The Nation State and Borderlands

Ideas and HistoryI’ve recently finished Claire Jean Kim’s 2015 book Dangerous Crossings: an excellent analysis of three case studies of politically and culturally charged human–animal interactions. The studies are of efforts by animal activists to ban the selling of live animals in San Francisco’s markets; the Makah Nation’s attempt to assert their rights to resume whaling; and footballer Michael Vick’s criminal conviction for dog-fighting. Kim shows how animal advocates’ efforts to assert the rights and/or interests of animals in not being harmed ran into (or, more accurately, were already enmeshed in) the profoundly complex legacies of racial exploitation and prejudice, the various meanings of what it means to be (an) American, the assertion of moral power through politics and the courts, and the fundamental social norms (themselves determined by culture) of which animals are meant to be killed and which aren’t.

The book is valuable not only because of its close and sympathetic examination of these very contested and highly emotive issues but in the essays that frame the case studies. Kim observes that Nature has been viewed in the course of the American experiment in many different, and sometimes contradictory, ways. Throughout that time, race and degrees of “animality” have been constant, with white settlers viewing Native Americans, East Asians, and people of African descent hierarchically and taxonomically. The book reinforces what is turning out to be (at least so far) a central tenet of the Vegan America Project: veganism is never just about what you put in your body; animal welfare or rights can never be just about “the animals”; and there is no one thing that is “America.”

At first blush, Kim’s work would seem to discourage any notion that a move toward veganism—not killing animals for food or on behalf of culture of sport—is possible. She is careful not to dismiss out of hand the (overwhelmingly white) advocates who protested live markets, whale-hunting, and dog-fighting as politically naïve and culturally and racially insensitive—even though that may have been the outcome of aspects of their advocacy. She makes clear that the communities who felt under siege did not all agree as a body that they were being victimized and nor did they feel that those who expressed their outrage spoke for them. Indeed, she notes, in the live markets case, local politicians opportunistically used the issue to push for more power for themselves and to undermine rivals.

Kim observes that inserting the rights of animals themselves into the contest over whose rights were being (more) violated complicates these issues even more. She makes it clear that many of the victimized held speciesist assumptions about who was morally valuable in a manner that depended on as rigid a hierarchy as that which had been imposed on them by white people. She gives the reader several reasons to understand why that thinking and that rigidity might be so.

A particularly suggestive and valuable discussion in Kim’s book concerns invasive species—particularly around the live markets debate. She shows how during the long prosecution of their case against live markets, animal advocates switched from accusing the markets of being cruel to animals to suggesting these same animals posed a risk to California fauna by threatening non-native species with extinction, from disease or predation. In doing so, Kim demonstrates (to my mind very convincingly) that the advocates were not only reflecting a speciesism that they accused the perpetrators of but (perhaps unwittingly) perpetuating a notion of alien invaders that mapped how East Asians felt they’d been seen by white culture ever since they arrived on the West Coast of the United States. In addition, by aligning their arguments with environmentalists as opposed to ethicists, the advocates were expressing the profound ambivalence America as a whole has throughout its history felt about immigrants, “the enemy within,” and mongrelization of all kinds.

Kim suggests that efforts by conservationists to preserve native biota and repel invasive species is entrenched in deeply held notions of Nature and American Nature in particular as a kind of pristine place, protected from the chaos, mess, and hybridization of other countries, cities, and other races and cultures. As such, Nature is racialized, homogenized, and purified through the protection of the heroic environmentalist. Needless to say, it’s but a short step to the masculinization of this figure—whether it’s Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Theodore Roosevelt, etc. Not uncoincidentally, that figure is also a killer of animals—except that the killing is called “harvesting” and the animals who are “taken” are pests, vermin, and undesirables who are harming the land and/or disturbing or impinging on other animals that, appropriately, belong to genuine Americans, such as landowners, ranchers, and farmers.

It’s evident to me that we’re now in a moment in America that, on the one hand, seems shockingly new, and yet, if I read Kim correctly, is in fact as old as the country itself, and perhaps even older. President Trump wants to build a wall with Mexico to keep out “illegals.” It may be coincidental (if not quite accidental) that the building of the Wall will also disrupt the passage between countries of larger animals, such as wolves and coyotes—animals who, as with undesirable human aliens, have been hunted and rounded up as enemies of the state. As the animalization of the people-runners “coyotes” and their victims “cockroaches” attests, the boundaries as it were between human and nonhuman, desirable and non-desirable, blur. In both human and nonhuman cases, the Wall encourages the idea that the nation’s integrity is defined by not only who is kept in and who is kept out, but how valued that animal (once in) is in relation to the animal at the top of that food chain.

In this  contrast, cities are once again outside “the natural order of things”: they are places where races mix, citizens consort with aliens, rules are broken, and disorder upends hierarchy. These unnatural “sanctuaries” (note the human and the nonhuman connotations of such a word) must be pacified and brought under control, as an ecosystem is denuded of kudzu so that real nature, American life, might flourish.

Kim offers by way of conclusion a “multi-optic” vision that fosters perspective, connections, and organic solutions rather than a contest for whose oppression “wins.” She challenges the practicability and desirability of the singular, homogeneous, and uniform in approaching relationships in America (whether between humans, between humans and animals, or between humans and the natural world). Instead, she advocates for an acceptance of America as a hybrid concept and reality—indeed, as inherently a country of invasive species that, remarkably, have discovered co-existence and can thrive off that very tangled ecosystem that was never (and can never be) pristine or contained.

What about Plants? . . . and Other Conundrums

Origins IconMartin Rowe

It’s a truth universally acknowledged among vegans that those who meet us and discover our predilection (if we haven’t told them already), will, after they’ve given us a quick eye examination to make sure we’re ethically consistent (non-leather shoes, belt, purse, etc.), raise the issue of the sentience of plants.

This is what I call a “non-question question.” The interrogator is usually not a fruitarian, let alone a breatharian and has no interest in the welfare of plants. After all, given that the animals omnivores eat are herbivores, a vegan likely consumes fewer plants than an omnivore, who consumes the corn, soy, and (if they’re lucky) the grass the animal does, as well as the vegetables that vegans eat. It may be true that we’ll discover that plants possess the ability to feel pain, to express needs and wants, and have biographies in the way that most animals do. But until then, I’ll chalk this observation to someone who’s raising an abstruse or difficult case to shift attention from our complicity in perfectly observable, measurable, and resolvable animal exploitation. Any idea can be reduced to an absurdity and no social movement should have to meet a standard of complete consistency, or politely wait until all other “more important” oppressions have been solved, before it should be taken seriously.

Yet Vegan America shouldn’t gloss over complexities or paradoxes, since they aren’t only academic. Harvesting methods that vegans benefit from accidentally kill other (smaller) animals; feral invasive species hunt native ones; outdoor cats stalk and decimate songbird populations; and our cats and dogs eat meat. We use insects (such as bees) as pollinators, and we control pests (aphids, mosquitoes, ants, rats, mice, etc.) for cosmetic and disease-carrying reasons. Animals are used in religious practices (Santeria), among native peoples (hunting as a traditional practice), or as a cultural identity (the Amish)—and these pose constitutional challenges for upholding minority rights and the individual conscience. The Vegan America Project should deal with these issues creatively, sensitively, and honestly.

A further definitional wrinkle regarding “veganism” is found in cellular agriculture (taking an animal’s cell tissue and “growing” meat and dairy through a fermentation-like process). Some would argue that veganism simply requires that no sentient being suffers or is killed; others would say that veganism stipulates that no animal or animal product is utilized in any way—that eating “grown” meat, for instance, concedes a notion of flesh-eating as normative and/or ineradicable. However, if cell-lines can be replicated in perpetuity without requiring the confinement, exploitation, suffering, or killing of any animal, then why would vegans object to it—beyond squeamishness or unfounded fears over “Frankenfood”? Or, for that matter, where would the ethical dilemma lie in wearing leather or skins made from cellular muscle, tissue, and hide?

Cellular agriculture, meats that use non-animal protein, and non-animal dairy products (made from almond, soy, hemp, coconut, rice, etc.) present game-changing opportunities to move toward a Vegan America, since it’s the food industry that exploits by far the greatest number of animals. Such developments might also obviate dietary problems associated with food allergies, vitamin deficiencies, or the health consequences of a vegan diet too reliant on carbohydrates or gluten. (It’s my hunch that a genuinely varied, plant-based diet that isn’t saturated with chemicals, pesticides, insecticides, GMOs, and antibiotics would go a long way to alleviating these allergies—although it’s questionable whether any of these intrinsically belong to a vegan analysis.)

Cellular agriculture is currently at the beginning of its pathway from development to marketplace, but already it promises meat that is significantly lower in energy consumption, GHG emissions, and the use of water. It’s free of fecal matter, antibiotics, and growth hormones. It’s much less likely to be contaminated with e-coli, campylobacter, salmonella, and listeria; and, obviously, it avoids the messy cruelty of raising animals in intensive confinement and slaughtering them—as well as the dirty and incredibly unpleasant business of killing them. Complaints that cellular agriculture is somehow “unnatural” in such circumstances would seem to me perverse.

Cellular agriculture offers a case study in why, in my judgment, the Vegan America Project should avoid setting up a distinction between “pure” and “natural” on one side, and “impure” and “unnatural” on the other. It’s not possible to return planet Earth in the Anthropocene to some tatus quo ante state of pristine ecological balance. Nor will universal veganism usher in a Golden Age or eschatological Holy Mountain where the lion will lie down with the lamb and they shall not hurt or destroy, as Isaiah prophesies. Predation and animal suffering will still occur; human–animal conflicts will be unavoidable; climate change will allow some species to survive and thrive and others to become extinct, even without human interference; zoonotic diseases won’t end—they may even increase in range and/or intensity.

I’m also aware of Cary Wolfe’s concern (in Before the Law) that veganism becomes a kind of vitalistic notion that something’s closeness to nature is intrinsically and/or essentially good—morally, physically, spiritually, politically. There’s a kind of absoluteness, even a kind of theological fascism, to the conceit that, as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it in his poem “God’s Grandeur,” “there lives the dearest freshness deep down things” that offers Truth or absoluteness to those who can grasp or perceive it. Veganism cannot simply be a moment of revelation that leaves you basking in the light of an apperception of the ultimate quidditas of existence.

To that extent, therefore, veganism as I conceive it is not an endpoint but a journey, an orientation, a sensibility, a critical apparatus. With full awareness of the Watsons’ parsimonious definition, for me it draws into its orbit notions of nonviolence and right livelihood as found in the Hindu and Buddhist scriptures; it evokes Christian notions of mercy and planetary stewardship and the Jewish mandate of tikkum olam (“to heal the world”). From utilitarianism, it attempts to maximize pleasure and minimize suffering; from ethic-of-care feminism, veganism suggests we place ourselves in another being’s situation and ask, with Simone Weil, “What are you going through?” From rights-based and biocentric orientations, veganism calls on us to respect the bodily integrity of individual creatures and ecosystems, in which humans are but one species among millions of others, and wholly dependent on, and interdependent with, the natural world.

In not pursuing the “pure” and “natural,” I aim to avoid falling down the rabbit hole of what constitutes a “pure” or “natural” diet. It’s my preliminary judgment that too many factors (genetic, environmental, lifestyle, income level, education, access to health care, sugar and fat intake, and food insecurity, among others) influence individual health for us to claim that every American on a vegan diet will live healthy and productive lives until they’re 120. Those suffering from digestive diseases or allergies that necessitate a diet low in carbohydrates, or without sugar, soy, salt, gluten, or orthorexia remain outside the ambit as well, since too many physical and psychological factors affect these conditions to pinpoint an exact cause.

Studies show that a vegan diet would as a general rule foster lower levels of heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers, and mitigate problems associated with obesity. Clearly, these would, in turn reduce healthcare costs and allow more citizens to work, play, or live with a great quality of life: this is the thinking behind the health savings detailed in the Oxford-Martin and PMAS 2016 report. And, clearly, vegans need to be careful regarding deficiencies in vitamins B12 and D and omega-3 fatty acids, and so forth. However, as the links suggest, these deficiencies are also found among omnivores. Because of these many variables with individual health, it is, therefore, on public health policy that the Vegan America Project will concentrate.

I’ve raised a number of objections to this project. In tomorrow’s blog, I’ll offer a few more.