Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Mad as Hell

In the words of anchorman Howard Beale, as so aptly portrayed by Peter Finch in the movie Network, I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it any more.

What am I mad about?

I'm mad that the animal agriculture industry is perpetrating horrors the equivalent of the Holocaust on farm animals in this country every single day. Nobody seems to care, and nobody, except the tiny fraction of the population that we vegetarians and vegans represent, does anything about it. Why? Because to care would mean thinking about things that are unpleasant. To do something would require a change in lifestyle that might be inconvenient.

I'm mad at the fast-food industry for luring our children into their restaurants, and into a lifetime of horrible eating habits, with clowns, playgrounds and free toys. Even more, I'm mad at our government for allowing this to happen, particularly when armed with the knowledge that more and more of our children are becoming obese and diabetic at a younger and younger age.

My anger with the politicians doesn't stop there. Must they compound the problem by selling out our schools to the soft drink companies who install vending machines in the corridors and to the meat and dairy industries that dictate the school lunch program? Why is it that every single "food" item that receives a government subsidy is something that is bad for us (dairy, crops used as sweeteners, crops used for animal feed)? Shouldn't our government be spending its money to make our health better rather than worse?

I'm mad at meat-eating environmentalists who promote their causes while conveniently overlooking the 800-pound gorilla in the room—the animal agriculture industry. Not only is that industry our biggest (by far!) consumer and polluter of land and water, but it's all so unnecessary, and all so wasteful. I'm similarly mad at the medical professionals who promote a "healthy" diet, while always ensuring that it's based around ever-so-unhealthy meat and dairy products. I'm mad at "pacifists" who still condone the least pacifistic of all activities—the torture and killing of animals, and I'm mad at "feminists" who don't seem to have any problem continuing to consume dairy products and chickens' eggs despite the fact that they exploit the females of other species and require rape and the taking of babies from their mothers.

I'm mad at the way my fellow vegetarians and I are consistently discriminated against. We're uninvited to social events, left off of dinner invitations, made fun of, and all too often shunned by family, friends, co-workers and potential mates. What is our crime? We back up our moral convictions with our behavior. We "put our tofu where our mouth is" (to coin a phrase), and that makes other people feel uncomfortable. It's easier to avoid us than to think about the message we send by our example.

I'm mad too that none of this will change substantially in my generation's lifetime. It won't change in the lifetimes of our children or our grandchildren either, and maybe not until the earth, and the human life on it, is destroyed by our own greed and stupidity.

Most of all, though, I'm mad at the millions and millions of educated, compassionate people out there who continue to be part of the problem rather than the solution. In their brains they know the facts about animal rights, environmentalism and nutrition, but in their hearts they still don't "get it." The old saying goes that the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of crisis, stand by and do nothing. Well, this is certainly a time of crisis. Where are these people? Can't they change their behavior just one little bit? Couldn't they manage to go just a meal or two without digging the graves of animals, the earth and themselves with their dinner forks? We need them on our side, and we need them now.

The other night I had a long conversation with an Episcopalian reverend. We talked a lot about my reasons for being vegan. She brought up the Biblical reference about the lion lying down with the lamb, and I finally had to ask her what her religious view was on killing animals for food. She thought about the question for a moment, and finally explained that there were different levels of morality—some moral ambitions that we can achieve within the confines of our society, and others that will have to wait for a better day and a better place. I didn't believe that for a moment, and from the look on her face I could tell she didn't either.

I personally don't want to live in a world where our morality changes to accommodate what's popular, pleasurable, and convenient. I don't want to live either in a society where the vast majority of the population is in a state of cognitive dissonance and rationalization—where their daily actions are totally inconsistent with their beliefs on the most basic concepts of what's good for them, how to treat others, and distinguishing right from wrong.

I guess I don't have a choice though. Room reservations on the other planets are awfully hard to come by right now, and around here almost everyone eats meat. I'm the odd man out.

I'm mad as hell about it.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Getting on the “Low-Carb” Bandwagon

Americans are getting fatter. Two-thirds of us are overweight, and we're moving toward obesity at an alarming rate. In 1991 the obese comprised less than 20% of the population in every state of the union, and less than 10% in 8 states. Eleven years later the obese comprised more than 20% of the population in 31 states and more than 15% of the population in every state. Since 1980 the percentage of overweight children has doubled.

The fact that more of us can now literally sit around the house means more than just a deterioration of the scenery at the local beauty parlor. Absent radical changes in dietary and exercise routines, one-third of Americans born in the year 2000 will develop diabetes and suffer premature death. Experts have even speculated that in some states, like Texas, we may see the first generation of children to be outlived by their parents.

Something has to be done about all of this, and I've decided to do my part. First, I consulted with the legions of executives, experts and ghostwriters here at On or Off the Mark international headquarters. They, of course, had no idea, so I moved on to the real powerbrokers—the sales-types.

After a series of power lunches with my marketing people and my public relations people and their people and their people's people, I think I now have the answer. I am now in a position to make the exciting announcement that On or Off the Mark has become a "low-carb" column! As a matter of fact, I think I can safely say that this column is as low in carbs as any column of its type, anywhere. I'm hoping that readers will eat it up.

Of course, as a low-carb column I will now be able to proudly display the official "Low-Carb Option!" insignia from the American Diet League (not an official US Government agency). For an extra $14.95 I think they're even sending me a wallet card that I can flash at people when I want them to know that I, too, am low-carb.

Since this column is now officially "low-carb" it can safely be read by those persons, including the entire population of the United States, who are on the Atkins, South Beach, North Beach, South Pole, etc. high protein diets. (Hey, aren't these the same people who are collectively getting fatter?) And I know that this is going to appeal to all of those couch potatoes who drink those new "low-carb" dietetic beers to take off a few pounds while passively watching the game.

This development comes at a good time for the regular readers of this column too. Lately I've noticed that two of my three readers (I happen to be one of these two) have put on a couple of extra pounds. If they (okay, we) can diet while reading, that has to be a good thing!

Now, you may think this is merely a temporary publicity gimmick foisted on an unsuspecting public by an opportunist with no real commitment to the ideals of vegetarianism. To make you feel at ease, I'll make this promise: I'll keep my column low-carb at least until the next "high-carb" fad comes along. (At that point On or Off the Mark will officially become a high-carb column, perfect for "carb-loading" readers. But I get ahead of myself…)

Acquiring low carb status means that my lowly column can now join such American icons as Kraft Foods, Applebee's, WalMart and General Motors on the low-carb bandwagon. Think I'm kidding about General Motors? Well, maybe I am. But the way things are going, it's only a matter of time before we have low-carb trucks and busses.

I like this low-carb thing. It's totally in keeping with the great American tradition of ignoring the real causes of our problems and focusing on the quick-fix. Reaching for something labeled "low-carb" is a heck of a lot less work than real exercise or real dieting. It's faster than serving fresh vegetables to our kids (god forbid!), and a lot less scary to the average Joe than anything beginning with a "v." Most importantly, it's easy to market with the proverbial 30-second sound byte.

Image is everything, you know, and it beats out substance every time. Sounds perfect for this column!

Sunday, June 1, 2008

The Rules of Logic (As Taught by Meat-Eaters)

When I was a kid my parents gave me a logic game for my birthday. It came with a little hourglass (so players could actually time how logical they were) and an instruction book that was a couple of hundred pages long and read like a computer programming manual. I think the purpose of the game was to hone the minds of the younger generation so we would be equipped to deal with the communist threat.

Anyway, after ten minutes with this game, I found out I wasn't very good at logic. I was better at sleeping. If the free world depended on the likes of me, we'd all be eating blintzes and borscht by lunchtime.

As I've grown older—living as a vegetarian in a meat-eating world—I've been constantly reminded of how bad I am at this logic stuff. Sometimes it seems that, when it comes to diet and the way we treat animals, almost everyone is living by a whole different set of rules. I can't figure them out. (If you're a vegetarian, I bet you've got the same problem!)

One thing I have noticed over the years, though, is that the incomprehensible logic as practiced by our meat-eating society manifests itself in certain recognizable patterns—certain omnivorous "rules of logic," if you will. Here are a few of my favorites.

  • We should pay folks to do things we don't like. Whether the debate is about controlling the onslaught of waste from hog "farms" in Colorado, or limiting fishing to protect salmon populations in the Northwest, the arguments against taking action are always the same: "If we do this, we'll lose jobs." Okay, I hate to see people unemployed as much as the next guy (I have intimate experience with this myself!), but why should we continue to pay these folks to do something destructive. Is this logical?
  • The reason we do it this way is because we've always done it this way. Let's see… people eat cottage cheese when they're on a diet, "chicken" soup when they're sick, hot-dogs (with none of the fixings) at the ballpark, a ham for Easter dinner, and cow's milk when they need something "healthy." Has anyone really given any thought to this? Do people really enjoy this stuff, or are they just going through the motions???
  • It's what you think, not what you do—good intentions are all that matters. We vegetarians are tired of hearing about the good intentions of the meat-eaters around us. By their logic, they all have the healthiest and most compassionate diets in the world. Sure.

    […Hey, wait a second. I had some good intentions myself. Wasn't I going to get up at five every morning to ride my exercise bicycle, read Milton, and iron my socks? And didn't I sleep in today and eat chocolate for breakfast? Okay, so maybe this is one perverted rule of logic that isn't unique to meat-eaters.]

  • It doesn't count unless people are involved. I found a great example of this on the radio news the other day. There was an environmental story about the dwindling population of salmon in an Idaho river. The activist they interviewed was very upset. Her concern: she wanted fish in the river so her son could get out the old rod and reel—and kill them.
  • Meat-eating is good—this is beyond question. Even a knot-head like me can figure this one out. It goes like this: "Meat-eating is humankind's most barbaric behavior. Meat-eating is okay by definition. Ergo, everything else must be okay too!" (The logic guys love to use Latin words like ergo.)

    For a classic example of this look no further than the current debate over "xenotransplantation" (Logicians like Greek too!), the raising of animals to supply replacement body parts for transplantation into humans. I was amazed the other day when I read the results of a CNN poll, finding that only 17% of the people responding found any ethical problem with this practice. And what about those ethical problems? They were analyzed for us in a recent article by Jeffrey P. Kahn, the Director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Bioethics.

    According to Dr. Kahn, there may be some humanitarian concerns if the "xenotransplanted" organs come from fun animals like dogs and chimpanzees, but those problems magically go away if they come from the kinds of animals we eat. If we can, say, genetically alter pigs that are raised for food to also produce the kinds of organs we humans need, that makes it all okay. At that point the only "ethical" issues remaining are how safe the procedures will be (Safe for the humans, that is—i.e., can we get mad cow disease?) and how people will feel about eating genetically-altered "bacon."

    Let me see if I've got this straight. We might care a little bit about the animals if we're only killing them to save a human life, but we don't have to care at all about killing them for the pure pleasure of putting something supremely unhealthy on our BLTs?

    I'm sure the good folks at the University of Minnesota pay Dr. Kahn a lot of money for these insights. As for me though… well, I just don't understand the logic.