The war of dogs (or, one reason I am not a real journalist)
Being mainly about dogs, this post is a bit of a deviation from my usual subject matter. On the other hand, so was the horse-fart portion of my previous post. Moreover, since the present post concerns snarking as well as barking, it is not entirely inappropriate. Anyway, if you like dogs, this post is for you.
When I picked up yesterday’s newspaper, I happened to notice that this is the weekend that my former home town, Houston, plays host to one of the country’s largest and most elite dog shows, The Reliant Park World Series of Dog Shows. In celebration, I decided to drag out this half-finished blog post that I actually began a few months ago when the First Family, after months of ruthless teasing, finally unveiled their choice for the First Dog. The lucky canine, as virtually everybody knows by now, is a Portuguese Water Dog, a breed that most Americans probably never heard of until it became a front runner in the presidential pet sweepstakes. After the word was officially out about the Obamas’ little "Bo," my first thought was that the "Portie" is surely destined to become a painfully trendy choice for the family pet, at least until all of the trendy families get tired of it. (In fact, the Obamas are their new pup’s second family; the original family couldn’t take care of him.) So…adios, Chihuahua; so long, Dalmatian; goodbye yellow lab. It’s the Portuguese Water Dog that’s going to take center stage, much to the detriment of the breed, I fear. Thank Goddess for breed rescue groups.
Cynical I may be, but the purebred-dog bidness has interested me for many years. More than ten years ago Ron and I stepped into a little pile of stink over a piece we wrote for an online city guide, hereinafter referred to as Online City Guide, about the big Houston doggy event that was then called the Astro World Series of Dog Shows. We ended up losing a fun freelance gig over the matter, and possibly the respect and friendship of a person whom I shall refer to as Our Contact. This is someone whose wit and writing I did and do still admire, but after the dog show fiasco, we never heard from her again.
It all had to do with some snarking we did about the eugenics aspect of the dog breeding industry. Of course, we were far from the first to nose around in this area, and many have done it since. Take this fairly recent bit on Slate.com about "designer dogs," in which the author asks, "What does dog breeding tell us about the culture of aesthetic eugenics?"
Some years before that, Jonah Goldberg, writing for the National Review Online, called the Westminster Dog Show "The Westminster Eugenics Show." He wrote:
Remember, dog breeds are not created through evolution as we generally understand it. The primary driver of canine breed variation isn't natural selection, but unnatural selection. Humans pick certain traits and breed to enhance them. Dogs lend themselves to genetic innovation for a number of reasons, including their large number of chromosomes — 78 (humans have 48) — and their inability to stop us from setting them up on blind dates.
Actually, humans have 46 chromosomes (chimps and other primates have 48), but the point is still valid.
Our dog story began on a pleasant spring afternoon when Ron and I had lunch at a trendy al fresco dining spot with Our Contact to discuss a major assignment: the write-up for one of Houston’s biggest annual world-culture festivals. At the time, we had been writing for Online City Guide for a little over a year. We were originally recruited for the New-Age/metaphysical beat to report on various New-Agey events and venues throughout Houston, which is a hotbed of metaphysical activity (if you follow the link, scroll down to "Why we love our hometown"). Our Contact had enjoyed my BLP (book-like product) Cosmic Relief, which is satirical but not snarky like this blog, and she thought I might be able to bring an edgy, slightly irreverent tone to the event listings. And it was obvious that I knew the territory well. Since Ron does too, and has a knack for turning a clever and irreverent phrase, it was a natural to bring him in on the deal. The crew at Online City Guide liked our stuff and after a while our beat was expanded, and we wrote about various other cultural events and venues outside of the New-Age realm.
During lunch that spring day, Our Contact asked us if we would be interested in writing up the big annual dog show that was coming in July. We replied that of course we would. We got to talking about the more disturbing aspects of dog shows and the American Kennel Club and the dog-breeding industry, and Our Contact strongly encouraged us to mention this in our write-up (satirically and humorously, of course). She said we could really rip into the AKC if we wanted to. Hence the tone of our original write-up, which began:
It's been more than 50 years* since the world first expressed outrage at the efforts to engineer a "master race" of humans. During that period, however, we have lauded the same approach to the animal world, and no other species has had its genetic material tinkered with quite as thoroughly as good old Canis familiaris. Who really benefits from all this experimentation? The Pekingese, whose flattened nose makes it nearly impossible to breathe normally? The Great Dane, whose heart and joints just aren't up to the task of handling its artificially enlarged body? Or perhaps the millions of puppies who were systematically put to death– culled [NOTE: Our Contact added the word "culled"] – simply because they didn't quite measure up to the standards of their breed? In any case, purebred dog manufacturing is a thriving business, and showing off the results is a year-round activity. The Astro World Series of Dog Shows is one of the biggest such show-off events in this country, and according to show founder Hazel Arnold, it is second in popularity only to the Livestock Show & Rodeo in these parts. Hosted by several area branches of the Aryan…oops, we mean American Kennel Club, this four-day extravaganza has a little something for everyone, much like the Olympic Games held in Munich, circa 1936. No matter what your opinion may be about the finagling we've done with our best friend, a dog is, after all, a dog– and if you love dogs, you'll surely find something to like about this huge barkfest…
And then we went on with the nuts-and-bolts facts and descriptions of the dog show.
Our Contact had also requested that we write a separate page for one of the show’s related events, the "Canine Good Citizen" test, so we began it thusly:
A well-behaved dog comes when you call it, doesn't try to eat the mail carrier, and doesn't hump the preacher's leg when he comes over for Sunday dinner. But it takes far more than that for a dog to be considered a "Good Citizen" by American Kennel Club standards. A dog worthy of Good Citizen certification is one who has mastered all of the canine social skills and then some. If you think your wet-nosed pal is a certifiable G.C., why not come on out to the Astroarena Index and prove it? Dogs will be evaluated on several factors, including clean appearance, calm acceptance of a stranger, ability to walk with a loose lead through a crowd, ability to sit on command for an examination, ability to stay in a sit or down position, proper reaction to other dogs and various distractions, and good behavior when left alone. Dogs with passing scores in each category receive the Canine Good Citizen designation. Dogs who fail will be marched, en masse, to several "dipping" facilities for "de-lousing" in an effort to improve the species as a whole. Oh, we're only kidding…
And that was pretty much the extent of the Aryan/Nazi/eugenics references. The rest of the text was devoted to faithful reporting of the dates, times, and descriptions of the various show events. We wrote it so that it would be easy to take out the few Nazi references; we didn't try to sneak any little "zingers" into the text.
When I e-mailed the dog show write-ups to Online City Guide, I forgot to put our bylines on them, even though write-ups like this were normally bylined items. Hence the page was originally published sans bylines. We didn’t say anything about it to Our Contact, because it wasn’t any big deal to us.
In any case, both Ron and I suspected that maybe we’d gone a bit "over the edge" with the Nazi stuff, but since Our Contact had told us to really let the AKC have it, that’s what we did. Besides, we knew Online City Guide would edit out anything they felt was inappropriate. They had "tamed" our stuff before on occasion, and it truly was no big deal. Thus when the text appeared on-line, virtually intact, we were quite surprised. (Just about the only thing they changed was our chosen headline for the Canine Good Citizen event, "Ve have vays of making you behave, doggie!") But the Aryan stuff was all there, and I was almost glad our bylines were not on the piece.
Then a couple of days after publication, I received this e-mail from Our Contact:
Hey kids, you're stars! I'm gonna put your byline on the dog show. The AKC is very angry. We don't care, and to double check, we called the HSPCA, did you know that 30 percent of all dogs who go into shelters are registered and have AKC papers (Which means the AKC got a fee.) Also, some of the letters carefully explain that it isn't "culling," it's just that "some dogs have to be put down."
A few days later, an article appeared on page 1 of the Metropolitan section of the Houston Chronicle. The headline read, "Article has dog breeders growling before top show." It began:
Dog breeders are worried that a critical and sarcastic article posted on an on-line entertainment publication may hurt attendance at Texas’ biggest and most elite dog show getting underway in Houston today.
Breeders from around the country were incensed after reading a promotion for the Astro World Series of Dog Shows on Online City Guide’s Web site. Last week a free-lance writer for the arts and entertainment guide implied that breeders were like the Nazis, who tinkered with genetics.
The article referred to the American Kennel Club as the "Aryan" Kennel Club.
Breeders also fear the story will spur animal rights activists to disturb the show.
The article first read: "It's been more than 50 years since the world first expressed outrage at the efforts to engineer a ‘master race’ of humans. During that period, however, we have lauded the same approach to the animal world…
"Who really benefits from all this experimentation? The Pekingese, whose flattened nose makes it nearly impossible to breathe normally? Perhaps the thousands of puppies who were systematically put to death--culled--simply because they didn’t quite measure up to the standards of their breed?"
Since the article’s posting on July 9, dozens of breeders from across the nation used the Internet to spread the word, and the complaints poured in. The article has been revised and is now more appropriate, said the executive producer of the site. He said he was on vacation when the story was posted.
"I didn’t think it was appropriate," he said. "This is something that slipped through the cracks. We certainly didn’t intend to offend dog breeders."
But the breeders say damage has been done...
The article went on to quote the delegate from the Houston Kennel Club, who feared that the Online City Guide piece would discourage people from attending the dog show. She added that she and others were offended by the Nazi references; she said dog breeds were created hundreds of years ago. (When Ron and I did some research about the fuss on the Internet, we didn't uncover much in the public discussion forums, but only a couple of people complained about the Nazi stuff, one of them saying that to compare dog breeding to Nazi atrocities was to trivialize and disrespect the millions of victims of the Holocaust.) The Houston Kennel Club rep explained that breeders do not put down litters that have no show value; they sell them as pets.
The Chronicle piece also cited a Canadian dog breeder who said that after the article was published and spread around the Net, she had received dozens of emails from angry breeders, who, she claimed, feared that the satirical piece would provoke animal rights activists. The Canadian breeder added that some of the breeders were even hiring private security to protect their dogs from activists.
Ron’s immediate response was, "I’m going to write a letter to the editor of the Chronicle."
Now, my first gut reaction was, "No, don’t, at least not before we talk to Our Contact to see how big a deal this really is." I had several reasons for having reservations about it. First, we really didn’t know how big a deal it was, and I didn’t want to write anything that could possibly be construed as speaking on behalf of Online City Guide. Also, I didn’t want to draw any more attention to us. Our names were already up on the Web page (and they had appeared, at least for a couple of days, with the original "Aryan" text). I certainly didn’t want any harassment from angry dog breeders.
I guess I am bolder these days than I was back then.
Ron said, "Wait till you see what I write before you form an opinion about whether or not we should do it." So he sat down and wrote the letter and then let me read it. The letter did not claim to be speaking for Online City Guide, but only on our behalf, as authors of the controversial article. It went on to ’splain that the Aryan references were satirical – and apparently effective satire, at that – but in no way did we intend to trivialize the Holocaust. The letter concluded:
Perhaps we may one day evolve to the point where we seek our canine companions based upon characteristics besides those we use to enhance our own egos. At that point, the satire of the online article will be moot.
I admit I got into the spirit of the thing, and gave my okay to send the letter off to the Chronicle. Before Ron actually sent it, however, we did try several times to reach Our Contact by phone. First we were told she was out of the office altogether. Then we were told she was in a meeting. We left several detailed voice-mail messages. We also tried to get hold of her trusty assistant, who had been our Second Contact all along. But Trusty Assistant’s phone was perpetually busy.
So in the end we emailed the letter to the Chronicle, and then Ron forwarded a copy to Our Contact, as a courtesy. It wasn’t 30 minutes before she called. Ron and I both picked up the phone. Our Contact said, "Have you sent that email already, or are you holding it?"
Ron said he’d sent it. She said, "Oh. I wish you’d talked to me first." We explained that we had tried several times to call, and had left messages on her voice mail, etc. She explained that Online City Guide had been having some hassles with the Chronicle but that truly, the dog show article was no big deal. We told her that judging from the tone of said article, we’d feared she had gotten in trouble over the situation. She said, "No, not at all." We also told her we were afraid maybe she’d be pressured by higher-ups into not giving us any more assignments. But she said, "We’ll continue to use you guys as long as I have anything to say about it."
I added, "Anyway, there’s no guarantee the Chronicle will even publish the letter. Besides, if they do decide to publish, they always call to verify. We’ll just tell them we changed our mind and don’t want them to publish it, because we don’t want any harassment from breeders."
Our Contact sounded rather relieved about that. As it happened, we didn’t hear from the Chronicle, and didn’t think any more about it, so we figured they weren't going to publish our letter. (And we were right.) Two days later, however, Ron received what seemed to us to be a very snooty e-mail from Our Contact, taking us to task for writing the letter in the first place, and then sending it off without talking to her first. She wrote, among other things, that it wasn’t really clear in the letter that we weren’t attempting to speak for Online City Guide. She said that by sending the email we were compromising Online City Guide’s integrity, and we would do well to remember that Online City Guide "is a publication, just like a printed newspaper or magazine, and the same professional standards apply."
To which, after thinking about the matter for some time, we replied at length, and not at all snootily. Despite what Our Contact had told us in the phone conversation about retaining our services, she did not respond to that email, and she never responded to several follow-up emails asking whether she had any more assignments for us. (We were also still concerned about any blowback she might have had to deal with as a result of the article controversy; we were genuinely concerned about her, and offered our apologies for any difficulties she may have faced because of the incident.)
After a while, though, we figured out that the answer to whether or not there would ever be any more assignments for us was, "Not." I have no idea what went on behind the scenes there, and to this day I don't know if we lost the gig because of the original article or because Our Contact was p.o.'d at the letter that we wrote to the Chronicle but that was never published. I suppose it doesn't matter, particularly since Online City Guide eventually was sold and morphed into a city guide under another name.
Then as now, my take on the matter is that while in hindsight it might have been wiser for us to err on the side of caution and not try to add fuel to the fire, Our Contact’s reaction to our letter was not only highly condescending, but was out of proportion to the "offense" committed. At worst, in my opinion, we were guilty of a little ego display (just as I am displaying my ego even now), and, perhaps, of appearing to speak for Online City Guide, despite the fact that we stated the letter was from us. While there may have potentially been a bit of identity confusion as a result, Online City Guide had already publicly distanced itself from us, in effect giving us a separate identity, when the producer in effect said, "The freelance writer did it. It wasn’t my fault; I was on vacation." So if we were able to have a separate identity for the purpose of his explanation, we felt we had a right to speak about this issue on our own behalf. Online City Guide’s "credibility" was in no way damaged by our e-mail to the Chronicle, particularly since the letter didn’t get published. If there was any damage, it had already been done when (a) Online City Guide chose to publish the unexpurgated version of our text, thus setting off der furor (sorry) in the first place; and/or (b) Online City Guide ’s producer said, "We wuz wrong!" and they changed the text. (And despite what Our Contact said, Online City Guide was NOT "just like any other publication." Unlike a simple retraction that you’d see in a print medium, changing a "live" on-line page is really like re-writing history, as if the original "gaffe" never existed.)
Of course, we weren’t the first writers, nor were we the last, to offend people with the dog breeder/Nazi analogy. On the other side of the pond from Texas, the BBC had a bit of a conflict about the matter just last year, regarding its longtime coverage of the famous Crufts Dog Show.**
So I guess we’re in good company. I will, however, admit to initial disappointment about the outcome of our little dog show drama. I was a bit upset at first that we lost the gig, which was the closest I’d come at the time to participating in real "journalism." For a time I also felt foolish for not being as savvy about journo politics as I should have been, not playing "the game" right. Before long I got over all that, and then, a few years later, I discovered blogging, and after that, being a part of mainstream journalism didn’t seem like such a big deal to me any more. (It must be said, however, that blogging and other online communications have sort of made journalism into a joke, as Steve Salerno wrote about recently on SHAMblog. Fortunately I have never tried to pass this blog off as anything remotely resembling journalism.)
At any rate, despite our past as journalistic pariahs, I did and do feel that Ron and I did the right thing, somehow, by standing up on our hind legs and speaking for the dogs. At the very least, we did exactly what our assignment editor had told us to do. We are nothing if not obedient.
PS ~ If you haven't seen it already, check out Christopher Guest's 2000 mockumentary, Best In Show, which cleverly captures the spirit of the dog show circuit and certain types of dog fanciers.
PPS ~ And on the topic of eugenics, Nazis and other related matters – and how some of these things tie into the New-Wage world – you seriously need to delve into the work of another brilliant Christopher: my pal Chris Locke's wittily written and abundantly illustrated Mystic B blog. Start with Hitler For Highbrows, and then sample Purity/Interiors/Race/Cleansing/Fascism. (Chris is writing a long-overdue book about all of this stuff, and I can't wait to read it.)
In memory of Rex, a magnificent rescue dog who also rescued us (Sometime 1998 ~ 10 April 2008)
We miss you, Boo-boo...
And to Noelle, purebred, yes, but far from a show dog (18 December 1993~4 October 2007)
Miss you too, Little Bit!
* Remember, we wrote this back in the '90s. Even then, however, it would have been more accurate to say "close to 60 years."
** None of this is to imply that purebred dog breeders are not also dog lovers. Obviously most of them do love dogs and I imagine that most are truly conscientious about the well-being of the dogs they breed. My point is that overall, purebred dog breeding has in many ways had a deleterious effect on our canine friends. Just ask any Pug.
Labels: But enough about me...