Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Are the Do-Gooders Really Doing Much Good?

Last night, I watched a show called Beef Inc., a Canadian documentary made about 10 years ago. It was one of those lefty documentaries that excoriates big corporations. The bad guy, in this case, was Cargill, a gargantuan agribusiness and the largest private corporation in the United States. Cargill is about twice the size of the Empire in Star Wars and owns damn near half the planet. Not only did the film attack Cargill, it was also a celebration of the independent, small cattle farmers.

Like I said, the movie is a little more than a decade old, so it's sort of a forerunner of the contemporary "Happy Meat"/"Conscientious Carnivore" movements. The film's message was clear: Giant, impersonal corporations = Bad Guys. Small farmers who allow their animals to enjoy nature = Good Guys. All of the commentators on the show, who were mostly academics, reinforced this decidedly populist point of view.

On the surface, it's a sensible position. In Canada and the United States, small farmers are almost regarded as sacrosanct in the popular imagination (indeed, Thomas Jefferson called them "God's chosen people"). And who wouldn't support the underdog - the small farmer - over huge and powerful agribusinesses that have been gobbling up land and resources and making gargantuan profits for decades?

Interestingly, at the end of the documentary, the interviewer - perhaps hoping to end on a note of levity - asked the pundits on the show how they like their steaks prepared. Most of them laughingly answered "medium rare." Only one said, "I prefer my steak inside the cow, and I like the cow to be playing happily in the field."

Right on!

I must admit, I was taken aback when I watched the film that these liberal anti-corporate types - preaching the virtues of the small farmer over the big corporation - had NO ability to relate to the animals that were being slaughtered. Before I came around to veganism, I probably would've sounded a lot like one of these people if asked about the deleterious effects of gigantic agribusinesses. I most likely would've attacked the big guys and stood up for the small farmers.

Thanks to the efforts of brave souls like Gary Francione, more and more people are starting to see right through the phoniness of the "Happy Meat" and "Conscientious Carnivore" movements. True, the animals in these free range settings are better off than those held captive in the factory farm system while they are actually alive. But make no mistake about it: These animals are still enslaved and exploited, slaughtered for their meat to feed human beings who do not actually need that meat to survive. To quote Francione:

The “happy meat” movement is intended to make the public feel more comfortable about animal exploitation and to ensure that social discussion about animal ethics remains focused away from the relevant question—why are we eating animals in the first place given that it is not necessary for human health, is an ecological disaster, and, most importantly, results in our imposing suffering and death on sentient nonhumans? The “happy meat” movement is achieving these goals, and that does not represent any sort of progress. Quite the contrary. The “happy meat” movement represents a significant step backwards.

As I watched Beef Inc., I thought: What a sad thing that most of these anti-corporate commentators cannot recognize that the very same impersonal forces that drive corporations to exploit people, deplete communities, maximize profits, quash small competitors and sacrifice their own (through downsizing and relocating overseas) - that these very same institutions also stun billions of animals, hold them upside down by metal clamps, slash their throats and drain them of all of their precious lifeblood.

It is far easier to relate to small farmers who have a human face than to gigantic corporations. We can understand their challenges and dilemmas, their vulnerability and courage in the face of adversity. It is possible to be sympathetic to these farmers and their plight, yet also see right through the delusion of "humane slaughtering." I have no problem with peacefully coexisting with meat eaters. As I've said before, I ate meat most of my life, and I wouldn't have wanted some over-zealous vegan to pass judgment on me.

But I do wish the "progressive" do-gooders would abandon all this B.S. about Conscientious Carnivorism. The "free range" cow whose artery is slit open feels the agony of death every bit as much as the cow who was confined to a coffin-like space in a factory farm, yet the people who insist on devouring "happy meat" are in a complete state of denial about this fact. "What is a Conscientious Carnivore to do?" asked the Website Eco Child's Play. "The answer is three-fold: Buy small, buy local, buy grass-fed."

At least the Sarah Palins of this world don't fool themselves into believing there's a nice way to slaughter animals. When she proclaimed in her memoir Going Rogue her love for hamburgers, pork chops and the "seared fatty edges of a medium-well-done steak" and said "there's plenty of room for all Alaska's animals - right next to the mashed potatoes," at least she didn't try to place a lot of politically correct widow dressing around her decisions. You could almost envision Palin wearing a bib, tearing into the T-bone, and letting the juices run down her chin.

There's far more honesty in that sort of Red State gusto than in all of this mealy-mouthed talk of Conscientious Carnivorism.

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