Tuesday, July 29, 2008

When Is Choice Un-American? When It's Vegetarian

All Johanna McCloy wanted was a decent vegetarian hot dog at a San Francisco Giants game. What started as a simple request at one stadium soon became a crusade. As of this writing, McCloy has convinced half of all America's baseball parks to offer vegetarian alternatives to their standard burgers-and-hots lineup.

Not everyone views this as an achievement. McCloy has been accused of everything from snobbery to treason:

Last month, after an article about McCloy appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle magazine, reader Marc Kimberly of Concord wrote: "For goodness' sakes, is there no limit to which annoying vegetarians won't go in their efforts to try to convert people from enjoying meat in favor of the bland mishmash of unappetizing and virtually tasteless 'food' these elitist snobs choke down their gullets?"

McCloy says she was equally dumbfounded when, during an appearance on a Denver radio station, her efforts were labeled un-American.

Welcome to 21st century America - where veggie hot dogs are a threat to Pax Americana, and potatoes a mark of liberal elitism. Never mind that vegetarians comprise less than 8 percent of the adult population, and vegans a meager 1.4 percent. In Mr. Kimberly's nightmare, we vegetarians are the barbarians at the gate.

The material wealth of the United States, combined with industrial processing techniques, has made meat-eating as America as apple pie. Oppose beef, and you may as well defecate on the flag. In his paean to flesh consumption, The Shameless Carnivore, author Scott Gold laments that we're not more fanatical about eschewing herbivores:

I don't get it: where at one point in American history a vegetarian would have been branded as a godless communist and advised to returh forthwith to the CCCP, abstaining from the consumption of animal flesh these days is largely viewed as an enlightened life decision, even though it's not what most of us do.

Mssrs. Kimberly and Gold act as if a grain sausage were a revolver held to their heads. What's sad is that Ms. McCloy is attempting to give Americans more of a choice than the meat-eaters themselves give to animals. Even in this laudatory LA Times article, the unspoken assumption is that only the interests of human beings matter; the animals we eat have no right to exist independently of our hunger for them.

This is a sterling example of how patriotism is often little more than an excuse to justify aberrant behavior by draping it in a flag. Amongst other humans, it's considered immoral to kill unless there's an extenuating circumstance - usually self defense, or saving the life of an innocent. But when it comes to non-humans, the only required excuse is hedonism. One can imagine how quickly human society would have perished if "But he was TASTY!" was a valid moral defense for murder. Given that the major case for continued animal consumption rests on base pleasure, it's not shocking that people would defend the practice, not merely as an epicurean delight, but as some sort of patriotic duty.

In his discussion of meat consumption, Paul Roberts argued that the modern meat industry was based on the best intentions: to deliver nutritious food, inexpensively, to more people. A combination of unintended consequences and capitalist mismanagement, however, has allowed the meat processing industry to devolve into Frankenstein. We spend billions of dollars yearly on a petroleum-driven system that converts anywhere from eight to 17 pounds of grain and 250 gallons of water into a single pound of beef - and do it in the name of feeding hungry people! In the process, we generate tons of animal waste shot through with antibiotics. This by-product is so toxic that it must be lagooned, rather than used in crops. This says nothing of the real victims of this system: the animals themselves, who lead dramatically shortened lives - living beings who are born for the express purpose of dying.

If that's patriotism, then I'll opt for the veggie dog.