Chapter one, Why This Book? starts with a lie.
Unfortunately, I’m not joking.
I was a vegan for almost twenty years.
Keith uses a “different” definition of veganism than most vegans do. In her own words in radio interviews, she repeatedly binged on eggs and dairy “every chance she could get.” (Binged. A very eating-disordered word. Remember that, because it’ll come up later.) In the interviews, she recounts how just about every week, she would wake up after bingeing and swear she wouldn’t do it again.
Can you be a vegan for twenty years if you’re eating eggs and dairy about once a week?
The answer, for those of you too stupid to know better, is no. You cannot be a vegan while consuming animal products. Vegan police alert: the time you get to say you were vegan starts from the last time you deliberately ate animal products. Veganism is not a matter of “really really wanting to be vegan”; it’s a matter of action, and absolute action at that. If you deliberately consume animal products regularly—even once a year—you are not vegan. That is the fucking definition of veganism: a willing abstinence from the use of all avoidable animal products. Eggs and dairy are definitely avoidable.
So first off, Lierre Keith lied to start off this book. She wasn’t a vegan; she was a vegetarian, and there’s a reason that most reasonable vegans regard vegetarians with a sort of resigned disgust. They’re half-assed. Lierre Keith proves that rule: she’s so half-assed that she thinks regular consumption of animal products (but rilly rilly wanting not to!) makes her vegan.
The next few sentences don’t help much, either. Immediately, Keith begins small, subtle slander against vegans, coding them as naive, idealistic, and pathetic:
I know the reasons that compelled me to choose an extreme diet and they are honorable, ennobling even. Reasons like justice, compassion, a desperate and all-encompassing longing to set the world right.
She’s setting vegans up as idealistic, childish megalomaniacs. I don’t know a single vegan who thinks they’re going to save the world by being vegan—but quite a few of them believe that veganism is a necessary step towards making the world a better and less fucked-up place.
So this is opinion one: Keith has othered vegans. She doesn’t see them as people; she sees them as pathetically ridiculous and pitiful. That is not a tone you want to take with me. It also shows that, if anything, she never understood veganism in the first place: veganism is not an exercise in heroism, and no social justice movement can be. Maybe fror her it was different; then again, maybe that’s why she ended up utterly failing at veganism and remained a self-torturing vegetarian for twenty years.
So she waxes poetic on how she wanted to be a hero, which is understandable, but doesn’t exactly position vegans as naive—it positions her as naive. Then we get to this, and I find it an ominous sentence because of what these things have always meant to me:
And I want eating—the first nurturance—to be an act that sustains instead of kills.
Death is not wrong. It is not even slightly wrong. It’s neutral. The circumstances of death are what matter. If my veganism is committed to preventing atrocity, it’s done on the basis that I want as little to do with fucking torture and rape as possible in a fucked-up system. And hey, given that I’m not just dandy with using animals as property, I’m succeeding better at that than carnists are!
This book is written to further those passions, that hunger. It is not an attempt to mock the concept of animal rights or to sneer at the people who want a gentler world. [SR emph.]
Bite my violent, red-in-tooth-and-claw primitivist ass.
And those longings—for compassion, for sustainability, for an equitable distribution of resources—are not served the the philosophy or practice of vegetarianism. We have been led astray. The vegetarian Pied Pipers have the best of intentions.
im in ur potlukz feadin ur chillrenz!!!1
Okay, seriously? As someone who has a passion for political writing, I gotta say: that phrase completely misses the mark. “The vegetarian Pied Pipers” doesn’t come off as oogedy-boogedy; it comes off as laughable. Like, for real? I get this mental image of myself in a freaking Peter Pan outfit blowing on a pair of pipes and prancing and I cannot stop laughing.
Pele’s sweet potatoes. This book might be more fun than I thought.
Further down page 2 is this:
But the first mistake is in assuming that factory farming—a practice that is barely fifty years old—is the only way to raise animals. Their calculations on energy used, calories consumed, humans unfed, are all based on the notion that animals eat grain.
Well, I don’t know a whole lot of long-term vegans that think factory farming is the only way to farm animals; you have to be deliberately shielding yourself from reality to do that. And it’s also a vital misconception that vegans constantly have to batter against, thanks to PETA and other soft-in-the-head welfarists: farming that is not factory farming is not “kinder” to animals. It is not “more humane.” Many a lookatmegan has been seduced by the suicidal grin of Happy Meat.
Keith doesn’t do herself any favors by assuming vegans are as ignorant as she was; you go up against a well-prepared enemy or your argument’s not worth jack shit. This is one reason I dislike using red herrings and strawmen—it’s more satisfying and more real to take down one of their actual arguments. I mean, if you actually care about being right instead of just feeling like you are.
The Permavegan did a good debunking of Keith’s assertion that vegan opinion leaders are ignorant of other methods of animal farming. Adam Merberg over at Say what, Michael Pollan? linked in the sidebar also critiques the mathematical problems with a “sustainable” grain-based and “non-grain based” animal farm. Several other people have noted that Keith isn’t really familiar with any vegans, like, at all—or at least, that’s my conclusion; one thing that definitely made me think she’s just a bit disconnected from the reality of actual vegans is that she insisted, in her interviews, that all vegans eat beef once a week.
One of the ways you can tell your argument is worthless is that you have to call people who effectively disprove your thesis liars. Apparently, both me and Aslan are sleepwalking up to a 24/7 grocery store once a night, getting beef, eating it, and returning home, undressing, re-dressing, and laying down in bed. Without disturbing the cats. Hokay. If your argument rests on the idea that I—and all other vegans—are freaking pathological liars, you may have some problems there, cap’n.
You can feed grain to animals, but it is not the diet for which they were designed. Grain didn’t exist until humans domesticated animal grasses, at most 12,000 years ago, while aurochs, the wild progenitors of the domestic cow, were around for two million years before that.
Keith makes a really bad assumption here and I need to point it out: not all animals are like. You can feed grain to animals—it just depends on what animals they are. This seems awful nitpicky, but Keith has, to my mind, been doing an unnecessary amount of generalization.
Ruminants and grazing animals have, in fact, been eating grain for their entire evolutionary span. They were not the same types of grain, and they were not domesticated; but that doesn’t mean that they weren’t eating the seeds of seed grasses along with the grass. Grain has existed for fucking millions of years… domesticated grain has not, but grains are in themselves incredibly vivacious producers; that’s one of the reasons humans singled them out for intensive reproduction (aka “farming”) in the first place.
I’m unsure if Keith understands these nuances because her self-description so far has suggested her worldview is not very complex.
For most of human history, browsers and grazers haven’t been in competition with humans.
Yes. I barely see them as being in competition with humans now, except when humans make a point of putting their interests above the grazers’.
They ate what we couldn’t eat—cellulose—and turned it into what we could—protein and fat.
Again, the situation is far more complex than how Keith is presenting it. Cellulose is a part of all plants; it’s basically the cell walls of a plant. We can’t digest cellulose and use it as energy, but we can use cellulose in other ways.
Here’s a famous form of cellulose: fiber. Fiber is vital to human health, the lack of which has a long list of straight-up proven health consequences (IBS, colon and prostate cancer, constipation), particularly soluble fiber. It is a magic sponge that keeps your insides clean.
Furthermore, while we can digest protein and fat, that’s not very surprising: every animal in the entire world can digest protein and fat. These nutrients are necessary for survival regardless of species, though some (like humans) need a little less of it (or really, much much less). Even now, humans feed farmed animals like sheep and cows fish meal, although the practice of feeding bovines to bovines or sheep to sheep have largely stopped after the CJD/mad cow problem in the late ’90s and early ’00s.
Simply because humans can digest these things doesn’t mean they should in such large amounts. Cows can live off of animal flesh. The question is, what diet results in the optimum physical and mental health?
Keith goes on for several more sentences about how ruminants shouldn’t eat grains, and again, I partially agree—but I won’t jump on it, because it seems that my default definition of “grain” is the scientific definition (a seed from a certain plant type), while hers is the colloquial definition. No problem there.
We are urban industrialists, and we don’t know the origins of our food. This includes vegetarians, despite their claims to the truth.
1. Using a “royal we” when asserting stupidity is not, as Keith seems to think, sympathetic. It is insulting.
2. Any vegan (or halfassitarian, I guess) who disagrees with her is either lying or ignorant. Only the great Lierre Keith has the real truth!
And Aslan, who is Latin@, wants to say this: “Hey, man. I know where my fucking food comes from. I talk to the illegal Mexican who picks it everyday.”
The truth is that agriculture is the most destructive thing humans have done to the planet, and more of the same won’t save us. The truth is that agriculture requires the wholesale destruction of entire ecosystems.
Finally, something that I can agree with her on—sort of. There are a lot of absolutely Earth-devastating things humans have come up with, but yeah, agriculture is definitely up there. I view it as more of an “original sin” than the most horrible thing—agriculture was what allowed the human species to spread far out of their native territory without having the actual process of evolution to make sure we could survive without it, leading to the colonization of the entire fucking planet and yeah, what she said.
I take a thin line on tools, because in general it is a very bad idea (evolutionarily) for your genetics to try to account for them. Weapons and houses are not evolutionary strategies; they are ticking time bombs. If you find yourself in an area where you need tools to survive, you’re not supposed to be there; the instant you lose that tool or the ability to use it, you’re absolutely fucked. And furthermore, the things that are natural for you to eat will not require weapons and tools from you—everything that comes naturally with a healthy body of your species will allow you to obtain it.
I do expect this to be a sticking point. Keith doesn’t strike me as particularly primitivist. (Despite what I was promised. :\)
The truth is also that life isn’t possible without death, that no matter what you eat, someone has to die to feed you.
Why hello there, simplistic worldview! How you doin’?
Again, the concept of life requiring death isn’t a problem for me. I’m a primitivist; I know better. Death is not only an integral and necessary part of life, it is one of the underlying threads in my belief that nature is, if not benevolent, definitely not malicious. In natural habitats, without technological or human interference, suffering is generally short, whether emotional or physical. A depressed animal may be easy prey, but it might also just fall over dead—that’s been known to happen with people who have poor emotional health: they just die. Death does not always happen this way; I’m not stupid. But it happens too often for me to believe that death is wrong.
The un-nuanced and rigid belief sets Keith has laid out so far in this book worry me—and I’m only on the third page! The interlocking processes, beautifully and exponentially complicated, of life and death are not a cause-and-effect as Keith seems to imply here. She naturalizes the reality and consequences of human supremecism into an accusation, suggesting that the unjustifiable violation of agriculture is something that happens no matter what. And it’s just not.
She misses the choice and the violence. More than one cow was tortured and killed at the end of their usefulness for cheese, not because it was inevitable but because some human chose to treat them as property. An orange tree grows from soil made by the fully decomposed material of plants and animals, but provided it isn’t manured orchard, it is not the same thing.
It is not: someone had to die for this. It is: someone did die.
This distinction is not unimportant.