Sunday, December 12, 2010

How we find always find a rationale for what we want to do

In an interview/talk with Dan Barber on public radio with Krista Tippet, Barber talks about citrus fruit. He lives in a cold-weather climate where citrus is not local, but he wants citrus on his plate even in the winter. And so he gets citrus through the distribution/transport system for non-local food. He says he loves citrus. It's a good thing to get non-local citrus in winter and there's nothing wrong with that.

Later a questioner asked him why he's not a vegetarian. His region: geography. He's from a region that's conducive to producing meat, and he says you need to listen to the ecology, not force values onto the ecology. He eats meat because that's what his local region allows.*

When it comes to eating the citrus fruit you want to eat, well, call it a luxury and take advantage of the system for transporting non-local food. When it comes to eating the meat you want to eat, well, listen to the local ecology.

* (He also goes to the *vegetarians have blood on their hands too* argument because of manure or shipping or something. Well, no shit: anybody living in modern developed society has indirect blood on his/her hands for something, even lots of things. Does that exonerate people for killing animals for the pleasure of their taste? Is that an argument against those who try reduce their complicity in death and suffering?)

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Ad Hominem

At The Atlantic, James McWilliams writes a column arguing that treating animals well while they're alive doesn't absolve one of the moral wrong of eating them, since that still causes harm and is still unnecessary. At Grist, Tom Philpott responds not be engaging in McWilliams' argument, but in the classic Ad Hominem fallacy of attacking McWilliams.

Philpott starts by pointing out and criticizing other things McWilliams has written. Later he suggests McWilliams' article is part of "a careerist strategy." He labels McWilliams' arguments a bunch of nasty names: a "tedious moral screed" (Erik Marcus has criticized the word "screed" at, he calls McWilliams "moralistic" (when somebody says "X is wrong," if X is something you do and would like to continue to do, then that person is labeled "moralistic"), and he says McWilliams "adds nothing new or interesting" to the discussion of the ethics of eating meat (1. most of the arguments against eating meat are old: that doesn't mean they shouldn't be restated to reach new audiences and reframed to convince old 2. by writing about something quite specific--free-range meat is still morally problematic--McWilliams isn't merely repeating old talking points here 3. just because the arguments are not new, does that mean they are wrong). He questions why McWilliams is bothering to turn his attention to the wrongs of eating free-range meat.

Philpott writes a response to try convince us McWilliams is bad, untrustworthy, annoying. He hasn't written a response to engage with the content of McWilliams' argument. And I suppose that's understandable, since it is extremely hard to argue against the claim that killing animals for the pleasure of eating them is unnecessary. Pilpott then doesn't have to argue against McWilliams' conclusion:

"by choosing death for an animal, humans choose the seduction of taste over an animal's right to its future. Until someone can convincingly prove that this denial does not constitute unnecessary harm, I'll continue to view free-range farming and factory farming as gradations on the scale of cruelty."

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Christians and Eating Animals

(portions reposted and revised from December 9, 2006)

There are objections one can make if Christians insist that humans can eat animals because God has made the animals for us to eat, or that the purpose of animals is human use. These are objections that either come from within Christian thought, can fit into Christian thought, or do not contradict Christian thought.

According to the Book of Genesis, in God's perfect plan for creation, humans did not eat animals.
At the creation of the world in the book of Genesis, God gives man dominion over the earth and all the animals. He says in 1:26 "let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth" and in 1:28 "have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth."

Interestingly, in 1:29, God says "Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food." Even after giving man "dominion" over the animals, God specifies that man can have the plants for food. The text repeats the point. Again in 2:9, "And out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food..." And then before prohibiting man from eating from one particular tree, God says in 2:16, "You may freely eat of every tree of the garden." Again, God explicitly tells people they can eat the plants He created, but there is no explicit mention of whether the animals are available for food.

So before the Fall, there is no mention that people eat animals. I find this absense striking. God commanded man to have dominion over the animals, AND God explicitly commanded man to eat plants. With such explicit mention of dominion over animals AND explicit mention of what people are supposed to eat, it seems like a loud silence on animal consumption. It would seem perfectly within context to mention eating animals at this spot, but it doesn't happen.

It seems that the permission to eat meat was a later accommodation for sinful humans. This all makes theological sense, too: it was humanity's sin that tainted creation and brought death into the world.

And the fact that according to Genesis, God made the animals first suggests that they have his special concern and consideration. It is not that God made humans and then gave them food: they existed for some purpose other than the benefit of humans when they were first made.

So did God create animals for the purpose of humans to eat them? In the perfect plan for creation, God didn't tell people they could or should eat animals, and in fact the text makes explicit that plants are meant for human consumption.

Simpler: what is an animal made for?
What did God create animals for? I don't know. But I think it is hard to argue that God, say, made a chicken so that it could have its beak cut off and spend its entire life in an extremely small cage. There are all sorts of ways that humans have manipulated and limited animals in ways that run contrary to any biological understanding of what the animal was designed for.

Even if at a fundamental level, a Christian understanding of animals is that they are ours to use, that would not justify the extreme cruelty and suffering of current animal agriculture.

Monday, December 6, 2010

They know the score: Isaiah

A portion of Sunday's Old Testament reading stuck out to me (Isaiah 11: 6-8):

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together;
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze;
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra,
and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder's den.

Maybe these animal references, rich and diverse and detailed as they may be, are symbols to illustrate coming peace and reconciliation of enemies (though the specificity and power of the language shows a voice with understanding and attention to animals). But maybe also this is a reminder that animals are a part of God's creation, that they are imbued with dignity, and are included in some way in God's plan of salvation for the world.

Monday, November 29, 2010

PETA's Problem

When I read criticism of PETA, like this at Feministing, my first instinct is to defend PETA. The animal rights organization is an easy target, and people are, I think, rather comfortable lambasting animal rights advocates as extremist weirdos. And PETA is, after all, fighting the good fight, even if their tactics are questionable. Animal rights/welfare advocates face such a daunting task and resistant society that I feel we should try stick together and defend each other.

But, of course, Vanessa at Feministing is right. Advocating for animals does not require objectifying women. PETA doesn't need to offend or trivialize in order to actually promote its message.

I've long thought that PETA has two primary goals--help animals and promote PETA--and it is sometimes unclear which goal is #1. But I think I see why self-promotion is so ingrained in PETA's DNA. PETA is a somewhat older animal rights organizations, and when PETA began, the issues being raised by animal rights and animal welfare advocates may not have been very vivid in mainstream discourse. These issues were new and strange, and promoting the idea that animals exist for reasons other than human exploitation faced (and of course still faces) fierce resistance. As the primary organization devoted to such issues, self-promotion was actually a necessary strategy for the other goal of, in the short and long term, improving the lives of animals. By making people aware that there even was an organization devoted to the ethical treatment of animals, PETA was making people aware of some of the ethical concerns with how to treat animals. In that sense, any publicity is good publicity, and raunchy, shocking, and controversial advertisements and protests were effective in raising awareness.

But, in part because of PETA's work, many of the issues that PETA now highlights (don't buy fur, don't test on animals, don't eat animals, etc.) are well-known issues. People today are, I think, more aware of the ethical issues surrounding exploitation of animals than ever (which doesn't mean that exploitation doesn't continue rampantly, but people are aware of the issues). There may no longer be a need to be shocking and sensational to get people to look at an issue--in fact, shocking and sensational may actually hurt the cause by making advocates look like, well, extremist weirdos.

And there's the problem: PETA never grew up.

I think PETA still operates on the idea that self-promotion of PETA is good for animals, and still operates on the notion that any publicity is good publicity, because it brings attention to the issues. But a lot of this publicity actually harms PETA's reputation, including among people who might otherwise be receptive to PETA's messages. And a lot of this publicity actually offers nothing, nothing at all, new to an issue with which people are already aware. Does this provide new perspective, or give positive encouragement, on the issue of fur? I'm doubtful.

An organization that is more mature, that advocates in a provocative but serious way, is Mercy for Animals. Ads like this and this advocate without self-promotional sensationalism or offensive sexism. My hope is either that organizations like Mercy for Animals become the more prominent, influential, and visible animal rights organizations, and/or that PETA matures and advocates without sensationalism for the sake of sensationalism, without sexism, without such overt self-promotion.

I'll continue to support PETA, and I'll continue to defend allies. But spreading the message itself is difficult enough: we don't need to use advocacy strategies that themselves turn otherwise receptive audiences away.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A system of cruel indifference

Thesis One: an animal is a conscious being capable of suffering.
Thesis Two: an animal is a being whose suffering should be of concern to humans.

Via, The Human Society has a new video about the treatment of turkeys in industrial agriculture. A telling line from the Star Tribune article on the matter:

"Willmar [Poultry Co.] said much of what the video shows is acceptable industry practice..."

When we see video like this, we are not seeing unique aberrations of cruel indifference: we are seeing evidence of a system of cruel indifference.

And this is where things get fundamental: for animals to be treated the way animals are being treated in that video, people must either fail to see animals as conscious beings that can suffer, or they must fail to see the suffering of animals as something that should matter. It's quite obvious that a system in which this is "acceptable industry practice" fails to accept at least one of those two theses above. And for consumers/eaters who view such video, the consequence of accepting the above theses should evoke a desire to no longer support such a system.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Small Government Violence

In today's political discourse, the rhetoric of "small government" is entirely divorced from state violence, and evidently makes no reference to it.

If you rail against the incompetence of government, but support the death penalty, then you have faith that the government will be mistake-free in investigating crimes, prosecuting the guilty parties, and carrying out executions.

If you say that government cannot solve problems, but support a massive defense budget and interventionist wars, then you believe that the government can solve problems through the use of government military force.

If you decry government tyranny over the individual, but support torture, then you want government officials to have power to inflict devastating harm on the individual.

In other words, if you support many forms of state violence while decrying the size and power of the state, your rhetoric is empty.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Conscience and Public Policy

At NPR, Kathryn Jean Lopez implores Barack Obama to make "permanent and universal" a policy that calls for "No federal taxpayer funding of abortion, period."

She argues:

"You and I don't have to agree on the morality of abortion to keep my money out of it. [...] It would show you respect the moral consciences of many Americans — and that you don't view us as enemies."

As a pacifist, I am intrigued by Ms. Lopez's line of argument. I believe war is morally wrong. Since Ms. Lopez believes that government money should not be used on activities that violate citizens' private consciences, I am certain Ms. Lopez would also support a ban on using federal taxpayer funding on foreign wars. After all, we don't have to agree on the morality of warfare to keep my money out of it.

I am also intrigued by this argument as an animal rights advocate. I hope Ms. Lopez would join me in supporting an end to government subsidies for animal agriculture and a ban (or very significant limit) on government funding for scientific research using animals. Such a policy would show that those in power respect the moral consciences of many Americans.

It may be that sometimes good public policy violates the consciences of individual citizens. But if it is the case that we will tie the use of federal taxpayer dollars to individual consciences, perhaps the government should cease funding any activities that violate any citizens' consciences, even if it doesn't violate others'.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Torture and Impunity

Amy Davidson, in "Torture is Free" at The New Yorker:

"Maybe what is meant is that torture is illegal but you don’t actually get punished for it..."

Torture is the philosophical cousin of war. When you convince yourself in the pursuit of a given end, inflicting violence on human beings is an acceptable means, you have war and you have torture. When you believe that an enemy is so fundamentally not like you, and thus is not worthy dignity or rights, you have war and you have torture.

Why won't torturers ever be punished, even though torture is illegal? Why can they boldly confess and defend torture? Because, I think, the same impulse that convinced (and convinces) people that war is justified (or at the very least can be carried out in good faith) convinces people that torture can be justified (or at the very least not a crime worthy of punishment).

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

On the need to out ourselves

Here is a generalization, but I think it is true: most people feel very comfortable publicly expressing contempt for animal rights groups, disdain for PETA in particular, and derision for vegans and vegetarians. I've certainly heard it plenty. And I think one reason is obvious: people expressing such attitudes don't think that anybody actually holding any animal rights views could possibly be in their company. Most people, in most situations, seem unlikely to say they hate a group in front of members of that group, or to claim that anybody holding such views is crazy. At least in most polite, sociable or professional situations.

And that's why I think it is worthwhile, in the company of those we are often around but who may not know us well, to out our vegetarianism, veganism, animal welfare, or animal rights views. I think there's value in showing people that somebody quite near to them, and maybe somebody who doesn't seem radically different from them, and probably doesn't appear to be crazy, might hold such views. That people right around them, friends, family, coworkers, teachers, students, readers, might be members of PETA, might choose not to eat meat, is something they might not expect (I've seen the looks and heard the sounds of disdainful surprise). It might be good to show people that a reasonable, calm, maybe even "normal" seeming person might hold views they hate (for some reason) or consider crazy. Or maybe I'm reaching to think I might seem "normal" to anybody.

Sunday, October 31, 2010


“The gospel is that everyone being loved by God must be my beloved too, even if they consider me their enemy, even if their interests clash with mine."

-John Howard Yoder, He Came Preaching Peace

Today at the church I attend, the pastor led us in prayer, and asked that U.S. soldiers are able to show and feel agape in what they are doing.

I'm not entirely sure how a soldier can show agape, short of laying down his/her arms. Can you love your enemy while killing him/her? Does taking up arms, in any cause, allow for a godly, selfless, forgiving love?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The need for nonviolent response

I join others, like Glenn Greenwald and davenoon, in being disturbed and angered by the story of a reporter detained and handcuffed by a politician's security guards. But one thing rankles me about the story. From the Anchorage Daily News:

"After Miller walked away, Hopfinger said, he was surrounded by Miller supporters and security guards and felt threatened, so he pushed one of them away.

"Fulton said the man shoved by Hopfinger was not hurt.

"Hopfinger said that after he shoved the man away, the guards grabbed him, cuffed his hands behind his back with steel handcuffs and sat him in a chair in the school hallway, Hopfinger said."

It's that shove that bothers me here, that makes a story possibly, just slightly, morally ambiguous. At the most charitable level, I think it's possible that people who go into private security might see a shove, whether justified, even committed by somebody who was surrounded and felt threatened, as something that they were responsible for dealing with (not to justify the response, but this is possible). It is also possible that at least one of these guards is a thuggish authoritarian type looking for an excuse (thuggish authoritarian types usually are), and by shoving somebody, the reporter gave him the excuse. At the very least, that shove gives the security guards a chance to claim that the reporter's actions justified their action, whether it is true or not. They can claim their actions were justified by an assault, a disturbance, a burgeoning situation, whatever they want. They are probably not right. But it might look like it could.

I am not writing this to defend security guards, hired by a political candidate, who detain a reporter (and certainly that video shows a person threatening to detain somebody over less than a shove). But the story illustrates the need for those in the moral position to restrain themselves from any display of force. Any element of force can create the possibility or even perception of possibility that one is in fact in the wrong. Nonviolent resistance allows those in the moral position to keep the moral position.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

5 Reasons to kick elderly people in the shins

First, read Tim Love's five reasons not to be a vegetarian (via

1. Because kicking elderly people in the shins is fun.  It's not a matter of taste--it just is.

2.  Because it stimulates senses, such as sight (it's fun to see the elderly person wince) and sound (it's fun to hear the elderly person groan).  You may think this is basically a restatement of my first point, but it deserves special attention.

3. Imagine walking into a room full of people who think it's wrong to kick elderly people in the shins.  Enough said.  I'm kidding: some of my best friends choose not to kick elderly people in the shins, though they are a little holier-than-thou about it.  If I want to kick elderly people in the shins, let me do it in peace.  Nobody is forcing you not to kick elderly people in the shins, so why do you force your values on me?

4. Not kicking elderly people in the shins may seem like a healthy lifestyle, but kicking elderly people in the shins in moderation can be part of a healthy lifestyle.

5. Because you'd get a lot of funny looks if you showed up at a party where people tend to kick elderly people in the shins, and chose not to kick elderly people in the shins.  Evidently, people who kick elderly people in the shins give a lot of judging looks to those who don't, and we should be very concerned about getting funny looks.

Friday, September 10, 2010

At least I'm willing to poke you in the eye myself.

At Grist, Rebecca Thistlewaite offers up suggestions for people to really make a difference in the food system. The article is frustrating because many of Thistlewaite's suggestions feature consuming animals,* she doesn't suggest eliminating or even reducing meat consumption to make a difference,** yet she poses the article as a sort of "You're proud of yourself for your food choices, but you're no better than anybody and here's what you should really do." To me, suggesting conscientious ways to kill and eat animals for our own pleasure really isn't a solution, but a way to make people feel better about doing what they want to do anyway. It's also frustrating that some of Thistlewaite's suggestions would take a great deal of energy and effort, while "stop eating animals" is by comparison fairly effortless.

It would be easy to write a lengthy post expanding on these points, but I want to focus on one suggestion Thistlewaite offers:

"Participate in the death of an animal that you consume."

Though perhaps not Thistlewaite's point, this seems like an argument I've heard from people with various points of view about eating animals. It is somehow wrong to consume an animal if you don't confront, witness, or even participate in the actual death of the animal, but the act becomes acceptable if you are willing to confront, witness, or participate in that death. For example, Tracy H. at Digging Through the Dirt cites Monica Eng:

"I didn't want to see a pig get killed. Heck, I don't think anyone does.

"But I felt like I couldn't continue eating meat if I didn't. So this summer I embarked on an unpleasant pilgrimage to bear witness to the death of every kind of animal I ate. And in some cases, to kill the animal myself."

This logic is, I think, flawed whether or not it is morally acceptable to eat meat or not. If a given act is wrong, then it is wrong whether you commit the act yourself or pay somebody else to do it. If it's wrong to pay somebody to steal a car, it's wrong to steal a car yourself, too. And if a given action is morally acceptable, then in most cases it's morally acceptable whether you do it yourself or pay somebody else to do it. I can paint my own house or I can pay a person to paint my own house, and either way I'll have few moral qualms and face few moral judgments. There are some cases where asking somebody else to do a job you should do is considered itself an ethical breach: you shouldn't send somebody else to break up with a significant other, for example. But those exceptions are often for things we already feel squeamish or guilty about, where we recognize that somebody is getting hurt. So does the argument itself indicate qualms?

I think this argument itself suggests some moral anxiety about eating animals. Some people recognize that there is a moral dilemma in an animal suffering and being killed for pleasure, but still want that pleasure, and thus will find some logic to still engage in that pleasure (which is also a reason I resent it when some food writers try to tell people it's OK to eat meat as long as you do it in this particular moral way--if people feel moral qualms about eating meat, I'd rather those qualms not be assuaged). In some cases, such a pose might even be an attempt to continue to claim moral superiority over others ("I'm willing to face the consequences of my choice, so that itself makes me good"--even if the choice itself is bad, and even if other choices that don't have the same consequences are ignored).

I think that killing animals for the pleasure of eating them is wrong. I see little moral difference in buying the dead animal that somebody else killed for you, or killing it yourself. I think the argument that there is a moral difference tries to take what is essentially the same behavior, draw a line through it, and call one side (presumably the side of the speaker) more righteous.

*In some cases, her direct advice to readers is to eat meat--just particular types. No caveat like "if you do eat meat" or "when you do eat meat"--her advice to change the food system, then, apparently requires the reader to eat meat.
**she does say if a waiter can't give a satisfactory answer about how the animal was killed, then order vegetarian--not quite advice to reduce or eliminate meat consumption for its own sake.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Avoiding Conflict

I love Curb Your Enthusiasm. I love watching Larry David get into meaningless conflicts and hilarious shouting matches with strangers, friends, salesmen and colleagues. Watching the show is like getting immersed in a world with such commonplace amusing conflicts. And I relate to Larry: I'm often running scenarios through my head about what I might say in a hypothetical imagined situation, or what I should have said in some situation past.

Today a door to door salesman came to my door. I always attempt to be friendly with the people who knock on my door, whether they are selling windows or a religion. Generally I try to make it quickly clear (while smiling and friendly) that I won't be interested, so both the salesman and myself can just get back to our business. I was friendly and smiling with this salesman, who was really working it. He seemed to be selling some sort cleaning product, and when he asked me a question, I told him I just use water to clean things and that I wasn't interested. He kept pressing, but I insisted I use water and no soap, and said thanks and bye.

The salesman started talking loudly to my next door neighbors (whom he had evidently just spoken to). Loudly enough for me to hear, he said something like "He wasn't nice like you said. Actually, he was kind of a jerk." He talked a bit more and once more said that I had been a jerk.

For half a second, I actually thought of opening the door and saying "Hey now. You don't need to stand here in my yard calling me a jerk." I really think I could have, and would have been within my rights. I probably wouldn't have gotten the chance to go further, but if I could, I might have continued: "I was friendly enough, but I'm not interested in your product. You're the one who knocked on my door: what do I owe you? How am I a jerk for declining the product you're selling, and trying to do it quickly enough so you can go on your way? You don't have to stand here and insult me: I really didn't do anything to you. That's rude."

For half a second--I mean, it wasn't just an idle thought, I actually thought about opening the door and saying something. But I didn't. I realized I wasn't mad at all at this guy. I wasn't annoyed. I wasn't really insulted--he doesn't really know me and I wasn't really a jerk, so what do I care? Actually, it was pleasant to find out the neighbors told him I'm nice (best compliment I've received in months!). For what reason would I have opened the door to say something to him? To yell? For what? For pride? My pride wasn't wounded. To assert my authority? I felt no need. To defend myself? Why?

I could have opened the door. I could have said something to the person. I probably would have said it reasonably, but who knows? Could it have turned into a shouting match? Probably not, but the discussion certainly might have gotten testy. I didn't feel any real emotion about a salesman who doesn't know me calling me a jerk, but if we started an open conflict, who knows what emotions, from him or me, might have gotten sparked.

A little thing. I had nothing to gain from opening the door to complain to a man I didn't know that he shouldn't call me a jerk. Nothing to gain at all. No benefit to me, no benefit to the man. An open conflict could have erupted, and over nothing. I let it go because I didn't really care.

In He Came Preaching Peace, John Howard Yoder writes:

"The only way to end the war is to make peace, and for that someone has to die. Someone has to back down. Someone has to be humiliated. Someone has to come up with an alternative, a vision of a new order for which one is ready to sacrifice one's future, one's popularity and even one's life."

Overly dramatic words to use in relation to my brief encounter with a salesman, no doubt. But there is a point here relevant to our personal relationships and encounters. Sometimes to escape a conflict, somebody must be willing to back down, to let things go, to be willing to cede something to the other party. When I read different details of the Henry Louis Gates arrest incident, regardless of who was right or wrong, I thought this: if either of these men had been interested in resolving the situation without major conflict, it could have been done. It would have taken one of the men backing down, letting things go, accepting briefly being "subordinate" (a word from Yoder), but that would have done it. Sometimes it is little things, little moments of letting things go, that matter--or more accurately, that make things not matter.

So even when I want to, I don't pull a Larry David. I'm glad he does it in his fictional universe: it makes for hilarious television. In my real life universe, however, I'll avoid conflict as much as I can.

The Logic of Warmongers

We must commit military violence until we succeed, because if we fail we will have to commit more military violence for a very long time.

We must continue this war, because if we don't, we're going to have to continue this war for a long time into the future.

What, that's not what Ross Douthat is saying?

I'm never quite amazed at the arguments for starting or for perpetuating military violence. Strip them down, and they'd be silly if they weren't so devastating.

Douthat also has some problems with language in this column that are worthy further critique. There's no real "paradox" in saying if we succeed we get to leave more quickly, but it's this sentence that disturbs me with its inherent contradictions:

"We can’t hold the current course indefinitely, and we won’t: President Obama’s decision to set a public deadline was a mistake, but everyone knows there are limits to how long the surge of forces can go on."

We can't keep this up "indefinitely," but it's a mistake to actually state a deadline publicly, but everybody knows there's a limit--a limit which is, evidently given the mistake of a public deadline, "indefinite." That sort of argument--it can't be indefinite but we can't actually say what the limit is (so it's actually "indefinite") is the sort of logic used to perpetuate long-term war.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Reading Masson's "The Face on Your Plate"

My experience reading Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson's The Face on Your Plate: The Truth About Food.

Personally Motivating
Masson's argument against eggs and dairy is compelling and utterly convincing. I have a mostly vegan diet, and reading this book has motivated me to make the exceptions to that "mostly" as few and limited as I can (and perhaps doing away with the "mostly" part altogether).

Masson's discussion in the final chapter on the health benefits of a vegan diet and general prescriptions for healthy eating is also convincing for me. There's not too much he suggests that I haven't already heard about (and have been moving toward), but I still found reading it motivational and convincing.

It's not often I read a book that I can say will directly impact the way I live my life. I can say this about The Face on Your Plate. I want to point out that it makes some of the critiques I offer below seem a bit shallow.

Eating and Words
Masson discusses language of animals and food:

"The word 'veal' was chosen because it has no resonance in English. In fact, it is simply the translation of the French veau (calf) because it would offend some people's sensibilities to be asked if they would like to be served calf for dinner. It's not dissimilar from "pork," which comes from the French porc, meaning pig. Americans don't like to ask for a pig for breakfast. "Bacon" means nothing to us beyond its use for breakfast; we have no other associations. "Hamburger" or "burger" do not resonate with us or conjure up images of cows peacefully grazing, minding their own business and getting on with their own lives (We do, however, speak of chicken, lamb, and calves' liver without blushing--so, go figure)."

Masson is talking about the ways people often distance, distort, or hide our food choices so that they don't have to think about the animal they are actually consuming. This is, in my view, a real phenomenon, and there are many ways people do this (including the way we use language); Masson explores this well in the later chapter "Denial." But Masson states that the words are chosen deliberately to hide the animal ("was chosen because," "because it would"). I do not believe this to be the case: the history of the English language actually offers an explanation why our words for animals-as-food are often different from our words for actual-animals.

C.M. Millward explains in A Biography of the English Language that the English language has thousands of French "loanwords," brought in after the French speaking Normans conquered English speaking England in 1066. These loanwords entered several semantic areas, including food; Millward lists some French loanwords in English associated with food and eating:

"dinner, supper, taste, broil, fry, plate, goblet, serve, beverage, sauce, salad, gravy, fruit, grape, beef, pork, mutton, salmon, sugar, onion, cloves, mustard."

There are historical reasons why our words for animals-as-food feature French words (which seem disassociated with actual-animals to English speakers) and not match our words for actual-animals. Words involving food and eating feature a lot of French loanwords in part because "English household servants would have learned French words like table, boil, serve, roast, and dine." However, as Millward explains:

"With this pervasive influence of French in so many semantic areas, it is surprising (and even consoling) to discover that some aspects of English life remained relatively untouched by French loanwords. One [...] area was farming and agriculture in general. The word farm itself is from French, and agriculture is a loan from Latin. However, the Norman masters themselves apparently left their English servants to work the fields by themselves, for most basic farming terminology remains native English to this day."

Millward then provides a list of words associated with farming that "come down directly from Old English," including many words for animals: "ox, horse, cow, swine, sheep, hen, goose, duck."

There is the linguistic history of English that suggests Masson is inaccurate here: we have a lot of French words for animals-as-food and Anglo-Saxon words for actual-animals not as a deliberate con, but for specific historical reasons. But there are also a couple of tells in his paragraph which hint themselves that he's not quite right. One such tell is in his "go figure" parenthetical. In fact, we do have French loanwords for animals-as-food for chicken (poultry) and sheep (mutton), yet English speakers still often use the more familiar actual-animal word for these types of food: this suggests there is something other than distancing/distorting going on with the less familiar French words. And secondly, Masson's argument implicitly suggests that English speakers from around the world are subject to and party to a linguistic conspiracy to distance and distort the reality of meat from eaters, but that French speakers around the world are, apparently, more naturally comfortable linguistically admitting they are eating animals. This may be true, but I doubt it, especially since there is an historical linguistic explanation for French loanwords for food.

Perhaps Masson isn't indicting the English language itself of this distortion, but is referring only to the word "veal." But the Oxford English Dictionary (available online via subscription) defines veal as "1. The flesh of a calf as an article of diet" and "2. A calf, esp. as killed for food or intended for this purpose. Now rare." For the first definition, the OED cites Chaucer using the word around 1386, and a couple other references in the early 15th century. These uses almost seem to conflate the word "veal" as actual-animal and as animal-for-food: Chaucer writes "'Bet is,' quod he, 'a pyk than a pikerell, And bet than olde boef is the tendre vel'," and around 1400 Mandeville writes "Thei eten but lytille or non of Flessche of Veel or of Beef." These uses of "veal" are quite old, and appear not long after the French influence altered the English language. It would seem odd to me to argue that the word was "chosen because" it doesn't remind people they are eating a baby cow; it seems far more likely that the word wasn't really chosen at all, but simply entered English organically from the French influence.

The distancing of actual-animal from animal-as-food in an English speaker's consciousness may certainly be an effect of having different words for animals-as-food than for actual-animals. That is not, however, the cause of this difference.

This is not the only part of the book where I found Masson's argument sloppy (I'm not nearly as comfortable with the science as with the English language, but I'm pretty sure in the introduction Masson counters the argument that meat consumption had an evolutionary impact on human brain size relative to other primates by citing evidence that human brain size is impacted during infancy, and that the breast-feeding mother's diet--whether meating-eating, vegetarian, or vegan--has no impact on brain growth and size. Showing that meat-eating has no impact on contemporary human brain size relative to other humans is interesting, but doesn't seem to address the argument of how meat-eating affected human evolution to get us to this point, relative to other primates. But like I said, I'm not nearly as comfortable interpreting science as language, so I could be wrong--hence being stuck in parentheses). But these very occasional lapses in sound logic and evidence do not cause me to doubt Masson's larger points or his specific claims: he is generally narrow, specific, and diligent about identifying sources.

Personal Problems
I suffer from two problems when I read books that detail the reality and consequences of factory farming. The first is the repetition: no matter how informative or well-written, a lot of the material Masson presents I've already encountered in other books, articles, and blogs I've read as somebody who follows these issues. However, I don't see this as a significant problem: I still learn things, and I still find re-reading material educational and edifying.

My second problem is more existential: when I read about the ways humans are wrecking the earth, I tend to despair, losing hope that anything can or will be done about it. I used to be, on the whole (despite some obsessive-compulsive tendencies, paranoia, and anxiety) a largely optimistic person, seeing affirmations of life everywhere and feeling hopeful for the future. As I've learned more about the ways humans are devastating the environment, my long-range view has become, alas, rather pessimistic. Sometimes my greatest hope is just that the things humans are doing to wreck the earth don't take major effect until my children have lived long, happy lives.

I wouldn't blame reading about environmental issues alone on my nearly despairing pessimism. The hope I felt for political change in '06 and '08 was strong, but now I can't even envision the serious political will to end the military occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. And then there are the Minnesota Vikings. It may seem trivial in the big picture, but for over a decade, I believed at the beginning of each season that the Vikings were going to finally win the Super Bowl that season. After all the massive hopes of the 2009 season, for it to end the way it did in that NFC title game, I've gone into sports despair, which no doubt effects my broader view.

And I'm also now a parent. I love my children too dearly for words, and the strongest hopes I have are for them: that they are healthy, that they are happy, that their lives can be filled with joy and purpose, and that the world can be beautiful for them, that they can bring their beauty to the world. Having children is also nerve-wracking, filled with anxiety, fear, and (for me at least) near-constant worry. So to think about the future, while being aware of the impact humans are having on earth's environment, while hoping and fearing mostly for my children, can lead me toward a sense of dread.

Writing Problems
There are some repetition issues and some odd organizational choices in the book that do not negatively affect the reading. There was another problem, however. I think when vegetarians and vegans write about food and eating, it is necessary, effective, and understandable that they would insert themselves into the book to a certain degree. I think, however, this book features just a bit too much of Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson sharing how interesting Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson is. That may sound harsh, and it's probably not that bad, but it's certainly the impression a reader can be left with as Masson ends the book by talking about which foods he likes best (and why) and describing the types of food he regularly eats. Sometimes Masson's inclusion of his own experiences or tastes don't really contribute much to the argument, and his use of himself as an anecdotal argument for veganism occasionally comes off as "Look at me: I'm 68 but look at all the amazing things I can do and how amazing I am."

Having said that, this is the kind of book Masson wanted to write, and frankly if I were going to write about the topic, I'd be constantly tempted to inject my own experiences and tastes, too. The subtitle of the book seems to suggest a more objective than subjective approach to the subject, but that doesn't mean that would actually be preferable, and that can be found elsewhere too. Just as Jonathan Safran Foer did in Eating Animals, I think on the whole it works for a vegetarian or vegan writer to inject his/her own idiosyncratic style and personality into the book.

That last chapter, "A Day in the Life of a Vegan"
The final chapter of the book features two parts, really: Masson gives a pretty good overview of the health impact of a vegan diet and advice for how to eat healthy, and then gives a description of the wide variety of healthy foods vegans can eat, as well as a description of the foods he eats. And while I criticized this point just a few sentences earlier (right up there!), I actually found the latter part interesting for reasons I don't understand. I have no idea why: there were a lot of plant-based foods discussed (most that I already know about and eat a lot), and Masson shared a lot of his personal history and liking for this food (which shouldn't interest me at all, but did). I know that as a mostly vegan vegetarian (who has also lost over 50 pounds and is concerned with living healthy), food is directly on my mind quite a bit, and I'm always conscious of what I'm eating, so it's what I want to talk about. I try to avoid it (why do others care what I'm eating), but I am glad Masson wrote about it.

However, I would make two points. First, in this chapter Masson does a great job selling the health benefits of a vegan lifestyle, but he doesn't do much to make it sound appealing to people who don't already like fruits and vegetables. I do, and found this interesting. If my brother (hi there, buddy) read this chapter, he wouldn't find the food terribly appealing. Having said that (I'm going to deliberately use this phrase frequently from now on to honor Jerry Seinfeld), how else can a vegan advocating a healthy lifestyle write about it? "You're supposed to eat a lot of fruits and vegetables. Here are a bunch of the wide varieties of healthy and delicious fruits and vegetables." What are you supposed to do to convince somebody who doesn't like something that he/she should? It's like saying "Oh, you think soccer's boring, but you're wrong, you should find it interesting." It's a tough sell.

Second, while Masson seems to think he's describing his typical day as a vegan in order to show how easy and simple it is, his description is not, in fact, easy and simple. Hey, a writer describing his day as a vegan can only really describe his own day as a vegan, so it's hard to blame him. But I think a lot of readers would find his description a bit intimidating. Having said that, when a person adopts a way of living, it quickly becomes simple to him/her. In comparison to Masson, I think my typical vegan day is much, much simpler. However, if I started to explain it to others, the specifics of the description might make it seem more complicated than it really is. I take it for granted as easy, even lazy, but I think to others it may not be so.

On the whole
I'll finish with a melodramatic statement that I nevertheless believe is true. I wish for more people to read this book; I think the world will be a better place if they do.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Knowing the score

Shane Claiborne's "Confusing our Kids" at Sojourners' blog.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Response to "Humans first"

At not one sparrow, Dean Ohlman explores how Christians can respond to the question, "Aren't people more important than animals?" This is a question posed to animal advocates not only by Christians, and I would like to propose another response to this question.

I think an individual with literally zero concern for the suffering of animals, but compassion and concern for human beings and humankind, should be a committed opponent of the way animals are currently used on our planet.

The first chapter of Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson's The Face On Your Plate, "The Only World We Have," focuses not on the suffering of animals, but on the environmental and health impact of factory farming. The chapter offers us many examples to raise questions about how current animal agriculture impacts human beings.

Animal agriculture is a major contributor to global warming. How does this affect human beings?

Factory farming creates a massive amount of animal waste (the poop and pee), which has a devastating impact on the local environment, and a history of making people living nearby such farms sick. How does this affect human beings?

The conditions of factory farms, including the excessive overuse of non-therapeutic antibiotics on animals, may lead to superbugs resistant to our drugs, and may one day become responsible for a global flu pandemic. How will that affect human beings?

Raising animals for food requires massively more resources, including fresh water and arable land, than growing plants for food. How will scarcity of water affect human beings? Will we deplete the earth's good soil? How does use of resources for meat affect worldwide hunger and undernourishment?

It is important that we continue to inform people about the impact factory farming has on the world, and on us. A person with zero regard for animals, when informed of the truth of factory farming, may emerge as an ally and opponent of factory farming. When I read about such things, I am, frankly, terrified (more on this in a later post). I only became serious about environmentalism after and because of becoming a vegetarian, but more and more I'm coming to see the cause/effect direction can go the other way too.

And that's how the question could be answered. To a religious person committed to a belief that God granted us the right to dominate animals, or to a cynic unconcerned with the suffering and death of animals, or to a conscientious person sincerely struggling to make life better for humankind, I would say, for now, forget about the animals. I would ask another question: can we continue and support an industrial activity that has the potential to wreak such catastrophic consequences on human beings, and that wastes so many resources that might otherwise be used to help human beings?

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Christianity and Eating Animals

"Churches are paying closer attention to connections between humans and animals" by Lisa Black (via Mark Hawthorne)

It is a deeply ingrained belief in Christianity: God gave humans dominion over the animals, interpreted to mean we can use them for our own purposes in whatever way we choose. I think, however, that a discussion of our relationship with animals can fit into mainstream Christianity. Christian animal advocates can focus on two areas when discussing animals with fellow Christians.

Stewardship. Stewardship is a regularly discussed, mainstream concept in the Lutheran churches I've been a part of. God grants us many gifts, but they still belong to God: we are stewards of God's things, and we must be good stewards. The focus on stewardship leads directly to a Christian environmentalism: God granted us the earth, and it is our duty to take care of it and protect it, not use it up however we see fit, ultimately destroying it.

Stewardship, I believe, also leads us directly to concern for animals, for even in a mainstream Christian view, we are also stewards of the animals God created. So we can ask questions. We can be specific: is it good stewardship to cut off a chicken's beak and make it live its entire life in a very small cage? We can also be broad: is any part of the factory farming system really good stewardship of God's creations?

Compassion. I come back to this argument again and again: if you eat animals, you choose your own momentary pleasure over the life of an animal. In the modern developed world, we do not eat meat for our survival, but for tradition and for pleasure. As Christians, can we really selfishly choose our own pleasure over the life of a living creature? A creature that thinks, feels, and suffers? As we learn more about the mental and emotional capacities of animals, and as we learn more about the ways they suffer in the factory farming system, I wonder if we can set aside our basic Christian principles in order to continue our focus on superiority and dominion.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Defensive Ethics

There is no moral argument in favor of eating animals; at best, one can offer a defense of meat eating. There is no argument that eating meat is ethically superior to not eating meat; one can only attempt to offer a defense of eating meat as an ethically acceptable activity. Rarely does anybody argue that it is wrong not to eat meat; all that can be done is to defend eating meat (and such defenses are, in my view, weak). Both compassion and reason are on the side of not eating animals.

But the same logic applies to vegetarianism and veganism. At best, a vegetarian can offer a defense of dairy and/or eggs: it would be unreasonable to claim that consuming dairy and/or eggs is ethically preferable to not consuming it. That is not to say that meat-eating is to vegetarianism as vegetarianism is to veganism: I consider vegans and vegetarians to be on the same side (I know some see the firmer line between consuming any animal products and not; I see the firmer line between consuming animal flesh and not).* And not all acts calling for a defensive ethic are equal: obvious some acts of choice can be defended, some can't be (or can't be as easily). But the parallel is there.

*I'm still a mostly vegan vegetarian--I haven't shaken the "mostly" yet. The purpose of a little-read blog is for self-wrestling.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Ethics and Meaning

Paul Starobin, in "Animal Rights on the March" (via

"The animal-rights movement gives the lie to the trope that we are living in a postmodern world in which meaning is fragmented and values are relative. These advocates burn with an old-fashioned Enlightenment fervor -- an unhealthy zeal, critics believe -- in this quest to extend liberty to nonhuman beings. The ridicule that sometimes greets their cause is unlikely to deter it..."

Indeed: I stopped thinking of myself as an existentialist (mostly) as I became more committed to life as a pacifist and a (mostly vegan) vegetarian. I realized these deeply felt commitments did not match a worldview in which we create our own meaning and morality.

Monday, May 3, 2010

They know the score: W.H. Auden

W.H. Auden's poem "Musee des Beaux Arts" explores, among other things, the way that suffering occurs

"While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along"


"That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree."


"how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure;
and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

How do we juxtapose horrors with the everyday? How do we ourselves ignore, or hide, or diminish, or show indifference to suffering on a grand scale? The United States currently occupies two foreign countries...and how many TV shows, and movies, and video games, and sporting events, and concerts, do we have to stop us from thinking about it? When historians look back and see the United States at war in Afghanistan and Iraq for a decade or more, and see that Americans amused themselves watching celebrities compete in a dance competition, what will they think? What will they say about us? Will it be a scandal? Will they wonder how we played while we kept electing leaders that kept it all going? That could even joke about it? That it seems it will never end, that it escalates, that the horrors and the violence continue on and on and on, but we've got American Idol and Tiger Woods to think about?

Don't we, too, turn away from the boy falling from the sky, keeping our eyes on the plough? Aren't we on a ship with places to go, while on our periphery, a splash?

But I don't know. I want most of all to watch my beautiful children be beautiful. I also want to follow the Minnesota Vikings. I want to watch funny television shows, I want to read good novels, and I want reflect on God. I want to teach students how to write and I want to teach students about a poem by W.H. Auden. I want to eat hummus and I want to go for walks on spring days. I want, in short, the small and large joys that can come from a life of peace. Can I enjoy that peaceful life, when others so obviously cannot?* Is that a sin? Should I be thankful for my life of peace, while praying and striving for peace to be spread? Or is it not enough?

In short, is the insight of Auden and "the Old Masters" a judgment, or simply an observation?

Friday, April 30, 2010

"a powerful, popular, and well-funded lobby"

Via, an article in the Washington Times features a rather peculiar sentence:

"The agriculture industry is under attack from a powerful, popular and well-funded lobby - animal rights groups, which want to see it die completely, said two speakers at the Animal Agriculture Alliance 9th Anual Stakeholders Summit in Arlington, Va., Wednesday."

The idea that anything resembling an animal rights position is "powerful, popular, and well-funded" in America is laughable at best.

Powerful? According to the speakers themselves, these groups want to do away with animal agriculture altogether. Abolitionist animal activists are so far away from achieving this goal--so far from even convincing any meaningful number of people that this is a desirable goal--that it is beyond absurd to call them "powerful."

Popular? Vegetarians make up a very small percentage of Americans, vegans an even tinier portion of that. Furthermore, among many Americans, words like "vegetarian," "vegan," "PETA," etc., are treated with open contempt and derision, and consuming meat is either commonplace or celebrated. The claim that animal activists are popular in America is, well, pretty stupid, I think.

Well-funded? Compared to what? Compared to industrial agriculture? Compared to the companies that advertise and sell their food to us? I'd be very surprised.

I don't know if this is paranoia or propaganda, but it doesn't sound even reasonably close to being true.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

They know the score: David Henry Hwang

In M. Butterfly:

"The West thinks of itself as masculine--big guns, big industry, big money--so the East is feminine--weak, delicate, poor...but good at art, and full of inscrutable wisdom--the feminine mystique.
Her mouth says no, but her eyes say yes. The West believes the East, deep down, wants to be dominated--because a woman can't think for herself."

I saw Hwang's M. Butterfly at the Guthrie Theater tonight: it was a superb production, and the central actors took to demanding roles with vigor. The play is one of my favorites--it's stylistically and thematically complicated and fascinating. One of the things the play explores is how a sense of (masculine) power and strength in personal affairs gets wrapped up in perception of power and strength at an international, geopolitical level.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Bumper Sticker Discordance

Yesterday I saw a car with a purple "Stop the Violence" ribbon on one side; on the other side was a yellow "Support the Troops" ribbon.

Today I saw a car with a bold "God is Pro-Life" sticker; it was joined with a sticker for the "U.S. Army."

Perhaps you see no inconsistency in these messages (most, I suspect, don't). I think even staunch opponents of war could make a solid argument that the messages are not incompatible. But I see in these messages a divided mind, a failure to see one form of violence as violence, to see one form of killing as killing.

Science and Values

On a topic relevant to an ethic of nonviolence

My first instinct on these matters is to say "Read your Dostoevsky, people." On the question of whether scientific knowledge can lead us to moral truth, start with Notes from the Underground, then try The Brothers Karamazov (along the way, you might find insights in Demons, The Adolescent, Crime and Punishment, and The Idiot). Dostoevsky was on it.

My second thought is to remember why I finally stopped eating animals. My wife forwarded me some articles regarding the mental, emotional, and social lives of animals. These articles were based on scientific research, providing scientific knowledge about animals. It was these facts about animals that finally led me to stop eating meat.

But then I remember that many people are aware of scientific facts about the mental and emotional capacity of animals, but still find little dilemma at all about eating meat. At best, science can inform our moral values (and it certainly can). Over the long movement of history, this informing of moral values might (usually in hindsight) resemble the source of moral values. But on that, I'm skeptical. There are still all sorts of irrational* sources of human values. Even when we are informed by scientific fact, we still use those irrational values to interpret how we are actually supposed to live in light of that fact.

*I don't use the word entirely negatively.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Happily, our age now has a firm grip on all truth, and our values are perfect in every way.

(reposted and revised from August 6, 2009)

In "Anachronistic Arrogance" in Religion Dispatches, Peter Laarman is critical of a tendency to dismiss the positive ideas, accomplishments, or art of historical figures because their social politics are not up to our progressive standards. I think of John Fowles in The French Lieutentant's Woman, speaking to his ages' sense of superiority over the Victorians:

"So much the better for us? Perhaps. But we are not the ones who will finally judge."

Happily, Laarman explicitly addressed the thought I had while reading his article (and often have when considering this problem of "anachronistic arrogance," as Laarman puts it):

"A little generosity and humility are called for here. I predict that the rap on this generation, and on even the most progressive among us, will end up being homo sapiens “species-ism.” And how will we feel when our good works and thoughts are dismissed because we disdained the sensibilities of whales and dolphins and horses and frogs and (yes) even that little piglet who contributed to yesterday’s breakfast?"

A further point is that those who have the greater knowledge, who should know better, have greater moral responsibility. Jonathan Safran Foer writes in Eating Animals:

We can't plead ignorance, only indifference. Those alive today are the generations that came to know better. We have the burden and the opportunity of living in the moment when the critique of factory farming broke into the popular consciousness. We are the ones of whom it will be fairly asked, What did you do when you learned the truth about eating animals?"

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

"The Outer Limits" and Authority

Watching The Outer Limits, one frequently finds themes of fear and distrust of the government, as well as the corruption and insidiousness of authority (and those in authority). But these themes often focus on the negative power of the military, the dangers of an oppressive security state, and the potential tyranny of a secretive government.

But today's conservatives that rail against big government and government takeovers don't seem to have concerns about these issues. There is also a trend among many conservatives to trust government officials implicitly on all sorts of matters. They trust the government to know who should be tortured. They trust the government to know who should be detained indefinitely. On matters such as this, they certainly trust the government to keep them safe, and are happy to give government officials power. And do some of these same conservatives that distrust the government continue to support the government's military occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan? Where was the distrust of the government when the Bush administration was selling the Iraq war?

This is not to exempt a Democratic administration from criticism on these issues: see this, this, remember this, of course we still have this, and there's this, and this. But what is striking me (while watching The Outer Limits) is the ideological disconnect in a conservative distrust of government in general with a conservative faith in the government on military and security matters.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The moral challenge of normalized violence

David Brooks refers to

"the greatest moral challenge of our day: the $9.7 trillion in new debt being created this decade."

For Brooks, a massive debt is "the greatest moral challenge of our day." Not two wars/military occupations (that Brooks supported and supports) that have led to thousands of deaths and continue to lead to violent deaths for innocent civilians. Not government officials that tortured with impunity and continue to prance around the media bragging about and defending torture with no punishment. Not even climate change. Not even millions of Americans without health insurance. And of course not the gap between the richest and the poorest.

A giant debt is a serious policy problem, one that must be dealt with. But in a nation with a gigantic military budget and hundreds of military bases around the world and military occupations of two nations, a nation that continues military efforts that violently kill innocent people, a nation that has tortured people and because the torturers have not been punished, a nation that will torture again, it is obscene to call debt our "greatest moral challenge." To do so normalizes violence: such violence is so acceptable, so "necessary," so taken-for-granted-that-it-need-not-be-considered, that it is policy on debt that is our greatest "moral" issue.

And that is our true greatest moral challenge: the normalization of violence that allows people like Brooks to consider the problem of debt a more pressing ethical concern.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Meat and Environmentalism

At, Erik Marcus responds to Cheri Shankar at Huffington Post by arguing that one can be an environmentalist and eat meat.

As a practical matter--how animal agriculture affects "the environment" (contribution to climate change, damage to local environments near factory farms, etc.)--Marcus has a point. An environmentalist could significantly reduce meat consumption, could actively push for more sustainable, environment-friendly agricultural practices, etc. Plastic bags are bad, but I wouldn't claim you're not an environmentalist if you ever accept a plastic bag at a store. "Environmentalist" is not a term to define some inner essence, whereby you either "are" or "aren't"; different people may have different levels or types of concerns for the environment, may express these concerns in different ways, and may take different actions (personal and political) to protect the environment.

From a ideological or philosophical perspective, though, I think an environmentalist eating meat is problematic. It comes down to what we mean by "the environment." Eating meat, generally speaking, means not considering animals a part of that environment. Thus an environmentalism that allows for killing animals for food (something unnecessary, relating to pleasure, not survival) is a human-centered environmentalism. Such environmentalism is concerned with the global environment and local environments, but primarily how environmental damage affects humans. A meat-eating environmentalist may still want to save the environment (or environments), but to do so for humans. In that sense, even saving endangered species isn't about the animals, but about saving species so that human beings can continue to appreciate and enjoy them.

I also think, from an educational perspective, it is good to publicize the connection between current animal agriculture and environmental damage. In recent years I've come across articles and books highlighting this connection fairly regularly. It is good to point out to people that their choice to eat animals has environmental consequences. Even if a writer makes a claim some will take as extreme (i.e., that you cannot be an environmentalist and eat meat), such claims still publicize the connection and require people to think about it. Will exposure to this connection convert many individuals to veganism or vegetarianism? Maybe not. Will exposure to an extreme claim cause individuals to say "Well that's too radical: to hell with environmentalists, and to hell with the earth!" I doubt it. Hopefully, though, people will learn something, think critically about their own choices and lifestyles, and make positive changes.

So yes, "environmentalists" can express concern and take action for the environment in numerous ways; this concern may include abstaining from meat, or it may only include reducing meat consumption, or it may express itself in ways having nothing to do with food. But meat-eating environmentalists may be denying animals' place in and part of "the environment," and insisting that environmentalists refrain from meat can only help, not hurt.

Friday, March 5, 2010

When do wars end?

In order to win the Vietnam War, the U.S. is killing Laotians. Decades after the war ended (NPR).

If you are advocating for a particular war, you are advocating for something that will bring many long-term negative consequences, many which cannot be predicted before the war begins. Proponents of the Iraq War could not know that the specifics of Abu Ghraib would happen; however, they should have known that all wars bring about atrocities, and that something like Abu Ghraib would be likely to happen. Just as dropping bombs from the sky is likely to kill innocent civilians. In that sense, the many questions to ask before considering war should include: "Are the outcomes of this war worth the atrocities that are bound to occur?"

I think advocates of war must be forced to acknowledge the unknown, unpredictable, and largely negative consequences that large-scale violence brings about. If you use violence against a region, there are long-term consequences to the human beings living in that region. Many of these specific consequences may be difficult to predict at the time--but that there will be consequences, largely negative, is quite easy to know from the history of human experience.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Bias and Coverage of War

Can a journalist cover a violent conflict objectively if that journalist's child serves in the military for one side of the conflict? The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg thinks so. He writes

"this is a somewhat obvious point except to propagandists, reporters are capable of actually separating out their personal interests from their coverage."

and praises a writer that discovers

"it is possible to cover the Middle East fairly, despite your entanglements."

I don't really disagree with Goldberg's take on the specific issue he writes about. I think, however, he is far too dismissive of the role unconscious bias plays in our assessment of reality. Goldberg claims only propagandists would think reporters are incapable of "separating out their personal interests from their coverage." But it is not merely propagandists that would question one's capability of objectivity: many psychologists would too.

Cognitive bias "is a person's tendency to make errors in judgment based on cognitive factors." It is not that a person knowingly behaves according to his or her biases, but that his or her biases affect how he or she views reality and makes decisions. For example, Confirmation bias "is a tendency for people to prefer information that confirms their preconceptions or hypotheses, independently of whether they are true." There are many other types of cognitive biases: the point is that even when we believe we are assessing the world objectively, or making decisions rationally, we may not be.

Of course, regular human experience tells us this is true. We expect judges with a conflict of interest to recuse themselves not merely to avoid the appearance of a biased decision, but to avoid actual biased decisions. Pharmaceutical representatives buy lunches for doctors and nurses, and I would think (hope?) doctors believe that has no influence on them--but the lunches keep coming. People do all sorts of things not only claiming but believing they are acting and thinking objectively, when in fact they are not.

It is beyond obvious that our assumptions and beliefs affect how we interpret reality, what reality one chooses to report, and how one reports on it. If you trust America's intentions in war, you may find 27 civilian deaths caused by U.S. military violence an unfortunate accident or collateral damage in a larger necessary cause; if you believe America's intentions in war are malevolent, or even if you believe they are empty, you will interpret those 27 deaths differently. Even if you attempt to be objective, you will still make decisions about whether and how to talk about them.

Is this to say that a reporter should not be allowed to cover a conflict when his or her child is directly involved in the conflict? Of course not. What sort of knowledge, context, background, and nuance would we miss if we insisted that our reporters be as disconnected from the realities of a situation as possible? If we expect a reporter to be knowledgeable about a situation, we must accept that the reporter's knowledge may come from his or her close geographic, cultural, political, historical, or familial connection to that situation. It would be absurd to claim that no Americans should cover American military conflicts because of the biases inherent in the venture. But so too, I think, it is silly to claim that reporters will be able to separate coverage entirely from their "entanglements," and it is disingenuous to think that only propagandists are skeptical whether reporters are "capable of separating out their personal interests from their coverage." The problem is in assuming something called "journalistic objectivity" is a sacrosanct concept that readers should believe in. One's vantage point matters. Different individuals will see the world differently due to a whole host of factors. As an observer of the world, I must always be aware that my own biases affect how I am viewing that world. And as a reader, I must always be aware that writers' biases affect how they are viewing the world. Instead of viewing this as a journalistic sin, I recognize this, keep an awareness of this, and (if I'm inclined) try to get coverage from a variety of perspectives.

It is not that I suspect journalists with personal entanglements will deliberately try to deceive. In many cases, I would expect reporters to try their best to report objectively, to rationally assess the world as it is and try to convey that knowledge. But I think they will do a better job at this not by pretending their biases don't exist, but by being aware of them (and perhaps acknowledging them to the reader). Self-consciousness about one's own likelihood to misinterpret reality can help one avoid misinterpreting reality.

I'm not sure how somebody can respond to a violent conflict objectively--from a human perspective, I'm not even sure they should. Of course, from a journalistic perspective, reporters should and must try present objective coverage. That doesn't mean, however, that we must pretend subjective responses play no part in how one describes a violent conflict. And one shouldn't assume it is only malicious propagandists that would have doubts about reporter objectivity.

PETA's Focus

I used to believe that PETA had two priorities, but in order: 1) improving the lives of animals and pushing for major changes in the way society uses animals, and 2) self-promotion. It is stories like this that convince me I've had the order wrong.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

They know the score: Robert Bolt

Robert Bolt, A Man for All Seasons:

Roper: So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law!
More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
Roper: I'd cut down every law in England to do that!
More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you--where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast--man's laws, not God's--and if you cut them down--and you're just the man to do it--d'you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake.

I wonder: will there come a time when the Devil turns round on John Yoo? Will he turn around on Dick Cheney? Where will they hide then?

They know the score: Philip Roth

Philip Roth, "The Conversion of the Jews:"

"Mamma, don't you see--you shouldn't hit me. He shouldn't hit me. You shouldn't hit me about God, Mamma. You should never hit anybody about God--"
"Ozzie, please come down now."
"Promise me, promise me you'll never hit anybody about God."
He had asked only his mother, but for some reason everyone kneeling in the street promised he would never hit anybody about God.
Once again there was silence.

It is indeed a promise we should all make. Let us never hit anybody about God.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

They already knew

Not long ago, I asked a friend what commentators of contemporary events he reads. His response: "Kafka." I begin to see his point. The only contemporary commentators worth reading today are those that point out the complete absurdity and utter insanity of it all. When a former vice president is able to boast on national television of the war crimes he's responsible for because he knows that the current administration (despite condemning torture) nor any other American body will ever, ever try to punish him for it, we probably need Kafka. When a movement develops to supplement a major political party in decrying government spending and debts, but few words from this side are spoken against the expensive wars and massive military budgets that make up a giant part of the spending and debts, we need Kafka. When an election is held which whittles all ideas down to two candidates, and the least warmongering candidate is the one that escalates one major war (and uses the Nobel Peace Prize lecture to defend the use of violent force), we need Kafka. But in all this we also need Orwell and Aristophanes, Homer and Shaw, Wilfred Owen and David Henry Hwang. They already knew the score.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

God's Creation is populated by God's Creations

on animals

At God's Politics, Tracey Bianchi writes about giving up meat for Lent. Most of her reasons for doing so, she writes, are

"rooted in my love of God’s Creation."

She goes on to write:

"And since raising beef and other meat places a heavy burden on our ecosystems, and because it is considerably kinder to the planet if I eat grain and vegetable products, I’m going to skip it altogether for this season."


"since God made this place, it seems wise to take note of that fact and make a commitment for a few weeks to help honor that Creation."

Bianchi is writing about vegetarianism and about environmentalism. However, at no point in her post does she even hint at any actual concern for animals. I find that absence glaring. She is skipping meat to help the environment, but not mentioning helping the creatures that share this environment with us. She expresses sincere love and concern for God's Creation, but in this context creation seems to include the earth itself, but not the sentient creatures that God created. She advocates skipping on eating animals to protect the earth, not to avoid causing death and suffering to those very animals.

I am aware, of course, that vegetarianism is not traditionally associated with Christian thought or practice, and that furthermore Christians can cite scripture to justify eating animals (I might only point out that Genesis strongly suggests Adam and Eve did not eat meat before the Fall--perfect creation did not involve killing animals for food). But an environmentalist concern for God's creation, I think, should not leave the concerns of animals out. They are a part of God's Creation, and are in fact thinking, feeling beings created by God. Being Christian did not teach me to be a vegetarian; however, being Christian taught me about compassion and integrity, virtues which led me to be a vegetarian.

I am glad that Bianchi is concerned for the environment, and using a medium to encourage others to reduce their meat consumption. If Christians can eliminate (or even reduce) consumption of animals during Lent, that is a good thing. And I would encourage Christians to consider Lent a beginning, and to try make a long-term change to avoid eating animals.

Torture and Christians

I am particularly disgusted when Christians advocate and defend torture. It is not primarily that Christians worship a Lord who was himself unjustly tortured, but about what that Lord taught. Jesus commands that we not return evil with evil. He commands that we love and bless our enemies. More broadly, the gospel of Christ insists that we see all human beings as children of God, all men and women as brothers and sisters in humanity. Torture denies that.

Andrew Sullivan, a Catholic, further details the wrongfulness of torture.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Lit and War: "As if [...] Man had not hellish foes enow besides"

on peace

From John Milton's Paradise Lost:

O shame to men! Devil with devil damn'd
Firm concord holds, men only disagree
of creatures rational, though under hope
Of heavenly grace: and, God proclaiming peace,
Yet live in hatred, enmity, and strife
Among themselves, and levy cruel wars,
Wasting the earth, each other to destroy:
As if (which might induce us to accord)
Man had not hellish foes enow besides,
That day and night, for his destruction wait. (II. 496-505)

As if man had not hellish foes enough besides. As if enough Americans don't have health insurance, America can still spend over seven hundred billion dollars to wage wars. As if there is no poverty, there is no hunger, there is no pestilence, humans work on killing each other. As if no children suffer. As if there are no earthquakes or hurricanes to wreck havoc on communities. As if we don't each face a death no matter what. As if nature itself offers no challenge, as if there would not be enough human suffering to alleviate, as if there are no other problems to occupy our resources, our energy, our souls. As if there is nothing else to do, we have (as Thomas Hardy has it in "Channel Firing"),

All nations striving strong to make
Red war yet redder.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Commercial Life (2)

on animals (reposted and revised from February 1, 2009)

It usually seems to me that a high percentage of Super Bowl commercials feature animals of some sort. I have theories on the appeal of seeing happy, funny animals in the context of consumerism and consumption (in addition to the point, noted by Eric Schlosser in Fast Food Nation, that kids love animals and a lot of advertising to children features animals). Mostly I think they provide comfort: by seeing animals as either happy and contented creatures, or as comical and silly figures, people can feel mildly comforted about consuming them. Suicide Food examines advertising featuring animals that want to be eaten, or that are eating their own food product, and suggests there is thematic comfort in such images. I think perhaps the animals don't need to be suicidal to provide that comfort--happy animals mean we don't have to feel bad for exploiting them (they're happy, after all), and funny animals suggest they're hardly worth any dignity anyway (they're just ridiculous and silly, after all).

This year Denny's screaming chickens made a rare explicit connection between consuming animal products and animals suffering. But the comedy (chickens in human contexts acting like people and looking ridiculous while screaming) still kept the necessary distance between guilt and consumption (and at any rate focused on eggs, where the animal does not need to be killed for the product and we can imagine it being happy even if that isn't so, rather than meat, which we cannot deny requires the killing of the animal).

Thursday, February 4, 2010


on animals

Eugene Cho at God's Politics writes:

"I personally don’t care what you eat, drink, hunt, or watch as long as it isn’t porn."

This line stuck out to me because I think you could argue that "what you eat" or "hunt" is at least as fraught with necessary moral consideration as watching pornography. The connection is pleasure. People watch pornography for their pleasure (and if you consider there to be immorality either in its production or its viewing, you'll consider that pleasure problematic). In the modern developed world, people eat meat (or hunt) for pleasure. There is no other compelling reason. It is not necessary for survival or health. It is tied up with tradition and socializing, but that in itself would not be justification for otherwise immoral activities. But to enjoy this pleasure, an animal is required to suffer and die. If pornography is to be worthy of moral condemnation, I think that partaking in the suffering and death of an animal for one's own pleasure is at least worth moral consideration.

On a C-Span2 Book TV discussion, Jonathan Safran Foer tried to develop this point. When Frank Bruni raised the point about eating for pleasure (seeming to defend meat-eating on the grounds of pleasure), Foer responded by asking why the pleasure of taste seemed to trump morality in ways our other senses do not. While sex is pleasurable, humans place moral limitations on its enjoyment, and we wouldn't allow people to slaughter animals if it pleasured their sense of sight or hearing (as we wouldn't allow a person to rape an animal for pleasure). Unfortunately, Bruni never responded to the issue Foer raised (he used that moment to take offense that Foer uses language for animals that we typically reserve for humans). But I think the connection is worth considering.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Should pacifists care about policy on gays in the military?

Blatant discrimination from a government institution is of course wrong and should be rectified. But as military values are antithetical to my own values, and as the military's function is to carry out policies that I find morally reprehensible, I ask myself how much I should care about the military's policy on openly gay soldiers. As a pacifist, how much should the military's internal policies really concern me?

I find, however, that it does matter. Whether the military allows openly gay soldiers to serve or not has little impact on the militarism inherent in American culture, has no impact on the United States' obscene defense budget, and has no impact on the violence of U.S. foreign policy. There may, however, be a domestic impact. When another American institution (and one revered by so many) no longer tolerates discrimination against gay people and insists on policies of equality, we move a step in a positive direction. We should strive toward full equality in our society, and eliminating barriers of inequality wherever they are is both an end and a means in that effort.

See Also:
"What's wrong with a radical gay agenda?" (Waging Nonviolence)