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.

Who is my neighbor? A lesson from the Fire Department.

Today I’d like to talk about the fire department.

Let’s get something out of the way first. I’m not going to talk about firefighters. Firefighters define heroism in the popular imagination. Especially after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the fireman is a condensed symbol of personal sacrifice, courage, expertise, tenacity, and total devotion to a cause. And because there were no front line soldiers to celebrate after that disaster, anyone wrapping himself in the bloody flag made sure to pop on the FDNY hat as well.

Professional firefighters are neither the most endangered nor the most selfless of people in America. They are well-equipped, well-trained, and well-paid. “Firefighter” is not in the top ten most dangerous jobs. It’s way worse to be a farmer, a cab driver, or a fisherman. Firefighters do dangerous things every day for excellent pay in the best possible circumstances.

So what distinguishes firefighters from other people who are paid well to take risks? The difference lies in the character of their employer, the fire department.

No city or town can exist without a fire department. As industrial cities grew, city-consuming fires became a threat to public order and commerce. If you can barely see your neighbor’s stove smoke, your house fire is your problem. If you’re in a cluttered row of shops in London, a fire three doors down grabs your interest right away. Private fire departments on a subscription basis didn’t quite do the trick, for obvious reasons. If half the town burned but your store didn’t, there wasn’t much to celebrate.

So, inevitably, firefighting services were expanded to include more and more places. If the whole city’s resources could be thrown at one nasty fire, it wouldn’t consume everything else. Stopping the destruction was far better than insuring against it. Like public health, the fire department was accepted as necessary, compulsory, and authoritative. Nobody could opt out of paying for the fire department, or object to their regulations, because it would endanger everyone else.

Fire departments themselves looked beyond municipal boundaries. When big disasters happen, sometimes they overwhelm one city’s resources. Other nearby departments have agreed to mutual aid, so that any fire department will help any other fire department in these circumstances. Today these arrangements are large and sophisticated enough that departments will send their resources a thousand miles away if a serious incident requires it.

The fire departments also took on the job of medical rescue. It made sense that the first to respond to fires and other disasters knew how to care for the injured, and this progressed to the point that fire departments had medics as well as people who just put out fires. Today every town has medics in their fire department, who work with private ambulances and hospitals. If someone is ill or injured, those medics will respond right away and help, and then figure out what can be done further.

I’m sorry to bore you with all of that detail, but there’s a point to this. The universal presence of these fire departments represents a commitment by the people in each town. The commitment is this:

If there is any fire, natural disaster, or other physical threat to life and property in this city, we are willing to pay a large sum of money to make sure that the problem is fixed as quickly as possible, without regard for who owns the property involved or why it happened. If any of our neighboring cities is overwhelmed by such an incident, we are willing to send as much of our own as we can to help. We will never go back on this, because the city and its neighbors are interdependent and we’ll all go up in flames if we don’t keep our promises.

Furthermore, if anyone is injured or becomes ill in our city, whether it’s a resident or not, we are willing to pay a large sum of money to see that this person receives the best in immediate treatment and transportation to a hospital. We’ll never go back on this, because we are committed to the health and safety of our own residents, and without the good hospitality of offering this to everyone, we can’t offer it to anyone. We trust that other cities will treat our residents likewise.

This is quite a statement. This means that if anything catches fire or falls over or floods anywhere in town, it’s our problem, we got it. And if anyone falls on the sidewalk or overdoses or gets food poisoning or tries to commit suicide here, that’s our problem too, we’ll take care of it. Always. And we know you’ll do it for us.

Here’s a good example, from the blog of the Los Angeles Fire Department:

On Tuesday, August 15, 2006 at 1:53 PM, eleven Companies of Los Angeles Firefighters, three LAFD Rescue Ambulances, two LAFD Helicopters, one LAFD Swift Water Rescue Team, two LAFD Dive Teams, one LAFD Rehab Unit, one LAFD Hazardous Materials Squad, one EMS Battalion Captain, one Battalion Chief Officer Command Team, one Division Chief Officer Command Team and Los Angeles Police Department resources, including the LAPD Underwater Dive Unit, under the Unified Command of Los Angeles Police and Fire Department Command Officers, responded to a Water Rescue and Recovery Effort near 1555 North San Fernando Road in the Los Angeles community of Glassell Park.

In this case, some teenagers were messing around fishing in a flood control channel and one of them fell in. The city sent what must be tens of millions of dollars in equipment and more than a hundred people, all moving as fast as possible including by air and water, to save one person who screwed up. No one asked if he was from Los Angeles, or even if he was from the United States. No one asked if he’d paid up his fire and rescue subscription. The city, in the form of a huge commitment of resources, said “No problem. We got that.”

There’s a big fight in America right now about health care. It’s actually a fight about money, of course. Currently the economics of health are hilariously broken, and there’s a war of ideas on what to do about it. Some want very much for the public to provide care for those otherwise without, and other people resist the idea of paying with their own tax money for people they disapprove of, or dislike, or fear.

For those of you who don’t want to pay tax to support the medical bills of others: I invite you to consider the fire department. It’s terribly expensive. There’s a lot of waste. There’s corruption. And worst of all, they take our tax dollars and spend it on any idiot or loser who falls asleep smoking or does a y’all-watch-this stunt or texts while driving. They even spend our money saving whorehouses, dive bars, criminals, illegal immigrants, and people who’ve taken a vow to kill us all. .

And you wouldn’t have it any other way, because if the fire department isn’t for all of us, it just won’t work. There’s no time to check green cards or get out the big book of moral ideas and decide whether this conflagration or severed artery meets our local standard. There is only time to help, or not.

So whether this influences your view on the current health care debate or not, I hope you will take the time to ask yourself: which town do you want to live in? The one who says “Yeah, we got that, no problem”? Or one that can’t figure out whether you’re worth their trouble in time to save you?

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.

Unpopular suggestion

Conservative religious types are saying that the destruction of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast was an angry God’s response to abortion, or homosexuality, or our failure to teach the Ten Commandments in schools.

A lot of countries abort, and tolerate gays, and fail to teach Biblical morality in schools. I haven’t seen a lot of massive natural disasters in Sweden or New Zealand lately, though.

I wonder how many conservative Christians have considered that the Old Testament God of Wrath might be upset at us over the war?

Let’s dare the nation’s pastors to ask that question this Sunday. Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah would.