Until recently, the terms of what we might call human species right – our perceived, autogenous R echt to appropriate, exploit, torment, and kill other sentient beings for any and all human purposes, forever – were seen as natural and immutable, and so went unquestioned. In the late 20th-century, however, an international social movement for animal liberation arose to challenge the terms of this presumed right, suggesting that it is both possible and desirable to cease enslaving and killing other beings, for our sake as well as for theirs. Yet even as the movement struggles to find its footing in the teeth of government repression, widespread social prejudice, and an entrenched corporate-capitalist system based in animal exploitation, a group of intellectuals has risen up in determined political reaction against it. Like those who earlier mocked suffragism, opposed the abolition of slavery, or lifted their pens to decry civil rights for blacks, today’s anti-animal critics are trying to discredit the movement before its critique can gain traction in the wider culture. Despite the shoddiness of their arguments, the critics find credulous readers, not because of the quality or novelty of their ideas, but because their prejudices happen to coincide with the bad conscience of the majority. The Vegetarian Myth, by Lierre Keith, is a recent entry in what has become a new genre of apologia for human empire. It is noteworthy for showing us that that majority now includes a portion of the radical Left, which has apparently received Keith’s intellectually dishonest and reactionary book with enthusiasm.
With the wind of the locavore movement at her back and food writer Michael Pollan as her lodestar, Keith sets out to destroy vegetarianism and, en passant, animal rights. The author’s own vegetarianism almost killed her, she tells us, and unless vegans and animal rights activists are stopped, they are going to destroy the earth’s biosphere. This frankly apocalyptic narrative sets The Vegetarian Myth apart from scholarly critiques of animal rights by philosophers on the Right. The Vegetarian Myth may be many things – a paean to diet fads, a primer on the sins of agriculture, a primitivist anti-vegetarian screed, a Bildungsroman of Keith’s passage from infantile veganism to the “adult knowledge” of the necessity of killing other beings. But as a literary form, its nearest cousin is the millenarian tract. With its determination to divide the world into friends and enemies, its willingness to scant reason and traduce fact to compel the reader to its fevered conclusions, and above all its steely determination to abolish a civilization it deems hopelessly corrupt and wholly evil, The Vegetarian Myth ultimately has more in common with John’s Revelation than with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Apocalypticism in leftist discourse is not new – but the use of apocalyptic rhetoric by an avowed leftist to attack a radical social movement may be.
A radical feminist turned animal farmer, Keith begins by arguing that because plant agriculture – rather than the animal economy – is the more serious threat to the global ecological system, animal liberationists are putting our species on a collision course with the carrying capacity of the earth by advocating a plant-based diet. Keith writes movingly of the toll that modern mechanized agriculture takes on local ecosystems and on the myriad animal species who live in them. Agriculture ruins rivers through salinization, dumps nitrogen run-off into the sea, rips the nutrients out of the soil, poisons or displaces millions of birds, mammals, fish, and reptiles, and turns once thriving ecosystems into desert wastelands. Corporate agriculture is indeed a “war” on the earth, one akin to “ethnic cleansing” (37).
Keith is right that the current system of monocrop agriculture, which relies on unsustainable and ecologically fatal infusions of petrochemicals, is broken. She is also right that many vegans have no idea how the food on their plates got there, nor that much of the health food market has been cornered by ecosystem-destroying corporate behemoths. The trouble, however, is that Keith extends her sensible critique of corporate and petrochemical-based forms of agriculture to condemn all agriculture as such – ancient, modern, future. Agriculture, she tells us, is to blame for everything that has gone wrong in society, from “slavery, imperialism, [and] militarism” to “chronic hunger, and disease” (4), urbanization, “class stratification… population overshoot… and a punishing Father God” (43). Like the born-again Christian who discovers that one cannot be a “little” bit saved (nor a little bit pregnant), Keith is adamant that “[a]ny attempt to grow annual crops… will destroy the land” (55). All agriculture ends “in death” (45). “Agriculture… is the end of the world” (137, emphasis added). Hence Keith’s solution to this crisis: to reduce the human population by more than 90 percent, and to replace crop cultivation with a virtuous mix of hunting-gathering and small-scale animal husbandry.
However, Keith fails to show either that all forms of agriculture are equally bad, or that agriculture leads inevitably to global “biocide.” There is a false dilemma built into her argument, since there is historical precedent for sustainable stewardship of the land. In the Tai Lake region of ancient China, to name but one example, human beings engaged in sustainable agriculture practices for almost a thousand years, without depleting the soil, and even increased their yields over time.1 More recently, the postwar experience with small-scale organic farming shows that agriculture can be both sustainable and practicable – that farmers can nourish and replenish the soil, mitigate most of the harmful effects of clearing the land, conserve fresh water resources, and protect the other species who suffer the effects of agricultural technique. This is not to say that even organic agriculture does not come at some ecological cost, nor that nonhuman beings don’t suffer “collateral damage” from plant cultivation (they do). But it is to suggest that the choice is not, as Keith argues, between ending agriculture or accepting planetary death, nor between eating animals and the figure of “a starving child” (115).
In fact, the international flesh economy is a far greater threat to biotic survival than plant agriculture. Although Keith fails to mention the fact in her 300-page book, of the estimated 40 percent of the planetary landmass given over to agriculture, three quarters of these lands are devoted either to grazing animals for human consumption or growing plant matter to feed them. Animal agriculture accounts for about one-fifth of all gases associated with global warming, the razing of millions of hectares of rainforests in Latin America, the Phillipines, and elsewhere, and the poisoning of watersheds and riverways.2 The social consequences of animal production are also abysmal. Intensified animal agriculture displaces peasants, poor farmers, and Indigenous peoples from their land, strengthens the power of local oligarchs and the military in the Third World, and distorts national economies by making them dependent upon an ecologically unsustainable, violent, export-driven form of development. The situation is so dire that even world elites worry that the meat economy is destabilizing the international political order: a special task force of the World Bank, the US Agency for International Development, and the European Union urges immediate action to offset “the very substantial contribution of animal agriculture to climate change and air pollution, to land, soil and water degradation and to the reduction of biodiversity.”3 Meanwhile, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has urged the world’s citizens to reduce – or eliminate – meat from their diets as a way of combating global warming.
But it’s not enough for Keith to argue that universal vegetarianism would destroy the world; she suggests that a vegetarian diet is physically incompatible with our biology as hominids. The Vegetarian Myth in fact reads like a laundry list of all the fatal, near-fatal, and just plain ugly diseases and illnesses that a vegetarian diet supposedly brings in its wake. Keith links vegetarianism with “illness and exhaustion,” hypoglycemia, osteoporosis, autoimmune diseases, tooth decay, eating disorders, sugar cravings, fertility problems, depression and anxiety, cessation of endorphin production, endometriosis, schizophrenia, Multiple Scleroris, and more. Vegetarianism “is not sufficient nutrition for long-term maintenance and repair of the human body. To put it bluntly, it will damage you” (9). Vegetarianism, she writes, can “never… provide enough protein, fat, fat soluable vitamins, or minerals” for the human body. “You will destroy your bones and joints,” and put yourself “at tremendous risk for cancer, especially the kinds that kill” (239).
Keith does not bother to provide any scientific evidence for any of her claims. Instead, warning her reader away from the epidemiological literature on meat and plant-based diets, Keith turns to personal anecdote and invective. When not ridiculing vegetarians ad hominem (which she does throughout her text), Keith – a former vegetarian – begs them to quit before it’s too late, because “I destroyed my body” (234) and “you don’t want to end up like me” (11).
In fact, both the American Dietic Association and the Canadian Dietic Association have found that “vegetarian diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate and provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.”4 Moreover, the overwhelming scientific consensus is that vegetarians are significantly healthier as a group than meat-eaters. Meanwhile, meat consumption has been positively correlated with colorectal cancer as well as cancers of the prostate, breast, ovaries, and so on. Keith herself cites a study showing that Seventh-Day Adventists, the largest population of vegans ever studied, live longer and “have lower rates of ‘hyptension, diabetes, arthritis, colon cancer, prostate cancer, fatal CHD in males, and death from all causes’” (242) when compared to the non-vegan population. By this point in her book, however, Keith has been arguing for more than 200 pages that living on a vegan or even vegetarian diet is biologically impossible. How, then, can it be that these vegans are not only not dying from excruciating diseases, but are actually healthier than the rest of the population? She writes: “comparing Seventh-Day Adventists to the average American is absurd, because they are also forbidden to drink alcohol and coffee and they aren’t allowed to smoke. They eat substantially more fresh food and substantially fewer doughnuts. Of course they’re healthier” (242). But whether or not the extraordinary health of the Adventists is partly due to their not drinking liquor and coffee is irrelevant: Keith has acknowledged that people living for years on a vegan diet are far healthier than the meat-eating mainstream. Keith thus refutes Keith.
But it is not enough for Keith to claim that we are required to eat meat. She must also show that eating other animals is morally permissible. Killing other animals is justified, she writes, because it is natural. In order to advance this claim, she makes an unusal methodological choice: in the face of a veritable mountain of scholarly work on animal consciousness and animal rights in analytic and continental philosophy, sociology, political theory, feminist theory, literary studies, and a dozen scientific fields, Keith pretends that none of it exists. Let me be clear: Lierre Keith has written a book-length treatment of animal rights and ethical vegetarianism that ignores everything written on the subject over the last century and beyond. Besides being grossly unfair to advocates of animal rights, Keith’s anti-intellectual approach also leads her to advance a variety of bizarre and unsupportable claims. Among other things, she argues that plants are sentient (a position held by not a single reputable scientist in the world) and that sentience is anyway irrelevant in a discussion of moral interests (a position not held by a single moral philosopher in the world). She also argues that other animals “choose” to be our captives, and indeed prefer a life of slavery and exploitation to freedom in the wild. These and similar positions have all been examined and demolished in the scholarly literature.
The Vegetarian Myth is the kind of book, though, that eschews the philosophy and sociology of human-animal relations for best- selling diet fad books like Protein Power. Keith goes on for pages about “the cholesterol myth” and includes a two-page chart comparing the teeth, gall bladders, colon size, etc., of dogs, sheeps, and humans, all in order to prove that humans are not “meant” to eat a vegetarian diet, but rather a meat-based one. Throughout, Keith falls back on the locavore version of intelligent design, conflating an accidental natural capacity with immanent teleological purpose. We learn, for example, that cows and other animals brought to the Americas for ruthless exploitation five centuries ago “all have the lives they were meant to have” (271); meanwhile, “we [humans] are built to consume meat” (141). But it is not hard to see the fallacy in this line of reasoning. Looking down at my hands, for example, I see vestigial claws – “nails.” In evolutionary terms, claws served many useful purposes, including self-defense. But the fact that I retain the ability to use my vestigial claws to gouge out the eyes of my neighbour does not therefore mean that I am entitled to do so. Similarly, whether or not our bodies are capable of digesting animal parts has no ethical significance. We can also digest human flesh and bone in a pinch (and many have, through the centuries), but that fact is a poor excuse for anthropophagy.
Forgetting that human labour is an historical and social production, not a given natural “fact,” Keith treats the human killing and exploitation of other animals as though such practices were pre-social, even pre-categorical. However, whenever humans find themselves in practical relations to other animals, they and the animals are instantly bound up in historical, social relations. Unlike the shark who seizes a smaller fish in its jaws, when humans appropriate the bodies of other animals they always do so in media res, i.e. in the context of culture and its web of ideologies, mythologies, and so on. Capital, too, is a social relation. One that is culturally, discursively, and semiotically mediated. The same is true of meat as capital, one of the biggest commodities traded on the world market. Keith neglects the fact that the struggle over human species imperialism in general, and over the Recht of humans to organize society around the consumption of animal flesh in particular, is a struggle over the representation, psychology, and even existential nature of meat. TheVegetarian Myth enters in to this struggle, but in ways that the author is unable to comprehend.
Here we must read Keith’s text as an expression of the contradictions of capitalist society. The key to such a reading lies in the contradictory nature of the locavore movement and with that movement’s unconscious articulation with the violence and aggression of late capitalist culture.
Most of the educated public is by now familiar with the term “locavore.” Dovetailing with the urban “guerilla gardening” movements of the 1980s, the locavore movement in the US came to the fore of popular consciousness in 2006 with the publication of Michael Pollan’s bestseller, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Behind the movement is a well-meaning desire for healthful, ecologically sustainable, socially just, and locally grown foods. Locavores favour small farms over big ones, organic and sustainable agricultural techniques, and backyard plots filled with chickens and other animals for DIY slaughter. Some locavores (like Keith) also subscribe to bioregionalism – the idea that we should only, or to the extent possible, consume foodstuffs that are native to our particular biotic region. Eating locally, or growing one’s own food, is said to build community and encourage sustainable farming practices.
Prima facie, the virtues of locavorism seem clear. Supporting local farmers, or family-owned ones, makes vastly more sense socially and ecologically than does supporting corporate giants like ConAgra or ADM. Moreover, like its sister Slow Food movement in Europe, locavorism is as much about affirming a communitarian ethos as an environmentalist land ethic. However, while generally depicted as a progressive or leftist movement, locavorism is more ideologically ambiguous than it at first appears to be.
We might first note that locavorism cribs heavily from the American pastoral ideal, which precedes it by centuries. That ideal, personified by “the gentleman farmer” who leaves the hurly-burly of urban life for the simple pleasures of growing his own food, can be traced back to Thoreau’s Walden and Thomas Jefferson’s letters praising the virtues of national isolationism and self-sufficiency through immersion in local rural life. As an ideology, the tenets of American pastoralism have remained remarkably consistent since the 18th century, and they tend toward the right rather than left end of the political spectrum.
For its part, the locavore movement has yoked an unproblematized naturalism to a post-Fordist consumer culture of “niche” commodity production: speaking of their hope of creating “the best-tasting animals around,” locavore farmers Bill and Nicolette Niman have built an $85 million business in goat flesh by teaming up with “a parade of investors” and hiring a “new management team…led by Jeff Swain, who had been at the company that produces Coleman Natural Beef.”5
The organo-libertarian narrative of self-reliance is meanwhile strongly connected to an aesthetic of self-realization. Food not only tastes better when it is locally grown; being “in touch” with the land bestows existential authenticity on the act of consumption, grounding it in ostensibly unmediated relations with producers. In some cases, the fetish of the local drifts also toward nativism: native plants, native peoples, those who belong and those who do not. As Vasile Sta?nescu observes, the environmental movement’s emphasis on “the local” can exhibit “a deeply disturbing strain of conservatism, provincialism, xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment.”6 In this regard, it is telling that Keith’s touchstone for the ideal animal farm is Polyface Farms, owned and operated by Joel Salatin, a graduate of Bob Jones University, the right-wing Christian fundamentalist college. Like others on the agrarian right, Salatin has voiced suspicion of foreign workers in America’s fields, and has made common cause with the anti-immigrant movement.7 While Keith would find such a nativism anathema to her anti- imperialist politics, she seems unaware of the hazards that her agrarian, anti-cosmopolitan proscriptions bring in their train, and tone deaf to the implications of aligning herself with (among others) Salatin, Teddy Roosevelt, and the Mormons. Even Michael Pollan, the intellectual godfather of locavorism, acknowledges the conservative implications of the movement, approvingly citing a 2007 editorial in The American Conservative calling locavorism,“a conservative cause if ever there was one.”8
While ordinary social conservatives would turn the clock back to the 1950s, that’s nothing for Keith, who would like to turn the clock back 10,000-46,000 years. Whereas hunting was always tied to “the sacred,” she avers, agriculture led to “religious theocracies” (72). Keith’s thrust is that killing and eating animals is our heritage, and we ought to honour that heritage and keep it up. An unapologetic primitivist, Keith asserts that hunting is natural and that animal flesh is “the food of our ancestors” (249). Lest any of Keith’s readers not get her point, her publisher helpfully posts a colour photograph of the cave paintings of Lascaux on the front cover of her book. Keith refers several times to the paintings, waxing poetic about her desire to participate in the world of the people who created them. What “literally made us human,” she writes, was our hunting of the “megafauna of the prehistoric world, the aurochs and antelopes and mammoths” (28).
Here, the curious reader might wonder what happened, exactly, to all those lovely mammoths and aurochs. Keith doesn’t say. But the prevailing scientific view is that humans hunted them to quick extinction. In fact, while Keith repeatedly invokes the many inherent virtues and “sacredness” of pre-civilizational hunter- gathering cultures, she fails to ask how good those hunter-gatherers were at managing their ecological “resources.” Jared Diamond fills in the blanks:
Beginning with the first human colonization of the Australian continent around 46,000 years ago and the subsequent prompt extinction of most of Australia’s large marsupials and other large animals, every human colonization of a land mass formerly lacking humans – whether of Australia, North America, South America, Madagascar, the Mediterranean islands, or Hawaii and New Zealand and dozens of other Pacific islands – has been followed by a wave of extinction of large animals that had evolved without fear of humans and were easy to kill, or else succumbed to human-associated habitat changes, introduced pest species, and diseases.9
These and similar grim facts would seem to complicate Keith’s romantic portrait of hunter-gatherers. Presumably this is why she leaves them out. Unfortunately, the pattern of human domination and extermination Diamond describes never ended. Today, technological capitalism has greatly improved the rate and efficiency of extermination, speeding up the grisly business many times over. It is estimated that as many as one in three to one in seven mammalian, reptilian, amphibian, and avian species will be obliterated from the earth in a matter of decades.
The critique of all this carnage has impelled capitalism to protect its own “heritage.” Keith’s romanticization of killing other animals ends up helping to recover the meat mystique by reinforcing human species right just as it has come under challenge. In the wake of hundreds of health studies showing a high correlation between meat consumption and numerous human diseases, along with growing public awareness of the ecological and moral crimes of factory farming, the meat industry has been strategizing for years now about ways to prop up its sagging public image. Faced with these twin threats, the industry has gone on the offensive and has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in a concerted, multi-pronged counter-movement. While Keith too is against factory farming, her defense of killing and eating animals provides ideological cover for this larger project.
Locavore discourse enables the animal industry to recuperate the lost “aura” of flesh-as-commodity by re-naturalizing killing and eating other animals. In the carno-locavore narrative, corporate or industrialized agriculture is damaging our ecosystem, bad for our health, and “cruel” to the animals trapped inside the system. Worst of all (for middle class locavores), it produces inferior commodities – bad tasting flesh, cow’s milk tainted with hormones, and an unsafe food supply. But happily there is a solution. If only we grow our own food, raise and kill our own “meat,” we can defeat the corporate Machine, restore the ecosystem to its former natural splendor, and feel good again about what we eat. It’s a win-win for all concerned – for “consumers,” for poor people starved by trade imbalances, for ecosystems ruined by a petrochemical agriculture system, and for the farm animals who will now live “pampered” and healthy lives before being mercifully killed.
However, the locavore ideal of “authentic” food production and consumption segues imperceptibly into the aestheticization of violence and the naturalization of human species right. Here, the libidinal pleasures of killing animals are conjoined with a narrative of (white) bourgeois entitlement. Since the publication of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, numerous articles have appeared in the New York Times and other elite media highlighting the sensuous pleasures of killing and eating animals one has “grown” for oneself. The Times, for example, relates how “artist and agricultural activist” Laura Parker and her friends butchered a pig raised on a friend’s farm, in order “to see if its flavor would match that of the dirt it grew up on.”10 Similarly, urbanites drive long distances into remote rural areas to personally kill and butcher “their” own animal, or spend as much as $10,000 for a course on killing and butchering.11 Meanwhile, hip young butchers exert “the raw, emotional appeal of an indie band.” Fans can thus “be a part of meat and liquor mash-ups at a local bar where he butchers a pig while people drink cocktails….”12 In these stories (often in the “Style” section), the environmental benefits of locavorism are mentioned in passing, but what counts is the bourgeois quest for an “authentic” experience – a “primal connection” – in which the consumer looks “his” animal in the eye.
The spectacle of killing thus gets wrapped around the spectacle of conspicuous, and strangely eroticized, consumption – young, white, upper middle class urbanites gathering around the table with friends to gaze upon the vanquished, dismembered body of a goat or pig.13 When Michael Pollan and his upper middle class white friends, seated in the lovely enclosed porch of a million-dollar home in Berkeley tuck into the succulent flesh of a goat they have personally butchered – and when the Times lavishes a three-page spread in the Magazine on the spectacle, along with the recipe – we are light-years away from Keith’s “natural predation” and closer to the fascist’s mockery of his powerless victims. Such spectacles are clearly performative. In them, consumption merges into sadism.
Theinnovation of The Vegetarian Myth is to bring this death fetishism to the Left. As a young vegan, Keith relates, she would go to great lengths not to kill the insects in her garden. Then came her epiphany: the soil in her garden “wants” and needs blood and animal tissue (20). From then on, having arrived at the “adult knowledge” that “life isn’t possible without death” (3), she breaks down and feeds her soil “blood and bones” (20). To those with a historical imagination, this literal conflation of Blut und Boden, blood and soil, cannot but sound creepy. There are viable non- animal alternatives to fertilization and enrichment of the soil, from phosphorous and seaweed to “night soil” (human waste) and the waste of wild animals living on the land. But Keith dismisses them out of hand. Plants only grow, she maintains, in blood-soaked earth – “Blood meal, bone meal, dead animals.” In fact, experts consider blood-meal hazardous for plants. Yet so intent is Keith to justify a political economy built on blood and bones – let us be clear, she would organize the ideal society around the domination and killing of other animals, in perpetuity – that she doesn’t notice. “I’ve learned to kill,” Keith writes. “And I’ve learned to say my own grace” (271).
While other locavore afficionados have acknowledged the personal difficulty of reconciling themselves to killing animals they ostensibly “care for” – “The hardest part of the slaughter was the betrayal….The pigs get in the trailer because they trust you, they get out of the trailer because they trust you, they go into the pen because they trust you.”14 – Keith, by contrast, cannot see any contradiction between expressing her “love” for her tender charges one moment, and slitting their throats and bleeding them out the next. Contemplating her friend’s killing of animals on her farm, she consoles herself with the knowledge that the victims “would have been well cared for, indulged even” (20). Meanwhile, her own chickens “happily lounged” (154) and her cows “spent contented lives” (154) at pasture – again before having their throats cut or getting the pickaxe or bullet to the brain.
By now we are all familiar with the crude Cartesian view of animals as mere unthinking machines, and we all know where that kind of thinking leads. But we lack a proper phenomenology of the dissociative condition that enables a carno-locavore like Lierre Keith to describe, with warmth and enthusiasm, the animals on her farm as “the joy of her days” (61), beings who will “accept you” – beings intelligent, perceptive, and sensitive enough to “come to you for help” and for “cuddle sessions” (24) – and then turn around and celebrate her killing of them. One cannot but be reminded of Adorno and Horkheimer’s caustic remark about the Nazis’ supposed love of animals: “The precondition of the fascists’ pious love of animals, nature, and children is the lust of the hunter. The idle stroking of children’s hair and animal pelts signifies: this hand can destroy.”15
How does a vegan who once “wanted to believe that my life – my physical existence – was possible without killing, without death” (14), end up waxing rhapsodic about hunting and singing joyously as she kills her farm animals with her own bare hands? But then, how does a radical feminist opposed to violence, war, and militarism end up extolling the virtues of a political economy that subjects other beings to unending human domination?
In the 1940s, Horkheimer and Adorno observed that, “for the being endowed with reason [i.e. Man]... concern for the unreasoning animal is idle. Western civilization has left that to women.”16 The early Frankfurt School theorists reasoned that, like nonhuman beings, women too had been subject to the terror and violence of a patriarchal order whose guiding premise remains the suppression of feeling and sentiment and the fetish of control over self and other. Half a century later, Carol Adams extended this critique into a“feminist-vegetarian critical theory” in The Sexual Politics of Meat.17 Among other things, Adams showed that “meat” is not something “natural” at all, but a complex social text abounding in the metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties of gender. Subsequent feminist critics have since elaborated on Adams’ work, deepening our understanding of how the political economy of animal killing has taken place within a discursive structure shaped by the values, institutions, and myths of patriarchal culture. Among other things, they have shown how the denigration of the so-called “feminine” emotions as mere “sentiment” by a wider, uncomprehending masculine culture obscures the radical ethical and political potential of mitgefu?lh – “feeling-with” or com-passion.18
Faced with this extensive feminist literature, Keith lapses into silence. Instead, urging us to embrace the “adult knowledge” that shooting pigs in the head and wringing chickens’ necks is necessary, beautiful work, Keith accuses animal rights activists of sentimentalism. She turns to Roger Scruton, the reactionary philosopher, to make her case for her. Sentiment, according to Scruton, is really only self- love. “For the sentimentalist,” he writes, “it is not the object but the subject of the emotion which is important.”19 By this topsy turvy logic, the animal rights activist who is moved to political action by the unspeakable acts of violence and violation we inflict on the bodies of hapless beings in our control, is guilty of narcissism and anthropocentrism.
One of the most prominent conservative critics of animal rights, Scruton is a frank misogynist who blames feminism for having ruined the natural relations between the sexes (“[w]hen women forge their own ‘gender identity,’ in the way the feminists recommend, they become unattractive to men,” etc.).20 It is therefore no small irony that Keith, a radical feminist, should choose Scruton as her ally to attack sentiment, which for generations has been a favourite target of conservatives opposed to social change. (In 1837, for example, pro-slavery Congressman Henry L. Pinckney denounced the “sickly-sentimentality” of abolitionists).21 In reality, however, many of Keith’s arguments are conservative ones, since they turn on various forms of the naturalistic fallacy. Naturalistic arguments have long been the weapon of choice for reactionaries, since they allow them to mask normative claims as statements of “fact.” For centuries, conservatives have attacked social reformers and radical democrats as dangerous individuals who would betray the “natural” order in the name of some starry-eyed and irresponsible utopia.
Keith repeatedly describes animal rights activists as naive, infantile figures who cling to the vision of a world that does not exist and cannot be. “The challenge of adulthood,” she explains, “is to remember our ethical dreams and visions in the face of the complexities and frank disappointments of reality” (76). Despite her otherwise radical politics, Keith thus joins other conservatives in denying the possibility of a world in which killing and domination are not the norm. Keith’s proximity to Scruton is closer even than she realizes, since in his latest book, The Uses of Pessimism and the Danger of False Hope, Scruton like Keith attacks “optimists and idealists… with their ignorance of human nature and human society, and their naive hopes about what can be changed.”22 While Keith would reject such a sentiment when directed against progressive social movements like feminism and anti-racism, she is unable to see how Scruton’s vicious attacks on animal rights might be of a piece with his larger hatred of egalitarianism. Nor is she aware of the ways in which her own positions are reflections in miniature of the ideological program of corporate agribusiness. In conducting its propaganda campaign to associate animal rights with extremism, the meat industry itself has adopted the strategy of isolating “radicals” while “cultivating” so-called “idealists.” The goal is to educate the latter so that they might become “realists.”23 This same language of nai?ve “idealists” versus meat-eating “realists” is identical to the language Lierre Keith uses throughout The Vegetarian Myth.
The question remains why so many leftists and environmentalists seem to be taken with such a poorly argued and politically regressive book. The seemingly obvious answer is that The Vegetarian Myth – published by a small anarchist press in Oakland, California – simply reinforces every prejudice the left might ever have about vegetarianism, veganism, or animal liberation. W hile Keith describes vegetarians as “Pied Pipers” who have led the left astray and “infused” it with “the righteous aura… of plant-based foods” (153), the reality is the opposite: most leftists remain as dismissive of vegetarianism and animal rights today as they were a century ago.24 However, this cannot be the only explanation, since until now the left has seen fit to ignore the animal question altogether. What, then, accounts for the left’s sudden interest in attacking a young social movement that is already under siege by the state and by global capital? 1
Ironically, the answer can be found in the very failings of The Vegetarian Myth: its aesthetic of killing, its impatience with scholarship, its contempt for sentiment. Coming after a period of extended historic defeat for the left (including for radical feminism), The Vegetarian Myth, with its voluntarist politics and its apocalyptic rejection of civilization itself (136), flashes up like a primordial cri de coeur against the existing order. At a moment when alternative forms of culture have been all but destroyed, and when neither socialism nor feminism are anywhere on the public agenda, is it any wonder that Keith should feel personally empowered by dominating and consuming hapless animals, or feel the need to vent her rage against other marginal, powerless radicals (vegans)? By the same token, is it surprising that elements on the left should be drawn to the death fetishism of carno-locavorism, in lieu of an effectual political program? In the contemporary context, speciesism, rather than anti-Semitism, may really be the socialism of fools.
I have already implied that the preoccupation in American grassroots politics with locavorism – often to the exclusion of virtually all other forms of oppositional politics – is indicative of the overdetermination of the radical imaginary by the structural imperatives of post-Fordist capital. However, the problem goes deeper than this. The acute crisis of the left – its ideological incoherence and strategic drift – stems in part from its unexamined relationship to a humanist tradition that obstinately reduces the other conscious beings to the status of mere things for our unending use and consumption. Since the world ecological crisis is itself a direct result of just such a predatorial conception of human agency, this means that the Left is itself complicit in ecocidal and exterminationist forms of violence. In this regard, the uncritical reception of Keith’s book simply speaks to the inability of contemporary critical intellectuals and activists to strike out on a path that would be truly independent of the dominant technological order.
Carno-locavore discourse is at one with patriarchal capital’s attempt to work out a new mode of regulation in the face of the massive social and ecological contradictions of the existing system. Part of capital’s quest involves shoring up the legitimacy of systemic violence. And this is as much a psycho-affective project as an economic one. Here, Herbert Marcuse’s analysis of how the release of libidinal instincts – rather than their repression –becomes constitutive of late capitalism is apropos. Whereas, in healthy social forms, the destructive drive is subordinated to and harnessed by the erotic, life-preserving drive, Eros now finds expression in the drive toward the annihilation of all life. This same dynamic manifests in the death fetishism of the carno-locavores, who affirm the control and destruction of other animals with such satisfaction. The fascination with domination of the weak now takes place openly, in the celebration of technics of extermination. But to reconcile oneself to the enslavement and killing of sensitive, conscious beings is only to accept the further intrusion of technological rationality into the realm of everyday life.
Keith is right that the agricultural system is broken and that, among other things, we must reduce our population if we are to avoid destroying the biotic community. We should also move towards smaller scale, sustainable farms. However, the problem facing humanity is not plant-based agriculture, per se, but a totalizing system of domination that reduces humans, animals, and ecosystems to the stuff of pure instrumental control. A true solution to the ecological crisis, and to the violence of corporate industrialized agricultural, must therefore be sought in a socialist praxis that breaks not only with capitalism but with a leftist culture that is itself complicit in the violence of human beings toward the other creatures.
1 E.C. Ellis and S.M. Wang, “Sustainable traditional agriculture in the Tai Lake Region of China,” Agriculture Ecosystems and Environment (1997), 61:177-193.
2 “Food, Livestock Production, Energy, Climate Change, and Health,” The Lancet, vol. 370, (6 October 2007), No. 9594: 1253-1263.
3 Henning Steinfeld, et al., Livestock’s Long Shadow, published by the Livestock, Environment, and Development Initiative (LEAD) of the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations (2006).
4 “Vegetarian Eating,” Eatright.org (website of the American Dietic Association, undated).
5 Kim Severson, “With Goat, a Rancher Breaks Away from the Herd,” N ew York T imes, Oct. 15, 2008, D4. The Nimans have been given plum real estate on the Op-Ed page of the Times, where Nicolette Niman writes that while “it’s sensible to cut back on consumption of animal-based foods,” the consumer should strive for a “more sophisticated” approach “than just making blanket condemnations of certain foods.” An $85 million business is of course well worth defending. N icolette H ahn N iman, “The Carnivore’s Dilemma,” N ew York T imes, Oct. 31, 2009, A17.
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6 Vasile Sta?nescu, “‘Green’ Eggs and Ham? The Myth of Sustainable Meat and theDangeroftheLocal,”inJohnSanbonmatsu,ed.,CriticalTheoryandAnimal Liberation (Rowman and Littlefield Press, 2011), 247.
7 Sta?nescu, 250-51.
8 Michael Pollan, Magazine, 65.
9 Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and S teel, 9.
10 Dara Kerr, “Gourmet Dirt,” N ew York T imes M agazine, Dec. 13, 2009, 42.
11 Melena Ryzik, “The Anti-Restaurants,” N ew York T imes, Aug. 27, 2008, D1. Alex Williams, “Slaugterhouse Live,” N ew York T imes, Oct. 25, 2009, Sunday Styles section, 2.
12 Kim Severson, “Young Idols with Cleavers Rule the Stage,” N ew York T imes, July 8, 2009, D5.
13 Michael Pollan, “Communal Oven: The 36-hour Dinner Party,” N ew York T imes M agazine, Oct. 19, 2010. See also, Peter Applebome, “A Party for Local Farming and Locally Grown Food,” N ew York T imes, Sept. 13, 2009.
14 Tamara Murphy, quoted in Moskin, p. D4.
15 Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), 210. Horkheimer and Adorno, 206.
16 Carol Adams, The S exual Politics of M eat (New York: Continuum, 1990).
17 CarolJ.AdamsandJosephineDonovan,TheFeministCareTraditioninAnimal Ethics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007). Lori Gruen, “Dismantling Oppression: An Analysis of the Connection between Women and Animals,” ed. Greta Gaard, Ecofeminism: Women, Animals, N ature (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993), 60-90.
18 Roger Scruton, Animal Rights and Wrongs (London: Claridge Press, Ltd., 1996), 127. Quoted in Keith, 75.
19 Roger Scruton, “Modern Manhood,” City Journal, Autumn 1999 (http://www. city-journal.org/html/9_4_a3.html).
20 Manisha Sinha, “The Caning of Charles Sumner: Slavery, Race, and Ideology in the Age of the Civil War,” Journal of the Early R epublic, Vol. 23, No. 2 (Summer, 2003).
21 AdcopyforRogerScruton,TheUsesofPessimismandtheDangerofFalseHope (Oxford, 2010).
22 John Stauber, “Managing Activism: PR Advice for ‘Neutralizing’ Democracy,” Center for Media and Democracy, PR Watch, Second Quarter 2002, Vol. 9, No. 2
23 (http://www.prwatch.org/prwissues/2002Q2/managing.html). See Harold Brown, “Examining the Dynamic Between the Animal Industry and the Animal Movement,” paper at the Thinking About Animals Conference, Brock University, March 2009.
24 See John Sorenson, “Constructing Extremists, Rejecting Compassion: Ideological Attacks on Animal Advocacy from Right and Left,” in Sanbonmatsu, 219-238.
25 Keith is not the only leftist attacking animal rights. See also Peter Staudenmeier, “Ambiguities of Animal Rights,” Institute of Social Ecology, Jan. 1, 2005 (http:// www.social-ecology.org/2005/01/ambiguities-of-animal-rights/).