Posts Tagged ‘The New Yorker

The Modern Farmer and The (Very) Fresh Chicken

» November 6th, 2014

There’s a moment in The New Yorker’s recent feature on Modern Farmer, the magazine dedicated to small-scale farming by a younger and hipper demographic, that’s equally telling and moving. It’s sort of the like the foodie’s Drover’s magazine. In it, the author and the magazine’s founder Ann Marie Gardner, visit a local farm to pick up fresh chicken. But there is no fresh chicken so the farmer asks his customers to hang on a sec so he can kill a few right quick. Here’s what follows:

[Gardner] walked out to the parking lot and called the chef who was to grill the chickens. “I’m having a crisis, because they haven’t killed the chickens, and he’s going to kill them for me,” she said. “I’m really seriously thinking, Couldn’t we just do pasta?” She walked in a tight circle. “It’s true, it’s very fresh chicken,” she said, nodding. “That’s one way to look at it.” When she walked back inside, the man said, “Next ones coming through the window are yours.” Gardner took out her checkbook. “I love the chef’s attitude,” she said uncertainly. “ ‘It’s very fresh.’ They’re not sentimental about it.” Another bird squawked, and Gardner put her hands to her cheeks, then pressed her fingers to her eyes. “People who raise chickens say that if you saw the individual personalities they have you’d never want to eat chicken again, so I guess my next up is to get some animals, huh?” Sniffling, she wrote a check for $84.93, and took the chickens, which I had to carry, because when she touched them she discovered that they were still warm.

The scene is poignant. The recognition of life, the apparent suffering at the prospect of death, the admission that the birds have personalities and interests, the inability to handle (literally) the consequences —all by the head of a magazine about farming! Rather than condemn or judge Gardner here, my inclination is to appreciate the honesty of her reaction, her refusal to plaster over the experience with stupid terms such as “meat chickens” or “harvest,” and her willingness to spill our her emotions in front of the writer whom she must have known would document them for readers to witness and, naturally, judge.

The easy part, from the animal advocate’s perspective, would be to focus on the fact that, as the next scene confirms, she and her dinner party guests ate the birds, and then deliver a stern admonishment. Lord knows I’ve done my share of that. The harder part, though, is to grapple with the implications of the emotional reaction that preceded the meal. I’m not sure exactly what, but something tells me there are truths being expressed in that moment that animal activists are not fully appreciating or exploiting to the benefit of farm animals.

The Art of Not Following the Herd

» May 20th, 2012


I just finished reading Michael Specter’s May 14 New Yorker piece on bioengineering (see “Of Interest” on this blog). Like most of Specter’s articles, this one focused on scientists pushing the boundaries of what’s considered normal. While the topic itself might not be of interest to vegan advocates–and, indeed, while the article has nothing to say about veganism per se–it nonetheless captures a phenomenon every ethical vegan understands: the frustration of promoting unconventional ideas in a conventional world. In this respect alone, it is well worth reading. Several quotes from the article helped me in my constantly evolving effort to situate vegan advocacy in our aggressively non-vegan world.

“The idea of interfering with benign nature is ridiculous. The Bambi view of nature is totally false. Nature is violent, amoral, and nihilistic. If you look at the history of this planet, you will see cycles of creation and destruction that would offend our morality as human beings.”     –Peter Eisenberger, founding director of the Earth Institute

Okay, a bit hyperbolic. But still, it’s essentially true. Eisenbeger’s assessment evokes part of what I was after in yesterday’s post about farming according to the dictates of nature, which has become a dangerous pretext for farming holistically with animals (by exploiting them). My argument, as it were, was that farming should not follow natural cycles but should, instead, make those cycles more humane and efficient through aggressive and morally aware human intervention. The appeal to the supposed superiority of nature is undermined nicely in Eisenberger’s quote. Plus, whereas behavioral omnivores frequently deploy the “nature red in tooth and claw” justification for killing animals as if quoting secular gospel, it is important to remember that the violence inherent in nature can be drawn upon much more effectively to promote a vegan agenda.  In essence, this aspect of nature empowers us to end as much of that violence as we can.

“There is a strong history of the system refusing to accept something new. People say I am nuts. But it would be surprising people didn’t call me crazy. Look at the history of innovation! If people don’t call you nuts, then you are doing something wrong.”

–Eisenberger again. 

Well, hell yes. This remark really hit home and fired me up. Historians (among other professionals and “experts”) are supposed to be objective, fair minded, and unemotional seekers of truth. As an historian and a thinker, however, I’ve chosen to follow my gut, and that has meant throwing flames, throwing objectivity to the wind, and, as a result of all this throwing things around as if in a tantrum, risking the loss of professional respectability (thankfully, I’m tenured). Needless to say, anyone who advocates for animal liberation in a world where animal exploitation is the status quo can identify with being perceived, in Eisenberger’s words, as nuts. So I thrilled to his claim that if people don’t see you as nuts, you need to work harder. I was also reminded of Carolyn Zaikowski’s recent and brilliant essay (re-posted here a couple of days ago). In an e-mail exchange, she noted that, “I suppose my essay is formulating a bit of a utopia in general”–in other words, nuts. But she went on to add: “I think the visions need to be raised even if they can’t be perfectly manifested.” Well, hell yes.

“Climate change is not so much a reduction in [agricultural] productivity as a redistribution. And it is one in which the poorest people on earth get hit the hardest and the rich world benefits.”   –Ken Caldeira

Vegans eat in a way that would substantially help ameliorate this problem. Not only does veganism support an agricultural transition that directly and substantially reduces GHG emissions, but it also promotes a way of eating that’s more diverse, accessible, and affordable than the mono-culture-based system required to sustain the western diet.  This diversity factor is especially important, as it will conceivably allow poorer regions on the world (the ones most vulnerable to the impact of climate change) to develop agricultural systems that are plant-based, climatically adaptable, and tied into regional, and even global, economies. In this sense, veganism does more than reduce the impact of climate change, but it serves human justice as well as justice for animals.


Note: For another excellent article on challenging convention (in science), see Michael Dyson’s typically wonderful and inspiring essay in the May 5 New York Review of Books (also listed in “Of Interest” on this blog)



Pushing the Stone of Progress: Rebellion v. Reform

» April 18th, 2012


In the April 9th edition of The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik has a brilliant–and I mean brilliant–piece on the French philosopher and novelist Albert Camus. As a reader, timing is everything. And as a vegan advocate, so is perspective.

It happens that I read Gopnik’s article (twice) the night after giving a talk to a wonderful group of students at Augustana College–a small, liberal arts school in Sioux Falls, SD.  One of the issues that arose during my presentation was the difficulty of advocating a cause–veganism–that most people find alienating, unrealistic, threatening, and, much of the time, just plain bizarre.  And it’s on this point that Gopnik’s article spoke to me like an oracle.

“We are all Sisyphus,” writes Gopnik, analyzing Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus. Indeed, those who choose to defy convention are “condemned to roll our boulder uphill and then watch it roll back down for eternity, or at least until we die.” Nevertheless, as Gopnik explains, this fate need not provoke despair. “Learning to roll the boulder while keeping at least a half smile on your face,” he adds, isn’t such a bad idea. If you’re going to tell a bacon lover to avoid bacon, an uncompromising but joyful disposition–hell, even a sense of humor–only helps.

Gopnik next analyzes this quote from Camus’ The Rebel : “He who dedicates himself to the duration of his life, to the house he builds, to the dignity of mankind, dedicates himself to the earth and reaps from it the harvest that sows its seeds and sustains the world again and again. Finally, it is those who know how to rebel, at the appropriate moment, against history who really advance its interests.” (italics mine)

Heavy duty stuff, here. As an historian, I love the whole idea of rebelling against history. It’s one of the finest ideas I’ve ever contemplated.  After all, it’s history that we’ve inherited. History is the inevitable foundation over which we have no say–sort of like our parents–and its flaws happen to be unfathomable. To rebel against it demands a complete rebuttal, a radical rebuke of everything that time has etched in stone and deemed normal. It demands not a shift in perspective, but a shift in how we see.

Rebellion, of course, tends to parade as reform. But reform is boring. Reform takes a dirty speck of the past and polishes it into a shiny gem that casts a virtuous glow on the reformers. Most advocates of improving our broken food system are reformers. They do things like suggest purchasing animal products from small, non industrialized farms, failing to realize that, in making such a claim, they merely reify the problem they want to eliminate. This is not so much rebelling against history as cuddling up with it. That’s the last thing history needs, but exactly what it wants.

Having (as of about two years ago) decided to forget caring about what others might think about my ideas–that is, having decided to say exactly what I think–this observation from Gopnik inspired a little fist-pump for academic freedom: “It is in the nature of intellectual life–and part of its value–to gravitate toward the extreme alternative position, since that is usually the one most in need of articulation.” Ideas that exist between the extremes are being enacted everyday by all kinds of people. The fringes, though, need their sisyphian articulations.

Time creeps through history. To think any extreme alternative position will become popular in one’s lifetime is overly hopeful, I think. Seeing ideas translated into action is rewarding, but it shouldn’t be the be-all and end-all of rebelling. Those who wanted their ideas to be put into action, writes Gopnik  (of Sartre), “didn’t think that ideas would actually alter life; he expected that life would go on more or less as it had in spite of them.”

Still, those ideas, once powerfully presented, wouldn’t vanish. There would always be “another chance to make them better.” The purpose of rebellion is thus to insure that future architects of change have better material with which to work. The bridge to betterment, the bridge that allows us to escape history–deserves at least that.