In addition to his reporting and commentary on national security and civil liberties, Intercept journalist Glenn Greenwald is a passionate supporter of animal rights. Current Affairs editor Nathan J. Robinson recently spoke to Greenwald about his dogs, the morality of meat consumption, and the way atrocities are concealed.
CA: You are known as a man of many dogs. If people know one thing about you beyond your journalism they probably know that you have a lot of dogs. How many is it now — I hesitate to ask?
GG: Well, the number varies because we’re self-delusional. So a lot of times we’ll pick up and bring to our house a dog, and give it this, like, “temporary guest status,” which is just our psychological tactic for not accepting that we’ve done something incredibly stupid and picked up another dog. So right now we’ve got 24 dogs, plus what I would call “two guest dogs.” So the total is 26 but only 24 are officially residents.
CA: Are you able to keep track of all the dogs’ names?
GG: It’s funny that you say that, because I used to wonder that about people who had 12 or 14 children. Do they know the names of all their kids? And do they even recognize them? Once you get to so many, is it even possible to keep track? And I used to genuinely wonder that about people with like 12 kids, and now when people ask me, “Do you know the names of all 24 of your dogs, I get so offended. “How dare you! Of course. I have extremely personal relationships with each of them.”
CA: So 24 dogs is not too many dogs, then.
GG: It’s funny, because I talk to my husband, David, all the time about how we should be more timid when people ask us how many dogs we have. Just saying 24 as though it’s a normal thing, because we forget that 99.9 percent of the people on the planet think that you ought to be institutionalized. They think that you’re a hoarder, or one of those crazy cat ladies caught with like 186 cats in her one-and-a-half room apartment, and the health department comes and arrests her. They’re all rescue dogs. We foster them. We place many dozens, probably hundreds, in homes. We purposely live in places in Rio where there’s a lot of property for the dogs. So it’s not like we’re living in a studio apartment with 24 dogs. I mean we live in a place that on purpose has a lot of outdoor space, so that it can accommodate dogs.
CA: I think that answer is not going to convince anyone that it’s not insane to have 24 dogs, but I still don’t understand — are there fights? I don’t get how 24 dogs can inhabit a space together. I mean, I’ve just watched that video that you did about your shelter where you say that dogs actually get along. They all did seem to be getting along, and it seems very strange, because when you think of a lot of animals together, you think, “that can’t go well.”
GG: I mean, dogs are complicated, social creatures. And it is really fascinating. I grew up with one dog, and two dogs, and kind of the typical dog experiences. So I didn’t realize the complexity of their social behavior. One of the fascinating things is that cliques form within the dog packs, and they’re extremely difficult to predict. Certain dogs hang out with other dogs, as their friends, in certain places in the house, or outside. The most seemingly disparate dogs end up as kind of sub-parts of the pack. And then there are two or three dogs that can’t actually be near one another. They are dominant females, and they will fight. So they kind of have to be let out of places in shifts. So there’s some complexity to it. But by and large, they all know each other, and with very rare exception, they won’t fight. Occasionally, a fight will break out, like with children, if they just are in a bad mood or whatever, and we just pick them up and throw them in the pool, because that’s the only way you can separate dogs determined to kill each other. Other than that, it usually works out pretty smoothly.
CA: Is there anything else that you learned about dogs over the course of owning 24-plus two guest dogs?
GG: I know this is going to sound a little bit trite and syrupy, and Hallmark-ish, but a lot of times, when people hear that I rescue dogs, or people talk about adopting a dog, they almost talk about it like its an act of charity. Like you’re doing something for a living being in need. And you are. But the reality is that each and every dog has an individual personality. They all have a kind of wisdom that human beings really don’t naturally have. I know it sounds odd to people who don’t really have dogs, because they think that dogs are just of inferior intelligence, and of course, there are a lot of types of intelligence where humans are superior to dogs. But just like dogs have superior hearing, and superior sense of smell, by many magnitudes, as compared to humans, there’s also just things that they intuit, and ways that they interpret the world, that you can actually learn from them about how to just be in the present, about how to let past traumas go, about how to connect with people empathetically. You cannot trick a dog with your emotions, so if you fake cry, but you’re really happy, they won’t think you’re sad. But if you’re really sad and you try and hide it from them, they’ll know that you’re sad. They’re extremely empathetic. They connect on a very emotional level, because they’ve evolved to really receive and understand human emotions, which is why we call them “man’s best friend.” So each and every dog does have an individualized wisdom that comes from whatever their experience is, or breed it, or just, individuality is. So every dog that we’ve picked up has given something to us as well.
CA: Animal rights and animal welfare issues more broadly have been interesting to you. You wrote a long piece fairly recently about pigs, and made the case that these traits of emotional depth are not actually unique to man’s best friend—they are widely present in the animal kingdom. And you wrote that pigs are “among the most intelligent, social, and emotionally complicated species, capable of great joy, play, love, connection, suffering, and pain.” That raises disturbing implications about a number of human practices, since a lot of people recognize that dogs are wonderful, and they keep dogs as pets. But they slaughter pigs by the billion.
GG: Well, that’s right. I consider myself a fairly new arrival to the movement of animal rights. And I’ve spent a long time thinking about why it took me so long to get there, because I’ve loved dogs my entire life. And yet I would support industries and consume the products of industries that would torture and slaughter, as you say, by the billions, pigs and cows, and chicken, and turkeys, and the like, and goats. And so the question that ultimately I ended up having to confront was: “Why is that if we see a dog being abused we feel so morally outraged, to the point that we want that person to go to prison?” And in fact, in the United States, in all 50 states, they will go to prison if they inflict suffering and torture and gratuitous pain on an animal the same way they would a human, whereas we are completely indifferent to similar types of suffering and torture and pain being gratuitously inflicted on the animals that serve as our food, like pigs, and cows, and goats and the like.
And so for a while, you can tell yourself that there are moral distinctions between the animals that you value and the animals that you don’t. But none of them are sustainable upon any kind of minimal scrutiny. As you just said, if intellect is your moral metric, there are animals more intelligent, by most metrics, than dogs, including pigs, including fish, including large mammals. Why does the internet go crazy when it sees a lion, or an orangutan, or a leopard killed in Africa? While your outrage is boiling over, you’re shoving into your mouth a carcass of an animal at least as intelligent, if not more so, than the one you’re so angry had just been killed. So none of it really makes moral sense, and ultimately what I realized is that the reason why we’re able and willing to sustain this industrial, systemic, global and systemic torture of animals is because we just turn away from it. We don’t look at it. We don’t watch it. Laws are erected to make sure we don’t have to see it. It’s exactly the same model for how we allow our government, for 20 years now, to go around bombing multiple Muslim countries because we just don’t need to know the victims’ names, we don’t need to learn about the aspirations that have been extinguished, we don’t see their charred bodies. We just pretend that it’s not happening. We only know in the abstract at most that it is happening. And the more, as kind of a journalist, that I started looking into the realities of factory farming, the more I got forced to accept that these are moral atrocities on a massive scale, which cannot be tolerated, if you’re a person who likes certain kinds of animals, there’s no way any longer to distinguish it, morally, ethically, politically, or in any other way, and allow it to happen.
CA: If you confront the animal welfare issue head on, the implications really are very, very disturbing. And it seems to me to be very simple logic. Animals are sentient. We all know that they can suffer. All of the distinctions between animal species kind of break down, as you say, and once you accept that, then it really does seem as though we’re complicit in something that is just, given the scale of factory farming, absolutely atrocious. And that’s really hard to accept, in part because you don’t want to think of people you love as being bad people. You don’t want to think of yourself as being a bad person who is causing horrible pain and suffering. And in some ways, it doesn’t seem like you’re causing pain and suffering. It seems so normal to eat meat. There’s a kind of cognitive dissonance that causes us to turn away. Would you agree with that?
GG: Oh, absolutely. Even now that I’m doing a lot of activism, and a lot of journalism in this field, every time I talk to the incredibly brave animal rights activists, the people who go in the middle of the night into factory farms to film it, so that we don’t turn away any longer, or even rescue symbolic animals from the billions that are about to go to the slaughterhouse, who are on the verge of death, and then they take them to a veterinarian to save them, and then get prosecuted under felony laws for doing so.
I brace myself for every time I’m interviewing one of them where I get to the point where they’re about to describe to me what it is that they saw when they entered into the slaughterhouses, or the places where these animals are kept, for example, pigs in pens that are so tiny that they can never, in their entire lives, turn around. Literally, they just stay indoors, they can never see the sun, they just keep forcing them to reproduce, they step on their own babies, they never turn around in their entire lives.
So when you hear that, when you hear about the injury, and the disease in which they’re all wallowing, the emotional suffering of these pigs from isolation, because they’re social animals. Just like humans—if you keep them in prolonged solitary confinement, they’ll go insane. Most of them go insane. They start gnawing on their metal bars, desperately gnawing on the metal bars until their teeth fall out, while their gums are bleeding. Just things that are so horrific that even, as I said, now that I know about it, now that it’s one of my primary causes, I still don’t actually want to hear much about it. I often scroll fast past videos of it. So I do think it is all dependent on just making sure that we don’t become aware of the consequences of our actions. And that’s why I say so many draconian laws have been put into place that actually characterize animal rights activists as terrorists, or prosecutes them under felony laws. They’ve gone to prison for years, simply for exposing the realities of this industry we support, because this industry knows that human beings of good conscience won’t continue to permit it to continue if we’re actually aware of what it is that’s being done.
And let me just add one last point, which is this fascinating thing that I’ve noticed: My husband and I adopted two children last year, 10 and eight, and they came out of a orphanage in northeastern Brazil, which is one of the poorest regions in the country, and they were malnourished. And the only thing they ate, ever, was meat with rice and beans. And because they were malnourished, we couldn’t really change their diet quickly, and there was so much change with adoption anyway. So we didn’t want to change the diet. But I wanted them to know what it was they were consuming. I just wanted them to know what they were eating, even though I was going to leave it up to them to make the decision. We would go to a farm, and we would play with chickens, or goats, or we would see cows, then we’d talk about how beautiful the cows were. And then when they would get meat on their plate, or chicken on their plate, I would say “Hey, do you remember those chickens that we played with? That’s what was killed to give you that food.” And they were so angry at me, like I had done something, and they never want to hear it. I always find that fascinating, because if it really is so natural for us to just slaughter animals, with whom even children develop an emotional bond and connection, why are they so angry when I make them aware of what has been done to feed them? Why aren’t they just indifferent to it the way you would if you said, “Hey, a plant was used and the fruits of what it grows was used to feed you?” They would say, “oh, that’s beautiful, that’s awesome.” But if I say, “Hey, a cow is slaughtered in order to give you that slab of meat that used to be part of the cow,” they get really angry. Why is that, if it’s so natural?
CA: I’ve been a vegetarian for 10 years, and sometimes people get defensive about eating meat even if you just tell them you’re vegetarian. You don’t say it with any particular judgement, but just telling them you don’t eat meat makes them uncomfortable about the fact that they do.
To bring up a parallel, you also wrote recently about the controversy with Texas’ law requiring public officials to swear that they won’t boycott Israel. I feel as if there are many examples of things where people in power know that if people were allowed to confront the truth of the factual situation, they will be morally repelled. And so those with interests to protect are willing to violate basic standards of free speech, because if we allowed speech there would be such a risk that people would turn against something very obviously indefensible.
GG: I think it’s a crucial point. One of the reasons why I’ve devoted myself with such vehemence to defending free speech, first as a lawyer, and now as a journalist, is because I do think so much human evil depends upon manipulating other people’s perceptions, and concealing critical information about how the world really works. And censorship is one of the primary means to do that. There are others, like stigmatizing people who dissent from orthodoxies, and the like. And before I started writing about animals, I spent most of my time as a journalist writing about the War on Terror. And I remember I had this epiphany once, I was in Canada when the parliament was attacked. It ended up being attacked by somebody who was from a Muslim family, but had a long history of mental health struggles, and certainly the mental health struggles played a far greater role in the decision to attack the Parliament than any religious or political convictions. But when it happened, of course it was immediately because he had an Arab name, and was from a Muslim family, so it was depicted as a terror attack. And he killed one person, a young security guard who worked in Ottawa in front of the Parliament. And for a week, when I was in Canada, there was nothing but profiles of his life, interviews with his grieving relatives, examination of his childhood, of what he wanted to do. The prime minister went to his funeral. His name was just flooding everybody’s brain, because he was one of our victims. And everybody was just so angry at the idea of terrorism. And yet, Canada was a country that had been at war for 16 years by that point in Afghanistan, in Syria, in Libya, in other places. And not only could no Canadians name a single victim of any of those wars, literally not one of them who have been killed by their own government—they barely even knew their own government was at war. I kept hearing: “Why would anyone want to come inflict any kind of violence on Canada? We’re such a loving peaceful nation.” When in reality, they’re flying fighter jets over multiple countries all over the world, and dropping bombs that are killing people. It’s so concealed from them, that reality, that they weren’t lying. That is really the perception that they’ve been fed, because how else would they allow their government to continue to keep killing people around the world in a way that was compatible with how they want to think about themselves? And I think you’re absolutely right that that’s the same scheme that over and over and over is what enables and empowers evil acts to take place: just preventing people from knowing their reality.
CA: I wrote an article a while back examining the way people defend the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, because I was very interested in the arguments that are made. They never, ever, ever discuss what it actually means to vaporize a city with an atomic weapon. So they would say, “well of course it was horrific,” and the word “horrific” would be all you needed to capture the reality. But if you say, “yes, we incinerated thousands of children in front of their mothers’ eyes,” then it becomes nearly impossible to make the same utilitarian argument. So you kind of have to downplay and avoid confronting the human reality if you’re going to sustain certain arguments, where the arguments on the surface look like they work, but they only work because you’ve blotted out so much of the real world.
GG: I think you actually see promising changes in a lot of different realms as a result of internet technology. Because if you look at how people started talking about the internet when it first proliferated and became widely used, there were a lot of utopian promises made about what its effects would be, some of which have been fulfilled, some others which most decidedly have not been. But one of the things that I think has actually transformed the way that we live, as a world, is that it has changed the way information gets disseminated. Because of the ease with which people can now film and disseminate the reality that takes place. I think one of the most important and blatant examples is how, worldwide, people now think so much differently about the Israel-Palestine conflict, because instead of just allowing two or three pro-Israel reporters into Gaza or the West Bank, everybody who lives there now has a cell phone, and internet access, and a Twitter and Facebook account, and can upload the families who are dead as a result of Israeli bombs. Or there’s lots of people who have access to cameras who can film kids on beaches, kids being shot by Israeli fighter jets recklessly, or indiscriminately, or snipers and the like. And it has really radically changed how people perceive Israel, going from the plucky little democracy that occasionally and accidentally kills innocent people, to this reckless occupier that has no regard for Palestinian life, that treats them essentially like rats are treated, easily extinguishable. So it has really shifted how the world thinks about this issue for no reason other than the fact that we’ve changed the information that is now available about it. And I really do believe that the cause of the next generation, or one of the causes of the next generation, is going to be confronting the ethical horrors of the agricultural industry, and the way in which our food supply depends on the infliction of extreme levels of gruesome torture on living beings that are, as you said, sentient, and capable of suffering, and do suffer, and feel love, and feel loss, and feel hurt. It’s just morally unsustainable, if we end up having to confront the reality of it, and all of this technology is now making us confront it, and I think you’re going to see that in more and more areas.
CA: Because I wanted to confront you with the strongest possible criticisms of your position, I was trying to look up arguments against animal rights. But honestly, they’re really hard to come by. They’re really quite flimsy. They say “if morality is a concept that applies only to human rights, it’s a concept that should apply only to humans,” but it’s argument by assertion.
GG: It’s classic question begging, right? It’s not called question begging in the colloquial sense, where everything that’s called question begging, but actual question begging. So the question is, why is the life of humans worth preserving, but the lives of animals are so worthless that we can just freely extinguish them, and on the way, inflict pain on them. And the answer becomes “humans are meant to live and thrive where it’s permissible to kill animals. So, the question is answered only by begging the question. That’s the classic example of it.
I think for a long time, one of the arguments has been intellect, and I think it’s very morally troublesome to start determining how much you believe life ought to be valued based on intellect. That has led to eugenic theories in the past where people of a certain IQ were deemed dispensable. Hitler notoriously wanted to kill off people who he regarded as idiots by using IQ tests that Nazi scientists were developing. We don’t generally think that people who are more intelligent have more moral worth, or inherent worth than people who are less intelligent. And again, you look at how we treat dogs versus how we treat more intelligent species, or at least species as intelligent, such as pigs, and the distinction breaks down even further. And then there’s the really interesting question of when we do get to the point, which is rapidly approaching, where we do have some form of artificial intelligence, which on some level is autonomous, which definitely will be more intelligent by every metric than the standard human brain, even the best human brain, the best functioning human brain. What arguments would we have as to why whatever we want to call that, that superior intelligence shouldn’t essentially use us for whatever it decides benefits it? What moral strictures do we have to justify why our lives ought to be preserved if intelligence is the metric?
CA: I always think, “What argument will I make when the aliens ask why they shouldn’t eat me?” I want to have a good response.
GG: I’m sorry to say, Nathan, I don’t think there is one. It’s interesting because the only morally legitimate answer you could give is “because all life is valuable, even lifeforms that are less intelligent, and I have lived my life in accordance with that principle, by ensuring that I never contribute to the extinguishing of life that I regard as inferior, by not consuming them unnecessarily as food.
CA: And they’ll say, “Well I don’t share that belief.”
GG: Or they may say and I’ve also read Noam Chomsky, and I agree with your moral proposition that we ought to treat others the way we want to be treated, and use that as our moral guide, as the Bible taught, and I therefore find your argument compelling.
CA: I want to end by talking about one thing that you are, in fact, doing on animal welfare. You have recently founded a shelter for dogs, and you shelter homeless people and animals together. What are you doing, how is it working?
GG: We were working with the homeless population that lived on the street with their animals, and started realizing that the bond between them was more deep, more profound, it’s way deeper and more profound than the standard human-animal bond, as deep and profound as it is, where humans have other sources of fulfillment and happiness, because they don’t depend quite as much on the dog. And same for the dog. If the dog has lots of people around, and kids, and toys, and other dogs, they don’t need the human as much. But the human that lives on the street with his or her homeless animal, they basically are the only thing they have in the world, and so the bond becomes even stronger and more inspirational, and more steeped in love and mutual dependence and connection.
And so I thought about “how can we tap into that?” and we first did a couple of films that were produced by Laura Poitras profiling a couple of those cases, and then decided to build a shelter based on that model that was designed not only to rescue, and then place for adoption as many abandoned animals as we can, but to employ homeless people who have already demonstrated an affinity for animals, so that we can teach them how we work with social workers who specialize in homelessness, they teach them how to manage income, how to open a bank account, and eventually how to find a apartment and then get permanent employment. Basically to re-integrate them into society. And we know if we’re helping 200 dogs and 15 homeless people every six months, in the scope of the world, where millions of dogs are euthanized every day, and millions and millions of human beings are living on the street, that as individual cases, it’s still a moral good. Every time you decrease suffering, you increase fulfillment of living beings. But in the scope of the problem, we know that it doesn’t do very much, quantitatively, so the idea is to use my platform, to use my husband’s platform, encourage other people to use theirs as you’re doing, to shine a light on the capacity of this model to tap into this unique synergy, and inspire other models around the world, to encourage people who have a lot of money to fund models like this, because I do think that one of the interesting things is that when you work with animals, it’s true that you’re not just helping the animals, you’re increasing human beings’ capacity for empathy, for compassion, for connection. A lot of human beings, a lot of us have trouble psychologically opening ourselves up emotionally to other human beings, whereas we’re willing to with animals. That’s why dogs are incredibly useful therapy tools for autistic children, for people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Animals can really open up this whole vista of emotional awakening, and spirituality, and compassion. And I see that obviously, each dog that we help is really fulfilling, it’s important unto itself. But I do see the model, and the attempt to inspire other people to do some more things, or even things based on the same principles that are different in other fields as the ultimate goal.
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