Monday, November 13, 2017

Book Reviews: Two Tales on Eating the Unthinkable

Under the Skin by Michel Faber and Animals by Don LePan couldn't be more different as far as stories go, but both authors have managed to spin two unique and compelling narratives from one identical, unimaginable act.

The Vegan Vine; Animals by Don LePanAnimals is a thought-provoking tale that takes place in the twenty-second century, long after the mass extinction of most nonhuman animals.

The novel follows a human child named Sam who is disabled and therefore, is considered inferior and deemed a mongrel. We follow Sam from his original family and his loving, but working poor, single mother's home to his newly adopted home with Naomi, a brave, young girl who sees Sam as more than just the family pet and takes him under her wing.

Animals is a great achievement as it intricately combines two fictional manuscripts written in the future by Naomi and Broderick Clark, Sam's oldest brother. Clark interjects throughout to explain how things used to be before there were mongrels.

Even though Animals is a work of fiction, LePan shows what life is really like for billions of nonhumans today by skillfully illustrating, via a futuristic lens, similar experiences through another species.

Animals is for anyone who treasures a good narrative and the evolution of characters as they experience crises of morality and conscience. I thoroughly enjoyed the story of Sam, the extraordinary relationship he develops with Naomi, and their emotional and trying experiences as they contend with the limitations of the adults in their lives.

LePan has given us an engrossing tale that questions the way humans determine moral value based on false dichotomies. Readers will need a little patience, however, as the story line unfolds somewhat slowly due to the book's unique structure and Clark's footnotes toggling between the past and future, which makes for choppy reading. It's not until the reader is fully submersed in the growing but tenuous relationship between Naomi and Sam that the drama really begins to pick up steam.

If his aim was to raise people's consciousness about the persons they eat, I think LePan achieved his goal stupendously. Though he seems to conclude that eating products derived from nonhuman beings is wrong,—
"We treat them purely as food, . . . as things to be eaten, as things to be tortured if that will make the milk and flesh and eggs cheaper or tastier" (LePan, p. 159).
—LePan takes a disappointingly welfarist slant in the "Author's Afterword" and concedes that he is not vegan despite his novel's vegan bent. Still, Animals is a laudable piece of writing notwithstanding its author's personal shortcomings.

The Vegan Vine; Under the Skin by Michel FaberLikewise, I think readers will be surprised to learn that Michel Faber, author of Under the Skin, is admittedly not a vegan since he also incorporates the evil reality of meat production into his suspenseful and unsettling fable.

Under the Skin is a fast-paced thriller following Isserley, a Vess Industries employee, around the Scottish Highlands as she goes trolling for hitchhikers (vodsels) to bring back to the farm where she lives.

Having relocated after being discarded by the Elite, Isserley is forced to adapt a skewed human form to survive and fulfill her responsibilities for Vess Industries.

Exhausted and lonely, she grows weary performing her perfunctory duties and airs her grievances to a visiting Amlis Vess, heir to the company. Much to her surprise, Amlis disapproves of his father's work and takes an interest in Isserley, attempting to break through her bitterness and indifference.
" 'All I'm trying to get across to you,' he [Amlis] persisted, nettled, 'is that the meat you we're eating a few minutes ago is the same meat that is trying to communicate with us down here' " (Faber, p. 185).
If Under the Skin is anything, it is an irresistible and unusual suspense story that you don't want to put down but, thankfully, it is so much more than that.

There are a lot of similarities between Animals and Under the Skin. Both are gripping tales centered on morality and compassion, and both tactfully address cultural notions of classism, sexism, and speciesism. The authors' titles also communicate oneness (Under the Skin we're all Animals) in contrast to the epithets used to display otherness and the commodification of their characters (mongrels and vodsels).

As with the exploited mongrels in Animals, the vodsels Isserley targets in Under the Skin are dysfunctional and marginalized, nevertheless both authors ask us to identify with others, and they elicit sympathy for victims and perpetrators alike, irrespective of species. Is it easier to relate to a female alien who has little hope in her future or the violent human traveler she picks up, a deaf mongrel child or a broken human mother who feels forced to abandon him, a frightened cow who despairs over what she sees awaiting her on the kill line or the impoverished human slaughterhouse knocker who will take her life?

Whether intentionally or not, both LePan and Faber deftly used satire and allegory to examine universal exploitation and our senseless and automatic consumption of nonhumans. While both novels are works of fiction, they reiterate prevailing egregious truths: in our reduction of others as inferior, we selfishly preserve cruelty and injustice and only end up hurting ourselves.

Animals and Under the Skin are strong in their captivating characters and poignant storytelling, and raise challenging and thoughtful questions. Some may find these two dystopian portrayals to be dark and pessimistic, but they are fair presentations, no more painful and frightening than our current dystopian world.

How Do I Go Vegan?

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Vegans Are the Furthest Thing from Elite

I endeavor to live a simple life. I reside in a cozy, one bedroom apartment of 673 square feet. I earn a modest salary and rarely dine out, and I prefer to rent movies for free from the library. I don't subscribe to the latest fashions or fads, and last year I spent zero dollars on clothing, shoes, and accessories. In an effort to limit my impact on the planet and other animals, I try to curtail my consumption of goods and limit my travel. Those who know me and are familiar with my minimalist habits and vegan ways would not label me an elitist, yet that is often how vegans are mischaracterized.

By definition alone ethical vegans are not elitist for the simple fact that they hold little to no power or influence in the overarching animal-industrial complex that controls everything from communication and government to universities and major corporations. In fact, our efforts often run counter to and challenge the existing system of oppression upheld by the elite.

It's all too easy for non-vegans to bully and belittle minority vegans as elitist while defending and excusing their own unjust choices, which is ironic considering the forced labor of animals and the consumption of their murdered bodies, milk, and eggs elevate and sustain the upper classes. Here are some brief examples of interconnected scourges linked to financial interests in animal oppression:

Violence: Animal industries are inherently violent operations that function by remaining invisible. Animal products can only be consumed when animals are treated as merchandise—things. Supported by non-vegan dollars; the meat, dairy, fish, and egg industries profit from the forced breeding and killing of billions of beings every year. In addition, slaughterhouse workers have few options and do the revolting work of killing for those who won't do it themselves. In "Vegan in the Dairy State" Cori Mattli noted that "there is a high correlation with slaughterhouse work and post-traumatic stress disorder, severe anxiety, drug and alcohol abuse, and domestic violence." Workers often become desensitized to the violence they are paid to inflict on other animals and society pays a steep price for accepting such unnecessary violence as routine. Towns harboring slaughterhouses have higher rates of domestic violence and violent crimes, including murder and rape.

War/Genocide: In his groundbreaking book, Animal Oppression and Human Violence, David A. Nibert expounded how the need for more resources to maintain nomadic herds of animals for food and labor has resulted in centuries of war and conflict. From Genghis Khan to today's commercial cattle ranching operations, the upper echelon continue to expand their capitalist interests through the manipulation and exploitation of land and animals. Nonhumans are continually used as sources of food, tools, and labor to support conflicts and conquests. The influx of cattle, sheep, horses, and other animals to North, Central, and South America from European explorers through the Columbian Exchange helped fuel military expeditions, warfare between native tribes, and genocide.  As the demand for beef (and land and water for sustaining cattle) increases—even now—so too do conflicts with indigenous groups (e.g. Darfur).

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Feeding Desires, Appetites for Destruction

The Vegan Vine; The Sexual Politics of Meat
From the cover of
The Sexual Politics of Meat
In my never-ending quest for self-improvement I've been working on not succumbing to cultural notions of femininity. As a straight, cisgendered woman, I've had to unlearn decades of programming, which has not been easy. Perhaps, just as difficult as for those attempting to unlearn cultural notions of what is—and who is not—food.

I spent 20 years eating what I had been instructed to eat and another 15 years doing all those things women have been trained to do—consciously and subconsciously—to be appealing to the opposite sex. Like most females, I've been objectified, but I've also treated other animals as objects. 

It’s been a slow but deliberate process in which I’ve unburdened myself from the lies and the liars, from being the consumer and the consumed, transitioning from the non-vegan oppressor to the vegan liberator of my own life and the lives of others. I still have a long way to go, but I'm on the potter's wheel.

At the age of 20 I began eliminating the bodies of animals from my intake. After learning about the dairy and egg industries, I aspired to remove the use of all animal products from every area of my life and home. I committed myself to ethical veganism, which had a snowball effect on my psyche. I became acutely aware of how animal enslavement impacts the environment, buoys economic inequality and capitalism, intersects sexism and racism, and affects my perception of myself, other animals, and institutions I had once revered. I discovered that being an ethical vegan is not merely about food, but about campaigning for animal rights and defending truth and social justice.

I began to see things anew after adopting a cat named Max from a local shelter. I abruptly quit smoking cigarettes having realized the hypocrisy in caring for other animals but not caring about my own animal self. I read Zoe Weil’s Most Good, Least Harm and rethought our concept of possessions and how the deleterious effects of consumerism and development are depleting our planet’s resources, and destroying lives and habitats. I have strived to void my home of meaningless things that rob me of time, energy, and money, and I seek to minimize the buying of new things that require still more resources. While doing so, I have also managed to end fruitless and corruptible relationships which have similarly stole my time, energy, and self-respect. When a boyfriend angrily demanded sex, insisting that I owed it to him because it was his birthday, I knew I had been reduced to a body with serviceable parts.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Should Ethical Vegans Invest in the Stock Market?

The Vegan Vine
Many people invest for retirement, often blindly, focusing on returns and not knowing what they're really investing in.

There was a time when I invested, too—before the economy tanked and before I saw Michael Moore’s documentary, Capitalism: A Love Story. But is investing conducive to ethical veganism?

As with all big purchases, before investing I did my due diligence. I started my financial education by subscribing to Money magazine, I read Suze Orman’s Money Book for the Young, Fabulous & Broke, and subsequently researched various companies and funds.

I chose Vanguard to manage my investments after I learned they charge the lowest fees, but I was disappointed with the choices available to me. While I was able to find mutual funds that offered solid returns, they weren’t ethically agreeable since they included companies like Exxon Mobil, Johnson & Johnson, and Procter & Gamble, which are neither environmentally-friendly nor vegan. So I began to look into something called Socially Responsible Investing (SRI), an approach that considers social issues in addition to financial returns.

For centuries, people have been practicing consumer activism and have been making conscientious decisions about how to spend their money. The Quakers prohibited their members from participating in the buying and selling of humans through the slave trade; during the Civil Rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King advocated the boycott of businesses and corporations promoting segregation, and many peace activists protested against companies profiting off the war in Vietnam. 

Friday, June 23, 2017

The Media is No Friend to Animals

The Vegan VinePresidents tend to have a love-hate relationship when it comes to the press. After becoming President, Donald Trump declared that the media is the "enemy of the American people!" In reply, Presidential historian Michael Beschloss noted that Richard Nixon secretly told Henry Kissinger, his Secretary of State, that "the press is the enemy, the establishment is the enemy, the professors are the enemy."

Now, let me be clear. I am not a Trump supporter, nor do I agree with the President's belittlement of journalists and the press, but for very different reasons, I connected with both his and Nixon's statements through my vegan frame of reference.

In Inventing Reality: The Politics of News Media, Michael Parenti wrote "[T]he single most common form of media misrepresentation is omission." I notice this every day where animals are concerned. The local news station airs a story lamenting the closing of a famous New York City deli but fails to mourn for the myriad nonhuman animals whose bodies had been served up there as food; so-called environmental correspondents report on algae blooms and dead fish washing ashore but never connect it to factory farms and our meat- and dairy-centric diets; raging fires and floods attributable to human-induced climate change kill countless wild animals and ravage their natural habitats but all we ever hear about is the number of humans impacted and human homes destroyed, and while cute videos of black bears and cubs climbing trees and jumping into kiddie pools abound during the summer, gruesome photos of hunters smiling over their dead bodies during New Jersey's annual bear hunt rarely seem to make it on TV in the fall.

In an article in The Nation, "Progressives Need to Build Their Own Media," Mark Hertsgaard addressed the enormous power the media have in defining reality. "The journalistic choices of news organizations send a message, consciously or not, about what is—and isn't—important at any given moment and who should—and shouldn't—be listened to. . . . Such decisions shape the ideological air we breathe and the . . . actions we take."

The roots of our cruel and manipulative animal abuse culture run deep. Animal abuse is built in to our infrastructures, and packaged and sold through the media in everything from entertainment, news, and advertising, to sports and weather. Sure, the word vegan is thrown around in the media much more today than ever before, but the net gain to these shout-outs have been marginal at best because the ethics of veganism is rarely broached and being vegan is still seen as a personal lifestyle choice, not a rightful necessity. In the media's eyes, veganism is about restriction, turning mushrooms into burgers, and mocking tofu, purposefully devoid of any genuine discussion on animal rights and social justice.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Taking on the Angry Vegan Stereotype

The Vegan Vine
When I was in my early twenties I was obsessed with the original Star Trek series. I was even somewhat of a Trekkie, having attended a Star Trek Convention in New York City (sans costume). My fascination with the show centered on Spock. While I admit I found his pointy ears and Vulcan eyebrows irresistible, there was something else about Spock that enamored me to him. After much consideration, I realized that I envied Spock for being my paradox: a measured and unemotional being who keeps his human passions from overwhelming him. While human rage and pain have always been part of Spock's makeup, he mostly kept them well-contained and controlled.

For a passionate and emotional person like myself, keeping my feelings even and steady when discussing dire social issues is not my strong suit. After all, it is my zealous spirit along with my desire to eradicate social inequities that have brought me to veganism and have allowed me to channel my emotions more productively through animal advocacy.

Most ethical vegans are continuously looking for opportunities to strike up conversations in order to educate others on how their decisions affect the lives of other animals. For many of us, we may be the only vegans our friends, coworkers, and family members know, so they look to us to be a model of veganism. Because there are so few committed, ethical vegans, there is a lot of pressure to present well to others. For example, my friend worries about the way she looks and fears being overweight gives a misleading reflection of what it means to be vegan. I agonize over my interactions with unconscious defenders of animal ab(use) since I want to be as effective as I can be for animals. 

What a vegan looks or acts like can vary greatly because we are all unique. Furthermore, considering the colossal, entangled system of animal abuse and the insidious nature with which the animal-industrial complex is promoted and permeates every area of life, it's difficult not to show anger or frustration, especially when people respond crassly and defensively to facts. 

In Aftershock: Confronting Trauma in a Violent World, A Guide for Activists and their Allies, Pattrice Jones reminds us that—first and foremost—we are animals and to be effective we must embrace our animal emotions, not suppress them. As vegans, it is understandable to feel shame for the methodical suffering we recognize and often witness as a result of daily human activities; we are permitted to feel isolated and lonely when we can't find other vegans with whom to share our grief; we are justified in feeling mournful because of the sweeping violence and death needlessly inflicted on animals, and we are certainly within our right to feel enraged at the levels of human greed and indifference.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Driving Animals to Their Deaths

The Vegan Vine; Squirrel crossing the road
I was driving from Pennsylvania to New Jersey to visit my family for Thanksgiving. I drove cautiously while following the 35 mph speed limit. Suddenly, from the far corner of my eye I saw a squirrel dart onto the road toward my car. With no time to think (brake or speed up?), I moved to get away. I screamed "NO!" when I felt the thump of the squirrel's body under my car. I slowed down and looked into my rear-view mirror, eager not to see him. I hoped against hope that he managed to get away with minor scratches, but then I saw his little body lying in the road. I quickly turned the car around and parked alongside him, blocking the right lane to keep us both from passing cars. I crouched down next to him. He was alive but barely, and he had a little bit of blood near his mouth. He was looking up at me from one side and breathing heavily, his body heaving. I ran to my trunk to put on gloves and grab a cardboard carrier that I kept for animal emergencies. As I did so, a woman pulled up next to my car and asked if I was okay. I said yes and thanked her. She wanted to know if I was sure. Yes, I assured her, thanking her once again. I closed my trunk and quickly went back to the squirrel but it was too late. His breathing stopped and his eyes were closed. I put gentle pressure by the corner of his eye to see if there was a reflex but there was none. I felt awful; the poor creature suffered and died all alone. I gently picked him up, his body still warm, and moved him to the side of the road. I kept telling him how sorry I was over and over and over again as tears streamed down my face. In between gasping sobs I gave voice to a short prayer my mother taught me when I was a child during trips to my grandfather's grave. Feeling incredibly helpless and grief stricken, I stayed with him for a few moments before getting back in the car.

The ramifications of powering machines that can maim and kill, which was drilled in to many of us when we first learned to drive, often diminishes over time. Driving can seem so routine that we lose touch with the gravity of getting behind the wheel. Driver's education teaches us to respect pedestrians and other drivers but rarely, if ever, are we taught measures to revere the lives and habitats of other animals.

Vegans take great pains to make mindful choices that reduce and eliminate our impact on other beings. Our advocacy for animals requires us rethink every sector of society and our own actions continuously. We should not, therefore, overlook our modes of transportation or driving habits.

Incidents of road rage are on the rise. We feel cocooned and removed in our cars, which allows us to act self-importantly. We're generally self-absorbed with our own agendas and heavily distracted by music, technology, passengers, drinking, eating, etc. More often than not, we're simply focused on getting to wherever it is we're going and as fast as we can.

The rise of car culture grew out of the post WWII boom and the network of interstate highways developed under the Eisenhower administration. The expansion of roads led to the growth of suburbs, large housing developments, shopping centers, and strip malls, simultaneously promoting capitalism, cars, and consumption so humans could drive and devour farther, faster, and more frequently. Combined with a growing populace, car culture made us more mobile and helped fuel the Biocaust—the destruction of animals, habitats, and ecosystems.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Pet Fees, Policies, and Housing Discrimination

The Vegan Vine; No Irish No Blacks No Dogs
I recently received my lease renewal and, to my ire, learned that I will be charged an additional $35 a month for “pet fees.”

My apartment is spotless. My feline companion is both well cared for and well-behaved (as far as domesecrated animals go), which often go hand in hand. Sadly, I can’t say the same for some children. Every so often the rental office sends out cautionary emails regarding unruly juveniles trashing the clubhouse and other communal areas. So why, I wonder, aren’t my neighbors charged “child fees?”

Speciesism—human intolerance, prejudice, or discrimination on the basis of species, especially as manifested by cruelty to or exploitation of nonhuman animals—is prevalent in all sectors of our society and culture, including the places where many of us call home.

Anyone who has ever attempted to rent an apartment with a companion animal, like a dog or cat, knows about species discrimination. Advertisements abound stress “We are a pet-free community" or “Sorry, no pets.” These are just nice ways of saying “No Dogs or Cats Allowed!” Anti-pet policies strike me as being highly biased and speciesist. Likewise, opportunistic pet-friendly rental communities that charge ancillary fees on top of already astronomical rents to those who open their lives to homeless animals are equally discriminatory.

On my way home from work I used to pass a billboard that advertised a nearby townhome complex. It featured a picture of a dog and cat with a caption that read “Pets stay free!” I was pleasantly surprised, but why is this practice the exception and not the rule? Moreover, why is it acceptable for me to be charged more rent per month just because the only other member of my household happens to be feline? Can you imagine a billboard that said “Children stay free!”? Probably not because we are so indoctrinated by anthropocentrism. People would be appalled if rental communities charged by the child, yet I clearly remember one occasion when I was shown an apartment in which a child had written all over the walls in crayon.