Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Big Vegan Chill

Back in 1983, a dreadful film called The Big Chill hit the theaters across North America. It depicted a group of narcissists - men and women in their late 30s (possibly early 40s) - who reunite after one of their friends commits suicide.

Most of the characters in the film had been activists back in the Sixties, but now they now - approaching middle age - they no longer cared about politics. They'd all grown cynical. Not a single one still held on to the idealism of her/his youth. They'd all wised up, joined the "system," and about the only thing they still liked about the 1960s was the music.

The Big Chill was a depressing movie because it reinforced Reagan-era myths that activists from the 1960s had all abandoned their political commitments. Reality was much more complicated than myth. Many people who'd been active in struggles for social justice still held on to their youthful ideals, which they took with them into their adult lives and sometimes even found ways of integrating them into their professions.

I bring up The Big Chill because nearly 30 years ago, it proved to be a useful myth in helping to make dissenters - people protesting nukes, U.S. involvement in Central America, homelessness, American investments in South Africa, etc. - feel even more isolated. If everybody ditches their beliefs with the approach of middle age, what hope is there for real and meaningful change?

I raise this issue because The Big Chill myth is still very much a part of our contemporary political landscape. And it has found its way into the vegan community.

Celebrities play a vital role in our culture. Like it or not, celebrities wield enormous influence. People from all walks of life pay attention to celebrities. Ordinary folks take their cues from celebrities, follow celebrity gossip in magazines and on the Internet and in newspapers, and the actions of celebrities matter.

Take veganism, for example. Celebrity vegans are able to spread the vegan message to millions of people, thanks to their high profiles. Which is why when they "jump ship," which some do, the effects can also be negative.

Recently, the media has made much out of high-profile celebrities who have abandoned veganism. These famous "ex-vegans" have gotten quite a free ride in the media.

"My vegan diet almost killed me," said actress, philanthropist and action star Angelina Jolie in 2010. "I joke that a big, juicy steak is my beauty secret. But seriously, I love red meat." (Source)

Meantime, actor Hugh Jackman wrote in the introduction to the latest edition Brendan Brazier's Thrive: The Vegan Nutrition Guide to Optimal Performance in Sport and Life that "there's every chance I will be vegan by the time you read" the book. The book was published last year. Jackman is not a vegan. (Source)

Actress Zooey Deschanel ditched veganism due to "food sensitivities." "I gave it a good try," she said. "But sometimes you need a little something, a little meat." (Source)

The press made much of Academy Award-winning Black Swan star Natalie Portman leaving behind veganism during her recent pregnancy. "If you're not eating eggs, then you can't have cookies or cake from regular bakeries, which can become a problem when that's all you want to eat," Portman told a local L.A. radio station in April of this year. (Source)

And the most recent celebrity to abandon veganism was actress Ginnifer Goodwin (pictured on the copy of VegNews above), star of several recent films and the TV series Big Love. I've blogged about Ginnifer here. Her support of Farm Sanctuary's Adopt-A-Turkey Program was a constant source of inspiration.

Ginnifer appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live! in May and revealed that not only had she given up on veganism, she had also enjoyed meatloaf (with bacon on it) and a juicy hamburger.

I've posted the video here:

Ginnifer insists she eats "humane" meat in her home. "Wow, you've really gone over the edge now," said Jimmy Kimmel, when Ginnifer told him about her bacon meatloaf. "I'm glad you're back to the normal part of society."

I don't know Ginnifer. Based on all of the things I've read and heard about her, she certainly seems like a wonderful person with a lot of integrity and a strong conscience. She alludes to health issues in this video when explaining her reasons for ditching veganism. I like to think she engaged in a great deal of soul searching before moving forward with her decision. Clearly, it is important to her that she eats "humane" meat.

But it is sad to see Ginnifer leave veganism behind. It's like losing a powerful ally. Some vegans would scoff at such a statement. I can hear the naysayers: We make too big a deal of celebrities. What matters is what you, as an individual, decide to do in your daily life. Who cares about Ginnifer Goodwin? Or Natalie Portman? Or Angelina Jolie or Hugh Jackman? Or Zooey Deschanel?

But celebrities matter. They are newsmakers. They're hugely influential. Their actions matter. Their views influence others. The examples they set can both inspire and discourage.

Look at the promotional material distributed by PETA. Half of PETA's propaganda contains photos of celebrities who are either vegans or vegetarians. (Some of them, I swear to God, aren't either, but I give PETA some points for good intentions.) I just visited PETA's website. Sure enough, at the top of the Homepage, there is a picture of Hollywood stars Russell Brand and Kristen Wiig, voted "PETA's SEXIEST VEGETARIAN CELEBRITIES OF 2011."

When celebrities ditch veganism, like it or not, their actions are used by foes of the lifestyle to try to marginalize us, much like The Big Chill Myth was used back in the 1980s against activists. Jimmy Kimmel's words echo: "I'm glad you're back to the normal part of society."

Back to normal.

One can sympathize with someone like Zooey Deschanel, whose diet was so limited due to allergies that she didn't have many choices for her survival. And Natalie Portman had very real physical needs for certain types of foods she wasn't getting. And Ginnifer Goodwin's health issues are probably perfectly legitimate.

Yet, without being sanctimonious or self-congratulatory, we are still left to wonder about people who embrace and then abandon the vegan lifestyle.

Reading about these famous "ex-vegans" (actually, the term ex-vegan is absurd - either you're vegan or you're not vegan), one wonders what thoughts go through their minds. With those who embraced veganism for non-moral reasons - that is, purely for health - it is slightly easier to understand how they could walk away from it.

But, by their own admission, some of these celebrities were people who gazed deeply down into the abyss. They saw and felt the suffering that animals endured. They spoke out on behalf of the animals. They had epiphanies, awakenings. They were liberated from omnivorism, only to go back to the lifestyle. They woke up, then went back to sleep.

Ginnifer Goodwin, who used to see right through the myth of "humane meat," now touts her consumption of it. How can that be?

My purpose is not trying to pass judgment on these erstwhile, famous allies. Just trying to understand their actions.

"Ideas won by our intelligence, embodied in our outlook, and forged in our conscience, are chains from which we cannot tear ourselves away from without breaking our hearts," said the philosopher Karl Marx. "They are demons we can only overcome by submitting to them."

At the end of the day, in a world filled with so much tragedy and slaughter, it is hardly worthwhile to sit in self-righteous judgment of those who have looked into the abyss and then decided to walk away. At least they put two and two together at one point in their lives. At least they are capable of feeling compassion and being sensitive. The same cannot be said of a lot of other people.

Yet I reserve the right to feel sad about that video of Ginnifer Goodwin on Jimmy Kimmel Live!. Hearing that laughter about meat, then imagining the suffering that occurs in order to put that meat on a plate, leaves even the perpetual optimist feeling forlorn.


  1. Don't be forlorn. Jokes point to psychic rifts in our culture. They can all joke about being normal and eating bacon, but the hurt is what is being just barely masked.

  2. You are likely a kinder person than I am, Andrew. I'm a bit more flinty about those that pronounce and proclaim their veganism and then pronounce and proclaim their deviation from veganism. I fear I suspect their center is more focused on proclamations than on living in an ethical manner. I'm one of those that is somewhat (sometimes greatly) repulsed by the celebrity culture. Exhibitionism isn't a virtue, it is a deficiency, it's a symptom.

    "Look at me, Mommy and Daddy" is an age appropriate is a stage that is normal that becomes problematical if not worked through, resolved and then left behind. No cultural approval can obviate this, no pretending it is "normal" can make it so. When chronological adults act out unrecognized and unfinished childhood issues, generally the results are less than desirable. I fear that unless and until human animals progress beyond a 'celebrity culture' (except for age-appropriate working-through, public discourse for educative and communicative purposes and occasional regressions just for fun) much more demeaning laughter about suffering and death will ring out.

    In sum, anyone that persistently craves an audience, that continually seeks and/or needs the sort of pseudo-adulation associated with 'celebrity' is making a fairly clear statement about some salient developmental deficiencies. The prevalence of such behavior doesn't nullify its problematic origin and nature.

    Emerson once said "things are in the saddle and ride mankind". Unless and until 'mankind' (human animals) gives up acting out unresolved developmental issues destructively and instead faces them head-on...the nervous laughter over the suffering of others will continue...whether it is pointed at the pain and travail of other animals, other races, other cultures, other sexes...etc.

    Oh, and thanks for your characterization of the movie "The Big Chill". I know many people who think the movie is wonderful and I'm one of the folks that was always creeped out by it. The best thing it had going for it was the soundtrack but association of some of the songs with the movie somewhat soured my enjoyment of the music. Such is the power of imagery.