Monday, September 15, 2008

Morally Correct vs. Politically Correct

It's only been a few days since Sarah Palin was nominated to run for Vice President of the United States, but I've already received dozens of emails from animal rights and vegetarian groups opposing her. Those emails portray her, quite honestly from what I can tell, as a passionate hunter and fur wearer who opposes protection for polar bears, likes to decorate with dead animals, and supports eradication of wolves with airplanes and high-powered rifles.

My guess is that Governor Palin probably doesn't mind these email assassinations of her character at all. Sure, the McCain ticket will probably lose some votes from animal lovers, but the image of having a gun-slinging cowboy for a Vice President (remember the old TV show Maverick?) will probably attract lots more votes than it loses.

I am personally plenty offended by Ms. Palin's beliefs and actions with respect to animals, but that's okay. I've offended lots of folks myself by espousing veganism over the years. One of the wonderful things about our country is that no one has the right not to be offended. The First Amendment guarantees it. The Governor can believe and say anything she wants, and that's what makes life in the good old U.S. of A always interesting. That's also what makes our political system so entertaining, and often so frustrating.

The real question for the election is not whether someone has the right to say or believe one thing or another—of course they do, and thank goodness we all agree on that. No, the real question for the election is whether those beliefs will negatively affect their ability to govern. "Reasonable" minds may differ on polar bear legislation or what constitutes "sport" in hunting. I'm not so worried about that. The majority of the people will decide what they decide on those issues, and that's how it should be. I think Ms. Palin's beliefs and behavior, though, tell us something even more important about her. I think they tell us that she lacks compassion and empathy, and that's where I have the problem.

Please know that I am not talking about all hunters here. I've known plenty of hunters who were wonderful, caring people. They knew what they were doing, they ate what they killed, and they had respect for wildlife (…though obviously not much respect for the individual animals that they killed). Their venison dinners caused much less suffering than a suburban hockey mom picking up KFC for the family. My friends who were hunters didn't wear fur. They didn't chase wolves with airplanes.

I personally don't think that people, like Sarah Palin, who find great entertainment and personal ego in killing and exploiting animals are wired for compassion and empathy. I doubt that in dealing with human animals their feelings are going to be much different, and for a politician that's a serious problem. We live in a much smaller world than we did when Teddy Roosevelt was President. (Who, by the way, would have made a great running mate for Ms. Palin!) The United States can't go it alone anymore. To effectively solve the world's many problems, our leaders have to work with others and understand the plight of the oppressed. They have to put themselves in the shoes of those who disagree with them, and see issues from all different viewpoints. In other words, an important prerequisite for the job should be the very compassion and empathy Sarah Palin lacks. The world has already had too many leaders who prefer shooting things from airplanes; what we need now are leaders who can use the tools of dialog and understanding.

I find Governor Palin's current popularity terribly sad. Sure it's sad for the animals in question, but it's sad for people and our society as well. It's sad that, in an era when politicians bend over backwards to be politically correct, it's still okay for someone running for the second-highest office in the land to publically portray herself as an animal abuser. I guess what's morally correct doesn't become politically correct until enough voters care about it. Thomas Jefferson could get elected President despite a sadly small minority of people objecting to the fact that he was a slave owner, and now, two hundred years later, Sarah Palin might well be elected Vice President despite a sadly small minority of people objecting to the fact that she mistreats animals.

I know I shouldn't be sad. For now, Sarah Palin can say and do as she pleases, and I can vote for… well, for somebody else. But the fact that we have made enough progress on putting the shame of slavery behind us that we now have a black man as a serious candidate for President gives me hope. One day soon I hope that we'll put the shame of killing and exploiting animals for our own amusement and vanity equally far behind us. When that happens, politics will be even more entertaining, and far less frustrating.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Getting All Choked Up on Old Food

Over the years I've found that there are certain advantages to being part of the so-called "baby-boomer" generation. There are so many of us that we have a purchasing power probably no other demographic group can match. Consequently, businesses tend to cater to us, and certainly advertisers target us. As we go through the years most of the national trends seem to follow our station in life, or at least what somebody thinks our station in life should be.

Perhaps nowhere is this more true than in the food industry. I don't think it's just my imagination, for example, that in the late 1960s and early 1970s when we were students there were a lot of restaurants around that sported rustic wood paneling and sitar music. They all had mellow "waitpeople" that plied us with mango juice and "Ethereal Planet Burgers." Sprouts were everywhere.

In the 1980s our generation turned materialistic with a vengeance, and the food industry was there to capitalize on it. The "Whole Life Café" was suddenly renamed the "Exchange Grill," and it began catering to the power lunch set. The ferns were taken out, and the paneling was changed from old barn siding to polished mahogany. Even Jeff, the catatonic waiter who had been there ever since that day he wandered in on his way back from Woodstock, had changed. He was now referred to as "Geoffrey," and he wore a tux and worked at being rude.

Supermarkets took advantage of the materialism of the 1980s as well. They made a killing by offering expensive vegetables that no one ever heard of, and by selling gourmet frozen dinners to busy working people for twelve dollars apiece.

Now that the 1990s are upon us, the food industry has once again changed the way it relates to the baby-boom generation. Someone has gotten the idea that now that we're getting a little long in the tooth, we must all be responsible family people. That means we have to make decisions about what we feed our children and, even more important, it means we are starting to get nostalgic about what we ate as a kid.

The food industry seems to have created a clever and highly profitable marketing plan to take advantage of these assumptions they have made about us. I say highly profitable because, by pushing nostalgia on us, they can sell all those old products they've been making for forty years. The hope, of course, is that not only will we try these things again for "nostalgic" reasons, but we'll feed them to our kids as well.

All of this has made watching television almost unbearable (all right, even more unbearable.) Over the past few months I've heard corny jingles and seen cartoon mascots that I thought had mercifully died in the fifties. Even lowly products like corn flakes are getting national airtime at two hundred thousand dollars a minute.

By far the worst of all these nostalgia ads is one that shows a decidedly yuppie-looking fellow patiently teaching his too-cute-to-be-believed son the proper method of eating an Oreo cookie. This is no subtle manipulation of the buyer at home. This is shameless sentimentality, and I guess I resent the fact that it is aimed at my generation.

I, for one, am not going to get caught up in this food nostalgia thing. Mostly, that's because when I look back on the things I ate twenty or thirty years ago I have only to borrow a phrase from the generation after mine: gag me with a spoon! I remember that as a kid (in those dark pre-vegetarian days) my favorite dinner was a twenty-five cent box of macaroni and cheese mix with a couple of hot dogs sliced up in it. I'd wash that down with about a quart of cheap, store brand ice cream. This is something to be nostalgic about?

Things didn't improve very quickly, either. As a student living in poverty I was fond of microwaved American cheese sandwiches (at least they were fast) and salads made of nothing but iceberg lettuce. These are days to be remembered, but certainly not days to be relived.

Now I don't want to sound snobby about all of this, but vegetarians are by definition choosier than the general public about what they put in their bodies. We, more than most people, feel that our diet has become a little more sophisticated, a little healthier, over the years. That being the case, we're not likely to take a step backwards twenty or thirty years for any reason, much less at the urgings of some advertiser trying to make a buck off food nostalgia.

So don't I ever get nostalgic about food? Well, yes. But only food from my post-vegetarian era. On occasion I remember how nice the Whole Life Cafe used to be. We would sit there amongst the knotty pine and play with the honey container on the table while we waited for our dinner. And you know, when he wasn't stoned, old Jeff could be a pretty darned good waiter, too. Sometimes, when I ordered the Ethereal Planet Burger, he'd give me extra sprouts.

Mark's All-Star List of Foods Consumed During the (Pre-Vegetarian) 1960s

  • Kool Aid (I didn't even like it very much as a kid)
  • Cool Whip (At least they spelled it right)
    • My Grandmother's Buttermilk Pancakes (These I could get nostalgic about—I'm waiting for the ads)
    • Herring (Really, no kidding!)
    • Hostess Snack Pies (They were always filled with two cherries and lots of gloppy syrup)
    • Dietetic Soft Drinks with Cyclamates (At least this is one thing we won't be seeing nostalgia ads for)