Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category
Recently I received this request (while on vacation) from a CNN food writer:
My name is [DELETED] and I’m writing an article for CNN about the acid whey by-product. I read your blog article about the subject, and I was wondering if you had a few minutes to answer some questions.
I considered letting this request fall into the deep well of unanswered e-mails sent to James McWilliams but then, on second thought, I considered the impact that more publicity against acid whey might have on Greek yogurt consumption and agreed to help. She replied:
. . . apologies if I’m cutting into vacation time!
Here are few questions I have for you…
1) Do you think acid whey is toxic?
2) What is the environmental impact of Greek yogurt production?
3) Do you think action needs to be taken?
4) Should consumers be concerned?
Q: Do you think acid whey is toxic?
A: Anything is potentially toxic. But the acid whey that’s a by-product of the Greek yogurt industry is, at the level at which it’s produced and disposed, toxic enough to rob aquatic ecosystems of enough oxygen to harm fish and other species. In many places, it’s illegal to dump it because of its toxicity.
Q: What is the environmental impact of Greek yogurt production?
A: This is hard to say because there are no industry wide statistics about how it is disposed. Producers typically hire farmers to haul it off and dispose as they see fit. The damage could be much worse than we know.
Q: Do you think action needs to be taken?
A: Yes. Acid whey should be regulated and monitored like any other industrial waste products–such as the ones produced by coal fired power plants and slaughterhouses. Consumers can take action by limiting or eliminating animal products from their diets, as virtually every aspect of animal agriculture has profoundly negative ecological impacts.
Q: Should consumers be concerned?
A: If they care about healthy aquatic ecosystems and minimizing the place of toxic waste in the environment they should be.
Easy. But then came the article, one in which the writer used me as a foil for her loyal support of the ever-virtuous pig industry, a twist that required making a blatantly false attribution. Picking up on my remark that the yogurt industry relies on farmers to dispose of the waste, she wrote:
One of those farmers McWilliams is referring to is Walter Jeffries, the owner of Sugar Mountain Farms in Vermont, who calls the recent headline a “scare article.” Jeffries has between 200 and 400 pigs at his farm at any given time. He feeds them acid whey delivered from a local dairy farm.
I responded to the “journalist” by noting that in fact not one of her questions mentioned Walter Jeffries, his pigs, or whey recycling. I explained (in part), “ I was not specifically referring to Jeffries in the least, and if you had asked me about recycling whey I’d have given a very different answer. It really annoys me when I go out of my way to be helpful to journalists and they pull this kind of stunt. But whatever. You got me to play the pre-ordained role you wanted me to play in your canned piece.” Yeah, I was annoyed.
To her credit, she altered the text to sever my supposed reference to the pig farmer. In any case: the lesson (how long will it take me to learn it?!) is that mainstream food writers have an agenda. That agenda is to support the supposedly endless virtues of small-scale animal production. And nothing will get in the way of that agenda, certainly nothing as inconvenient as the truth.
Thanks for allowing me to rant.
PS: Technical difficulties from yesterday are now solved! Comment away, and please let me know if you encounter any troubles doing so.
Hunting in America has long been a way to achieve a kind of instant manhood. Throw on some boots, grab your piece, pick up a case of beer, hop in the truck, and head into the wilderness. Just add water. Stir. It’s an accessible solution, and one much needed given the ruthless assault on masculinity these days. Not only do men no longer bring home the bacon, but even taking out the trash has been outsourced to a gender neutral global underclass (in my case, my kids). We need a key to manhood fantasy land and we need that key to be cheap and well greased and unregulated. Too bad the manhood fantasy so many of us have chosen to pursue requires birds to be plucked from the sky and other innocent creatures erased from the landscape as if they were moving targets in a video game. But how do you think the West was won, compadre? By singing kumbaya and making love? Dream on.
It wasn’t always this way. In the colonial era (of British America), manhood was in fact diminished by hunting. It was diminished because hunting was a sure sign of failure—failure to plan ahead, failure to have enough food in store, failure to domesticate. More to the point, such failure made you look like a savage, and everyone knew what a savage was because they’d seen those daubed up Redmen humping all they owned through the wilderness, arrows and houses and babies on their backs, no better than the beasts they chased with such shameful vulgarity. To hunt was an admission of failure. Colonial Americans were notably poor shots. Indians laughed at their marksmanship. This is true.
The transition from desperation-hunting to manhood-rescusciation hunting is a topic that awaits its historian. But what I’m especially eager to know right now is why women have gotten swept into this historical cascade of testosterone-driven brutality. Spend a little time on this website and you’ll find so many logical and cultural looped-de-doops that you’ll need an airline sickness bag. In any case, let it be declared: women now hunt. A lot. Their powder’s as dry as it has ever been.
Forgive my crass generalization here, because it is indeed very crass and I should definitely know better but I can’t help it. I’ve always sort of valued woman for being closer to their inner sense of empathy, or at least better trained by civilization to express that empathy with, you know, feelings. So when I see even the accoutrements of hunting—the trucks and the cammo and the jumpseats from which they shoot—create barriers between explosive female empathy and our desperate need to live more emotionally-atuned lives, I no longer know whose shoulder to cry upon.
Photo cred: Owen McWilliams (taken at the LA County Museum of Art, March 2013)
One of the most psychically difficult challenges of writing and thinking and arguing daily about animal issues is that you very often find yourself, at the end of the day, stuck in a cul-de-sac of human loathing. Some of the loathing is directed inwards, some outwards, and all of it is unpleasant, especially if you genuinely enjoy people, as I very much do.
There’s a paradox here. The rants that many animal rights advocates deliver against humanity strike me not only as cheap, but implicitly self-defeating because, after all, if you want humans to change their ways with respect to animals you pretty much need to have a little bit of faith in them. I take it back: you need to love them. Basically what I’m saying here is that I see no point in ever clumping humans together and excoriating them. Doing so negates the need for activism, displacing all the attention from animals to our activist selves while undermining the causes we seek to achieve. Hatred is a sign of our own weakness.
Take your thumb and forefinger and place them about 1/4 inch apart. That’s how close I have come, about two dozen times, to closing the doors on Eating Plants. Well, that’s what I tell myself anyway. Still, I have my days, my moments. The topics we cover here are so emotional, so personal, and so political that, at times, I absorb far too much strum and drang. Harping gets old. As does preoccupation.
It’s not that I’m burdened by the task of daily writing—that’s actually something I enjoy very much. That comes naturally and offers its own quiet rewards. And it’s not that I really mind the productive and at times playful tension that many posts generate. Why else, after all, write?
But, again, what drives me to the edge of despair is a creeping sentiment that, although it appears with merciful rarity, is so viciously offensive to my deepest sense of well being that even scant or toss-off expressions of it drive me into a pit of despair: human hatred. I’m tired of hearing from other humans (and at times myself) about how utterly and hopelessly awful we are. Trust me, I know it: I’m as guilty as anyone on this score. Which is why I’m thinking out loud about it here, airing it all out, as it were.
The Boston explosions are still with me. When I watched humans rush into the aftermath of the disaster on Boylston Street, I was stunned with admiration. When I had a conversation recently with the bartender at my local pub (The Whip In) about the poems of Jack Gilbert (see below), I felt deeply connected to humanity. When I ran 13 miles yesterday morning with other humans pushing themselves to be better humans I was humbled with my species’ unique capacity to seek excellence.
This is what fights for my attention. These moments of goodness. I’m tired of ignoring our pent up compassion for each other in order to condemn, tritely, daily, our ignorance and indifference regarding other animals. I’m also torn. It has to be done: we have to rant, to make our case, to throw rotten tomatoes at conventional belief systems. But there must be a better way to do it than to consistently badmouth the beings we’re asking to show compassion and for whom I feel compassion, and more.
I have no answers.
ps: Free subscription to anyone who can ID the artist of the sculpture above (keep your cursor off the picture).
A Brief for the Defense
Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.
Note: I think this ongoing horse story is important for many reasons. What really frightens me about it is that it looks like the pro-slaughter camp is going to win. Such a victory would be a massive blow to anyone who cares about animal rights and/or ending factory farming. It is for this reason that I’m spending so much time on the topic at Eating Plants. The article below ran yesterday at Freakonomics.com. Visit the link and if you like the article hit “like” and if you have a comment, leave a comment here and there. It’s also worth reading the comments. Really. -jm
As Americans watch Europeans condemn the discovery of horsemeat in their Ikea meatballs, we can take some solace in the fact that, for once, we’ve sidestepped an industrial food-related travesty. Our complacency, however, could be short-lived. Although less dramatic than horse DNA adulterating ground beef, another horse-related scandal is about to implicate U.S. citizens in a scheme that will send tainted horsemeat into foreign markets while enriching U.S. horse slaughterers with taxpayer dollars.
The last U.S.-based horse slaughterhouse closed in 2007. The phasing out of horse slaughter in the United States ended the exportation of U.S.-produced horsemeat to Canada, Europe, and Japan. This development, among other accomplishments, spelled the decline of a niche business that profited from a product that American taxpayers financially supported (through USDA inspection of horse slaughterhouses) but were loathe to consume (plus, it’s illegal to sell horsemeat in the U.S.).
Over the past six years, though, a small cohort of national lobbyists and state representatives has worked to reopen U.S. horse slaughterhouses. Five states—Oklahoma, Montana, New Mexico, Tennessee, and Iowa—have already taken legislative steps in that direction. Their collective justification for doing so is that U.S. slaughterhouses are better for the welfare of horses. Without them, they argue, an endless stream of retired race horses will inevitably head to Mexico for slaughter, a terrifying prospect for animals who, advocates further contend, will meet an especially gruesome south-of-the-border death.
On the surface, this argument seems to make sense. Why slaughter horses abroad when we can do so at home? A closer look, however, reveals three problems, each of which suggests that any claim to reinstate horse slaughter on welfare grounds is simply a cynical ploy to dupe Americans into supporting a business most of us find abhorrent.
First, advocates of U.S. horse slaughter—the very people who insist they care about shortening the distance a horse travels for slaughter—opposed legislation restricting the distance horses could travel in the aftermath of the American closings. Sue Wallis, a Wyoming state representative and the most vocal proponent of reopening slaughterhouses (they call her “Slaughterhouse Sue”), wrote in 2009 that, “A key early initiative is to muster resources to oppose bills now pending in Congress that would ban the transportation of horses to other countries for the purpose of slaughter.” The intent here was as simple as it was sinister: to normalize long horse hauls to foreign soil and then highlight its inherent cruelty, thereby buttressing the case for a more “humane” local option.
Second, the claim that Mexican slaughterhouses are comparatively inhumane is equally problematic. Plants where U.S. horses have been slaughtered in Mexico are owned by the same European Union companies that once owned horse slaughterhouses in the United States. Supporters of local slaughter suggest that U.S. horses are being killed in an especially cruel and unregulated manner in Mexican-owned slaughterhouses, mainly by stabbing them in the spine. In fact, EU companies deploy standard procedures, using (most notably) captive bolt guns to stun horses before bleeding and processing them, just as they do in Europe and once did in the U.S. Ironically, the only documented cases we have of horse slaughterhouse cruelty and abuse come from the U.S. (back when slaughterhouses were legal).
Third, advocates of U.S. horse slaughter insist that, without the reinstitution of slaughter at home, an unmanageable number of horses will continue to suffer the indignities described above. But the numbers don’t support this claim. Nearly 90 percent of U.S. horses die of natural causes or are euthanized at home. Bill Bullard, a California state representative and supporter of U.S. horse slaughter, says that the horse industry is desperate for “a way to dispose of our old, diseased, lame horses.” In fact, that problem has already been solved for the overwhelming majority of horses. They die the way our pets die—more often than not with quiet dignity.
Duplicity is one thing. But the upshot of this manufactured crisis is even worse: an impending public health disaster of global proportions. What supporters of U.S. slaughter never tell us is that the 150,000 or so U.S. horses that are annually slaughtered for export are bombarded daily with a hit list of toxic drugs, most notably phenylbutazone (“bute”), a common painkiller. While innocuous for horses, bute can cause, even in trace doses, aplastic anemia, agranulocytosis, thrombocytopenia, leucopenia, pancytopenia, and hemolytic anemia in humans. Eating U.S. horses, according to Tufts Veterinary professor Nicolas Dodman, “is about as healthful as food contaminated with DDT.” The USDA currently has no program to regulate these substances.
In other words, lost in all the discussions about horse slaughter and horsemeat is a fundamental point: horses are not raised for food. They are, in essence, an industrial product. For Americans to recycle them into an edible but toxic by-product for foreigners to eat, doing so with taxpayer dollars and through an underfunded USDA, would be bad for everyone involved, most notably the 150,00 horses a year who’d be much better off not being used as Trojan horses to hide the profits of those who claim to care about them.
In the latest labeling scandal to rock the foodie world, an Oakland-based restaurant is enduring a Yelp-inspired pile-on for failing to reveal that trace amounts of compassion were discovered in its homemade sausage. The eatery, Olde Depot, is widely known for its delicious vegan sausages. However, its reputation did not precede it for a carnivorously-inclined cohort whose palates were unknowingly violated by the bitter taint of compassion.
Although not regulated by the USDA, compassion has been known to show up periodically in various types of food. For a certain caste of consumer, however, sausage—no matter how it tastes— isn’t sausage if it contains compassion residues exceeding .000666 ppm. If vast pools of blood weren’t spilled to honor its essence, experts believe that the integrity of a sausage will be compromised. The terroir of terror, they argue, must be preserved. When Slow Food USA learned that Olde Depot was surreptitiously serving mouth-watering cruelty-free sausage, it vowed to redouble its efforts to label all “real” sausage as containing “suffering of unimaginable proportions.”
One Marinta T. was beside herself with rage over the intrusion of compassion into her sausage-eating experience. In a scathing 2-star Yelp review, she recalled her sense of betrayal upon learning that the sausages she ordered were “vegan and 100 % soy based” rather than non-vegan and 100% suffering based. She wrote, “I promptly handed mine over to our hungry vegetarian friend and we all finished our 2nd round of beer.”
The fact that Olde Depot did not take adequate precautions to warn consumers about the compassion adulterating their sausage has, according to Marinta, serious safety implications. Asked to elaborate, she noted that 1)” Some vegetarians may have no idea and go hungry”; and, 2) “some meat eaters may not enjoy their meal, and be disappointed.” The USDA is investigating.
Amy C. (not unlike that protagonist in The Crying Game) was similarly scarred by an unexpected emotional experience with a sausage. Admitting in her own 2-star assessment that she actually enjoyed her cruelty-free links (calling them “fine and all”), she was nonetheless concerned about the psychic impact that ersatz sausage would have on what many restaurant analysts consider the most vulnerable consumers: the inebriated. (Olde Depot is joined with Beer Revolution.)
“I just keep thinking about how many (drunk) people must be totally disappointed,” she wrote. Indeed, although “excited about eating a juicy delicious meat sausage,” these drooling carnivores will sober up only to learn that their meal was cruelty-free. “It’s like eating a M&M when you think you’re eating a Skittles or vice versa,” she wrote, in an effort to provide meaningful perspective.
Speaking of which, to understand the frustration experienced by these meat eaters, imagine what it would be like to learn that someone had snuck onto the roof of your house and installed solar panels, thus running your household on renewable energy. True, your toaster would still pop up your toast, but it would fail to do so while burning fossil fuels, thus denying you and your family the authentic experience of destroying the environment when you totally didn’t have to.
David G, author of a damning 1-star review, sums up the Olde Depot affair this way: “I am most offended,” Mr. G explains, “by the lack of warning anywhere that states that this is a vegan sausage restaurant.” He continues, “Please change the menu immediately. If you guys want this offshoot of the successful beer bar next door to survive — trust me on this one. Guys want meat. Plain and simple.”
And, evidently, they want it totally untainted with the toxicity of basic human compassion. Plain. And. simple.
NB: Every quote in this piece is real (with the exception of the Slow Food quote).
PS: Thanks to CPG for the tip.
In December a woman from Dallas was riddled with malignant tumors. Doctors gave her a terminal diagnosis. Within two months, her tumors were benign. Medical experts can’t explain why, suggesting there’d been some sort of misdiagnosis. The woman’s daughter, whom I know, is equally confused. What she does know, however, is that when her mother was diagnosed with her terminal illness she left Austin to be with her. And while my friend was with her mother, she did something for her everyday, three times, and with the purest love: she cooked. Vegan.
And not just vegan. But healthy, macro-driven vegan. NO exceptions. When I asked my friend what her mother ate she simply said, “I know how to cook beans, grains, and vegetables, and that’s what I did and that’s what she ate.” And that’s what she’ll continue to eat.
My friend, humble soul, is taking no credit for saving her mother, who, it should be noted, ate a typical meat-based American diet before her daughter commandeered the kitchen. But it’s hard not to flirt with the logical sin of at least allowing cause and coincidence to flirt rather seriously.
It is perhaps the lack of a nutritional smoking gun that defuses the power of these sort of anecdotes to achieve permanence in the public imagination and, in turn, become a mainstream force for change. There’s so much quackery out there that it’s hard not to be drowned out by it when you think out loud about kale curing cancer. Having been trained from an early age to seek evidence, evidence, evidence—from the most reputable authorities—to buttress every belief and claim, I’ve been reluctant to make too much of these stories myself.
But here’s the thing: I hear them too often for there not to be some truthiness in there somewhere. And when you are facing death, and there’s the chance that a radical change in diet can save you, truthiness is pretty damn good.
My friend and her mother are celebrating their good news by going to Brazil next month. When I saw the happiness in my friend’s face as she told me this story, when I saw her hands tremble, I decided that it was high time to start listening more closely to these narratives, sharing and collecting them, and fighting harder than ever to condemn the food products that not only harm animals, but the decent and loving people who eat them as well.
There’s a fascinating description of how human perception works (or doesn’t work) in Christopher Chabris’ and Daniel Simon’s book The Invisible Gorilla. As summarized by Daniel Kahneman, the authors:
[C]onstructed a short film of two teams passing basketballs, one team wearing white shirts, the other wearing black. The viewers of the film are instructed to count the number of passes made by the white team, ignoring the black players. This task is difficult and completely absorbing. Halfway through the video, a woman wearing a gorilla suit appears, crosses the court, thumps her chest, and moves on. The gorilla is in view for 9 seconds. . . .Many thousands of people have seen the video, and about half of them do not notice anything unusual.
Veganism, or any fundamental transition in the way we live material life, isn’t just about what we eat and wear. It’s about how we think. And how we think about food, in particular, has been homogenized to the point that we too often fail to see the gorilla on the screen. Make no mistake: this is by design. The potential to change our habits, to subvert the dominant power structure, is negated by largely hidden but monolithic forces telling us to, in effect, start counting. What happens when we take this directive is the quiet evolution of a food system unthinkingly based on unnecessary animal exploitation, monoculture, Monsanto, and Slim Jims. Think about it, only a nation totally anesthetized, totally drooling all over itself, could allow something as vile as a Slim Jim to cross the border into the territory of the food supply.
The challenges we face when it comes to recognizing gorillas and fighting Slim Jims are so diffuse that most of us don’t even recognize that there’s a challenge. And when I say “us” I’m not just talking about the teeming Walmart-going masses. I’m talking about the foodie intelligencia as well. I just spent two days at a conference at the UT, sponsored by The Food Lab, called “Food, the City, and Innovation.” It was, on the whole, an extremely thought provoking (and incredibly well-run) couple of days, with insightful presentations by very smart and very educated people seeking to reconsider the whole idea of food and the (agri)cultures that shape it.
But what wasn’t said at this conference was as significant as what was said. It was hard for me not to notice, as my panel was introduced with a 10-minute film about the perfect cheeseburger (local farms, pastured beef, happy cows, artisan bakers!!) was the almost calculated effort to avoid ever using the “V” word. The most revolutionary thing we could do to bust up the foundation of the North American food system would be to eliminate the very products that make it possible to thrive. But as the proposals for innovation poured in (I played small role in helping organize these submissions), it became clear that the Big Thinkers working in academia and the business world are content to keep counting, ignoring the gorilla while chattering away about change.
For me, the conference—which I’ll write more about this week—was an excellent reminder of why I blog, write, and advocate. There’s too much work to do, too many issues to highlight, too many paradigms to shift in order to highlight the gorilla in our midst. Staying quiet isn’t an option.
The original Whole Foods Market. Austin, Texas
John Mackey, co-CEO of Whole Foods, did a couple of interviews this week with NPR’s Steve Inskeep (the second one, which ran this morning, is the more interesting–I’ll post a link when it’s available). The recent Mackey buzz is centered on his new book, Conscious Capitalism.
In so many ways Mackey is a conundrum: a libertarian vegan who, in this interview (second part), calls Obamacare “fascist” and rails, as he long has, against unions. With a multiplicity of strong opinions, Mackey inevitably offends a lot of people—people on all sides of the standard political spectrum. It’s hard to find anyone who sees eye-to-eye with Mackey on every issue. Personally speaking, this is one reason I admire him. He’s a moving target and, as we keep missing him, he keeps proving how valuable he and his company are to the American diet.
What comes through quite powerfully in the second interview, though, is something more universal and agreeable: Mackey cares deeply about personal health—and not just his own (his vegan diet even omits processed oil). He speaks eloquently and with sincerity about helping children in particular overcome their “food addictions,” particularly our addictions to sugar, salt, and fat. I will never forget, two years ago, when Mackey and I were on a panel at Texas State and, fearlessly (and in contrast to my studied diplomacy), he told a packed lecture hall of students that their diets were shameful and their health in decline. There was something almost preacher-like in his delivery and I recall being very impressed with the unabashed and urgent nature of his appeal. I wasn’t alone. Students were moved.
Whole Foods is, in these respects, a direct reflection of Mackey himself. It, too, is something of a conundrum: a publicly traded company with a social mission, a health food store serving both raw vegan food and a lot of junk, a company founded by a vegan but teeming with display counters of “welfare approved” flesh. Not unlike Mackey, it’s hard to find any socially conscious consumer without a strong opinion about Whole Foods. Some see it as “whole paycheck,” others as an oasis of sanity in a food desert, and yet others as a labor-abusing sweatshop. Whatever the truth or falsity of these claims, most people who hold them, when stranded in a strange city, seek out Whole Foods for a decent meal of real food. (In the interview with Inskeep, Mackey said he did this as well, to which Inskeep did a goofy guffaw and said, “sure, just go an eat in the aisles.”—I’m not a fan of that guy.)
Anyway, as I read Mackey, the rubber hits the road when it comes to choice. If there’s a unifying theme to his seemingly fragmented array of beliefs it is this: personal choice. Why does Whole Foods carry oreo-like cookies? Because we have a choice. Why does it have a meat counter? Because, as Mackey sees it, we have a choice. Why does he oppose federal legislation that structures how corporations offer health care? Because it restricts choice. Why does a country that is overweight and getting sicker have a fighting chance to save itself? Because we have a choice. Mackey’s idea of “choice” itself might at times border on its own kind of fascism. Still, on balance, he and his company have done more than any major food store in American history to help consumers make better choices. Not perfect, but not bad.
What do humans do when we feel shame? Typically, we hide from it. We duck away from the source of that shame, from the person or situation that evokes our feelings of inadequacy and cowardice. We build walls and indulge in irony. Very few humans I know are truly brave enough to face the deepest sources of their weakness and deal with personal failures in an aggressive and honest way. We rely on our impressive frontal lobe to dissemble, protecting ourselves by any means necessary, and doing so most notably by avoiding the mirror that throws our shame back at us with a fury. Because, well, that can hurt.
Animals are, in some respects, our mirror. They can hurt us with the sincerity of their gaze. It’s easy to reduce the animals around us—the companion animals to whom we toss a frisbee, the cockatiels to whom we whistle and talk, the horses on whom we canter and admire—as innocent creatures here to make us happy, to enrich out lives. A source of pleasure alone. Of course, anyone who thinks seriously about the inner lives of animals knows this opinion to be dangerously false. But what’s rarely (if ever) questioned is the extent to which an animal’s gaze, if we submit to it, evokes our shame, highlighting our failures as individuals and as humans, and shakes us to the core. Of course, the only way we can submit to that experience is if we are physically with animals, willing to endure a hard look from one species into the darkened heart of our own.
This idea came to me while continuing to read Kari Weil’s fascinating Thinking Animals. Especially thoughtful was her remark that our shared lives with animals “can make us feel small or powerless, deprive us of our place of privilege . . .” I simply chose to think about that shared experience with animals in terms of shame, posing the hypothesis that the human habit of avoiding direct confrontation with our deepest insecurities may be challenged by an honest relationship with an animal. This avoidance, I would surmise (controversially), is one reason that many animal rights activists advocate that we stay as far away from animals as possible, vowing not to house, ride, leash, or exploit them in any way. It’s a response framed in part by personal fear of knowing our demons.
I can already hear the angry fingers banging into the keyboards. But rest assured: I’m not saying that the motivation to steer clear of animals is not coming from a genuine interest in protecting animal rights. It surely is. What I am saying, though, is that such a noble motive might not be a pure motive (what motive is?). It might have, even subconsciously, the ulterior and self-interested purpose of saving us the discomfort of being under the hard gaze of an animal, a gaze that can, in its purity and honesty, say to us, “why do you not do more for me?; why have you destroyed my environment?; what have you done to my genetic heritage; who the f*** do you think you are? Why are you so weak and selfish?” These sort of questions, the ones that make us, you know, feel ashamed.
So, the hypothesis, one that I think is worth developing in the context of the popular “leave animals alone” argument, might go something like this: the presence of animals is sort of like a dose of truth serum. Those who seek that presence, on whatever psychological level, might be indirectly seeking greater insight into and recognition of their own insecurities, the sources of their own shame and cowardice. By contrast, those who seek to leave animals in peace, free to live on their own terms, might be partially driven by fear of the power of that serum, and the kind of truth it will ask us, as humans, as individuals, to face within ourselves. To want to be free of all animal relations is to want to be free from knowing our deepest, truest selves. Who knows? But it’s not a bad idea to start off the new year with.
2013. How did that happen?
Have a happy one.
By no means do I endorse the message in this video, which was sent to me by a friend whom I consider one of the sharpest thinkers about animal rights. Personally, my sense is that Best’s message completely lacks deep historical contextualization. He fails to situate his ideas about activism in the vicissitudes of time. I also find his effort to redefine violence to be needlessly belabored and ultimately about as counterproductive for the movement as one could imagine. Peace and compassion work best for me. They also have a pretty good track record when it comes to achieving social change. Again, historical context. Still, there are serious ideas at work here, ones that we need to take seriously in terms of how we want to frame them as activists. Ignoring them, as my friend suggested, isn’t really an option.