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My Beef With Vegetarianism

Is it defeatist to stick to a diet of tofu and sprouts? A new book covers four centuries of arguments for vegetarianism, from good health to fascist politics.
 
 
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There are many horrifying moments in Anatoly Kuznetsov's great Soviet novel Babi Yar , but one of the most horrifying concerns, of all things, the death of a newborn kitten. The kitten has been born deformed, so the hero, a small boy living in Nazi-occupied Ukraine, has to kill it. But instead of doing it the usual way by drowning it in a bucket, he decides it would be somehow kinder to pound the animal to death with a brick. "It was a moist, warm blob of life," Kuznetsov writes, "utterly devoid of sense and as insignificant as a worm. It seemed nothing could be easier than to dispose of it with one blow." But when he lets the brick fall,

A strange thing happened -- the little body seemed to be resilient, the brick fell to one side, and the kitten continued its miaowing. With shaking hands I picked up the brick again and proceeded to crush the little ball of living matter until the very entrails came out, and at last it was silent, and I scraped up the remains of the kitten with a shovel and took them off to the rubbish heap, and as I did it my head swam and I felt sick.

Somehow, amid the myriad slaughters of World War II, it takes a frail and worthless kitten -- "as insignificant as a worm" -- to teach us something about the tenacity of life and the awfulness of taking it away.

I'm not sure where I was when I came across this passage some thirty-odd years ago, but I'm pretty sure it was in close proximity to settling down to a steak or chicken dinner. If I made any connection between the kitten and the dead animal I was about to consume, it has been erased from my memory. But if I had made such a connection, what exactly would it have been? Certainly, pulverizing a poor defenseless creature is bad. But does that mean that dispatching it quickly and efficiently in a modern abattoir with the good utilitarian purpose of feeding the hungry is good? If "defenseless" is the operative word here, does that mean it is morally permissible to take the life of a fellow creature as long as we give it a sporting chance to fight back or escape -- in a bullring, perhaps, or out in the wild? Or maybe sentience is the relevant issue (as utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer, author of the 1975 manifesto Animal Liberation , maintains), in which case it may be bad to kill a kitten, but it's OK to kill an animal further down the evolutionary scale, such as a frog, a fish or a bug.

On the other hand, if life is the highest value and taking it is never, ever permissible, then what are we to do in the case of a poisonous snake that is about to strike a sleeping infant? Kill one to save the other, or stand back and let nature take its course? If all lives are equally precious, how can we choose between the two?

These are the kinds of conundrums that Tristram Stuart chews on in The Bloodless Revolution , his intelligent, readable, if ultimately unsatisfying, account of Western vegetarianism from the Elizabethan Age to the present. Many people no doubt regard vegetarianism as inherently frivolous and hence an unsuitable topic for serious intellectual history. But if The Bloodless Revolution does anything, it is to prove such skeptics wrong. One way or another, it shows that vegetarians have been in the forefront of some of the most important controversies of the modern era. The reason is not hard to fathom. Like everything else in life, food is multidimensional, which is why the question of whether to order fruit salad or a BLT is never solely a matter of taste but touches on everything from morality and aesthetics to agricultural policy, humanity's place in the natural world and even constitutional affairs. In the eighteenth century, to cite just one example, beef was as central to the English self-image as cheap gasoline currently is to that of the United States. Just as the ability to cruise down a highway in an SUV or pickup is what distinguishes an American from a Frenchman paying $7 a gallon to tool around in some mini-subcompact, the ability to consume great slabs of cow flesh was what distinguished John Bull from "Frogs" dining on onions and snails. Scruffy vegetarians seeking to take all that red meat away were barely distinguishable from Jacobin sympathizers wishing to guillotine the House of Lords.

If we are what we eat, in other words, then modifying the national diet was seen as the quickest route to changing the political structure, while resisting such demands was part and parcel of defending the status quo. Their analysis may have been naïve, but vegetarians' ambitions were immense and their critique was nothing if not sweeping.

Stuart begins his tale with Sir Francis Bacon, appropriately enough since Bacon was both a key figure in the Scientific Revolution that gave us modernity and keenly interested in the question of diet, health and longevity. This was a big issue in the seventeenth century for primarily scriptural reasons. The opening pages of the Bible are filled with people who live eight or nine centuries. But then, following Noah and his ark comes Genesis 9:3, in which God specifically gives permission to eat meat ("Everything that lives and moves will be food for you"). With that, longevity plummets. Since few people questioned the truth of such tales, the issue, as Bacon saw it, was what one had to do with the other -- whether not eating meat was the reason Methuselah lived 969 years or whether it was merely coincidental. Bacon never advanced beyond the speculative stage, but Thomas Bushell, one of his acolytes (and, it was widely reported, one of his lovers), put his master's theory to the test by retiring to the Calf of Man, a one-square-mile islet in the Irish Sea, following a period of riotous debauchery in the gaming houses, theaters and brothels of London. Bushell was hardly the first person to adopt a hermitic lifestyle, but he may have been the first to eschew meat and alcohol with the express purpose of improving his health. Although falling short of Methuselah's record, he lived to the ripe old age of 80 and died a wealthy man after developing the silver and lead mines of nearby Wales.

A surge of vegetarianism followed during the revolutionary period of the 1640s and '50s, when England was torn by civil war between parliamentary Roundheads and royalist Cavaliers. Rather than scientific exploration, the goal this time was more overtly political. The similarity between the mistreatment of animals and the common folks' ill treatment at the hands of the old ruling class was too obvious to ignore. Eliminating one surely entailed putting a stop to, or at least limiting, the other. Thus, a radical preacher named John Robins declared himself the new Adam and demanded that his followers, known as the Ranters, give up meat and alcohol so as to "reduce the world to its former condition, as it was before the fall of the first Adam," in the words of one of his disciples. A bricklayer-preacher in the town of Hackney told an excited crowd that "it is unlawfull to kill any creature that hath life because it came from God." An ex-soldier named Roger Crab accused his oppressors of "thirsting after flesh and blood" and asserted that "humour that lusteth after flesh and blood is made strong in us by feeding of it." Not feeding of it was the surest way to eliminate such aggressive tendencies.

A growing number of travelogues from India, the world capital of vegetarianism, gave such arguments an inestimable boost. Europeans were astonished by stories of Brahmans who lived on fruits and vegetables and of Jains who regarded life as so valuable that they swept the streets to avoid stepping on insects. A Dutchman named John Huygen van Linschoten reported in the 1590s that Indians "kill nothing in the world that has life, however small and useless it may be." An Englishman named Ralph Fitch wrote that they even have "hospitals for sheepe, goates, dogs, cats, birds, and for all other living creatures," adding that "when they be old and lame, they keepe them until they die." This was an eye-opener for Europeans who automatically killed their animals when they were past the productive age. Although Westerners assumed that meat and alcohol was what made them more manly, the French traveler François Bernier noted in the 1660s that Indian armies traveled more quickly on rice and dried lentils than European armies weighed down by their barrels of salted beef and tankards of wine. Indian ways were not only different but might actually be superior.

Unfortunately for vegetarianism, however, it was also during the Enlightenment that the ideology's shortcomings grew more obvious. The most difficult had to do with ethics. Vegetarianism is most fundamentally about the importance of not taking life other than under the most extreme circumstances. But cruel as it is to kill an ox or a pig, nature is even crueler. A tiger or wolf does not knock its prey senseless with a single blow to the forehead and then painlessly slit its jugular; rather, it tears it to pieces with its teeth. Freeing an animal so that it could return to its natural habitat meant subjecting it to a life of greater pain rather than less. This was disconcerting because it suggested that animals might be better off on a farm even if they were to be slaughtered in the end. There was also the fact that human agriculture created life that would not otherwise exist. If people stopped eating meat, the population of pigs, cattle and sheep would plummet, which meant that the sum total of happiness, human or otherwise, would diminish. This was enough to persuade the Comte de Buffon, a freethinker and naturalist, to declare in 1753 that man "seems to have acquired a right to sacrifice" animals by breeding and feeding them in the first place.

Vegetarians were unsure how to respond. Benjamin Franklin turned anti-meat at one point and for a time regarded "the taking of every Fish as a kind of unprovok'd Murder." But he had a change of heart when he noticed the many small fish inside the stomach of a freshly caught cod: "Then thought I, if you eat one another, I don't see why we mayn't eat you." But Franklin's contemporary, the radical English vegetarian Joseph Ritson, wrestled with the same problem only to reach the opposite conclusion. He railed against "sanguinary and ferocious" felines, and when his nephew killed a neighbor's cat on the grounds that it had just murdered a mouse, he sent the boy a note of congratulations: "Far from desiring to reprove you for what I learn you actually did, you receive my warmest approbation of your humanity." Vegetarians wanted to knock Homo sapiens off their pedestal and bring them down to the level of the other animals. Simultaneously, they wanted to turn human beings into supercops patrolling nature's furthest recesses in order to rein in predators and impose a more "humane" regime.

Some of the Western world's most exemplary intellectuals immersed themselves in debates of this sort. Leonardo da Vinci ranted against cruelty to animals, worried that eating eggs deprived future beings of life and reportedly purchased caged birds for the sole purpose of setting them free. Isaac Newton admired vegetarians and believed in the humane treatment of animals, although reports that he was a vegetarian himself proved exaggerated when a bill from a butcher, poulterer and fishmonger turned up among his personal effects after his death. Except for the occasional egg, Descartes limited himself to a fruit-and-vegetable diet in hopes that it would give him long life (he died at age 54). Shelley, who adopted vegetarianism at around age 20, believed not only that eating meat made people violent but that it fed the desire for luxury goods, a prime factor in the growth of human inequality. The hope was that the rich might not lord their wealth so much over the poor if they ate a humble diet.

Somewhat less exemplary -- or exemplary in a different way -- was Adolf Hitler, who gave up meat for a time in 1911 to treat a stomach ailment and then again in 1924 to shed some weight. Thereafter, he became a dedicated vegetarian, believing, according to Stuart, that a meat-free diet was the only thing that "alleviated his chronic flatulence, constipation, sweating, nervous tension, trembling of muscles, and the stomach cramps that convinced him he was dying of cancer." (The recent movie Downfall shows him consuming a meatless last supper of ravioli in tomato sauce before committing suicide in his Berlin bunker.) Urged on by their Führer, Nazi officials nagged Germans to abandon sausage and potatoes for "more natural diets based on wholesome roots, fruits and cereals," according to The Bloodless Revolution , and "legally obliged bakers to sell wholemeal bread -- the patriotic food of the great German peasant." German theosophists applauded, as did George Bernard Shaw and meat-eschewing Seventh Day Adventists. The latter group declared in 1933 that Germany had at long last gained a leader "who has his office from the hand of God, and who knows himself to be responsible to Him. As an anti-alcoholic, non-smoker, and vegetarian, he is closer to our own view of health reform than anybody else." The same regime that sent millions to the death camps, Stuart adds, promulgated rules for the humane slaughter of fish and crustaceans.

What drew Hitler to vegetarianism were most likely its antihumanist and authoritarian elements. "The monkeys, our ancestors of prehistoric times, are strictly vegetarian," he pointed out on one occasion. "If I offer a child the choice between a pear and piece of meat," he said on another, "he'll quickly choose the pear. That's his atavistic instinct speaking." Atavism was a virtue, of course, because it put the good Nazi in touch with his inner beast. "Man, alone amongst the living creatures," Hitler added, "tries to deny the laws of nature" -- laws that Nazism was out to reimpose. Since 1945 this nihilist strain has been carried forward by such figures as the Fascist vegetarian Maximiani Portas (a k a Savitri-Devi), who argued that "you cannot 'de-nazify' Nature" and, says Stuart, "laments that ancient forests have been destroyed to build roads, cities and to grow food for 'more and more people who might as well never have been born.'"

This is fascinating stuff. But it is at this point that The Bloodless Revolution loses narrative steam, which is odd considering vegetarianism's dramatic resurgence in recent years among pierced and tattooed twentysomethings. Instead of Trotskyists, Maoists and Social Democrats going at one another hammer and tongs, progressive circles are now witness to arguments over the merits of soy versus dairy, while "dumpster-divers" demonstrate their contempt for capitalist waste by subsisting on the discards from restaurants. Stuart says nothing about such developments; instead he winds up with a rather cursory two-page summary in which he criticizes "the old anthropocentric speciesism which attributes moral worth to entities according to how similar they are to 'us'" and acknowledges that "human self-interest" will always be a factor in determining agricultural policy; but he never explains how we can have one without the other. While not embracing vegetarianism entirely, he is clearly sympathetic and, where meat is concerned, comes out squarely in favor of a policy of less is more. "The equation," he says, "is simple: if we ate less unsustainably produced meat we would destroy fewer forests, use less water, emit fewer greenhouse gases and conserve the world's resources for future generations."

But calling something simple does not make it so. No sane person favors unsustainably produced meat. But, tellingly, Stuart does not consider the possibility of meat that is sustainably produced in accordance with the strictest environmental standards. Should we eat less of that also? Or more? Perhaps the issue should not be quantity but quality -- not whether we should eat more or less but whether we should eat better, which is to say chicken that tastes like something other than cardboard, turkey that tastes like something other than Styrofoam and so on. Maybe the solution is to reject bland industrial products and demand meat with character, the kind that comes from animals that have not spent their lives in industrial feedlots but have had an opportunity to walk around and develop their muscles.

On a more fundamental level, perhaps the problem has to do with the awful word "speciesism." In arguing for a balance between animal welfare, ecology and human self-interest, Stuart is advocating what some political theorists call the "parcellization" of human sovereignty, its division and subordination amid an array of competing interests. The idea is that instead of reigning supreme over nature, humanity should take its place within nature alongside its fellow animals. Instead of domination, this implies sharing, harmony and other New Age virtues. But the trouble with sovereignty is that it cannot be fragmented or reduced; either it's supreme and indivisible or it's not, in which case it's no longer sovereignty. Although vegetarians may think that surrendering human supremacy will reduce the harm that people do to the environment, any such effort is invariably counterproductive. Denying humans their supreme power means denying them their supreme responsibility to improve society, to safeguard the environment on which it depends and even -- dare we say it -- to improve nature as well.

Besides, humans are already sovereign -- the trouble is that most of them don't realize it or, for political reasons, refuse to acknowledge it, maintaining instead that real sovereignty lies with God, nature or the free market. But real-life experience tells us otherwise. Since vegetarians began warning in the eighteenth century that the earth would run out of food unless everyone immediately shifted to potatoes and grain, the global population has more than sextupled, global per capita income has increased nearly tenfold even when inflation is taken into account, while consumption of meat, poultry and seafood has risen as well, up 37 percent in the United States since 1909 and even more strongly in less developed portions of the world. More people are living better and eating more richly than anyone in the 1700s would have thought possible. Regardless of whether they are consuming more meat and poultry than is good for them, it is yet another reminder, as if any more were needed, of how thoroughly Malthusian myths about limits to human productivity have been shattered.

Scarcity no longer serves as an argument for vegetarianism, and neither, for that matter, does health, since we know from studies of Okinawan centenarians and others that small amounts of meat and dark-fleshed fish are good for you; that moderate amounts of alcohol (which vegetarians for some reason appear to avoid) is good for you as well; and that plenty of exercise, a sense of well-being that comes from a strong social structure and, of course, universal healthcare are equally essential.

So the next time you tuck into a plate of tagliatelle Bolognese , a leg of lamb or a proper coq au vin made from some rangy old rooster that's had more lovers than most of us can dream of, you should see it not just as a chance to fill your stomach but, rather, as an occasion to celebrate humanity's ongoing struggle to create abundance out of scarcity. Venceremos! It's a lot better than wallowing in the silly defeatism of a diet of tofu and sprouts.

 
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