The Quixoticism of the Vegan America Project

Conservative ResistanceMartin Rowe

In a March 9, 2017 article in The New York Review of Books on iconic American journalist Joan Didion’s visits to the American Deep South, Nathaniel Rich concludes with three paragraphs that are worth quoting in full, because of their relevance to the Vegan America Project.

An unquestioned premise among those who live in American cities with international airports has been, for more than half a century now, that Enlightenment values would in time become conventional wisdom. Some fought for this future to come sooner. Others waited patiently. But nobody seemed to believe that it would never arrive. Nobody, certainly, in Los Angeles or the Bay Area, which since Didion’s reporting has only accelerated in its embrace of an ethic in which the past is fluid, meaningless, neutered by technological advancement. In this view the past is relegated to the aesthetic realm, to what Didion describes in “California Notes” as “decorative touches”—tastefully aged cutlery and window curtains. In this view the past was safely dead and could not return to bloody the land.

Two decades into the new millennium, however, a plurality of the population has clung defiantly to the old way of life. They still believe in the viability of armed revolt. As Didion herself noted nearly fifty years ago, their solidarity is only reinforced by outside disapproval, particularly disapproval by the northern press. They have resisted with mockery, then rage, the collapse of the old identity categories. They have resisted the premise that white skin should not be given special consideration. They have resisted new technology and scientific evidence of global ecological collapse. The force of this resistance has been strong enough to elect a president.

A writer from the Gulf South once wrote that the past is not even past. Didion goes further, suggesting that the past is also the future. Now that we live in that future, her observations read like a warning unheeded. They suggest that California’s dreamers of the golden dream were just that—dreamers—while the “dense obsessiveness” of the South, and all the vindictiveness that comes with it, was the true American condition, the condition to which we will always inevitably return. Joan Didion went to the South to understand something about California and she ended up understanding something about America.

In my categorizing of such an observation as “conservative resistance” (the icon I have employed at the start of this blog) my aim is neither to dismiss nor to validate Rich’s reading of Didion’s work. Instead, I want to acknowledge that I, too, am from the North and as an inhabitant of New York City (a city with two international airports) I am prey to the presumptions and prejudices that a certain kind of deracinated and flattened cosmopolitanism shares about “America.” Those prejudices are not simply a city dweller’s assumption of the cultural desert that is “flyover country”;  nor of the bland, barely repressed depression and hostility depicted in  Grant Wood’s “American Gothic“;  nor of the irruptive, religious violence of Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” They are, as Rich suggests and yet shies away from, that “America” is to be found somewhere: that if you travel far enough, peel enough away of yourself, or unpack your sociopolitical baggage and settle down long enough in one place, you’ll get to the essential America.

Rich’s Didion seems to know enough about herself to recognize that you’re only ever yourself in another place. America, in that regard, is like Einstein’s space–time continuum, in which you’re always at the center of the universe and everything you see (and everything everyone else sees) is defined by their relationship to everything else. The conceit of America is that anyone anywhere can define themselves as American, while at the same time believing themselves to be more American than anyone else. You’re American because you’re a new immigrant or because you trace your ancestry back to the Mayflower and beyond. You’re American because you live in the diverse city or in the monochrome heartland, in the Unionist North or the Old South, because you believe in the Enlightenment principles of the Constitution or because you’re a product of the sacramentalized and ethnologized violence that has accompanied that project from the beginning and is written in that same Constitution. All is equally true, all is equally false; all are essential, all are contingent.

Rich’s observations make me profoundly aware of the quixotic pursuit that is the Vegan America Project. I choose that adjective advisedly—for Don Quixote’s chivalric code (outdated, naive, a projection of values onto a world that had no need of [such] values anymore) gains validity by the very tenacity with which it is held. It’s grandly absurd: its absurdity only increases its grandeur, and vice versa.

As the Vegan America Project thickens and develops, as its pieces fall into place and a strategic outline form, so also will its shadow: the feeling of a way of life being threatened; objections to the appearance of an outside telling you what to do; a resistance to the very notion of that resistance being characterized as resistance. The tendency would be either to ignore such resistance as inauthentic or simply reactionary or cling too tightly to it as the ultimate stumbling block or the kernal of the problem and solution.  That only reinforces the notion of an essentialism that everyone who goes off in search of America carries with them.

Beyond Resistance

Conservative ResistanceMartin Rowe

The recent decision by the USDA to remove animal welfare reports from its website (the agency argues that these can be obtained by Freedom of Information Act [FOIA] requests, which, notoriously, take a long time to process) is a further example of how those industries that exploit animals want to hide what they do from the American people. “Ag-gag” laws have sought to criminalize those who video or photograph what goes on in slaughterhouses or factory farms and efforts are currently underway on a federal level to override state-wide initiatives that improve animal welfare. In such circumstances, anyone coming to these pages for the first time might find the notion that America might be vegan not merely idealistic but delusional.

I’m neither surprised nor appalled by the government’s actions. Industry—whether it’s big tobacco, big oil, big pharma, or agribusiness—is going to do what it can to hold on to its privileged, subsidized, or otherwise governmentally  sanctioned position in the marketplace. It will restrict access to information; it will generate confusion among policy-makers and the public by funding studies that contradict an overwhelming consensus among scientists and thus making it a “debate” rather than an actionable item; and it will attempt to discredit those segments of society it considers a threat to its monopoly.

At the moment, it’s more my belief than a proven reality that this strategy will only  delay the inevitable. But I feel there’s  too much money to be made in alternatives,  the price of those alternatives is now so competitive, and the costs associated with shoring up fossil-fuel technology and agribusiness continuing to rise to keep things the same. The U.S. is no longer the only global economy that matters; green jobs around the world are growing at an enormous rate in comparison with either fossil-fuel or agribusiness; and the efforts (however manipulative and lacking in transparency) to disguise the inevitable collapse of the old-fashioned behemoths of corporate America will fail. Too many people are circling the bodies for them not to.

Bruce Friedrich of the Good Food Institute notes in his presentations about the future of cellular agriculture that one of the benefits of a technology where cultured meat is grown in fermenters is that there will be no need to hide how animals get raised and then turned into meat. No blood will need to be swabbed off the floors or viscera swept up; there’ll be no shrieking or flailing of animals’ limbs; no scalding tanks will depilate the pigs and no chickens will hang, flapping their wings uselessly, from hooks on conveyer belts; no electric prods will shock animals up the chute to be stunned by a bolt through the temple. None of this will be necessary to hide under the cover of food safety or anti-terrorism legislation; the citations of abuse won’t need to be hid because they won’t happen any more.

As that point nears, you can bet the animal agriculture industry will do countervailing things. It will continue to increase its investments in technologies that no longer raise or kill animals. At the same time, it will call cellular agriculture “unnatural” or “un-American.” Food “experts” will be rolled out to cast doubt on the safety of these products. They will lament that this “unproven” new technology threatens the livelihood of the American farmer (by which is always meant the rancher or dairyman rather than the grower of broccoli or kale). Chefs will ridicule the new meat as lacking the body and texture of “real” meat, even though the cellular meat will have exactly the same components and be an improvement on the processed dreck that makes its way into beef patties, chicken wings, and other forms of fast food, and which is how the vast majority of meat is eaten in the U.S. Urban hipsters will be encouraged to speak to their generation about how cool it is to raise a real animal and kill “it” rather than have everything manufactured by a fermenter, even though their artisanal beers grow in such a manner. And we will waste several years “debating” the merits of one versus the other before the safer, cleaner, ethically superior, more transparent, and ultimately cheaper form of food production takes over.

I am in favor of transparency and accountability, and want the USDA to be honest about the violations. I hope the courts force the government to retreat. But, for me, this decision to hide is a sign of weakness not strength; and the notion of a new vision for agriculture is not quite as delusional as it currently seems.

Conservative Resistance

Origins and Ideas IconMartin Rowe

Our final critical orientation for Vegan America is one I am terming, for want of a better phrase, “conservative resistance.” The intersectional argument above touches on aspects of this, as I have suggested. But a class analysis of food security and public health policy doesn’t cover those who refuse to acknowledge the mandates of the government (such as Cliven Bundy), libertarians, or anyone else who claims the rights of personal liberty and individual freedom to practice something that places itself against the wishes of the majority in a vegan America. Perhaps unfairly, I lump subsistence hunters and those who use animals in their religious practices in this segment—simply because they argue for a law “above” or “prior to” the laws and/or customs of the nation state.

The point of this critical orientation is not to isolate sectarians or ornery antinomians as some kind of special category. Individual freedom, religious liberty, and the right of people to do what they want on their own property (and whom or what they consider “property”) are currently constitutionally enshrined. One might go further and say that democracy only becomes genuine when it protects individual freedoms and the rights of minorities against the tyranny of the majority and their opinions—no matter how objectionable or bizarre those practices or beliefs may be. In a vegan America, those of us who consider ourselves vegan animal rights activists would do well to remember what felt like to be in the (despised/misunderstood/vanishingly small) minority.

It would seem to me that “vegan America” is an oxymoron if it doesn’t acknowledge that everyone has a right not to be vegan. I’m interested here in how it might genuinely be possible not to impose veganism upon a grudging populus but offer ways in which one can be vegan without having to change one’s self-identity as a conservative, traditionalist, outdoorsman.

A further value in considering this “sector” lies in a reaction to the U.S. presidential election of 2016 and in the decision by the British people to leave the European Union: a.k.a. “Brexit.” Rapid social change or a perception among a group of people that “their” country is being changed without their consent or without them benefitting can lead to backlash and retrenchment, making needed change even more impossible.

As J. D. Vance writes about in his 2016 memoir Hillbilly Elegy, resistance to social change that might improve lives is as much psychological and sociological as a consequence of economic situation or education levels. Vance, who grew up among poor whites in Kentucky and southern Ohio, illustrates that dependency and self-defeating attitudes encourage resentments against outsiders and against those, including insiders, who are perceived to be gaming the system by not working. As he writes, “Whenever people ask me what I’d most like to change about the white working class, I say, ‘The feeling that our choices don’t matter’” (p. 177). Vance, a conservative, observes that familial disorder—drug-addiction, single mothers and absent fathers, ill-advised purchases, fighting within the home, and a lack of community support structures and few successful role models outside it—lead to a failure to thrive. It’s a set of circumstances that he argues approximates many communities outside Appalachia as well.

I would add that fiercely held beliefs about who “we” are, and who the “they” who are making everything worse are, aren’t confined to the underclasses in Appalachia either. As the “debate” about climate change itself has illustrated—and the fact the word debate might even require scare quotes—many of us would prefer to hold fast to values that we associate with our tribal identity and affirm our current behavior than alter either based on new realities that leave us uncertain or perceptually disadvantaged. Vegans and animal activists are no more immune to such tendencies as anyone else.

So, Vegan America must take account of that push and pull within social change, considering how it might be possible to foster self-adaptation and flexibility and allow people to feel they are gaining opportunities by changing, without them believing their core values are threatened by that change. That’s a tall order, I know, although echoes of it are found in the reasons for choice architecture. Yet vegans themselves might be the perfect example of a complete recalibration of one’s understanding—away from not thinking at all about what one puts in one’s mouth or wraps around one’s body to rarely being able to escape that thought process. To that extent, therefore, “conservative resistance” might throw up the most fascinating and revelatory ideas about how social change occurs or does not.

It’s worth addressing one final issue that might be placed within “conservative resistance”—and that is asking whether the “vegan” identity is solid enough to make any claims of a “sustainable” worldview. Let’s imagine you’re a hunter in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Each October, you walk into the woods nearby with your buddies and kill three large deer. You gut and skin the animals where they lay, and leave the hide and hooves to decompose or be used by other animals. You put the venison and offal in your freezer and eat that meat all year round, because you like to know where your food came from and you think it’s terrible what they do to animals in factory farms.

You’re certainly reducing your GHG emissions (by not eating cows or other farmed animals). You’re cutting down emitters (by killing ungulates), using a renewable resource (deer are not endangered), and you’re getting your food locally (and so further reducing your carbon footprint). You’re not exploiting workers to raise or kill the animals for you; you’re absorbing the responsibility of taking a life and opposed to industrialized animal agriculture; and you’re making sure that no part of the animal is wasted. If you’re careful, you’re not taking the strongest of the breed, so you’re improving the stock; and you’re even contributing to the welfare of other animals by providing them with raw materials they can use for their benefit.

Contrast these guys with a film producer who divides his time between Beverly Hills and Palm Springs, California. He eats no animal products, flies two hundred days out of the year, drives to get his vegetables from big supermarkets or at restaurants where he eats, lives in two large houses with central A/C, a swimming pool, hot-tub, and a sauna, and five rescued cats whom he allows to range outside. The Palm Springs house is mostly for weekend retreats, but he’s a busy man, so he doesn’t get to stay in it often. However, he keeps the A/C on for the rescued cats and the maid who comes in to feed them.

This guy produces lots of GHG emissions, which he offsets a little by not eating meat or dairy, but otherwise he’s extremely wasteful. The cats he’s rescued have a good life, but they not only consume animal products from factory farms but catch the odd gecko by the pool or bird who flies into the compound to shelter among the pesticide-saturated plants that the film producer has in his backyard to add some color to the desert landscape. Our tycoon knows he should probably keep the cats inside, but it seems cruel—especially when the weather’s so nice in Palm Springs in the winter. He’s also aware of the resources drain of the water he pulls from the ground to keep his garden green, his pool filled, and his rainforest shower refreshing, but he works hard for his money, and his high-stress job means that it’s super-important that he do all he can to maintain a healthy, organic diet, and lifestyle.

These figures are, of course, caricatures, but the contradictions and hypocrisies are clear enough—as are the class-based, regional, and social identities that accompany them. Between these extremes, who is more conscientiousness about animals floats like a ball in a game of water polo: either “team” attempt to grab it, and yet it constantly slips out of the grasp. We could, I suppose, spend time weighing up choices based on some calculation of how much suffering our hunter causes versus our film producer, and vice versa. We could also take out our calculators and add up the amount of GHG emissions or natural resources that either produces and consumes. Either one would leave us a metric toward a valuable goal—the reduction of suffering, the preservation of the natural environment, the contribution to climate change.

I wonder, however, whether it might not be possible to question the nature of the comparison in the first place, or, to revert to that initial simile, change the game entirely. At this stage, I don’t know the answer, and I’m not particularly worried about my lack of knowing. I’m open to the possibility that the Vegan America Project might, in the end, be about something very different from the various preconceptions of what I might have imagined veganism to be, and how it operates on various aspects of social change. That said, to return to an earlier reason for this project, such an outcome would only affirm my initial assumption that veganism is good to think (with).