Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Terrorism [2001 revisit to the issue]

"Terror": …violence (as bombing) committed by groups in order to intimidate a population or government into granting their demands"—Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary

"Even before his death, his entire life was devoted to animal rights issues... The methods he chose to achieve his ends, however, alienated him from any mainstream opinion. To most, only in the detail was he different from almost any other terrorist."—Journalist Charles Shoebridge, describing animal rights activist Barry Horne, who recently died from a hunger strike in a British jail.


Are you a terrorist? Do you support terrorism?

Of course not, you will probably say. It's not even something you'd have to think about. In fact, you've denounced it a million times since September 11.

But answer the following questions:

  • Wouldn't you like to see the cage doors of every mink farm, laying hen battery, and animal research laboratory swung open and billions of animals escape to whatever freedom they could find?
  • Would you really mind seeing every McDonald's sign spray painted to make the famous "golden arches" form the first letter of the phrase "meat is murder"?
  • How about slaughterhouses? Wouldn't you like to see every one of them leveled, and shrines for the dead animals put in their place?
  • Wouldn't you secretly (or not so secretly) root for someone who could make all this happen?

    The point here, of course, is that sometimes terrorism doesn't seem so bad if the "terrorist" activities support a cause we deeply believe in. In that case the "right" thing to do may shift, or at least become a bit murky. It's like the old question of whether you would have assassinated Hitler in 1933 if you'd had the opportunity to do so and the knowledge of future events. Would you?

    In our society terrorism—at least in the form of illegal destruction of property—is being conducted on a regular basis in support of animal rights causes. A report to Congress several years ago found hundreds of these "terrorist" acts, and there's even a federal law, the Animal Enterprise Protection Act of 1992 [ed. note: amended by the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act of 2006], that was enacted to prevent them. (Most states have similar laws.)

    I've never met anyone who admitted to being an animal rights terrorist. If I did, though, I think I'd like them. For the most part these must be dedicated and brave individuals who have the vision of a better world for animals and humans. They are willing to act on behalf of their passions, and willing to help the suffering and the downtrodden despite the personal risks involved. I have to admire that.

    Of course I also think their actions are stupid and wrong.

    Terrorism, even for the most noble of causes, was stupid and wrong before September 11, and it's even more stupid and wrong now. Here's why:

  • Violence is inherently antithetical to what we stand for. You can't simultaneously condemn violence and practice it. And you can't harm one animal (people) to save another without looking like a hypocrite.
  • The ends don't justify the means. Sure, the people who harm animals for pleasure and/or profit promote terror themselves. They do it every day, and on an incomprehensively massive scale. But it is dangerous to say that a little bit of evil perpetrated against them is justified by the greater good it would accomplish. Where do you draw the line? Whose standards do you use?

    Just remember, everyone who exploits animals uses the same dubious logic—"the ends justify the means"—to support their actions. We know it's not true for them. It's not true for us either.

  • Most of all, violence makes animal rights activists, and their cause, easy targets. People are inherently fearful of new ideas. They'd much rather have an excuse to dismiss an idea outright than go to the trouble of actually educating themselves and formulating a position. Every time an act of violence (or even just something dumb) is committed in the name of animal rights it gives the public the opportunity to dismiss the whole movement and everyone in it—from the Animal Liberation Front to the cat lady next door—as "a bunch of fanatics." Why give them that opportunity?

    Of course everything I've said above is doubly true after the hideous events of September 11. There's little tolerance in our society for anything even remotely looking like terrorism, and average folks won't distinguish violence committed in the name of Islamic fundamentalism from violence committed in the name of animal rights (an equally unknown cause). Why should they?

    (If you don't believe that people will gladly equate folks who free research animals with folks who hijack planes and fly them into buildings full of people, it's not hard to find hundreds of postings to that effect on Internet bulletin boards. Better yet, look at the mainstream press. In the past few weeks the New York Times, USA Today and the Guardian (UK) (just to name a few) have published articles making exactly that comparison.)

    Lest anyone get the wrong idea about my caution against violence and lawlessness, I freely admit that there's lots of gray area here. Lurking in that gray area are many difficult questions that I, for one, can't answer: Is violence okay in pursuit of terrorists? What about that Hitler question? What about civil disobedience against unjust laws?? How do you keep from tearing the door off the cage when it's right in front of you and a helpless animal is staring out???

    In our society we have the right of free speech, and the responsibility to exercise it liberally. No one who believes in animal rights, vegetarianism, or related causes should be shy about expressing his or her beliefs. We should make speeches, carry signs, and generally do what we can to get in people's faces and (more importantly) their minds. No one who ventures out onto a public sidewalk or street in America has the right to be sheltered from the ideas of others, no matter how offensive those ideas may be. Thank God (and folks named Jefferson, Adams and Washington) for that. And of course no one has a right to be sheltered from the consequences of their own actions. (If they want to eat chickens, by golly they should have to look the chickens in the eye first!)

    But let's refrain from doing things that are dumb, antisocial, and most of all violent. Our causes are too important for us to be summarily dismissed as "wackos," "fanatics," "anti-human," or "terrorists." Why let people who are abusing animals off the hook so easily? Instead, let's be accessible and inviting to the mainstream public. Let's not take ourselves too seriously. And instead of violence let's inundate them with civility, articulate arguments, scientific fact and, most of all, truth.

    The animals we want to help deserve no less from us.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

On Violence [1986 original column]

When is violence, or other illegal activity, justified in support of a worthwhile cause? The question seems too easy. "Never," we might be tempted to respond. Violence is inherently bad and shouldn't be condoned under any circumstances. There are better ways to accomplish things.

Giving the question more thought, though, you might find that such a simplistic answer can't fit all circumstances. Suppose, for example, you found yourself in Germany during the Nazi regime. If by killing one Nazi guard you could liberate hundreds of people destined for the gas chambers, wouldn't that violence be justified? Many of us would say yes. In that situation the lesser of two evils would be done. Thus, in some cases a particular act of violence may be acceptable as a means of preventing a greater violence.

That brings us to the issue of vegetarianism. I personally have never heard anyone seriously advocate violence in support of the vegetarian cause. On the other hand, I question just how different our situation is from the Nazi Germany hypothetical I just gave. Haven't most of us felt some measure of glee and support when we've read the occasional news articles about animal rights groups breaking into laboratories and freeing caged animals? Wouldn't we secretly love to see vegetarian messages spray painted on the side of our local McDonald's, warning signs put up at the Safeway meat counter, or distributor caps stolen off of cattle transport trucks? (Would we or wouldn't we like to see slaughterhouses and laboratories blown up?)

Despite the satisfaction that it might give us, I don't think violence in support of vegetarianism is right. I feel strongly that it isn't the right thing to do now, but I'm not prepared to say that this will always be the case. Right now the vegetarian movement is too small and too fragmented. We simply haven't done an effective job of making the public aware of what we are saying. Thus, while violence certainly would call attention to the vegetarian cause, the message might be lost on most people.

Take, for example, the recent bombings of abortion clinics. In the minds of those who take a "pro-life" position, this violence is justified because it may prevent future violence (they might say it would prevent the "murder of babies"). But opponents of the pro-life movement, and most of the public at large, see only the violent and illegal act of the bombing. To them there is no greater evil that is prevented.

The analogy is much the same for violence in support of vegetarianism. If a slaughterhouse were bombed, for example, I'm afraid most people would see the violence done and overlook the violence prevented. As with abortions, most of the public-at-large doesn't view slaughterhouses as good, but does view them as necessary to prevent the perceived greater evil of doing without meat.

To me, then, acts of violence by vegetarians will only bring our movement negative publicity and create a negative image of vegetarians, at least until we are successful in educating the public that vegetarianism reduces the unnecessary and senseless violence that is already prevalent in our society as an inherent part of the meat industry. The Catch 22 is that once that job of education is done, I would hope our goals would be more readily accomplished without violence.

One more factor dictates against the use of violence. Vegetarianism is inherently non-violent. Even if we could achieve a vegetarian world through the use of controlled violence, we might not achieve the goal we originally sought. Many in the vegetarian movement, for example, believe that aggression against animals necessarily leads to other forms of violence in our society. If this is true—if violence is pervasive once let in the door—we risk the possibility that the ends of the vegetarian movement may reflect the means, and it behooves us to be true to those means.

I hate violence. And intellectually I know it would be bad for vegetarianism. But I have to admit there's an aggressive and revengeful side to my personality too. I just can't help thinking that someday, before I die, it sure might be fun to see a spray painted McDonald's!

Friday, March 12, 2010

Those Awkward Moments of Confession

There are many moments in the lives of us vegetarians that turn out to be, well, just plain awkward. It's dealing with omnivores that's the problem, of course. Let's face it, nobody ever said it was easy to be enlightened in a world full of dunces. (We can just imagine how awkward it must have been for those few, brave and visionary souls who prophesized—before anyone else knew the truth—that the world was round, that diseases were caused by germs, that Nixon was a crook, and that O.J. was innocent!)

For me, one of the awkward moments that keeps coming up over and over again is when I have to make the big confession to someone I've just met that my diet doesn't include the various items of muscle tissue, glandular secretions and reproductive matter that most people love to eat. It's always a shock to them, and it's always uncomfortable for me. I have to believe lots of other vegetarians must have this same problem.

Of course, awkward moments of confession are always worst when we have something riding on the underlying relationship. Consider, for example, these classic conversations:


"Sally, I haven't known you that long, but already I can sense that we have something very special between us."

"You really feel that way Jason?"

"Yes I do. And I think we should start planning now for a blissful life together."

"Oh, Jason, that's wonderful! But I have to tell you that I'm a vegetarian. That's okay, isn't it?"


"Yes. You don't mind, do you? We could have beautiful little home, with a vegetarian kitchen, and vegetarian children, and a vegetarian dog. And every morning I'll fix you a delicious tofu and seaweed scramble, and a big glass of sprout juice—"


"Yes, dearest?"

"…Have I ever told you about my several sexually-transmitted diseases?"


"Farnsworth, speaking as President of Boxcar Industries, I have to say that a young man of your talents could go far in our organization. That's why I wanted to meet you here at Charlie's Steakhouse to have dinner and discuss your future."

"Thank you, Mr. Rumphorst!"

"And by the way, don't even think of ordering anything but the New York Strip here. It's fabulous, and is the absolute favorite of everyone on our Board. Yes, it's time you joined our little club, my son!"

"Oh, …gee. Actually, I think I may have to order the steamed vegetable plate..."

"Hrumpf. [pregnant pause] Farnsworth, you're really pretty much of an idiot, aren't you? As I was saying, we may have an opening in the mailroom. I'll have my secretary get back to you on that."


"So, you're Michael! You know, when you eloped with our Ashleigh we were pretty upset, but now all that matters is that we have you both home for the holidays."

"Thanks Mrs. Pillbottom!"

"Tonight we're having pot roast for dinner, and tomorrow I'm going to fix lamb chops—Ashleigh's favorite!"

"Actually, Mrs. Pillbottom, I'm a life-long vegetarian, and since we've been married Ashleigh has decided to go vegetarian too."

"Oh, I see. Michael, come out to the garage and help me with something, would you dear?"

"Sure Mrs. Pillbottom. …Gee, Mrs. Pillbottom, why are you starting the car? You know that's not very safe in a closed garage. …Mrs. Pillbottom, did you know you locked your keys in the running car? Where are you going Mrs. Pillbottom? Mrs. Pillbottom, you seem to have locked the door behind you. I'm sure it's all a mistake, but it's getting kind of cloudy in here, Mrs. Pillbottom. …Mrs. Pillbottom???"

Well, as you can see, these are all awkward moments for both the vegetarians and meat-eaters involved. So, how can we handle these situations better when they present themselves in the future? My suggestion is to be aggressive. Yes, I for one am tired of apologizing to people for my vegetarianism. It's the thing that I'm the most proud of in my life, and I've decided to flaunt it rather than be sorry for it. I think all vegetarians should take this approach.

Imagine how the situations above could be different with just a slight change in attitude:

"Oh Jason, I want to be with you too! But I want us to go through life as vegetarians. You know what that means Jason? More happy years together, better health, better breath, and better sex. Think of it Jason, sex all the time!"

"Mr. Rumphorst, I want you to know I'm a vegetarian, and I want you to understand what that can mean for the success of Boxcar Industries. It means I'm not afraid to be my own man, Mr. Rumphorst. It means that I think for myself and act decisively. That's the kind of man you need, Mr. Rumphorst. Yes, I've got my eye on that Executive Vice President's office next to yours, and you'd be crazy not to give it to me!"

"Mrs. Pillbottom, I want you to consider what vegetarianism can do for your daughter's future. Why, think of the money we'll save on food! Think how much healthier and more energetic we'll be when you and Mr. Pillbottom start drooling on yourselves and we have to take care of you! Put down that knife Mrs. Pillbottom, and stop being silly. You're going to like this, Mrs. Pillbottom. Trust me."

Yes, it's pretty clear from these examples that life can be better for us vegetarians if we're aggressive, confident, and blatantly self-righteous in our dealings with meat-eaters. Try it—I think you you'll like it. And the next time you find yourself in a locked garage with the power off and the car running, you'll be at peace. You'll be happy knowing you asserted yourself.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Successful Vegetarian Dating (Ha!)

Many, many years ago in this very space I wrote a column called The Great Vegetarian Dating Game, in which I bemoaned my experiences dating meat-eaters, semi-vegetarians, and even fellow vegetarians. I concluded that one might be able to find the perfect mate from any of these groups. On the other hand, there were plenty of good reasons why one might not.

Since writing that first column a lot has happened to me. I married a wonderful vegetarian woman, had a sadly less-than-wonderful marriage, and then found myself single again—this time in a strange new century! Now that I'm older and wiser (all right, I'm just older) I figure it's time to bemoan again, and to update my original column with advice for those who might be dating in the new millennium. Here's what I've learned so far in my brief foray into this modern world of romance…

  • Everyone is Online! Without a doubt, the biggest change in the dating world in the last several hundred years must be the fact that it's all done online now. This isn't just another option that people have for finding someone—it's the only option. Everyone, it seems, is too busy to go out on real dates anymore. With the computer, single people can accumulate multiple paramours (one woman proudly confided to me that she had vast numbers of "strategically placed men") and keep them happy indefinitely with form-letter emails. Of course you can't gage "chemistry" over the computer, but that doesn't really matter. Nobody ever actually meets anyone. And of course virtual dating has many advantages over the traditional method. It's easy to lie about your qualities (I know a guy who digitally doctors his photos before sending them out), you never get weird diseases, and dumping a person is as easy as hitting the delete key.

    For vegetarians, online dating is especially exciting. First, we can go to the big dating sites, where we can instantly search a huge database of potential mates for the word "vegetarian." That will reveal to us that, out of millions of single people with computers around the world, three of them share our dietary preferences (while an additional 87 say that they are specifically not interested in vegetarians). A similar search on the word "vegan" reveals that there are 518 people in the database from Las Vegas!

    Dating sites that specifically cater to vegetarians are perhaps more promising. Here, as a friend of mine puts it, the odds are good, but unfortunately the goods may tend to be a bit odd. Good luck.

  • The Universal Experience As bad as dating on the Internet is, it can be even worse in the real world. The first thing I notice when I take my search for a potential mate off-line is the universal experience shared by all single people over 30: "I can't meet anyone!" It doesn't seem to matter whether you are male or female, straight or gay, veggie or meat-addicted, the perception is always the same: anyone you come across who might otherwise be the slightest bit appropriate is already taken. I can't tell you how many parties I've been to where I end up with a group of men standing around the kitchen, grousing about the lack of single women. When I got divorced my friend Ray (also recently divorced, so he knows about these things) gave me a bottle of malt liquor and a paper cutout of a Barbie doll with the words "…for those lonely nights" written across it. How right he was.
  • The Power of Dogs? People I respect a lot tell me that the way around the "I can't meet anyone" problem is to get a dog. Dogs are "chick magnets" my friends say. Having a dog at your side not only makes you seem instantly likable (ax murderers don't have pets?), but dogs can also be trained to "accidentally" slip out of your grip and run over to people you find attractive. Most importantly, when you eventually strike out, dogs are always there to make you feel less like a loser.

    I don't really want a dog, but I would like to check out this phenomenon. If I can borrow your basset hound sometime for a spin around the park, let me know.

  • Fatal Flaws (of the dietary variety) People are always asking me if I could ever date a meat-eater. "Sure," I tell them, "but only if we otherwise had a lot in common." It's true too. But then again, I suppose if we had a lot of other things in common I might not expect her to be a meat-eater for long. Of course that doesn't reflect reality. It's just my fantasy of a way to save the world: one date at a time.

    My father constantly tells me I'll never get anyone interested in me as long as I'm a vegetarian. He's probably right. As strange as it seems, I think it's much more difficult for a meat-eater to be happy with a vegetarian than the other way around. I don't blame them a bit. If you're addicted to meat and dairy products and want to use those things on a regular basis, it must be a real drag to hang around with someone who finds that behavior unhealthy, gross and/or immoral. One woman I met told me outright that she had no intention of giving up meat, and that she considered my vegetarianism to be a fatal flaw that would prevent us from ever having any kind of a romantic relationship. Oh well—at least she was honest!

    Finding a great relationship is tough for just about everyone. But I think it's especially difficult for us vegetarians. I keep telling myself not to despair though. There must be someone out there who can appreciate a fellow with a healthy diet, who's kind to animals and to the environment as well. That seems like a pretty good package to me—even if it does include having to put up with a weirdo vegetarian.