Saturday, January 19, 2008

Ask not for whom the dinner bell tolls


"To me, nature is... I dunno, spiders and bugs, and big fish eating little fish. And plants eating plants and animals eating.... It's like an enormous restaurant." -- Woody Allen, "Love and Death."
The sad fact is that, as Bertolt Brecht wrote, "Mankind is kept alive by bestial acts." The other morning, I went out very early with my dog, and it was extremely quiet, as it is out here in the pre-industrial world, and I could hear lowing from a distant slaughterhouse. Today, I went off to Wal*Mart, and in the parking lot was a pickup truck pulling a trailer with a couple of beef cows in it, and they, too, were lowing periodically, probably about the rain and cold.

It is fashionable to worry about the unfree cows, to try to liberate them, to imbue them with rights and intelligence, but it's also true that beef is as we have made it. I was once out toting a shotgun. I would call it "hunting," but nothing I do with a gun can be called "hunting." I hunt the way that Prednisent Bush philosophizes. Anyway, we city boys were out walking through a vast field, and there were some moo-cows coming along the fence line, and we were between them and the fence, and a very bad time it was. The herd stared and stamped and walked and leaned and pushed and pushed, and we were back to the fence about to get crushed. The one farm raised member of the "hunting" party came along, looked at us with disgust, and shouted, "How! Hyow!" at the cattle. The assembled cattle looked... well, cowed... and walked off.

Cattle are stupid. We made them stupid. We bred them for idiocy. We bred them to be docile. We succeeded. Your modern farm cow is as close to a protein refrigerator on hooves as we can make it, and we can make it very, very like a refrigerator on hooves indeed.

At the same time, it's impossible to get away from the fact that life and nature is not merely a restaurant. It is the back room of a restaurant. It is the walk-in freezer of the restaurant, and we murder to survive.

Don't you dare think you can escape this by munching veggies, either. Oh, no you don't. You can make yourself 80 lbs. underweight, with body odor that can make the air congeal, with teeth as flat as a Kansas shadow at noon, but you're still killing. You're not just killing the plants, either. You're prying the ovaries off plants and popping them in your yapper, you think. The fact is, you're also using animals. You're using them in the production, in the fertilizing, in the transportation, and often in the cooking. Now, of course, you can go for the serious ahimsa thing, where you don't "eat anything that casts a shadow." You can gather only yogurt, sea kelp, and the excrescence of various molds, and, if you can keep from cheating and not go bankrupt, you can wag your finger at the rest of us and revel in your superiority.

However, the economical way of eating, the efficient way of eating, and, for whatever it's worth, the natural way of eating is meat and fish and poultry and any small squeaky thing we can strangle.

That leads me to a couple of very old fashioned points.

First, we have to remember that Peter was told, in a vision, to kill and eat (Acts 10:13). Despite our own desire to cause no injury, to not survive by death, to not manufacture our bodies out of the bodies of other living things (with or without faces), it is an inescapable fact. It is, like the origin of evil, simply not something we can argue. No matter how paradoxical it seems, eating living things is how the system works.

The Talmud says, "It is beyond our power to explain either the prosperity of the wicked or the afflictions of the righteous," or so I'm told. It is just one of those things.

However, because every animal has a life, every one has a personality of its own, because each has emotions, or enough of a simulacra of humanity to make us believe it is a person, we have a responsibility. My second point is that gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins for a reason. The capricious taking of life is the only crime worse than taking life. Killing a hog to eat one strip of bacon is a sin. On the farm, it would be immediately palpable, this crime. Not only would the killing take work, it would be intimate.

Because we now get the supermarket, the restaurant, the drive-through window, because the cow has become the patty, we have a higher moral calling to waste nothing. We are trapped in a sin, because we don't know what has been wasted already, and we are conscious of this sin in a general disquiet that leads us to believe that there is no freedom except in soy plaster disguised as a burger, stir fry of chutes and legumes, and industrially processed bacterial cultures. We feel the pain, the guilt, and the crime of living in a sinful system, where we are gluttons whether we throw the food out the window or clean our plates. We stare and wonder, is it waste to eat more than we need, or is it waste to leave any on the plastic tray?

I cannot endorse the option of the communalists. I wish them well, but I haven't the ability to go live on a closed estate where we can raise our own food.

I can, however, be irritated at Christmas dinner, when my brother was asked to say the "blessing" and repeated the quick pace mantra he heard from my father, who used to blurt out a modulated string of syllables. At the very least, when you sit down to eat, you can thank God for the life of the animal that was sacrificed for your food, you can ask blessings on all who toiled on the food from the field to the table, and you can be conscious that sacrifice is part of life.

5 comments:

Clyde the Vegan Penguin said...
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The Geogre said...

I'm glad you feel better. You have posted a grand asterisk to the system of biology, and now you have achieved a nice euphoria. It's too bad that you cannot reform all those animals as well and persuade them not to sacrifice smaller animals. In the process of claiming kinship with all animal nature, you are only making yourself more of a freak of nature, for nature keeps right on rending with sharpened claws.

If you had read the post, you would have realized that it is the slaughterhouse that is the sin: we are so disconnected from the sacrifice that we can never be free from the guilt of waste. The intimacy of killing for food is less disquieting than the realization that the pork rinds don't appear magically. This guilt leads to people offering lectures like yours.

Clyde the Vegan Penguin said...
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Anonymous said...

The problem you've described is essentially a willful ignorance of the origin of our food. Is that any more sinful (if you subscribe to the notion of sin) than ignorance of the origin of the gasoline that fuels our cars, or ignorance of the provenance of our clothing, or ignorance of the history of our religion?

The real sin is practiced ignorance.

The Geogre said...

Oh, the humor! Oh, the hilarity! Let's see: we are not animals. So we should spare widdle animals because they're smaller than us, and we need to wook out for vem? The idea that a lower animal's life needs to be spared because it has rights or because it has a claim to protection greater than the fattest glutton's claim to own the animal is based solely upon our kinship with animals, upon our being animals with no greater rights. The problem is, however, that animals show no reformation, and it is the bestial way to eat everything smaller.

The only compelling argument is that of gluttony -- the wasting of life. That can work, but only if we have a moral sense that is derived, paradoxically, from being moral creatures.

As for the other comment, no, it's not worse. I don't believe I said that it was. I also don't believe that I said that ignorance of the source of food was an individual moral act (the way that ignorance of a gallon of gasoline may be).

Rather, what I said, more than once now, is that it is the system of modern life's provisioning that has created a nagging sense of sin in modern consumers. Whether they are superior atheists or smug vegans or navel gazing asses, they feel a sense of guilt because they can never be sure. Note that this is "can never," not "may be pleased to be." Because the portioning and provisioning has already taken place, they feel something new, something our agricultural brothers and sisters never did: guilt about eating.

They feel so guilty that they put on their hair shirts and suck veggie pops and come to tell me how they have achieved the odorless defecation. They feel so guilty that they embrace irrational methods to alleviate their guilt. Why, one wonders, has this impulse been, outside of religious communities, unheard of until the industrial revolution in farming.

Did either of you notice, perchance, how the essay began with a discussion of hunting? Did you think that was unplanned? Did you think it was a digression? Did you think that perhaps the contrast being set up throughout the essay was between the guilty remove from the provision of food and the responsible sacrifice?