Posts Tagged ‘vegetarianism’

Dancing with Chihuahuas

Friday, October 22nd, 2010

In their Mixed Media section of the November-December 2010 issue of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery interviewed Anthony Bourdain in an article entitled, The Omnivore’s Agenda. Mr. Bourdain is seen in a photo holding a chicken by the side of his face, eyes closed as if in rapture — probably imagining some future meal that the bird might become. Bourdain is known for his book Kitchen Confidential and his Travel Channel foodie show, No Reservations. In the interview, he makes no apology for fetishizing food but does take issue with chef Alice Waters, reporting that when recently asked what her death-row final meal would be, Ms. Waters replied Shark Fin Soup — hardly an ethical or sustainable choice.  Ms. Waters, a chef at a Berkeley, California restaurant known for promoting locavorism, has since suffered chagrin and has pledged to never eat the stuff again. Shark Fin Soup is one of the cruelest meals possible, wherein an entire shark is hoisted onto a fishing vessel, their dorsal/pectoral fin is excised, and they are tossed back into the drink to die a slow and torturous death, slowly sinking to the bottom of the ocean, unable to swim. It has been estimated that over 90% of the world’s sharks have been depleted, in part due to the popularity of this dish, with millions of sharks callously killed every year.

Bourdain Attacks Vegetarians

After learning of this disheartening bit of news, the interviewer, Ms. Jeffery, asks Bourdain the following;

MJ: It seems like your unhappiness with vegetarians comes from a few different beliefs: that you kind of fear the nanny-state concept; that it’s often a luxury of the affluent; that they prioritize animal rights over human misery..

AB: Yeah, or human joy, for that matter.

MJ: …And that they either try to force their views on others or rend the social fabric when they refuse the hospitality of carnivores.

Bourdain then goes on to extoll the virtues of vegetarians who “put aside those principles” when they travel. (He should just love Jane Goodall, then.*) Mind you, we are not even talking about vegans, just vegetarians.   He then speculates the problem with avoiding meat:

AB: It’s inconceivable why anyone would want to not experience as many colors in the spectrum as possible with our limited time on Earth.

Experiencing the Full Spectrum

This brought to mind an incident from my earlier days, when I was traveling across Baja California and then down through Mainland Mexico along with three Hispanic friends. These friends has assured me that people would throw rotten tomatoes at me, with my long sun-bleached blond curly hair and my blue eyes.  The truth was much, much brighter – I was a curiosity and was treated hospitably by all those I encountered. While riding on a bus, a little girl pulled at her mother’s arm and pointed to me — I was different and worth noting. At one point in our travels, we met some people from a small rural fishing village who invited us to spend a few days.  When we arrived in the village, many children came out and touched my hair – with the humidity, it was floating and quite full.  With our friends was a full sized untrimmed poodle, and they found both of us to be enormously intriguing and worthy of much laughter, asking if the dog was a lamb.  It also happened that a wedding was going to take place the following day and we were to be honored guests.

The wedding was amazing. Fortunately, we had a polaroid type camera with us (this was pre-digital), and one of the men took photos of the bride and presented them to the proud papa. It was unforgettable that these kind people, who had only occasional electricity from a generator and dirt-floor homes, could prepare wonderful food such as fresh fruit and home made tortillas, as well as elaborate hair styles for the wedding. When the photos were presented, the father grew teary-eyed and accepted with thanksgiving.  Everyone thought it quite funny that my Hispanic friend had to ask me to speak for him as I knew more Spanish than he did. When it came time for the wedding feast, I was told at the last minute that the people had butchered a pig, something very rare for them, and they were going to share with us — a gesture of great generosity. Today as a vegan I might have handled it differently, but I turned to my then boyfriend and asked for help. There was no way I was going to touch that poor dead animal even if they ran me out of the village, but I also wanted to accept their graciousness without offending.

Here is where I disagree with Bourdain – I feel like I did try all the colors of the spectrum while I was in Mexico. I ate fresh fruit and ripe avocados right off the carts in the town. I tried their soda and their tea — in fact it was Manzanilla tea that save me from the normal digestive problems that accompany many tourist visits, something prepared just for me in one of the lovely homes I visited. I tried the soft coconuts that had the texture of a peach. I danced with the children and played with their little Chihuahuas and only regretted I did not bring more things to give to them all. I chatted with the women as to the best way to prepare tortillas and made my own when I returned home. I was invited into many homes and we emptied out the van with our belongings to leave in that village. I will never forget the gracious spirit of those people, how they shared their stories of brief times spent in the US working, of their offers to give of their few belongings to us, or their willingness to listen to us with such rapt attention as if we were from another, more interesting place.

Bourdain is Wrong About Vegans

Here is where Bourdain has it wrong: most of the food I ate in Mexico was vegan; there was very little in the way of dairy products or animal products that was affordable to most of the people there — making his statement that vegetarianism is the bastion of the affluent ridiculous. Of course, I was not dining in expensive restaurants, but was off the beaten path. I spent one night in a coconut grove on the ocean, another on an abandoned beach. I was certainly not affluent, nor are most of the vegans I know. There are many friends I have had that are Hindu and eat no animal products for religious reasons. So much for anti-vegetarian point number one.

Next, Bourdain criticizes that vegetarians prioritize animal rights over human rights.  He is dead wrong again.  Many animal rights people are also simultaneously involved in other social justice causes.  The claim that they do not care about human rights is usually a defense from someone who is not working on either. Vegans see the correlation between all forms of exploitation.  Bourdain is focused on his own pleasure and rails when anyone suggests he might consider how his behavior impacts others. Of course, that is his choice.

Last, he agrees that vegetarians try to force their views on him or rend the social fabric when they refuse to eat dead animal bits. Force? The only force in this equation is what is being done to the animals — that is force. While I cannot speak for all vegans, most of those I know work very hard to educate the public about what is going on with animals and how our choices are impacting innocent others, the earth, health, the economy, wars, exploitation and other such issues. They believe in the inherent goodness of mankind to rise to the challenges that are presented to them. Perhaps someone disagreeing with Mr. Bourdain feels like force to him and threatens the life he finds so satisfying. Unfortunately, he remains totally free to roam the earth in search of an ever better way to prepare and enjoy eating dead flesh. As to rending the social fabric — it is not much of a fabric if it requires the dismemberment of an innocent animal. I came through my dilemma with my principles and my relationships in the village intact. Most of the time, taking such a stand gives people pause and causes at least momentary consideration for their eating choices. I wonder, really, what entire parts of the spectrum Mr. Bourdain is missing by insisting on only eating with omnivores and focusing on gustatory pleasures to the exclusion of relationships with other beings.

One-Sided Journalism?

Clara Jeffery never became a journalist throughout the interview, never challenged these assumptions or tried to dig deeper to see why he held such beliefs. Mother Jones, a supposedly progressive publication, is not very progressive when it comes to veganism or animal rights. (See my prior article, Progressive Disappointments.) Bourdain even goes so far as to defend foie gras, to which point Ms. Jeffery states, “Watch his segment on it and you might change your mind.” Hardly, Ms. Jeffery – it is exploitation of scores of animals for the palates of a few very spoiled individuals. In the end, the animals are killed for another being’s momentary pleasure.

Mother Jones (Clara Jeffery) and Anothony Bourdain seem to be totally unaware of the immense suffering and death that goes into pleasing their palates. For adults of this stature to be so self-absorbed is nothing less than disturbing. While we have come to expect a lack of journalistic integrity these days, it is always alarming to see a publication that calls itself “smart and fearless” become so mainstream and passive. One might expect a professional foodie to be hedonistic and self-absorbed; one expects better from someone who calls herself a journalist.  As to Bourdain’s suggestion that we “put aside those principles” when we travel, I would say he lacks even the most fundamental understanding of what being principled means. A life versus a social engagement? No contest. I would choose dancing with those children and Chihuahuas over any meal.


*Jane Goodall article which relates she is not vegan when traveling

Why I Am NOT a Veg*n

Tuesday, August 10th, 2010

Recently, on a vegan forum, I commented on the use of the term “vegetarian”  or “veg*n” rather than “vegan” while promoting animal rights.  It seemed to unleash a storm of criticism and ad hominem attacks: “Someone is VERY NEW….,”  ”so fundamentalist in nature,”  ”is there ANY evidence base whatsoever…? ”  My comment was in response to the posting of a Huffington Post article by Bruce Friederich, Vice President of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), as well as a suggestion to develop the inclusive “veg*n” culture on the same forum.  Mr. Friederich has stated before that he no longer advocates in vegan tee shirts, because people respond better to the vegetarian message. That may be, but it is not a message that will help animals. In fact, it may even create more suffering for the animals. How can an animal advocate promote the dairy industry?  I think of the abuse of babies, little newborn calves; and mothers who are forced into servitude of being milk machines, with distended udders, infected and dragging the ground.  Then there are all those newborn chicks ground alive in massive machines because they cannot lay eggs.  THAT is something for animal advocates to support?

The message Mr. Friederich was giving was that it is indefensible to eat meat. Unfortunately, his last  line reads,

Put another way: If we believe that people should try to protect the environment, OR we believe that we should try not to cause people to starve OR we oppose cruelty to animals, the only ethical diet is a vegetarian one.

Wrong. This following many salient points in Friederich’s article is so disappointing.  Why is there such a great fear of the word “veganism?”  It is a simple word, much more simple and clear than “vegetarianism.”  There is so much ambiguity in the term vegetarian that it leaves people thinking giving up meat for dairy products will somehow be less cruel. Even if one is focusing solely on the dietary aspects of veganism, then why not support incremental veganism? At least doing so would leave a clear impression in the minds of the audience that veganism is the goal, not vegetarianism.

Mr. Friederich has another contradiction or two on his hands. It is difficult to be accepted as someone who values animal life while working for an organization that kills a higher proportion of animals in their “shelter” than most other shelters. It is also an organization that owns stock and profits from animal agriculture, gives awards to slaughter house designers, and uses some questionable tactics which diminishes the level of dialogue regarding the significance of animal rights.  Again, so disappointing. One young animal rights advocate, Beckah Sheeler, recently posted on the site Animal Writes an article titled, PETA: A Hurdle for Vegan Advocacy:

What we are faced with is the split between abolitionists and welfarists, and this will always exist; however, (as cliche the saying as it may be) with the amount of power Peta has, comes a great amount of responsibility, meaning the lives and welfare of animals, the planet, and the indirect meals able to be fed to the hungry due to this lifestyle, are resting in its hands. Bruce Friedrich, VP of Peta, also has stated in a recent post that being an absolutist is the worst way to attract people to this cause. The members of Peta should, of course, not give up their strong convictions of remaining not only meat free, but egg and dairy free, but being that Peta is so big, I believe that it is the organization’s responsibility, with all of its money, resources, and recognition, to advocate in such a way that helps the most amount of animals being that this is its perceived cause.

Ms. Sheeler then goes on to support widening the appeal rather than clarifying the message that PETA spreads.  However, Dan Cudahy, on his blog Unpopular Vegan Essays, reports on the failure of such tactics that are contradictory at the root (from the article PETA: A Corporate Tangle of Contradictions):

PETA’s contradictions in philosophy, rhetoric, and activities – which have led to profound public confusion and fortification of the utilitarian-welfarist status quo that has been in existence since Jeremy Bentham – have been a barrier to progress in advancing animal rights, and will continue to be a barrier as long as they continue as an animal welfare organization.

For a clear look at the problematic nature of the confusion in such welfarist rhetoric, Professor Gary Francione states in a post on his blog, Animal Rights: The Abolionist Approach (Some Comments on Vegetarianism as a Gateway to Veganism):

It is clear: if you explain that there is no distinction between flesh and other animal products and why we should go vegan, and the person with whom you are talking cares about the issue, she will either (1) go vegan immediately; or (2) go vegan in stages; or (3) not go vegan and adopt some version of vegetarianism (or “happy” meat/product consumption). But she will at least understand that veganism is the aspiration toward which to work. She will understand that the line between flesh and other products is entirely arbitrary. If you maintain that going vegetarian is morally meaningful and that there is a distinction between flesh and other animal products, then you increase the chances that her progress toward veganism will be impeded.

In other words, you do not need to advocate vegetarianism. It is completely unnecessary, morally meaningless, and, as a practical matter, it impedes transition to veganism.

While I appreciate the sincere motives of individuals like Mr. Friederich and do not challenge them, it does seem important to continue looking at the tactics of the animal rights movement. This is very different than disparaging individuals.  I fully admit to many shortcomings and work on them; I have my own blind spots. Assuming that all animal advocates sincerely want what is in the best interest of nonhuman animals rather than promotion of their individual animal organizations, then looking critically at tactics and contradictions that may become barriers (Dan Cudahy) or hurdles (Beckah Sheeler) or impediments (Gary Francione) would seem a positive way of helping advocates learn to help animals achieve true rights as living, feeling beings. While listening to a podcast today, I heard someone interrupt a speaker discussing vegetarianism and interject “a lacto-ovo vegetarian — that is pretty much the same thing as a vegan.”  No, no, no.

Another way of stating this was posted by Tim Gier in an article titled, Is Half A Loaf Better Than None?

If you do intentionally participate in the subjugation of nonhuman animals, it does not matter that your participation is infrequent, or irregular, or occasional. Whenever you eat the flesh of a nonhuman animal, a life is ended for your pleasure, and for nothing else. The same is true whenever you wear the skin of another as clothing, or you patronize the zoos and circuses that cage others for life, or you support the medical, scientific or commercial experimentation on others as well.  Cutting back on those things, while better than not, still amounts to participating in them. There is no “half loaf.”

By spreading vegetarian education rather than vegan education, we collaborate in the subjugation (however unintentionally) of nonhuman animals.  The baseline is veganism. The fact that it is not immediately appealing for 100% of all people everywhere is not the point.  Veganism is the goal. It can be incrementally achieved, but it remains the goal. To ask for anything less, anything with wider appeal, anything that appears to be a more popular message, is to sell out the rights of animals. Want to make veganism more popular? Start by talking about it.

Progressive Disappointments

Friday, July 23rd, 2010

Recently, I have become very disappointed in progressive media.  It would seem that when it comes to animal rights, things are not all that progressive.

Huffington Post Misses the Irony in Recent Post by Jamie Lee Curtis

Huffington Post recently published an article by Jamie Lee Curtis, lamenting the Conklin Dairy Abuse revealed by undercover videos.  We now know there will be no cruelty charges for the owner of the dairy (see linked article by Angel Flinn), no matter how distressing the videos.  Where there is demand, the brutality continues.  How does Ms. Curtis think that the very product she touts, yogurt, is created? By raping the cows with artificial insemination, stealing the baby calf from his or her mother, and then stealing the mother’s secretions from her, secretions made for the survival of her baby, not for adult humans. I always find those yogurt commercials to be interesting.  They suggest their brand of yogurt will help people with digestive problems, the very problems that come from eating a highly processed, animal-based diet. The solution? Another highly processed, animal-based product of course! Perhaps Ms. Curtis has never considered the cost for other beings of the products she sells. But when she wrote that article, obviously distressed at seeing animals treated as objects, devoid of any consideration for their personhood, she missed an important connection between what she does for a living and the act of living for other beings. And Huff Post missed a chance to post an article based on the stark and horrendous reality of the more than sixty billion land animals that perish for the pleasure of human appetite each year.

Mother Jones Appears to Have Lost the “Fearless” in Their Journalism

Even more egregious, Mother Jones (July/August 2010) published an article by Kiera Butler, a “lifelong vegetarian,” who broke her no-meat stance to dine on “grass-fed beef” (an interesting term denoting how devoid of acknowledgement of animal personhood our thinking is — cows eat, not beef; beef is a dead animal.)  She shared that it was delicious and she felt satisfied.  In the article, Get Behind Me, Seitan, Ms. Butler reports that the “vegetarian-equals-green argument” is not so cut and dried.  She then proceeds to offer a comparison between highly processed fake meat and grass fed animal flesh. She notes that her Berkeley, California crowd is really moving towards eating more meat, not less, and she seems to move along with them. One wonders why she ever became vegetarian; she did not mention any moral concerns, health concerns, certainly no consideration for the impact on the animals themselves, no discussion of violence or cruelty.  This was all about the trend and “local buzz.”  It seems preying on baby animals is all the rage these days.

Touting the “great caloric bargains” of things like fish, there is no mention of the toxins that accumulate the higher you go up the food chain. There is no mention of the dying oceans, respect for nature, or a moral baseline; there is plenty of talk about crab feeds and pig roasts.  There is discussion of hexane, used to remove soybean oil and keep soyburgers low in fat, a registered air pollutant and suspected neurotoxin.  Ms. Kiera reports that with a processed soyburger, there are numerous ingredients but with grass-fed beef there is only one, making it somehow purer. This defies everything we know about the accumulation of pesticides and other toxins as one moves up the foodchain, making it more and more dangerous to eat other  beings. There is no discussion of the impossibility of providing enough grazing land for the way the world now consumes animals. And worst of all, there is no discussion of the animals themselves, discussed solely as a commodity for humans throughout the entire article.

The progressive media needs to become truly progressive in the arena of animal rights and veganism. A start would be to post the work of one of the really good vegan advocates who are talented writers — Gary Francione, Roger Yates, Dan Cudahy, Angel Flinn, Tim Gier, Nathan Schneider, Jeff Perz, Mylène Oullet, and many, many others.  They could select someone to write who actually has a philosophical stance that does not move with the crowd, and leaves the “fearless” in their ability to stand alone when necessary, to actually take a position based on something beside their own health, coolness or gustatory delight.  It is  much easier to be oh-so-flexible when dining out, selling out the suffering of animals at every turn, and keeping in lockstep with mainstream thinking. This is progressive? NOT!

The article in Mother Jones did:

  • present some of the problems with highly processed foods
  • discussed some of the problems with unnatural methods of feeding animals that result in disease
  • highlighted that Great Plains pastureland stores 54% more CO2 per acre than cropland

The article failed to:

  • mention the many ways to eat a vegan diet that provides plenty of protein and keeps you fully satisfied
  • investigate the consequences should the nation move towards grass fed animals
  • mention the high levels of toxins in flesh products
  • look at the fact that a vegetarian diet may not offer any moral, environmental, or welfare benefits over an omnivorous diet
  • mention anything about the lives of animals as living, feeling beings
  • mention the correlation between animal slaughter and violence in society
  • even consider a whole foods vegan diet
  • address the false dichotomy presented: there are infinite choices besides eat animals and eating fake meat.

In the end, Ms. Kiera decides to eat mostly plants, but with an occasional “indulgence.” Most vegetarians and vegans would not consider eating meat an indulgence; they would find it disgusting and nauseating. The callous disregard for the various ways these decisions impacts other living beings, the environment, or public health seems out of sync with the purpose of magazines like Mother Jones. The complete lack of any consideration for social justice towards animals, human or non-human, is a glaring omission.

Other articles online at Mother Jones include one about a “kinder, gentler, more convenient abattoir,” a man who kills animals six days a week. This sounds like ancient history, not “fearless journalism.”  Buying into the humane slaughter myth, the happy meat myth, and misrepresenting the positive aspects of healthy vegan cuisine seems more like something one would hear on Rush Limbaugh. Et tu, Mother Jones?