Debate: Don’t Eat Anything with a Face

By D.R. Hildebrand

anythingwithaface
Photo: Joshua Katcher

Earlier this month, The Discerning Brute covered promotions for the debate event “Don’t Eat Anything with a Face.” It got a lot of press traction. Hosted by the U.S. affiliate of Intelligence Squared, the debate featured two two-member teams arguing each side of the motion. For the motion were Dr. Neal Barnard of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and George Washington University and his debate partner Gene Baur, founder and co-president of Farm Sanctuary. Against the motion were Chris Masterjohn, author of the blog The Daily Lipid (sponsored by the Weston A. Price Foundation), and his debate partner Joel Salatin, public speaker and director of Polyface Farms.

The debate was composed of three rounds, including a question-and-answer with the audience, and to my delight it maintained an intelligent, robust, and precise examination of the motion, Don’t Eat Anything with a Face. The facts and concerns the debaters addressed, on both sides, were detailed and numerous, and, at the same time, far from complete. Nevertheless, at the end of the ninety minutes the audience was asked to select a winner. The results are illuminating. TheDiscerningBrute.com editor, Joshua Katcher was in the audience and had this to say:

“The debate was sold-out, jam packed, and the popularity of this debate was such that it crashed the Intelligence Squared website! The energy both in the crowd and on the stage was intense, thought-provoking, and above all, it was nice to her that the place where 99% of meat and dairy products (CAFO’s, more popularly known as factory farms) was not even on the table for debate, being considered indefensible by both sides. At the after party, even moderator John Donvan, author and correspondent for ABC News, admitted he’d be changing his eating habits.”

For anyone passionate about food, the definition of food, the future of food, the state of farming, or our relationship to non-human animals, this is a serious investigation of all of these topics. The only related topic not considered here is that of factory farming. Both sides of the motion agree from the outset that factory farming, and all its outcomes and implications, is egregious. The panelists debate only the motion: Don’t Eat Anything with a Face. It is worth watching:

One of the main points raised by the two who argued against the position was that many animals are killed in growing vegetation. But according to research, more animals are still killed in farming them directly:

Who are the beasts? A review of Kind

by D. R. Hildebrand

When I first opened Kind, the new anthology of poems by Gretchen Primack, I was no more than a dozen lines down the first page when I found myself sinking, slowly, into the chair behind me.

Peas snug in their sweet green
coats, tea snug in its thermos,
absolutely orange tomatoes. Mice
root and clack and fill
their little lungs, each eye bright
as a berry. It is easy to forget Hell
here, and that is what we talk about:
Hell, and forgetting it.

It’s called “Picnic” and before I finished it I had forgotten what I was doing just moments earlier and lost track of what I intended to do next. Line by line I drifted deeper into Primack’s world: gentle yet abrupt; focused yet aware; alarming yet kind. The words, like seamless figure skaters or synchronized swimmers, carry with them every bit as much artistry and elegance as they do purpose, calculation, and surprise. They float. They caress. And they unleash a sort of venom that simultaneously hurts and heals.

I relished you on my tongue, in my
teeth, pushing down my throat and then
churning warm, year after meal

after year. I loved you about to be
served, about to become me, rich
hell, and I’m sorry. You melted
your plush juice into my mouth

and that was my jaw working on
your body, working you into mine

To read, without pausing, without reflecting, is disturbingly difficult.

This is for their mama, who left them
the only way she would have: by
dying.

Poem after poem, Primack takes the reader through a series of unexpected, internal checkpoints. First, there is intrigue. Then, there is trust. Next, but only briefly, and too late, comes hesitation, followed by the immediate mixing of sadness and delight, and the confusion and embarrassment that accompany the unusual state of being enamored by a work of art that happens, also, to prod, jolt, and unhinge. At pace with the cadence and the placement of the poems the reader is forced to question not only humanity—in the greater sense of norms, customs, and steep moral codes—but also one’s own humanity, one’s own engagement—within this hell, this horror—and to ask, as Primack does, “Who are the beasts?”

Kind Cover

This is what I find most compelling about Kind. It isn’t complicated to answer these questions. The challenge lies in asking them, in inspiring audiences to ask the infuriating questions to which they already know the answers—yet will remain free to deny without the precursor of a question to anchor them—and Kind does precisely that: it inspires question after unavoidable question. Restrained and yet demanding, each poem calmly straps the reader down and waits. And waits. And continues, knowingly, to wait. “To make product from byproduct: / make use of the child, / kill and pack and truck him to plates.” By drawing out questions our contempt begins to build. This violence is insatiable? Does man never quit? Of course we’ve always known the answers. Finally asking the questions is what makes them real. In one haunting poem, “Factory Farm II,” Primack requires us to ask the hardest question of all: to what end? She conjures the scholarly work of Charles Patterson, Eternal Treblinka, in which he argues that violence begets violence, irrespective of the victimized species, and the result, as Primack presents it, is chilling.

We herd lambs into the chute
like Jews herded into
gas like cattle herded
into processing like Angolans
herded onto ships like pigs herded
into factories like Armenians
herded into marches
like calves herded into marches
like soldiers herded into
marches like pigs herded
like Cherokee herded
like cattle herded like Jews

In an unseeing society, when denial is en vogue and self-reflection shunned, Primack’s refined yet confrontational style shines like a daylong sunrise. Her words remain fixed on the horizon, neither rising nor falling but always alluring, reminding, and illuminating. I turn back to them for guidance. I turn back to them for understanding, for in their calmness there is clarity and in their resolve there is honesty, justice, compassion, and strength.

Engaging Your Audience

D. R. Hildebrand by D. R. Hildebrand

Every year, shortly before Thanksgiving, I come across a spate of videos promoting compassion and humanity by way of veganism. Some of the videos are classics that have circulated for years and gain upticks in viewership around the holidays. Others are new releases receiving attention for the first time. Of those I have seen, many appear unaware of the importance of presentation. The final products often lack an understanding that content alone will not transform a viewer. Style, tone, length, variety, narration, and accessibility are equally imperative. To dismiss them is a fateful flaw.

One example that avoids these errors was published last year in the week before Thanksgiving by Animal Place. It is called “Something To Be Thankful For” and it serves as a model for how a video can capture an audience’s attention, pique its interest, and sway its sympathies.

Read more…

The Imperfect Vegan

by D.R. Hildebrand

Not long ago I wrote an editorial for this site titled “The Meaning of Meat.”  I began by recounting how, at an airport, I had been reminded of the absurd pricing system at restaurants: items that contain no meat or dairy very often cost the exact same as comparable items that do.  The observation was meant merely as a preface to the broader topic of government subsidies, but apparently moved some readers more than the focus itself.  “Fuck that,” one person commented.  “Support 100% vegan establishments and tell your omni ‘friends’ to suck it up.”  Another wrote, “You made that decision alone to live that lifestyle.  Knowing there are minimal vegan options out there, you should have brown bagged it.  Such an entitled attitude…

We could talk for days about how shameful I am for being dropped off at an undersized airport hours before my flight, waiting even longer for an unforeseeable delay, and not having carried nearly enough granola bars—preferably homemade—with me across the country, only to end up getting hungry and—let the flogging begin—ordering a vegan meal from a non-vegan vendor.  Yet perhaps we could ask ourselves why, instead, in the bigger picture of our ailing society and our otherwise mutual goals to heal it, this is such a big deal.

Shortly after I read these responses I was on the subway and found myself listening to one vegan snobbishly correcting another.  “Jason,” the one said, “you’re not a vegan.  You’re just vegan.”  Jason looked dumbfounded.  He hadn’t realized that the vegan elite decree our parts of speech.  It is not acceptable just to be an adjective.  You have to be a noun.  Being vegan must be every molecule of who you are.  It must define you categorically.  If it only describes you—in part—then you can kiss being worthy goodbye.

Hillary Rettig wrote an exceptional piece on an analogous topic for Vegsource last year called “The Rise of the Nonperfectionist Veganism.”  She focused, in great detail, on some vegans’ abrasive treatment of vegetarians and omnivores and on the way they internalize their own flaws.  In adding to Ms. Rettig’s assessment, I say some are no less critical of, and nasty to, each other.  The choice to be judgmental, absolutist, arrogant and unfriendly instead of cordial, encouraging, measured, and kind sets us back, not ahead.  It almost reminds me of a particular political party in the United States right now that is so hell-bent on universal conservativism that anyone within the party who isn’t berating their liberal-leaning colleagues they ostracize.  Last time I checked, this approach was not working.  Voters have stopped listening to anything they say for it is crass, premeditated, and void of any basic individuality.

There is a restaurant in Philadelphia, Govinda’s, that I support just about every time I am there.  The food is delicious and, nearly as important, it attracts one of the most racially, economically, socially diverse groups of patrons possible—a characteristic, true or false, not often associated with the vegan community.  Govinda’s has been around since the 1980’s when veganism was anything but cool, and it is likely due to the restaurant’s presence that Sweet Freedom Bakery opened half a block away in 2010, further strengthening the city’s vegan visibility.  Govinda’s, however, is not strictly vegan.  It offers both a dairy and a non-dairy cheese.  Yet with all that Govinda’s has done to advance veganism, do we spurn it for its one “imperfection?”

Govinda's

Similarly, there is an Italian restaurant in Manhattan that dates back to 1908.  It stands alongside the vegan hot spot Angelica Kitchen, and a few years ago it nearly closed due to weak business.  In an attempt to remake itself, the owner decided to create a complete vegan menu—right down to the homemade seitan and cannolis—to complement the original, failing one.  The restaurant was packed when I ate there last month, and while part of me felt I should be eating elsewhere, another part of me didn’t see anything wrong with walking into a vegan-friendly restaurant and putting my money on the menu that saved it, reminding the management that there was a reason for this revival.

Examples extend beyond just dining and grammar.  “You’re still wearing those leather shoes?”  “How can you call yourself vegan and shop at Whole Foods?”  “Do you have any idea how bad that vegan dessert is for you?”  “I can’t believe you aren’t donating to animal rights groups.”  “What do you mean you’ve never been to a protest?”  “Cheater.”  “You should volunteer more.”  “You should leaflet more.”  “You should speak out more.”  “You’re bad.  You’re a bad vegan.  You’re like, not even a vegan.”

And on.  And on.  And on.

In his conte moral, La Bégueule, Voltaire reminds us, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.”  Striving for perfection, albeit naïve, is of course a personal choice, one that does not, in theory, impose on others.  Dismissing or even attacking someone, however, for not being perfect—particularly for not meeting some arbitrarily crafted rubric of perfection—is wrong.  It is narrow, it is divisive, and it is futile.  It is complete nonsense and it in no way advances our education or our enjoyment for the lifestyle we advocate and admire.  Let us be better than this.  Let us find increasingly creative, intelligent, inspiring ways to motivate each other.  Let us be an example, reliable and dignified, for a slap in the face does nothing but sting.

Review: Frankenstein’s Cat

by D. R. Hildebrand

Earlier this month I read a new book by science writer Emily Anthes called Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling Up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts.  The book, which appears to have garnered considerable praise, covers topics I’ve rarely considered and in some cases didn’t know existed, including the cloning, tracking, roboticizing, and genetically modifying of nonhuman animals, often in ways that are ethically suspect and that consistently beg the same elementary questions: Why are we doing this?  For whose benefit?  Can we be so hypocritical?  We call this science?

Ms. Anthes, who gave an interview last week on PBS NewsHour, in a tone far more somber and concerned than the one in which she wrote the book, is not exactly dismissive of these questions but rather unaware of them.  It is this fundamental difference—that my gut reactions aren’t even on her radar—that left me struggling to embrace, or even understand, her intentions.

Frankenstein's Cat

From the outset, Ms. Anthes appears determined to ease our innate discomfort with the concept of genetically modifying animals.  In chapter one, which looks at various sorts of transgenic fish, such as GloFish—actual fish that have been fixed fluorescent—and genetically modified salmon, the author comes as close as possible to equating our history of breeding to this latest pastime, genetic manipulation, ignoring a minimum of three critical facts: one, breeding, like modifying, is wrong, and two wrongs don’t make a right; two, breeding at least is reproductive, not mutant; and three, not in a million years would a jellyfish voluntarily mate with a worm, a rat, or a rabbit, the varying results of which scientists are envisioning.

Apparently, Ms. Anthes is not satisfied.  “We can have perfume, granola, and Nikes customized to our individual specifications,” she writes.  “Why not design our own pets?”  Oh I don’t know, maybe because each of these is an inanimate man-made object lacking a central nervous system whereas the creatures in discussion are alive, sentient, feeling, breathing, self-reliant individuals.  The author, however, is more interested in “animals that appeal to our aesthetic sensibilities” and in genetic altering that “shaves a year and a half off the time between when a salmon hatches and when it’s ready to garnish your bagel.”

Excuse me while I vomit.

She details the lengthy process of engineering goats built to produce milk with extra lysozyme, an enzyme that already occurs naturally in human milk.  She writes about both the successful and the nightmarish attempts at cloning sheep, cats, and dogs, and about what she calls the media’s “apocalyptic fanaticizing” of such experiments.  She highlights the Audubon Center for Research of Endangered Species, a noble-sounding initiative that does nothing to take into account why these animals have all died in the first place, or what would happen if the Jurassic Park scenario they’re gradually forming actually occurs.  She discusses tracking, a process by which scientists capture and cut open animals, insert satellite transmitters into their bodies, and then return them to their environment so that we can feed some useless quest for endless data all while ignoring little things like emotion and existence.  She absolutely marvels at prosthetics, at how “lucky” the dolphins are who get their tails mangled in crab traps and all the horses who have been raced into leg replacements.  “There has never been a better time for an animal to lose a body part.”  And of course she writes about everyone’s favorite: remote-controlled animal-machine hybrids.

Mutant and Genetically Modified Animals

Part of my irritation with this book has nothing to do with the author’s numerous interjections and moments of ignorance.  (“In all my years chowing down on spicy tuna rolls, I had never—not once—stopped to consider the animal on my plate.”)  It has to do with the content, the facts, these asinine things that “scientists” are “discovering.”  But it is amplified because the author does not just list the senseless realities and leave them for us to evaluate, but she defends them.  She defends them to such an extent that at one point in the margin I wrote, “Is someone paying this woman?”

Far too many glaring points are either downplayed or ignored.  Ms. Anthes ventures, unwisely, into ethical issues without genuinely examining them.  She never questions the monetary motives of the industries at work, whether it is entertainment, biotechnology, breeding, research, or food, but views them almost universally as altruistic, striving entirely for good.  She never addresses the colossal hypocrisies of any of the practices mentioned, or of the public’s general responses, including the author’s own appetite for animals and her history of buying pets from breeders—even as she writes about “improving their lives.”  She hardly even notes the most basic aspect involved here: autonomy!  What is this eagerness we exhibit to intrude on another being’s life?  What is this desire to quantify, to control, to immortalize every individual, and why do we insist it is good?  She asks none of the obvious questions.  The writing is littered with aloofness.

What perplexes me more than anything conveyed here is the lengths to which we go to obliterate certain billions of animals while doing everything in our power to save or even comfort just one.  We dedicate so much time and so much money to making things exactly the way we want them even when what we want is utterly incongruous and inexplicable.  We aim to catch and kill crabs yet a single dolphin injured as a bystander generates years of research, overwhelming sympathy, and not a moment of reflection.  We are experts at destroying cows but a single cat we will clone for tens of thousands of dollars, then watch while other cats suffer as experimental surrogates.

Near the end of the book Ms. Anthes contemplates the “troubled middle.”  The term was coined by the philosopher and bioethicist Strachan Donnelly and it refers to “a place where it’s possible to truly love animals and still accept their occasional role as resources, objects, and tools.”  I see two flaws here.  First, there is nothing “occasional” about 100 million animals writhing in labs, ten billion more killed annually for their flesh.  This is systematic.  It is constant.  And it is vile.  The second flaw is even sadder, though, and even greater than the first.  This thing we call love: it unequivocally is not.