A few years ago I used this column to lampoon Mike Royko, the great Chicago newspaperman, and a column he had written lampooning vegetarians. I thought I was being very clever in my lampoon of his lampoon—shooting barbs at Mr. Royko's arguments, and pointing to the places where the humor in his writing seemed to be wearing a little thin and exposing a narrow-minded point of view. (Hey, it's always fun to be a nobody and get the chance to attack a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer!) At the end of my column I noted that if Mr. Royko really ate in the "damn the cholesterol, full speed ahead" manner he espoused, he probably wouldn't be around as a target for pot-shots for too many more years.
It turns out I was right. Mike Royko died of a brain aneurysm in April, 1997, at the relatively young age of 64.
I felt bad when I heard the news. It was one of those situations (Remember when James Garner and Dave Thomas had heart attacks at the same time their beef ads were running on television?) when we vegetarians want to say "I told you so," but at the same time we don't wish harm on anyone. And there's certainly a fine line between making fun of someone else's beliefs and making fun of them personally.
After several months of consideration though, I've decided that if I could write my Mike Royko column over again, I wouldn't change a word. There are two reasons for that decision, and they're important enough to me, and important enough to vegetarianism, that I want to point them out. I'm sure Mr. R will agree.
The Right to be Offensive
First, we live in a marvelous society that recognizes freedom of speech. And one critical element of freedom of speech (an element that rarely gets mentioned in Fourth of July parades and high school essay contests) is that no one in our society has the right not to be offended. How critical is this to the vegetarian cause? Very. Several times, even in the life of this silly little column, issues involving "political correctness," my overall bad taste, and the sensibilities of others have threatened its publication. But think about it. If we vegetarians weren't allowed to offend anyone, how on earth would we get our point across? How would we ever reach the masses of meat-eaters who don't want their comfortable lifestyles upset by something as trivial as the truth?
Being offensive may not always be something to strive for, and I certainly don't advocate intentionally hurting anyone. But the right to be offensive in expressing one's beliefs—whether that involves me attacking an icon like Mike Royko, or your cousin Mel ridiculing this column with the boys down at the butcher shop—is critical. When that right starts to erode, I'll be headed to another planet.
Everything is Funny
The second item on my First Amendment soapbox agenda is humor. We live in a world of incomprehensible horror and tragedy. Humor is the only thing we've been given that allows us to cope. (The only legal thing, anyway.) The more serious something is—the more horror and tragedy that's involved—the more we need humor. Need I say that the battle between vegetarianism and meat-eating should be at the top of the list?
There's a lot of funny stuff out there in the dialogue over meat-eating, and a lot of it makes fun of us vegetarians. It ranges from the classic recipe for vegetarian stew ("Gut, drain and skin one vegetarian…"), to the sarcastic Boulder Vegetable Rights Association, to the People Eating Tasty Animals (PETA) home page. Offensive? You bet! But doesn't it beat serious men and women screaming out their message in angry prose? Doesn't it make their point so much more effectively?
Mike Royko knew a lot about being offensive, and he knew a lot about being funny. The former made his writing important, while the latter made him loved. It was only late in his career, when consolidation in the Chicago newspaper industry and the death of his wife left him battling depression and alcohol problems, that his anger became more pronounced and his humor began to fade. It was only then that people openly questioned his right to speak. That in itself should tell us all something about how to conduct ourselves the next time we're ready to spout off about our vegetarian beliefs.
Mike Royko loved to eat meat, and now he's dead. But we vegetarians can still learn a lot from his example.