One of the things that haunts me is how much of my life I spent advocating - and sometimes fighting for - social justice, but I failed to include animals in the equation.
People at the forefront of struggles for change - whether they're fighting for a cleaner environment, a more open and accountable political system, a safer neighborhood, a saner foreign policy, or what have you - are fighting the noblest battles of all.
It is mystifying to me, though, that so many advocates of positive change leave out the animals. I've pondered this for quite some time. One would think animal rights would fit in neatly with the other "Good Fights" on the left side of the political spectrum. But one often finds centrists and conservatives taking up the cause as much as progressives.
Moreover, you can thumb through the pages of the leading lefty periodicals of our time - The Nation, The Progressive, for example - and many progressive Websites and Blogs (Common Dreams, Daily Kos), and find nary a word about animals, animal exploitation, animal rights or veganism.
This isn't meant to pick on these folks. They have their work cut out for them. There are a thousand battles to be fought, and all the odds are against you if you're thinking of rolling up your sleeves and working on behalf of the most vulnerable. The humanitarians deserve praise, not criticism, for their efforts.
Yet it does highlight an unusual inconsistency - one that I had in my own political beliefs for many years. I rallied against the arms race when I was younger, yet I ate chickens without thinking about them. I got arrested resisting my university's investments in South Africa, yet I didn't flinch or wince as I devoured T-bone steaks and fillet mignons. I gave time and money to human rights groups like Amnesty International, but the rights of the cod or the halibut that I consumed didn't cross my mind.
Eventually, a light went on. The combination of several factors in my life, crisscrossing together about two years ago, sent me on the path toward animal rights and veganism.
Once I had my awakening - my epiphany - I wondered how I could've lived in darkness and ignorance for so long. Why didn't I realize that animals suffer from the pain and exploitation and violence that comes with being turned into a commodity as much as human beings? More so. There aren't billions of human beings being murdered each year by a system whose very foundation is bloodletting. How could I have ignored the animals for so long?
At a certain point, and I'm not sure when this occurred - maybe a year ago or so - I stopped beating myself up for all of those years I spent as an omnivore. Why bother? What's done is done.
If I could go back and uneat all those animals I ate, if I could unbuy all of those leather shoes and jackets I bought, I would. But the pathos of life is that we don't have time machines. We can't undo our mistakes.
We can learn from them, though. We can decide that we will not continue living in ways that are destructive, doing things that are harmful, hurting beings that are sentient.
And instead of scratching our heads, wondering why many of the people who are on the front lines of the crusades for social justice aren't fighting for animal rights, maybe we ought to realize they, too, are susceptible to the propaganda from the food industry and all the other rackets that prey on innocent animals. And while we're at it, perhaps we should count our blessings.
Thirty years ago, animal rights and veganism weren't even a blip on most people's radars. Hell, twenty years ago they weren't. Today, the most controversial film out there, Folks Over Knives (which, for the sake of full disclosure, I haven't seen yet), is advocating a vegetable-based diet as a means of combating health problems brought on by consuming animal-based products.
Veganism is winning new converts on a daily basis. The growth of the lifestyle may seem maddeningly slow at times, but there is no denying that it has found a mass audience - with the help of the Internet, documentaries, blogs, etc. - that it never had before.
More people are waking up and realizing just what I did - that no vision of social justice is complete without including animals. Animals, too, feel pain and anxiety and fear and sadness, but also the joy and love and exhilaration that comes with being free.
No matter where you fall on the political spectrum - right, center, left - we can all agree that animals must never be exploited, used or harmed in any way. And veganism is a much healthier way to live, and a much saner diet, than consuming animals.
When you have the power of truth on your side, you have the capacity to create a light nobody can ignore. As lonely as it often seems to batter away at the cliffs like the waves of an ocean, such action does create shifts. We may never reach Utopia, but there's a possibility we'll arrive somewhere a hell of a lot better than where we're at now.