Pit Bull Politics

 

Richard Speer

John Heartfield, “Krieg und Leichen — Die Letzte Hoffnung der Reichen” (War and — the Last Hope of the Reich), collage

On October 6th, in a community near Memphis, Tennessee, a five-month-old boy and his two-year-old sister were mauled to death by their family’s pit bulldogs. For ten minutes their mother, Kirstie Jane Bennard, tried to pry the two dogs off the children, but they would not relent. The children died at the scene. Bennard suffered life-threatening injuries but has since been released from the hospital. The very next day, in west-central Georgia, an 80-year-old woman, Rosetta Gesselman, was fatally attacked by her daughter’s pet dogs, all three of them pit-bull mixes.  

This sort of tragedy happens as if on repeat cycle in the United States, where pit bulls were bred for dogfighting before the “sport” was outlawed nationwide in 1976. Although the breed comprises only six percent of dogs kept as pets, according to statistics reported in the journal Animals 24-7, it accounts for 52-percent of fatal dog maulings. In most cases, no one knows exactly what sets the dogs off. Something snaps, and they become killing machines. Afterwards, the owners often protest that, up until the moment they went for the jugular, their pit bulls were as doe-eyed and docile as could be. Wouldn’t hurt the proverbial flea — but they would, and did, maul 37 Americans to death last year alone. In the face of overwhelming evidence supporting their unpredictability and brutality, breeders keep breeding them and pet lovers keep buying them. The American Kennel Club routinely lobbies against “unfair” banning of dangerous breeds based on “vaguely defined physical characteristics,” a diversionary tactic reminiscent of the National Rifle Association’s complicity in mass shootings.

This pattern, this Flat Earth Society mindset, is also an apt metaphor for our predicament, America’s grave challenge, on the precipice of the mid-term elections. We have invited creatures into our house we should not: bad actors, politicians who are wild-eyed if not certifiably bonkers and cannot be trusted not to snap and lunge. We have let them off leash, and soon far too many of them will be running amok through the halls of government. “Candidate quality,” as no less a Machiavellian than Mitch McConnell observed, has reached a nadir thanks to our predilection for injecting mayhem into our schools, city halls, bedrooms, and doctor’s offices.  

Such a good dog

In Pennsylvania, the Republican candidate for the Senate is a celebrity doctor who has recommended dubious medical treatments, products, and fad diets to gullible audiences on nationally syndicated daytime TV. In Georgia, the Republican candidate for the Senate is a former N.F.L. running back who has demonstrably lied about virtually every aspect of his professional and personal life, including the matter of abortion, where his public position and private behavior test the far limits of hypocrisy. The Republican candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in Georgia’s 14th Congressional District is a woman who promotes QAnon and election denial and makes stridently racist, anti-Semitic, and Sinophobic remarks in public forums. Florida’s G.O.P. gubernatorial incumbent, who is at war with Mickey Mouse because Disney is a gay-friendly workplace, has banned teachers from so much as whispering information pertinent to LGBTQ students. I’ll stop there, as a complete litany would run thousands more words.

Gabriel Dawe, “Incomplete No. 13 (Bruegel)” 2022, jigsaw puzzle, 54 1/2 x 75 3/4”.

Courtesy of Talley Dunn Gallery, Dallas

After years of witnessing a sustained assault on democratic norms, who among us could be shocked that such a confederacy of dunces has arrived within spitting distance of reclaiming the House and Senate, as well as governor’s mansions in as many as 36 states? Who needs smelling salts and a fainting couch at the revelation that those mild-mannered Supreme Court justices mouthed respect for precedent in their confirmation hearings, only to overturn Roe v. Wade the instant they attained a hard-right majority, their sights now fixed on rolling back same-sex marriage? Liberals and progressives who have been paying attention are not surprised. Rank-and-file conservatives, however, especially those with only nominal ties to the Christian far right, may find themselves aghast at the chickens coming home to roost when their daughters and granddaughters can no longer discreetly handle unintended pregnancies; when working-class tax bills increase while corporate taxes plummet; when their state-funded health insurance is repealed; and when that friendly little doggie in the window they fell in love with turns into Cujo the second its paws hit the front door.

 

As with so many of our more recent political atrocities, Donald Trump set the tenor and the tone. He seemed pretty harmless, didn’t he, descending his gilded elevator, a sideshow not to be granted much credence. The Huffington Post even decided, albeit briefly, to migrate coverage of Trump’s primary campaign to its entertainment section. But the scrappy new pet, who craved treats and attention and did tricks that made us chuckle, turned out to be a Trojan Horse. 

 

Once upon a time, the Republican Party was simplistically conflated with Main Street U.S.A. values, Sunday school and self-sufficiency, grandma’s quilts and lemonade on the front porch. Now, more MAGA than G.O.P., it bares its fangs, annexing women’s bodies and agency, turning our highest court into a political instrument of reactionary activism, enabling mass shooters by loosening gun laws, institutionalizing election fraud and voter disenfranchisement, inciting deadly insurrection, and openly calling for civil war

Winston Smith, “Who Gets the Check?”, 2005, collage

We have an opportunity to call the dogcatcher before all hell breaks loose, but only if we get out the vote. There’s no wiggle room in this era of fascism on the march. Democrats from Joe Biden on down have put it plainly: Democracy itself is on the ballot. These words should be marching orders for every registered Democrat, moderate independent, and perhaps most crucially, every old-school Republican, if any remain, who still subscribes to classic party principles like limited government, balanced budgets, strong national defense, and the value of personal character. Democrats may have plenty of differences with Republicans of the George W. Bush/Mitt Romney/Liz Cheney stripe, but we can band together when the common adversary is the nouvel éléphant for whom anything goes, lies are okay if they’re politically expedient, dog whistles are replaced with saying the quiet part out loud, and the fabulism that a cabal of cannibal pedophiles is killing children to harvest their blood. Prior to 2016 it would have been unthinkable that such looney toon claptrap could gain traction in, much less take control of, our politics. Today it’s lingua franca among nearly half the populace.

 

Perhaps it is in poor taste to draw parallels between the fate of three innocent people who died earlier this month in the jaws of pit bulls, and the plight of a nation careening into fascism. If so, I accept responsibility for overextending the metaphor. I will only suggest that a known lethal threat, a clear and present danger, whether to an individual body or the body politic, cannot be ignored. It must be rooted out and quashed — with our ballots, not guns — definitively, lest it inflict a harm that is final, fatal, and cannot be made right.

President Obama sings Amazing Grace, June 26, 2015. Video courtesy of C-SPAN