3 December

The Carriage Horse Ban: Politics, Tradition, Morality

by Jon Katz
Politics And Morality
Politics And Morality

“When I first heard these proposals from the advocates who believed we should ban horse carriages, I was dubious. I believed, well, it’s part of New York, we should keep it because it’s traditional. A lot of them talked to me over time and said, ‘Do  you keep something traditional if it’s immoral?’ Well, obviously, the answer is no.”

– New York City Mayor Bill deBlasio, speaking to the New York Observer this week.

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After a year of promises, evasion and uncertainty, the mayor is moving to fulfill his promise to ban horse carriages in New York City. While he has said little about his reasons for doing so, this was the second time he mentioned the idea of morality. A few months ago, he told a carriage driver who approached him at a public event – the mayor refuses to talk with the drivers or the horse owners or visit the horse stables – and asked him in front of his young son why he was trying to put him out of work. “Because,” the mayor told him, “your work is immoral.”

I got a great e-mail yesterday from a formidable woman whose entire family has worked in the carriage trade. “This is the second time he has accused my family of being immoral,” she said.

It would seem the debate over the carriage horses should center on the well-being of the horses as determined by the people who know them best – veterinarians, behaviorists, trainers and animal lovers  and, of course, the people who live and work with them.

But the carriage horse controversy has never been rational, the people who understand the real lives of animals have never been consulted or considered. I can hardly find a single person quoted in the many thousands of media reports who is not an ideologue or self-described activist rather than a qualified authority.

History teaches us to be careful when politicians start talking about morality, normally the province of preachers and philosophers. American segregationists repeatedly told their followers that it was immoral for blacks and whites to live or marry one another.  Gays and lesbians have been accused of immorality for centuries. Hitler believed that Naziism was the most moral political movement on the earth, and Stalin told Russian farmers that their forced movement into collective farms – millions starved on them – was the only “moral” way to raise and distribute food.

It is not precisely clear what the mayor means when he says the carriage trade is immoral. According to several dictionaries, the word “immoral” is normally used to describe persons or actions. To say that some act is immoral, says Wickipedia, is to say that it violates some moral laws, norms or standards. In it’s broadest sense, the term “immoral” can be applied to groups or corporate bodies, beliefs, religions and works of art.

For years, the carriage trade owners and drivers have been accused of torture and animal abuse, that is certainly immoral. But abuse is a crime, not an opinion and no member of the carriage trade is being charged with any kind of crime or has been convicted of torture or animal abuse. There is simply no basis for the effort to ban them.

Their pending abolishment comes from private conversations the mayor has apparently had – there is no transparency in this campaign – with some wealthy people he won’t name but who everyone knows – these are the people who believe they are championing the rights of animals. Thus, the crusade against the horses becomes a Kangaroo Court, not a fair or considered legal procedure.

The only clue the mayor offers about his notion of morality  is to say that horses have no place in the middle of one of the busiest cities in the world. It is a difficult argument for many horse lovers to swallow, or even comprehend, since horses have helped build most of the busiest cities in the world, and been in the middle of busy cities – surely including their current home –  since the founding of Rome. Many of these cities were far more crowded, dangerous and poorly regulated than modern-day New York. In the late 1800’s, hundreds of horses in New York dropped dead every week from disease, rutted roads, rat and insect bites, fires and numerous collisions (there were no lights or traffic lanes.)

No horse in the carriage trade in modern times or memory has been proven to have died from pulling light carriages on asphalt in Central Park. No carriage horse has ever killed a New Yorker or visitor.

There is no pending charge of cruelty, abuse or neglect pending any of the 300 people working in the carriage trade, whose animals are among the most heavily regulated and protected – and healthiest –  in the world.The mayor has never offered any factual support for his charge of immorality against the carriage trade, like his supporters in the animal rights movement, the drive to ban the carriage horses seems founded on emotional, not moral or factual values. The mayor seems to have embraced the animal rights tactic of dehumanizing the people in the carriage trade so that they can be ignored, dismissed, even banished without so much as a conversation.

Morality is selective. In recent months, two pedestrians were run down and killed by speeding bicyclists in Central Park. No human being has ever been killed by a carriage horse, yet the mayor chooses to see the presence of the horses as “immoral,” but the presence of cyclists – the park was designed for horses, not for bicycles or taxis or cars – must be moral, since he is not seeking to ban bicycles from the park.

The banning of people and their work in such a way does not seem a moral thing to me.

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Socrates said that a system of morality “which is based on relative emotional values is a mere illusion, a thoroughly vulgar conception which has nothing sound in it and nothing true.” Sounds like he might have been reading New York City news blogs.

This has always been my feeling about the charges against the carriage trade:  they are pure emotional values, missing any kind of facts, reason, or authority.

Socrates definition seems to describe the very new idea that is is immoral to work with a horse in a crowded city, something that would stun much of the world now and throughout human history.

The philosopher and author Naom Chaomsky says we need to adopt the principle of universality when it comes to morality. If an action is right or wrong for others, it is right (or wrong) for us. Those who do not rise to the minimal moral level of applying to themselves the standards they apply to others – more stringent ones, in fact – plainly cannot be taken seriously when the speak of appropriateness of response; or of right and wrong, good and evil.

If it’s wrong for you, it’s wrong for me. The moral philosopher Hannah Arendt says morality is an intensely personal value, you have to like what you see when you look in the mirror, it is not about what others think or tell you, it is about what you think of yourself.

The tricky thing about morality is that almost everyone who uses the term believes they are moral and those who disagree are less moral, or immoral. Not to take it too far, but this is where the Islamic State comes from, or the bitter polarization of politics in America into a “left” and a “right,” each side coming to see the enemy not as a partner to be negotiated with, but as an enemy to be battled at all costs.

Yet the inverted moral reality of the mayor is this:  the carriage drivers are condemned as immoral,  but the bicyclists who have killed people while speeding are not. The city is lowering speed limits, building new signs and paths and barriers for the bicycles to make it safer for people to walk in the park.

In my understanding of morality, it is immoral and elitist to tell the carriage drivers that they may be granted the right to drive green-colored taxis in the outer boroughs of New York if their cars are handicapped accessible and if they submit to losing their work and livelihood with the carriage horses. That is a revoltingly  insensitive thing to do, especially in the name of loving animals and particularly a few weeks before Christmas. Driving a cab in Brooklyn is not the same thing as pulling a horse carriage through Central Park, something the mayor does not seem to know.

Mayor deBlasio and the people who say they support the rights of animals say the horses need and deserve their freedom, they should be set free from pulling carriages in New York City. But freedom to do what? Stand in a pasture all day and drop manure? Freedom in the animal world means exposure to predators and the elements, overcrowded and underfunded rescue farms, sporadic medical care and nothing for an animal bred for work to do. Very few rescue horse farms can afford to treat the carriage horses the way they are already treated, or have anywhere near the level of supervision.

Horses are not human beings, they are not children. No true horse or animal lover in the world believes these carriage  horses need rescue or deserve banishment and oblivion. This is private crusade between the mayor and a handful of people who have created their own reality about animals, few of which they seem to know anything about.

Morality is  personal. I believe that it is immoral for people to have their work and way of life and property taken from them by government without egregious cause – crimes, violations, misconduct.  I believe it is immoral to harass and insult people on the street, call them ugly names, disrupt their work, put their personal cell phone information on the Internet, accuse them of awful crimes they did not commit, insult and intimidate the customers they depended on to do their business.

Morality is political. Does anyone really believe that the mayor would wish to be treated in the way that the people in the carriage trade have been treated? To be attacked viciously and relentlessly without cause, to live for years in fear and uncertainty, to have their work and property and sustenance threatened continuously and without any kind of due process or proof or negotiation?

In my particular view, a moral political leader would decry such behavior, and protect the hard-working and innocent citizens who are the target of it,  not reward it or jump in with the mob, not even for lots of money. It is perfectly appropriate for anyone to believe the horses should not be in New York, they do not need to dehumanize or brutalize the people in the carriage trade in order to make their point.

A moral political leader would listen to all sides of an argument, not just one, would consult authorities and experts, go and look at the truth for himself. He would respect the dignity and peace of mind of honest, working-class people, not just the people who gave him money for his political campaign.

A moral political leader would not take hundreds of thousands of dollars from people who support a political position and refuse to speak or meet with vulnerable people on the opposite side who do not have hundreds of thousands of dollars to give him. Is it moral to talk to millionaires but not to people who drive carriage horses?

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Abraham Lincoln risked his life again and again to go see battlefields, and witness the carnage, so he could understand the meaning of the decisions he was making and look the world in the eye and stand behind them.

George Washington rode his big horse into battle after battle in harsher conditions than any New York Carriage Horse has ever endured – he and his horse was a target of every British soldier. Was he an immoral and abusive man?.

The mayor told the Observer that he doesn’t believe tourists or tourism will be harmed in any way if the horses are banned. “It’s a matter of common sense that people do  not travel from all over the country, all over the world, to New York City just to take a carriage ride,” he said. It seems the mayor does not read his e-mail, he can have some of mine. People from all over the world tell me almost every day in e-mail messages that they come to New York to ride the horses. Most say they have written the mayor and told him so.

The horses are a beloved and iconic institution in New York, people from all over the world spend more than $15 million to go on carriage rides in Central Park each year, it is a beautiful and treasured thing to do. The park is a gorgeous backdrop for the horses, and millions of people over time have cherished the experience.  It works, for the people in the city, for the horses, for the carriage trade, for the tourists? Why disrupt and dismantle it? Is there nothing in New York City that is truly broken or in urgent need of the mayor’s attention?

It is a profoundly historic – and yes, moral decision, this business of the carriage horses. It speaks to the future of animals in the city and in the world. It speaks to the way we treat one another and the way we treat animals on this fractured planet. If the mayor succeeds in banishing the horses, he will be driving away something that is precious to many people, he will be taking a step that can never be undone, making a mistake than can never be rectified. The horses will disappear and never return. Some of the light and the magic in the city will go with them.

Democracy is better than this, the fate of the horses deserves a true dialogue, a  fair and  honest process. Everyone can smell a fix, not a dialogue, can recognize the loaded dice in the carriage horse ban proposal. More than 300 people face the loss of their past, present and future. There is  nothing moral about the way in which this has happened.

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