On Hating Vegetarians

Many of my friends are vegetarian. To clear up the terminology, I am talking about people who do not eat meat of any kind (not fish or chicken either, folks), but may use other animal products, e.g., eggs or honey.

Non-vegetarian friends rarely handle this well. If the subject comes up, at least one person will immediately and vociferously attack it in one of these ways:

  1. I don’t get it! Boy, I sure do love a big steak. And my mom’s meatloaf. So great! What is with this vegetarian shit? I love lamb chops, and fried clams, and lobster! You know, one favorite place of mine is Kelly’s down on the beach. Boy, they sure do make a great hamburger. Another thing I like…
  2. What is their problem? I’m so tired of all this preaching. Everyone’s telling people what to eat, what to smoke, what to say. Why can’t they just enjoy a normal life like anyone else? Let me tell you, my sister-in-law is one of those vegetarian types and I can’t eat at her house. Just broccoli and shit. Tofu! It’s not food! Who’d eat that shit?
  3. So what do you mean, like, I’m a bad person? Who are you to judge! I bet you do bad things, and you’re telling me I’m a jerk just for doing what everyone does! People like you are all hiding something.
  4. Wow, that’s really unhealthy. Be sure to get enough protein. I mean, you have to make up for it. Be sure to eat huge amounts of [food with high protein content] in it or you’ll get really sick. OMG you make your KID eat vegetarian? That’s like CHILD ABUSE!!!
  5. It’s ridiculously unnatural. Humans are hunters, we eat meat. I mean, c’mon, ancient cave paintings are about hunting. We aren’t meant to survive with out it. How else would we continue to be large, dominant creatures with upper arm strength and a killer instinct? People who don’t eat meat are girly and possibly homosexual. It’s a betrayal of our natural healthy state.

None of these make sense. Let’s learn!

  1. Other people don’t necessarily like your food, and you know it. Why should others like a whole class of foods you enjoy? For that matter, if you learned that a food you enjoyed was made from babies or profited al Qaeda, would you continue to eat it? Your taste has nothing to do with other people!
  2. Did anyone just tell you what to do, or what not to do? Other people not eating something doesn’t constitute restrictions on your habits. It’s their choice. If your sister-in-law can’t cook, either tell her so or push the food around on your plate until it’s time to go. And tofu is just another food, not some condensed symbol of Berkeleyite pseudo-meat hypocrisy. Like it or don’t, but leave the poor curdled soy alone.
  3. Wait, who said that? The person across the table from you just said she doesn’t eat meat. Did she go on to say that people who eat meat are psychopathic murderers without empathy? Did she just start with a lecture about where your burger comes from, or what some religious figure said about eating animals? Did she tip your plate over? If not, she’s just choosing to eat differently from you, and the implication of wickedness is all yours. Not everyone with principles is either a Tartuffe or an inquisitor. Drop it.
  4. You’re just wrong. People who eat a reasonable mix of foods don’t get malnutrition. And that reasonable mix does not have to include meat. When you hear people talk about getting enough “protein,” they are talking out their ears. “Protein” in U.S. culture is just a word for meat. Actual proteins come from many foods, and nobody is getting beri-beri or pellagra from lack of burger. Go look it up!
  5. If you hear an argument for modern behavior based on “instinct,” or “evolution,” or “basic human nature,” stop and investigate, or just dump it. Any human behavior can be justified or condemned based on unexamined assumptions about our nature. These arguments have been used to justify rape, celebrate war, demonize men, excuse cannibalism, and attack pantaloons. Humans have survived with and without meat just as we have survived in the Antarctic and the Sahara, survived genuinely destructive malnutrition, survived Pop-Tarts, and survived living in rivers of raw sewage without antibiotics. All evolutionary biology means is that someone lived long enough to fuck and someone else lived long enough to squirt out some babies of which some survived. It does not imply burgers.

What have we learned? We have learned that meat eaters like meat. We have learned that people who feel criticized morally become upset and defensive. We have learned that in U.S. culture, not eating something can get a person in big social trouble. And we’ve learned that the reasons for this are not reasonable. And finally, we have learned that reactions to food choices are visceral (ha).

It’s true that vegetarianism in the U.S. is almost always a moral choice rather than a tradition or a practical dietary one. Choosing not to eat meat implies a judgment on the act of meat eating parallel to the message of celibacy, sobriety, or boycotts. Vegetarianism also goes against deeply rooted (ha) beliefs about wealth, health, pleasure, and choice. It’s not neutral.

What I take from this is that many people are threatened by the idea of conscious morality. Of any kind. Someone who makes a moral choice and gives up some pleasure, adding some complexity and trouble to life, is a psychological threat. The immediate response is that the person making that choice is a stereotyped hypocrite from a Hollywood movie, an unhappy person who wishes others to be unhappy, an obsessed idiot. I’ve noticed a linguistic shift during my life that perfectly evokes this: I hear people using “righteous” to mean “self-righteous,” as if the very idea of moral choice implies hypocrisy and the need to control others.

I myself am not a vegetarian. I have no meat days twice a week. I am not a believer in “animal rights,” nor do I consider killing animals and eating them to be immoral. My reasons are humanist. Meat takes a lot of grain to make, and eating meat has an environmental and economic impact on others. I’ve been impressed by some calculations of how much better one can do just by eating less meat, and so far I’m doing so. I have no authority or desire to tell anyone else to do the same, or to say that I’m “more moral” because of this. It just feels right to me, and I enjoy my food more.

if you’re not a vegetarian, and vegetarians make you grumpy, consider why. Are there good reasons why someone else’s personal moral choice makes you upset? Are people who make a moral choice necessarily hypocrites, nannies, deluded utopians? Or have you avoided and denied ethical and empathetic impulses so much in your own life that anyone making the effort has you terrified?

Hating others for harmlessly doing what they believe to be right does not reflect well on us as individuals or as a society. Eschew that.

Vocabulary of the day, courtesy Bob

Whiskey Car (n). A car which has been operated by a heavy drinker for some time. A particular damage pattern identifies a Whiskey Car. There will be parking lot dents, small ones with a bit of paint from another car or a pole. A distinctive pattern of impacts will be seen on the top of the fenders or bumpers due to angry car-whacking, for example with a pool cue or a hand tool. The inside of the car will smell vaguely bad, similar to the tobacco and old alcohol aroma of its owner at the end of the evening. Any keyhole will be scratched from impaired attempts to get the key in.

The whiskey car is immediately identifiable by observant people who’ve spent time in bars.

Not in the stars, but in ourselves

Whatever else Susan Sontag did, she gets a ticket into heaven for Illness as Metaphor (link to isbn.nu).

For those who haven’t read this invaluable little book, here’s a thumbnail: She looks at medical conditions are treated as moral problems instead of as diseases. Her examples are tuberculosis and cancer, and in a later supplement, AIDS.

The telling point she makes is this: If an illness is both threatening and mysterious, so that it can kill or disable at any time but is not understood or curable, its cause will be assigned to something socially determined. TB was thought to result from too passionate and expressive a personality, and sufferers were told to lie down and stop reading poetry and having romances. Later, cancer was ascribed to holding in , and patients were blamed for not expressing themselves.

In both of these cases an inexplicable affliction was linked to a social prejudice, and without evidence this was accepted. And in both cases the patient’s behavior was blamed. It’s easy to see why AIDS was added in her supplement. Another mysterious and threatening ailment was entirely blamed on moral and social problems, so that the actual biological problems were poorly investigated and patients were blamed and ostracized.

Since cancer and AIDS are still deadly and mysterious in affluent societies, the problem remains. Any theory that presents a moral enemy as the cause of these diseases will be accepted by the appropriate group. If your group dislikes pharmaceutical companies, governments, synthetic chemicals, homosexuals, meat, science itself, or any other socially contentious force, then moral certainty will be applied to medical uncertainty.

Some of these fears may be accurate. Cancers can be caused by trace amounts of metals or chemicals, or by radiation. Birth defects and crippling illnesses result from exposure to toxins and infectious agents in pregnancy. People did get AIDS because governments and medical agencies chose not to screen transfused blood, and people died of AIDS because of malign neglect by the same authorities.

But the problem remains technical at its heart, and not moral. Sassafras oil is a natural herbal carcinogen. Deadly nuclear radiation can cure cancer. AIDS doesn’t care if your behavior is socially approved; it justs kills you. Magical thinking will sometimes solve your problem, but it’s more likely to make things worse for yourself and others.

A post today by ofmonsters reminded me of some of the current villains in the alt-culture world: vaccination, cow’s milk, refined sugar, white flour, processed foods, the Western diet, gluten, “toxins,” etc.

Some of the things in this list are bad news for people with particular medical problems. Other things in this list are worthy of investigation for basic personal health: too much processed food and dairy and a diet rich in meat will in general make people less healthy, for example. And some of them are meaningless. “Toxins,” for example, always refers to some nebulous and poorly defined environmental evil that must be cleansed, rather than to actual known toxic substances, all of which are different from each other. White flour has less fiber in it, but is not otherwise evil. Refined white sugar and brown sugar and honey and rice syrup have different flavors but provide the same dangerous blast of calories.

The vaccination fear is paranoiac. Vaccination is a symbol of government power, scientific arrogance, and threats to children. In a state of ignorance it’s understandable that someone would fear this. Without vaccination we have piles of dead children and later piles of dead adults. It’s not negotiable. Tagging vaccines with autism (another poorly understood and incurable affliction) gave the whole counterculture a perfect condensed symbol for their dislike of white coats, compulsory medical treatment, and the medical-industrial complex. But they’re wrong, and being wrong about vaccination threatens everyone.

What I have to say to these fearful people is this.

1) Read Sontag, or at least work at understanding the concepts she talks about. Watch out for moral certainty when you’re solving medical problems.

2) Your fears of government, pharmaceutical companies, toxic substances, radiation, bad diets, dangerous assumptions built into Western culture, and the centralized corporate meat-centric incompetent business of Big Food are all completely legitimate. There are deadly problems and bad people and very poorly organized institutions.

So we do have big problems, and the problems are similar in kind to the ones you’re seeing. The problems, however, do not result from science. They result from bad engineering and wickedness. The scientific method is how we know these things went wrong. That’s why we know that heavy metals in our food are bad, and that factory farming kills, and that it’s better to cut down on the cow’s milk and eat more fiber, and that cancer can result from contamination of food and water.

The scientific method is also why we know that vaccination is a good idea, that sassafras is a carcinogen even though it’s natural, that “toxins” means many different things and not one, that chelation is a dangerous treatment for specific situations, and that white sugar and honey will give a diabetic the same dangerous load of concentrated calories. It’s also how we found out that stomach ulcers were often caused by an infection and not by “stress.”

The antidote to unreasoned panic is not less science, but more. The scientific method is, to paraphrase Churchill, the worst way of interpreting illness except for all of the other methods tried. This includes the method Sontag clearly outlines. If someone says that the illness is due to “stress” or “toxins” or “Western diet” or “gay lifestyle” or “the government,” stop and watch closely.

Choosing an attractive moral or social cause for your terrifying unexplained problem may feel satisfying. Don’t take the bait.

Edie Sedgwick, slight return

The Los Angeles Times Magazine has been in decline at least since 1986.

They have tried to recast themselves as the New York Times Magazine, as a Southern California Lifestyle Thing like Sunset Magazine, as maybe four other things. Nothing works.

This week they managed to hit a new low with a feature article on a young woman named Cory Kennedy.

Cory has been internet famous since she was 15, which was in 2005. Someone took pictures of her and posted them, and the phenomenon grew as those things can. She is a pretty girl, and her prettiness is of the gamine waif variety. She will look 15 until she’s 25.

The Times Magazine article is the typical deploring/promoting titillation piece. They at once portray her as the “grew up too fast” pop culture victim and as a high-flying teen hottie. They play this game very well. They also made sure to post forty-four pictures of her to accompany the article on the Net.

Ephebophilic disasters like this aren’t new. The current crop probably started with the Guess? ads in the 1980s. The “new” men’s magazines are all over it. It’s creepy. The way this article presented it was particularly damaging, though. She’s presented as someone who did this of her own initiative and was in charge all along. It started when she was 15. This appears to confirm predators’ belief that their young victims are behaving as adults and not being manipulated.

Edie Sedgwick died in her 20s. I wonder how long Cory will make it?

Theory: We Are All Andy Now

I have heard a lot of conspiracy theories about prominent people: that they are actually evil space lizards or controlled by same, that they are all Illuminati or Masons, that they are somehow demon-possessed or in the pay of warring alien races. This is clearly foolish and probably schizophrenic.

I have an alternate theory. I believe that in the early 1980s, shortly before he died, Andy Kaufman had himself cloned. The Kaufman clones grew quickly and were dispersed into the community, and there were thousands of them. Today, almost every prominent person in politics, entertainment, the arts, academia, the military, and media is an exact copy of Andy Kaufman.

This explains a number of things. How many times in the last few years have you heard someone say “This is insane! It’s like an Andy Kaufman routine!”? How many rumors have there been that Andy isn’t actually dead, but faked it and is in disguise? How many times have you looked at someone on TV or read something in the paper and though “Are daily events just riffing on Andy, or what?”

Locally we had a school board member named Steve Rocco who caused yet another set of Andy-lives rumors last month. The so-called “Borat” phenomenon is clearly Latka. The Turkmenbashi, Santorum, almost all bloggers, Zacarias Moussaoui, the list of Kaufman projects just goes on and on. How much of American public discourse now resembles 1970s pro wrestling? Nearly all of it!

There’s only one way to find out. I propose mandatory Andy DNA testing. How else will we know how much of our society is being controlled by his one last, best perfect performance?

And think about it. You could be an Andy too, and not know it yet.

Meaning Well: Anti Irony #1

One of the worst things you can call someone now is “well-meaning.”

A well-meaning person is always doing the wrong thing. The phrase encompasses many sins. The well-meaning person is presumed to be ignorant of the world’s harsh ways, naive, gullible, and full of an unwarranted optimism especially about human nature. Arrogance or at least hubris is implied too, in that well-meaning people have an exaggerated view of their own ability to improve things.

One thing is certain: well-meaning people always make things worse. They’re always trying to feed babies when the real problem is that parents won’t work. Or getting in the way of a war because of the horrors thereof when the real problem can only be solved by winning the war. Or providing shelter for the poor when the real problem is the oppressive system that keeps them poor. Well-meaning people always seem to have band-aid solutions and don’t see the picture. Their attempts to make things better always result in disaster because of something called the Law of Unintended Consequences which says that every time you do something that seems to mean well it will mean more trouble later on, in the larger scheme of things.

The answer to the problem of the well-meaning is to accept that the world is a harsh place and embrace that harshness. In fact, one is supposed to embody the world’s hard ways. If someone misbehaves, punishment and force must be used. If there is a problem between governments, then it will inevitably result in war and it’s best to prosecute the war as soon as possible. If there is a social disaster like a famine or an economic crisis, it’s important that this “run its course”; mere half-measures like handing out food or shoes will only drag out the problem.

If a problem resists solution by bombing or jailing or some other harsh measures, then it is considered to be insoluble and part of the human condition. To say otherwise is, once again, to be “well-meaning.” Tough-minded hard-nosed adults understand how unforgiving and full of suffering things are and don’t try to change it. Only the very young and the fatally naive believe that things can be improved.

This is a place where Social Darwinism, Marxism, and Malthusian pessimism meet after having been thoroughly dumbed down into one idea: don’t try to be good. The task is impossible and will make you into a victim yourself. Worse still, it will obstruct the natural way of things which eventually resolves conflicts. The Tao of this worldview is cruelty, and you must flow with it.

This attitude is everywhere in my country. The admirable person is said to be hard-nosed, realistic, rational, sober, and tough. His opponents are softies, Pollyannas, illogical, giddy, and weak. It’s as though the Churchill-Chamberlain dichotomy was applied to every part of life: politics, religion, law, medicine, the arts, everything. You’re either a heroic bulldog war fighter or an umbrella-waving idiot appeaser.

The word “aggressive” is entirely positive in all contexts. It has come to mean “effective,” and anything labeled “passive” is by definition a failure. One roots out crime aggressively, and also treats disease aggressively, and even an aggressive prose style is given the seal of approval.

I urge you to resist this. Mean well.

Feed babies. Use band-aids on wounds. Give poor people 20 dollar bills and places to stay. Solve arguments without violence. Oppose cruelty and war. Be passive rather than aggressive. I urge you, in fact, to be a complete weenie and wussy, who can’t see that what’s needed is a short sharp shock. I urge you to think of criminals and drug addicts as salvageable improvable humans. I urge you to lose an argument more often and to resist an opportunity to destroy an enemy.

It’s true that our conscience doesn’t know how to manage a central bank or create a national water policy or stop the warmongering of dictators. And our conscience is naive about realpolitik and the tragedy of the commons and the necessity of breaking eggs to make metaphorical omelettes.

“Well-meaning” is our attitude when we listen to conscience. I am not ashamed.

Windbag alert and attention conservation notice

I have developed a manifesto-sized idea and am about to blog it out. You have been warned. Long essays making a large cultural point can’t be sold and published conventionally unless the author is a respected and eminent intellectual or a rock ‘n’ roll star. Those who can, do; those who aren’t, blog.

This may fizzle or may be several essays; I’m not sure where I’m going to pinch off the blog yet. Because of TL;DR in this post-literate medium I present some bullet points below for those who aren’t going to plow through the thing.

  • Irony is worse than dead, it’s suicidal.
  • Stop celebrating bad art, bad food, and evil. There’s a place for enjoying things that are so bad they’re good. It isn’t the place called “the entire culture.” Giving up on quality of any kind has more serious consequences than we might think.
  • Phony postmodernism kills. Take the risk of being well-meaning and sincere. A couple of poorly understood Cultural Studies classes does not confer the privilege of detached Godhood.
  • Permanent adolescence is no improvement over permanent childhood. Living our lives fully and meaningfully is a duty to others and not just to ourselves.
  • Subcultures, fandoms, and gaming worlds are eating a generation of privileged and educated people alive when we could and should be doing well and doing good. Come out of the couch fort and live.
  • Cheap fatalism is a crime of privilege. Admitting defeat in advance hurts many, many people less fortunate than we are before it touches us.

I freely admit in advance that I will be didactic, pretentious, and annoyingly prescriptive. It’s likely that I’ll also be irrelevant and that I will make a fool of myself. I have no formal training in philosophy or sociology and will probably reinvent various wheels poorly.

But sometimes an idea just arrives and possesses me. This one has sat on me for years, and is at the root of a troublesome fiction project that won’t budge. Tormenting my small audience with an unsaleable vanity-press think piece is the best I can do with it right now.

Further material in this series will be tagged “ironyproject.”