Beauty Amidst the Horse Manure
Amidst the fierceness of polarized debate, I experienced a memorable moment of beauty.
Yesterday, New York City Council’s Consumer Affairs Committee hosted a public hearing about Intro 658, which would ban horse-drawn carriages in New York City. More than 160 people signed up to speak at the hearing, and the council chambers were filled beyond capacity. At least for the five hours I was present (there were still about 50 people who hadn’t spoken yet when I left for shul around sundown), the speakers seemed to be evenly split between proponents and opponents of the bill. Backers of the ban included official representatives from various organizations (including PETA, HSUS, ASPCA, Friends of Animals, Coalition to Ban Horse-Drawn Carriages, and the New York City Bar Association), musicians (Nellie McKay and Jason and Rachel Trachtenburg of the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players), and individuals speaking up for animals. Opponents of the ban (many of whom favored Intro 653, which would increase rates for carriage rides and change the regulatory provisions for New York’s carriage industry) included carriage drivers, a lobbyist and other industry representatives, and representatives of New York City’s Department of Health. It appears that this issue and this legislation will not be resolved in the short-term future.
The councilmember running the hearing repeatedly noted that giving so many people the opportunity to make their voices heard was democracy at its finest. Nevertheless, I felt that the hours-long hearing turned ugly and that the debate seemed polarized. Four opponents of the ban would testify in favor of keeping their jobs and saying that "horsemen" treat horses well. Then four animal protection advocates would follow them, often talking about "cruelty" and "abuse" in the horse-drawn carriage industry. (Many did do a terrific job, though.) Far too many proponents of the ban made analogies to slavery, which I find to be ineffective and insensitive when sensationalized and out of context. Fifteen-year-old Rachel Trachtenburg sang a song while playing a ukulele. One opponent of the ban launched an over-the-top ad hominem attack on Intro 658 sponsor Councilmember Tony Avella, calling on him to resign. And the councilmember behind Intro 653 interrogated a representative of the New York City Bar Association beyond belief. At times, this spectacle did not seem like civil discourse.
As I was waiting for my turn to testify, I started crossing out parts of the speech I’d written the night before. There was no need to go into great depth when dozens of Intro 658 supporters had already gone before me, and I wanted to be clear and succinct. I also scribbled something in the margin about the terms “cruel” and “abusive,” but I didn’t figure out the exact wording at that point.
Right around the time the sun was setting, I was finally called to testify. I talked about how I’ve known horses my entire life and how I have long been dismayed at the sight of horses pulling carriages in Manhattan. “Horses aren’t cut out for the rigors of pulling carriages in New York City,” I said. I noted that horses pulling carriages inhale lots of smoke and exhaust fumes because they walk through city traffic with their heads lowered and next to cars’ tailpipes. I also mentioned that horses work outside in the extreme cold and heat, which can lead to dehydration and heatstroke during the summer months.
Then came my big moment. I challenged the buzzwords “cruel” and “abusive,” which had been thrown around by both sides all day long. (Proponents of the ban had failed to convince too many people that carriage drivers actually treated their horses cruelly, and opponents of the ban put forth claims that they weren’t abusive to horses in an effort to dismiss the animal advocates’ side.) I noted that except for some bad apples, carriage-horse workers are not cruel or abusive people. Rather, the key issue is that conditions in the industry inherently cause horses health problems and suffering and that Intro 658 attacks the problem at its roots.
After I walked to the back of the room, I was approached by a stranger. He introduced himself as a carriage driver, shook my hand, and thanked me. Many times throughout the day, he and his colleagues had been scapegoated and demonized. He accepted the spirit of honest disagreement, and he was grateful that someone from “the other side” had actually pointed out that he wasn’t an evil person.
The public hearing was indeed democracy in action, but following many hours of battle, I was most touched when I had the opportunity to shake hands with someone on the other side. We disagreed, but we respected each other. I couldn't help but think back to President Barack Obama's acceptance speech for the Democratic nomination in August:
One of the things that we have to change in our politics is the idea that people cannot disagree without challenging each other's character .... What has ... been lost is our sense of common purpose, and that's what we have to restore.