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THIS JUST IN

3/7/2008

Like most of my Dominican friends, I'm of multiple minds about this whole cockfighting brouhaha. On the one hand, the "sport" is straight-up cruel. I grew up in Santo Domingo with a grandfather who raised fighting bantams. I remember him squeezing lemon juice into their nostrils to "toughen them up," and I remember what they looked like after they lost. Torn to hell would be an understatement.

So yes, cockfighting is an inhumane blood sport that destroys animals for human amusement. But that hasn't stopped it from being one of the most popular diversions among men in the Dominican Republic. As you probably know by now, it's especially big with some much-loved ballplayers. Recently, a video clip that surfaced online showed Pedro Martínez and Hall of Famer Juan Marichal in the stands at the Coliseo de Gallistico de Santo Domingo (Santo Domingo Cockfighting Coliseum). Cue the cross-cultural histrionics. It hit folks in the U.S. pretty hard that these heroic figures could be involved in such an ugly pastime. Michael Vick Part 2, right?

Except that cockfighting, which is illegal in most of the U.S., is plenty legal in the D.R. If Marichal wants to attend every cockfight there, he's within his rights to do so. Equally, if PETA activists and like-minded allies want to blitz Martínez each time he takes the mound, they're within their rights as well. I'm one of those people who think it's good for outsiders to weigh in on even the most cherished of national traditions—I mean, in Somalia, female circumcision is still going strong. The only way for us as a planetary culture to grow is through exchange and debate.

At the same time, I often find first-world criticism of third-world practices not only sanctimonious but also callous. When I was in Santo Domingo in February, I asked people about the cockfighting controversy. Most rolled their eyes. One guy said, "Americans are more interested in chickens than in the fact that we don't have enough food to eat here." And isn't that in some respects true? The problem with this kind of judgment from afar is that it can reveal more about your own prejudices and blind spots than about the culture you're criticizing. Yes, there is cockfighting in the D.R., but in the U.S. there is a poultry industry that to your average chicken must look like some straight-up concentration camp nightmare. In the world of chickens, any pro-chicken critique by the U.S. has got to provoke a lot of cynical clucks.

Like I said, I'm of multiple minds. I'm against animal cruelty, but I also love me some tasty pollo guisado. I don't attend cockfights, but I don't turn my back on friends or family who do. I know these issues can't be cherry-picked, that you have to tackle a whole lot of political, social and economic context to address them productively.

In the sports world we like our decisions clear-cut, but in the real world of countries and cultures and people, nothing is ever so simple. First-world nations will continue to press their values on the rest of the planet, and developing nations like the Dominican Republic will continue to insist that their less than savory practices are part of a larger national patrimony. It's a fight, after all, and one that might, in the end, have a real conclusion. None of the young people I talked to in Santo Domingo evinced even the slightest interest in this blood sport. My grandfather was the last cockfighting man in my family, and when he got older, he stopped attending matches—whether out of remorse or boredom, I cannot say. In any case, roosters no longer appeared at our house, and he gave away his collection of razor-sharp spurs. Cockfighting could very well die a natural death, supplanted by the Wii and PlayStation3.

It might take a while, though. Men like Pedro and Marichal cast long shadows in our hearts and minds precisely because we live in a world in which sporting events between men and, yes, beasts never cease to draw, to fascinate, to simplify what to us seems hopelessly murky and inconclusive. As long as man continues to be a sporting animal, he will, I fear, never stop making sport out of animals.

But that doesn't mean we should stop trying to change what is us