There was an article in today’s St. Louis Post-Dispatch that built on New York Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio’s desire to ban horse-drawn carriage rides in NYC. De Blasio’s statements have drawn the ire of the usual suspects, ranging from those who stand to lose financially to the folks who think that worrying about animal welfare somehow implies a lack of appropriate seriousness, not to mention those who, influenced by numerous rom-coms, think that rides in horse-drawn carriages are a traditional romantic rite and, hence, right that should never be relinquished.
The Post-Dispatch article, which took great pains to get most relevant city officials on the record about the well-regulated and humane treatment of carriage horses in St. Louis, also noted a recent protest on the part of St. Louis Animal Rights Team:
The group staged a small protest at Tilles Park in St. Louis County on New Year’s Day in response to the Dec. 21 death of a 22-year-old Clydesdale, which was pulling a carriage at the annual Winter Wonderland holiday lights display.
According to a statement by St. Louis County park officials, the horse “stopped, stretched and went down” after suffering an apparent heart attack. The county parks and recreation department said it believed the horse died of natural causes.
At this point, I should let you know that I’m sympathetic to animal rights issues if not an activist, and would never under almost any circumstances hire one of these horse-drawn carriages. On the other hand, I was once an avid rider and I have to admit that it never occurred to me to worry about whether or not the horse was enjoying him/herself as much as I was – although, to be fair, it often seemed to be the case. I don’t know if the horses pulling these carriages are in the best of all possible worlds for a horse although I’m inclined to suspect that they’re not. I find the arguments of those who make the case against horse-drawn carriages in big cities persuasive. Nor am I convinced to the contrary by officials, who would likely prefer to avoid controversy about a profitable, tourist-popular activity, when they assure me that the practice is regulated to a tee, insuring happy, healthy horses. Nevertheless, I am open to at least considering serious, unbiased arguments for horse-drawn carriage rides.
That said, I can’t tell you how violently I recoiled when I read this bit of exculpatory rhetoric in the Post-Dispatch article:
Brookdale Farms owner Jerry Kirk said opposition to the carriage rides is voiced by a “very vocal minority,” and that most people support the horse-drawn carriages.
“It is our heritage,” he said. “It is part of our history. The horses are bred and made for this. That is what they do.”
It’s telling that after all the talk of regulated, humane conditions, this is how one of those closest to the practice chooses to defend what is, after all, his livelihood. There are lots of little quibbles with Mr. Kirk’s statement. Notably, actions are not necessarily right because they are supported by a majority, and if the minority is in fact correct to oppose such actions, they have an obligation to be “very vocal.” I’m also sure that few slave owners would have had qualms about speaking for the slaves he owned, and would have just as likely assured us that they were doing what they were “bred and made” to do.
The part of that statement that caught my attention most forcibly was the bit about how running horse-and-carriage teams “is our heritage.” Calling upon one’s “heritage” seems to have become an ubiquitous defense for any number of offensive, even reprehensible behaviors. Want to fly a confederate flag despite the fact that it’s a slap in the face to millions of African-Americans? Want to stock up your private armoury with a few dozen rapid-fire automatic weapons? Keep women out of the Citadel? Evidently, there are those who think you can do just about anything if it’s even tenuously related to one’s “cultural heritage,” or, better yet, our “American heritage.” I think slavery itself was often defended as part of the “Southern heritage,” and it, like horse-drawn carriage rides apparently, is also part of our history – though, thankfully, not part of our present.
What this line of argument means about the nature of the heritage in question is never discussed – which is precisely why the use of this particular trope suggests that the speaker’s reasoning is lazy, bankrupt or both. After all, if the action is mean, corrupt or exploitative, does that mean that the particular heritage evoked shares those characteristics as well? In which case, why should we defer to it? Perhaps if Mr. Kirk actually has a serious case to make for deploying horse-drawn carriages, he ought to reconsider his rhetoric and think about who it is he needs to persuade.
*Edited slightly post-publication; missing sentence restored to last paragraph.