Ruth Graham, in an article published at Slate, demonstrated one of the worst vices of American media. Specifically, she sought to provoke and entertain the audience she writes for by unnecessarily criticizing Sully H.W. Bush, the service dog to George Bush, the 41st president of the United states.
As the photo of Sully resting in front of 41's casket reached into every American's home and phone, Ruth felt that her greatest contribution would be to point out that Sully was simply an employee and not a beloved family pet. Furthermore, she sought to do what many in her camp might do: impose a postmodern and deconstructionist interpretation upon a photo. She then imposed the false narrative of a power struggle between a dominant master (who had Parkinson's and needed a service dog to help him function throughout his day) and a helpless creature conscripted into training and forced to help 41. Her rationale? This is what Sully was trained to do as an employee.
How does the author try to tidy all of this up? By pointing out the timeline that Sully was with 41 for only about six months, not long enough to be a true beloved pet. Like many who might subscribe to dominant power theories and postmodern techniques, Graham leaves science at the door.
Stanley Coren, professor emeritus in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia and a well respected leader on canine psychology, points out that a dog can grieve, much in the same way a two- to three-year-old human child can grieve. For instance, a child in this age range lacks the cognitive ability to appreciate death. When Uncle Steven passes and a parent explains to Little Johnny that "Uncle Steven has died and is not returning," it is no surprise when Little Johnny will ask when he will see Uncle Steven again. At this point, it would be easy for the deconstructionist to say, "See, just as Little Johnny doesn't understand, so Sully cannot understand."
That interpretation would be incomplete. Typically, although children do not understand the ramifications or processes of death, they feel sad, depressed, and confused. Admittedly, they likely don't have the cognitive appreciation for grief, but that does not mean that children are unaffected by the circumstances.
Sully, like many other dogs, feels the same way. When Navy SEAL Jon Tumilson's funeral concluded, his black Labrador retriever, Hawkeye, lay in front of his coffin. Likely, Hawkeye felt sad, depressed, and confused, and he waited on Jon to return.
Why was Sully lying in front of the casket of 41? According to Graham, "it's a bit demented to project soul-wrenching grief onto a dog's decision to lie down in front of a casket." Well, if we use science, then we will take stock of previous observations and compare similar accounts of dogs with funerals. We will then look at studies or seek out experts like Dr. Coren to see if there is any meaningful correlation. If we don't apply our own confirmation bias, as it seems Graham did in her article, we will find that Sully is doing what many a child with the same cognitive abilities and what other dogs in Sully's situation do.
If our society's goal is to entertain ourselves with false criticism, Slate proves this point. However, I am convinced that deep down, the American people aspire to something greater, as in Teddy Roosevelt's speech "The Man in the Arena": there are those in the arena who struggle to achieve something of significance and meaning, and there is the crowd in the seats, criticizing, mocking, and being entertained.
Slate authors seem comfortable sitting in the arena. Bush was not a perfect man, who himself stated, "History will point out some of the things I did wrong and some of the things I did right." But the quote that stands out in my mind is, "America is never wholly herself unless she is engaged in high moral principle. We as people have such purpose today. It is to make kinder the face of the nation and gentler the face of the world."
Our high moral principles do not eschew science, mock dogs, or act unkindly.