen. Every time I watch The Shield I see three or four people killed, maimed, choked — Aceveda, the precinct captain, was forced to fellate a gang banger at gunpoint, and while I was glad I wasn’t him, I happily ordered another DVD from Netflix to see how he would get over his feelings about being, well, raped.

But I can’t bear to see them kill the dog, hurt the dog, threaten to hurt the dog — and you could pretty much substitute cat, or any domestic animal, for dog. Funny, isn’t it? And I guess a lot of people feel that way. Even if, as a few lone voices have pointed out in recent days, this verges on the hypocritical. As someone who loves thoroughbred racing, eats meat of all kinds that is raised and killed “humanely” (Ha! I do wish I believed that), has been known to poison and kill rodents invading my home, and does not believe that abortion is murder, I cannot comprehend why anyone would knowingly harm a living animal. I know this is really strange. But I am particularly disgusted by dog fighting. In part, I am convinced, in a beyond rational way, that dogs are more social beasts than people. I also believe that, like people, all dogs are good dogs if they get the love and respect they deserve as puppies.

Even pit bulls: go here to read about the American Staffordshire Terrier. Because I lived on the Lower East Side of New York for many years, I learned not to trust your average urban pit bull, many of whom were trained to be aggressive, and now I try actively to introduce Breezy, my dog, to pits with responsible owners because when I don’t it feels a lot like bigotry.

I am sparing you the pictures of the maimed and brutalized dogs I came across on line in order to get these nice pictures of pits raised by decent, responsible people.

That’s right, I’m getting to the ongoing investigation in which it is alleged that Michael Vick is an investor in a dog fighting syndicate recently busted on a property he owns in Virginia. Vick plead not guilty yesterday in a courtroom surrounded by a few fans and many, many animal rights people (augmented, perhaps, by people with other motives or those who were just grossed out) demonstrating against him. Atlanta Falcons training camp opened yesterday as well, and someone hired an airplane to circle the practice field with a sign condemning Vick. You can read about it here in the New York Times. A young player said to a reporter that this would just be a bump in the road in their season: ex-Patriots linebacker and veteran defenseman Lawyer Milloy stepped in (one imagines him smacking the rookie on the helmet on his way to the reporter) and said “Yes, a big bump.”

But initially I wasn’t going to blog about this case, in part because there are so many issues to address, many of which are quite morally vexed. Is the prosecutor going after Vick because he can, in what is now a familiar career move for an ambitious attorney in the public service? Republicans seem to have forgotten, for example, that Rudolph Giuliani originally came to prominence in New York by being one of those “overreaching prosecutors” who conservatives claim to despise, unless they are putting men of color in jail for murders and rapes they did not commit. Does Michael Vick being a famous black athlete make him a convincing target for a public that has a love/hate relationship with celebrities? Is it partly a good opportunity for animal rights people to get their message out whether it is Vick who ought to be carrying it or not? Certainly the bootstraps, millionaire athlete surrounded by a posse of rough characters who bring him down through their wild ways is a common popular culture narrative, in life and on shows like CSI. It’s easier to connect to than the 40,000 other people estimated to be actively involved in dogfighting, who are poor, working class and anonymous.

And what can anyone just reading about the case know about what Vick knew about the dog fighting ring– or whether he was connected to these people at all? We can’t and we don’t, and what people now call the “rush to judgement” is something to be aware of because things are not always what they seem. We project various kinds of rage on people we don’t know, often the wealthy and privileged, among whom carelessness and poor judgement can easily result in harm to others less powerful than they: cocaine and booze-fueled white women running over folks in their SUV’s, for example, or young men at prestigious universities who think that because it is legal to amuse yourself with a stripper it is ethical to do so and treat her like the trash you think she is. We are not mistaken to feel quite viscerally that such things might have been prevented, and that they are wrong, even when no laws are broken. We expect more of people who have had advantages and education, whether that is fair or not. We expect them to be aware of their responsibilities to others, and we expect them to do good and not take advantage of other people’s poverty, ignorance and venality. We expect them not amuse them
selves at the expense of people, or animals, who are weaker. It may not always be illegal, but it is wrong.

And in the end, this does work to the disadvantage of the privileged when they stumble or make stupid mistakes. For example, if a machinist working for United Technologies up here in Shoreline were busted as the owner of a Bridgeport slum property where dog fighting occurred, there probably would not be general calls from PETA to boycott Otis Elevators and those who used them. That is not fair, but it is true.

Which is why — much as I am repelled by dog fighting — I think it has to be put on the table that I , at least, think it is credible that Michael Vick may not have known about it. In other words, the idea that he must have known needs to be distinguished from the fact that he should have known. This turns on what seems to be the central fact of the case: that he owned the property. But I would like to put this in context. I have an old college friend who lives in Shoreline who had a more than moderately successful career in the NFL, and one thing I do know because of this friendship is that Vick owning real estate in a variety of places is not unusual, and not necessarily a sign of conspicuous consumption or careless habits. Quite the opposite, in fact. Football players who make a great deal of money in a short period of time – and they can never know how short their careers are going to be — if they are smart and get good advice, buy things that will more or less protect their money over the rest of their lives, produce a little ongoing income, and allow them to transition into a useful, productive life after football at a moment’s notice if they must. My friend owns real estate and fast food franchises in at least four states that I know of, and he could not possibly know or be responsible for what goes on in all of them, even the properties in Shoreline. There is no question in my mind that Vick should forfeit the property if that is how the law is written, as he would have to in a drug case, but whether he actually knew about the dog fighting and should be prosecuted as a co-conspirator is an open question in my view.

So the whole case will turn on if Michael Vick knew, if he was an investor in the dog fighting ring itself, and if he could have and should have known what was going on in Virginia; whether these were regular associates and whether he visited the property. What I would say is that if Vick did not have an agent who regularly dropped by all his properties to make sure they were being maintained properly, and who ascertained that what was going on there was legal, he was very, very foolish. But not, perhaps, a criminal, or even a bad person. And I doubt seriously that the prosecutor would have brought these charges in the first place if one of the so-called tenants were not prepared to flip on him in exchange for immunity. That tends to be the way the cookie crumbles. So it is going to be very ugly for Michael Vick, for a while at least, and whether he is exonerated or not, this moment will change his life and alter his professional prospects because — rightly or wrongly — I doubt that he will ever really be perceived as reliable again.

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