Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Eating Animals in the Evening

» May 23rd, 2013

Mark Bittman’s new book, Vegan Before 6:00, deserves considerable credit for advocating a substantial reduction in the consumption of animal products. That’s good. It also earns praise for its trenchant condemnation of the standard American diet. Although this is a target fatter than the average American, enough darts cannot impale its expanding bullseye. That’s good, too. In terms of accolades, though, that’s about all the good I got for this ultimately disappointing book.

The primary flaw in Bittman’s advocacy of part-time veganism is that (you know exactly what I’m going to say) there’s no such thing as part-time veganism. The book could just as easily and more accurately have been called “Eating Animals in the Evening.” The problem with my suggested title is that Bittman would, albeit in a noble nod to accuracy, have lost his catchy (and sort of goofy) little slogan (VB6) to hang his part-time plant-eater hat on. He would also have lost the cultural power inhering in the word “vegan,” a power many true vegans, through the cultivation of authentic compassion, have helped embolden. All of which serves to remind us that the kingpins of foodie literature are as much about marketing as they are about making changes in the food system. I guess that’s why they’re kingpins.

Bittman’s bold highjacking of veganism is especially insidious not only because being vegan before 6 is like being pregnant before 6, but because VB6 is essentially more about the timing than the content of our diet. This is ultimately a book about what to eat when. And most of that advice is arbitrary. If you took that slice of bacon the VB6-er guiltlessly ate after six and crumbled it over her afternoon spinach salad, you suddenly  have a person who is now eating the same food as a VB6-er but, due to when rather than what she ate, can no longer qualify as a member of the VB6 club. Which is just plain silliness.

Bittman’s defense of half-assed veganism is some seriously tepid swill.  And I’m tempted to say he knows better. He’s got to know better. What really gets me about it is that Bittman is usually so freaking good. Here, though, he generally reduces his vast and highly informed culinary scope–one educated over the years through the construction of dozens of often brilliant columns— to focus narrowly on human health. To which I say: yawn.

Sure, eating fewer animals is better for us. We’ve know this for decades. But what’s especially disappointing about this constricted emphasis is that it fails to explore in a meaningful and systematic way the issues of animal welfare and rights, topics that Bittman has covered with growing poignancy in his columns.  As for an explanation of why he would cheat his otherwise generous vision in such a way, one might go backwards three paragraphs, count down five lines, and note my sentiments about marketing.

As with most analyses that dip a bit too often in the well of gimmickry, Bittman’s explanation for why he is not a real vegan eventually train wrecks into a contradiction. Now look, as readers know, I’m okay with contradiction if the contradictor can explain, or at least attempt to explain, his contradiction. Bittman, however, not only fails to do this, but I’m fairly certain he’s unaware of the telling inconsistency, one that hinges on the distinction between atomistic and holistic thought.

On the hand, when it comes to how we should think about diet, Bittman is rabidly holistic. He urges us to think not in terms of specific quantifiable nutrients and calories—that is, atomistically—but in terms of a holistic approach that cosmically balances and blends an array of healthy and whole real foods into a cohesive and indivisible way of life. He hints at this liberating mindset, one that I support, in his last column (linked above) when he writes, “you’re better off eating a carrot than the beta-cartene that was once thought to be its most beneficial ‘ingredient.’” Note the q-marks around “ingredient,” thereby designating its implicit and self-defeating suggestion of atomism.

But, on the other hand, when it comes to his conceptualization of veganism, Bittman chops and dices it into a million little pieces. To wit, he writes (in the same defense), “A vegan meal has no implications about what your next meal may be; you can be vegan for the better part of a day, or for a number of days of your life.” This logic is atomistic hair-splitting that puts the most inveterate calorie and nutrient counter to shame. Where did the indivisibility go? The cosmic balance and blend? Naturally, a true vegan knows that veganism is much more about a holistic mindset rooted in compassion than it is about the precise content of plant-based food on our plates at certain time of day.  If you are a vegan and not a little insulted by Bittman’s trivialization of the ethical choice upon which you structure your life, you are more patient than I am.  If nutrients should not be atomized, neither should ethics.

The greatest shame of this book is that Bittman, who claims to seek radical changes in the standard American diet, marginalizes the very voices that offer the most effective means to achieving that change. Activism before 6, anyone?

 

Veganism’s Historical Home

» May 8th, 2013


How should we situate veganism in the historical flow of time? This question might seem a bit moony but, despite several stellar histories of vegetarianism and veganism, the fact remains that we still know very little about veganism’s place in our dominant intellectual-historical bookshelf. History doesn’t dictate the future, but it certainly suggests what’s possible. So a thumbnail sketch is in order. Ot at least a dusting.

Answering the question is harder than it looks (not the least because I’m no historian of ideas—but ignorance has never stopped me). The Enlightenment—that transformative embrace of liberty and rights and legal protection in the eighteenth century western world—strikes me as the most obvious place to start. It is undoubtedly the case that the decline of tribal and dogmatic religiosity, in accordance with the rise of secular liberalism and the scientific method, established fertile ground for an animal rights turn. From the 1790s through the 1820s in particular, the Atlantic world found itself awash in the literature of animal welfare, with the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals founded in 1824. The flip side of the Enlightenment, however, was a perverse confluence of liberty and science, a merging that precipitated, among other developments detrimental to the fate of animals, a hubristic mentality of genetic control buttressed by amoral breeding programs and hybrid corn.

Evolutionary biology, certainly an important outcome of the Enlightenment, provides a similarly cross-eyed frame of reference. On the one hand, beginning with Darwin, it reiterated that our shared physical heritage with animals has emotional and cognitive counterparts, thereby undermining the generally unquestioned premise of human exceptionalism that dominated human thought for much of our brief existence. On the other, the legacy of evolutionary biology was never satisfactorily reconciled with human moral development, a failure than every vegan is reminded of when some knuckle-dragging Neanderthal points to his incisors and declares that “humans were meant to eat meat.”

It remains to be seen if the animal rights movement will find a secure purchase in the post-modern and post-human critique of the enlightenment. There would certainly seem to be potential for great gains to come from a mentality that questions and, ideally, tosses Molotov cocktails at pre-exiting signifiers of power (such as, notably, species) and clears space for a radical peripheralization of the human animal. But the critique as it’s thus far been delivered is scrambled and cold and alienating to most activists without academic tenure and a rare tolerance for stupefying jargon.

Finally, there’s the legacy of deep ecology and the Carson-like environmental tradition. As many vegans now argue, this is the essential tradition, the intellectual loft that fosters a critique of animal exploitation as part of a larger and more humane ethic grounded in warmth for mother earth and human health. The problem, though, is that deep ecology too often yields to shallow environmentalism, leading to such utter drivel as the idea that we can save the earth by grazing cattle and drinking raw milk.

I’m sure I got all this only half right at best. But here’s my last thought: failure to find a secure intellectual legacy isn’t a problem.  More so, it’s an opportunity to establish animal rights as a basis for a fundamentally new way of thinking, one that’s able to synthesize  the best that these traditions have to offer while laying the basis for something new under the sun.

 

Cooked

» April 25th, 2013

According to his newly released book Cooked, Michael Pollan wants us back in the kitchen. I’ve yet to read the book but when I do (probably this summer) I’ll give it a proper review. For now, though, based on the book’s highly publicized premise (and some reviews and an interview), I’d like to note that, as with The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan’s most loyal but ignored friend, given the argument he makes, once again appears to be veganism.  Indeed, every cultural and culinary shift he seeks to achieve is epitomized by the simplicity of a plant-based diet. But Pollan, for whatever reason, seems inclined to complicate that friendship.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma is in many ways a brilliant book that exposed a dilemma we didn’t even know we had: our addiction to industrial corn.  Pollan, with his signature combination of hortatory populism and seductive prose, encouraged consumers to resist Big Agriculture by sourcing food from small farms, culinary artisans, and farmers’ markets. Although he stressed that the ideal diet consisted of “mostly plants,” he took a slaverously self-indulgent approach to eating animals, going to far as to hunt down and slay his own pig like a crazed backwoodsman prowling the frontier. It all made for good copy but, at the end of the day the meat message contradicted his rousing plea to oppose industrial agriculture.  Pollan’s blind spot became the blind spot of the movement he spawned: when you eat animals—be they ones you raised, hunted, or scraped off the highway—you do more for the cause of Big Agriculture than any other single consumer action.

This passive-aggressive pattern seems to be repeating itself in Cooked. Pollan wants us to reclaim the power of cooking. To this I raise my fist skyward. However, the strategy of re-engagement that Pollan advocates yet again grates against the popular gist of his hortation. He says “cook, people!” and then, in a way that only Pollan can, he situates the act out of reach, typically into some agrarian fantasyland populated with edgy Bobos in overalls. Never would Pollan suggest that we source our  ingredients from—gasp!—a grocery store. No, that’s far too pedestrian, commonplace, easy, and normal. It’s at the door of the grocery story where Pollan’s populism slips into farmer-chic elitism and his fetish for the farmers’ market is duly exposed. Look, folks. I’ve got no problem with farmers’ markets. It’s just that the food is more expensive, the availability is spotty, and I still have to go to the grocery store for utilitarian items, like canned beans. Cooking takes time. When the ingredients have to be preciously sourced, it takes more time.

What I’m saying here is that, once again, Pollan’s best friend—really, his role model for the food-system-snubbing self-sufficient home cook—is The Vegan. Vegans typically make their way around a kitchen with rare aplomb because most of us, in our allegiance to plants, have already dropped out of the food system that Pollan so despises. We have done this because we have done the most important and effective and rebellious thing that can be done to undermine Big Ag: we’ve quit eating animals. Instead of retreating to some epicurean idyll, however, we’ve simply stuck to the veggie section while ducking periodically into the canned food aisle, bulk food section, and wherever it is you can get some whole wheat tortillas, quinoa, and almond milk. And we take these ingredients home. To the kitchen.

And we cook.

 

Coping with Culling

» April 11th, 2013

Given the gruesome state of global factory farming, animal welfare organizations are often placed in the position of having to euthanize very large numbers of very sick animals.

One theme that I’m researching for my book on the psychological and cultural origins of factory farming is the broad impact mass culling had on those who worked with newly consolidated animals in the nineteenth century. My sense is that, historically speaking, a devaluation of sorts occurred when humans oversaw collective rather than individual slaughter, and that one reason why factory farming became acceptable was the desensitization that mass killings fostered.

Contemporary research on the psychological impact of mass euthanization (often called “depopulation operations”) sheds an interesting light on this issue. It seems safe to assume that the employees of animal welfare organizations would be more sensitive to the prospect of animal suffering and death than the average citizen. It is therefore quite noteworthy that, according to a 2011 study of Animal Welfare Investigation workers who had to euthanize 5000 chickens, 77 percent of the workers reported becoming “emotionally switched off” during their participation.

This emotional alienation was partially enabled by the logistics of the undertaking. For example, 66 percent reported that “having leather gloves, a broiler suit and a mask was helpful in detaching themselves from the situation.” Understandably, 88 percent of the participants actively displaced blame away from themselves onto the farmer, seeing their task as “helping the animals.”

None of this is to suggest that the detachment was in any way permanent or complete. After all, almost 50 percent experienced a sensation of “disgust,” 38 percent underwent “extreme shaking,” 69 percent did not find that the task got easier over time, and 62 percent  “experienced intrusive memories and flashbacks. ”

In other words, desensitization and emotional engagement appear to coexist when animals are culled, reinforcing the psychological difficulty not only of slaughtering animals but of making comprehensive or categorical judgments about what collective depopulation does to the psyche of those who oversee such a horror show.

Citation: Dale, A. (2011). Investigation into the psychological and physical effects of participating in a mass “depopulation” operation [unpublished Unitec Research Committee Research Report]. Permanent link to Research Bank version: http://hdl.handle.net/10652/1666

Book Review: The Lucky Ones

» March 8th, 2013

The Lucky Ones: My Passionate Fight for Farm Animals by Jenny Brown

Book Review: by Jennifer Molidor

 

What is the dream of sanctuary? A rescue ranch? An educational resource? Utopia? And what is the connection between the politics of eating, the activism of one, and the dream of sanctuary? In The Lucky Ones: My Passionate Fight for Farm Animals Jenny Brown, founder of Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary, takes the reader through these questions.

As an almost relentless attempt to touch upon all the interconnections that branch out from issues of animal rights, The Lucky Ones feels like an octopus, lovingly spreading his tentacles. “Eating is a political and social action” she writes. “Environmental destruction, public health, workers’ rights, decaying rural communities, world hunger, and global poverty are all deeply affected by our eating choices.”

But she doesn’t stop there. She takes on the wide expanse of animal exploitation, discussing her personal attempts to persuade her mother and sister to stop using animal-tested household products. With endearing detail of teenage squabbles, Jenny recounts that she once worked for a fast-food restaurant before she realized the cognitive disconnect of loving one animal while eating another. Now, with a farmed animal sanctuary that brings visitors from all reaches of the country, she has become the educator, explaining why supposedly “happy farms” aren’t really happy for anyone –and she challenges the notions of “free-range,” “cage-free” and the impossibility of producing “humane” eggs.

As if that wasn’t enough, Jenny describes the thrill – and the fear – of participating in protests against animal cruelty. She also explains, with absolute honesty and courage, what it was like to be an undercover investigator, bravely making a video of the conditions horses suffer to make the drug Premarin (a video widely available on YouTube). Later, investigating a brutal cattle stockyard, she remembers dead, dying, and debilitated animals lying out in the heat, with no care. “I was terrified someone would find me out – would see that I was an enemy because I had a camera and a heart.” And that heart comes through in every detail of her story.

Jenny Brown is at home in a voice that distinctly lacks the inflated ego of some activists. Her words are warm and engaging, although occasionally angry. After telling us that humans are the only species that drink milk from another species (or after infancy) she writes “And we never stop to think about what it really is: the breast milk of a cow. BREAST MILK, PEOPLE! From a COW.” While the abject horrors of the dairy industry provoke inner revulsion for most ethical vegans, the writing in this book sometimes feels almost too personal, too informal; it is as if, in understandable frustration with omnivores, the author wants to hit us over the head with the facts, which perhaps might be better conveyed, as the rest of the book does so well, through narrative trajectory of her own ethical evolution. The Lucky Ones is genuine and charming, much as I imagine Jenny is in person.

That sincere passion drives the reader from cover to cover. It is hard not to be fascinated by her journey, especially through her experiences volunteering at Farm Sanctuary and how that helped her learn how to open her own sanctuary, Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary. For her, the sanctuary is paradise.

The Lucky Ones is part personal memoir and part plea to protect animals. It is not an academic book, nor a work of complex moral philosophy. Rather it is one woman’s honest, pull-no-punches account of her life as an activist – from meat eater to vegan, from fast-food worker to founder of one of the best farmed animal sanctuaries in the U.S. It is the story, rich in personal perspective, of a young woman’s evolution into animal activism. From the loss of her leg to childhood cancer, to the death of her dear kitty Boogie, to the relationship with her once-carnivore husband, readers of this book not only gain insights into animal activism, but will feel a connection with the author herself, as a human, a survivor, and a fighter.

One of the things that originally drew me to James McWilliams’ Eating Plants blog was his frank honesty about his own ethical evolution. Very few of us are born animal activists and ethical vegans. We are all in progress and what would life be without growth? If we can grow, so can everyone else – and it is that humility, that honesty, that drew me to Eating Plants, that is also eminently present in Jenny Brown and The Lucky Ones. In essence, her book suggests that veganism is a process, and through sheer infectious passion, we may change the hearts and minds of those that unthinkingly harm animals.

The dream and the ideal of a cruelty-free world drive her work at the farm. A PCRM study, she notes, suggests that 74% of our federal subsidies go to meat and dairy, despite the fact that vegetables, fruits, and grains are more conducive to a healthy diet, according to federal nutrition recommendations.“ So not only does choosing a plant-based diet save animal lives, it leads farmers to turn to healthier, more environmentally friendly agriculture. This means the price of organic produce goes down and our quality of life goes up. Eventually, if the pattern continues, the only farm animals around will be beloved, respected companion animals living healthy lives. At least this is the dream.” And a good dream it is.

Reading Jenny Brown’s inspiring story, one feels one might not be doing enough for animals – because whatever we might be doing, Jenny Brown is probably doing more. But this comes without judgment, because there is activism possible in every action. She ends The Lucky Ones with a collection of vegan recipes- as if unable to resist one last attempt to sway the reader to a compassionate lifestyle. ‘Wait, wait!’ this section seems to beckon, ‘if all my endearing stories didn’t persuade you, why don’t you try the “Best Chocolate Cake Ever!”’

Who can say no to that?

Jennifer Molidor is a staff writer for the Animal Legal Defense Fund. If you would like to review a book for Eating Plants, please contact me at eatingplantsmcwilliams@gmail.com for details.

Tomorrow: a scientist and his ants

Man and Beast

» March 5th, 2013

Early last month Germany banned the practice of bestiality—an act classically defined as penetrative sex with a non-human animal. Of course, the first reaction most rational people had to this news was “you mean it was ever legal in the first place?!” Not only was it ever legal (since 1969) in Germany but it remains very much so in Belgium, Denmark, and Sweden.

The driving force behind this legality, and the most vocal opposition to the German decision to ban bestiality, was an interest group called ZETA—Zoophile Engagement for Tolerance and Information. Given the geographic distance between P and Z on the standard North American keyboard, ZETA, one might note, is not likely to be confused with PETA, which holds no stock in the act of bestiality.

In the wake of the German ruling, ZETA fought back. A representative said, ”It is unthinkable that any sexual act with an animal is punished without proof that the animal has come to any harm.” Needless to say, this kind of comment conveniently overlooks the fact that a non-human animal typically lacks the ability to provide an essential prerequisite for human sexual intercourse to be legal: consent. As the ZETA rep kept talking, though, it became clear that overlooking consent was a small element of a much more sinister problem. This person added, “We see animals as partners and not as a means of gratification. We don’t force them to do anything. Animals are much easier to understand than women.” This ZETA rep, again needless to say, was a man. The importance of this designation will be evident in the last paragraph.

A topic of such moral and sexual magnitude scrambles the mind and, I’m going to guess, I’ll lose about 100 subscribers with what follows. On the one hand it’s ridiculously simple—bestiality is wrong—end of column. But, on the other, it can and should be easily tossed into confusion. I’m not going to support bestiality in what follows, but I am going to drop my preconceptions and think aloud on this one in order to highlight a paradox and, however cursorily, register my opposition to bestiality on different grounds than you might expect.

Questions that arise: How does such exploitation meld with the human’s view of the animal he was buggering? Does this rather dramatic crossing of the species barrier inspire greater love and respect for animals? Or is it the opposite—that is, that demented people copulate with animals as a very sick pretext to eating them?  And which is worse, really, screwing or eating an animal? What if the ZETA people truly love the animals with whom they copulate? Should these emotions be dismissed and criminalized? As a heterosexual male, I do not understand romantic/intimate love for another man, but so what. I support gay marriage and believe in the moral equivalence of homo and heterosexual love (interestingly, the 1969 legality of bestiality was the same year homosexuality was given legal protection).

By what measure, other than speciesism, do I exclude non-humans from this acceptance? This last question, of course, assumes that there might be a way for an animal to consent to sex with a human—which might be possible, as animal ethologists always remind us how animals tell us what they want. Or maybe not. Either way, to deny the power of consent is to accept some level of human paternalism or selective speciesism. 

It’s worth noting that this anti-bestiality act was passed under a pre-existing welfare statute, thereby highlighting the reality that you can’t bugger and animal but you can slaughter her. Could this inconsistent legal right to exploitation have the unintended consequence of increasing awareness about the complexity of the human-animal relationship?  That is, if a cohort of humans were legally authorized to express genuine sexual and romantic intimacy with animals, might more people question the ethics of eating them? Do we have any proof that animals might enjoy the act? Maybe not those in, I swear it, “erotic zoos” or “animal brothels,” but perhaps those out on the free range?  All unlikely, of course. But I’m just trying out a few different positions here.

A historical take on bestiality yields some interesting stuff.  In colonial America, especially Puritan New England, bestiality was seriously bad news for human and non-human alike. Death. The hidden significance of applying a legally mandated sentence to both human and animal for a shared sexual act was the paradoxical inclusion of supposedly “alien” species in the same legal framework applied to humans. The law said “you and the goat” are fundamentally different. The sex act said, “well, your honor, not that different.”

This inclusion, in turn, reiterated Cotton Mather’s dictum that, as Colleen Glenney Boggs cites it, “We are all of us compounded of those two things, the Man and the Beast.” Castaway in a New England wilderness, the prevailing fear—obsession, really—was that humans’ inner beast would be let loose and civilized Puritans would devolve into savage Natives. There was no dichotomy between civility and nature and the slope from one to the other was slippery. Bestiality was evidence that such a declension could happen in the thrill of any moment, and as quickly as a tomahawk to the head.

Interspecies sex was also evidence that the species barrier, for all intents and purposes, was, well, fluid. Dangerously so. It is the avoidance of this reality, in my opinion, that recently led Germany to ban bestiality, rather than the animal welfare justification, which I think is totally bogus because, last I checked, you can still make sausage in Germany. Don’t get me wrong, I strongly believe we should reserve our genitalia for consenting members of our of own species, but the erotic zoo advocates who would beg to differ are, in serially and sexually violating animals, also highlighting the evolutionary continuum that we prefer to ignore when we slaughter animals. They might also be doing so with more love than we’re comfortable acknowledging.

The gender implications of bestiality are mind-blowing and, to a large extent, are the primary grounds upon which I condemn this act. Given that penetrative power is generally limited to men, the species-bending implications of bestiality locate far too much cultural and social power in the human penis.* Plus, I cannot shake the memory that Mather, the Puritan minister quoted above, had a weird love for bees and ants. These species, as he saw them, were orderly and self-sustaining and should left alone, he argued, to offer humans a model of how to live organized and hierarchical lives. It was only the animals that could be physiologically fucked, he implied, that were fair game for brutal domestication or extermination. Not an ideology conducive to the lives of Puritan women in the seventeenth-century. Or the twenty-first for that matter.

tomorrow: Big Bald Mike 

*I’m fairly certain this is the most bizarre sentence I’ve written to date.

NOTE: I added the emboldened sentence after several comments came in.

 

Canines, Carnism, and the Grip of History

» March 3rd, 2013

It’s a perennial irony, one cited as a matter of course by animal rights people, that, to paraphrase Melanie Joy, we love dogs but eat pigs. This irony not only reflects a glaring case of selective moral consideration—we spend billions a year to pamper canines and just about that much to kill and eat swine–but it also, less obviously, represents a huge if unacknowledged fissure in the foundation of human civilization. How can any society hope to become more just and compassionate when it’s built on a bedrock of hidden and avoidable violence?

It’s perfectly natural and understandable for ethical vegans—those who have internalized the inequity of this irony—to condemn the meat-eating masses for loving dogs and eating pigs. It’s so obvious, we think. Why can’t people simply open their eyes and recognize the injustice that’s right in front of us? Wake up! It’s our collective failure to do so that leads so many vegan activists, I would venture, to become nihilistic ranters about the impending fall of humanity.

Two recent books, if read the right way, help illuminate the core of this irony as well as the complaisance with which we accept it. John Homans’ What’s a Dog For: The Surprising History, Science, Philosophy, and Politics of Man’s Best Friend and Jill Abramson’s The Puppy Diaries: Raising a Dog Named Scout remind us in varying ways (sometimes unintentionally) of a critical point that bears directly on our contemporary speciesist behavior.

More than anything else, these books drive home the important reminder that ideologies—including ideologies of oppression—have their roots in material realities. When those roots and realities run 130,000 years into the past, as does the human relationship with dogs, they can, to say the least, be tenacious enough to suppress rational thought and moral consistency in the present. Our failure to treat species with equal moral consideration derives as much, if not more, from past behavior than present-day realities.

Several aspects of the human-canine relationship—aspects that are unique to dogs and dogs alone—help explain why Westerners in particular won’t eat them.  Heaping irony upon irony, the first aspect is that dogs, more than any other species, have elicited from humans a habit of compassion possibly more intense than that evoked by our fellow humans.

As Sue Halpern recently pointed out in an excellent New York Review of Books essay, neoteny—the retention of cute baby-like features into adulthood—has enabled dogs in particular to trigger “ human’s innate caretaking impulse.” In eliciting love from our hearts, dogs have taught us to spare them while slaughtering other species that are just as capable of suffering. Smart animals.

A second aspect of the human-dog relationship forged in the crucible of time is the unique ability of dogs to reflect and embody human aspirations. A well-trained and well-bred dog could serve powerful aspirational functions in any status-driven culture. In this respect, as Homan’s writes (and Halpern quotes), “Dogs in the Victorian Age . . . were stand ins for humans, replicating their master’s inner excellence and class pride.” Pigs, for a wide range of reasons, didn’t accomplish this goal quite as effectively.

A third factor among many others is that dogs have proven to be, again in the words of Homans, “instantly customizable.” The physiological range of today’s canine, in addition to the species’ relative docility and neoteny, has thus appealed to the inherent human desire to shape the world around him. One should never underestimate the intoxicating nature of this power.

Humans have essentially stretched the grey wolf into a spectrum ranging from the dachshund to the Doberman and, in so doing have with god-like arrogance invested each breed with specific functions and meanings. Because dogs have so dutifully fulfilled those functions and meanings, all the while looking terribly cute, dominant human cultures have kept them off our plates.

None of these historical factors are in any way meant to downplay the horrors that flow from our contemporary carnistic hypocrisies.  We are right to hammer away at the contradiction of eating pigs while loving dogs. It’s just to acknowledge what I am coming realize vegan activists too often overlook: the power of the past. It’s a power that’s as genuine as it is distorting, invisible as it is conspicuous, and, however unintentionally, intent on excusing our daily refusal to be better people than we are.

Should you downplay this power I would draw your attention to the scene in Abramson’s book—a book attentive to the issues raised here–when, to spoil her dog, she cooks him a piece of chicken.

 

Tomorrow: more good news for vegans and the environment

Food Choice and the Nanny State

» March 1st, 2013

In order for civil society to be civil, the individual must be free to choose what’s best for the individual. Left unfettered to make decisions without undue external influence, the individual, in choosing for herself also chooses for the social fabric as a whole, a fabric whose integrity depends on the thriving of liberty.

This basic idea, one with modern roots in the work of John Stuart Mill (and postmodern tethers in the mutterings of Ron Paul) once held great sway with me. Here in Texas, after all, the idea is bigger than the state and it’s certainly one that you don’t mess with, especially in West Texas, where they defend FREEDOM with high powered weaponry from underground bunkers.

Applied to food, the concept of personal choice finds friendly turf in Mill’s libertarian leaning philosophy. Somewhere on this blog, at some point in time, I’m sure I’ve written something to the effect of “veganism must be a personal choice.” After all, we have access to more information than ever before, prices of good honest vegan food have never been lower, and we are good enough and smart enough (thank you Stuart Smalley) to make the right choices.

So, the logic goes, let us make these choices without fussbudgets such as Mayor Bloomberg authorizing his city to dictate the size of my Slur-pee. Many critics have cashed in on condemning the emergence of so-called “nanny state.” Check out this. It’s very popular and usually not subtle and it ignores the fact that I have to pay for your diabetes. Still.

A new book, however, suggests that it’s naive to think that we can choose what’s best for ourselves. In Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism, Sarah Conly argues that “we are too fat, we are too much in debt, and we save too little for the future.” This is all for a simple reason: there’s no one there to tell us no. Paternalistic intervention, she explains, will thus correct “errors in instrumental thinking” and, in the long run, bring people closer to what they really want: financial security, health, better plans for the future. This is not a very popular idea and it ignores the fact that people will call you a socialist.

But, contrary to what I once believed, I think Conly—who by no means takes her idea to an extreme—is right. Especially when it comes to food. The complexity of commercial life makes negotiating the grocery aisles (or the farmer’s market) with intelligent discernment practically a full-time job. When it comes to the details of food production, we know a lot less than we think we know.

I’m continually amazed, for example, at highly educated and financially well-off people who don’t know that milk comes from cows who have been forcibly and serially impregnated. Ditto for those who think organic food is “chemical free.” True, more information is out there than ever before. Google is the great leveler. But savvy corporate interests (as well as savvy organic farmers) have so effectively co-opted and scrambled that information, spitting it back at us through propagandized informercials and industry-funded studies, that it’s hard to know what the hell’s what anymore.

At the least, a few government led nudges couldn’t hurt. In so far as this applies to the vegan agenda, my feeling it that if New York City can place a limit on the size of a sugary drink we can hold out hope that the guv’ment might someday decide that chickens pumped with growth hormones and vaccines, or cows laden with e-coli, or eggs that too often carry salmonella should be regulated like a Nation reporter at a Republican convention. That wouldn’t be a victory, but it’d be a start toward top-down, nanny state, socialist agenda vegan food policy. Which sounds pretty damn good to me.

The sad news, and the irony, is that with Cambridge University Press selling Conly’s book at $95.00 a pop, those who will read it are least in need of hearing its message.

tomorrow: the declining transparency of city animal shelters

note: my daughter tells me she’s back to posting at theparksidedogblog.wordpress.com. Feel free to drop in.

 

 

The Do Nothing Revolution

» February 20th, 2013

For decades upon decades Masanobu Fukuoka lived on a remote hillside of a Japanese island and ate what he produced. Without tillage or chemicals (even organic), he grew rice, barley, a range of indigenous vegetables, orchard fruit, the occasional egg, and the even less occasional piece of fish. His methods were so hands-off he called it “do nothing agriculture.”

His approach to farming was inseparable from his approach to life, one that he had a penchant for encapsulating in zen-like aphorisms. As he explained in his charming manifesto, The One Straw Revolution (1978; reprint 2009), “The purpose of a natural diet is not to create knowledgeable people who can give sound explanations and skillfully select among the various foods, but to create unknowing people who take food without consciously making decisions.”

Whoa. This remark gave me pause. As someone who spends a considerable amount of time thinking obsessively about food—not to mention advising people how to choose— it was a little unnerving to have this man of obvious wisdom and intelligence suggest that the path to culinary enlightenment came through “unknowing” our food.

The idea here is that if we would just chill out and stop trying to become all knowing we would actually know a lot more than we think we do (readers of Michael Polanyi take note). Rather than (agri)culture becoming something to which we contribute and consume it would be something we become.  As Fukuoka writes, “Culture is usually though of as something created, maintained, and developed by humanity’s efforts alone. But culture always originates in the partnership between man and nature.”

It’s easy to dismiss Fukuoka as a sort of wayward village eccentric. To be sure, the man is eccentric, indulging as he does in vatic utterances such as “If we eradicate the false conception of nature, I believe the root of the world’s disorder will disappear” (clearly this man has never seen my office). But he’s also making a trenchant critique of contemporary culture and the frenzied behavior it generates. In so doing, he’s also offering the activist the chance to consider a new perspective.

A recurring theme in The One Straw Revolution is the importance of doing nothing. Yes, labor is, I suppose, the ultimate basis of culture. But that doesn’t mean it has to dominate it, nor does it mean that we cannot—as the only species capable of doing so—make a conscious choice to spend our afternoons staring at a sycamore tree, writing ideas into a blog post, or reading novels rather than working to produce goods and services that, for the most part, have little meaningful bearing on our lives. We are, to put it differently, the only species that has made work a counterproductive endeavor. We can change that.

One of the many paradoxes in Fukuoka’s book is the fact that he demonstrates absolutely zero interest is stressing a plant-based diet while, at the same time, essentially living his life around one.  For Fukuoka, eating really is an unthinking decision that, as a direct consequence of the circumstances that structure his life, is deeply rooted in compassion not just for animals but for the earth as a whole. This fortuitous convergence is made possible because he works hard not to work. He’s happy to sit on his hillside and admire the natural world he feels increasingly at one with. Systematically slaughtering animals, much like trashing the soil with chemicals, simply doesn’t fit into this simple but powerful framework.

Regrettably, the culture in which we now live punishes the desire to do “nothing.”  Our commercial driven, materialistic mentality means that to be unthinking about anything, but especially food, leads to the opposite of what Fukuoka intended:  suffering, violence, and exploitation. Worse, it leads to the rationalization of these habits. The thinking vegan looks into this abyss of power, hierarchy, and abuse and holds his placard of resistance high. “Don’t eat animals,” we insist. I wonder, after contemplating a one straw revolution, if we should think seriously about appending to that message another request: “and then do nothing.” Fukuoka wrote, “In farming there is little that cannot be eliminated.” What if this were true for life in general?

tomorrow: Morrissey

 

When the Spirit Moves You to Slaughter a Pig (on the Living Room floor)

» February 12th, 2013

I recently read Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down (1997). The book is magisterial and heartrending and more. At some point the spirit will catch you as you read this book and you, unless your heart is made of cement, will fall down (I stumbled into a pool of emotion on page 213).

The story centers on a large and loving Hmong family who immigrated to Merced, California after being driven from Laos in the wake of the Vietnam War. The book’s driving theme is the cultural clash that exploded around the medical treatment provided for Lia, the epileptic daughter of Foua and Nao Kao. The title is the Hmong translation of epilepsy, a condition that the Hmong imbue with spiritual power. If nothing else, that translation alone should provide some sense of how Foua and Nao Kao felt when the most talented and dedicated pediatricians in the world (a married couple who were valedictorians of their class and ran eight miles every other day) decided to treat Lia with the most advanced narcotics western medicine had to offer. What was wrong, the Hmong wondered, with traditional practices, like bathing the child in herbal stew or rubbing hot coins on her chest?

It’s an epic story—and one I encourage you to read.  For now, though, I’m going to focus on a small aspect of the book that led me to confront a big conundrum. Food is a driving force in the narrative. Turns out the Hmong culture is entirely defined by and inseparable from animal sacrifice.  It’s impossible to overstate how deeply these peoples’ collective identity—one they must constantly reify as they are repeatedly displaced—is grounded in ritualistic and, from a western perspective, barbaric slaughter of chickens, goats, pigs, cows, and (it is suggested but denied) dogs. These animals (evidently not dogs) are sacrificed regularly, often within the home, and are consumed to mark births, deaths, marriages, and a variety of celebrations signified by a Hmong calendar structured by the time of day that a rooster calls. Sacrifices are also used to heal (it’s called Neeb). Ritualism complements a rare brand of self-sufficiency, something the Hmong value so instinctively that they’ve been cited for hunting pigeons with a bow and arrow in the streets of Philadelphia.

Fadiman, to her credit, doesn’t ignore the thorny ethics of the matter, although her assessment almost certainly won’t sit well with animal advocates. Essentially, she tells squeamish white people to get over it. It is with more than tacit approval that she quotes a UC-Berkeley professor who says, “So what if the Hmong feel they have to slaughter animals to make the proper kinds of sacrifices? Why not?”  Fadiman herself chides the citizens of Merced for seeking ordinances to ban the household slaughter of animals, noting (in a rare moment of implausibility) that the “animals were killed quickly and cleanly” and, more plausibly, that the rituals were central to “the need to heal sick family members.” She continues to note that, “In Merced, almost every Hmong family I met sacrificed animals on a regular basis,” adding that this activity was so normalized in the minds of the Hmong that, when she asked if white neighbors might be bothered by a cow’s head left on the front stoop during a celebration, Nao Kao said, “Americans would think it was okay because we have the receipt for the cow.”

As my anthropologist friend Ward always says: culture matters. 

It would be easy, as so many animal rights activists do, to dismiss Fadiman and the Hmong practice of ritual slaughter on abstracted moral grounds. That is, it would be easy to reduce this cultural and religious expression to the secular moral imperative that “unnecessary killing of a sentient being is wrong, no matter what the context.” I’ve taken this position in the past, especially when advocates of backyard slaughter in the United States insist that urban immigrant communities shouldn’t be prevented from pursuing inveterate cultural expressions. Fadiman, however, so effectively drives home the fundamental connection between slaughter and identity that it has forced me to rethink the matter, or at least forgo the convenient resort to moral essentialism. If there’s anything that I’m reminded of daily as an advocate for animals, it’s that theory and practice never converge the way we’d like it too. Again, like it or not, culture matters.

I’m well aware how dangerous this shift is for advocates of animal rights, so much so that I’m almost hesitant to raise the issue. After all, if we allow the ethics of slaughter to enter the slipstream of cultural difference we open matters up to a radically pliable relativism, thus allowing any group with a vague cultural claim to justify the unnecessary killing of animals. Humans thrive at fabricating justifications to serve our tribal interests. If we condone it once, we lay the basis for infinite justification. I’m also well aware how easy it has been to avoid confronting this issue, as we have implicitly allowed ourselves to be protected by the common cinematic trope that animal sacrifice signifies cultural backwardness, a form a “genial bigotry” (Fadiman’s phrase) perpetuated by movies such as Borat.

Still, this book encouraged me to rethink the relevance of the cultural context of exploitation. It made me realize that, when culture is taken seriously, and not relegated to an insulting stereotype, it’s very difficult to say that all exploitation is exploitation, period. Lia goes through utter hell with her disease and eventually reaches a state (this is not a spoiler alert) requiring non-stop vigilance by her parents who selflessly dedicate every moment of their lives to loving their egregiously impaired daughter with unfathomable dedication. You become so pulled into the emotional rhythms of this family’s trials and tribulations that when they throw a birthday party for Lia (who at this point in the story is eight), you are more than emotionally invested when, “the sidewalk outside the East 12th Street apartment overflowed with relatives and Hmong children.” That same feeling persists when, “Foua served Hmong eggrolls stuffed with minced pork and onion; steamed bananas with rice, chickens that been sacrificed that morning, and their skulls and tongues examined for divinatory signs. . .”

In isolation, this scene, from an animal rights perspective, is easy to judge. Again, just resort to the handy moral imperative: “It is always wrong to exploit animals if they do not need to be exploited.” Great. Right is right. Wrong is wrong. End of discussion. But the problem now is that I’m not in the land of moral abstraction. I’m on the sidewalk with the Hmong. The decision to eat animals is suddenly inseparable from the family with whom I’ve come to deeply and powerfully empathize and identify. I’ve watched the parents in particular demonstrate a rare and moving sort of love for their impaired daughter. I’ve watched a fiercely independent and loyal Hmong community make the cause of Lia their own. And I’ll be damned if I’m going to tell these good people, during this rare moment of celebratory bliss, that what they are doing is speciesist. It was in reading (and living) this sidewalk scene that I came to a simple but tectonic-plate shifting realization: there’s a difference between the bar-b-que sandwich going into the mouth of a white Austin frat boy and the minced pork eggrolls being eaten by the Hmong on a sidewalk in Merced.

What that difference implies in terms of reasonable activism is beyond me (at this point) to explain. But it provides—as thinking honestly about animals typically does—yet another problem to take seriously. Very seriously. And it’s not without hope for change toward a more animal-friendly way of life. My starting point for unraveling this complicated matter of ethics and culture and food and the Hmong begins with two distinct observations that I took from the book. First, the final birthday party food listed by Fadiman, alongside the traditional Hmong chicken and pork eggrolls, was a bag of Doritos. Second, Fadiman mentioned cases in which Hmong families who lacked access to livestock used “stones in place of animals” to carry out the essential rituals. The horrifying prospect of a Dorito substitution notwithstanding, culture matters and, fortunately, cultures can, as these examples attest, change without losing the spirit that caught them in the first place.

tomorrow: the perils of academic writing about animals