The zeitgeist has always been wonderfully elastic. Attitudes change and apostasy is tolerated if you are cool enough to pull it off. There was a time when country music wasn’t cool. When Clint Eastwood was just not acceptable (Dirty Harry . . . really?). Cigarettes were very cool back when Bogie and Bacall lit up. Then . . . no more. Cocaine was really cool and it stayed around but lost its intellectual, if not its pharmacological, allure.
But some things seemed somehow, reassuringly, always beyond the pale. Things that no cultural arms would ever grow long enough to embrace. Evangelical religion, for instance. Marching bands and majorettes. Francisco Franco (as opposed to, say, Fidel Castro). And hunting.
If you were a hunter, you knew that what you did was utterly unacceptable, and that counted for something. You got used to being regarded in a fashion that was condescending at best. You were some kind of knuckle-dragging rube, rural trash, unable to keep up. More likely, though, the verdict on you was even harsher than that. You killed things, as was once explained to me, to make up for some deep inadequacy, primitively sexual in nature. What else, after all, could account for the gun which was plainly a substitute for . . . well, you know what.
The contempt for hunting, and hunters, was solid and impregnable—and if you were a hunter, kind of comforting. After a couple of encounters, you quit arguing the point. Discussion was impossible and that was fine. You knew what you knew. And nothing is more reassuring than permanence. Hunting was unhip and would remain so, forever and always.
And the fact that it was unhip gave it added value. Without getting all deep and philosophical about it, most serious hunters knew that what they did was not trendy, and that was one of the things they found most -compelling about it. Hunting was a part of the human adventure whose antecedents are so old and fundamental that they are impervious to fashion. Contemporary culture would never come around, and hunters were fine with that.
But now . . . well, according to a recent piece in Slate, written by Emma Marris, hunting is now “undeniably in vogue among the bearded, bicycle-riding, locavore set,” with “many of these new hunters . . . taking up the activity for ethical and environmental reasons.”
They kill, you understand, for the very best of reasons. Their intentions are pure and their justifications are rational. They don’t hunt out of some deep, atavistic impulse, but because they recognize that “eating animals you hunt yourself is a more ethical alternative than eating those from the current industrial agricultural system,” and “getting your meat from outside the industrial food system is also better for the environment.”
This does, at least, get beyond the routine, sentimental objections to hunting. The hipsters don’t worry that Bambi’s mother feels panic and pain or that Bambi misses her when she’s gone. It is easier, these days, to consider most game animals as creatures to be harvested, not romanticized. A few decades ago, merely catching a glimpse of a whitetail deer in the woods was a rare and almost enchanted experience. Now, deer are everywhere. They are “rats with hooves” to many suburban dwellers, who have seen too many deer and grown weary of their devouring expensively landscaped lawns and gardens, their spreading Lyme disease, and their running into traffic and causing expensive, dangerous, and sometimes fatal crashes. Anything, including hunting, that results in fewer deer is okay with them.
This proliferation of wild species—deer, turkey, Canada geese, black bear, moose—to the point where they have become nuisances is a theme of Jim Sterba’s recently published Nature Wars, which Marris uses to ballast her arguments in the Slate piece.
Sterba writes gracefully, researches thoroughly, and argues persuasively for a more tough-minded approach to wildlife . . . and hunting. He and Marris make a case, then, for hunting as the solution to a problem. It is social policy, and the sort of thing a think tank might come up with after securing a grant and studying the matter for several months.
Too many animals? Well, kill them and eat the meat. Require that hunters purchase licenses so there is some revenue raised. Unless you are Bambi . . . what’s not to like? You can, as Marris explains, now be a liberal and a hunter too.
And maybe that is a good thing. But you are still a killer, and even if it is good for the environment, there is that little matter of the enjoyment and the thrill. You aren’t hunting to be a good citizen. Buying a hunting license isn’t like joining Common Cause.
The urge is too primitive, too deeply embedded in the blood, to be accounted for rationally. No one has yet come closer than Ortega y Gasset, who put it like this in his Meditations on Hunting:
Pushed by reason, man is condemned to make progress, and this means that he is condemned to go farther and farther away from Nature, to construct in its place an artificial Nature. . . . [F]ar from hunting’s being a “reasoned pursuit” of the animal, the greatest enemy of hunting is reason.
Ortega famously summed up the paradox that lies at the heart of hunting with this: “One does not hunt in order to kill; on the contrary, one kills in order to have hunted.”
And just how hip is that?
Geoffrey Norman, a writer in Vermont, is a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.