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more on “The Vegetarian Myth”

October 27th, 2010 No comments

Another critique of Lierre Keith’s book from a new blog, Philosophical Overview … definitely worth a full read.  Here’s a bit that caught my attention …

Keith implies that her “animist ethic” is the same as the worldview of “indigenous cultures”. At one point she identifies it with the worldview of the ancient Mayans (5), which is strange as the Mayans are mainly famous for having founded a civilized, agricultural society in the New World. I doubt that her animism has much to do with the religious ideas and practices of Native American cultures, though. The sense of relatedness to plants and animals described in accounts of many indigenous American cultures has more to do with the totemism of tribal systems than an ethic of leaving a light ecological footprint. Some have theorized that the extinction of New World megafauna at the end of the last ice age was a result of the hunting practices of the newly arrived Clovis humans (although this theory remains controversial). Somewhat less controversial is evidence of hunting practices at buffalo jumps, which appears to upset the view that Native Americans only killed as many animals as they could use. Whatever the case may be, these archaeological observations would not imply any moral condemnation of Native Americans, who like all other people developed methods for surviving in their environments as best they could. It is absurd to consider such observations racist, as some have done, and one is not doing Native Americans any favours by romanticizing them to serve one’s own ends.

This angle of romanticizing The Native Americans™ is one that I’ve personally encountered.  The most thorough response to and analysis of this move is covered in one of my favorite Compassionate Cooks episodes – Honoring the Animals We Eat – Just Like the Native Americans – which is now added to the new Podcasts and Papers page here.  Make sure you listen all the way to the end where Colleen reads a short essay by a Native American woman about this very topic.  It’s beautifully written and gives much needed perspective on how we use Native Americans™ as punctuation in our own narratives rather than listening to them tell their own.

Like the Mayans … I’m pretty sure we don’t want to be doing things like the Mayans per se.

H/T  PaleoVeganology

Interacting with “The Vegetarian Myth” and “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”

September 22nd, 2010 No comments

The Vegetarian Myth –

->  A general review by Ginny Messina, RD, whose husband Keith misquotes in her book …

“On page 227, she notes that “Mark Messina, a champion of soy, thinks the Japanese eat 8.6 [grams of soyfoods] per day,” or less than a tablespoon. Really? Well, I happen to be married to Mark Messina, so I have a fairly good idea of what he “thinks” about soy intake. But even if I didn’t know him, I could read his 2006 analysis of soy intake data that was published in the peer-reviewed medical journal Nutrition and Cancer. Apparently, Keith didn’t or she would have seen that Asian soy intake is the equivalent of 1 to 1 ½ servings or more per day. Why did she get this so wrong? It’s because she doesn’t understand that there is a difference between soy protein intake and soy food intake. A cup of soymilk contains around 7 grams of soy protein, so the 8.6 to 11 grams of protein that the Japanese typically eat is equal to at least a serving per day.”

-> Or, check out The Vegetarian Myth Myth.  It’s a blog whose singular focus is “deconstructing [Keith’s] book by chapters and themes, in order to give some perspective, as well as offer what we consider some vitally important alternatives to Keith’s ideas.”  A debunking of the debunking, if you will.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma –

-> Over at  Say what, Michael Pollan?, Adam Merberg writes a blog designed “to encourage Pollan to check facts and think through arguments more carefully.”  Again, a single issue blog.

-> B.R. Myers writes an early review of Pollan’s book in this article, Hard to Swallow – The gourmet’s ongoing failure to think in moral terms. I think this paragraph can just as easily be used to respond to all the Paleo-Diet, “man” the cave-dwelling hunter type arguments … which all baffle me in this same way.  It shouldn’t take long to recognize the problem with relying on “we used to do it” reasoning.

“One might as well describe man the way the anthropologist Ernest Becker did, as a digestive tract with teeth at one end and an anus at the other, and claim that the soul is shaped out of that. In which case, I don’t want one. But most of us use soul to mean the part of humanness that is not shaped out of that. In contrast to the fearless Becker, Pollan thinks that taking a hard look at human nature is more a matter of leaning over the museum rail at the caveman exhibit. Seeing only the painted mammoth on the horizon, so to speak, he derives the rightness of meat eating from the fact that humans are physically suited to it, they enjoy it, and they have engaged in it until modern times without feeling much “ethical heartburn.” (Only a food writer would use such an appalling phrase.) According to Pollan, this “reality” demands our respect. The same reasoning could be used to defend our mistreatment of children: In body and instinct, we are marvelously well-equipped for making their lives hell. If many cultures now object to abusing them, it is thanks to new values, to people who refused to respect the time-honored “reality.”

Feminism, vegetarianism, and cultural imperialism, cont.

September 20th, 2010 No comments

I’ll be summarizing Cathryn Bailey’s observations about foodways and racial identity in a subsequent post.  For now though, consider her response to Kathryn George’s feminist anti-vegetarian arguments …

One of the problems with George’s argument in Animal, Vegetable, or Woman? and in a 1994 article that received much criticism, is that many, if not all, of the reasons she cites for why vegetarianism may be out of reach for many poor women is precisely a result of the patriarchal system that devalues women and animals in the first place. It is not a randomly produced feature of the world that women and children make up the greatest poverty class or that the health of women and children is especially precarious. Nor is it an accident that “animal protein” in the form of cheap lunchmeat or fast food is often more readily available than vegetables in the United States. From the point of view of feminist ethical vegetarianism, these conditions result from the very racism, sexism, classism, and anthropocentrism that is being challenged. As Greta Gaard and lori Gruen have pointed out, “What she [George] ignores is the well-known fact that, around the world, it is the men and boys who eat the first and most foods, while the girls and women eat last and least” (1996, 236).

Not incidentally, George’s suggestion that feminist vegetarianism is classist and ethnocentric ignores the fact that “most non-Western diets are largely vegetarian (perhaps by virtue of necessity): consider Chinese, Indian, and African traditional cuisines. If anything, it is meat-eating that is a Western norm that ‘development’ has imposed upon non-Western nations” (Donovan 1995, 227). Ironically, George’s position erases the number of poor women who are vegetarians by ethical choice, revealing the hidden privileged perspective that serves the edifice of her argument.

Cathryn Bailey,  “We Are What We Eat: Feminist Vegetarianism and the Reproduction of Racial Identity,”  Hypatia 22, 2 (2007): 51-52.

Defending the feminist-vegetarian connection against the charge of cultural imperialism

September 18th, 2010 No comments

One of the claims that Kathryn George makes in her book Animal, Vegetable, or Woman? is that Western feminists are engaging in cultural imperialism by arguing for ethical vegetarianism.  Sheri Lucas has written a response defending ethical vegetarianism against George’s claims.

Here’s the gist of Lucas’ response  to the cultural imperialism argument specifically (emphasis mine) …

Are Western feminists who promote ethical vegetarianism guilty of cultural imperialism? This question was raised at the 1990 NWSA Conference. The prevailing sentiment matched George’s charge of cultural imperialism. Most of the feminists present thought of ethical vegetarianism as “a white woman’s imposing her ‘dietary’ concerns on women of color” (Adams 1994, 123). A white woman’s imposing her dietary concerns? Ethical vegetarianism is idiosyncratic in the West, not to the West. In North America, vegetarians constitute roughly 5 percent of the population, and vegans less than 1 percent (Davis and Melina 2000, 12). In comparison, most of the non-Western human population is vegetarian or nearly so (Fox 1999, 183). While this is often of necessity rather than by choice, many of these vegetarians are morally committed to abstaining from flesh (Gupta 1986, 3).

The International Vegetarian Union has been “Promoting Vegetarianism Worldwide Since 1908” (IVU 2003). On their Web site is a map that marks the territories housing a branch of their association: Africa, Asia, Australasia, Europe, Russia, Latin America, and North America. The only unmarked land region is the North Pole. The billions of vegetarians dispersed throughout the continents, islands, and countries of the world are not following an ideal the West has developed and forced, coerced, or swayed them to follow. There is, as Donovan says, no reason to accept George’s charge that ethical vegetarianism “is the product of a wealthy society,” and harbors “class bias” against so-called less developed societies (1995; citing George 1994b, 408).

However thunderous our hubris, the West does not have a monopoly on ethical vegetarianism. To suggest otherwise silences the diversity of ethical vegetarians and suspiciously ignores Western traditions as though they are irrelevant to the feminist-vegetarian debate. But they are relevant. We have turkeys for thanksgiving, ice cream with our birthday cakes, “chicken soup for the soul,” and summertime barbeques. At our conferences, weddings, and cafeterias, in our lunch bags and homes, most of the foods we eat contain flesh, eggs, or milk products. To treat ethical vegetarianism as an ideal that Westerners want to force on the rest of the human population is to lose hold of reality. In reality, it is we who would have to change the most if humans became a vegetarian species. And it is we who would most disparage the loss of nonhuman animal foods. Most of the human population would not feel the pinch. They live it.

Sheri Lucas,  “A Defense of the Feminist-Vegetarian Connection,” Hypatia, Volume 20, Number 1 ( 2005): 164-165.