Letter to a Chicken

Several million pink slips of paper were recently discovered at the site of a disused chicken farm. Witnesses we interviewed say the messages were dropped by military aircraft apparently patrolling the area before a general quarantine was called due to the outbreak of H5N1 avian flu.

The following is a rough transcription.

 13 February 2004

 Dear Domestic Chicken (Gallus gallus),

You’ll have heard the rumors by now, the tales of black plastic, gas and shovels. Perhaps you’ve even seen the pictures. “Tied in Sacks and Buried Alive,” “Necks wrung”, “Bashed to Death”, “Millions Slaughtered.” Those spoilsport reporters flashed the stories all across the papers and TVs, despite the best efforts of our chief of quarantine Dr. Hutton. There’s too many of them now, too many stories, too much information. So I won’t try to hide the news from you. We’re sending round the boys. We’re going to have to let you go.

We have to protect ourselves.

That’s what we’re telling them. But well, since our working relationship is coming to an end, I might as well confess that it’s not entirely true. There are other matters involved. I’m not certain your kind will understand the intricacies of our species or indeed the nuances of even higher organisms- like our brand new, socially-engineered global economy. Still, given the current circumstances, I suppose you deserve a brief tutorial on some basic features human affairs, and why this had to happen.

Look, for starters, it’s best to understand that there’s no such thing as a ‘human being’. You lot have got your roosters and you’ve got your hens. Well,. our species is divided up in various other ways too, so that some of us do well, some don’t do so well, and most don’t really exist at all.

This whole conglomerate mass of human beings basically lives on farms and in flocks, just like you birds and other animals. In our world, flocks are ruled by shepherds, who are basically guys that ‘own’ things and want to ‘get things done’. Shepherds use dogs to scare the flock, and keep them moving in the right direction so that those ‘things’ do indeed ‘get done’. I guess that’s not so complicated after all. Let’s continue on to the reason you’re reading this letter.

Humans, as a flock, fear disease. They fear animal-people contagion. And they really fear people-people contagion. Just mention rats or bubonic plague or the 1918 flu epidemic and they’re running around like headless… oh sorry.

But in the long run, really, all that is negligible. There’s a place called Africa, for example, that’s been particularly hard hit by a contagious, incurable people-people contagion. Some even say that 11 million people have died over there as a result. But most other places aren’t in a panic about that. We mostly just send them a ‘get well soon’ card and change the channel.

See, thanks to the shepherds, humans don’t always fear what’s really dangerous to them. A disease called poverty, for example, kills countless numbers of us every year. There’s so many others. Tobacco, ballistic missile defense, environmental devastation, you name it – who really cares? But I digress.

There’s another contagion, though, one that’s more serious because it gets the shepherds freaked out. This is a type of disease that really gets us quaking in our jackboots: the economy-economy contagion.

There’s a couple of mutations of this particular virus. One kind, somewhat less harmful, is based on panic. Something bad happens somewhere and rumors spread and pretty soon everyone’s just so darn scared that stop spending their money. The area where this sort of contagion takes place is critical in terms of its threat to the overall organism, and therefore its need to be contained.

SARS is a good example, being both an actual people-people disease and the cause of panic that threatened to mutate into an economy-economy contagion. Compared to more deadly people-people diseases that are routine in other parts of the world, SARS wasn’t that big of a deal (1). But jeez, the economic disease! Asia is kind of a big heart of the organism these days, so we had to quell that one pretty quick. In a little place called Hong Kong they had to pump up welfare payments (to industries) to the tune of US$1.5 billion as part of a “relief” package (2) before we kept SARS down.

Asia’s kinda always been susceptible to such diseases, there was a similar but more deadly contagion of this sort back in 1997. What a scare. Some of those economies almost flatlined. And they were coming along so nicely.

But by far the most malignant kind of economy-economy contagion is sometimes called ‘the threat of a good example’ (not its clinical name). See, sometimes parts of the flock disagree with the shepherds. Maybe they think that “the first beneficiaries of the development of a country’s resources should be the people of that country”. Maybe they are concerned about bringing “broader distribution of wealth and to raise the standard of living” of the flock (3). And if one of the flock gets sick like that, who knows how many others will as well? And then where would the shepherds be?

We had big problems keeping down such diseases in Vietnam and other parts of Asia. According to this guy Henry Kissinger, another place called Chile had a “”virus” that would “infect” the region with effects all the way to Italy.” (4) In the 1980s this place called Nicaragua became a veritable “cancer, right here on our land mass.” (4)

Our remedy for this in Asia, like elsewhere, has always been to restore “investor confidence.” Investors are kind of a herd within the flock- we like ’em, but they tend to be a bit panicky. So sometimes have to show them that there’s nothing to be worried about, that they should keep their cash in a certain place, that they won’t lose out by staying put. There’s various remedies of this sort. One of them used to be known as ‘gunboat diplomacy’. It’s a pretty invasive form of treatment. I think they call it regime change, democratization, or liberation nowadays.

Another form of treatment, not quite so drastic, is to enthusiastically show investors that there’s no reason to fear because we’re doing something. Anything. Tough talking leaders, ads on TV, volunteers sweeping the streets and scrubbing the sidewalks. Call it a panacea of sorts.

That’s also where you come in.

In any case, we’ve come to like the idea of showing all those pictures of mad cows, flu-ridden chickens, hills black with burning bodies, cranes, corpses and mass graves. All the better for people to get an idea of what’s ‘necessary’ at a given point in time. It’s just not the same when you demonize cells, viruses, and bacteria cultures. Herds are ruled by fear, after all, so living, breathing demons are sort-of dual-use. We’ve heard that somewhere down the line there’s going to be a plague of epic proportions starting in the world’s slums. (5) Best get ’em ready and prepped for the big one.

So have faith, dear chicken, and try to understand. There are many kinds of viruses, rots, cancers, and other deadly diseases out there. Your sacrifice — like that of millions of your fellow species, other species, and humans — will be for the health and benefit of a higher organism.

Thank you for your cooperation. The species prevails.


 (1) See for example: Farmer, Paul. “SARS and Inequality.” The Nation. May 26, 2003.

(2). See sources in “Fog of SARS” ZNet. May 3, 2003.

(3). Quoted in Chomsky, Noam. Profit over People. Seven Stories Press, 1999.

(3) Quote from: Chomsky, Noam. What Uncle Sam Really Wants. 1993.

(4) See Davis, Mike. “A Deadly Plague of Slums”. TomDispatch. February 3, 2004. 

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