Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Preposterous: The Presidential Turkey Pardon

The perverse absurdity of a reverse animal sacrifice

Every Thanksgiving, at a White House ceremony punctuated by much media fanfare, the President of the United States symbolically “pardons” a single turkey — just one day before he joins the rest of America in devouring 45 million others. Legend has it that Abraham Lincoln started the custom one Thanksgiving day in the 1860s by sparing his son Tad’s “pet” turkey from the axe, but the pardon only became an official American tradition in the late 1980s when George H.W. Bush* occupied the Oval Office. Lincoln’s gesture of historical kindness has since evolved into a bizarre ritual in which the country lightheartedly hails saving the life of one turkey in order to displace the unconscious collective guilt for killing millions more.

This year, the farce of this reverse animal sacrifice reached new heights of ridiculousness with White House videographer Arun Chaudhary’s YouTube video parody preview. In this short spoof (of what exactly, I’m not sure), 2009’s chosen turkey (named Courage) “does the slow walk right through the gates outside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, past ‘Pebble Beach’ where reporters do stand-up television shots, through the West Wing and Oval Office into the Rose Garden.” So rather than solemnly acknowledging all the millions of birds who are summarily slaughtered for this bloated holiday buffet, we treat their deaths like a big joke — ha ha, industrialized mass murder is just so inherently hilarious, right?!

In an attempt to further salve society’s buried remorse for all the many tons of bird blood spilled throughout November at friendly neighborhood abattoirs, Courage gets to live out the rest of his natural days at Disneyland. But animal advocacy organization Farm Sanctuary** says the “Frontierland” exhibit of this Southern California theme park is not the “The Happiest Place on Earth” for turkeys, and that courage and his alternate*** should be moved to one of their shelters for safekeeping. In a press release, the group charged that “The Walt Disney Company…has shown that it lacks the ability to provide (adequate) care” because they feed the birds “a high-calorie, high-fat diet formulated for rapid weight gain, a likely cause of (their) premature deaths.” The way we treat our “rescued” Thanksgiving turkeys is a representation of what this holiday means to us, and begs a necessary question: Is dying young from obesity-related causes at the world’s most corporatized amusement park really the kind of freedom our pilgrim forebears had in mind when they shared their first harvest meal with the local natives?

A Real “Indian” Pre-Thanksgiving

Just yesterday, the Obamas held their first official state dinner at the White House honoring Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a vegetarian world leader. While (contrary to media reports) not all the food served was strictly vegetarian****, the menu showed some small awareness on the President’s part that meat doesn’t have to be the centerpiece of a fulfilling meal — or our diets. And yet, come tomorrow, he and the rest of the First Family will be digesting a customary turkey flesh feast, so I guess Obama really didn’t learn all that much from Mr. Singh’s ethical example.

Now, I’m just an average guy, nothing particularly special or extraordinary about me (for instance, I haven’t won a Nobel Peace Prize). Even so, I’ll be non-violently “pardoning” a turkey for real this Thanksgiving***** by not eating one — just the same way I’ve been pardoning turkeys every day of my life for the last 14½ years. Meanwhile, President Obama (like other U.S. Commander in Chiefs before him) is making a public show of offering amnesty to one turkey while simultaneously ordering another to be killed for his table — a behavioral contradiction that seems rather shallow and hypocritical. I mean, it’s not like either of these turkeys deserved to die, and yet one is given the full celebrity treatment while the other is condemned like a convicted criminal on Death Row, forever nameless, along with millions of his kind.

The penitentiary metaphor is perfectly apt here, for turkeys are indeed incarcerated for their entire lives on factory farms, helplessly awaiting execution in their dark, dirty prisons — despite the fact that they have committed no crimes (unless being born a member of their particular avian species can be considered a punishable offense). Ironically, humankind has complicitly committed unspeakably unnatural atrocities against turkeys for generations in government-certified factory farms and slaughterhouses. But we wouldn’t want to bring any of that up, because it might ruin someone’s appetite for slow-roasted wings, breasts and “drumsticks”!

Turkeys are affectionate, intelligent animals who deserve compassion, not torture. They are innocent victims who love life and deserve to live as much as anyone else. In that sense, a supposed “pardon” granted by our nation’s leader to a single turkey appears not as an act of mercy, but rather a disingenuous attempt to officially sanctify senseless slaughter in the name of commercialized gluttony.

* I originally wrote that John F. Kennedy was the first President to pardon a turkey for Thanksgiving, but later found out that Bush Sr. was the first to officially perform the pardoning ceremony, a custom which all subsequent Presidents have followed.
** In the interest of full disclosure, Farm Sanctuary was my employer from 2008-2009.
A Vice Turkey has also been appointed to take command should Courage for some reason be rendered unable to perform the duties associated with his post.
**** Along with a wide selection of both vegetarian and vegan options, the executive chefs prepared Green Curry Prawns for guests.
***** For the first time in many a year, I’ll be the sole vegetarian dining with an extended family of committed carnivores.