If you are a committed vegan you have likely thought to yourself that you cannot believe you ate how you once ate, much less lived how you once lived. In a way, this is an excellent emotion to experience. It provides honest affirmation of your new, healthier, and more compassionate way of life. It validates your choice of the road less traveled. In another way, though, it can be a dangerous feeling to nurture because, if not treated with due respect, or if understood as a source of shame, it can lead to the sort of alienating smugness that too often gets vegans sent to the office for having a bad attitude.
What I mean here is that, while we may very well see our former selves as reflections of a fundamentally different being, existential continuity dictates that, lo and behold, your old meat-eating, gluttonous, sybaritic self was still you—the same person you are now— and, truth be told, there is great value in not only owning up to that former aspect of your identity, but also to embrace it and recall what that mindset and former identity was like. The benefit of making this self-empathic leap into the past is that it makes us better able to relate to people who have not, and could not even consider, making the leap we have since made. It brings us back to a past that, for most people around us, remains the present.
George Orwell, who I’m gradually coming to appreciate as the last century’s greatest essayist, fully understood the ideological power inherent in keeping emotional ties to former selves. In 1940, he wrote an essay called “My Country Right or Left,” in which he explored his own transitional experience to liberalism in the face of the horrific aftermath of World War One. Undoubtedly pleased with his evolution toward enlightenment, he nevertheless rued those who acted as if that they were born into it, virgin-like in their liberalism, requiring no such transition and thus having no past to disown.
He wrote, “To this day it gives me a faint feeling of sacrilege not to stand to attention during ‘God Save the King.’ That is childish, of course, but I would soon have had that kind of upbringing than be like the left-wing intellectuals who are so ‘enlightened’ that they cannot understand the most ordinary emotions. It is exactly the people who hearts have never leapt at the sight of a Union Jack who will flinch from revolution when the moment comes.”
I love this. What Orwell is saying is that the power of an enlightened ideology derives from the power of transition, and that transitions lose their source of strength if we pretend our less enlightened former selves never existed. How else to understand the “most ordinary emotions”—such as a desire to eat animals? Orwell was not writing about veganism, of course, but his message could not be more relevant. He goes on to praise “the power of one kind of loyalty to transmute itself into another” as an element for positive change for which “no substitute has yet been found.”
If true, Orwell’s observation, as well as my interpretation of it, raises future issues for vegan activism as more and more vegans raise children to be vegans from the start. What impact will the lack of transition have on those who never knew what it was once like to sing war songs in honor of the Union Jack? Or, lacking such perspective, will vegans from birth, seeking the power of transition, be more prone to make the change in the other direction, toward eating animals? This is a question for which I have no answer (although lots of thoughts).
You have to give the Humane Society of the United States credit for scaring the snot out of Big Agriculture. For those who persist in thinking that HSUS and other welfare organizations are in some sort of dark conspiratorial cahoots with our nation’s most powerful producers of animal products, I would urge you to look closely at the current Farm Bill.
In particular, consider the recent addendum snuck into the bill by Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) during the latest House Agriculture Committee session. An excellent overview of this sordid episode came yesterday from Mariann Sullivan, of Our Hen House. Read it here.
The King addendum stipulates that any state requiring minimal welfare standards in animal agriculture—think Prop 2 in California—cannot ban the importation of animal products from states that lack those standards. This unctuous loophole effectively negates any and all local initiatives to seek better conditions for farm animals. In so doing, it leads to what Sullivan rightly calls “a race to the regulatory bottom.” Hard to imagine that we could get much lower.
Concrete if hypothetical example: If you’re an egg producer in California, the motivation will be, under the King amendment, to move to Nevada (or Idaho or Montana . . .), abandon the costly welfare standards imposed by Prop 2, but still maintain access to lucrative California markets. Frankly (and maybe they did), the political advocates for animal welfare improvement should have seen this one coming all the way from Iowa. King’s dream cannot be that much of a surprise.
Still, this is the cynical politics of fear, a politics inspired in part by the HSUS’s successful efforts to push “minimal” (that’s Wayne Pacelle’s own description) improvements onto animal agriculture on the state level. It is, however, also the politics of politics, something more sinister, and something that one enters at his peril, or at least armed with low expectations and a regiment of lobbyists.
It’s hard to get much of anything done in a top-down sort of way in our Federalist system of government, much less the imposition costly welfare reforms for the voiceless. The horse-trading, as it were, began in 1787 at the Constitutional Convention and has since only intensified to make centralized change more costly and difficult than it need be. Sadly, frustratingly, the King amendment is just another loophole in the Swiss cheese of political reform for farm animals.
This ease with which the King hole was punched suggests very strongly that organizations such as HSUS are better off spending their time seeking change on the corporate rather than the political level. I don’t mean to overstate the dichotomy here between corporations and government, nor do I think political pressure is useless. However, I think that a successful melding of documented consumer interest in welfare standards with persistent corporate advocacy has the potential to render efforts by madmen such as King moot, or at least limit their effectiveness to serving as desperate cries for help under the immense pressure of compassion that’s still struggling to find its loudest bullhorn.
What to do? Here’s this, from Gene Baur at Farm Sanctuary:
I need your help. Right now, please call your Representative in the U.S. Congress and ask that she or he work to remove the King Amendment from the House Farm Bill, which passed by a voice vote on Wednesday night.
The King Amendment could negate most state and local farm animal protection laws, including those regarding factory farm confinement, horse slaughter, and foie gras (along with other laws related to environmental protection, worker safety, and more).
Please make a brief, polite phone call to your U.S. Representativeurging opposition to the King Amendment. You can say simply, “Hi. I live in CITY, I’m calling to ask that Representative NAME oppose the King Amendment to the Farm Bill, which could slash protections for animals and violates state’s rights.” If the person you speak with doesn’t know your representative’s position, please leave your name and phone number, and ask for a call back.
After calling, please submit this form to automatically send a follow-up message.
I did the following interview with my daughter, Cecile.
JM: Why did you become a vegetarian?
CM: Because I love animals and I don’t like how they kill them for food.
JM: What do your friends think about you being vegetarian?
CM: Sometimes they ask why I became a vegetarian, but one of my friends is a vegan so . . . she gets it. But some of my other friends don’t really get it.
JM: When they don’t get it what do you say to them?
CM: I say that they hurt animals for food and they kill them and, like you, I don’t think they should kill animals if they don’t have to.
JM: What are the biggest challenges you face as a vegetarian? Or, are there big challenges you face?
CM: Not really.
JM: What’s a typical lunch look like for you?
CM: A chocolate almond butter sandwich, orange slices, blackberries, and mango; sometimes Tofurky slices.
JM: If you were stranded on an island and could have only one thing to eat . . .
Fruit. Because that’s what they would have on an island.
The other day, while sitting at an upscale bar drinking a (well-earned) pint of beer, I overheard a woman a few barstools over ask about a menu item called “Scotch eggs.” The bartender’s eyes lit up and he told her that they were “soft boiled eggs wrapped in chorizo, deep fried, and covered in a bourbon mustard sauce.” The woman sort of squirmed with delight and requested three.
But I had questions.
Who convinces us to eat this way? How is such an option somehow deemed normal? What insidious feats of marketing agility are required to reduce a seemingly intelligent woman to altricial dependence on a menu item defined by animal cruelty and impending heart disease? At what point in modern time did members of commercial cultures lose our sense and sensibility when it came to ordering stuff that assumed our bodies are toxic waste sites? Or did we ever have such judgment?
These questions ricocheted around my mind alongside a related set of thoughts and observations about food choices and the cultural frameworks in which they’re forged. It’s perfectly legitimate to take a sledgehammer of disgust to our vast emporium of fast food options. Chicken nuggets and double bacon cheeseburgers comprise the commonplace target of our righteous culinary disgust and indignation. The Burger Kings and the McDonalds of the world are—HSUS awards notwithstanding—impugned by the foodie elite for the sins of bad taste, environmental degradation, inattention to animal welfare, and esthetic and dietary turpitude. It feels good to trash talk junk food.
Climb the franchise ladder another rung or two and you’ll notice that the cultural condemnation has recently been extended to another type of restaurant. It’s now the Applebees and Chili’s and TGI Friday’s of the world that are on the foodie radar for their faux authenticity, a reality marked by the fact, as Tracie McMillan reveals in The American Way of Eating, nothing is prepared in the kitchen. Everything served within these kinds of restaurants is fabricated in a warehouse before being packaged and frozen and shipped from central processing to the periphery. The “chef,” as it were, need only know how to operate a microwave. This tragic chasm between production and consumption reduces these outlets to the popular status of junk— refurbished junk, but junk nonetheless.
But keep going. Venture a couple of more rungs up the ladder and you’ll eventually reach the kind of place where I sat and drank my beer. Here, amidst tasteful décor and cool music, you might notice that you have quietly passed a threshold into cultural and culinary legitimacy. People are better dressed, looking like they have come from important jobs where they made Big Decisions. You appear to be orbiting in a more refined and dignified world. And by some standards, you are. Indeed, by conventional standards, everything has improved.
Everything in the sense that the rhetoric of foodie legitimacy has becomes thicker than the bourbon mustard sauce smothering my bar mate’s fried egg-and-sausage abomination. Listen to the language spoken therein. The eggs are “farm-fresh,” the sausage “cured-in-house” and the beer I drank was “all-local” (Whale Tail Pale Ale from Nantucket—not bad, actually). The bottles of liquor in front of me have a pared-down design and crisp but evocative names such as “Farmhouse” or “Berkshire.”
But, on closer inspection, nothing at all has changed. Nothing because, beer aside, the offerings on the menu are, when you get past all the rhetorical insulation and architectural flourishing, a load of fried trash just as guilty of perpetuating bad health, environmental degradation, and animal cruelty as the most nutritionally egregious offering coming out of a fast food box. In order to grasp this point, of course, you need a more refined standard. You need a vegan standard.
The vegan standard rejects the charade of rhetoric that characterizes culinary life toward the top of the ladder. In so doing it highlights the need for vegans, armed with our critical standards, to kick down the food system’s ladder and begin to build a new foundation, one based on basic respect for human health and the intrinsic worth of non-human animals. The vegan standard demands that we be critical thinkers and eager activists at once. The vegan standard demands that we eat as if the world could eat that way.
Of course, we are working to do this everyday. As we do so, though, I wonder to what extent our deepest challenges derive from the persistence of mindless American eating habits—which strike me as pliable—and to what extent they derive from something far more challenging and insidious and difficult to hold still and boot in the ass with a rational argument: status anxiety.
Nobody (I think it’s safe to say) is especially proud to eat at a fast food joint. Nobody blogs or brags or talks to friends about the great Big Mac they had the other night. The reason for this reticence is simple: what fast food strives to provide ultimately transcends the art of status seeking. It aims to give us a convenient and cheap dose of short-term pleasure. Fast food isn’t even trying to sell us a story, or offer us a sense of place in the world, or become a marker of our flimsy identity. Its basic endeavor is too pragmatic for any of that. There’s nothing glamorous or terribly damning about succumbing to it as an option. A parent feeding her kids McDonalds is doing so as an acceptable last resort. Such will happen when your meal is advertised in the store window as costing $2.99.
The Applebee’s of the world once offered ways around the status indifference posed by fast food. Spend a bit more money and you are served on plates, with silverware and the accoutrements of higher-class food. The steak has real grill marks and the shrimp are wedged onto the rim of a glass bowl with some semblance of elegance. Napkins are cloth and you are not served through a window or over a counter next to a cash register. But, as I suggested, we’re catching on to the cheap tricks posed by these mid-level restaurants, and as we do it’s left to these stand-alone outfits such as the on where I sat and drank my well earned beer to assuage our status anxiety with the decadent trappings of culinary indulgence. And damn if they don’t do a good job of inflating our egos along with our waistlines.
Vegan and foodie standards are poised to have a face-off, one in which we are judged not by the quality of our rhetoric but the content of what’s on the plate. This must happen. But as we marshal our arguments and hone our message it’s important to keep in mind that at the top of the ladder the battle is as much over the irrational pursuit of status as it is getting an honest meal.
A wave of accessible vegan literature is currently crashing upon us. This is good. Over the last few months I’ve had the pleasure of reading advance copies of three impending (and maybe just recently published) volumes and one book that’s been out for about a year. Not only do these projects complement each other brilliantly, but they each stand on their own as a remarkable analysis in a league of its own. The cause of veganism, because of these projects, is being deeply enriched. It’s hard to me to think of another time when, in such a concentrated moment, so many important volumes on animal rights came down the literary pike.
I will, over the course of the year, dedicate space to full length reviews of each volume (if anyone want to take a shot, I’m always eager to assign reviews). For now, just a mention and a quick sketch. Will Anderson’s This is Hope (which I’m still reading) is the most sophisticated and beautifully written blend of ecology and vegan ethics that I’ve ever read. Will’s vision is broad, and it puts prevalent models of environmentalism to shame. Hope Bohanec’s The Ultimate Betrayal is a piercing look into the moral schizophrenia that underscores the practice of so called “humane farming.” She does an especially fine job of highlighting the depravity involved in cultivating the friendship of an animal you eventually plan to exploit. Sherry Colb’s Mind if I Order the Cheeseburger? offers an extended and fiercely intelligent answer to virtually every objection to veganism that a vegan has had to face. You will be amazed not only by Colb’s ability to anticipate your questions, but to cover them with great insight and wit. Mark Hawthorne’s Bleating Hearts is the most comprehensive single compendium of animal exploitation that exists. Here at EP we tend to approach ethics through considering what’s on the end of our forks. Hawthorne forces us to expand that vision in ways even experienced ethical vegans will find informative and alarming.
We need these books to not only do well on their own (read: buy them) but we also need others to know about them. One of my projects this summer is to find a mainstream media outlet to let me do a multi-book review in an effort to recalibrate where veganism is in 2013. If these books are any indication, it’s a star that is rising.
Last week I wrote about what I thought to be a poor decision on the part of HSUS to give Burger King the Henry Spira Humane Corporate Progress Award for the company’s progress in ending the extreme confinement of farm animals in small crates and cages. My issue was not with the improvements, however nominal, for factory farmed animals (that still end up celebrated and consumed as Whoppers). Instead, it was with the implication, via an award in honor of Henry Spira no less, that less confinement was enough to warrant a public accolade. In other words, my problem was the ongoing failure to explicitly identify a vegan worldview as the ultimate end goal, something I suggested was all too common.
It generated feedback.
This came from Matt Rice, director of investigations at Mercy for Animals:
Big fan of your writing. Not sure if you have ever expressed this sentiment with Mercy For Animals, but one of the many reasons I am proud to work with MFA is because we do make the end goal clear (an end to all animal exploitation), even when praising companies or individuals for making positive strides in the right direction.
You may notice that at the end of any MFA blog post about an incremental welfare improvement, we say the best thing people can do to help animals is go vegan. Example:http://www.mfablog.org/2013/04/breaking-news-canadas-top-grocery-chains-ditch-gestation-crates.html
While we do encourage companies to make welfare improvements, our first suggestion for people who want to help animals on our Get Active page is to go vegan:http://www.mercyforanimals.org/action-center.aspx
On our ChooseVeg.com website, we have an entire page devoted to explaining the humane myth: http://www.chooseveg.com/free-range.asp
At the same time, we realize that our message has to resonate with mainstream, omnivorous Americans. So we are strategic in our messaging. For example, we often start the conversation about veganism with the word vegetarian, because that word is more accessible to most people. More on that here: http://www.mercyforanimals.org/v-word.aspx
My point is I think it is possible for organizations to praise companies that make some improvements, in the same way we may praise someone who takes the first step toward veganism by exploring Meatless Monday, but still be clear that the goal should be to end the exploitation of animals. Although some vegans seem to think we have to say “go vegan, go vegan, go vegan” all the time or it is implied that some forms of animal exploitation are okay, I don’t think that is the message most Americans take away. For example, here is an interview I did with an Ag News Radio station about MFA’s campaign to ban gestation crates in which the host seems to think he could call me out on our “secret” vegan agenda. He was surprised to find I had no problem admitting we want people to stop exploiting animals full stop:http://brownfieldagnews.com/2012/07/19/mercy-for-animals-works-to-abolish-animal-agriculture/
Anyway, I guess I am just saying that it is possible to be strategic with our messaging, but also clear about the end goal. And I think MFA is a good example of that.
HSUS was in touch as well (privately).
They note—and I’m summarizing— that Henry Spira frequently praised companies that thrived on animal exploitation for making progress in animal welfare. The source of the Spira award–or at least the idea of it—came from none other than Peter Singer, who knew Henry Spira well and still oversees the group Henry founded (ARI). HSUS added that Ethics into Action (Singer’s biography of Henry) paints a clear picture of the pragmatic advocate that he was. They go on to add that BK has made very real progress, so much so that it’s been condemned by a number of Big Ag groups. All of this strikes me as quite important, evidence of HSUS effectiveness, and a good reminder that methods of advocacy will never be perfect and that there is no avoiding some level of engagement with the enemy.
But, for the record, I still think a corporate award is going too far, Singer notwithstanding.
I’m sitting here reading Bookforum and came across this description, which struck me as so very apt to my own recent line of thought (aside from the “fortune and fame” reference).
YOU DON’T HAVE TO CONDUCT A THOUGHT EXPERIMENT to see why some philosophers or scientists want to write for an audience cheerfully indifferent to the ways of the seminar room and the strictures of the refereed journal. Beyond the fame and fortune, perhaps more important is the sense that if one’s work is worth doing at all, it ought to reach the widest possible audience, particularly when it bears on issues (religion, free will) with decisive implications for how readers choose to live. Some, I imagine, also relish the bonus frisson of mixing it up in the rowdy rough-and-tumble of the public arena.
Keep reading here.
Work of this nature—Dennett’s and others—needs to be in the public sphere. For one, it allows intellectuals to leave the academic bathtub, where sharks fight over space, and ask that the public engage in a level of discourse beyond twitter and “reality shows.” For another, it brings smart people who are not in academia into discussion that would be wasted in a seminar room.
There’s a famous scene in The Brothers Karamazov where Ivan tells Alyosha a parable. In it, Christ comes back to earth but is exiled by the Catholic church for failing to restrict free will when, fifteen hundred years earlier, he had the chance to do so. The message that Ivan is trying to send to his brother Alyosha (he presents the message as the basis of a poem he’s writing about Christ’s return) is that humans are incapable of handling moral freedom. In turn, they must reject Christ and allow the Church to do what Christ would not.
[F]or nothing has ever been more unsupportable for a man and a human society than freedom. But seest thou these stones in this parched and barren wilderness? Turn them into bread and mankind will run after Thee like a flock of sheep, grateful and obedient, though forever trembling, lest Thou withdraw Thy hand and deny them Thy bread. But Thou wouldst not deprive man of freedom and didst reject the offer, thinking, what is that freedom worth if obedience is bought with bread?
I’m riveted by the passage (book V, chapter 3). It speaks directly and powerfully to a tension that I consider all the time when writing about animal rights: can humans realistically seek universal acceptance of a basic moral truth in the face of a commercial freedom that sedates consumers with a false sense of choice? The aisles of a generic grocery store might appear to be the epitome of what free will can create: abundance, endless options, freedom galore. But as we well know the doors of the store are where our freedom evaporates. We enter and make “choices” that have been predetermined by alien entities that rely on systematic abuse and suffering. The whole act of buying food has become equivalent to Ivan’s reference to humanity’s dependence on bread. We tremble at its loss.
Pondering this paradox, I’m drawn to the idea of prefigurative politics. This term was used a lot during the Occupy Movement as a way to suggest that the movement’s political structure—essentially anarchic—should prefigure the system it seeks to achieve: anarchic socialism. How would prefigurative politics look for veganism? I’m not at all sure, but when I consider how my personal sense of freedom not only expands but becomes more compassionate as I become less enamored and dependent on the trappings of commercial culture, I’m made aware of something critically important. Veganism, which is so often characterized as a sacrifice of freedom, is in fact a radical embrace of it. What Ivan failed to understand is that, by giving up the hidden source of unseen violence, we gain the freedom that, in his biblical telling, Christ entrusted us to use for the purposes of justice.
His answer to this objection might be this passage, which follows the one supra:
But what happened? Instead of taking men’s freedom from them, Thou didst make it greater than ever! Didst Thou forget that man prefers peace, and even death, to freedom of choice in the knowledge of good and evil?*
To which I would respond: our current freedom is not real. It’s a chimera. Only in lifting the veil can we recognize and express its truest power for goodness. It’s amazing to think about how the simple choice to not eat animals, in its rejection of the commercial status quo, furthers that noble goal, one that Alyosha, who lives as a monk, would have understood.
NB: My copy of this book, pictured above, was a gift to me in 1987 by my high school English teacher, Bert Mobley. In it, he wrote, “They say if you read this, you’ll know everything you ever need to know. I doubt that but it’s a great book.”
Indeed it is.
*One wonders if Fyodor Dostoevsky had Edmund Burke’s exclamation in mind—”Massacre, torture, hanging! These are your rights of men!”—when he wrote this passage.
This is hard. Some of you may have noticed that pattrice jones left a comment to my last post. She wrote:
Speaking of social justice:
The Associated Press, The New York Times and The Washington Post all restrict usage of the term “homosexual” — a word whose clinical history and pejorative connotations are routinely exploited by anti-gay extremists to suggest that lesbians and gay men are somehow diseased or psychologically/emotionally disordered, and which, as The Washington Post notes, “can be seen as a slur.”
I feel the need to provide context (that, in a way, pattrice was kind enough not to provide). pattrice and Miriam Jones were pivotal figures in The Politics of the Pasture. VINE, the organization they founded, is, after all, what made the story of Bill and Lou a story. In the course of writing about VINE and the women who run it, I reported that they all were, as I was told, gay (this is no longer the case). However, in the book, I used the term “homosexual.” I had NO IDEA that this was a term of derision. Honestly, no clue. However, my ignorance on this point in no way obviates the need for a public apology, which this is. I’m genuinely sorry for using terminology that not only pattrice, but I’m sure others, interpreted as unfair, if not a slur.
Not sure what to say beyond that, other than wallow in the irony that the backlash I certainly expected would come has come from a source for whom I’ve the utmost respect. As I expressed to pattrice in a private e-mail exchange, clearly, despite my intentions, I’ve failed.
All that’s left to do is learn.