THERE are times when it's easy to sympathise with people in distress, the victims of the Victorian bushfires being an obvious recent example.
You look at television images of devastated people, townships and houses, as many would have done via last week's Four Corners, and in a metaphysical kind of way you share the pain.
Such experiences are probably good for us. For those who may, over the passage of time, have grown faintly cynical and world-weary, it can even be reassuring. Your empathy systems remain intact, after all. Yet, such are the irreconcilable contradictions of the human condition, distress can prompt sharply differing and opposite reactions.
The scribe dreads to think what mail may be in store for him for writing this, but he went from sympathy and empathy at the Victorian bushfire dilemmas, as drawn out by FC's reporter Liz Jackson, to indifference -- even anger -- at subsequent stories about what the world has been calling swine flu.
He found himself mentally (and probably unfairly) accusing those parading before the cameras in face masks of ludicrous exhibitionism. He silently (again, probably unfairly) mocked federal Minister for Health Nicola Roxon as she spoke earnestly about swine flu with Tony Jones on Lateline on Tuesday. The emotions couldn't have been in more marked contrast: the shared distress provoked by FC, anger and indifference to the swine flu stories.
The difference goes to human innocence. People can, and will, argue about improved fire prevention measures, better warning systems and all the rest, but few would suggest humanity brought the bushfire catastrophes on itself by doing something terribly wrong. Those trapped by fire were, so far as we can reasonably judge, innocent victims. But if swine flu is appropriately named and emanated from captive pigs, the scribe's life experience tells him the core of the problem is human cruelty to animals.
Intensive pig-fattening is cruel, greedy, callous and mindless. It's barbaric. If people aren't aware of what occurs, perhaps they should take the trouble to inform themselves.
If the average suburbanite was fully aware of how some roast pork comes to be, it might take the edge off the occasional Sunday lunch. Scores, dozens -- sometimes hundreds -- of young pigs are wickedly crowded into a confined space. There's nothing for them to do all day but eat. The floors are concrete. There's no earth or straw for them to nose. They're often so crowded they can hardly turn round. You never hear a contented grunt, just squeals from distressed creatures coated in their own excrement.
Obviously there are blessed exceptions to such conditions. But intensive pig rearing, at its most profit-hungry, is horrible. The pigs are simply a factory product. At its frequent worst it's inhumane and ghastly to behold.
The scribe won't bore you with how he happens to know a fair bit about it. But, be assured, he wouldn't tell you fibs.
He (truthfully) wrote, three years back, that he'd had a fair bit of experience with wheat. That was just as he was about to assist this journal's Caroline Overington to cover the royal commission into the AWB Iraq wheat export bribery scandal, which spawned her 2007 book Kickback.
Anyway, the scribe now promises you he also knows a bit about pig farming. Not that you have to rely on the scribe. Many will have seen television footage of intensive pig rearing from Mexico and the US.
Letters to the editors of newspapers perform many useful functions. They can, it's true, also be unfortunate. A prolific, well-organised minority can sometimes hijack and skew a debate. But the letters page does allow non-journalists to have their say.
In truth, non-journalists sometimes have more interesting things to say than journalists.
And two specific letter-writers served The Australian and The Sydney Morning Herald very well last Wednesday.
There isn't space to re-run both in full, much as they deserve a second airing. This is the SMH correspondent, one Raph Brous: "Most North American pig farms confine more than 5000 animals in disgustingly cruel and confined conditions. Most Australian piggeries are no different...
"Swine flu is a result of the inhumanity practised by pig farmers who prioritise profits over animal welfare. People who eat pork products ignore that the pig industry severely harms the environment and the pigs.
"How sadly ironic that as humans abuse animals, forcing thousands of pigs and poultry into squalid factory farms, their viruses combine and evolve into new strains that teach us a deadly lesson about the everyday abuse of animals to satisfy human greed."
The Australian's correspondent was the (here) savagely edited Vivienne Ortega: "Influenza in pigs is closely correlated with pig density ... The inhumane and crowded conditions of modern pig farming should finally make us question its sustainability."
The scribe rests his case.
The media being the media, that's also about where the animal welfare side of the equation will continue to rest hereafter. We must just be grateful for the letters pages.
Australian parliamentary junkets being as frequent as they are, it came as no surprise that the Mexican swine flu outbreak found six federal MPs in Mexico.
Lightning-strike news just about anywhere in the world would probably find some fairly adjacent junketing Australian MPs. A seventh member of the legation, Bill Heffernan, decided to fly straight home from Canada.
Ironically Heffernan, from Junee, country NSW, knows a great deal about farming practices and was probably the one member of the group who might have been able to absorb something useful for Australia had he gone on to Mexico. We can't help but mention the delegation was led by the Labor senator John Hogg. To say more about Hogg's presence and surname would, of course, be pure adolescence.
Unfortunately, that doesn't quite, totally, remove the temptation. But we won't do it.
In much the same way, many would have noted the group also included Labor's notoriously exuberant Belinda Neal. Again, temptation tugs stealthily at the quill. Mmmm. The scribe is all but relieved to be out of space.
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