Conservative Resistance and the Vegan Agenda

Conservative ResistanceMartin Rowe

The Veggie Pride Parade is an annual event in New York City that brings vegetarians, vegans, and interested parties together. Five hundred or so folks march through the West Village and then gather at the northern end of Union Square for talks and food sampling, and to pick up literature from the assorted tables. The organizer of this festive occasion is Pamela Rice, whose 101 Reasons Why I’m a Vegetarian we published at Lantern Books.

This year’s event had extra zest. Toward the end of the afternoon, a blond and hairy young white man stood near the assembly, brought out a banner that read “Down with the Vegan Agenda,” and proceeded to use his teeth to pull strips of raw flesh from a skinned rabbit. He soon attracted a crowd of passers-by who snapped photos and shot videos of him as folks on a nearby dais told their stories about how they’d become vegans.

I was about twenty-five feet away from the man, who goes by the name of “Mr MilkJar,” and who had the forethought to bring along a cameraman to record the proceedings. MilkJar has his own YouTube channel, onto which he’s uploaded this stunt and others like it—and which I can’t be bothered to link to. Tellingly, MilkJar’s avatar is Pepe the Frog, an otherwise blameless cartoon character who has recently become a symbol of “alt-right” nationalism that these days is welcome in the White House. Milkjar’s Twitter account extols the virtues of raw meat and milk—which has also, it appears, become a symbol of white supremacism, according (oh the irony!) to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, an organization that has in the past also used dead animal flesh to make a point and, like MilkJar, isn’t afraid to perform stunts to attract the media and épater la bourgeoisie.

So, just what is going on here beyond the normal eccentricities of New York City, or the exercise of freedom of speech in a park that for centuries has been a public space dedicated to heated expressions of unpopular and sometimes conflicting opinions? And how might we understand this event in the light of the Vegan America Project?

On the face of it, MilkJar is simply practicing his first amendment rights. Pamela Rice asked the police in attendance if they could do anything about MilkJar. The officers, however, rightly pointed out that it wasn’t a crime to eat in public (drinking alcohol is a different matter). MilkJar wasn’t interfering with the gathering, wasn’t using an amplifier without a permit, and wasn’t physically threatening anyone. The cops did ask MilkJar to move further away from the dais, but that was all the conversation I was privy to. (Actually, I don’t think Pamela was that annoyed. In fact, she seemed to be relishing the amount of extra attention that MilkJar was bringing to her parade.)

Freedom of speech, of course, can be rude and objectionable—and MilkJar was interested in neither Socratic debate nor Demosthenic oratory.  He was out to offend the sensibilities of vegans the most direct way he knew how. And, truth be told, some attending the parade were upset and disgusted. They felt “their” special day and space had been coopted and invaded by a publicity-seeker who merely wanted to gross people out. Why pick on a poor defenseless being to make his point, they asked? Why be so willfully cruel? And it’s true: there’s something particularly Westboro Baptist Church–like about MilkJar’s self-serving assholery.

On reflection, however, MilkJar’s presence proved a fascinating (if unwelcome) addition to the proceedings—if not, perhaps, in quite the way the rabbit-eater intended. First of all, he made no effort to disguise the corpse that he bit into. He held it by its rear legs and allowed the torso to dangle in front of him. In so doing, he showed how much we gourmands rely on butchers and chefs to cut and prepare our meat to obliterate the structure and outline of the animal that the flesh originally composed. He wasn’t just eating a cut of meat; this was clearly once a living being. To use Carol J. Adams‘ terms, he made the absent referent present.

Secondly, by eating the rabbit raw, MilkJar was also demonstrating how most of us cook the land and air animals we eat. Cooking, after all, is one of the ever-diminishing markers of our distinctiveness from other animals. Indeed, Michael Pollan argues that cooking led to civilization, in that it allowed us to gather around a fire and shape the mythopoetic identities that led us to plan and organize our social groupings. (Some folks’ disgust was not simply because of the presence of the animal body but an autonomic response to the risk of food poisoning posed by eating raw meat on a warm day. This is another reason why we cook our meat—because animal flesh rots rather than decomposes.)

Thirdly, in making a case for a kind of originalism, naturalism, or authenticity to his food choices (no processed foods, or processing of foods, for me!), MilkJar was echoing many vegans who also shun processed foods and argue for a raw, plant-based diet that, so the notion goes, most accurately reflects our true identities. Aside from any health benefits cited by followers of such regimens, MilkJar and raw foodists rely on a notion that “civilization” has corrupted or removed us from a Rousseausque innocent and honest engagement with nature that can be reclaimed by returning to a pre-industrial “right” relationship—whether it’s a prelapsarian paradise or a Darwinian struggle, red in tooth and claw.

But the ironies and contradictions don’t stop there. In choosing a rabbit to eat, was MilkJar echoing the suggestion that veganism equals “rabbit food”? By eating the rabbit, therefore, was he consuming vegans and veganism at the same time as he was critiquing the social niceties, amnesia, and comforting bromides we tell ourselves about the “civilizational” qualities of cooked meat? Was MilkJar wanting to claim a savage primitivism in opposition to vegans’ effete civilizing influence; and declaring that a society that eschewed raw meat by either cooking it or not consuming it no longer had the animalistic élan vital to continue?

These questions aren’t as far-fetched as they may appear. My table shared space with a tribute to the life and work of vegan historian Rynn Berry, himself a sometime raw-foodist, and author of Hitler: Neither Vegetarian nor Animal Lover (with a foreword by yours truly). In the book, Berry tries to lay to rest the canard that the Nazi dictator was a vegetarian; in my foreword, I try to argue that, even if it were the case that the Fuhrer ate a plant-based diet, it hardly follows that eating lentils will turn you into a genocidal dictator. That MilkJar should now accouter himself with the symbols of neo-Nazi ethnochauvanism in opposition to veganism makes our points—if not in the way MilkJar may have intended.

As promoted by Goebbels, the Fuhrer’s vegetarian identity was intimately associated with his asceticism, his dedication to the Fatherland above family, and a racial purity that literally embodied the desired body politic. Yet Hitler ate meat, his own body was routinely injected with animal parts (bull’s semen, to be precise, for sexual potency), and he received a vast amount of other drugs, especially during the War. Hitler’s physical insecurity and his avoidance of animal flesh show that he may have wished to escape the bodily corruption of meat, but his belief that powerful male animal bodies would animalize and empower his own illustrates that he couldn’t escape the  carnophallologocentrism (to use Jacques Derrida’s term) that he believed the animal body would supply him with. Hitler/Germany’s pathogenic body—desperate to cleanse itself of “enemies within” (both social, racial, and biological)—collapsed because of the microbial and military invasion of the very foreign bodies that he sought to expel.

MilkJar’s protest (and PETA’s counter-argument that milk drinkers are white supremacists) highlight the dangers of naturalistic arguments or simplistic comparisons devoid of context or critical thinking.  MilkJar’s presence should likewise remind vegans of the insulting triteness of comparing animal exploitation to the Holocaust or ante-bellum African American slavery—especially as MilkJar’s alt-right paraphernalia shows us how manipulable shallow symbolism and agitprop thinking can be.

But we vegans actually have more to be grateful to MilkJar for than unpacking meat eating!  When I saw his sign (“Down with the Vegan Agenda”), I joked to a friend that not only did I not know we had an agenda, but I hadn’t even received the minutes from the last meeting. As it turns out, and as the Vegan America Project highlighted at its inception, the questions accidentally raised by MilkJar are valid: Do we have an agenda, and, if so, what is it?  An “agenda” suggests a level of organization, coordination, planning, and centralized authority that has so far eluded the various affiliations that constitute . . . what? Our movement?  Who is the “our” here and where is the “movement”—from what to what? As this blog has relayed in detail, there are many impulses, dispositions, passions, and sociopolitical orientations that drive people to stop consuming animal products. But “agenda”?

Of course, MilkJar’s goal in condemning “the vegan agenda” is to stigmatize veganism—in the same way that others attack LGBTQ activists’ attempt to protect vulnerable communities as “the gay agenda”; or how anti-Semites talk about a “Jewish conspiracy” or a cabal of “international bankers”; or how Protestant evangelicals once spoke about the Vatican; or how climate change deniers now describe scientists. They/we are the fifth columnists whose goal is to undermine society, enrich ourselves in the process, and establish a New World Order where ethnic and national boundaries are compromised and individual freedoms are quashed.

We might (very) charitably call such attempts blunt efforts by individuals to express their right to dissent and exercise those freedoms. But in every case, the  word agenda is code for those whom the ethnochauvanistic, nominally Christian right believes should know their place. It disguises, even as it proclaims to be honest (I’m not politically correct!), a pre-existing agenda that the protesters against the “agenda” have ensured isn’t even considered an agenda—because it’s normative: that white, heterosexual, Christian men who eat meat and run the country is the “natural” order of things.

It’s, therefore, not merely coincidental that MilkJar’s whiteness and masculinity is tied to his explicit consumption of the flesh of an animal. The freedom of speech that he’s championing is expressed through his control of and power over an animal’s flesh: the sexual politics of meat. MilkJar wants to offend, to counteract, to occupy another’s space, and to do so using an animal’s body. That is his right. But it is a right and it is a space that white men in the United States have always claimed for themselves, and which they have routinely denied to people of color, women, and other animals by threatening, colonizing, manipulating, and killing their bodies.

Ironically, MilkJar’s words should inspire us: to get “down with the vegan agenda.” Certainly, the Vegan America Project considers itself one draft (among many) of an outline for such an agenda. It’s an attempt to explore a genuinely intersectional approach that looks at the physical and conceptual space represented by Union Square—a location for rallies, a safe place for dissent, a spot for visionary thinking—and asks whether we can expand our notions of individual rights to allow MilkJar and the rabbit he consumed to live their own lives with a measure of each’s basic interests respected.

Finally, what does MilkJar’s protest have to say about “conservative resistance” in the Vegan America Project? I’m always struck by those who take time out of their lives to protest—and to do so in a way that could leave them appearing to onlookers to be foolish or mean-spirited. Something about that degree of commitment and energy suggests that the object of their contempt holds a fascination, a shadow (to employ a Jungian idea), that makes them fertile ground for conversion.

I’m reminded of the book of Revelation (3:15), in which the writer has strong words to say about faith: “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.” MilkJar is clearly not lukewarm, and nothing is being spit out of his mouth. He’s engaged and, in his perverse way, represents the case for animal rights and veganism very well—perhaps uncomfortably well, given our mutual claims to naturalism and purity of living. It wouldn’t surprise me to see him at many more such events in the future. In which case, we vegans may have to engage more seriously and profoundly with just what he portends (both for ill and good) about what a vegan America might look like.

Insectionality

Origins and Ideas IconMartin Rowe

Intersectionality is a term first coined by critical race theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw to describe the linkages between race, class, and gender when applied to the bodies of woman of color. Crenshaw’s term has been widely adopted by ecofeminist theorists such as Carol J. Adams, pattrice jones, Greta Gaard, and Lori Gruen partly to emphasize the social justice component of a theory that critiques binaries where traditionally masculine-identified tropes are arraigned on one side and feminine-defined ones on the other (culture v. nature, human v. animal, mind v. matter, reason v. emotion, etc.), with value judgments about the worth of either falling into depressingly familiar patterns of the former being more “important” than the latter. It should be added that the cooptation or adoption of intersectionality is open to critique, from writers such as Aph and Syl Ko, and other black vegans.

Intersectionality offers a number of critical advantages to an analysis of Vegan America. First, it grapples with the political realities of a United States that struggles with endemic racism, systemic poverty, and economic and political isolation. Neither the creative destruction of the marketplace nor the levers of government and public policy are likely to get to the root of these profound, perhaps ontogenetic realities for the U.S. Intersectionality forces us to acknowledge that a vegan America might not be worthy of the name if it still involves backbreaking work in the fields for immigrant and poor communities, or where people do not have enough (nutritious) food to eat, or where there are few jobs, scarce opportunities, and social exclusion for those who are, or do not feel themselves to be, included within the shiny new “vegan” economy.

Secondly, intersectionality points us toward a model not simply of substituting vegan products for those made from animals and continuing on our consumptive way. How, we might ask, would a vegan America look if the long-deferred promise made to freed Americans after the Civil War of “40 acres and a mule” is recalibrated to acknowledge the bondage that both sets of beings have been subject to and therefore provides genuine and meaningful reparation for both? How might a vegan America reimagine its relationship with the buffalo and First Nations and descendants of both whose land was colonized and expropriated? And how might we foster a vegan America so that those who populate its territories are not merely no longer exploited, but that, collectively, we who brought about such destruction restore and replenish those biotic and human communities and make all of us richer, more diverse, and surrounded by more life than before?

Thirdly, intersectionality presents a profound challenge to the entire Vegan America Project. It asks us to remember that rapid social change, no matter how benign it might seem to those of us who benefit most immediately from it, in and of itself can disadvantage communities who are not socially, materially, or politically connected to agents of that change, and are not able to adapt to or benefit from those changes. Consider the industries, such as coal and oil, that will need to no longer exist if we are to make substantial cuts in fossil-fuel extraction. Those of us fortunate enough not to have to work in these professions may find it perverse that communities fight to keep these dirty, dangerous, and life-shortening jobs; we might say the same about communities that rely on prisons for jobs in their rural areas, or polluting industries or factory farms in their towns.

It’s true that those who are victims of the poisons, pollutants, and other negative effects may feel they have no power to determine their futures and no means to resist corporations siting their operations in their region. But a job and a profession offer more than a paycheck to individuals; they provide genuine pride and familial and regional continuity for many. Where sustainable human, financial, and natural capital is scarce, social and economic change is likely to be much scarier and more destabilizing—whether you’re in the coalfields of West Virginia or the brownfields of the South Bronx. The anxieties of economic displacement amid under-resourced communities who’ve not been invested in for generations are neither trivial nor dismissible. “We”—those of us with agency, education, opportunity, power—cannot simply dismiss these people as “collateral damage” in the creative destruction of a laissez-faire economy or as backward or ignorant losers who perversely refuse to join the March of Progress.

“We” have an added incentive to make social and environmental justice a central component of our thinking about the future of the country. Climate change will affect different regions differently. Vulnerable, isolated, and impoverished communities—whether in rural areas devastated by drought or superstorms or in cities prone to flooding—will likely lack the means to respond to any catastrophes that may befall them. We’ve already encountered this reality in New Orleans, following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and in parts of New York City, following Superstorm Sandy in 2012. The social, financial, and political costs of ignoring the multiple vulnerabilities of disadvantaged communities are likely to be even greater in years to come.

From its beginnings, industrialization has disrupted rural, settled communities; torn up local, artisanal industries; atomized and deskilled labor; privatized public lands; and placed or disposed of toxins among poor or marginalized peoples. The Environmental Justice movement has long recognized this reality, and a vegan America that simply forgets or ignores the needs and demands of such communities will either fail or not be worthy of the name.

I’m not alone in seeing a commitment to reimagining a way forward for both challenged urban communities and isolated rural communities as a way to knit together a nation where, as Howard Zinn writes in A People’s History of the United States, the working class—perceived as a threat by the landowning class—was deliberately divided along racial lines, in order to ensure that white indentured workers and black slaves didn’t find common cause in the exploitation of their labor. You don’t have to be a Marxist to recognize that the challenges that face communities challenged by poor health outcomes, low wages, and without the social or technical skills to thrive in a technological economy, living in locations that have been deindustrialized and where investment has fled or is stagnant require a new approach.