Rewriting the Conversation

Missing the Mark
by D. R. Hildebrand

In the December 10th issue of The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert, a staff writer for the magazine, discusses an observation by the British economist Arthur Pigou that “private investments often impose costs on other people.”  As an example of this, Kolbert describes a drunk man stumbling out of a bar (a private investment) and an officer who then arrests him (the taxpayers’ burden).  She goes on to consider a much greater private investment, and a much greater public expense: pollution and a carbon tax.  “Such a tax would be imposed not just on gasoline,” Kolbert writes, “but on fossil fuels—from the coal used to generate electricity to the diesel used to run tractors—so it would affect the price of nearly everything, including food and manufactured goods.”

The New Yorker often publishes commentaries and articles that address global warming.  Oddly, it nearly as often publishes stories glorifying animal agriculture and the consumption of meat.  Just one week before Kolbert’s piece on Pigou and the rationale for carbon taxing, the magazine ran its annual Food Issue.  These are the topics it covered:

  • • Wolvesmouth, a young, underground restaurateur in Los Angeles who serves anything from rabbit to roasted pig’s head
  • • Eating out in Oaxaca, Mexico, with ramblings on pork, beef, grasshoppers, duck adobo, dried maguey worms, and double-boiled deer penis
  • • Trout, with the author stating, “I had never before felt vegetarian scruples, yet they were aroused by the butchering of a creature with such clear eyes, so recently alive and blissful in its element.  I asked my prey for forgiveness.”
  • • The story of a boy returning to the farm in Pakistan where he was raised, and, at the age of eight, received his first gun, which the author explains, “finally put me on the way to hunting game—deer in the nearby desert, duck on the ponds . . .”
  • • Sausage-making
  • • The perfect Manhattan
  • • Parisian bread, including discussions on salted butter, soft-boiled eggs, and melted cheese
  • • A bachelor’s repertoire of cheeseburgers, fries, and Lean Cuisine glazed-chicken dinners
  • • An Israeli chef who lives in London and prepares a medley of grains and vegetables, and just as many dead animals
  • • Bear-skinning in Wyoming

New Yorker Dec 3_10

Politically, The New Yorker is unabashedly liberal.  Culturally, however, it is esoteric and elitist and it takes pride in civilizing modern man’s return to savagery, even while going out of its way to inspect any other possible cause of environmental devastation.  This Al Gore-like enthusiasm for changing light bulbs and recycling newspapers, while categorically ignoring the disaster that led to one’s dinner, appears to be a growing trend—never mind the inconsistencies.

We need to rewrite the conversation.  We need to highlight not what matters to us individually, be it animal suffering or the like, but what will get the greatest number of people to listen.  Readers of The New Yorker already understand Pigou’s hypothesis and already comprehend Kolbert’s concern: they see the effects of global warming and the dollar signs connected to it.  This means something to them, so they listen.  Yet what do suffering animals mean to them?

Omnivorous friends of mine often create distinctions between things they consider “rational” and things they consider “emotional.”  It is rational, they say, to end human suffering; it is emotional, however, to attempt the same for animals.  It is rational to respond to starvation, war, disease, global warming, “the stuff that actually matters,” but it is emotional to even ponder the animals who live and die each day in equally tragic misery.  Just recognizing the fact that humans inflict so much pain on so many creatures for so little reason is an emotional strain few wish to endure, so they dismiss it as “irrational” and carry on.

Yet we can draw their attention back, and we can do so without compromising our objectives.  When we hear people talking, for example, about a lack of clean drinking water, vast starvation, the wars now waged over finite resources, we should mention that 50% of clean water and 80% of grains in the U.S. are given to animals destined to be slaughtered, and we should ask, casually, which might feed more people: the flesh of a single being or the total lifetime of water and food she consumes?  And when we hear conjecture over the origins of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and a host of other preventable illnesses, we should recommend books like The China Study and films such as Forks Over Knives that articulate the benefits of a whole-foods, Water Pollutionplant-based diet, and we should ask, in earnest, which is the wiser: for our government to subsidize the industries that make us most sick—dairy, meat, and egg—or those that keep us well?  And when others talk about pollution and global warming, realities that are now impossible to deny, we must mention, with grace, the 35,000 miles of rivers contaminated by the urine and feces of countless animals who are fattened simply to be killed; the millions of acres of annual deforestation, solely to plant more crops for more animals for more death; the exploding quantities of methane, nitrous oxide, and carbon dioxide that the tens of billions of slaughter-bound animals emit into the atmosphere day after day, and we should ask, as innocently as possible, which might cause less destruction: consuming animals, or consuming plants?

None of this is to say we should abandon the element of animal suffering from our discussions, for it is real and it is abhorrent and there will always be someone who is moved by it.  We will, however, reach more people when we focus on the issues that matter most to them, like hunger, and disease, and natural disasters.  It we address them with Pigou’s ideas of public cost in mind we will, over time, see more responses like Kolbert’s, and come that much closer to achieving our goals.

Written by D. R. Hildebrand

David, who models under his middle name, Raphael, is represented by New York Models. His first book, Walking Marina, is an exposé of the male modeling industry, and is a commentary on beauty. David’s websiteFollow David on Facebook and Twitter.

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  • animaliaanimalia

    Sharp focus on the distinction between the emotional and the rational in recent discusssions of liberal humanism. I think you uncover what has long seemed to me problem inherent in humanism itself – its definition of itself in contrast and even opposition to the “animal.” In light of your subtle critique of the “unabashedly liberal New Yorker,” I wonder if what is needed (and what your article stimulates) is a re-thinking of liberalism in ways that integrate the “rational” and the “emotional,” on the one hand, and the “human” and the “animal” on the other. Indeed, the mere recognition that humans and non-human animals share the capacity for suffering might be one way of reclaiming/redefining humanism or, perhaps even better, moving beyond it.

  • Ashley

    well written. what i find rather peculiar however is the simply strange notion that anything emotional is inherently flawed. we as creatures have emotions for a purpose, and i think any reaction that elicits an emotional response does so for a very important reason, one that needs to be acknowledged, and screams for clarity. i almost find that to be the biggest glaring flaw here, is the fact that anything emotional is automatically to be ignored, that causes nothing but mental illness; stifling ones true feelings about something is nothing short of unhealthy and any psychological professional would agree. isn’t that what denial is?

    we could easily change this into a conversation about how our emotions and emotional responses to certain stimuli connecting to an instinctual reaction, whose to try to argue that these lines are not blurred? we clearly have evolved with emotions for a reason, why not bring that into the conversation? i find it rather interesting that everyone says similar statements of ‘oh yes it bothers me’ but then chooses to ignore it, i can almost watch the cognitive dissonance that occurs within them. i question over and over, why is that so? yes we can state fear and all the other fear of change and etc. but at the deep root i find myself over and over asking why.

    we could go on, and you have in many articles discussing about how society imbues the ‘modern man’ with lacking ‘wimpy emotions’ but if anything i think our emotions is a key factor in not only a true and very valuable asset of being human, but a very prominent factor in what foods we are simply meant to consume. if the idea of something makes you sad, why engage in that cycle? humans are actually harming themselves as they harm something else. i think the connection with hunk of red slab=living cow really needs to be made.

    and i do not think its a lack of “conditioning” to the idea of killing/skinning/consuming an animal, but rather i think its a sincere self awareness problem that emotions are…well…as unimportant as the animals they consume.

    just my two cents. :)

    • D. R. Hildebrand

      Ashley, I completely agree. That very issue is a conversation worth rewriting. At the moment we need to get more people to explore veganism with any motive in mind. For whatever reason, many seem indifferent to animal suffering yet sympathetic to human suffering, and until that changes I think we need to respond to it.

  • Jacqueline M.

    I was delighted to discover you wrote about this. For the better part of a year I had been “trying out” a subscription to the New Yorker (I’m not a native Manhattanite, having moved here for graduate school, and admittedly do appreciate much of their writing on foreign affairs and politics); and, upon the arrival of this “food issue” I finally committed to withdrawing my subscription. I am still amazed at these multiple “realizations” I continue to have, despite the fact that I’ve been vegan for two years this January…and an ethical/abolitionist vegan for half of that time. The lack of critical inquiry and reflection, along with a sore lack of skepticism and true intellectual curiosity, establishes the New Yorker and publications like it as little more than “liberal-minded” strawmen.

    • D. R. Hildebrand

      Jacqueline, the disconnect of the editors there baffles me. You would think at least some members of their staff are vegan or that an outspoken portion of their readers are, but maybe whoever is in charge is just that thick-headed. You could write them an eloquent letter explaining why you canceled your subscription. It couldn’t hurt.

  • Alicia Leeds Meyers

    Beautifully written, insightful post, Thank you for articulating the glaring inconsistencies that undermine the liberal message of The New Yorker. We need to create a new conversation that includes emotional intelligence, cosmic consciousness. Your piece is a perfect place to start.

    • D. R. Hildebrand

      Alicia, I appreciate your kind words. I’ve noticed I gain far less resistance and far more consideration from non-vegans when I talk with them about “rational, human issues” like pollution, disease, and hunger, rather than supposedly “emotional,” non-human ones. So if that’s what gets others to listen, then that’s what I’ll gladly discuss.