Katherine Kersten's bizarre plot to kill your dog: A moral history

Minnesotans woke up to the stark news Sunday that Katherine Kersten wanted them to kill their dogs.

The column in the Star Tribune's opinion section, titled "Put people before dogs," is a good study in how ideas rattle around the right-wing media machine and eventually get recycled in your Sunday opinion section.

Kersten introduces the piece with a reference to "Dog Dates of Summer" -- a recent package on pooch-friendly establishments that ran in the Star Tribune and on the cover of its free weekly Vita.mn.

But it isn't long before Kersten gets to the meat of the matter, an eye-raising study that caught her attention:

Consider a recent study by Richard Topolski of Georgia Regents University and his colleagues, which appeared in the journal Anthrozoos. Researchers asked respondents which they would save from a runaway bus: a dog (their own pet or someone else's) or a human being. The conclusions were remarkable: Forty percent of respondents, including 46 percent of women, said they would save their dog over a foreign tourist.

Curious about this study, I ran a Google search, at which point Kersten's inspiration became much clearer. The Topolski study was first cited in the Wall Street Journal on August 16:

A recent paper by Richard Topolski at George Regents University and colleagues, published in the journal Anthrozoös, demonstrates this human involvement with pets to a startling extent. Participants in the study were told a hypothetical scenario in which a bus is hurtling out of control, bearing down on a dog and a human. Which do you save? With responses from more than 500 people, the answer was that it depended: What kind of human and what kind of dog? 

Everyone would save a sibling, grandparent or close friend rather than a strange dog. But when people considered their own dog versus people less connected with them--a distant cousin or a hometown stranger--votes in favor of saving the dog came rolling in. And an astonishing 40% of respondents, including 46% of women, voted to save their dog over a foreign tourist. This makes Parisians' treatment of American tourists look good in comparison.

The Topolski study got picked up by the National Review on August 20, which quotes the Wall Street Journal article liberally before ladling on a heaping dollop of God-talk:

So, then, the most important question for human beings to ask is how we teach ourselves to "extend our humaneness to other human beings."

Or, to pose the question within the framework of the dog-stranger question: How do we convince people to save a human being they do not know rather than the dog they do know and love?

There is only one way.

We need to teach -- as we did throughout American history until the 1960s -- that human beings are created in God's image and animals are not. That is the only compelling reason to save a human being you don't love before the dog you do love.

That brings us to Katherine Kersten's rewrite in Sunday's Star Tribune, where she picks up on the idea that prior to the 1960s, Americans would have saved a stranger rather than their dog:

Nearly all respondents reported they would save a sibling or best friend instead of a strange dog. But when asked to choose between their own dog and people less familiar to them -- a distant cousin or hometown stranger -- an astounding number chose the dog.

Would Americans have answered this question differently in the past? Most likely, yes. Why

The answer lies embedded in words that used to be our nation's common creed. Our founders held it self-evidently true that "all men" -- unlike other animals -- "are created equal" and "are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights," including "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

The founders believed that human beings have a unique dignity and an elevated status over all other animals, because they are made in the image of God and are capable of choosing between good and evil. Our nation's political system is founded on this view of human beings' unique moral status.

Of course, the authors of the study weren't nearly so obsessed with the history of Judeo-Christian ethics, and instead came to the more obvious, rational conclusion:

We love our dogs like family, and that's not a bad thing.

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